The reality has hit across Wolverine land. Michigan’s head man, Jim Harbaugh, it turns out, is a football coach, not a savior. Yeah, yeah, yeah, a coach who brought San Francisco to three straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance.
Also the same coach who went 8-8 his fourth year with the 49ers. The guy who marched Stanford from putrid to 12-1 before he left for the pros, and the guy who left before we found out the rest of that story.
Would Harbaugh have hitched up his khakis and kept Stanford on high ground as his successor, David Shaw, has done? Michigan fans might eventually find out.
This month has been the reality check. For awhile, Michigan at Penn State, Oct. 21, under the lights in Happy Valley, looked to be as big as it gets in college football. ESPN had the date circled. The network is still coming for College GameDay. No. 2 hosting No. 19 just isn’t quite so sexy, even if the stakes for both programs remain mammoth.
Scoring 10 points in a loss to Michigan State two weeks ago at home — the same Michigan State that gave up 38 in a loss to Notre Dame two weeks before in East Lansing, Mich. — told us Michigan isn’t playing with the big boys right now. Seeing OT attached to Michigan’s win last week over Indiana reinforced it.
Harbaugh always has a way of saying interesting things, and a team-record 16 penalties against Indiana made him say, “I tell my 6-year-old not to spill the milk. And, gosh darn, the next thing that happens is spilled milk. ‘No penalties, no penalties.’ Try to coach them how to not get the penalties, and we’re getting penalties.”
When Harbaugh showed up at Ann Arbor, it was easy to think how he and that guy in Columbus would be the top tier in the Big Ten East, and James Franklin, trying to dig out in State College, would fight for next-best with Michigan State in the loaded division. Certainly last season’s final — Michigan 49, Penn State 10 — lined up with all that, before life changed in a hurry.
Here we are, and it’s all scrambled. Surviving a trip to Iowa is another Big Ten crucible, and Michigan couldn’t do it last season, costing the Wolverines their playoff spot. This year, Penn State did — another leg up. Don’t think Michigan folks didn’t notice that.
It was unrealistic, maybe, to think the Wolverines could lose a school-record 11 NFL draftees, most of any school in 2017, and just keep on keeping on. (Yes, Alabama lost 10, and Miami lost nine, and both are undefeated, but still …) Two Wolverines first-rounders and four third-rounders add up to six of the top 105 players. Three secondary starters and two defensive ends among those first six suggested major holes to fill.
Those defensive holes aren’t the reason Michigan has taken a step back. The Wolverines top the Big Ten in total defense and passing defense. Harbaugh naturally professed his happiness with all the punts they’ve forced, the three-and-outs.
They are 11th, however, in passing offense. And next-to-last in penalty yards. (Strangely, it’s Ohio State that has produced the most penalty yards).
It’s unrealistic to think that just because a man comes in from the pros, he would have the Wolverines always a step ahead scheme-wise. The game isn’t like that. Especially the college game.
Right now, it’s Penn State’s Joe Moorhead who has the nation looking at his schemes. It’s Saquon Barkley who has turned out to be special. It’s Trace McSorley who leads the conference in passing yards. It’s Franklin who has soared past early expectations since that 49-10 mess.
Now, it’s Harbaugh’s squad, which delights in playing old-school football, that needs the big win, whether it’s Saturday night, or Nov. 18 at Wisconsin, or especially the following weekend against hated Ohio State at home.
“Let’s have at it — let’s get better each day,’’ Harbaugh said at his weekly news conference, sounding every bit like a coach who knows the cycles can come and go quickly. “Rarely do you get to perfection. But we want to be excellent, that’s where our goals are.”
The man in Ann Arbor may not be a savior, but he’s getting savior money — $9 million a year, most in college football, better than Alabama Nick Saban money — and it’s exactly for nights like Saturday in Beaver Stadium.