John Niyo and Angelique S. Chengelis of The Detroit News react to Jim Harbaugh's Monday press conference following Michigan's loss to Michigan State. Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks. But it certainly doesn’t look like everyone thought it would by now.
And if that’s unfair, it’s also understood — or should be, at least — when the change is as pronounced as this one was a few years ago, with Jim Harbaugh receiving a hero’s welcome as he returned to his alma mater as head coach.
After years of wandering aimlessly in the college football wilderness, the Wolverines finally would find an offensive identity that suited their needs. They’d find the next Andrew Luck, they’d build a dominant offensive line and they’d play smart, tough football. Because that’s all Harbaugh knew as a player and all he’d done at his last two coaching stops at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers. And because, as his old coach, Mike Ditka, once explained, “That’s what Jim Harbaugh does: He imposes his will on people, and he likes it.”
But there’s not much to like about what this Michigan offense is doing right now. Frankly, the only imposition right now is being felt by the Wolverines’ top-ranked defense. And after Saturday night’s 14-10 loss to Michigan State, dropping Harbaugh’s record against his chief rivals to 1-4, it’s now officially an open question for many UM fans: When will the on-field product look as good as advertised?
Bottom of the pack
Michigan, a program with two offensive assistants making seven-figure salaries, currently ranks 105th nationally in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN. And while no one expected an immediate fix to all of the program’s problems after seven years of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, it’s a bit surprising that the issues Harbaugh seemed best equipped to solve — given his track record — are still holding Michigan back.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh talks about his record vs. rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
The quarterback situation is hardly settled. Incumbent starter Wilton Speight struggled to start the season before suffering a serious injury Sept. 23 at Purdue. (Harbaugh on Monday confirmed Speight is dealing with fractured vertebrae but didn’t rule out a return this fall.) His backup, John O’Korn, also in his third year in the program, is coming off a disastrous performance (16-of-35 for 198 yards and three interceptions) in the rain Saturday against the Spartans.
Already there’s clamoring for Brandon Peters, the redshirt freshman who impressed in spring practice and drew favorable comparisons to Luck from Harbaugh when he was recruited. And there’s a sense true freshman Dylan McCaffrey is the quarterback on the roster who’ll eventually be the guy, perhaps as early as next September.
But Harbaugh said Monday he’s sticking with O’Korn as the starter moving forward, and his teammates offered their support as well.
“You’ve gotta have 100 percent (confidence) in your quarterback,” center Patrick Kugler said, “and I know he’s gonna play better in the next game.”
Line has issues
Truth is, though, nothing’s a given with this offense, and that certainly includes a line that isn’t drawing any favorable comparisons to the ones Harbaugh built at Stanford or in the NFL. The problems up front extend beyond the right tackle spot, where neither Nolan Ulizio nor Juwann Bushell-Beatty looks equipped to be a starter.
And though the depth issues predate Harbaugh, some misses in his first two recruiting classes — most notably at the tackle position — loom larger now, along with Grant Newsome’s injury. There’s help on the way — this year’s freshman class is a big part of that — but for the time being, there’s also a chance it won’t get much better this season.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh responds to questions about his team's play calling in the loss to Michigan State. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
Particularly if the Michigan’s play-calling triumvirate continues to insist on doing more with less. Mark Dantonio’s postgame comment about the Wolverines’ impressive array of formations might’ve been meant as a compliment, but it could also pass for a fair criticism, given the offensive struggles. Harbaugh runs a pro-style offense with added emphasis on the “pro” part of that, and maybe that’s part of the issue here: How many future pros does Michigan have starting on offense right now?
O'Korn was sacked four times in Saturday’s loss, and if it seemed like he was under constant pressure, that’s partly on him — his pocket poise was noticeably lacking. But it’s also on a receiving corps that might be the weakest link in the chain right now.
And given the conditions in the second half, it’s certainly on a coaching staff that decided to spit into the wind Saturday night. Trailing 14-10 just after the skies opened up, Michigan’s Karan Higdon broke off four consecutive runs of 5, 6, 6, and 6 yards to start a drive. But then the Wolverines inexplicably chose to have O’Korn drop back to pass on nine of the next 12 plays over three possessions, each of which ended with an interception.
Harbaugh bristled at the second-guessing, saying, “It's a very convenient thing, right? It's a very easy thing to do.”
He’s right about that, of course. Still, it’s hard not to sense the impatience here, for all parties involved. Asked again Monday about this team trying to develop an offensive identity, Harbaugh replied, “We’re in the process of doing that.” But apparently that’s not a very easy thing to do, either.