Kirk Herbstreit has 'no way of describing' Michigan football woes

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN’s CollegeGame Day mainstay, jokingly tried to hide on a Zoom call with reporters, and of course that’s impossible to do. But he really wanted to avoid the hot-button issues of the Michigan football program, where it goes from here, and whether coach Jim Harbaugh can still get the job done in Ann Arbor.

Herbstreit and Chris Fowler will call the Michigan-Wisconsin game Saturday night at Michigan Stadium for ABC. GameDay is originating Saturday morning from The Masters.

“Don’t ask! Don’t ask! Please don’t ask!” Herbstreit said, laughing when he knew he was about to be asked about Michigan during the call Wednesday.

“Can I pass?”

Jim Harbaugh

All joking aside, Herbstreit is a former Ohio State quarterback who grew up in Ohio and always has been in a firm believer in the beauty and tradition of The Game, Michigan-Ohio State. He has said all along since Harbaugh was hired in late 2014 to take over the Wolverines, that he was delighted with that move and hoped it would bring back the luster of The Game.

Harbaugh is 0-5 against Ohio State, and came oh-so-close to victory in 2016 at Ohio Stadium, but the Wolverines fell, 30-27 in double overtime. The last two games, OSU won decisively, 62-39, in 2018 and 56-27 last season.

And now, in this COVID delayed and shortened season, the Wolverines are 1-2 and coming off consecutive losses to Michigan State and at Indiana. Herbstreit worked Michigan’s opener at Minnesota when the Wolverines looked like they were clicking, and now he can’t point a finger on what has transpired since.

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“You know, you know that nobody wants to see him do better than me outside of the Michigan family. Like, I am all in,” Herbstreit said. “When they made the hire, I was like, ‘Here we go,’ because I want the Big Ten to be elite, and I want the bluebloods to be elite, and I want Ohio State and Michigan to play each other with everything on the line every year. That’s my dream scenario as the fan in me. I enjoy that. I think it's healthy for the conference and for the game and for the sport. No different if you’re an SEC guy, you want Auburn and Alabama and LSU to all be great.”

In the opening victory against Minnesota, Joe Milton’s debut as starting quarterback, Michigan’s run game flowed, and Milton spread the ball around to a variety of receivers, while he looked poised and ultra-prepared. The defense also played well and scored off a fumble. Since that game, Michigan's run game has fallen away and there are glaring deficiencies at cornerback, as MSU torched the defense for 323 passing yards and three touchdowns, and IU also carved it with 342 passing yards and three scores.

“As you know I called the Minnesota game, and I was like, ‘Man, they’ve got something here. This looks great. They seemed to have really come together as a group during this quarantine,’” Herbstreit said. “You can either get divided, as we’re seeing all over the country, or you can get tighter.  And they looked like that day, man, they were tight, and I was excited for their season.

“And then, I can’t explain Michigan State. I know it’s a rivalry game, but if you watched Michigan State before that game and you watched Michigan State after that game, no way anybody can explain what happened for 60 minutes that day of watching those two teams play. Then I thought, ‘OK, OK, mulligan. It’s quarantine, it’s pandemic, had one of those days, they’ll be fine in Bloomington. Everything’s taken care of.’

“And then Indiana just outplayed them and looked good doing it. It was not a fluke. It wasn’t like, ‘Well, they caught a break, they got that one call that went their way.’ They were getting separation against the Michigan corners, they weren’t getting a pass rush against Michael Penix. The combination of not getting a pass rush and not holding up in man is a deadly combination for that style of defense and that’s what we were seeing quite a bit.”

Zach Charbonnet

Michigan played at Indiana without injured starting offensive tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes, and during the first defensive series end Aidan Hutchinson suffered a season-ending ankle fracture, and end Kwity Paye left the game late in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury. As was the case against MSU, Michigan never had the lead.

Having been at Ohio State during the John Cooper Era – Cooper when 2-10-1 against Michigan – Herbstreit knows what it’s like being a player hearing the noise from the fan base and the local and national media. It can wear on them.

“I played at Ohio State when every step was not, ‘Well, that’s OK, they’ll figure it out,’ it was ‘Fire Cooper,’” Herbstreit said. “Anything that happened to go wrong, it was, ‘Fire Cooper.’ Everything. Didn’t convert on a third down, ‘They’ve got to fire Cooper.’ The defense gave up a touchdown, ‘They’ve got to fire Cooper.’ Everything. And as a player, you hear that. You constantly hear the negativity that’s around your program. I don’t know if it affects today’s players. As players back then (we were) more annoyed by it than anything else.

“I have no way of describing what’s happening. I’m hopeful that they show up inspired and ready to play against Wisconsin and that they can play better. But it’s been tough to watch these last couple games.”

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Looking back at Michigan football history, Herbstreit mentioned the rosters of Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr being thick with players from Ohio. There were 25 scholarship and non-scholarship players from Ohio listed on the roster for the MSU game.

“They’ve got to continue to go out and get elite players,” Herbstreit said. “One thing I’ve noticed is, when I think of Michigan back in the heyday of Bo, and Gary and Lloyd, I think of recruiting. And I think of Ohio State and Michigan -- OK, 60 percent of them are going to Columbus and the other 40 percent are going to go to Ann Arbor. I’m asking our guys this week to go back and look at the Michigan roster and their two-deep when Bo was rolling and when Gary and Lloyd were rolling and look at the Ohio players. I’m looking at their roster now, and I’m seeing Connecticut and New Hampshire and Rhode Island. I’m not saying they don’t play good football up there, it’s just a very different roster."

Harbaugh has another year on his contract. Because of the pandemic, he has said that there are “bigger fish to fry” when asked if he and athletic director Warde Manuel have worked on an extension. Does Herbstreit still think Harbaugh is the answer for Michigan?

“I’d like to think they can turn it around and definitely him proving to be the guy we all thought when he first came in,” Herbstreit said. “Anybody who thinks he can’t coach is crazy.

“I’d like to think (Harbaugh’s) the guy. I’d like to think they can turn it around. I continue to remain hopeful.”