Before Saturday, Indiana’s last victory against Michigan came in 1987. That was one year after Jim Harbaugh played his final season as a quarterback for the Wolverines.
The Hoosiers’ convincing 38-21 victory against the Wolverines on Saturday makes credible two questions that would have been unthinkable after the opener against Minnesota on Oct. 24:
Will this loss to the Hoosiers come one season before Harbaugh’s last season as the head coach for the Wolverines? Or will the Harbaugh era come to an end after the 2020 season?
The two-week unraveling of Michigan’s season — which started last week against Michigan State and didn’t stop against No. 13 Indiana — is startling. It looked even worse considering how the Spartans were manhandled by Iowa 49-7.
How does this compare to the end for the last two Michigan coaches? Rich Rodriguez finished 7-6 in 2010, but five of those losses were to ranked teams. Brady Hoke finished 5-7 in 2014, and that included losses to unranked Maryland and Rutgers. The Wolverines have ventured into that same shaky territory, even if this scenario is different.
Harbaugh was the perfect fit for Michigan (1-2, 1-2 Big Ten) when he arrived in 2015. Now, it has become clear the program is the square peg in the college football landscape.
Indiana (3-0, 3-0 Big Ten) had comparable talent and countless more explosive plays with coach Tom Allen on Saturday. They couldn’t say that when they played in the 14-10 upset in 1987. The Wolverines have suffered from opt-outs, injuries and a lag in the recruiting battle with Big Ten kingpin Ohio State, and that was exposed again against the conference’s newest contender.
Michigan’s deficiencies were exposed for the second straight week against Indiana. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. completed 22 of 32 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns, helping the Hoosiers build a 24-7 halftime lead.
Penix didn’t let up in the second half: He finished 30 of 50 for 342 yards and those three scores. Indiana converted 9 of 18 third downs and piled up 460 yards. Unlike in past Wolverines scares in Bloomington, the Hoosiers closed the door.
Michigan didn’t have starting tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes on offense, and that was a bad omen for first-year starter Joe Milton (18 of 34, 344 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions), who threw two fourth-quarter picks that stalled any hopes of a comeback.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defensive scheme appears past its expiration date. The Wolverines didn’t get a sack against the Spartans or Hoosiers. Without star defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson, who suffered an ankle injury on the first series, the same issues resurfaced at all three levels.
It’s the same tired narratives for Michigan on the field in Harbaugh’s losses, and it popped up the worst time. Michigan cut the lead to 24-13 in the third quarter and had Indiana backed into a third-and-9. That’s when cornerback Vincent Gray was called for pass interference on an errant throw. The Hoosiers turned that mistake into another score (the Wolverines had eight penalties for 89 yards).
The offense still can’t run the ball. A running back by committee approach isn’t working, and it has turned offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ attack into an all-or-nothing passing game with a young quarterback.
Michigan had seven first-down running plays in the first half that resulted in 21 yards. The Wolverines finished with 18 carries for 13 yards. That’s less than one yard per carry. Until that changes, Michigan will continue to fail in its efforts to get back to the top of the Big Ten.
MORE: Michigan’s most heartbreaking losses
What’s next? Uncharted heat on Harbaugh. Michigan won’t be playing for the conference championship in 2020. Next week’s matchup against No. 10 Wisconsin is in question, but the Wolverines will be heavy underdogs if it is played. A 4-4 season looks like a best-case scenario in Ann Arbor now. The regular-season finale against No. 3 Ohio State seems more like a formality. Harbaugh won there as a quarterback in 1986, but the Wolverines haven’t won at Ohio Stadium since 2000.
Will that mean the end for Harbaugh after this season? That’s the biggest question of all. Who could replace Harbaugh at Michigan? Could it be Iowa State’s Matt Campbell? Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell? One of the Stoops brothers? Somebody with Ohio State ties? That’s no longer just message board material. It’s about trying to find somebody who isn’t a square peg.
The more realistic scenario? Michigan chalks this year up to COVID-19 and gives Harbaugh one more prove-it season in 2021. That might be the more tenable approach knowing Harbaugh’s contract situation, which runs through the 2021 season. That countdown, however, is on. Whatever happens next, the last two weeks mark the low point in Harbaugh’s tenure so far.
We would say there’s nowhere to go but up, because Michigan can’t go much lower than this.
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