Michigan shows its true colors in dispiriting season
Michigan has dropped out of the Associated Press Top-25 poll and has two Big Ten losses, tied in the East Division with Rutgers, the Wolverines’ upcoming opponent. A Big Ten championship will have to wait.
And, and, and … No, the sky is not falling in Ann Arbor, although it might seem that way.
The Wolverines are coming off a 42-13 dismantling by No. 2 Penn State last Saturday night, and if you want to go with the easy “they looked unprepared,” go for it. They were singed by Penn State on two quick early scores and the Nittany Lions are worthy of heaped-on praise for their high-level play in every phase of the game. Meanwhile, Michigan is not, as even its formerly top-ranked defense looked mortal.
There are a lot of narratives to go with, some fair, others not so much, but the bottom line is, Michigan is an eight- or nine-win team at best — not a shock to most, while others — that includes me — thought the Wolverines could scratch out 10 wins because of Don Brown and his defense.
They were ranked too high to begin the season and reached a gaudy and overrated No. 7 national ranking. Now, everything has come back to earth and here Michigan sits unranked at 5-2, 2-2 Big Ten with losses to Michigan State and Penn State.
So now what?
Quarterback John O’Korn had an improved performance at Penn State although he took seven sacks and at times appeared to run for his life behind an offensive line that has been and will remain the key to the faultiness of the offense this season. And, yes, much of the blame for the line play falls on the coaches.
O’Korn told gathered media after the Penn State loss that coach Jim Harbaugh gave what most would call a circle-the-wagons speech, used at some point by every coach on the planet to rally a sagging team.
“We know the fake love’s gone. There’s no bandwagon. It’s us,” O’Korn said. “That’s what we want, whether we’re doing great or doing bad. It’s just all about us. From here on out, that’s what it’s going to be about is us as a team. The guys inside Schembechler Hall. Nobody outside.
“We’ll find out a lot about this team and about this program over the next few weeks. I think we’ve got a great group of guys and don’t expect anybody to quit or give up. We’re 5-2. I think everybody’s freaking out outside of our four walls. We’re 5-2, we’ve got a great team. We just didn’t make enough big plays tonight to come out of here with a win.”
This was not a shot at Michigan fans. It was coach-speak, plain and simple, to unite the players in an us-versus-anything to keep them focused on the team and make something of what’s left of the season.
And what’s left? Michigan plays Rutgers (3-4, 2-2) on Saturday at Michigan Stadium in a battle of the two-loss East Division teams, and Minnesota (4-3, 1-3) the following week. The Wolverines, who are one win from bowl eligibility, will then travel to Maryland (3-4, 1-3) before playing at No. 5 Wisconsin, the class of the West Division at 7-0, 4-0, and then No. 6 Ohio State (6-1, 4-0), which plays Penn State in Ohio Stadium on Saturday, in the regular-season finale.
“More opportunities ahead of us,” Harbaugh said.
More opportunities to fix problems, that is, while trying to win games. The Wolverines offense is now tied for 97th nationally, averaging 361 yards a game, and is tied for 89th in scoring, averaging 25.1 points. But most significant — they are 114th of 129 teams in tackles for loss allowed and 118th in sacks allowed.
Michigan has not managed to build an offensive line than can pass protect or run block consistently well, and offensive line coaches Tim Drevno and Greg Frey should absolutely share in the blame.
And what about backup quarterback Brandon Peters, who moved into that role when O’Korn took over for injured Wilton Speight? Peters was warming up on the sideline and would have gone in late at Penn State. Early in the season, the feeling was, if Michigan builds a big lead against, say, Cincinnati or Air Force or Purdue, work Peters in there. Those big leads never materialized.
It should against Rutgers on Saturday, and it’s probably time to get Peters some meaningful snaps.
Then there’s the defense, ranked No. 1 heading into Happy Valley, exiting as the nation’s No. 5 defense after giving up 42 points and 506 yards as quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley tore up the Wolverines. This was the first time Michigan has allowed 500 yards or more since Indiana gained 527 in 2015, and those were the most points it allowed since it gave up 42 to Ohio State in 2015.
Brown was outmaneuvered in a big way by Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who exposed flaws in Michigan’s defense, like Mike McCray being a mismatched pass-coverage defender on Barkley, who is still blowing past him. Also, the Wolverines were not ready for Barkley taking a direct snap on the second play of the game and scoring a 69-yard touchdown. They had not seen it on film, and Penn State coach James Franklin said it was a wrinkle added during the bye-week practices.
Harbaugh likes to call bye weeks, “improvement weeks.” Perhaps he might call the next five “opportunity weeks” as in, start looking toward next season and developing some of the younger players, like Peters, while not throwing in the towel on this season. By no means is anyone suggesting that. Yes, the main goals are gone, but a major goal focuses on finishing. Finishing plays, finishing games and finishing seasons on as high a note as possible.
“We’ve got a great group of guys,” running back Karan Higdon said.
“I wouldn’t trade this for the world. I’ve been here three years, and we’ve won a lot of games. We’ve lost two this season. We played a great team today and got punched in the mouth. We’ve just got to regroup, just got to keep going. That’s what it’s all about in this game.”
Rutgers at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: Big Ten Network/950
Records: Michigan 5-2, 2-2 Big Ten; Rutgers is 3-4, 2-2
Line: Michigan by 23