That good feeling in Ann Arbor lasted one week.
A week after it looked like the Jim Harbaugh era might trend in a different direction, the program ended up in the same unenviable place: Michigan State beat No. 13 Michigan 27-24 in a game that would have to be considered the worst loss under Harbaugh.
That’s right. It is the worst loss under Harbaugh.
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Worse than the “punt fumble” against the Spartans in 2015; worse than the annual root-canal blowouts against Ohio State; worse than the bowl flops or all those top-10 letdowns under Harbaugh. The Wolverines were favored by three touchdowns against the Spartans, and flopped in the home opener at Michigan Stadium.
It’s not going to be easy to forgive, unless Michigan somehow runs the table before the next scheduled appointment with the Buckeyes. Repeat: This is the worst loss since Harbaugh took over in 2015. He had a 37-4 record against unranked opponents coming into the game, and the fifth loss is worse than the one in 2017, also at home vs. the Spartans.
Michigan’s in-state rivals delivered a clean and efficient victory in a sometimes dirty rivalry. The Wolverines have extraordinary program-wide problems borne from the same ordinary philosophies that led to that loss. It’s a bad feeling the program hasn’t been able to shake in the 21st century.
That’s no exaggeration. The defense couldn’t stop a Michigan State offense that committed seven turnovers in a 38-27 loss to Rutgers, and that’s going to fall on Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown now more than ever.
Michigan couldn’t force a turnover or get a sack against Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who finished 17 of 32 for 323 yards and three passing touchdowns.
Michigan’s cornerbacks struggled to cover the Spartans’ receiver — namely Ricky White, who had eight catches for 196 yards and a score. This wasn’t Ryan Day’s exotic passing attack; it was vertical routes on the edge against man coverage, and the Wolverines’ defensive backs never adjusted. It was a basic passing attack. Brown’s aggressive scheme is now vanilla. The Wolverines helped with six penalties for 60 yards in the first half, and they committed 10 penalties for 86 yards for the game. It was not a clean effort on that side.
The offense wasn’t much better, and it’s easy as usual to trace the problem under offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Michigan running backs finished with 21 carries for 84 yards — an average of 4 yards per carry. The Wolverines were 7 of 17 on third downs. Joe Milton, who showed promise in the opener against Minnesota, finished 32 of 51 passing for 300 yards. He didn’t throw a pick, but he also didn’t throw a score. Michigan State kept everything in front, and the Wolverines didn’t force the issue down the field.
That begs the question: Can they force the issue? Is there a first- or second-round difference-maker on the perimeter? When will Michigan have one of those tailbacks? Milton isn’t the problem, but the lack of bluechip talent on the outside is.
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These questions get asked every time Michigan loses one of these games under Harbaugh, and it’s not all that different than what Tom Herman faces at Texas or Gus Malzhan faces at Auburn. Harbaugh has been in Ann Arbor long enough, and there were visions of the return of the Bo Schembechler era and a balance in the rivalry with Ohio State upon the arrival.
There’s balance in the rivalry with Michigan State — one Michigan expects to dominate. Harbaugh is now 3-3 against the Spartans, and Mel Tucker out-coached the Wolverines on both sides in Week 2.
It was the Spartans who brought the club to a caveman football game, and that must sting more than anything else. That team lost to Rutgers last week.
There’s imbalance in Ann Arbor again, and not all of it can be blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas or receiver Nico Collins make a difference in this game. Maybe.
Maybe, but any hope generated by the impressive debut is over. Forget about the possibility of usurping Wisconsin and Penn State as the lead challenger to the Buckeyes. Michigan faces those same-old questions about the direction of the program after a loss to Michigan State, and there are still five games left before Ohio State.
The Wolverines haven’t won at Ohio Stadium since 2000, and they appear no closer to breaking that streak. Saturday was a not-so-gentle reminder of why Michigan does fit in the national championship weight class.
What does that mean for Brown and Gattis? That’s a tough question. For Harbaugh? Even tougher. The question used to be, “If Harbaugh can’t do it, who can?” The answer to that question isn’t one Michigan appears ready to confront. At least, not yet.
That sinking feeling, however, is back in Ann Arbor. It’s going to take longer than a week to get rid of it.