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Michigan Stumbles in South Bend

After a few low years, the Big Ten has been riding high. Last year, seven Big Ten schools won their bowl games, with only Michigan on the losing side.

Going into this season, five Big Ten teams were ranked in the nation’s top 14, with four from the Big Ten’s East Division alone: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan.

But, as Michigan’s Bo Schembechler liked to say, “A pre-season ranking just means you haven’t done a damn thing yet.”

The season’s first weekend seemed to vindicate him. Even without Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer serving a three-game suspension, the Buckeyes blew out Oregon State, 77-31. But Michigan State struggled to shake a mediocre Utah State team, and Penn State had to come from behind to beat Appalachian State in overtime.

Yes, Appalachian State is the same team that pulled off possibly the greatest upset in football history against Michigan in 2007. Why any school invites Appalachian State to play their home opener is a mystery to me.

But the marquee game pitted 14th-ranked Michigan against 12th-ranked Notre Dame. The rematch received more hype than any since the series resumed in 1978, which was the rivalry’s first match-up in 35 years. ESPN’s College Football Game Day decided to open their season in South Bend for a reason.

The Wolverines are led by star quarterback Shea Patterson, who transferred from Mississippi, and they have one of the nation’s best defenses. Some national pundits even predicted Michigan would win the national title.

A week ago, I said if Michigan’s defense could hold off Notre Dame for the first quarter, Michigan’s offense would settle in and score some points.

And that’s exactly what didn’t happen. On Notre Dame’s first two possessions, the Fighting Irish cut through Michigan’s defense like a hot knife through butter to go up 14-0 in the first seven minutes. In the second half, Michigan’s defense allowed only one field goal, but since the offense and special teams could put up only 17 points all game, it wasn’t enough. The Wolverines went down, 24-17.

The loss sent many Michigan fans into a tailspin, convinced this team is no better than last year’s, and fearful that they will never get back to the promised land.

That’s the nature of college football fans, who tend to have much more passion than perspective. When a team wins a close game, all their fans talk about is what their team did right. When the team loses a close, all the fans talk about is what their team did wrong.

But the old coaching maxim still holds: you’re never as good as you think you are, and you’re never as bad.

True, the Wolverines could have played better, especially the first seven minutes.  But they actually gained more yards than the Irish – a little stat that could win you some bar bets. Almost everything Michigan got wrong can be readily fixed – and my guess is the coaching staff will fix it.

Bo often said teams improve most from the first game to the second game – and once again, he was right.

Since Michigan and Notre Dame resumed the series in 1978, Notre Dame has won 17, and Michigan 16 – about as close as it gets. But after six of Michigan’s losses to Notre Dame, the Wolverines went on to win the Big Ten title anyway.

The way Ohio State is playing, the Wolverines are long-shots to win the Big Ten this year. But then, they were long shots after those six losses to Notre Dame, too.

There are a lot of games left. In fact, almost all of them.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their full name. 

My latest book, “The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts,” is on its second printing.

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.

I also join Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty on her afternoon Stateside show every Monday for a few minutes, and occasionally on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the afternoon Here & Now show. Check ’em out!

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon.  42,000 followers and counting.   THANK YOU!

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9 comments Leave a comment  

  • Bill Johnson September 7, 2018 at 9:30 am

    Thanks for the calming words of wisdom as always John.

    An outsize importance is always placed on this game when it is played first and especially when fans have had to endure 9 months of waiting after a disappointing loss (or 3 disappointing losses in a row in this case). That said this fan would not trade a win over ND for a loss to OSU, MSU, PSU, or Wisconsin, and maybe not for a loss to Northwestern or Nebraska, so in that respect the game was somewhere between the 5th and 8th most important game on the schedule.

    What is more important to me, is can I see a way that this team can contend in the BT? There were two important factors for me: 1) would our QB play be elevated so as to raise our ceiling as a team? 2) would the O-line improve to be at least adequate?. I would argue that the answer to #1 is a resounding yes. and that the answer to #2 is maybe not, but still too early to tell, given the quality of the ND defense and that the fact that it was the first game.

    Thanks and Go Blue!

  • David VanderYacht September 7, 2018 at 9:55 am

    Excellent perspective. Hope what’s correctable gets done soon. Go Blue tomorrow!

  • Dave Thoits September 7, 2018 at 10:44 am

    agreed John.

    for heaven’s sake, we “won” the last 53 minutes of the game.

    and i have a gut feeling ND just might have a very good team this season.

    with no conference championship to play for, the Irish “needed” this scalp maybe more than we needed a W.

    run the table, and we’re in the Final Four.

    49 years ago, we started out 3-2. ran the table. sidetracked only at the end by GES’s heart attack.

    w or l, let’s support The Blue.

  • Eric September 7, 2018 at 1:13 pm

    I always like ready all your bodies of work. While logically I understand your point of view, sitting in South Bend last week felt like more of the same on offense. We have a QB who is mobile and it felt like he was dropping back in a pocket when they should move the pocket for him. Sorry but it felt just like last year. GO BLUE!

  • Scott L. Gibson September 7, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    John, I always enjoy your prospective and commentary. I’m trying to remain optimistic but it’s difficult when I see the same problems this year that I saw last year. (1) The inability to develop a running game. (2) An O line that can’t pick up blitzes and twists. (3) Huge problems at the left tackle and right guard. And why is it that in Harbaugh’s 4th year we continue to have these problems? (4) Our QB is too often running for his life, getting sacked or having to hurry his passes. (5) With two minutes left in the game we were, somehow, still in a position to win. However, our clock management was non-existent. Do we have a two minute drill in our playbook? Finally, what ever happened to the fire and passion we saw from Coach Harbaugh a few years back? If it’s there, I don’t see it. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t help but believe that something is seriously wrong with our football program.

  • Daniel Schuetz September 7, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    Dear Mr. Bacon:

    I respect you greatly!

    You used to coach at Huron?

    Wow! ❤️

    Mr. Bacon, do you think it is entirely possible that Michigan could go 6-6 this year? Absolutely, believe this is a worst-case scenario, but do you think it’s possible? Hope not! Does U. Stand for Ulysseus? 😃

  • Daniel Schuetz September 7, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    Dear Mr. Bacon:

    I respect you greatly!

    You used to coach at Huron?

    Wow! ❤️

    Mr. Bacon, do you think it is entirely possible that Michigan could go 6-6 this year?

    Absolutely, believe this is a worst-case scenario, but do you think it’s possible?

    Hope not!

    Does U. Stand for Ulysseus? 😃

  • Norman Hamann September 7, 2018 at 5:20 pm

    John your stories often resonate, loved the whiffle ball post a couple of weeks ago. I too remember some tough starts the 1988 team lost 17-19 to eventual National Champs Notre Dame at South Bend and I was at the comeback win by #1 Miami 30-31 the next week at home to start out 0-2 but they still won the Big Ten Championship. The difference with this team and others that started out with a loss is that the games lost were still way more compelling and fun to watch then the excruciating performance we saw Saturday. This offense is static and predictable our mobile quarterback is not only underutilized but risks injury as a sitting duck. I appreciate loyalty too but this was wretched. If Michigan loses to MSU and OSU, both places which are arguably harder then South Bend to win at on the road (for Michigan), (not to mention Wisconsin or Penn State), then we are looking at 9-3, 8-4 or gulp! 7-5? I think its great that Michigan and Notre Dame are willing to play a tough team to start the season we have watched some great games over the years. It wasn’t that we lost that was concerning it was how unprepared the Wolverine’s looked in the loss.
    Go Blue! Don’t overlook the WMU Broncos!

  • Brian Wittkop Sr September 10, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    JOHN I respect your work .your insight is mostly awesone. But on this I tend to disagree with you..but I hope you are correct


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