Soul-searching Wolverines falter on the big stage once again

Football

There have been low moments during the Jim Harbaugh era, but perhaps none as crushing as Saturday’s blowout loss. Despite having two weeks to prepare, the Michigan football team still crumbled on the national stage.

All week long, the Wolverines assured the world it would make a statement this weekend. In its first Big Ten matchup of the season, the 11th-ranked Wolverines did just that — in all the wrong ways. After U-M’s first two performances fell short of expectations, the Big Ten preseason favorites looked lifeless against No. 13 Wisconsin in a 35-14 drubbing. 

“We were out-played,” Harbaugh said. “Out-played and out-coached. … It was thorough.”

When he was hired in 2014, Harbaugh was supposed to save this program, perhaps even from itself. But in game three of year five, his team was run out of Madison in embarrassing fashion. The same program that came inches away from the College Football Playoff in 2016 and a game away only a season ago looked lightyears away from such a lofty 2019 goal on Saturday.

It takes honesty to admit such shortcomings, as Harbaugh did in his postgame presser. Every team has days when it falls short on the big stage, but what separates the good from the great is how they adapt to prevent it from happening again. That’s where Harbaugh has seemingly been stumped.

Harbaugh tried to respond during the offseason, luring offensive coordinator Josh Gattis away from Alabama to run his Pro Spread scheme in Ann Arbor. For all the bells and whistles that Gattis’ elaborate designs have to offer, he’s a rookie play-caller. Coaching experience at Vanderbilt, Penn State and Alabama is valuable, but there’s no substitution for the real deal.

If the hype train that followed Gattis from Tuscaloosa hasn’t come off the rails yet, it’s teetering on the edge of the tracks. U-M failed to convert a single third down in 10 attempts and turned the ball over four times on Saturday. The highly-touted receiving corps of Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black combined for a mere seven receptions on a combined 42 pass attempts despite the trio’s convincing advantages in athleticism.

“As a whole group, we don’t have an identity yet,” said senior tight end Nick Eubanks. “We’ve got to find it quick.”

On the other side of the ball, defensive players and coaches spent the week harping on the benefits of finally facing a conventional offense. After seeing two odd systems from Middle Tennessee State and Army, the Wolverines felt as though a matchup with Wisconsin would allow them to get back to basics — music to the ears of a defense that has been among the nation’s best in recent years.

But it didn’t make a difference, as the Badgers still punished Michigan’s defense with a heavy dose of exactly what it knew was coming en route to 487 yards of total offense and five rushing touchdowns.

“They came in with the mindset that they were going to try to run the ball on us and we had to stop it,” said senior safety Josh Metellus. “We tried to limit it as much as possible, but we just couldn’t get it done on the defensive side.”

You can break down the X’s and O’s as much as you want, but the details carry far less weight in the grand scheme of things. Once Wisconsin pulled away, the Wolverines rolled over without a trace of fight until the middle of the fourth quarter.

“This game was a gut check for us,” senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. said. “The season isn’t over. … We can’t play like this every week or we’re going to get our butts kicked every week.”

The Wolverines are, literally and figuratively, fumbling at an early crossroads in their season. The massacre in Madison isn’t a season-ending loss, but it very well could be a season-defining one if Michigan can’t right the ship.

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