39ºF

Can Michigan football salvage season after lifeless loss to Michigan State?

Wolverines fall at home despite being massive favorite against Spartans

Dominique Long #9 of the Michigan State Spartans misses a tackle on Joe Milton #5 of the Michigan Wolverines during the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Dominique Long #9 of the Michigan State Spartans misses a tackle on Joe Milton #5 of the Michigan Wolverines during the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Any hope for the Michigan football team to make a splash at the national level was dashed over the weekend in a loss to Michigan State. But is there any way to salvage this shortened 2020 season?

Anyone who watched Saturday’s in-state rivalry would have thought Michigan State was the team favored to win by three touchdowns. The Spartans were dominant on defense. They exposed all three levels of Don Brown’s defense.

READ: Questions surround future of Michigan football after worst loss of Jim Harbaugh era

Everything we thought was a strength for Michigan -- pass rushing, running backs, speed in space -- was completely neutralized by Mel Tucker, who started his MSU coaching career by losing to Rutgers.

It’s the most surprising loss of the Jim Harbaugh era, and the coaching staff deserves the brunt of the blame.

Michigan State defensive tackle Naquan Jones (93) reacts after sacking Michigan quarterback Joe Milton during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan State defensive tackle Naquan Jones (93) reacts after sacking Michigan quarterback Joe Milton during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Nobody expected Michigan to be able to compete with Ohio State this season, and based on what we’ve seen from both teams through two weeks -- and what we’ve seen in the rivalry for two decades -- a bloodbath likely awaits the Wolverines in Columbus.

So is there anything Harbaugh and company can do in the five games between now and then to make the 2020 season anything more than a failure?

Expectations for the team soared last week based on what appeared to be an impressive win over Minnesota, which won 11 games in 2019. But after the Golden Gophers lost to a Maryland team coming off a 40-point loss to Northwestern, it’s pretty clear that opening win doesn’t have much luster.

Michigan was expected to handle Michigan State well before it debuted in Minneapolis, though. How could Tucker, who took over in February and hardly had an offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly out-fox Harbaugh in year six of his tenure?

It’s a jarring thought, and one that makes nearly every remaining game on the schedule a potential speed bump.

Indiana is undefeated and ranked No. 13 in the nation. Wisconsin and Penn State were both expected to be better than Michigan coming into the year. Even Maryland and Rutgers looked better than the Wolverines on Saturday.

Would winning all five of those games -- which seems incredibly unlikely -- and finishing 6-2 with losses in the two games that mean the most be enough to look back at 2020 as a success? It would at least keep the program from spiraling out of control, but that shouldn’t be the standard this deep into the Harbaugh era.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

At this point, the only remedy that could heal the wounds opened by this weekend’s loss would be an upset against Ohio State. That’s even more farfetched than Michigan State’s win felt at this time last week.

Wins over Indiana, Wisconsin and Penn State would buoy Michigan back into the top 15 and stabilize what appears to be a team on the brink of falling apart. But as soon as Ohio State puts a third straight beating on Michigan, all that good feeling would evaporate, and the only stat to come out of 2020 would be “0-2 against rivals.”

Before Saturday, much of the criticism of Harbaugh seemed unfair. Now he’s backed himself into a corner with nobody else to blame.

There are only two ways Michigan can really come away feeling good about this season:

  1. Beat Ohio State
  2. Win every single other game and finish 8-2

It’s hard to say which of those is more unlikely, but the main takeaway is that Michigan is one more slip-up from calling this season a massive disappointment.

Since the first two years of the Harbaugh era, that’s starting to become a trend.


About the Author: