Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor in 2015 was greeted as the dawning of a new era.
A Michigan Man who learned at Bo Schembechler’s right hand and then turned into a Super Bowl coach, Harbaugh was touted as the perfect fit for the Wolverines’ program.
He came preaching the kind of ball-control offense and hard-hitting defenses that brought Schembechler so many wins.
After suffering a humiliating 62-39 loss at Ohio State in 2018, Harbaugh seemingly took steps to stop living in the past.
He brought in new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to install a new attack based on “speed in space.”
That’s a concept that’s been popular among the nation’s best programs for more than a decade, but which was greeted as a revolutionary idea in Ann Arbor.
Saturday, Harbaugh had a chance to make a statement and change the national perception of his program.
Yes, he had wins over rivals Notre Dame and Michigan State this fall, but Harbaugh’s Michigan won’t ever become what Wolverine fans expected until he can beat Ohio State.
For most of the first half, Gattis’ high-flying attack was doing its part to make it happen. They won the toss, chose to receive the opening kickoff, and then marched right down the field to score a touchdown.
They added another late in the first quarter, and were down just 21-13 when the Michigan defense forced an OSU punt with about four minutes left before halftime.
That’s when the roof fell in, just like it always seems to.
The Buckeyes punted it away on 4th-and-4 from their own 43, but senior Khaleke Hudson jumped offsides to gift OSU a first down.
Ohio State made the most of it, with Justin Fields hitting a 47-yard bomb to Garrett Wilson down to the Michigan 5.
J.K. Dobbins raced into the end zone on the next play. Just like that, Michigan went from getting the ball back with a chance to tie the game to trailing by 15 points.
With the Buckeyes set to receive the second-half kickoff, it was very clearly going to be a defining moment for Harbaugh and his offense.
This isn’t ret-conning, either. It was very apparent at the time.
Three consecutive plays:
1) Offside penalty negates an OSU punt
2) Bomb to Garrett Wilson
3) Walk-in touchdown for J.K. Dobbins
OSU leads it 28-13, and getting the ball after halftime.
What Michigan does or doesn't do in the next 3:16 might be program-defining.
— Tom Orr (@TomOrr4) November 30, 2019
How did Harbaugh respond?
The Michigan offense raced right down the field to the OSU 5. An incomplete pass, rush for no gain, and incomplete pass left him facing 4th-and-goal at the 5.
At this point, Michigan QB Shea Patterson had been close to perfect. Even after the pair of incomplete passes, he was 14-for-19 for 250 yards.
Michigan trailed by two scores, at 28-13. A field goal would still leave them two scores behind.
With a hot senior quarterback in his huddle, the home crowd behind him, and the OSU defense sucking win on the other side of the field, Harbaugh turtled.
He sent out the kicking team to make it 28-16.
After halftime, he had a chance to try to steal a possession with an onside kick. He didn’t do it.
The Buckeyes went right down the field to make it 35-16.
After a Michigan punt, Ohio State added a nine-play, 84-yard drive to make it 42-16.
Michigan went three-and-out, but got a gift as Wilson muffed a punt, giving them the ball at the OSU 26.
Three plays later, and facing 4th-and-11, Harbaugh sent out the field goal team again.
At this point, his team was down 26 points and his defense had given up touchdowns on six of the Buckeyes’ seven possessions (excluding a kneel-down at halftime).
Field goals were basically worthless. He needed touchdowns.
But Harbaugh settled for three again. By coaching not to lose, he lost yet again.
Five years into his tenure, he just made history by becoming the first coach for either program to go 0-5 in The Game.
He has never even made it to the Big Ten Championship Game, let alone won it.
His Michigan teams have lost at least three games every season he’s been in charge.
Saturday, when the moment got big, Harbaugh and his team played smaller than ever.
The rest of the game played out according to a now-familiar script. The Buckeyes wore out the Michigan defense, grinding Don Brown’s highly-touted unit to a nub.
They controlled the line on both sides of the ball.
And as the clock wound down, and Michigan fans made their way to the exits, O-H-I-O cheers echoed around Michigan Stadium.
The Wolverines’ only defense was to have their marching band play an arrangement of Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to try to drown out the joyous Buckeye fans.
But at this point, Harbaugh and his program clearly don’t deserve that respect.
After the game, a reporter asked him, “Is it a talent gap? Is it a preparation gap? Is it a coaching gap? What is the biggest difference between you and Ohio State at this point?”
Harbaugh responded, “I’ll answer your questions, not your insults.”
When the reporter followed up to ask what the difference was, Harbaugh said, “They played better today.”
It’s starting to become apparent that Harbaugh simply has no answers.
In just five games, Harbaugh has now suffered three of the 10 most lopsided defeats the Wolverines have ever had against the Buckeyes.
His defensive coordinator, Don Brown, popped off about the Buckeyes earlier in November, saying, “They better be careful now because we’re hitting our stride too. This is a two-way street, and I know our guys will be ready in three weeks.”
There was a lot of talk about how the Wolverines had put a renewed focus on The Game, and OSU entered with a first-year head coach and a first-year starter at quarterback. It seemed like Michigan might finally be in position to break their long losing streak in The Game.
But the moment Brown’s defense stepped off the curb into that two-way street, they got flattened by a scarlet-and-gray 18-wheeler. Again.
And as soon as Harbaugh had a chance to coach to win, he curled up into the fetal position. Again.
At this point, Harbaugh is who he is. And Michigan is what it is.
The Block-M might as well stand for “meh.”
For all Harbaugh’s bluster about how “nobody” has it better than them, Michigan has been an exceedingly unremarkable team for basically his entire tenure.
They will once again finish with less than 11 wins, a mark they’ve hit just three times since Harbaugh was a player in 1986. They will once again miss out on the Big Ten Championship Game, somewhere they’ve never been.
And they will once again watch the gap between them and Ohio State grow, instead of shrink. This was a big recruiting weekend for the Wolverines, which means dozens of the top high school players from the midwest and across the nation just watched Michigan get humiliated in their own stadium.
Eight years into the longest winning streak Ohio State has ever put together against the Wolverines, things are seemingly getting worse in Ann Arbor.
The most shocking part of this all is how Michigan fans and administrators seem to have basically accepted the status quo.
Michigan has been utterly non-competitive with its biggest rival, and the Wolverines are seemingly at peace with that.
When John Cooper was 0-4 in The Game, he needed a tie to save his job. Harbaugh just went 0-5 with back-to-back 23-and-29-point losses and the response in Ann Arbor is basically a shrug.
Ohio State has now won 15 of the last 16 games between the two rivals. Thanks to Saturday’s win, the Buckeyes, not the Wolverines, are now the winningest major-conference FBS program by winning percentage.
Michigan hasn’t been a consistent national power since the 1970s, and seems to be sliding further away from that level now, instead of getting closer.
Saturday’s game showed that Harbaugh and Michigan football really are a perfect fit for each other: Top-tier names, third-tier performers.