Harbaugh, Michigan can stop the bleeding against visiting Notre Dame
Despite preseason expectations to the contrary, Michigan football has not been able to excel thus far in the post-Urban Meyer era at Ohio State.
The Wolverines are not enjoying a very successful 2019 campaign, as Jim Harbaugh’s squad has lost its high-profile matchups against Wisconsin and Penn State and needed overtime to dispatch of Army at home. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes look like the most complete team in the country and primed to advance to Indianapolis once again for a date in the Big Ten title game.
But, as this sport has shown us numerous times over the years, each week is its own little chapter.
So, when the No. 19 Wolverines host No. 7 Notre Dame on Saturday night at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh has a chance to earn a signature win and defeat a top-10 opponent, which would be just his second such victory as Wolverines head man. In 11 games played against teams ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll since 2015, Harbaugh and the Wolverines have just one win. The former Stanford head coach’s winning percentage since taking over Michigan is very good, but for one reason or another he just hasn’t been able to win a lot of marquee Big Ten matchups.
It has been a trying season for the former Wolverines quarterback, who once again has had to refute reports of interest in NFL jobs. He recently sent a letter to parents of current players and high school commits that addresses a rumored exit strategy from the university.
This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time Harbaugh will be linked to NFL jobs, but the team’s trying season just creates more smoke. Michigan has ND, Michigan State and Ohio State left on the schedule, so there is an opportunity for an in-season turnaround. There is also a chance for continued implosion.
Here are a few things the Wolverines must do in order to stop the bleeding and salvage their season with a win on Saturday night over the Fighting Irish:
*The Wolverines finally had offensive success against a good defense in their 28-21 loss to Penn State last week. The problem was that their poor start ultimately did them in as their comeback fell short. But, they were able to gain 417 total yards, 26 first downs and had a 15-minute advantage in time of possession. The brightest spot of the unit was quarterback Shea Patterson, who played his best game of the year. He made sure his receivers were involved, and it helped that the offensive line held up and protected him.
The ground game was sound as well behind the rushing of Zach Charbonnet. But can the Wolverines finally put together a 60-minute game against the Fighting Irish? Patterson must be at his best because he should have a chance to make plays through the air. USC receivers had success in some one-on-one matchups against ND’s defensive backs, so those plays could be there for Patterson if his line holds up and keeps him upright.
It will also help that the game is in Ann Arbor. The offense struggled with the noise early in Happy Valley, having to take a timeout before its first snap as well as having a false start on its next drive.
*Michigan will face a very balanced ND offense, which is averaging 262 passing yards and 192 rushing yards per game. Quarterback Ian Book is very efficient and still gets overlooked as a run threat, while running back Tony Jones is averaging 7.0 yards per carry. This season, Book has completed over 63 percent of his passes for 1,419 yards with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions. He is also the team’s second-leading rusher with 209 yards and three scores on 47 carries. Book and his collection of big, athletic pass-catchers (receiver Chase Claypool and tight ends Cole Kmet and Tommy Tremble) have the luxury of having a solid O-Line, so the Michigan defense will definitely be tested.
*The Wolverines need to get off to a fast start. Last week we saw Harbaugh’s squad fall behind 21-0 at Penn State before rallying and coming up just short. A win in Happy Valley would have completely changed the perception of the program and kept the Wolverines in the mix for the East division title. All hope is not lost, but can they start fast and play with a lead over a ranked foe? The Irish had a 21-3 lead in last year’s clash before the Wolverines rallied in a losing effort in South Bend. A big play on offense or special teams will help Michigan’s cause on Saturday night.
Harbaugh has been able to hit the 10-win mark three times in his first four seasons at Michigan, but he will continually only get judged on his ability win big games. That’s understandable in the sports world we live in. However, his 2020 recruiting class remains strong, and the remaining schedule allows for a trend in the right direction as the Ohio State game looms to close the regular season.
We’ll see if Michigan can have a newfound focus for 60 minutes under the lights in Ann Arbor against a Notre Dame team that still has College Football Playoff hopes.
If the Wolverines can score a big win, all of the NFL talk surrounding Harbaugh will quiet — until the next game, of course.