At midway point, ailing Wolverines still hunting for a remedy

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

These are dire times within the Michigan football program, and that’s when leadership has to step up, from the coaching staff to the players.

There’s no doubt the alarm bells have been triggered. This is, after all, when a coach can lose his team.

Michigan (1-3) has dropped three straight and is 0-2 at Michigan Stadium following the 49-11 debacle against Wisconsin on Saturday night. The Wolverines have four remaining games, and if the contests at Rutgers this weekend and against Maryland in three weeks were thought to be gimmes at the start of the season, think again. After the Ohio State game on Dec. 12, there’s a seeded crossover game the following week, but thinking ahead is probably not the best thing to do these days.

It’s about here and now for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his players, and about making sure he keeps them engaged and focused on playing, finishing games and finding ways to win. Harbaugh said after the Wisconsin loss that everything will be evaluated, but the added layer is accomplishing that while making sure his players continue to buy in. This is a delicate process.

How will Harbaugh, who has spoken so much this season about his love for this team, accomplish that?

“(By) identifying the players who have pride," Harbaugh said. "Have pride in their own personal performance and want to fight like hell for Michigan."

Players toss around things like “statement” games and “do-or-die” and playing with "urgency." But if there’s been a disconnect between how they perform in practice and how that translates to games, there’s also a disconnect between what they say publicly and what they’re getting done on the field.

Running back Zach Charbonnet accounted for 21 of Michigan's 47 rushing yards against Wisconsin.

“These past two weeks have been pretty tough,” linebacker Cam McGrone said. “We’ve had some tough losses. We’ve got to know we have no second chances. We can’t make mistakes. Zero mistakes.”

There are no mulligans or do-overs, and this is not a quick fix. But making improvements would be a start. Harbaugh and his staff have the challenge of not fixing just one area, but multiple. This isn’t about one phase not working. Nothing has worked consistently for an entire game like it did in that mirage that was the season-opener at Minnesota.

“We can’t do anything about these past two games,” McGrone said. “They’re over. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”

After four games, it should be troubling to Harbaugh and his staff — and even to the players — that they’re searching for what exactly is causing the breakdowns.

“Losing obviously is very frustrating,” receiver Mike Sainristil said. “I think we’re right now at the point we have to figure out what the issue is. Like coach just said in the locker room, we have to go back and find out what was causing us to have success early on and what is causing us not to have success.”

Having to figure that out now is problematic. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it — they should because they have to — but it’s a sign of desperation no one figured Michigan would be experiencing at the midpoint of the season. And, also, the “success early on” was against Minnesota, a team that’s clearly just not very good.

While it is vital for Harbaugh to diagnose what is ailing this team, he can’t lose his focus on keeping this team together and united while identifying who wants to put it all on the line to help the team improve.

Senior captain Carlo Kemp said repeatedly after the Wisconsin loss that it’s about the players holding each other accountable and keeping everybody together. Kemp said he doesn’t detect an issue with players losing focus and accountability.

“Right now, my concern level’s nowhere near worried or nervous or anything, just because, sure we’ve got young guys, but we’ve got hard-working great guys, everybody on this team,” Kemp said. “Everybody on this team is great in terms of character and anything beyond the other measurables. It’s getting everybody to do it consistently.

“Who knows what next Saturday has. We might be in a dogfight, we might be winning by a lot, we might be losing by a lot. Nobody knows. It’s those critical moments when it’s Saturday on the sideline and keeping everybody in the game no matter what’s happened and just fighting to the end and continuing to play. In terms of am I worried? No. We’ve shown the last three weeks that even though the outcome hasn’t been what we’ve wanted at all, we’re still here. We play, we finish games, we play for each other.”

Twitter: @chengelis