Wojo: Wolverines weren't ready for Irish, and that's on Harbaugh

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches the action on Saturday night.

South Bend, Ind. — Clunk, clunk, clunk. Michigan went on the road again in search of an identity, in pursuit of a big-game turnaround. Instead, another clunker, another night when the Wolverines wavered in the heat.

Jim Harbaugh’s team didn’t look ready. Don Brown’s defense looked crazed and confused. Michigan hung around after an awful start, but that’s not good enough, not nearly good enough in Harbaugh’s fourth season. Notre Dame outplayed and outsmarted Michigan in a tedious 24-17 victory Saturday night, in which the Fighting Irish made the big plays and the Wolverines made the big mistakes.

It was supposed to be different with a new quarterback, a beefed-up offensive line and an experienced defense. But in an effort to alter negative perceptions about themselves, the Wolverines actually reiterated them, unable to run the ball, unable to block with any consistency, unable to beat a quality team in a hostile setting.

That’s 17 straight road losses against ranked teams, and in their last 18 games under Harbaugh, the Wolverines are 9-9. No, the season isn’t over, but the hype is, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Shea Patterson was fine in his ballyhooed debut, although by the time he was given the chance to make a few plays, it was by desperation, not by design. It was as if Michigan wanted to ease Patterson into the offense, expecting it could rely on its defense to handle the opener.

But the defense had no clue how to contain quarterback Brandon Wimbush on third down until the second half, after the decisive plays were already made. That was the shocking part, as the Irish outgained the Wolverines 233-90 while grabbing a 21-10 halftime lead. It looked worse and it really was, with Michigan’s touchdown coming on a 99-yard kickoff return by Ambry Thomas.

You expect the defense will rebound, because it has before. The penalties (Josh Mettelus was ejected for targeting) and undisciplined play at times were alarming, although Michigan did hold Notre Dame to 69 total yards in the second half.

But what can you legitimately expect out of the offense, as the line still struggles and play-makers still must emerge? Patterson showed flashes, completing 20 of 30 passes for 227 yards, with one interception, three sacks and a late fumble. But the warning proved accurate: Patterson can’t change this offense immediately or single-handedly.

'Things to build on' 

That’s on Harbaugh, and he tried his best afterward to calm the concerns. It was not an easy opener, and under normal conditions, you’d give Notre Dame’s defense ample credit and move on. The problem is, we’ve seen this type of sloppy performance from Michigan too many times, going back to 8-5 a year ago, going back to Harbaugh’s 1-6 record against rivals (sure, Notre Dame counts as a rival).

“It was a big opening game, it did not come out the way we wanted, and we gotta dig down,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a beginning for us. We’re not treating it like the end. We fought hard, we competed well, there are things to build on.”

There were glimpses, for sure. But the building needs to happen at a much steadier rate.

Michigan lacked urgency at the start and urgency at the end. In between, it was all noise and cramps, as the heat felled Patterson a couple times. The quarterback position shows promise, and Dylan McCaffrey, the surprise No. 2, acquitted himself well in relief. Harbaugh said Brandon Peters (the expected backup) tweaked his knee in practice, but I’m guessing McCaffrey earned the spot too.

You keep waiting for something to happen with Michigan’s offense, and it looked like it was waiting around too. The Wolverines kept trying to run the ball with Karan Higdon, who ran smack into Notre Dame’s array of blitzes.

The play-calling was unimaginative, even as Patterson jumped from the shotgun to center snaps and then mostly back to the shotgun. It wasn’t until the first drive of the second half that he was unleashed, and immediately heaved a 52-yard completion to Nico Collins.

Afterward, Patterson spoke softly, still sweating and swigging fluids, and shook off suggestions he didn’t look comfortable at times.

“I’m very comfortable with this offense, it’s diverse,” he said. “It was our first game, a lot of new guys, myself included, a lot of room to grow. Not every offense is gonna come out firing the first week. We have so many weapons, just gotta continue to grow.”

Patterson blamed himself for the interception and lamented his fumble. He did not seem shaken by what happened, just exhausted by the physical beating and wilting heat.

'More we can do'

Give Notre Dame and Brian Kelly credit. The Irish lost a lot on offense, and Wimbush completed only 49 percent of his passes a year ago. But he looked like a different guy, and Notre Dame kept Michigan guessing on offense and defense.

“Their defense did a great job, they brought a lot of blitzes,” said Higdon, who rushed for 72 yards. “They had more guys than we could block, and it caused chaos.”

Higdon, one of the captains, then referenced the angle that’s been thrown around a lot lately: “We can’t let this game define us, it’s only the beginning.”

Harsh definitions are forming, whether the Wolverines like it or not, with big tests looming. There are upcoming games at Northwestern and Michigan State, with a visit from Wisconsin in between.

The theory about Michigan’s woes on the road usually center on shaky quarterback play, and that’s mostly accurate. But that also goes back to Harbaugh, who has to fit the pieces, and has to find the right balance for Patterson.

Asked what’s missing in these big games, Harbaugh looked straight ahead.

“You know, onward,” he said. “Good old-fashioned resolve. There’s more we can do. This can be a very good football team, we have confidence in it.”

It still could be, but with each loss like this, you begin to wonder. This was another blown chance at a defining victory, and until the Wolverines start winning them, they’re stuck with an unflattering definition only they can change.