The whole Jim Harbaugh Mania thing was fun.
So was that crazy shut-out streak.
But after back-to-back letdowns, with the most recent being Saturday night’s 29-26 victory at Minnesota, it’s painfully clear that Michigan–despite what overzealous pundits thought after its 5-1 start–has a long way to go before contending for more than a Big Ten East Division championship.
Michigan’s No. 1-ranked total defense gave up a season-high 461 yards to the Gophers, who weren’t scared to gamble on do-or-die with two seconds to play. That goal-line move proved fatal, but it still said something about the Wolverines.
Teams aren’t scared, intimidated or otherwise.
Michigan State was ready to play until the end. Minnesota, following the resignation of former coach Jerry Kill, was more than ready to go four quarters, too. Conversely, Michigan hasn’t been well prepared since its 38-0 homecoming win over Northwestern.
There is no need to panic, but things are getting serious.
The Wolverines can’t afford another loss before hosting Ohio State at the end of the season–not if they want that fairy-tale ending. Prior to the season, beat writers and analysts pegged Michigan as a 7-5/8-4 team. After slamming BYU, 31-0, that prediction was rightfully moved a bit closer to 9-3.
The wild ones said 10-2.
Yes, it’s back to reality for the Wolverines, who would have lost in Minneapolis if Gophers interim coach Tracy Claeys practiced better clock management. Conversely, Michigan would have beaten Michigan State by doing the same in the fourth quarter.
It’s beyond time for Michigan to tighten up on all fronts. Saturday night proved that.
It used to be something tossed around for fun. Always in a sarcastic tone, of course, but it was a somewhat serious discussion: Eventually Jabrill Peppers was going to do everything for Michigan.
Sadly, that looks like it could be the case, which isn’t necessarily a great thing for a team in need of major assistance. All the 40-yard punt and kick returns in the world won’t cure what ails the Wolverines, who are in need of something extra on offense.
Running back is a weakness for the Wolverines. Drake Johnson, the fastest ball-carrier, had a team-high 55 yards versus the Gophers. Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith combined for 19 yards. Smith had 15 of them.
But that’s why Michigan is starting to use Peppers out the backfield, right? That’s why he’s running sweeps and reverses, right?
But he’s one guy. And at the end of the day, Michigan won’t advance without a steady quarterback-ran offense.
The gadgety stuff adds a great dynamic–and it’s fun to watch–but it’s not the bread and butter of Michigan football.
Saturday’s forced attempts illustrated that point quite well. They weren’t natural. They were last gasps.
Early in the fourth quarter Saturday night, starting quarterback Jake Rudock was sandwiched by two Gophers–one high, one low. After severely twisting his neck and torso, the fifth-year senior was removed from the game and evaluated by team physicians.
Moments later, he returned to the sidelines to throw a few balls. But at that point, the Wolverines staff had already opted for redshirt freshman Wilton Speight, who had difficulties against an aggressive Gophers defense. Keep in mind, he had never played. He was rusty and needed some reps.
So what’d Harbaugh do?
He threw Peppers into the Wildcat, one of the most unlikely formations for a heavy pro-style coach. It was an obvious Band-Aid move that said a lot about Peppers, but it didn’t say a whole lot for quarterbacks not named Jake Rudock.
With each passing week, it’s plain to see the Wolverines’ big plan for the 6’1,” 205-pound safety-by-trade. He’ll do what’s needed, when needed, just like he had done Saturday night vs. Minnesota.
But he can’t be the sole option–especially if Rudock misses an extended period of time. Peppers can do some things, but he can’t save the team.
Luckily, he doesn’t have to do that.
Well, not at quarterback, anyway. That’s why Harbaugh has Speight, whose 12-yard touchdown pass to Jehu Chesson with 4:57 remaining actually ended up deciding the game. Who, other than Speight, saw that one coming?
Prior to Saturday, Michigan had publicly referred to Shane Morris, a junior, as the No. 2 quarterback.
Anything or anyone suggesting otherwise was always shot down, dismissed or pushed aside.
On Monday, Harbaugh will likely face plenty of questions he’s used to dancing around. What about the ineffective backfield? What about the so-so secret backup QB situation? What about the apparent recent regression of the O-line?
Those ones can’t be answered with funny stories or references to the Lion King. No line about worms with machine guns will explain the past two weeks of “almost” play.
The honeymoon is officially over.