Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Angelique Chengelis discuss the Michigan-OSU game The Detroit News
One program is hoping it hasn’t reached its ceiling. The other is hoping it has hit the floor.
But a day after ending their respective regular seasons on their home turf, neither Michigan nor Michigan State can be very encouraged by where things stand at the moment.
The Wolverines got clowned again by Ohio State in the Big House, while the Spartans crowned themselves for earning bowl eligibility at Spartan Stadium.
And while Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was quick to note the “program win” hats he gave his players weren’t exactly expensive souvenirs -- “I think it was about a $4 hat, that floppy thing,” Dantonio said after the Spartans squeaked out a 19-16 win over a 3-9 Maryland team to get to .500 – his counterpart in Ann Arbor was dismissing questions about his team’s own shortcomings.
It has been nearly 3,000 days since Michigan has beaten Ohio State, but when asked to define the gap between the Buckeyes and his team, Jim Harbaugh -- college football’s third highest-paid football coach -- treated it as a cheap shot, replying, “I’ll take your questions, not your insults.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh takes exception to a question about the talent gap between the Wolverines and Buckeyes. The Detroit News
Based on his track record, Harbaugh, who has ratcheted up Michigan’s recruiting and revamped his coaching staff each of the last four offseasons, won’t take another loss to his archrival lightly. But like everyone else, he must understand the dilemma the Buckeyes present – a talent gap that doesn’t seem to be shrinking – and he knows the answer won’t come easily.
And for another graduating class at Michigan, it won’t come at all.
“It’s definitely really frustrating, especially for the seniors,” tight end Sean McKeon said after Michigan lost “The Game” for the eighth consecutive year and 15th time in the last 16 seasons. “It’s just kind of the same thing every year. It gets old, but you just gotta play better against them.”
Certainly better than the Wolverines did Saturday, as Ohio State took advantage of Michigan’s miscues – a key fumble, some brutal defensive breakdowns, several dropped passes and a few silly penalties – to tilt the scoreboard once more. Last year, the final tally was 62-39. This time, it was 56-27. So much for Harbaugh’s 2018 vow “to come back and make darn sure it doesn't happen again.”
“It’s hard to look at,” sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said, looking down at the stat sheet in the postgame press conference Saturday. “We’re just a better defense than this, we’re a better team than this. We’re a lot better than the numbers on this sheet.”
Maybe so, but what Harbaugh couldn’t – or wouldn’t – say Saturday is also true. Urban Meyer’s tenure turned Ohio State into a program that’s on par with Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and LSU. And with the institutional support and rabid fanbase for that program in Columbus, there’ll be no turning back anytime soon.
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said he "didn't see this coming" The Detroit News
So even though McKeon grumbled, “They’re just a team – they’re not an NFL team,” the truth is they’re not far off. Ask the dozen or so NFL personnel executives in attendance Saturday at the Big House, including Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace. Or just listen to Meyer, who was there as part of Fox’s broadcast crew and said after the game about his former team, “That’s 22 players that are going to be making money in a couple of years in the National Football League. Every one of those players are going to be playing at the next level.”
If that sounds like a televised recruiting pitch, of course it was. Probably a bit of an exaggeration, too. But it’s also another sign of what Michigan’s up against here, even as they head to a bowl game – possibly the Holiday, or even the Citrus – with a chance to win 10 games for the fourth time in five years.
Harbaugh’s best recruiting class thus far was a top-five haul in 2017, and yet on the field Saturday it was overshadowed by Ohio State’s higher-rated ’17 class that included the likes of Chase Young, Jeffrey Okudah and J.K. Dobbins. What’s more, in the upcoming 2020 class, Ohio State currently has eight commitments ranked higher than Michigan’s top-rated recruit, according to 247Sports.
And as Meyer’s successor, Ryan Day, reminded everyone after his team added insult to injury Saturday, “In this game, it's about the players."
But while the Wolverines are left to contemplate what it means to swim with the sharks in a sea of scarlet red, there’s an even bigger problem right now in East Lansing, where the Spartans are busy treading water after another season capsized with Dantonio at the helm.
Saturday’s fourth-quarter escape against Maryland means Michigan State will play in a bowl game for the 12th time in Dantonio’s 13 seasons as head coach. And that, quite frankly, was the only goal left after a five-game midseason slide that saw his team getting pummeled by the Big Ten’s upper-echelon programs. (The four losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan were by a combined score of 144-27.)
So on Friday, Dantonio tried to turned back the clock once more, handing his players “program win” hats just like the one he’d hung in his office in 2012, when his team won a game at Minnesota to secure a bowl berth and ultimately set the table for Michigan State’s remarkable three-year run from 2013-15.
“I thought this was a must win for our football team and our program, just to get back to .500,” Dantonio said. “It has not been an especially enjoyable year, but it’s been enjoyable being around our football team and our players.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talks about becoming bowl eligible with the victory over Maryland. The Detroit News
And now they’ll get another month to stay together, with a bowl game shortly after Christmas – likely the Quick Lane in Detroit, or perhaps the Pinstripe in New York.
“We're going to a bowl game, and like Coach D said, that’s the minimum standard around here,” senior quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “We wanted to make sure we reached that.”
That they did – barely – says something. But just what, if anything, it means going forward depends on your perspective. Or your expectations.
Dantonio pointed to all the injuries again after the Maryland game. Michigan State has started 11 different offensive linemen this season and Saturday marked the seventh different starting five. He also points to all the youth being served, as the Spartans burned two more redshirts Saturday with receivers Tre Mosley and running back Brandon Wright – both true freshman – played in a fifth game. But that sounds more like grasping at straws than building a foundation.
And a couple weeks after he declared his intention to return as head coach next season, Dantonio and his staff – much of it in limbo – will hit the recruiting trail trying to shore up a 2020 class that currently rates among the bottom five in the Big Ten. Not including any silent commitments, Michigan State currently has just one four-star recruit lined up, compared to a dozen for Ohio State and Michigan.
This is where the timing gets tricky for Dantonio, too. College football’s early signing period is barely two weeks away. His offensive assistants are on expiring coaching contracts. Dantonio’s own rollover deal includes a $4.3 million retention bonus due Jan. 15. And there’s also a court ruling requiring him to sit for a lengthy deposition in Curtis Blackwell’s wrongful termination federal lawsuit after the season.
A lot can change between now and then. A lot needs to change, based on the way this season ended. How and what and when it will, no one can say for sure.
Still, for now, Dantonio prefers to focus on the fact the season’s not over yet.
“We’ll go bowling,” he said Saturday, wearing a weary smile, “and we’ll take it from there.”
Possible bowl destinations for Michigan and Michigan State:
Holiday: Friday, Dec. 27, at San Diego, 8 p.m. (FS1)
Gator: Thursday, Jan. 2, at Jacksonville, Fla., 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Quick Lane: Thursday, Dec. 26, at Detroit, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Pinstripe: Friday, Dec. 27, at New York, 3:20 p.m. (ESPN)