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Jim Harbaugh's Adjustments Got Michigan This Far, but Ohio State Demanded Something More

Jim Harbaugh did a good job this year making the necessary changes to get the Wolverines to 10 wins, but the approach that's worked all season didn't cut it against the Buckeyes.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Jim Harbaugh gave short answers, one after another, which is what he does when his team loses. But these were still the best answers Michigan had all day. Ohio State whipped Michigan, because Ohio State always whips Michigan, except when Ohio State beats Michigan in a relatively close game.

It feels like it has been this way forever. But it does not have to be this way every year, and it did not have to be this way at Ohio Stadium on Saturday. When the final score is 62–39, there is no debate about whether the better team won. The Buckeyes were a lot better, in every phase. But they were better, in part, because Urban Meyer’s program is built to win games like this, and Harbaugh’s still isn’t.

Before the game, it was easy to forget that Ohio State was 10–1. And afterward, it was easy to forget that Michigan is 10–2, and that those two losses came to undefeated Notre Dame and one-loss Ohio State. So let’s keep that 10–2 record in mind. It’s easy to focus on the two and forget the 10.

Harbaugh said after this game that he is “motivated to make darn sure it doesn’t happen again.” He did not elaborate, but I will.

This is what the Wolverines did not do against Ohio State:

1. Assume, when their offense is on the field, that the offense would have to win the game.

2. Build its game plan around the principle that you want your best athletes to touch the ball as often as possible.

3. Call plays like they have to score on that possession.

This all sounds simple, because coaching football is very easy for those who don’t try to do it. But it’s not really how Michigan approached this game.

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Why? Well, probably because Michigan had a different approach all season—and for 10 straight games, it worked quite well. The Wolverines established their will, used the run to set up the pass, and trusted their defense to win the game.

This was not the day for that. Ohio State shredded Michigan’s defense. There are probably a variety of reasons for that—OSU quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. is a star, Michigan’s interior pass rush was neutralized, the Buckeyes have elite speed and they take advantage of it.

But also: What happened to Michigan happens to everybody in college football at some point these days. The era favors offenses. Nick Saban is one of the best defensive coaches in history, coaching one of the great dynasties ever, and in two national championship games against Clemson, Alabama gave up 1,061 yards. This isn’t 1971 or even 2001. Nobody shuts down every team.

When your defense gets shredded, you have to adjust. And anybody who watched Ohio State’s defense this year knows that it is shred-able, too. Michigan had the weapons to do it. But those weapons were hidden for too long at Ohio Stadium.

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It was clear by halftime that Michigan needed to spread the field more and shift its focus to the passing game. This was just one of those afternoons, and Michigan has the talent to do it. Receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins can get open and pick up big yards against almost anybody.

The next time the Wolverines even attempted a pass to one of them, Ohio State led 41–19.

You can say this didn’t matter, because the Michigan defense couldn’t stop a run-on sentence Saturday. But that is why it mattered. This was the Wolverines’ only chance Saturday. Add Chris Evans, a speedster who is miscast as a traditional running back, and Michigan could have scored enough to stay with Ohio State. You know, like Purdue and Maryland did.

Evans said afterward that “Things didn’t go as planned.”

Harbaugh is one of the easiest targets in college football, and I suspect there will be a lot of talk about how he is all bluster, how he won’t change, how his teams choke in big games. I don’t buy any of that. He is, at his core, a grinder, a motivator and a relentless thinker. His mind is always churning.

After Michigan went 8–5 last year, Harbaugh brought in a new quarterback, Shea Patterson, and shuffled his staff. Players said he needed a new, more open approach with them, and he implemented it. This was obvious with how Michigan played all year. It was apparent again Saturday afternoon, when Patterson, who is supposedly a mercenary, could barely contain his emotion in talking about his teammates.

Harbaugh will not shy away from an honest autopsy on Ohio State 62, Michigan 39. And when he does it, he may realize that the right approach to the 2018 season turned out to be the wrong approach to the 2018 season finale.

Last offseason, Harbaugh invested a lot of time and emotional capital into rebuilding a power running game that had been dormant for years. Harbaugh hired a new offensive line coach, Ed Warinner, and he stayed committed to the running game early in the season when it didn’t appear to be working. It paid off in October and November, in dominant wins over Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. But Ohio State is a different beast.

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Collins said the game “didn’t come out as planned.” That’s a polite way to put it. So now what?

You can expect almost everything to be under consideration at Michigan for next season. Patterson is a good college quarterback, an upgrade over Michigan’s last few quarterbacks, but he is not a great one. If Patterson returns to Michigan, talented backups Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton deserve a chance to compete for his job.

Again: 10–2 is very good, even with a finale like this. Harbaugh took over a program that had gotten soft, and he transformed it. The challenge now is to tweak it—to maintain the toughness and relentlessness while making the offense more potent. Harbaugh has unleashed powerful, innovative offenses before, with both Stanford and the 49ers. He is more than capable of doing it again, and if he thinks he needs a fresh offensive mind in the room, then he should find one.

Somebody asked Harbaugh if he knew Ohio State’s previous high score against Michigan was 50. Well, he grew up on this rivalry. He played in it. He has done his research. Of course he knew that. (“I believe I did, yes," Harbaugh said.) Harbaugh also knows that teams score 50 a lot more now than they did when he played. This Michigan offense had its moments. But it wasn’t ready for a shootout.

After this game, several Michigan players said that “you come to Michigan to play in games like this,” which is true, but also why this will sting them so much. Harbaugh is now 0–4 against the Buckeyes, a stat that will be repeated roughly 40 million times between now and next November.

That’s college football. Harbaugh understands it as well as anybody. But Michigan has gone 10–3, 10–3, 8–5 and now 10–2 under Harbaugh. This is not a broken program. It’s just not on Ohio State’s level. Not yet. And Michigan won’t get there until it can win games like this.