Michigan football falls to Michigan State in the worst loss of Jim Harbaugh era

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read

Michigan football just suffered the worst loss of the Jim Harbaugh era.

And at the hands of a hated rival.

Favored by over three touchdowns, the Wolverines lost to Michigan State, 27-24, on Saturday afternoon. And the loss pumped the brakes on expectations for this Michigan team after last week's impressive win at Minnesota.

There were miscues in all three phases of the game, and the Wolverines seemed to play tight and nervously on both offense and defense despite entering the game as a heavy favorite. The horrific loss swings the pendulum of the rivalry back in favor of the Spartans and first-year coach Mel Tucker.

Here are several takeaways from Michigan's loss:

What now for Jim Harbaugh?

For the most part, Harbaugh has won the games he was supposed to win, and lost the games he was supposed to lose. For all of Michigan's woes against Ohio State, it did appear as if the Wolverines had complete control of the in-state matchup after the past two games. But in Tucker's rivalry debut, the Spartans flipped that notion upside down. Michigan State played hungry. It played loose. It didn't make nearly as many mistakes as it did against Rutgers last week. Credit Tucker, his staff and his players for executing and making more winning plays.

But this loss is also on Harbaugh. Michigan's offense looked flat and was erratic all game long. The defense was victimized on the same downfield shots for all four quarters and couldn't guard a true freshman receiver. Then it gave up a 92-yard touchdown drive to seal the game, with Michigan State scoring on a screen play — the same type of screen that has killed past Michigan teams in this rivalry. There's no excuse for how the Wolverines played. And while Harbaugh deserved praise for last week's win, he deserves even more scrutiny for Saturday's loss. The Wolverines lost a game that they shouldn't have — and to one of their biggest rivals. This is Year Six of the Harbaugh era — and Michigan is heading the wrong direction.

Secondary exposed

Everyone wondered how the Wolverines' two new starting cornerbacks would acquit themselves this season, and for the most part, they passed the test against the Gophers. But they were targeted downfield time after time by the Spartans. Freshman receiver Ricky White had eight catches for 196 yards and one touchdown. It didn't matter who covered White — and the Wolverines certainly tried every option, even lifting starting cornerback Vincent Gray in the second half for backup Jalen Perry. Still, White continued to make plays, including a twisting, diving grab that set Michigan State up at Michigan's 3 during the Spartans' final touchdown drive that essentially sealed the game. Michigan State's coaches clearly had a game plan to attack the Wolverines' young corners — and it paid off several times.

Offense stalls out

Michigan's offense gained yardage, but it wasn't nearly as efficient as it was last Saturday. The Wolverines put themselves behind schedule with ineffective runs up the middle that consistently lost yardage. At one point, they faced an average of 9.4 yards to go on third downs. The run game that was so effective against the Gophers was shut down against Michigan State's front, which stunted and blitzed linebackers. That put the onus on Joe Milton and the passing game to convert downfield — and for the most part, they couldn't. Milton fired throws into coverage and was lucky he was not intercepted. He also threw errant passes behind, above and in front of his receivers and seemed to lack pocket presence. The Wolverines were able to ease the first-year starter into last week's game with a series of screens and short throws because of the success of the run game. But that all went away Saturday — and the offense slogged its way to just 24 points against a defense that had plenty to improve upon after last week's loss to Rutgers. Even the final touchdown took way too much time off the clock, as the offense dinked and dunked its way up the field down 10 points draining 4:34 off the clock.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football falls to Michigan State in worst loss of Jim Harbaugh era