Niyo: Harbaugh’s Michigan team is a mess, and that’s shocking at this point

John Niyo
The Detroit News

There are big questions and then there are smaller ones.

But for now, for Jim Harbaugh and those toiling inside his football program – and possession is at least nine-tenths of the law in college football, in case you hadn't noticed – there's no choice but to focus on the latter.

Everyone else will take care of the former after another nationally-televised debacle for the Wolverines Saturday, a 35-14 thrashing at Wisconsin that was worse than the final score indicated. And bad enough that it left one of Michigan’s all-time greats doing some finger-pointing of his own afterward.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh watches as his players come off the field in the fourth quarter.

“I’m sick about how Michigan football looks right now,” said Charles Woodson, the Heisman Trophy-winning star of the Wolverines' 1997 national championship team, making his debut on Fox Sports’ studio show Saturday.

Flanked by none other than Urban Meyer, the former Ohio State coach who retired last winter with an unblemished record against Michigan, Woodson wasn’t done preaching to the choir, either.

“I came here with high expectations for how my team was gonna look, in front of you guys,” he said. “And I’ll be honest with you, man, I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed about that.”

He’s far from the only one. As another of his ex-teammates, Hall of Famer Steve Hutchinson, tweeted Saturday, “I think I can speak for a lot of former UM players when I say, forget about winning. How about we just compete?”

And while Harbaugh betrayed few, if any, such emotions after another humbling loss Saturday – that has strangely become the norm the last couple years -- he has to know that promises made aren’t being kept.

Sure, he’s 40-15 in four-plus seasons as Michigan’s head coach, and like it or not, job security probably won’t be a real issue in Ann Arbor unless fans stop showing up to games or off-field issues pile up. (It’ll certainly take more than a disgruntled fan painting “#FIRE HARBAUGH” on the “The Rock” at the corner of Washtenaw Avenue and Hill Street.) But Harbaugh’s teams are now 1-6 on the road against ranked teams in his tenure, with half of those losses by three touchdowns or more.

And as Meyer noted on that same Fox postgame broadcast, there are myriad problems for Michigan’s coaching staff to dissect before they can even think about changing that narrative.

“You lift up that hood and you’re not gonna like what you see,” Meyer said. “But you better get that fixed fast.”

Most troubling part

Where to start, though? That’s the most troubling part for Michigan, and perhaps the reason why the players seemed to be at such a loss to explain what had just happened in Madison: Their head coach was, too.

“We were outplayed,” Harbaugh said at his postgame press confererence. “Out-prepared, out-coached, outplayed. The whole thing. Both offensively and defensively, it was thorough.”

How, though? And why? That’s what everyone is left wondering, and not just because Michigan was coming off a bye week and facing an opponent that hadn’t really been tested yet in season-opening routs of South Florida and Central Michigan.

As Woodson said, “It looked like they had never watched Wisconsin football before.” Or if they had, they’d simply forgotten what they saw, because the mistakes started piling up immediately after kickoff for Don Brown’s defense.

Michigan has allowed 1,482 yards and 138 points in its last three games against ranked opponents. And it didn’t take long to sense Saturday would fall right into that pattern. When junior defensive end Kwity Paye got caught diving inside late in the first quarter, allowing Wisconsin to turn a counter play into a 72-yard sprint to the end zone for All-America running back Jonathan Taylor, you could see where this was all headed. 

Taylor had 143 rushing yards by the end of that quarter. And by halftime, Wisconsin had made it clear it owned the line of scrimmage, piling up 200 yards on the ground and converting three fourth-down situations with ease, the latter a quarterback keeper that saw Jack Coan dive into the end zone almost untouched.

Out-coached, out-prepared, outplayed? Check, check and checkmate.

Because on the other side of the ball, the Wolverines simply look lost. There’s no other way to describe it after three games and these results.

Michigan finished Saturday’s game with just 40 yards rushing on 19 carries, four more turnovers – that’s nine now for the season – and a stunning 0-for-10 on third-down conversions, something the Wolverines haven’t done since at least 1995.

Embarrassing reality

We began the season wondering if Harbaugh really would let Josh Gattis keep the keys to his newly-installed offense. Now the question is whether he should’ve checked to see if Gattis had his driver’s permit. The whole operation looks like a mess, like a car that went into the shop in need of an oil change and came home suddenly in need of major repairs.

The run-game diversity that always is a staple of Harbaugh’s teams has been replaced by a pro-style spread offense that seems surprisingly confused about how to create mismatches, let alone capitalize on them.

“As a whole group, we don’t have an identity yet,” tight end Nick Eubanks said Saturday, before adding, “We gotta find it quick.”

The schedule might buy them some time there – with games against Rutgers and Illinois sandwiched around a home date against Iowa – but injuries and uncertainty in the backfield aren’t going to make it any easier on the coaches.

Shea Patterson clearly isn’t the answer at quarterback, even if he is playing hurt. Dylan McCaffrey got the call Saturday in relief, but then quickly left with a concussion after taking a vicious hit to the helmet. (That Harbaugh still is searching for the right quarterback in Year 5 truly is amazing.) Meanwhile, freshman running back Zach Charbonnet was in uniform Saturday but officially “limited,” like a guy who probably shouldn’t have carried the ball 33 times against Army a couple weeks earlier.

And that experience offensive line that figured to be a strength this season? Saturday’s performance certainly suggests otherwise.

So what's next?

“It’s a gut check for sure. I would say it that way,” Harbaugh said. “And you go back to work.”

That's all they can do, at the moment. But this uneasy feeling Michigan can't seem to shake, well, it's also the embarrassing reality that's getting harder to stomach for those who really care.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

Run over on the road

Jim Harbaugh is 1-6 in road games against ranked teams at Michigan.


At No. 13 Wisconsin: L, 35-14


At No. 12 Notre Dame: L, 24-17

At No. 24 Michigan State: W, 21-7

At No. 10 Ohio State: L, 62-39


At No. 2 Penn State: L, 42-13

At No. 5 Wisconsin: L, 24-10


At No. 2 Ohio State: L, 30-27