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What we learned about Michigan in its loss to Wisconsin

You learn more in defeat than victory and Michigan received a PhD’s worth of knowledge on Saturday.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Michigan at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back, Michigan Wolverine faithful.

We gather here today, battered, bruised, and possibly still hungover to discuss what we learned from Saturday’s 35-14 loss to Wisconsin.

Normally, we address lessons learned from Michigan, the Big Ten, and college football at large, but since the Wolverines had a bye last week, this week, the Wolverines get the full attention.

While Saturday’s game deserves a tear-stained dissertation and PowerPoint accompaniment to fully comprehend the degree of ineptitude witnessed, this column will have to suffice for now.

Michigan Wolverines

Saturday was a classic whodunit.

Who did this to the Wolverines? Who is to blame for this failure? Who is to blame for the lack of discipline? Who is to blame for this embarrassment of a performance?

Players are the first suspects.

Shea Patterson was bad, Lavert Hill was worse, and the offensive line is in witness protection for the beating they allowed the quarterbacks to endure. But the entire roster is culpable in this loss.

Michigan has gone from a revenge tour motivation, hair on fire playing style to unfathomable regression in less than a year. There is not one position group demonstrating improvement from last season (except maybe punter because Will Hart is less than a god, but more than a man), so it is hard to place the blame on just one individual or group when the deficiencies are so widespread.

Next, the coordinators.

Josh Gattis is an easy suspect because fans have had bowel movements more explosive than this ‘#SpeedInSpace’ offense. But in his defense, he is a first time solo coordinator, with no play calling experience, who was offered complete autonomy at Michigan. Who hasn’t taken a job they weren’t qualified for?

Don Brown is also an undeserving suspect. The Badgers moved the ball at will in the first half, but the defense showed signs of life in the second. Moreover, it is hard to criticize a defense due to this offensive support: 1) 18:53 time of possession, 2) 4 turnovers, 3) Michigan’s leading rusher was backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey with 21 yards, and 4) Michigan went 0/11 on third down conversions.

No, the systemic failure on Saturday goes straight to head coach Jim Harbaugh.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Harbaugh was viewed as the savior to Michigan football with an unrivaled passion and competitive drive. He was a ‘Michigan Man,’ he had been a winner at every level, and he even wore a headset.

For two years, Harbaugh was as advertised: fiery on the sidelines, creative with play calls, and two plays away from 12-0 in 2016. Ohio State has yet to be toppled, but optimism was high in Ann Arbor.

Despite a disappointing 2017 season, Harbaugh was given a pass due to replacing 10 starters on defense and working with second and third string quarterbacks. But even with an 8-5 record, Michigan competed in every game.

2018 will be remembered for the late season collapse to the Buckeyes, but lost in the disappointment were the 10 straight wins, the ‘Revenge Tour’ and one of the most fun stretches in the history of Michigan football.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Above all, what made Harbaugh tolerable despite the goose egg in the win column against the Buckeyes, was the competitive nature of his teams. Michigan was in every game, even the blowouts, since 2015.

Here is every regular season Michigan loss and the preceding score at halftime.

2015

AT Utah (Lost 24-17), Trailed by 7 at halftime

Michigan State (Lost 27-23), Led by 3 at halftime

Ohio State (Lost 42-13), Trailed by 4 at halftime

Net halftime margin in regular season losses: -8

2016

AT Iowa (Lost 14-13), Led by 2 at halftime

AT Ohio State (Lost 30-27, 2OT), Led by 3 at halftime

Net halftime margin in regular season losses: +5

2017

Michigan State (Lost 14-10), Trailed by 11 at halftime

AT Penn State (Lost 42-13), Trailed by 8 at halftime

AT Wisconsin (Lost 24-10), Tied at halftime

Ohio State (Lost 31-20), Tied at halftime

Net halftime margin in regular season losses: -19

2018

AT Notre Dame (Lost 24-17), Trailed by 11 at halftime

AT Ohio State (Lost 62-39), Trailed by 5 at halftime

Net halftime margin in regular season losses: -16

2019

AT Wisconsin (Lost 35-14), Trailed by 28 at halftime

Net halftime margin in regular season losses: -28

Michigan always came ready for battle and while second halves would not always go their way, teams knew they were in for a fight.

2019 was supposed to be the year and it still could be. There are nine games remaining to sort everything out, but on Saturday we quickly learned that things must change if anything resembling greatness is to be achieved.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Army at Michigan

That could be as simple as a schematic change, personnel change, philosophy change, or anything in between.

Shea Patterson was the supposed to be the difference maker until he wasn’t. Then Josh Gattis was supposed to be the answer, but his offense seems to only be creating more problems.

It is obvious the only one that can be the true difference maker is the one that was hired to so in December of 2014: Jim Harbaugh.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Jim Harbaugh Introduced as Michigan Head Coach Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Three outcomes remain for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan.

  1. Harbaugh could right the ship and Michigan could win the Big Ten similar to 2016 Penn State.
  2. Harbaugh could earn the privilege of a 2020 hot seat by going 7-5 (or better) and beating Ohio State. But vocal disapproval will inundate Schembechler Hall if this team drops three or four games before the Buckeyes.
  3. Harbaugh could have no seat at all if the Wolverines finish 9-3 (or worse) and lose to the Buckeyes for the fifth straight time.

Lastly, this is never fans, media, or former players, against the team; this is an impassioned battle cry from supporters against mediocrity. My only dog in this fight is Michigan.

Harbaugh or a replacement, spread offense or triple option, winning is the only constant definer of greatness and while consistent winning may be elusive this season, competitiveness should never be.

Change is needed and it can only come from the top.