What They're Saying: Indiana Hoosiers 38, Michigan Wolverines Football 21
Michigan Wolverines football was defeated by the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday in Bloomington, 38-21.
Here's a look at what they're saying across the country about the Maize and Blue's second straight loss.
[U-M head coach Jim] Harbaugh came to U-M from San Francisco and seemed to treat the program more like an NFL squad than how he built Stanford. The latter was a blue-collar team with a few stars but, more than anything, an identity. We saw a lot of that the first two years, with Harbaugh in “jackhammer” mode and teams that improved (albeit with a lot of Brady Hoke’s talent).
He’s flirted with some really good seasons since, only to be exposed by better teams when it counts, and now has a group that looks like it goes through the motions. He’s tinkered, switched coordinators a few times, relied on others a bit too much and is now in no-man’s land, a coach with a year and a half left on his contract who is losing the fan base’s support by the week.
His top players opt out or seem to have one eye on the NFL, and it’s hard to blame them when that’s the ultimate promise. Bo Schembechler’s famous "The Team" speech included, “You’ll never play for a team again … you’ll play for a contract!” and seems to have become, “We’re going to groom you to get that contract!”
We’ve seen Michigan teams bounce back before, but this one’s going to take a bit of magic. If Harbaugh’s got something up his sleeve, now would be a good time to pull it out.
1. Harbaugh Hot Seat will start boiling
I've long been on the record that I do not believe Michigan is going to fire coach Jim Harbaugh. Certainly not in a season like this one, in which the program has had to navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, at no point was I under the impression that Michigan would be losing to rival Michigan State and follow that up with its first loss to Indiana since 1987.
Even so, while there's been plenty of talk about Harbaugh's future at Michigan, most of the talk about Harbaugh being on the hot seat has come from outside the program. Maybe that will change following this loss or maybe it won't. But the talk is only going to grow louder, and at some point, the Wolverines may begin listening.
2. Don Brown's job is in jeopardy
As I said, I don't think Harbaugh is in danger of being fired. I can't say the same about defensive coordinator Don Brown. Brown came to Michigan from Boston College in 2016, Harbaugh's second season. He replaced D.J. Durkin, who had left to take the top job at Maryland. Since coming to Ann Arbor, Brown's defenses have been some of the best in the country on an annual basis, but they continually came up short in Michigan's biggest games, usually against Ohio State.
Michigan had been 9-5 after a loss during the Harbaugh era, but four of those were bowl defeats that followed losses to Ohio State in the final week of the regular season. Typically Harbaugh has been able to get his team to respond positively to adversity. This time around, Michigan cowered to a superior opponent.
This loss was different — just like the loss to Michigan State last week was different. The loss to Michigan State, a team that lost to Rutgers in its first game and was blown out by Iowa on Saturday, showed that Michigan’s win over Minnesota was a mirage. Saturday’s loss to Indiana showed that Michigan is a program that is on the decline.
Indiana was better in every facet of the game. The Michigan defense was gashed for nearly 500 yards by the Hoosiers, a team that had 558 yards of offense combined in their first two games of the season.
Michigan entered Saturday’s game averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game. On Saturday, UM finished the day with 13 rushing yards on 18 carries. And when you remove the sacks, Michigan running backs had 22 yards on 13 carries. That’s 1.7 yards per try. This is a program that has prided itself on physical play in the trenches. Sure it was without two of its starting offensive linemen, but Michigan’s effort on Saturday was unacceptable.
Now with U-M at 1-2 on the year, the questions about Harbaugh and his future will only intensify.
The same penalties, over and over. The same issues, over and over. And now, the same questions, louder and louder.
For the Wolverines, the breakdowns continued Saturday, which led to a meltdown, which leads to the latest, most-serious referendum on Jim Harbaugh’s future. He hasn’t found the ceiling in six seasons here but he just found the floor, and there’s no clear path to recovery.
It’s not only the dreary, 38-21 loss to a good Indiana team. It’s not only the shocking loss to the rebuilding Spartans, an outcome that looks even worse after Iowa’s 49-7 drubbing of Michigan State. It’s the dispiriting, repetitive nature of what we’re seeing, 1-2 with nothing easy ahead on the schedule.
It’s not working and hasn’t worked well enough for a while, especially with Don Brown’s defense. The Wolverines too often are confused and undisciplined, and it can’t all be excused away by the pandemic or injuries or a youthful roster. For Harbaugh and his staff, a reckoning is coming, one way or another.
No, Harbaugh won’t be fired during the season, nor should he be, no matter how ugly the fan meltdown. But his status beyond this season is officially open to discussion. His contract expires after 2021, and while athletic director Warde Manuel has not publicly expressed concerns, it’s peculiar there hasn’t been an extension. A mutual parting wouldn’t be a shock, although Harbaugh repeatedly dismisses NFL rumors.
Brown’s oft-touted defense looks increasingly outdated, and his struggle to adjust ultimately could cost him his job. Again, I’d wait until after this shortened season, with nothing to be gained by shaking it up now. Brown’s aggressiveness is being used against him, and Michigan is regularly getting shredded by decent (or not so decent) quarterbacks. Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. was superb, 30-for-50 for 342 yards, hitting wide-open receivers all day. Michigan State’s Rocky Lombardi also was sharp against Michigan, but not against Iowa.
Brown is trying to stick to his defensive principles despite a staggering lack of experience in the secondary. He used more zone schemes Saturday but they were almost as ineffective as the man-to-man coverage. When Aidan Hutchinson went down with an ankle injury, the pass rush took a hit.
Now, some credit where credit is due here. Indiana is off to a 3-0 start, featuring arguably their best team in decades. And certainly Michigan State … well, never mind.
The point is, Michigan seems lost right now. Even in a throw-away season, six years into a head coach’s tenure, that’s not where you want to be.
Somebody asked Harbaugh if he still feels defensive coordinator Don Brown can get the job done against talented offenses. The head coach isn’t throwing anybody under the semi here.
“Yes I do,” he said. “I do, very much so. I love all of our coaches, every coach on the staff. They work extremely hard. Their schemes are really good, and they coach them good. We keep forging ahead.”
But they keep falling behind. Given the remaining schedule, the Wolverines could very well be in for their first sub-.500 season since 2014, a year that ended with Harbaugh getting summoned out of the bullpen.
Back then, Michigan Men and Women everywhere considered the lanky right-hander Goose Gossage in his prime. He’s surely put out the seven-year tire fire that marked U-M from 2008 on, one 11-win season notwithstanding.
Can’t miss. Book passage to the national championship game. Michigan landed the Golden Goose.
Now, some are talking about a cooked goose, and half-dreading what’s ahead.
Surely, the Wolverines can take down Rutgers. Except they couldn’t beat the team that Rutgers beat. Well, there’s always Maryland. Oops, the Terrapins just made Penn State turtle (again).
After winning the opening toss, the Wolverines chose to receive, clearly hoping for a tone-setting opening drive that would put points on the board. Instead, three plays and negative four yards later, Michigan punted. The offense went three-and-out on four of the first six drives, as the Wolverines fell behind quickly and entered halftime with a 17-point deficit. The run game that pummeled Minnesota was non-existent, collecting 13 total yards on 18 carries.
Just as it is on defense, everything looks supremely difficult for Michigan's offense, even on plays that should gain easy chunk yardage or put points on the board. Quarterback Joe Milton missed receiver A.J Henning, throwing too high and too late. In the second half, he overshot Ronnie Bell on what should've been a touchdown; instead, the Wolverines had to punt. Milton completed 18 of 34 passes for 344 yards with three touchdowns and two picks. There were flashes of brilliance, especially when he used his feet to step up in the pocket and find open receivers.
But with the lack of success on run plays and no easy yardage to be found anywhere else, the Wolverines were essentially relying on Milton to single-handedly outscore Indiana. And right now, he doesn't have the capacity to do that.
After the game, Harbaugh continued to praise his players, calling his team "talented" multiple times. It was a similar message to the one he had after last season's blowout loss at Wisconsin — or after Michigan's 10-3 squeaker over Iowa a couple weeks later.
The Wolverines eventually did turn things around somewhat in 2019 and showed signs of the team Harbaugh believed they could be. But it would be foolish to expect the same transformation to occur this time around. This is Harbaugh's worst team since he took over the program.
Slowly but surely, the Wolverines have slid into mediocrity. And based on what happened Saturday, that slide will continue over the ensuing weeks.
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