Niyo: Lopsided loss sends Michigan back to the drawing board

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan running back Tru Wilson (13) and wide receiver Nico Collins look disappointed on the sideline after Ohio State's Parris Campbell scored on a 78-yard touchdown run in make it 48-25 in the fourth quarter.

Columbus, Ohio — There was a moment just before halftime on Saturday, when the momentum seemed to have shifted inside Ohio Stadium and Michigan felt like it was back in the game, even with its defense backed up against its own goal line again.

Ohio State called timeout after twice failing to score from inside the 5-yard line, and as Urban Meyer and his offensive staff huddled deciding what to do next, Chase Winovich, Michigan’s senior defensive end, started gesturing toward the Buckeyes’ sideline, encouraging them to bring it on.

They did, and Michigan’s defense held — just barely — as a review upheld the ruling of an incomplete pass on third down. Ohio State settled for a field goal to take a 24-19 lead into the half, and the Wolverines headed to the visitors locker room to start making adjustments.

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That’s something that’s been a strength all season for Michigan’s defense under coordinator Don Brown. But while a tweak here or a shift there might do the trick against Northwestern or Wisconsin, or even Notre Dame if you go back to that season opener in South Bend, Ohio State is a different story.

Ohio State is always a different story. And Saturday, we saw that same story play out again in vivid, viral detail, as the Buckeyes blasted the Wolverines’ Big Ten title hopes with a 62-39, runaway victory.

“I mean, we made adjustments at halftime, and addressed the issues that we had in the first half,” Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel said. “Then they came out and beat us with something else in the second half.”

Oh, this was something else, all right, as Ohio State thoroughly embarrassed Jim Harbaugh’s team, finishing with the highest point total ever allowed by a Michigan team in regulation — Cornell scored 58 in 1891 — and continued its dominance in this rivalry. That’s now seven in a row for Meyer against the Wolverines, and 14 of the last 15 for the Buckeyes.

Lack of forward progress

Harbaugh is the first UM coach to begin his tenure 0-4 against the Buckeyes. And much like the opener against Notre Dame, it’s almost impossible to not to view the final result Saturday as a bookend indictment of the Michigan program’s progress — or lack thereof — under Harbaugh the last four years.

If this was Michigan’s best chance to finally beat the Buckeyes — the Wolverines were road favorites here for the first time since 2004 — this was a truly disheartening showing, one that left everyone from Ann Arbor at a loss. When a reporter asked running back Chris Evans what went wrong Saturday, he paused before answering glumly, “The score.”

Kinnel, a senior co-captain who’ll finish his career 0-4 against Ohio State, was asked after the game if there was a moment he felt the game slip away from Michigan. He shook his head. It was hard to pinpoint just one, because there were so many as the Buckeyes “slowly devastated us throughout the game,” he said.

“Knowing all the yards they were putting up and how easily they were scoring, it was tough,” he sighed. “Extremely tough.”

It didn’t get any easier when the injuries started piling up early in the third quarter, as cornerback David Long and linebacker Devin Bush exited with hip injuries and Rashan Gary left briefly with leg cramps. With Bush gone, containment problems were only magnified, and after Ohio State returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, the Buckeyes scored with ease on their next four possessions.

And while that came as a shock to Michigan’s system, none of it seemed to surprise the home team, which came in with the nation’s No. 2-ranked offense and was “licking its chops,” as quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. put it Saturday, while preparing to face Brown’s aggressive, attacking scheme.

 “I don’t know about 62, but I knew we were going to come out and put on a show,” said Haskins, who threw for more yards in the first half (222) than Michigan had allowed in a game all season. “It started up front with the O-line. And the playmakers made plays. That’s what mattered.”

Hitting the ceiling

And that’s all that seems to matter in football these days, with the rules tilted against defenses and offenses making scoreboards go tilt at every level. Just think about what we’ve seen this past week, from the epic "Monday Night Football" shootout between the Rams and Chiefs to Friday night’s bonkers Big 12 bonanza that saw Oklahoma and West Virginia combine for 115 points and nearly 1,400 yards of offense.

The best teams are playing a different game now, and even on a damp, scarlet-and-gray day like this, it’s all the more glaring for Michigan fans.

Michigan still doesn’t have an offensive line capable of dominating the line of scrimmage against elite talent, and it’s fair to wonder if Harbaugh ever will at this point.

All the more reason, then, to question whether this UM offense will ever adapt enough to keep up with the teams that are still in playoff contention this December. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma all boast top-10 offenses, and while you can point to a talent disparity in some cases — speed kills, as we saw repeatedly Saturday — that doesn’t explain away this kind of humiliation.

Last winter was one of introspection for Harbaugh, who solicited input from some of his players and made some significant changes in his program, from the weight training to his coaching staff. With a more talented, mobile quarterback transferring in, we saw a bit more of the offense Harbaugh featured with the San Francisco 49ers as well, utilizing Shea Patterson’s legs and enough misdirection to keep defenses guessing.But there was not nearly enough in the game plan Saturday in Columbus. And on a stage like this, against an opponent like Ohio State, the gap was yawning.

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On one side you had an offense targeting its opponent's weaknesses, with crossing routes early and speed on the perimeter late. On the other, you had a team that seemed determined to grind out a win, only to discover too late that it was in the middle of a shootout with the safety on.

Relying on your defense and a ball-control offense might get you to 10 wins, as it did this year thanks to a defense loaded with NFL talent. But it won't get Michigan fans where they desperately want to go, or where the Harbaugh hire promised they'd end up, sooner rather than later.

Maybe it’s a different story — and a different narrative — if Michigan doesn’t stall in the red zone in the first quarter. Or Zach Gentry hangs on to some of those passes. Or if Long and Bush stay in the game in the third quarter.

But the bottom line is, it’s not a game until you make it one. And Meyer and the Buckeyes showed Saturday they’re still playing a different game than Michigan, with better talent than just about everyone else in the Big Ten.

And in the end, the scoreboard felt like another reminder: If you won’t join ‘em, you can’t beat ‘em.