We know Michigan lost a record number of starters to the NFL last year, particularly on defense. We know they were able to win eight games despite this and despite playing three different Quarterbacks. Before their bowl game, I actually thought they had showed promise to end the season. Their losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State were both close games, and both could have been won with a modicum of Quarterback play.
But then, they imploded during their bowl game. It was alarming, and it led me to reevaluate this Michigan Football team and their prospects for the future.
Michigan was granted a pretty easy and winnable bowl matchup. They played South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, certainly not the epitome of bowl matchups. They built a 19-3 lead with just over 5 minutes left in the third quarter. It was, as it has been frequently this season, the Quinn Nordin field goal fest, but it looked like they were on their way to a comfortable win.
They ended up blowing the 16 point lead and losing the game 26-19, giving up 23 unanswered.
Everyone’s talking about the offense, as they should be, but I want to start with the defense, because it’s been somewhat overlooked. This is a good defense for sure, but too often now it just seems like they run out of steam late in games. Michigan was up 10-7 in this year’s matchup against Wisconsin, and they immediately gave up two big pass plays to allow Wisconsin to take the lead. A late long run from Jonathan Taylor a couple drives later sealed the game at 10-24. Michigan was up 14-0 vs Ohio State and they ended up losing the game 20-31. In last year’s loss to Ohio State, they were up 17-14 late and ended up losing in OT (although they were helped by some poor officiating). And even in this year’s 13-42 drubbing by Penn State, one of the worst losses you’ll ever see from a Michigan team, it was only a 13-14 deficit at the half. And now there’s this Outback Bowl loss, which included a long TD pass from South Carolina in the 4th to put them up 23-19. Too often it seems, this defense runs out of steam in the second half. Too often, when they need a big stop to put the game away, they end up giving up a big play. The offense not being able to score is certainly part of it, but the defense shouldn’t be ignored.
And then there’s the Michigan offense, specifically their play at Quarterback. This was supposed to a big outing for Brandon Peters, supposedly the guy that is their future at Quarterback, the guy that should have been playing all year, a chance for him to show what he’s really capable of and stave off the competition and hype surrounding incoming Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson (if he’s deemed eligible).
Instead, Peters put on a very poor showing. He was 20/44 for 186 Yards, No Touchdowns, and 2 Interceptions. It’s the third time of the season he was under 50% completion, revealing some accuracy concerns. That measly 186 yards was also a season high for him — despite the 44 attempts. Perhaps most concerning of all for Peters was the interception he threw with 8 minutes left in the 4th Quarter. It was 3rd and goal from the six. Peters dropped back, looked right, then scrambled left and made an awful throw to the endzone while being hit. This is terrible situational football. If you kick a field goal there, you’re only down one point. That means you can kick a field goal to win, and Quinn Nordin has a range of over 50 (he kicked a 55 yarder in week 1 in this year). The interception reminded me of a turnover in the redzone Peters had at Wisconsin. He was rolling left and attempting to run toward the endzone. He ended up diving for the endzone several yards away. He was hammered well short of the endzone by multiple defenders, and the ball flew loose. Peters has to take better care of the football. He threw another INT on 4th and 1 on his own 41 with a minute left in the game.
Let’s talk about Michigan’s Quarterback situation, as that was their biggest problem this year and arguably in the Jim Harbaugh era. I’ve read some takes that you’re only as good as your quarterback, and that in this department, Michigan has had bad luck and Harbaugh has done the best he can with what he has.
On some level, this is true, and I bought it for a while. After all, Wilton Speight was injured in week 4, and John O’Korn was clearly never the guy.
But how much blame does Harbaugh deserve for not being able to properly develop a Quarterback? The more I’ve followed College Football, the more I think he does deserve some of the blame. Because when you look at the good teams in College, they’re often able to plug and play guys. Good recruitment and coaching, as well as having a good team identity, makes it so you see the same teams having success year in and year out despite the revolving door at Quarterback that is all but inevitable at the college level.
Perhaps the best example is Alabama in this year’s National Championship Game. Tua Tagovailoa comes off the bench and leads a comeback down 20-7 against the Georgia defense. Also, look at Ohio State. Jonathan Haskins came off the bench in this year’s game against Michigan and led a late comeback.
The more you look at the “Harbaugh just has had bad luck at QB” narrative, the more it falls apart. Let’s start with Speight. Sure, he was the starter and got injured, sure, that always hurts, and sure, he probably would have been more serviceable than O’Korn. But that ignores the fact that he had been on the decline since his injury in 2016. He was injured in week 4 this year, yet he was benched for poor play in week 1 to O’Korn himself, before getting injured! In the 4 games Speight started this year, he passed for a pedestrian 54.3% comp, 581 yards, 7.2 y/a, and 3 TD to 2 INT. Compare that to last year’s 61.6% comp, 2538 yards, 7.7 y/a, 18 TD, and 7 INT. Clearly not the same guy.
If O’Korn was never the guy, why was he starting over Peters in the first place? I had initially thought it was because they wanted to redshirt Peters, but it seems that Peters actually redshirted the year prior. So starting O’Korn for so many games made very little sense if he truly wasn’t the guy. And if Peters is the guy, whatup with that Outback Bowl performance? For most of his games, he’s been a game manager at best. If he is the guy, (and Harbaugh once compared him to Andrew Luck), we haven’t really seen it yet.
It was a good move by Michigan bringing in Shea Patterson from Ole Miss. If he’s eligible and ends up playing, he will bring some spark to the offense. But this week, we’re seeing reports that Wilton Speight, who at the end of the season had said he would transfer, might come back to Michigan if Patterson isn’t eligible. While this seems to make sense at first, it’s a bit alarming once you think about it. Dylan McCaffrey and Brandon Peters are supposed to be the future for Michigan. According to 247 Sports, McCaffrey was the 5th ranked pro style prospect in the nation, and Peters was the 6th. At some point we need to see these guys play. Bringing back the seemingly on the decline Speight just looks like another stopgap. If Peters and McCaffrey aren’t ready to play, that begs the question, why the hell not?
Looking back further at the history of Michigan Quaterbacks in Jim Harbaugh’s short tenure as Head Coach, Shane Morris barely played, and ended up transferring to Central Michigan last year, where he actually did an okay job, throwing for 55.8% comp, 7.26 y/a, 27 TD, and 17 INT. The Chippewas went 8-5, and tied for second place in the MAC West Division (although you have to assume these numbers would look much worse were he playing in the Big 10, where the Wolverines play). Alex Malzone… he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page so I don’t really know what his deal is, but it seems after close to no playing time at Michigan, he’s pursuing a graduate Transfer to Miami Ohio.
So the best Harbaugh has done with Quarterback at Michigan was Wilton Speight in 2016 before being injured (or facing Ohio State, whatever narrative suits you better), and striking gold with Jake Rudock in 2015 after transferring from Iowa. Rudock was pretty good for sure, but he also ended up being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the NFL (albeit as a sixth rounder and a backup), which makes you wonder how much of his talent was innate vs Jim Harbaugh coaching.
None of this is to say Jim Harbaugh should be fired. He shouldn’t. He took over a Brady Hoke team that had declined in wins every year of his tenure, culminating in a 5 win 2014 season, and led them to back to back 10 win seasons. At least for now, they’re not going to find anyone better than him.
But at the end of the day, 4th in the Big Ten East simply isn’t good enough for a franchise as prestigious as the Wolverines.
The biggest concern for me is that Michigan seems to be moving backwards when their rivals are only moving forwards. The Michigan State Spartans, after a disappointing 3-9 2016 campaign, finished the season at 10-3, tied for 2nd in the Big Ten East, with some pretty impressive moments from the Sophomore Brian Lewerke, including a 27-24 win vs Penn State. They finished 15th in the final AP rankings. Michigan’s best bet is that Michigan State’s sexual misconduct allegations within that organization get in the way of their on field product.
Penn State will be losing Saquon Barkley, but don’t expect them to go anywhere so long as Trace McSorley is at the helm. He was really impressive, showing great movement, decision making, and accuracy as the QB of that high flying offense. This was especially evident during their 35-28 Fiesta Bowl win. Penn State’s offense is extremely dynamic, well schemed, and hard to defend, and I expect them to continue to be a force to be reckoned with even without Barkley. McSorley finished 17th in the FBS in passing yards with 3570, and 15th in pass touchdowns with 28. Penn State finished the year 8th in the final AP rankings, and they would have been right in the playoff discussion if not for their two big ten losses to Michigan State and Ohio State by a combined 4 points. They finished the season 11-2, tied for 2nd in the Big Ten East.
Then there’s the Ohio State Buckeyes, who have been in the playoff mix for years and who many thought deserved a spot in this year’s College Football Playoff. They were Big Ten Champions and finished the season with a 24-7 drubbing of the USC Trojans in the Cotton Bowl, with their defensive line absolutely wreaking havoc. They finished the season ranked 5th in the final AP rankings. Sure, JT Barrett is graduating, but when he went out with injury in the Michigan game, Jonathan Haskins stepped in and led a comeback victory. If that’s a harbinger of things to come, the rest of the Big Ten better watch out.
Then there’s Michigan. In 2015 and 2016, the first two years of Harbaugh’s tenure, they had back to back 10 win seasons, and were ranked 12th and 10th in the AP Poll, respectively. They finished this season 8-5 and unranked. That’s not where they want to be.
Ultimately, Michigan didn’t hire Jim Harbaugh to beat up on Rutgers and Maryland. They hired him to take Michigan to the top of the Big 10, and more importantly, to beat the shit out of Ohio State, something he has yet to do.
It’s a tough business. Michigan is a good football team and certainly has the potential to take the next step. Now they just have to put the pieces together and figure out a way to actually do it and get over the hump. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be stuck as the little brothers of the Big Ten East, as they’ve been for a while now. Harbaugh, fair or not, has to figure out a way to fix this. Otherwise, he could be headed back to the NFL.