Wojo: Michigan shown just how much progress needed yet

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor  — This rivalry should be back at some point, but not yet, not now. Michigan eventually should be ready for this, but not yet, not against a motivated Ohio State team that spent a week hearing how disjointed it was, then spent an afternoon setting the record straight.

And that record is straight domination, displayed in a 42-13 beating of the Wolverines Saturday. Jim Harbaugh has changed plenty in his first season, but oh boy, this matchup is going to take a lot more work.

It was a contest for a half, and then it was no contest at all. The Buckeyes saved their best for last, which they generally do. They’ve beaten the Wolverines 11 of the past 12 meetings, and if Urban Meyer felt any threat from Michigan’s rebound, he squashed it.

One week after the Spartans shut them down, the Buckeyes embarrassed the Wolverines’ defense and redeemed some of their status — and enhanced the Spartans at the same time. Michigan State then went out and clobbered Penn State, 55-16, Saturday to land a spot in the Big Ten championship game, and remind everyone the conference’s power runs through East Lansing and Columbus.

Ezekiel Elliott ran through Michigan for 214 yards, after complaining about his minimal work (33 yards) against Michigan State. And this is the challenge facing Harbaugh, although I suspect he already knew it — Michigan’s two biggest rivals have a huge head start, and they’re not inclined to slow down for anyone.

“They’re very good, they got after us running the football, and the No. 1 thing was, we didn’t tackle well enough,” Harbaugh said. “We made up quite a bit of ground (during the season), but there’s still more ground to close on. Knowing our team, we’ll stay with it.”

Harbaugh spoke in low tones and offered short answers, and there wasn’t a whole lot to say. You can talk about schemes and power and read-option offense, but Ohio State was more skilled and played with a fervor reflected in its monstrous edge in rushing yardage — 369-57. In a game like this, in a conference like this, you have to be able to run the ball and play defense, and the Wolverines could do neither.

Wolverines short of talent

There’s a talent gap that, in the short term, can be covered up by emotion and big plays from the quarterback, and Michigan certainly emptied its playbook. But consider this — while Ohio State was unleashing one of the best running backs in the country, Michigan was turning to its defensive star, Jabrill Peppers, to provide any sort of running pop.

Peppers did what he could, and his 29 yards rushing actually led the team. But as good as Jake Rudock has been in his one-season fling in Ann Arbor, he couldn’t do it all. He was knocked out of the game when sacked by Joey Bosa — another high NFL draft pick — in the fourth quarter, and with the score 35-13, it was over.

It’s unclear if Rudock’s shoulder injury will affect his status for the bowl game, but it’s clear Michigan has a talent and depth deficit that still needs fixing. The Wolverines (9-3) didn’t finish that far behind the Spartans (11-1) and Buckeyes (11-1) in the standings, and they obviously had their shot in that final-play 27-23 loss to Michigan State.

But you can understand even better why Harbaugh is manic about recruiting. He has to win key battles there before he can expect to win battles against established programs with superb coaches in Meyer and Mark Dantonio.

Michigan compensated with Rudock’s savvy and fine pass-catchers Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and Jake Butt. But it’s hard to find many playmakers on that Michigan defense. The linebackers — Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan, James Ross — are experienced but not overly big or fast, and the defensive line took some injury hits.

“In my opinion, I believe we compete with (the Buckeyes) year in and year out,” Chesson said. “Today on the scoreboard, it was very sad. But I don’t think the gap is insurmountable. It just goes back to very little details, momentum. We’re down right now, but the sun will rise tomorrow morning, and the gap’s not as big as people think it is.”

Second-half surrender

Maybe it isn’t, but the margin for error is tiny. While Michigan could’ve beaten Michigan State, it also could’ve lost to Minnesota and Indiana, which exposed the defense’s soft underbelly. The Wolverines did lose three top linemen — Ryan Glasgow, Mario Ojemudia, Bryan Mone — to injury, and they weren’t the same group that recorded three straight shutouts early in the season.

“We’re not making excuses,” Harbaugh said. “We didn’t win the game. We regroup. They deserve credit, they played a very good football game, much better than we did.”

The Buckeyes led only 14-10 at the half, but it was trending heavily in their direction. The Wolverines’ early emotional bubble was burst by a roughing-the-kicker penalty, which turned an Ohio State punt from its 9 into a first down at its 24. From there, the Buckeyes ran and ran, and the Wolverines could only counter with Rudock’s sharp passing.

They were gashed, and by the end, they were gassed, surrendering huge chunks of yardage.

“We couldn’t make tackles, especially on No. 15 (Elliott),” tackle Chris Wormley said. “I think that’s one of our weaknesses, handling tempo teams. We gotta get better at that.”

It was an educational regular season, that’s for sure. The Wolverines learned what they have, and what they lack. And with pounding clarity, they saw how much more their rivals possess.