One ugly win doesn't fix everything — or anything — for Michigan football

Rainer Sabin, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read

Free Press sports writer Rainer Sabin answers three questions after Michigan football defeated Rutgers, 48-42, Saturday in three overtimes in Piscataway, N.J.

What does this victory mean?

At one point this game was going to be viewed through two different lenses — one where the viewfinder revealed Joe Milton as Michigan's quarterback and another that showed Cade McNamara as his replacement. With Milton at the helm, the Wolverines appeared dysfunctional and listless. After McNamara relieved him in the second quarter, Michigan played its best football since its opener.

The entire team — not just the offense — seemed buoyed by the performance of McNamara, who was terrific as he spurred a 17-point comeback that looked as if it would rescue the Wolverines from catastrophe during a season that was already pretty disastrous.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines warms up his team before the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium on Nov, 21, 2020 in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines warms up his team before the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium on Nov, 21, 2020 in Piscataway, New Jersey.

[ Grade Michigan football's performance vs. Rutgers: Your turn to vote ]

But it took a bit longer to achieve salvation.

Michigan's defense folded in the final minutes, conceding a touchdown on fourth down and then a two-point conversion on a quarterback draw that seemed destined to fail when it launched.

That brought the game to overtime, where the Wolverines survived after a couple of close calls.

Beating Rutgers should never be seen as an achievement for Michigan, especially during the sixth year of Jim Harbaugh's tenure. But it's all about perspective and context.

The reeling Wolverines couldn't afford to lose this game and fall to 1-4. The optics attached to a defeat would have been terrible — evaporating the last bit of optimism about this season and damaging Michigan's recruiting to boot.

Now, Michigan can cling to a sliver of hope because of McNamara's heroics.

[ Michigan football survives in triple overtime at Rutgers, 48-42 ]

Should we believe anything Jim Harbaugh says?

After Michigan’s humiliating defeat to Wisconsin last Saturday, Jim Harbaugh didn’t try to present an alternate version of the miserable everyone had just witnessed. Instead he just spoke the truth — acknowledging that his team wasn’t very good while taking accountability for the Wolverines’ failures through the midpoint of a wretched season.

He then promised that everything would be evaluated and addressed in the week to come. There was hope Michigan would make some adjustments and a few bold moves as well, with Harbaugh admitting fault and dabbling in some introspection.

But nope. On Saturday, the Wolverines looked like the same ill-equipped outfit that makes curious decisions and commits stupid mistakes. For the second time in eight days, Milton was stopped on a keeper on fourth-and-short. As they have since the beginning of this year, the Wolverines relied on a rotation of running backs and peculiar substitution patterns that yielded poor results. The struggles Michigan has experienced at the outset of games also resurfaced, as the Wolverines fell behind by 17 points. The deep coverage was again suspect, as Rutgers seared Michigan’s secondary on multiple occasions. And, yes, once again Milton authored another underwhelming performance, necessitating McNamara to come off the bench in the second quarter and invigorate the offense.

Everything but the end result looked so familiar, which is why Harbaugh’s words last week amounted to empty promises. It’s hard to believe anything he says going forward.

Cade McNamara (12) of the Michigan Wolverines throws during the second quarter at SHI Stadium on November 21, 2020 in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Cade McNamara (12) of the Michigan Wolverines throws during the second quarter at SHI Stadium on November 21, 2020 in Piscataway, New Jersey.

What exactly are the coaches seeing in practice?

There was some uncertainty about whether Milton would start Saturday. Harbaugh told reporters that the competition at quarterback had reopened.

But there was Milton back behind center during the Wolverines’ opening possession. For the next 20 minutes, he led Michigan nowhere. The first five possessions resulted in no points, and Milton was unable to generate any momentum. After completing his first four pass attempts, he missed eight of his next nine.

That forced Harbaugh to pull Milton and insert McNamara for the second consecutive week.

And as he did against Wisconsin, McNamara made an immediate impact. His second pass resulted in a 46-yard touchdown reception by Cornelius Johnson that materialized because of a blown coverage.

And soon thereafter, McNamara completed nine of his next 11 attempts — showing poise while delivering the ball with accuracy. He continued to excel, finishing with five total touchdowns and a 75% completion rate.

McNamara's performance, when juxtaposed against Milton's, invites the question of what exactly the coaches are seeing in practice.

Are they capable of evaluating the players on their own roster? Do they have blind spots with certain guys? Is that why underperforming starters are rarely supplanted?

Perhaps the coaching staff needs to assess its own shortcomings before it can make the correct call with the roster.

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: One ugly win doesn't fix everything — or anything