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COLUMBUS, Ohio – For all the bluster and consternation, all the viral comments and bizarre indulgences, Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan remains college football’s annual $7 million tease. There’s a distinct pattern that’s unfurled over his four years – optimism, followed by empirical evidence that derives hope and then persistent failure when the games matter the most. There’s all thunder and no delivery for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, all chirping and no championships.
For the fourth consecutive year, Michigan fell to Ohio State under Harbaugh. And this one hurts the most, as Michigan’s College Football Playoff hopes, Big Ten title aspirations and the general self-esteem of the program all disappeared via blunt force. The final – Ohio State 62, Michigan 39 – is a result that will bore deep into the soul of the Michigan fan base. It’s the most points Michigan has yielded in regulation in program history, worse than the 58 points they gave up to Cornell in 1891.
And while no one will declare Harbaugh an overall flop considering how uninspiring his predecessors were, it’s fair to wonder if he couldn’t take Michigan to the top of this dreadful rendition of the Big Ten – against this vulnerable and shaken version of Ohio State – when will he be able to lead Michigan to its first Big Ten title since 2004? Or will he stick around to keep trying? His track record involves wearing out his welcome and dashing to the next destination, which has to look much more appealing after today.
In the lexicon of defining Harbaugh losses to Ohio State, this a different caliber of disaster than Michigan’s double-overtime implosion here two years ago, one that Harbaugh fueled with a foolish sideline penalty. On the tasting menu of soul-crushing Harbaugh defeats, this will be remembered as the Great Surrender, the worst defensive performance against Ohio State in the 115 meetings between the schools.
Harbaugh grew up in this rivalry, played in it and now has found himself on the business side it for four consecutive seasons. Michigan finishes 10-2, achingly close to the relevancy Wolverine fans so desperately crave but still seemingly miles away from college football’s rarest air.
It’s not just that Michigan lost at Ohio Stadium on Saturday. After all, the Wolverines are accustomed to losing to Ohio State, a streak that encompasses seven straight Buckeye victories and 14 of the past 15 games. It’s just the distinct feeling that Michigan barely put up a fight – as Ohio State left them behind on crossing patterns, stuffed at the line of scrimmage and generally looking like a MAC school invited in for a $1.3 million September flogging.
This Michigan faceplant will be recalled as a wholesale and systemic failure, a debacle in all three phases. Favored by four points after a so-called Revenge Tour designed to eradicate ghosts, Michigan will be haunted by this loss for a long time. The final score surely indicates domination. But it doesn’t account for the overall tenor, which was actually significantly worse. Harbaugh was brief in his post-game news conference but did offer up a rare moment of accountability: “When things go good, things go great, then good. If it doesn’t, then you take responsibility for it.”
The entire fourth quarter was an Ohio State dance party, a cathartic celebration of a spot in the Big Ten title game and the most improbable 11-1 season in college football history. (They’ll face Northwestern on Saturday in Indianapolis, and this game will become a referendum on whether one dominating performance can erase a season filled with erratic ones in the eyes of the College Football Playoff committee.)
Michigan’s top-ranked pass defense got shredded for 318 by Dwayne Haskins, as Ohio State marched unimpeded up and down the field for 567 total yards. Michigan had given up seven touchdown passes all season and yielded five to Haskins today. Michigan’s defense left the press box filled with callouses attempting to figure out the depths of their historic ineptitude. But they also struggled mightily in the other phases.
The game’s biggest play came on a Michigan special teams disaster, as Ohio State hero du jour Chris Olave burst up the middle to block a punt that was returned 33 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Michigan’s offense proved a sputtering mess of dropped passes, uninspired play calling and quarterback Shea Patterson melting down under pressure in a manner he flashed during his brief and underwhelming tenure at Ole Miss. (He left the game with an injury in the second half.)
This game will be judged through the prism of how poorly Ohio State had played this season, which is how they ended up a four-point underdog in the first place. Ohio State did nothing easy this year, until today. They wheezed past the flotsam and jetsam of the Big Ten – Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska. They got sledgehammered by Purdue, 49-20, in a game that didn’t feel that close. And they needed a flurry of near-miracles to beat a dreadful Maryland team in College Park in overtime last week.
But somehow, facing their best opponent of the season, Ohio State pushed around, ran past and generally eviscerated Michigan. This could have been much worse, as Ohio State handed Michigan a touchdown on a special teams gaffe by Demario McCall late in the second quarter and twice settled for field goals inside the 5-yard line experimenting with backup quarterback Tate Martell. They also committed 12 penalties for 150 yards.
Ohio State’s defense didn’t transform itself on Saturday, but it limited big plays and provided just enough resistance to allow the Buckeyes offense to keep scoring. A sack by linebacker Malik Harrison on the first possession – a three-and-out – set the tone. And a defense on track to be the worst in school history figured out a way to force key turnovers, slow down tailback Karan Higdon and hold Michigan to just four yards per average rush. By the end of a physical game, Michigan was without star linebacker Devin Bush, who left with what appeared to be a serious injury.
Ohio State led 24-19 at halftime, a cushion that should have been much greater if not for a furious final 3:18 that saw 24 total points. Michigan trailed 21-6 with three minutes remaining in the half and the gray specter of doom that hung over the stadium provided a fitting metaphor for the feeling on the Michigan sideline.
The Wolverines had been torched all half, despite entering the game with the country’s No. 1 pass defense. That didn’t faze quarterback Haskins and coordinator Ryan Day, who put together an aggressive gameplan that sneered at Michigan’s statistical dominance in the secondary. Haskins finished the first half with 222 yards passing, which is nearly 100 yards more than Michigan was yielding per game.
Day is familiar with Michigan coordinator Don Brown, as he played against him as a quarterback at UNH, worked with him as coordinators at Boston College and crossed paths with him across the sideline at least a half-dozen other times.
Day called a consistent bevy of crossing patterns early to loosen up the Michigan defense, hitting Ohio State’s streaking wide receivers – Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill – for early gashes. That set up the game’s surprise hero – freshman receiver Olave, who entered the game with five catches and snagged two first-half touchdown catches. The first came on a crossing pattern – what else? – that smoked senior corner Brandon Watson. The second also came with Olave dusting Watson, but it was more of a fly route down the sideline.
By the end, Watson’s flubs became a footnote in what will be remembered as a complete systemic failure by Michigan. With an ideal opportunity to reverse fortunes against their archrivals, Michigan instead sent many to the thesaurus looking for synonyms for failure. And the Harbaugh era has flailed so famously in big games that Ohio State fans have begun to embrace him as a non-rival. In the fourth quarter, a sign appeared in the stands begging for him to never leave Ann Arbor – “Jim Harbaugh Forever!” – the ultimate indignity on a day filled with them.
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