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Ranking the 6 most alarming aspects of Michigan football’s loss to Michigan State

Line of scrimmage, coaching, quarterback accuracy all among greatest concerns

Chris Jackson #12 of the Michigan State Spartans tackles Cornelius Johnson #6 of the Michigan Wolverines during the first quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Chris Jackson #12 of the Michigan State Spartans tackles Cornelius Johnson #6 of the Michigan Wolverines during the first quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – There are countless reasons for Michigan football fans to be discouraged after the team’s loss to Michigan State, but here are the six most alarming signs for the future.

6. Drops

All we’ve heard about Michigan’s young group of receivers is how fast and electric they are in space, but Saturday, none of that mattered because they couldn’t physically receive the ball.

Drops were the biggest issue. Ronnie Bell, Erick All, Mike Sainristil -- pretty much everyone outside of Roman Wilson struggled to make plays, especially in the biggest moments.

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

But the problem goes beyond drops. There were times when Milton couldn’t find any open receivers, or when there were two Wolverines standing in the same spot because somebody got crossed up.

Ronnie Bell #8 of the Michigan Wolverines fails to receive a pass during the second quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Ronnie Bell #8 of the Michigan Wolverines fails to receive a pass during the second quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

Overall, the offensive game plan looked like a mess, but even when plays worked, Michigan often came up empty.

Is it a lack of concentration or simply a weakness in the wide receiver room? We’ll find out in the coming weeks, but Saturday was certainly a red flag.

5. Downfield inaccuracy

Joe Milton managed the offense efficiently in the opener, and successfully executed everything the coaches asked him to do.

But the running game was so dominant against Minnesota that he didn’t really have to make any big throws to open up the offense.

When that changed Saturday against Michigan State, Milton struggled with accuracy down the field. He missed one receiver cutting across the middle of the field by about 10 yards. While Michigan State’s Rocky Lombardi landed deep shot after deep shot, Milton simply couldn’t connect down the field.

That kept Michigan from opening up the rest of the offense -- a problem that’s haunted this program for more than a decade.

Michigan fans desperately want to believe Milton is the quarterback they’ve waited so long to elevate the program, but on Saturday, he struggled in a way that will trigger not-so-fond memories.

4. Man coverage

The cornerbacks were a massive concern heading into the season because Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas are no longer with the team.

Minnesota struggled to move the ball through the air, though, and considering they brought back quarterback Tanner Morgan and star receiver Rashod Bateman from last year’s vaunted passing attack, that seemed like a great sign for the young corners.

MORE: Can Michigan salvage season after lifeless loss to Michigan State?

On Saturday, that illusion vanished.

Vincent Gray and Gemon Green, Michigan’s top two cornerbacks, got torched time and again by Lombardi and Michigan State’s receivers. The Wolverines had absolutely no answer for the deep ball, even when the knew it was coming.

Jalen Perry came in for Gray late in the game, but he struggled, too.

Between the penalties and the long completions, Don Brown got completely shredded by the Spartans, and Michigan will face more dangerous passing attacks in the future, namely Ohio State.

3. Offensive line

Even though Michigan had to replace four of five starters from 2019, the offensive line appeared to be in good hands.

Jalen Mayfield is an anchor on the right side, and both Ryan Hayes and Andrew Stueber have experience. Chuck Filiaga was a top recruit and Andrew Vastardis got rave reviews all offseason.

When Michigan ran the ball at will against Minnesota and gave up only one sack, it looked like Ed Warinner had worked his magic once again, but Saturday was a completely different story.

Michigan couldn’t run the ball between the tackles. It couldn’t get a push at all. Milton was consistently under pressure.

Saturday might have been the offensive line’s worst performance since the Notre Dame game at the start of 2018.

Warinner has a long track record of developing elite offensive linemen, so this unit could certainly turn it around, but the inability to block for the run or the pass Saturday doesn’t bode well for the future.

2. Nonexistent pass rush

Michigan came into 2020 with so many uncertainties, but the pass rush wasn’t supposed to be one of them. While it struggled against Ohio State and Alabama late in 2019, Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye were supposed to be dominant on the ends of the defensive line last year.

Then, against a team that lost the line of scrimmage to Rutgers a week ago, they were shut down in their own stadium.

Michigan didn’t record a single sack Saturday, and Lombardi hardly even felt any pressure. That allowed him to sit comfortably in the pocket and pick on two cornerbacks who were already struggling in man coverage.

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Gray and Green were the guys being called out by the Fox broadcast for getting beat in coverage, but really, the blame lies with a defensive line that couldn’t get any pressure for 60 minutes.

Hutchinson and Paye will be early-round NFL draft picks. It’s puzzling how they were so thoroughly contained in what should have been a high-energy rivalry game.

1. Complete lack of preparation

Sometimes upsets happen in college football. The players are young and unpredictable. A number of factors off the field can impact a game.

But what doomed Michigan over the weekend was much more disturbing: A complete lack of preparation, enthusiasm and energy.

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)

The difference between the Michigan and Michigan State sidelines was noticeable even on TV. The Spartans were deeply invested in the game, responding to every play. Michigan was almost mechanical, going through the motions.

When the Spartans took the lead into the second half, there was a sense of shell shock on the Michigan sideline, as if they hadn’t even considered the possibility of losing to their in-state rival.

How in the world does that happen?

Jim Harbaugh and his staff should have known better. Even if they didn’t believe Michigan State could win the game, they shouldn’t have let that mindset leak into the locker room.

But for a team that talked so much about its improvement over the offseason and seemed so confident against Minnesota, Michigan had absolutely no heart in the loss to Michigan State.

When the Spartans threw a punch, Michigan took it without punching back. Whether it was the defensive line, the running backs or the wide receivers -- nobody stepped up and yanked Michigan out of its funk.

Harbaugh named seven captains for this season, but they were nowhere to be found between noon and 3 p.m. Saturday.

The entire team sleepwalked through a bitter in-state rivalry game and lost as a three-touchdown favorite. That falls squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff, namely Harbaugh, Brown and Gattis.


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