Michigan's opening dud feels like the beginning of the end for Jim Harbaugh

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jim Harbaugh was hired, at great cost and with towering fanfare, to bring back the bygone days of Michigan football.

He’s done it. Just not the way anyone envisioned.

After the latest offensive debacle — another Harbaughcle, if you will — the Wolverines have their first four-game losing streak since the Rich Rodriguez Era and the 2009 season. Nobody in maize and blue has ever wanted to put Harbaugh and Rich-Rod in the same sentence, yet here we are.

You might have thought Brady Hoke Era was bad, and you’d be right — but at least Hoke never lost four in a row. Harbaugh now has.

Michigan ended the 2017 season being handled by Wisconsin and Ohio State, and upset in the Outback Bowl by South Carolina. Now it has begun the 2018 season with a puny performance against Notre Dame, losing 24-17 Saturday night.

Afterward, Harbaugh characterized it thusly: “It’s a beginning for us. We’re not treating it like the end.”

It feels like the beginning of the end.

As it stands right now, Harbaugh is too big for his khaki britches. Huge salary, lots of posturing, dwindling returns. Take spring practice to Rome and satellite camps to Florida; have sleepovers with recruits; withhold rosters and depth charts like they’re classified state department documents; do all that and you’d better back it up on the field.

Instead, Harbaugh is leaking credibility.

There will be opportunities to regain it this season. In that respect, he’s right — it’s not the end. But this is trending the wrong way.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches a replay in the first half of an NCAA football game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches a replay in the first half of an NCAA football game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The fact that Michigan needed a significant reboot heading into Harbaugh’s fourth year runs counter to all the hopes and dreams when it brought the former Wolverines quarterback home to rescue the program. After winning 19 of his first 22 games at Michigan, Harbaugh had won just nine of his next 17 through the end of last season. And now 2018 begins with more of the same.

There are two common threads running through this losing streak:

* The opponents are good. The kind of opponents Michigan customarily measures itself against. The kind of opponents Michigan believes it can beat more often than not.

* The offensive production has been miserable. Average points scored in those four games: 16.5. Total offensive touchdowns scored: six.

Rushing numbers against Wisconsin: 37 attempts for 58 yards. Against Ohio State: 36 attempts for 100 yards. Against South Carolina: 33 attempts for 74 yards. Against Notre Dame: 33 attempts for 58 yards, with a long run of 10 yards. Which is nowhere near good enough. No huge holes from the line, and no backs turning nothing into something.

Those measly rushing numbers are in no small part attributable to defenses piling up on the line of scrimmage and daring Michigan’s quarterbacks to beat them throwing. It hasn’t happened. Shea Patterson was supposed to change that, but his first appearance at Michigan after gaining immediate eligibility as a transfer from Mississippi did not dramatically improve the product.

Unbelievably, Michigan’s 249 passing yards Saturday was its most in a game since November 2016. Thirty-one percent of those yards came in the final five minutes of the game, when Notre Dame was protecting a two-touchdown lead and loosened its coverage to prevent the big play.

Patterson showed some freelance ability, making plays off scramble situations late in the game. That was needed, because a good Fighting Irish defense executed some effective blitzes that kept the Wolverines’ uninspiring offensive line in retreat mode. And it certainly didn’t help to lose receiver Tarik Black to a preseason injury.

But when the Michigan plays went as scripted, they didn’t go far.

In the first half, Harbaugh’s offense produced one play of double-digit yardage — a 12-yard pass. The play calling contributed to that. Michigan’s first nine plays were eight runs and one bubble screen, and by the time the Wolverines got the ball for the second time they were down two touchdowns.

That’s because Notre Dame came out with all the verve and daring that Michigan lacked. The Irish opened at a breakneck pace, ripping off seven snaps in the first 85 seconds, and throwing the ball deep against press coverage numerous times. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, beginning his second season as a starter, was much improved — and coach Brian Kelly’s confidence in him showed in the gameplan.

Michigan, meanwhile, opened the game as if Patterson was a true freshman, not a guy who had played two seasons in the Southeastern Conference. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton certainly didn’t win over any of his legion of doubters with the opening script. The Wolverines simply didn’t appear ready to come out swinging.

They did uncork a bomb early in the second half, and it worked for a 52-yard gain. But Michigan never found a way to consistently knock Notre Dame’s defense back on its heels, never kept it guessing, never established much momentum.

This is, of course, the risk of opening the season against a high-powered opponent. There is no wading into these games, the way a lot of other teams do.

The flip side is that a seven-point road loss (albeit with some late window dressing) to a ranked team is likely forgivable by the College Football Playoff selection committee if Michigan can enter that discussion. To do that, though, it may have to beat Wisconsin at least once, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State — teams that all beat the Wolverines last season.

Michigan will have to improve dramatically to beat any of those teams. Thing is, some of that improvement was supposed to be evident in this opening game.

Instead, it was more of the stumbling same. Another loss, now four in a row. Move over Rich-Rod, Jim Harbaugh has come home to keep you company.

The one-time savior says this is a beginning and not the end. But it could be the beginning of the end for one of the most celebrated hires in recent college football history.

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