Michigan football: 5 blunders the Wolverines have made under Jim Harbaugh
Jim Harbaugh denies the notion that there is a culture issue at Michigan.
It’d be unfair and unwise to suggest such a thing without concrete proof. The media loves to speculate and run with half-facts and partial truths. To say there is a culture issue would be a bit of a stretch, but to say that the Wolverines just don’t have “it” this season would be completely accurate.
From players’ body language during Zoom calls to remarks made by the coaching staff, it’s plain to see that something just isn’t right during Year 6 of Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor.
This past Saturday, true freshman A.J. Henning made a spectacular 28-yard catch — one of UM’s top offensive plays this season — during a 27-17 home loss to previously winless Penn State. The catch was just what Michigan needed at that time — something to move the sticks and build momentum. While Henning and those on the field were visibly excited about the completed catch, Harbaugh actually had to instruct a group of players on the sideline to cheer for their teammate.
The coach had to remind his players to support their teammates. If that doesn’t indicate some sort of problem within the program, nothing does. It may be a small sliver of nothing, but it seems to shed light on a possible bigger issue — an issue that has become clearer through the weeks of interviews and post-game press conferences.
Michigan isn’t a good team right now. At 2-4, the Wolverines are on the verge of having one of their worst seasons in program history. Now it’s time to review the biggest mistakes that led Michigan down this road to nowhere in 2020.
Not starting Cade
Joe Milton started the first 5 games for the Wolverines. Despite a season-opening 49-24 win at Minnesota, Milton never seemed to take control of the offense. Against Rutgers on Nov. 21, Milton — a redshirt sophomore — was pulled in favor of redshirt freshman Cade McNamara, who gave the Wolverines an immediate spark after they were down 17-0 in the 1st half.
From that point, it looked like Michigan had finally made the right call about their quarterback. The obvious question is how and why it took Harbaugh so long to make the change. It was clear during Weeks 2 and 3 that Milton just wasn’t the one who was going to push the offense into the next gear.
McNamara went 27-for-36 for 260 yards and 4 touchdowns — and also a 2-point conversion rushing TD — against Rutgers and started against Penn State. While he didn’t wow like he did in the previous week, McNamara still held everything together and helped Michigan’s offense be somewhat competitive against the Nittany Lions.
Don Brown’s failure to adjust defense
This is getting old, the whole Don Brown defense talk. Look, at one time, Michigan had one of the best defenses in the nation, anchored by a stout defensive line. Enter Brown in 2016: Things were only going to get better … right?
Well, things were good for the Wolverines, who’ve had a top-12 defense under Brown for 4 years. This year, though, and even a bit of last year have exposed the holes in Brown’s scheme. The Wolverines have been gouged through the air. While the run defense isn’t completely broken, the pass defense is clearly the weakness of the No. 12 defense in the Big Ten.
Michigan allows 34.5 points per game. Dissecting stats won’t do much in this case, as it’s nearly impossible for teams to be competitive while giving up 30-plus every Saturday. At one point, Brown’s defenses allowed single-digit point totals every weekend, on average, and dared opponents to step into the proverbial ring.
Now, the Wolverines are getting pushed around like former NBA dunk champ Nate Robinson did this past Saturday night vs. YouTube sensation Jake Paul.
The same plays, the same outcomes — Brown’s defense hasn’t adjusted to the way teams attack on a week-to-week basis. Based on a steep regression, it’s difficult to imagine Brown remaining the defensive coordinator after this season.
What happened to Charbonnet?
Speculating on a transfers is bad business. But it’s hard not to at least ask questions when a star-to-be has barely gotten any carries this season. Zach Charbonnet was supposed to Michigan’s featured back in 2020. Instead, it’s Hassan Haskins, who has rushed for 100-plus in back-to-back weeks — the 1st time all year for UM — and is clearly the leading man in the Wolverines’ backfield.
Charbonnet burst through with a 70-yard touchdown, going in untouched, vs. Minnesota but hasn’t really been seen much since. This isn’t meant to suggest Charbonnet could be on the move, it’s just bringing up a valid question: Where has he been? And where does he fit with the Wolverines moving forward?
When winning (against Rutgers) is losing
Harbaugh might as well have lost against Rutgers, because beating the Scarlet Knights in a 4-hour, triple-OT affair in Piscataway did nothing to instill hope among the masses. It’s almost comical to think that barely escaping New Jersey with a 48-42 3OT win was the crowning achievement of Michigan’s season — but it seems to be the case.
It’s never a mistake to win, but it’s very un-Michigan-like to view beating Rutgers as some sort of monumental achievement. It was a great start for McNamara, who led the way for UM, but it’s not worth much more than that.
Still can’t win big games
Losing 27-24 to 3-touchdown underdog Michigan State — which just knocked off then-No. 8 Northwestern, 29-20 — was certainly the moment that sent Michigan into a tailspin. The inability to beat a rival and getting outcoached by 1st-year Spartans coach Mel Tucker was just the icing on the cake for Harbaugh, whose Wolverines are waiting to get blown out by Ohio State during the season finale.
This past Saturday, Penn State became the first winless team — that had played at least 5 games — to notch a victory against Michigan at The Big House.
This year is among the worst in program history, bordering on Brady Hoke/Rich Rodriguez levels of bad. You have to go back to 1967 to see such struggles from the Wolverines, actually; it has been that long since they’ve been this ineffective and inept.
If Michigan doesn’t beat Maryland, they will be the first UM team to go winless at home since 1883.
There is no question that losing to Michigan State set the wheels in motion for the Wolverines to have a forgettable season. Blunders have been par for the course in 2020, and it’s on Harbaugh to do something about it while he’s still in control of the program.