Three games in, Michigan football’s horse has yet to leave the post

by | Nov 8, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

There’s an old song that describes the blahs as feeling “like a horse that never left the post.” So it goes for Michigan football in 2020. Fans keep waiting for the thoroughbred to run. Meanwhile, in most significant ways, this year’s race is already over.

Where did the Wolverines go? With a new promising quarterback, a second year under offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, and a defense that was supposed to be pretty solid, hopes were fairly high for this shortened season. But after three games and two losses, U-M is looking like a trashed bar at 2 a.m. It’s cleanup time.

Last week’s stunning loss to massive underdog Michigan State made lots of maize and blue fans blink. Today, they’re squirting eye drops. Against MSU, the Wolverines surrendered 27 points, 450 yards of offense, and three touchdown drives of over 65 yards. Saturday, against Indiana, they outdid that: 38 points, 460 yards of offense, and four TD drives of over 70 yards.

Not to overstate the obvious, but that’s moving in the wrong direction.

“Personal feeling is we’re close to doing it,” Jim Harbaugh said, despite the 38-21 pounding by the Hoosiers, the first time in 33 years that Indiana has beaten Michigan. “You see it done (in practice.) You see it happening. … Next step is to see it happening in the games.”

I get what he’s saying. I really do. There are young players making young mistakes and missing executions, and maybe they show better Monday through Friday.

But the games are played on Saturday. And if you’re an elite program, as Michigan fancies itself, a program that expects to beat an Ohio State every year, expects to compete for national championships with the likes of Alabama or Clemson, then, frankly, you get the practice stuff out of the way in practice.

A horse left at the post.

Tripped up … again

Here is how quickly it fell apart against Indiana. Michigan went three-and-out on its first possession. Indiana’s second-year quarterback Michael Penix Jr. then completed his first five passes, and the Hoosiers drove 74 yards for a score.

After a nice Joe Milton to Cornelius Johnson connection for a U-M touchdown, the Hoosiers marched 75 yards, 53 yards and 96 yards to put 17 more points on the board and take a 24-7 halftime lead. The U-M offense sputtered. It ran as if its shoelaces were tied together. Milton couldn’t connect with his receivers. Meanwhile, Penix kept picking apart the Michigan secondary, particularly junior Vincent Gray, who for the second straight week just seemed in over his head.

What happened to this defense? When it wasn’t surrendering catches or mistiming its jumps, U-M was drawing penalty flags for interference, holding, or, way too often, offsides, drawn by a clever yelling cadence by Penix. Harbaugh said they practiced against that. Apparently, not enough. This defense has now given up 89 points in three games. Don Brown is supposed to be a guru. But his guys are flailing.

The Wolverines tried to light a spark in the second half Saturday, and had two promising drives. But the problem with big holes is they’re incredibly hard to climb out of. After drawing within 10 points early in the fourth quarter, 31-21, Milton threw two interceptions, one really bad and one just plain desperate. Any hopes of a comeback were gone.

Milton after the loss said: “We got to go to the drawing board and pick it up”.

Cornelius Johnson said: “Ultimately, getting more points than your opponent. That’s how you win the game.”

Harbaugh, even-keeled, added, “Still very excited about the team. I love this team. They’re very talented and they play extremely hard.”

Well. OK then. All’s well.

Going, going … nowhere?

If Harbaugh’s not going to panic, kick a chalkboard, or pound his fist and say, “If losing doesn’t make you hurt, you shouldn’t be at Michigan!” — something I remember Lloyd Carr saying after his team started the 2007 season 0-2 with upset losses — well, is it anyone’s place to be more upset than the coach?

Maybe the alums? Maybe the athletic director? I’m sure it’s mystifying to Michigan fans. They keep expecting excellence. Instead, they get explanations. They keep expecting explosions. Instead, they settle for dust clouds.

The Wolverines rushed for 13 yards Saturday. Thirteen yards? I know this is a new offensive line. I know they were behind early. But let me say that again. Thirteen yards. The University of Michigan.

“The running game was not real productive,” Harbaugh said.

He must be drinking decaf these days.

There you have it. Three games, two losses, a scheduled contest next week against a preseason top-10 Wisconsin team (which missed its last two contests with COVID-19 issues). Believe it or not, this Saturday marks the halfway point of the 2020 season. And the Wolverines still feel like that horse that never left the post. Maybe, to paraphrase that old song, it’s the fall that really hangs you up the most.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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