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How Michigan football has fared in ‘critical’ games under Jim Harbaugh

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One season — and one matchup — seems to inflate the perception of Michigan’s struggles right now.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Michigan football heads into this weekend as underdogs for only the seventh time in the Jim Harbaugh era when they take on Wisconsin in Madison. The Wolverines head coach has already called it “irrelevant,” but it is not totally irrelevant seeing as they are 0-6 in those games where we stand today.

Shoutout to Drew Hallett for posting this nugget.

Michigan’s struggles against the best teams on its schedule are well-documented to this point and go well beyond just Harbaugh. However, he was brought here to deliver Big Ten Championships and possibly more when he was hired, and the Wolverines have obviously not gotten there quite yet.

Harbaugh himself would even tell you that they have not won enough football games.

So what’s gone wrong and why has this happened? “Big” or “must-win” games can be arbitrary ways of looking at where things have gone wrong and depending on who you talk to (or if they have an ax to grind against the program), the criteria and expectations seem to change.

For the purposes of this exercise, we will call them “critical” games. Here’s the criteria for which we will judge them and what constitutes a critical game:

  • Top 25 opponents at the time the teams met
  • Rivalry games (Michigan State, Ohio State, Notre Dame)
  • Surprising losses that shouldn’t have happened
  • Close calls or scares do not count, but will be noted in a separate section
  • Bowl games

There are a pair of games in here that do not exactly fit the criteria, but you will know which ones they are when we explain them game-by-game. Under this set of factors, Michigan has played 24 critical games with an overall record of 11-13 in Harbaugh’s first four years.

Let’s get into what happened in each of those games.

*= denotes neutral site game

2015

Week 4 vs. No. 22 BYU (31-0 W)

This was a pretty darn good BYU team that came into Michigan Stadium. The Cougars had defeated Nebraska on the road via a last-second Hail Mary pass by Tanner Mangum, who replaced an injured Taysom Hill (if you’re an NFL fan, you know what he is up to now). BYU would then defeat Boise State at home and narrowly lost at the Rose Bowl to UCLA. Then, Michigan steamrolled them in the first of three-straight shutouts in the early part of the season. The Cougars would finish the season 9-4 with losses to Missouri and Utah in the bowl game on the rest of their resume.

Week 6 vs. No. 13 Northwestern (38-0 W)

This was the third of the above-mentioned three-straight shutouts. Northwestern came into the game at 5-0, which included a season-opening win vs. Stanford. Michigan roared out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and Jehu Chesson scored on a 96-yard touchdown to open the game. Northwestern would go 10-3 that season with its other losses being a 40-10 setback at home against Iowa and a 45-6 trucking by Tennessee in the bowl game.

Week 7 vs. No. 7 Michigan State (23-27 L)

Everyone knows what happened in this game. Michigan had a Spartans team that would eventually win the Big Ten and make the College Football Playoff beat, but simply could not field a punt cleanly and it resulted in an MSU touchdown return as time expired. That was a very good MSU team, but this is by far the flukiest loss on Harbaugh’s resume, though arguably the most painful (well, second-most).

Week 13 vs. No. 8 Ohio State (13-42 L)

The defending national champions were too much to overcome on this day and we found out just how much more work Michigan had to do to get to their level. This was a 14-10 game at halftime in favor of the Buckeyes, but eventually the bottom would fall out in the second half. Ezekiel Elliott and JT Barrett had that effect on a lot of teams.

Citrus Bowl vs. No. 19 Florida* (41-7 W)

If the Ohio State game was a downer at the end of the season, this was what brought back all of the optimism that this was a young group that was ready to send a message heading into the 2016 season. The Wolverines blew out Florida and used it as a springboard into the 2016 campaign. Most of the key players from this team would be set to come back next season, so they ended the first year of the Harbaugh era on an extremely high note and left fans thinking that perhaps maybe this rebuild was not going to be as long as we thought it would coming out of the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras.

Record: 3-2

Final Record: 10-3 (6-2 B1G)

Other notable games: at Utah (17-24 L), at Minnesota (29-26 20T W), at Indiana (48-41 2OT W), at Penn State (28-16 W)

2016

Week 4 vs. Penn State (49-10 W)

In the open of this piece, I mentioned a handful of games that did not necessarily meet the criteria that was laid out. This is one of them and I included it because Penn State would wind up winning the Big Ten title in 2016 after an insane stretch run of Big Ten play. They were missing some key players in the game and after the loss fell to 2-2 on the season with losses to Michigan and Pittsburgh. The Nittany Lions would not lose again until the Rose Bowl and beat the likes of Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. If you want to throw an asterisk next to this one, that’s fine. But we will include it anyways.

Week 5 vs, No. 8 Wisconsin (14-7 W)

This was Michigan’s first win over a top ten opponent since they beat Wisconsin in 2008 and it came against the eventual Big Ten West champion. It was a low-scoring slugfest that depended on a few big throws from Wilton Speight, but they got it anyways. The Badgers finished the season ranked No. 9, so it was not one of those games where Michigan beat a team that wound up floundering after the fact. One could make the argument this is the best win of the Harbaugh era so far.

Week 9 at Michigan State (32-23 W)

This was a 3-9 Michigan State team, so it is hard to sit here and call this an impressive victory, especially seeing as they did not keep their foot down on the gas throughout the second half of the game. Regardless, they went into their rival’s house and beat them, so they get points for that here. They should’ve beaten them more handily, but that’s how these rivalry games tend to go.

Week 11 at Iowa (13-14 L)

And here, we have our first shocking loss of the Harbaugh era, though maybe we should not be all that surprised because it was a night game at Kinnick Stadium. Sometimes, these things happen and college football is wacky, but the Wolverines had an 81 percent win expectancy after Channing Stribling’s interception with just under two minutes to play and the Wolverines followed that up with three plays that netted two yards and a punt to give the Hawkeyes a chance to win. They executed on offense late after Michigan couldn’t and banged through a field goal with no time left. On that weekend, the second, third and fourth-ranked teams all lost (Michigan was No. 2), so it was an example of how nuts the sport can be, but that does not make it any less disheartening. All it did was zap away their margin of error for a Big Ten title, and they would have to beat Ohio State the last week of the year.

Week 13 at No. 2 Ohio State (27-30 2OT L)

Welp, they didn’t beat Ohio State.

Michigan had the Buckeyes on the ropes with a 17-7 with just over six minutes left in the third quarter in Columbus, but could not close the deal. After the touchdown pass to Khalid Hill with about 6:30 to go in the third quarter, the drives to close out the game for Michigan were interception, punt, punt and punt where they failed to get more than 16 total yards or run more than five plays on any of them. Ohio State took the final 5:36 off the game clock with a 13-play, 77-yard drive and game-tying field goal as time as expired to send it into overtime.

The two teams would trade touchdowns in overtime, but Michigan’s last drive went six yards in four plays and resulted in a field goal. From there, the defense had to hold, and even if they thought they had JT Barrett stopped on fourth down, the call went the other way and OSU walked off with a win on the very next play on a 15-yard touchdown from Curtis Samuel.

There were two critical errors in this game. The playcall that had Speight rolling out to throw a pass from his own endzone that resulted in a pick-six and OSU’s only score of the first half was insane. That can be quantified. The other is the inability to execute on offense down the stretch or even put together a drive.

Orange Bowl vs. No. 10 Florida State* (32-33 L)

The Wolverines really had no business winning this game they way they played through most of the night, but still found themselves with the lead near the end of the game. Florida State roared out to a 20-6 lead at the half, but Michigan came all the way back and outscored the Seminoles 24-7 to lead 30-27 with just under two minutes to play. A long kick return and some plays down the stretch allowed FSU to take the lead back at 33-30 with 36 seconds to play, but a blocked PAT and return by Josh Metellus gave Michigan points and one last chance down 33-32. Michigan would gain zero yards on four plays and the game ended on a Speight interception.

The defense was leaky throughout the night without Jabrill Peppers and the offense suffered a big blow when Jake Butt tore his ACL. They way they fought back was commendable, but they were punched in the mouth early on and definitely seemed as if there was a hangover from the OSU game.

Record: 3-3

Final Record: 10-3 (7-2 B1G)

Other notable games: vs. Colorado (45-28 W), vs. Indiana (20-10 W)

2017

Week 1 vs. No. 17 Florida* (33-17 W)

This was a bad Florida team that wound up going 4-7, so we will not sit here and pretend as if this was a big-time win on a neutral field. The Wolverines did what they had to do, and it should not have even been this close. Florida scored both of its touchdowns on pick-sixes from Speight on back-to-back drives in the second quarter. We saw a bit of John O’Korn in this game, but this was the first sign that Michigan may have a major quarterback problem in 2017. Still, they lost a ton of talent from the year before and played their opener in a unique situation, so credit for them for the bottom never falling out.

Week 6 vs. Michigan State (10-14 L)

This one may fall in the inexplicable loss category, but it is also a rivalry game. The Wolverines’ offensive execution and game plan was putrid in this football game. John O’Korn started at quarterback with Speight injured and out for the season and finished 16-for-35 for 198 yards and three interceptions on a rainy night in Ann Arbor. A last-ditch effort fell short when Eddie McDoom dropped a gimme pass that would have put the Wolverines inside the 30-yard line. Having O’Korn drop back and throw as much as he did with as wet and rainy as it was that night was baffling and another sign that Michigan maybe should have had Brandon Peters ready to play earlier in the season than he did. But the staff persisted with O’Korn and this experiment would go on for a few more weeks.

Week 8 at No. 2 Penn State (13-42 L)

This game felt like a death march after what happened against MSU and the fact that Indiana took Michigan to overtime the week before. This one was never really in doubt for the Nittany Lions in a night game at home where Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley were just way too much for the young team to handle. Penn State roared out to a 14-0 lead, but the Wolverines actually made it somewhat interesting right before the half and got to within 14-13. McSorley would lead PSU right back down the field to take a 21-13 lead and they never looked back. O’Korn would remain the starting quarterback into the next game.

Week 12 at No. 5 Wisconsin (10-24 L)

After O’Korn struggled against Rutgers the week after the Penn State game, the coaching staff decided it was time for Peters and he played in three-straight Michigan victories (started two) heading into Madison. At this point, clearly this is a bit of a re-tooling year for Michigan, but Peters had them right in it until late in the third quarter when he took a hit that would knock him out of the rest of the regular season, leaving O’Korn to come back in. Knowing what we did about O’Korn at this point, the offense did what it continued to do under him and the Wolverines would blow a 10-7 with the Badgers scoring the rest of the game’s points. Too much was being asked of a young defense, but Michigan had to take its medicine at this point.

Week 13 vs. No. 8 Ohio State (20-31 L)

And here came another death march game in that O’Korn was set to start at quarterback and the Wolverines were not seen as much of a threat to win. What followed was one of Harbaugh’s more impressive coaching performances at Michigan, even in a defeat. That does not excuse the loss, but he had a team that was his worst in Ann Arbor so far with poor quarterback play leading the Buckeyes about halfway through the third quarter. OSU pretty much dominated the box score, but the Wolverines were still right there within striking distance even late in the game. The issues at the quarterback position were just too much to overcome here and failure to convert on opportunities doomed them. You have to be able to score with Ohio State and this Michigan team just was not capable of that. Harbaugh is not vindicated for the effort, but his job is to put his team in positions to succeed and he did just that. They played loose and inspired football, which has not always been in the case in some of these contests.

Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina* (19-26 L)

Peters would return for the bowl game and Michigan led 19-3 with just over three minutes to play in the third quarter, and then all hell broke loose. The Wolverines’ final five drives of the game went: fumble, punt, interception, turnover on downs, interception. South Carolina was able to take advantage of those miscues and get the victory. Peters’ final line was 20-for-44 for 186 yards and two picks. His offensive line did him no favors, but any of the goodwill that he seemed to build up in limited action throughout the year was gone and it eventually led to Michigan pursuing Shea Patterson that offseason.

This is right up there with one of the most inexplicable losses of the Harbaugh era and a missed chance to head into 2018 with some positive momentum.

Record: 1-5

Final Record: 8-5 (5-4 B1G)

Other notable games: at Indiana (27-20 OT W), vs. Minnesota (33-10 W)

2018

Week 1 at No. 12 Notre Dame (17-24 L)

Coming off of an offseason of hype around Patterson and a veteran team that went through a lot of bumps in 2017, this season started with a dud. Before some Irish fans could even settle into their seats for the game, Notre Dame led 14-0 and eventually led 21-3 in the first half. Michigan’s defense could not get off the field and the offense had a ton of pressure on it early to get something going. Eventually, Michigan would fight back, but this game was never as close as the score indicated and the moment was too big for them with a lot of “deer in the headlights” looks on the sideline. Notre Dame eventually made the college football playoff, but this was another wakeup call for the Wolverines.

Week 5 at Northwestern (20-17 W)

This is the second of the two games I mentioned that do not necessarily fit the criteria, but felt were worth including because Northwestern won the Big Ten West last season. The Wolverines throttled the next three teams they played after the loss at Notre Dame and then went back on the road to see how far they had come. And for the early part of the game, it looked like more of the same of what we saw against Notre Dame. The Wildcats roared out to a 17-0 lead in the first half and put Michigan on its heels, but this time the Wolverines did not wither and kept playing. The defense settled down and the offense did just enough to walk out of Evanston with a victory.

Week 7 vs. No. 15 Wisconsin (38-13 W)

And so began the first leg of the “revenge tour” with the Wolverines looking to avenge one of their four losses in conference play from 2017. Things started out slow, but the Wolverines eventually beat the brakes off of a Wisconsin team that wound up only going 8-5 on the season. Still, it was a workmanlike effort and the type of game that good teams find a way to win going away in. 30 of the 38 points they scored in the game came in the second and fourth quarter, so they closed out the effort with a bang in both chapters of the contest.

Week 8 at No. 24 Michigan State (21-7 W)

On leg two of the Revenge Tour, the score never quite showed how dominant an effort this was over the Spartans because of how good MSU’s defense is in its own right, but the Wolverines went into East Lansing and won for the second time in three years in the rivalry. The Spartans had only 94 yards of total offense on the day and their lone touchdown came off of Michigan fumble. MSU only had to travel seven yards on two plays to convert on the turnover. Patterson had a clutch touchdown throw down the sideline to Donovan Peoples-Jones to take the lead back at 14-7 with just over two minutes to play in the third quarter and Ben Mason iced it in the fourth with a touchdown run to put the Wolverines up 21-7 to win the Paul Bunyan trophy. The Spartans would finish 7-6 on the year.

Week 10 vs. No. 14 Penn State (42-7 W)

Leg three of the Revenge Tour saw Michigan hosting Penn State for a night game and another blowout effort from the home team in the last three years of the rivalry. Penn State did not get on the board until the score was already 42-7 and the Wolverines held the ball for 37 minutes on the night and forced three turnovers. This was a 9-4 Penn State team at the end of the year, but it was another effort where Michigan showed its potential as a dominant team outclassing someone at home.

Week 13 at Ohio State (39-62 L)

As of now, this is the most horrifying, upsetting and unacceptable loss of the Harbaugh era. The Wolverines went into Columbus as the favorite and were pantsed by Urban Meyer and an Ohio State coaching staff that pulled out a career-best performance after a season of near failures and roller coaster moments.

The Wolverines fell to an early 21-6 deficit with OSU carving up Brown’s defense, but the defense was put into awful spots by the offense who settled for field goals and failed to put up much of anything, magnifying the need for an offensive reboot and reimagining heading into the 2019 season. The Wolverines scored a pair of touchdowns in the span of six seconds of game clock to get the game within 21-19 in favor of the Buckeyes, but OSU would score the next 20 points of the football game and lead 41-19 after three quarters. Each team would trade three touchdowns apiece in the fourth quarter in the effort, which once again left the Wolverines without a win over the Buckeyes and without a shot to play for a Big Ten Championship.

Harbaugh and his staff were outcoached and outworked in a lopsided fashion. There are zero excuses for that effort and it zapped away any of the good vibes the team had built in the 10 games after the loss to Notre Dame. With this type of effort in this edition of The Game, questions about whether or not the Wolverines could ever get it done in the current setup felt justified and now ring through as Michigan’s biggest demon throughout its 2019 season.

Peach Bowl vs. Florida* (15-41 L)

Michigan clearly needed to update its offense and try and build some momentum heading into 2019, but a handful of players sat out to preserve their draft status. It was going to be a chance for some young players to show what they could do, but this was another case of a sleepwalking team in a bowl game and the wheels completely fell off in the second half. The defensive miscues were concerning, but they were without Devin Bush and Rashan Gary and it’s fair to wonder if that was disheartening or not after the loss at OSU. This game was a disaster despite being a meaningless exhibition. The staff did not have the players it still had available ready to go and it did not seem like they much much of an effort to try anything new after the way the year ended, so it was a disappointment all around.

Record: 4-3

Final Record: 10-3 (8-1 B1G)

Final record in “critical games” through four seasons: 11-13

Final Takeaways

So where have things gone wrong for the Wolverines when they have lost some of these big games? The common denominator in most has been self-inflicted wounds or a cosmic amount of bad luck, such as the fumbled punt against MSU in 2015 or a call that could have gone the other way against OSU in 2016 in overtime. But the majority of Michigan’s problems have been, well, Michigan. Through four years they have shown a frequency in getting in their own way, and I’m not sure how fixable that is with this current coaching staff. Unless you’re Clemson or Alabama, some of these games are just going to go against you as is the nature of the sport.

Michigan has won some critical games under Harbaugh, but not nearly enough obviously. But the narratives out there that Michigan straight-up does not win big ones simply is not true. Then again, this argument can be altered and the goal posts can be moved to support anyone’s reasoning for why they think Harbaugh is not good enough.

It is also pretty apparent that OSU’s dominance in this rivalry has poisoned our brains a bit. That is not to say that it is not the most important game on the schedule, but it is the only team that they have consistently failed to overcome. In two of those matchups (2015, 17), they basically never had much of a chance. In the other two (2016, 18), they blew it. Period. Not all losses are equal, but this one feels like a wash. No more excuses there.

That 2017 season and some of the struggles that they had coupled with how 2018 went has also done a number on how people view the program. Most people can safely say or assume that the 2017 group might wind up being the worst team that Harbaugh had at Michigan, mostly because that quarterback room was a nightmare and they were so young in so many spots. Harbaugh has to wear that season though because this staff waited too long to have Peters ready to go, and you can argue at the very least that cost them a win in that Michigan State game. And if he stays healthy, they might even win at Camp Randall, too.

Harbaugh’s Michigan teams have not done a good enough job closing out games, especially in that 2016 season. The Wolverines had chances at both Iowa and Ohio State to just sustain one drive and end it on their own terms, but didn’t. And this is a program that knows it needs to be more aggressive. That’s why they went out this year and got Josh Gattis to revamp the offense and be more of an attacking team. On the flip side, that’s also why they decided to be aggressive and go for it on fourth down against Army when points may have felt more logical. They wanted to end a game on their own terms.

This staff has to figure it out, but fans may need to back off a bit and look at things more objectively. Things are not as good as they could be or maybe should be heading into year five, but they are nowhere near as bad as some of the hottest takes suggest, either.

Not good enough? Correct.

Need to be better? Correct.

A “disaster” and “failure” to this point? Meh. Not really. Disappointing, sure. A lot to be desired, sure.

It would be interesting to see what this program could do if they can get out of their own way. Maybe it starts this weekend against Wisconsin. Or the mistakes continue and we’re back to sifting through the filth for something positive to take away from it.