Both the Michigan State and Michigan football teams entered last weekend with something to prove – and one of them proved it.
The Michigan State Spartans entered the season with another stout defense, and an uncertain offense – same as they had last year. They suffered an embarrassing loss in their third week against Arizona State. Down 10-7 late in the game, the Spartans’ kicker seemed to tie the game with a last-minute field goal. But they were called for having too many men on the field – just about the dumbest penalty you can take. On the do-over, the kick went wide, and the Spartans lost.
The loss also confirmed fans’ fears that Michigan State’s offense was just as bad as last year’s, which was one of the nation’s worst. Head coach Mark Dantonio had entered the weekend tied with Duffy Daugherty with 109 wins at Michigan State, the most in school history, but it was not clear where he might get the 110th– especially with Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State filling their October schedule.
But when the Spartans traveled to Northwestern, they surprised everyone by scoring 31 points, good for a convincing win and a new record for Dantonio. That’s no small feat when the previous record holders won national titles. Now the Spartans are favored against Indiana this weekend.
While the Spartans’ prospects suddenly looked brighter, the Wolverines’ took a turn for the worse – and dramatically so. Michigan started the season ranked 7th, with plenty of talented players and strong coaches returning. But after two wobbly wins to start the season, including a double-overtime squeaker against Army, the Wolverines looked to make a statement against 13th-ranked Wisconsin.
They did, but not the one they were hoping to make. Instead of brandishing their status as a potential national contender, the Wolverines all but took themselves out of the national title race in just one game. The game was basically over when Michigan fell behind 21-0 in the first half, before finally falling 35-14.
And the score wasn’t the worst statistic Michigan compiled that weekend. On third downs, the Wolverines went 0-for-10. Wisconsin rushed for 359 yards. Michigan rushed for 40, with their back-up quarterback leading the pack with a 17-yard scamper. And so on. If Michigan fans needed to mow their lawns, they couldn’t have picked a better time than noon on Saturday.
You could argue that Michigan’s statistics were eclipsed by what fans saw: a team that looked disorganized, and often disinterested. Both lines got pushed around, and the offense – under new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis – is still grinding its gears, seemingly unclear about what direction it’s trying to go. It’s not just the play calling but the execution, and the failure to run an up-tempo offense on a consistent basis – the very thing Gattis was hired to provide.
The steamrolling naturally sent the national critics howling and Michigan fans into the fetal position, convinced their team would fail to win the Big Ten for a school-record 15thyear in a row. It also prompted a sizeable chunk of the Michigan fanbase to wonder if coach Jim Harbaugh would be able to return his alma mater to the promised land, as everyone had expected him to do when he came back five years ago.
Good coaches aren’t in the habit of fooling themselves, nor making excuses. Immediately after the dispiriting loss, Harbaugh indulged in neither when he said they had been “Outprepared, outworked, and outcoached.” That all sounded about right.
So, what next?
Can Harbaugh pull his team together in time to save the season? This weekend’s game against lowly Rutgers shouldn’t be much of a test – the perfect chance for Michigan to put together a clean offensive attack for the first time since Gattis arrived. Then Michigan then faces a ranked Iowa team, followed by four more ranked teams this season – including Michigan State.
Harbaugh’s back is against the wall, but if you study his history, you’ll see that’s when he typically does his best work: when the chips are down, the critics are loud, and he has to rely on fundamentals to get out of the jam – the same way they did in 2018, to ride a ten-game winning streak after three straight losses.
After a come-to-Jesus meeting at Schembechler Hall this week, you’d expect Michigan to attack Rutgers “with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” But fixing the offense will require more than determination. They will have to do some sorting out to make it work – and if it doesn’t, they’ll have to make some tough decisions going forward.
Whether Harbaugh can do all that now, and bring his team with him, will be determined in the next few weeks. But it’s worth noting he’s never failed anywhere, so it’s hard to imagine he’d fall short at the very job he cares the most about.
The Spartans will be watching, and waiting.
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Next week I’ll be in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, and Cleveland on Thursday. For more information on those events and many others ahead, check out johnubacon.com/events/.
I’m also in ESPN’s celebration of 150 years of college football, The American Game, 11 one-hour episodes running on Tuesday nights, and The Greatest (mascots, innovations, etc.), which runs 30-minutes on Thursday nights.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!
THE DOS EQUIS COLLEGE FOOTBALL FOOTBALL COLLEGE, on which I play the “professor” teaching ten classes on the sport. And yes, there IS a final exam! 12 questions to test your knowledge — and if you get a bunch right, they send you a certificate! Enjoy — and good luck!
We have plenty of excerpts, stories, and reviews out there, too, some listed below. Two more come out this week in The Wolverine print copy and the Ann Arbor Observer.
Let’s start with the EXCERPTS:
The first excerpt, “Hard to Beat the Cheaters,” on Michigan’s approach to recruiting, appeared in Postgame.com, Yahoo sport’s longform section.
The second, on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry (derived from two chapters titled “Bad Blood” and “Cavalry’s Coming”), ran in the famed MGoBlog.com
The most recent excerpt, on the roller coaster recruiting process of five-star defensive back Daxton Hill, appeared in Sam Webb’s excellent Michigan Insider Thursday night.
INTERVIEWS AND STORIES:
REVIEWS AND STORIES
From Greg Dooley’s MVictors.com: “Punching Back.”
And even Ohio State’s top football website, Eleven Warriors:
I’ve read everything John U. Bacon has ever written and I’ve never been bored or disappointed.
Sprinkling character profiles into the storyline of Wolverines’ 2018 campaign produces a quick and captivating read – even if your position in Michigan’s football orbit is as an Ohio State fan.
Hope to see you down the road on the book tour!
Again, thanks for your support!