Jim Harbaugh is running out of distractions as Michigan drops another big game to a rival
SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Hello, hot seat? Make room for one wacky, quirky, khaki coach who is running out of distractions.
Satellite camps? No longer a thing. Spring practice vacations to Europe? Oslo remains an option.
Chicken may be “nervous bird,” but Michigan fans are becoming a nervous bunch. Or at least they should be.
They’ve been through this before with guys named Rodriguez and Hoke. Just in a different way. Those coaches were relatively easy to dispatch when things went sour.
Jim Harbaugh has his DNA invested in Michigan. And Bo Schembechler’s is in Harbaugh. One was arguably Michigan’s best-ever coach. Michigan fans have hoped Harbaugh would be the closest thing to it — this generation’s forever coach.
It’s hard to say Harbaugh has underachieved with 28 wins in three years. It’s fair to say he better pick it up.
Following, Coach Khaki is now 0-6 as an underdog. He is 8-8 in his last 16, now riding a four-game losing streak that goes back to last season. The last Michigan coach to lose four in a row was Rich Rod. That was nine years ago.
The losing doesn’t feel the same. Harbaugh has won 70 percent of his games. But with another chance to post a signature win on Saturday at Notre Dame, Coach Harbs couldn’t quite get it done. Again:
The program has progressed. Recruiting has improved. But Harbaugh is also 1-6 against Michigan’s three biggest rivals — Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame.
This might hurt, but it’s also obvious: Michigan fans will always hate Ohio State more than they will ever love Harbaugh.
So until he signs his name to a signature win, Harbaugh’s quirks will begin appearing to be more drawback than cute sideshow: The faithful would much rather enjoy a win over the Buckeyes than read about their team meeting with the Pope.
On Saturday, the play-calling was suspect, despite arguably the best Michigan team Harbaugh has fielded. Start with the debut of his first difference-making quarterback in Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson.
When it came time to dissect Notre Dame’s equally solid defense, not much changed. For the most part, the plays looked like stuff John O’Korn and Wilton Speight used to run.
Patterson was supposed to be the great downfield threat. Down 21-10 at halftime, the coaching seemed to finally realize that. Patterson connected with Nico Collins on the second half’s second play for 52 yards.
Then, until it was scramble time at the end, that was pretty much it. Patterson’s arm was largely holstered. In the fourth quarter, he missed 11 plays after limping off the field.
Would he have even made a difference at that point? Deep into the night as the postgame interviews were ending, Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem said his unit had basically figured out Michigan’s cadence at the line.
“I was getting a rhythm with their snap count,” Kareem said. “I was just timing it up. I got a good jump on the ball.”
Kareem first began noticing a pattern late in the first quarter after sacking Patterson.
“If a team is giving me a tendency, it’s a little easier,” Kareem said. “Certain teams don’t show it.
We picked up on it. We were telling each other not to really key on it but it was happening so much. … I would think, in the following weeks, they would probably [change] it.”
Did any of it make a difference in the game? Who knows? The point is, in a game as close as this, it’s worth mentioning.
Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke came into situations where they were doubted right away by some Michigan faithful. Harbaugh? He was a football savior. Now, it’s become complicated.
“This might sound like a hot take, but I didn’t feel like they dominated us,” said Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich, who was a terror all evening.
That’s what has to make Saturday doubly frustrating. The defense sort of dialed things in after halftime.
Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who completed 10 of 15 passes in the first half for Notre Dame, was 2 of 7 in the second half.
Michigan’s special teams contributed with Ambry Thomas’ 99-yard touchdown return.
Where was the juice, the pizzazz on offense?
“We expected them to come out in [different] formations,” Kareem said. “They’ve been having so many different coaches, so many different playing styles.”
Again, it’s hard to question a guy who has won 70 percent of his games. But he started 20-4. Michigan hasn’t finished above third in the East Division in Harbaugh’s three seasons.
Ten-Year War? Let’s get through Year 4 first with the Big Ten East as the toughest division in football. And Michigan still has games left this year at Michigan State and at Ohio State, plus Wisconsin is coming to the Big House.
Too soon? The shtick is getting old. Harbaugh famously doesn’t release a depth chart. Notre Dame countered Saturday by withholding its own when it handed out the pregame lineups to the media.
Instead, tongue in check, Notre Dame posted its “all-time” depth chart. For the record, George Gipp made it. Joe Montana did not.
This game started with a playoff atmosphere, mostly because it seemed like Michigan had the best chance of these two to get to the playoff. That changed quickly.
One of the top defensive units in the country was manhandled (at times) by an Irish offensive line that missed two first-rounders (Quentin Nelson and Mike McGlinchey).
There were excuses, sort of. Shortly after Michigan safety Josh Metellus was ejected for targeting, Wimbush targeted replacement Brad Hawkins on a 43-yard scoring pass to Chris Finke.
In this game, Michigan got started too late. A Karan Higdon scoring run cut the lead to a touchdown with 2:18 left. Patterson fumbled away a last-gasp drive with less than a minute to go.
In the big picture, you have to wonder where Harbaugh and Michigan are headed.
“It’s a beginning for us,” Harbaugh said.
Not until that signature win … whenever that comes.