Wojo: Harbaugh, Wolverines should be embarrassed by this effort

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh couldn't deny it, Michigan stunk on Saturday.

Columbus, Ohio — They foolishly thought they could just do what they’ve done, line up and smash away. Instead, the Wolverines duped themselves and everyone else, and delivered one of the rivalry’s all-time embarrassments.

This ruins just about everything for Michigan this season — no Big Ten title, no playoff, no Revenge Tour culmination — and should change some things. In a game that was supposed to finally turn the rivalry, confirm Jim Harbaugh’s prowess and hasten Urban Meyer’s demise, the exact opposite happened. It confirmed the Wolverines still aren’t ready for anything like this, no matter what their 10-2 record says, and Harbaugh has to take another hard look at himself and his program.

His previously top-rated defense, coordinated by Don Brown, was completely exposed by quarterback Dwayne Haskins and Ohio State’s batch of speedy receivers. Harbaugh’s beloved power offense looked like a pickup truck on a race track, incapable of keeping up or catching up. For the Wolverines, this was an inexplicable nightmare, a 62-39 beating by the Buckeyes that was so thorough and shocking, it requires deeper digging for answers.

The Wolverines can’t lament one fateful play this time. They trailed 24-19 at halftime, then fell apart with a blocked punt and an interception. After they cut the deficit to 41-25, they let receiver Parris Campbell get loose on a simple sweep for a 78-yard touchdown run.

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If they were separated from the Buckeyes by a couple inches two years ago in the double-overtime defeat, they now look separated by miles and years, with their 14th loss in 15 meetings. Meyer, dogged all season by off-field issues and health concerns, had a masterful game plan, popping Michigan’s normally aggressive defense with quick crossing routes, then hitting ‘em deep.

Harbaugh and his players didn’t have much to say afterward, and didn’t spend much time stating the obvious. The Buckeyes’ offense was flawless and Michigan’s defense was awful. And Ohio State’s defense, so roasted it was the reason Michigan was favored, pummeled Shea Patterson, sacking him three times and knocking him out of the game with a knee contusion.

Looking out of date

The Wolverines broke down in every conceivable area, out-schemed and out-sped. It’s hard to pinpoint the biggest flaw, but it’s not hard to pinpoint the man hired to win games like this.

It’s ultimately on Harbaugh, now 0-4 against Ohio State, and he looked as surprised as anyone.

“When things go great, then good,” Harbaugh said. “And when it doesn’t, you take responsibility for it. … I thought Ohio State played really well in all phases.”

The Buckeyes’ embattled defense had assumed a possum-like stance much of the season, and the Wolverines failed to fully exploit it. But their offensive talent is obvious, as Haskins set all sorts of Big Ten passing records. If they beat Northwestern in the championship game, they’ll have a solid shot at the playoff.

Michigan will go to a top bowl, maybe even the Rose Bowl, and will keep gathering talent and win games. But as he did after going 8-5 last season, Harbaugh will have to mull changes to freshen up his offense. Michigan’s power style can crush lesser foes, but against a fast, motivated opponent like Ohio State, it looks outdated, in need of an overhaul.

Michigan acted like a team that figured it could win as it has all year, nothing special, nothing different for the Buckeyes. The true power programs evolve all the time, from Alabama to Clemson to Ohio State, updating with up-tempo attacks.

No, you don’t have to adopt Big 12-style helter-skelter offenses. But when it’s clear the opponent is capable of lighting it up, you can’t lean on ego and arrogance and stubbornly run the ball up the middle, again and again. You certainly can’t count on it unless you have a mauling offensive line, and while Michigan’s had improved, it was beaten soundly Saturday.

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In what might be Patterson’s final regular season game in his only season here, he did what he’s pretty much done all season. He completed 20 of 34 for 187 yards, made a few plays with his legs but couldn’t pop enough big ones. And he threw an interception on a desperate heave late in the third quarter that led to another quick Ohio State score and a 41-19 lead. 

“I’m the quarterback and I had the ball in my hand every snap, and I take full responsibility for our faults on offense,” Patterson said. “We prepared like we had the last 10 weeks, and it was a good Ohio State team. We had Big Ten championship hopes and playoff hopes, and maybe that got in the way a little bit.”


It’s impossible to say if the Wolverines’ larger ambitions clouded the focus on their rival. If it did, that’s a horrible miscalculation by Harbaugh, his staff and the team’s seniors. This can’t be about Karan Higdon’s tepid “guarantee” of victory, although for an Ohio State team burned by criticism, motivation burned deeply. It always seems to burn deeper for the Buckeyes.

 “I’ve been saying this for seven years — how do you tackle a rivalry?” said Meyer, 7-0 against Michigan. “You show the most incredible amount of respect you can for that rivalry. And how do you do that? You work your you-know-what off. It’s not a one-week thing; it’s 365 that we work on it.”

The Buckeyes’ first two touchdowns were almost identical 24-yard strikes by Haskins to dynamic freshman receiver Chris Olave. That speaks to Ohio State’s depth of talent and speed, and while the Wolverines have playmaking receivers in Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black, they don’t involve them as much.

While there was some mystery to Michigan’s defensive woes, there was nothing remotely mysterious about the offense, and that’s the problem against a high-power opponent. Asked about a conservative game plan, Harbaugh would only say “we wanted to run our best plays, outside zone, inside power, dropback, zone read, it was all in the plan.” It was all disrupted by the Buckeyes’ pass rush, while Michigan’s defense was strangely, unacceptably quiet.

Brown’s touted group excelled against lesser quarterbacks in the mediocre Big Ten, but they can’t be fooled by it. They didn’t record a single sack or quarterback hurry against the Buckeyes, and were timid even before losing linebacker Devin Bush (hip) and cornerback David Long (hip). Harbaugh said the injuries weren’t long term, but serious enough to keep them out.

Brown has won plenty of plaudits for his attacking style, and the numbers back him up. But on this day, against this swift opponent, the defense played as if scared, rarely blitzed, and still wasn’t able to handle slant passes or deep passes.

“We made adjustments at halftime, and they came out and beat us with something else in the second half,” safety Tyree Kinnel said. “Credit to them and their coaches, they had a great game plan and they completely beat us. Our mindset as a defense was to play like we’ve been playing all year. We had a high confidence and felt we had a good shot at dominating this game, so I’m pretty shocked at the outcome.”

Shocked and embarrassed, that’s how the Wolverines should feel. They didn’t rise to the moment or take many risks, a damning lesson Harbaugh should take very seriously.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski