The popular outlook on Michigan and head coach Jim Harbaugh is grim coming out of the 2018 season’s opening weekend. As the team with the more definitively elite defense and the higher-ceiling quarterback, the Wolverines were supposed to have the edge against rival Notre Dame in South Bend. Instead, the Fighting Irish displayed an equally dominant defense and a more comfortable quarterback who came out firing in a 24–17 win on Saturday.
Michigan is 8–8 in its last 16 games and currently on a four-game losing streak dating back to last season. It has been referenced often over the last few days that the last Wolverines coach to lose four in a row was Rich Rodriguez nine years ago. And that puts a confusingly sour taste in many Michigan fans’ mouths about the direction of the program under Harbaugh, who was hailed as a savior upon arrival and given time to instill his values into a program adrift in the Big Ten.
Playing Notre Dame for the first time in four seasons was a chance for Harbaugh to start 2018 with a much-needed signature win. Instead, he’s fallen to 1–6 against the school’s biggest rivals: Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame.
How much of the heat for Saturday’s failings should fall on the head coach? Taking the Wolverines’ problems one by one, it seems some can be fixed fast enough to change the tone of Harbaugh’s fourth year in Ann Arbor, while others signify larger issues.
A popular preseason school of thought held that all Michigan needed to be significantly better than last year was a capable, experienced quarterback, but transfer quarterback Shea Patterson was never going to be the lone savior of an offense that ranked 105th in total production last season. Patterson, who only started 10 games in two years at Ole Miss after seeing his 2017 season cut short by injury, went 20 of 30 for 227 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and a game-sealing fumble on the Wolverines’ final possession. He showed potential, but assuming he was going to light up Notre Dame’s disruptive defense was unfair. Patterson is mobile, but he’s not on the same creative level of Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield or Johnny Manziel. Still, he should improve as he grows within this offense—and if he turns down the draft next spring for a senior season, Harbaugh could have some much-needed continuity at the most important position.
What’s less certain is what’s going on with the offensive line. As part of an offensive staff shakeup this offseason, Harbaugh hired Ed Warinner, who has coached at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, to turn the unit around. But it had problems against the Irish pass rush and struggled to protect Patterson, allowing three sacks and seven tackles for loss. Meanwhile the run game managed just 58 yards on 33 carries. Jon Runyan Jr. was making his first start at left tackle—which is not an entirely acceptable excuse considering Notre Dame also had a new starter at left tackle, Liam Eichenberg, who arguably faced more relentless competition in the form of Rashan Gary. Fifth-year senior right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beaty, center Cesar Ruiz, and guards Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu didn’t do much better. The personnel is what it is for now, but if Warinner was hired to maximize the group’s abilities, Michigan can only hope Saturday night’s performance doesn’t reflect the full fruits of that effort.
The Wolverines’ offensive skill players combined to produce one play of 25 yards. No receiver finished the night with more than 66. Michigan’s only offensive touchdown came when running back Karan Higdon scored late in the fourth quarter, and the most explosive Michigan looked all night was when cornerback Ambry Thomas returned a kick 99 yards for a touchdown.
Coordinator Don Brown’s defense was supposed to be too talented to fall into a 14–0 hole in the first quarter, but that’s what happened. Notre Dame had a handful of scripted plays to start the game and executed them perfectly. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush was 6-of-9 for 114 yards and a touchdown by the end of the first quarter, answering the biggest question surrounding the Irish offense heading into the game. Michigan regrouped in the second half and held the Irish to only a field goal over the final two quarters, but it didn’t seem like a wake-up call would be necessary for a unit that proudly limited opponents to 4.5 yards per play last season and then brought almost everyone back.
What this all means in the broader picture of a season is unknown at this point. Michigan will likely get back on track next week in its home opener against Western Michigan and could win five straight games before a home test against Wisconsin on Oct. 13. From there, the Wolverines face Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State in the back half of the schedule. Saturday didn’t harm their hopes of improving upon their frustrating run of fourth-place finishes in the Big Ten East—especially after the Spartans and Nittany Lions survived upset bids in their respective openers. Make waves in the Big Ten race, and maybe some fans will forget this loss to Notre Dame ever happened (until next year’s rematch in Ann Arbor).
That’s all a best-case scenario. When Harbaugh was hired by his alma mater in 2015, he was viewed as the closest thing this generation of fans would have to Michigan’s greatest coach of all-time, Bo Schembechler, under whom Harbaugh played in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh generated buzz quickly with satellite camps that angered his SEC peers, trips to Europe for spring practices and sleepovers on recruiting trips. The perception has been all along that these attention-getting tactics ultimately would result in wins on the field, but setting aside a trip to the 2016 Orange Bowl (which Michigan lost to Florida State), regular trips to the Citrus or Outback Bowls aren’t enough return for Harbaugh’s top-five salary.
Right now Harbaugh has the most talented roster he’s had at Michigan. Gary and linebacker Devin Bush are projected first-round draft picks, while Patterson, Higdon, pass rusher Chase Winovich, defensive lineman Khaleke Hudson and cornerback Lavert Hill are expected to be selected in later rounds. They may not have shown up in Week 1, but there’s still time for everything to come together for a breakthrough season.
“Onward,” Harbaugh said Saturday night. “Just good old-fashioned resolve. There’s more we can do. This could be a very good football team. We have confidence in them.”
Harbaugh is right: This could be a very good football team. But as the season wears on, the excuses that can be brought up to explain its flat performance against Notre Dame will begin to fall away.