Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh wants to re-evaluate everything: Here's where to start

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Jim Harbaugh had a consistent message after Michigan football's 49-11 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday night.

The Wolverines (1-3), Harbaugh said, needed a wholesale evaluation after their worst start since 1967 and a three-game losing streak. From his perspective, every single aspect of the program needed to be reexamined in order to figure out how to turn things around.

[ Why an 'energized' Harbaugh still has faith in Michigan amid 3-game losing streak ]

Judging from Harbaugh's comments Monday, that process has already begun.

But what particular areas or groups will Michigan reevaluate? There are several that stand out:

Michigan Wolverines' Ronnie Bell, left, makes the tackle on Wisconsin's Scott Nelson, after an interception on Joe Milton (5) in the first quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.
Michigan Wolverines' Ronnie Bell, left, makes the tackle on Wisconsin's Scott Nelson, after an interception on Joe Milton (5) in the first quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.

Quarterback job open again

The biggest indication that Harbaugh meant what he said Saturday night: The re-opening of Michigan's quarterback competition between Joe Milton and Cade McNamara.

“We’re gonna open it up," Harbaugh said Monday. "Both will see action with the ones throughout the week.”

FROM SATURDAY: Michigan turns to QB Cade McNamara and watches him score immediately

Milton, the starter entering the season who showed flashes of promise through the first three games, has not been the biggest problem with the offense. The offense's major struggles on early downs often forced Milton into long and difficult passing downs. Meanwhile, he was without his two starting offensive tackles against Indiana and Wisconsin and is throwing to a group of talented but inexperienced receivers.

But there is no denying Milton took a significant step backwards in Saturday's blowout loss. He completed just 9-of-19 passes for 98 yards and two interceptions. While his first interception was not his fault, the second definitely was, as Milton threw directly at a Wisconsin linebacker.

FROM SEPT.: How Joe Milton could be Michigan's version of Cam Newton

The interception was a part of a worrying trend. Milton's ability to read defenses has seemingly been stagnant throughout the season. While that didn't hurt him in the first two weeks as he fit balls into tight windows and avoided any interceptions, he has now thrown four picks in his past seven quarters of football.

Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara passes against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.
Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara passes against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.

It was still somewhat of a surprise when McNamara, a redshirt freshman, took over in the third quarter for Milton. And it was an even bigger surprise that he proceeded to lead the offense with ease on a four-play, 74-yard touchdown drive, showing impressive accuracy and touch on a pair of fades while also completing a long pass on the run.

[ U-M grades: F, F, F of a performance in embarrassing loss to Wisconsin ]

It is too early to declare Milton a bust. He has had his moments. And many of the factors leading to the offensive struggles are out of his control. But, Michigan is 1-3. The Wolverines are playing for the future now. And it makes sense to see what they have in McNamara At the very least, it could light a fire under Milton and draw out a more inspired performance at Rutgers this Saturday.

Figuring it out on defense

Michigan's once-vaunted defense has fallen to new lows during the Harbaugh era. The Wolverines gave up 665 combined passing yards in losses to Michigan State (which made a quarterback change in its most recent game) and Indiana. U-M allowed 127 yards and two passing touchdowns to Wisconsin and Graham Mertz — but the Badgers dropped several passes and didn't need to throw downfield to move the ball. When Mertz did drop back, however, he was able to find plenty of open pass-catchers running across the field. What, exactly, is wrong with Michigan's passing defense?

FROM LAST WEEK: Michigan's CBs coach dissects, and says he can correct, struggles in pass coverage

On the surface, it seems like a combination of two factors: A drop-off in talent and unexpected attrition from injuries — and one crucial opt-out.

Before the pandemic, the Wolverines could not have anticipated losing cornerback Ambry Thomas. But he opted out this fall due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, leaving Michigan without its No. 1 cornerback.

This revealed a rather large crack in Michigan's defense and roster composition. The Wolverines have not recruited the cornerback position as well as they did in Harbaugh's first two full recruiting cycles, when U-M landed Lavert Hill, David Long and Thomas — the three best (and most athletic) cornerbacks Harbaugh has signed at Michigan. Those types of players are needed to successfully run the press-man coverage that defensive coordinator Don Brown prefers. But the Wolverines don't have cornerbacks of that caliber right now. And it has showed, against players like Michigan State's Ricky White (eight catches, 196 yards, one touchdown) and Indiana's Ty Fryfogle (seven catches, 142 yards, one touchdown).

Michigan Wolverines' Brad Hawkins celebrates a tackle vs. Wisconsin during the first quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Nov. 14, 2020.
Michigan Wolverines' Brad Hawkins celebrates a tackle vs. Wisconsin during the first quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Nov. 14, 2020.

Injuries, meanwhile, have completely blunted the pass rush, knocking out Aidan Hutchinson for the season and Kwity Paye for an undisclosed period of time. Their teammates have not shown a consistent ability to win one-on-one matchups and get to the opposing quarterback. That means the secondary must hold up in coverage longer than in previous years, when Michigan had players like Chase Winovich or Josh Uche.

The Wolverines have tried different schemes, playing more zone coverage and giving extra safety help deep. But the pass defense is still a mess. Players are struggling in coverage or out of position. Against Wisconsin, the linebackers in particular were picked on, as Cam McGrone and Josh Ross struggled in coverage.

BIG TEN WINNERS, LOSERS: After crushing loss, Michigan among the biggest losers

The one option Michigan has yet to touch: Going deeper into their bench. Aside from when starters have been injured, the Wolverines have seemed reluctant to try new faces at key position groups.

Regardless of who is in the game, any potential turnaround boils down to better execution.

"That’s what it comes down to," said safety Daxton Hill on Monday. "You’re gonna have the one-on-one matchups and just winning every rep of your one-on-one battle. So that’s what we need to do more of."

Helping out the QB

According to Pro Football Focus, Milton finished with a 49.9 overall grade Saturday — third-lowest on the offense. But, just like against MSU and Indiana, the rest of the offense wasn't much of a help to Milton. His first throw should've been caught for a first down. Instead, it was intercepted. By the time Milton took the field for his third possession, U-M was already trailing, 14-0. That type of early deficit removes a lot of what an offense can do, and just like against Indiana, the Wolverines abandoned the run game. The running backs combined for 11 carries for 32 yards. Milton (and later McNamara) had to pass over and over again, and the Badgers knew it was coming: Michigan's average distance to gain on third down was 9.1 yards, mirroring MSU (8.9 yards) and Indiana (9.2). Few quarterbacks are going to succeed consistently in those situations.

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An improvement in the run game might help the offense with more manageable third downs. And there could be less pressure if Michigan doesn't immediately find itself in a hole, as it has every game this season — the Wolverines have ceded the opening touchdown in all four contests and have not led in a game since the opening week.

Michigan Wolverines running back Zach Charbonnet is tackled by Wisconsin Badgers defenders during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Nov. 14, 2020.
Michigan Wolverines running back Zach Charbonnet is tackled by Wisconsin Badgers defenders during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Nov. 14, 2020.

A lot has changed since that day. Right now, Michigan could not look any more different compared to the team that confidently beat Minnesota, 49-24, to start the season. And as Harbaugh said after the most recent loss, it'll be upon him and his staff to figure out what has gone wrong the past three weeks — a task that he has "been anticipating" ever since the end of Saturday's game.

“I want to lead them," Harbaugh said Monday. "I want them to hear my voice and understand what the objectives are gonna be each and every day. Eventually that’s going to be Saturday, winning that football game.

"See if we can do it better than we did the week before, every day, every meeting, every practice. We’ll be on the field today, already had a workout, really good. Striving to make those the best of the year.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh wants to re-evaluate: Where to start