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  • This season was supposed to be the chance for Michigan to break through under Jim Harbaugh. But just games in, that outlook looks bleak.
By Laken Litman
September 21, 2019

What a disaster.

On Saturday, Michigan attempted to prove that its first two games—ugly wins against Middle Tennessee State and Army—were a mirage. Instead, the 11th-ranked Wolverines embarrassed themselves.

No. 13 Wisconsin dominated a Michigan team that had no fight, 35–14. Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor was the star of the show, running for 203 yards on 23 carries and scoring two touchdowns. A chunk of those stats came in the opening minutes as the Heisman Trophy candidate rushed for 143 yards and two scores—while dealing with cramps—before the first quarter was over. Wisconsin looked more and more like a complete team as quarterback Jack Coan was comfortable and played smart, going 13 of 16 for 128 yards and two rushing touchdowns. The Badgers defense, currently ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten (even though this was its first conference game of the year), played fast and aggressive and totally manhandled a Michigan offense that’s still clearly searching for an identity.

Now, the Badgers deserve all the praise here. After today, it’s safe to project this team could play for the Big Ten championship at the end of the season, especially given how weak the West division is this year. But we can’t escape the perplexing issue at hand. There’s something wrong with Michigan and nobody seems to have answers. The Wolverines have talented players, including three future NFL receivers, and they have respected coaches. But Saturday, after having a bye week to prepare for this game, their performance was troubling in so many ways.

Where to begin? The defense was undisciplined—Taylor found seams easily and ran right through them. Quarterback Shea Patterson didn’t shown improvement and continued to overthrow a group of tall wide receivers. He even had an extra weapon on hand with star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who missed the first two games with an injury, ready to go, but he only hit him once. Patterson was replaced by backup Dylan McCaffrey at halftime, until McCaffrey was knocked out with a concussion.

The Michigan offensive line, which was supposed to be a strength with four of five guys being returning All-Big Ten selections, couldn’t hang with Wisconsin’s defensive front. UM couldn’t run the ball, somehow only amassing 40 yards on 2.1 yards per carry. Then there were the turnovers. Michigan had four of them, including two fumbles to bring the team total to seven lost fumbles through three games. It’s been pointed out many times by now—on social media and elsewhere—that UM only lost three last season. Then, perhaps most startling of all, was the fact that Wisconsin more than doubled the time of possession, 41 minutes and seven seconds to 18 minutes and 53 seconds.

Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

The game was basically over as soon as it started. Wisconsin converted fourth-and-1 on its own 34-yard line—Taylor ran it up the middle—two minutes in. Michigan then drew a penalty on the next play and eventually the Badgers capped a 75-yard, 11-play drive with Taylor’s first touchdown of the day. The rest of the half went like this for Michigan: fumble, punt, punt, interception. It was arguably the worst half of football for Michigan in Jim Harbaugh’s five seasons coaching his alma mater. Wisconsin led 28–0 at the break.

After the game, Harbaugh called this a “gut-check moment.”

“We were out-prepared, out-played, out-coached, the whole thing,” Harbaugh told reporters.

Michigan has now lost its last 14 games as an underdog and has only beat one ranked team on the road in the Harbaugh era (Michigan State in 2018). This year was a chance to change the narrative and win some big games. Contend for an Urban Meyer-less Big Ten title and make the College Football Playoff. Instead, just three games into the season, the outlook appears bleak.

Fans now are wondering how this is even possible and how to make sense of things. The offense was supposed to be better under new coordinator Josh Gattis, who came to Ann Arbor from Tuscaloosa. It’s not—right now, that unit is ranked 80th in the country. Earlier in the week, defensive coordinator Don Brown told reporters he was looking forward to this game because it was a chance to “finally play Michigan defense.” He said the guys were prepared, comfortable and would be able to “jump into it at a high level.” They didn’t. Wisconsin piled up 487 total yards, including 359 rushing and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

Michigan’s schedule won’t do the team any favors moving forward. Before the end of October, it will play three more ranked teams in Iowa, Penn State and Notre Dame. And that’s not even discussing the annual regular-season finale matchup against Ohio State, where first-year coach Ryan Day and transfer quarterback Justin Fields are rolling. Can Michigan figure out its problems before then?

Earlier this week, Patterson told reporters that Michigan was “looking to go out there and make a statement.” This is not what he meant.

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