Wojo: Wolverines flattened again, and Harbaugh must adjust

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Shea Patterson of the Michigan Wolverines is sacked by Adam Shuler II  in the fourth quarter.

Atlanta — Another big game, more of the same. Their offense was flattened. Their defense was shredded. And it’s clear now for Michigan: The more it looks the same, the more urgently it must change.

This was a study in motivation, and the Wolverines failed miserably, trampled by Florida 41-15 in the Peach Bowl. With two straight blowout losses to end the season, it now becomes a larger motivation for Jim Harbaugh, who must solve the big-game, late-season woes.

Some obvious things were missing Saturday for Michigan — creativity on offense, discipline on defense, emotional spark. Oh, and four starters who sat out. But that alone doesn’t explain or excuse the dreariness that transpired.

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Go ahead and call it a meaningless outcome in a runner-up bowl, if that makes you feel better. It certainly mattered to the Gators, who finished 10-3 in Dan Mullen’s first season. And it should matter to the Wolverines, who also finished 10-3 but have lost three straight bowls and looked increasingly worse at the end of each season.

It was another ugly meltdown, as a tight game blew wide open thanks to Michigan’s defensive breakdowns, and dynamic plays by Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks. Just as they did in the 62-39 loss to Ohio State, the Wolverines got outmanned, outran and outschemed, and didn’t appear recovered from their Buckeye hangover. Franks and backs Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett burst through holes that ideally would’ve been plugged by Devin Bush or Rashan Gary. Two other starters — running back Karan Higdon and right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty — also skipped the game.

 “Yeah, it was a factor,” quarterback Shea Patterson said. “We can say we’re all we got and we’re all we need as much as we want, but are we a better team without Devin Bush and Rashan Gary and Karan Higdon? No we’re not. They’re a huge part of our team, and missing them definitely did hurt.”

'They had us figured'

Again, that’s an unfortunate circumstance but not an excuse, and Michigan needed to adjust. Florida used all sorts of formations and deception, while Michigan plugged away as it too often does against better teams, conservative to a fault.

“I’d say sometimes you’re the Gators, and sometimes you’re the bait,” senior end Chase Winovich said, poetic to the end. “They were just a better team. At the end of the day, they seemed like they had us figured out. They knew what we were in and how to manipulate it.”

Bingo. It’s what Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes did, unleashing Dwayne Haskins with crossing routes to speedy receivers. This time, Florida exploited the defensive middle with runs and quarterback draws, and Michigan did very little different. The Wolverines’ best wrinkle came on the first drive of the game, when Patterson pitched to freshman Christian Turner on an end-around, and Turner sprinted 46 yards for a touchdown.

Upon replay review, he stepped out of bounds at the 38, setting up a third-and-1. Naturally, stubbornly, even arrogantly, Michigan smashed fullback Ben Mason up the middle twice and failed to get the first down.

Would it have helped to have Higdon, who rushed for 1,178 yards? Of course. Michigan finished with 77 yards rushing, its lowest total since the opening loss at Notre Dame.

Would it have helped to recognize the personnel deficiencies and open up the game plan? Of course, and the Wolverines have to know it by now.

“It was a very good season, and it would have been a great season had we won this game,” Harbaugh said. “Didn’t get that done. My feeling about the team is, we’re right there (near) the top, but we have to put it over the top. Especially in the big games at the end of the year.”

The Wolverines are 1-3 in bowls under Harbaugh and 0-4 against Ohio State. His record against everyone else is 37-7. So what has been missing in those big games?

“On those days, we were beaten by better teams,” Harbaugh said. “So we have to persevere, be persistent, keep working, and put it over the top.”

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Harbaugh said he planned no staff changes, and we’ll see if that actually holds true. After the Wolverines lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl last year, he shuffled his staff dramatically and improvements were notable.

It was easy to be lulled by the 10-game winning streak that put Michigan in position to finally win a weak Big Ten. But now there can be no disputing the need for adjustment. Harbaugh has three 10-3 marks in four seasons, decent but not close to expectations for one of the highest-paid coaches in college football.

That means Don Brown’s defense can’t keep doing exactly what it does, constantly attacking and leaving the secondary in one-on-one situations that good quarterbacks and receivers exploit. That means Harbaugh and passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton can’t keep doing exactly what they do, squandering downs with a tedious running game.

'Trust the process'

The charge next season, with most of the offense returning intact, is to make better use of Patterson and his trio of fine receivers, Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. Patterson completed 22 of 36 passes for 236 yards and found Collins on a 41-yarder. But he also threw two interceptions and dinked down the field with short passes.

Michigan has lacked explosive running plays all season, and really for years. Maybe Turner can change that. Certainly the receiving corps can provide more explosion, given the chance. That also means the offensive line has to give Patterson a chance.

“Oh man, we start to open it up a little bit, you see guys like Nico flourishing, Tarik down the seam, Donovan Peoples-Jones making plays,” Patterson said. “It’s all about getting the guys the ball in open space, that’s what the best teams do. They find a way to win one-on-one matchups, they find a way to isolate their best players.”

So, doesn’t it make sense to unwrap the offense?

Patterson chose his words carefully.

“I’m just gonna trust the process,” he said.

That’s one place the motivation can begin, with Patterson returning for his senior year, still trying to fulfill his potential. Even when trailing 27-10 in the third quarter, the offense was painfully slow, lacking imagination and urgency.

Harbaugh’s power system works well against outmanned opponents, but when the talent is equal and the opposition has play-makers, the Wolverines turn into plodders. Combined with the Ohio State loss, it’s a realization that can’t be ignored, as Michigan’s defense allowed a season-high 257 rushing yards to Florida.

The Wolverines will lose a lot of good defensive players, but the offense should be the experienced strength of the 2019 team. Harbaugh’s fifth season now becomes hugely important, to show he and his program can evolve, and there’s enough talent to make it happen.

In the aftermath of another season-ending dud, players opted to consider what’s possible, not what was just lost.

“We have a lot of up-and-coming guys,” Patterson said. “We can sit here and talk negative — you know, Michigan doesn’t win the big games — all we want, what else is there to say. … Everybody thinks it was kind of a letdown. Honestly, I think everybody in that locker room and in that (coaches’) office knows what we’re capable of, and that’s why we’re all so (ticked) off.”

It’s good to be (ticked) off. It’s better to be turned off by the perception, and deeply determined to change it.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski