Michigan had a chance to knock off No. 7 Penn State in one of the toughest environments in the country on Saturday. While it’s still a loss, that second half performance by the Wolverines showed they had grit and fight to keep it close, and they did to the last few minutes. It was another “close but no cigar” kind of game, which has been somewhat of the theme under Jim Harbaugh since 2015.
Michigan has had three head coaches since 2010. I looked back at that period and how each has performed in close games decided by a touchdown. It’s one stat much worse under Jim Harbaugh, unfortunately, while still winning more games overall since 2015.
Since 2015, Michigan has only won six out of 15 games (42.8 ercent) decided by a touchdown or less. Here’s a look at how that breaks down season by season.
(Wins in bold)
2015 (2-2 record)
Michigan State (27-23)
Indiana (48-41 2OT)
2016 (1-3 record)
Ohio State (27-30)
Florida State (33-32)
2017 (1-2 record)
Michigan State (14-10)
South Carolina (26-17)
2018 (1-1 record)
Notre Dame (24-17)
2019 (1-1 record)
Penn State (28-21)
Total record in touchdown or less games: 6-9
Before Jim Harbaugh
From 2010 to 2014, Michigan won 12 of 22 games it played in that were decided by seven points or less, which includes the last season under Rich Rodriguez (2010) when he won only six games and Brady Hoke’s first season. In 2011, Hoke went 11-2, including wins over Notre Dame and Ohio State, then ended with a 23-20 Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
You’ll notice that they played in way more of these games because the biggest difference is Harbaugh routs the bad teams on the schedule.
The wins include Notre Dame (28-24), UMass (42-37), Indiana (42-35), Illinois (67-65), Ohio State (40-34), Air Force (31-25), Michigan State (12-10), Northwestern (38-31), Akron (28-24), UConn (24-21), Penn State (18-13) and Northwestern (10-9), in that order.
The losses came to Notre Dame (13-6), Ohio State (26-21), South Carolina (33-28), Penn State (43-40), Nebraska (17-13), Iowa (24-21), Ohio State (42-41), Rutgers (26-24) and Maryland (23-16).
Both prior coaches had a lower winning percentage overall than Jim Harbaugh, but won more of their closer games decided within seven points. It is also worth pointing out that Harbaugh’s struggles have come against legitimately good competition as opposed to the guys that came before him, which does make this a bit of a misleading stat.
You won’t see struggles against UMass, Akron and UConn on his watch.
Overall Winning Percentages
Rich Rodriguez (.405)
Brady Hoke (.607)
Jim Harbaugh (.741)
In the end, it begs the question of whether or not they can start winning more close games to be in the hunt for the Big Ten Conference and College Football Playoff. I think every Michigan fan enjoys winning 10 games each year, like Jim Harbaugh has been able to achieve three out of four seasons. Fans anger and frustration stems from the embarrassing blowout losses, zero wins against Ohio State, and the lack of wins in big games when they’re competitive.
Last night was a prime example of that, but we’ve also seen them get blown out when down 21-0. It’s a tough pill to swallow, knowing the rest of the season will be difficult, but knocking off their biggest rivals could help.
Michigan has not struggled to beat the teams that it is supposed to beat, but this program has a problem in tight situations where it has not been able to get the job done more often than not. That might go beyond Harbaugh, but it is still concerning nonetheless that when in a tight situation, the results have been more of the same.