Disappointment of Jim Harbaugh era returns as Michigan falls to heavy underdog MSU

Rainer Sabin, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read

Free Press writer Rainer Sabin answers three questions after Michigan State football's 27-24 upset victory over Michigan on Saturday in Ann Arbor.

What does this mean for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan?

Last week, Jim Harbaugh seemed giddy following the Wolverines' victory over Minnesota while lauding his team’s crisp performance.

But on Saturday, Harbaugh looked concerned, frustrated, mad and then stunned as he watched his team commit one mistake after another before falling to the Wolverines' in-state nemesis.

Two weeks into the sixth season of his coaching tenure at Michigan, the program he leads appears to be headed nowhere fast once again. Gone is the optimism that mushroomed during the preseason and bubbled over following the win over the Golden Gophers. Now, it’s replaced with the doubt that has so often surfaced in the wake of important games the Wolverines have lost during Harbaugh’s regime.

Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor is tackled by Michigan defensive back Vincent Gray after a catch during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor is tackled by Michigan defensive back Vincent Gray after a catch during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Michigan Stadium.

Losing to a rival that Michigan was favored to beat by 24 points at one point is a terrible outcome for Harbaugh, whose future at the school is uncertain as the final year of his contract approaches in 2021.

He has yet to guide Michigan to a conference title and it appears the 2020 version of the Wolverines is not championship material. Dates with Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State loom on their schedule. So does a road trip to Indiana next week.

Michigan hoped to have an unblemished record heading into that game. Instead, it is a 1-1 team that has attracted criticism and skepticism once again. The disappointment of the Harbaugh era continues after another devastating chapter was penned Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Could Michigan State bounce back against Rutgers?

Mel Tucker is a believer in “The Process,” the philosophy that his mentor, Nick Saban, has long espoused. Don’t look at the scoreboard. Don’t dwell on the past. Don’t worry about the future. Live in the moment. Focus on the very next play. So, Tucker quickly turned the page following Michigan State’s disastrous performance in a loss to Rutgers last week that was sullied by seven turnovers. The question was whether his players could do the same.

On Saturday, the Spartans proved they could. From the outset, they looked more functional and less prone to mistakes. The defense showed more aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage while the offensive line generated the kind of push that rarely materialized against the Scarlet Knights. Without the costly giveaways, MSU offered a better glimpse at its true potential. The Spartans demonstrated that they could consistently produce stops on defense and strike their opponent with downfield throws as five of Rocky Lombardi’s 17 completions went for 30 yards or more. Instead of letting its defeat to Rutgers set the tone for its season, Michigan State wiped the slate and began anew. In essence, the Spartans lived out “The Process” during an afternoon in Ann Arbor and now Tucker appears to have become Mark Dantonio 2.0.

Was Michigan’s encouraging Week 1 victory the equivalent of fool’s gold?

Even before kickoff Saturday, before Michigan State struck first, before the Spartans left the field with a 4-point lead at halftime, before they claimed a stunning victory, there was concern the Wolverines were not as strong as they appeared to be after an impressive 25-point road victory over Minnesota in the season opener.

The Golden Gophers’ 45-44 overtime loss to Maryland on Friday night sounded the alarm bells, causing outsiders to question whether Michigan’s offensive dominance in its first game was a reflection of its potency or Minnesota’s defensive deficiencies. After all, the Terrapins averaged 10.2 yards per play a week after they scored only three points against Northwestern. Did college football’s transitive property apply to Michigan?

It appears so and even the Vegas oddsmakers, who installed Michigan as a 24.5-point favorite before Saturday, were fooled by what transpired during the Big Ten’s opening weekend. The Wolverines struggled to move the chains consistently against Michigan State, and eight of their 12 possessions ended in punts. Against an aggressive Spartans front, Michigan fell consistently behind schedule, running into third-and-long situations that proved too difficult to overcome.

On the other side, the Wolverines' secondary that held strong against Minnesota's elite receiver Rashod Bateman proved susceptible on deep passes — yielding huge gains and committing a slew of interference penalties. The optimism from the win over Minnesota has now been buried under a heap of doubt that accumulated over the course of the Wolverines' defeat to Michigan State.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh disappoints again in stunning MSU loss