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What we learned against Ohio State: Missed opportunities continue to plague Michigan

The Wolverines showed glimpses of greatness, but ran out of gas (again).

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Knocking off the Buckeyes in the regular season finale would have completely changed the perception of this 2017 Michigan squad. I think Drew Hallett said it best with this tweet:

Unfortunately, the Wolverines couldn’t pull off the victory. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort — or opportunities. Michigan was in the game until the very end, but despite holding multiple leads — including one late in the third quarter — it fell for the sixth consecutive time against Ohio State.

Those games hurt. The Maize and Blue faithful continue to watch as its team comes up short against rivals.

Is it time to panic? Not quite yet.

After 12 games of lessons about this team, there’s only so much left to learn. At the end of the day, we can walk away from The Game with these two lessons in mind.

Lesson 1: Missed opportunities continue to plague Michigan

Most of the lessons to be learned against Ohio State are the same as those we learned a week ago following the loss to Wisconsin.

  1. The final score doesn’t tell the whole story
  2. You’re only as strong as your quarterback play
  3. Development has been slow, but this team is close

Michigan continues to show serious talent and potential on both sides of the ball. The defense keeps this team in games, allowing the Wolverines to compete with the top teams in the conference. But time and time again, down the stretch Michigan becomes outmatched and falls short.

Against Penn State it happened quickly — after rallying from 14-0 to make it 14-13 in the second quarter, the Maize and Blue were dominated for the remainder of the game. Against Wisconsin, Michigan held a 10-7 lead in the second half before falling 24-10. And then, of course, what happened Saturday against Ohio State — first blowing the early 14-0 lead, and then blowing the 20-14 second half lead.

For Michigan fans, hearing that missed opportunities cost the Wolverines a big game is nothing new. It happened against Michigan State in 2015 and then again this season. It happened against Iowa in 2016. It happened against Wisconsin nine days ago. And it’s happened against the Buckeyes the last two meetings.

The opportunities came in several forms. In this year’s game, among others:

  • On third-and-seven during Michigan’s opening drive, John O’Korn missed a wide open Tyrone Wheatley for a first down.
  • Early in the second quarter, with Michigan leading 14-0 and Ohio State driving, Josh Metellus dropped an interception that hit him right in the hands. The Buckeyes went on to score a touchdown on the next play.
  • In the final minute of the first half, O’Korn scrambled on third-and-six and appeared to have stuck the ball out for a first down. He was marked short and after review the officials stayed with the call on the field.
  • On a third down pass early in the second half, this wasn’t called holding:
  • After scoring a touchdown in the third quarter to retake the lead, Michigan had the extra point blocked.
  • While trailing, Ohio State freshman quarterback scrambled for a first down on second-and-seven to extend the drive that eventually led to the Buckeyes’ go-ahead score. This hold on Mo Hurst was not called. (Fun fact: The Ohio State offense hasn’t been called for holding against Michigan since the third quarter of the 2015 game.)
  • After a missed Ohio State field goal late in the fourth quarter, Michigan got the ball back down 24-20. The first play, O’Korn sailed a pass directly to a Buckeye safety to all but seal the loss.

It’s not that Michigan is the only team that has blown calls go against them, or that John O’Korn is the only quarterback to play poorly. But this Michigan team is still not good enough to beat elite teams when this many opportunities are missed. That’s the sad reality.

After three seasons of Harbaugh, it seems like whenever something can go against Michigan it has (see: botched punt, The Spot). It’s about time the Wolverines start creating their own luck. Refs can only be blamed for so much. Making big plays in big moments can counteract blown calls, and Michigan hasn’t done that in a long while.

Lesson 2: Michigan will be under tremendous pressure to win in 2018

Fans and analysts like to talk about “Harbaugh’s inability to win the big game.” This will surely be a strong talking point this offseason. You’ll frequently hear about his 1-5 record against Michigan State and Ohio State. The storylines will be that he “wins the offseason but can’t win when they count.” That’s all fine. Those are talking points Paul Finebaum continues to utter and critics of Harbaugh pick them up and run with them.

The fact of the matter is that this Michigan team was expected to win nine games in 2017. They won eight. They were one game below expectation, which is understandable given that they were forced to start three different quarterbacks, due to injuries.

But that’s all in the past now. Eyes should be steadfastly pointed forward, because the best is certainly yet to come.

This offseason, the Wolverines will get to sit back and watch other top programs wave goodbye to top playmakers while the vast majority of starters and contributors for Michigan will be staying put, eagerly awaiting a clean slate in 2018 to prove to the Big Ten and the nation that 2017 was merely a “stop-gap” year.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that Michigan has no room for error. The time to win is in 2018. If not then, when? The spotlight will be on the program from Day 1. Between Harbaugh, the number of returning starters and the unimpressive 2017 team, the expectations will be through the roof for the Wolverines to reach the conference championship and possibly College Football Playoff.

Though it won’t be easy. Michigan will travel to South Bend, East Lansing and Columbus. But when has winning championships ever come easy?