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What we learned from the worst loss of the Jim Harbaugh era

Something is rotten in the state of Michigan.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

How is everyone feeling? Awful? Close to death? Personally, my stomach hurts from all the crow I have eaten the last 24 hours.

In what felt like a fever dream, Michigan was beaten on Saturday by not-so-little brother, Michigan State, 27-24.

Starting with the defense, the Wolverines’ heralded front seven produced only two tackles for loss and no sacks. Compare that to Rutgers from the previous week who racked up three sacks and 12 tackles for loss against the Spartans.

This lack of disruption placed the defensive burden on the secondary (*gulp*) and allowed Rocky Lombardi to feast upon Michigan’s weakest position group.

The cornerbacks were continuously picked on by Lombardi and true freshman Ricky White who tallied eight catches for 196 yards and a touchdown. Every corner struggled, but none more than Vincent Gray who has apparently forgotten how to football.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown is again being held in the stockade by fans because of his inability to adapt mid-game. Reminiscent of the 2018 Ohio State game where Brown refused to adjust to zone coverage as the Buckeyes put up a 60-burger against the Revenge Tour Wolverines.

Brown has taken strides to implement zone coverages and to tweak his scheme since, but his lack of in-game malleability ultimately feels like the nail in the coffin for his Michigan tenure.

Offensively, things did not go much better.

A confused Joe Milton was uncomfortable behind a perplexed offensive line as receivers took turns dropping passes. Milton’s leadership and command were absent and he played as if he had never seen zone coverage before.

The continuity and dominance of the offensive line from last week was gone as they struggled to stop even basic four-man pressures and establish a running game. The line surrendered six tackles for loss and one sack and it felt far more dominant than that.

Second year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was unable to carry his play calling mojo over from last week. But Michigan’s inability to run between the tackles did not stop Gattis from repeatedly trying. This escalation of commitment to the inside run doomed the offense that faced a third down average of just under 10 yards to go.

As far as the “hurry-up” offense display at the end of the game, I have no words.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh has always been the coach who wins the games he is supposed to, save for Iowa in 2016. But even that Iowa loss was far from the complete and utter disaster that Saturday was.

I try not to be over reactionary, but if Harbaugh begins to falter in these games as well as big games, what’s the point in retaining him beyond this season?

On Saturday, we learned that this game was lost long before it was played. The Paul Bunyan Trophy was lost Monday-Friday in the preparation, game plan, and could have residual ramifications that change the course of the program.

This loss is evident of a systemic issue from the top down. Now, do I believe Michigan will be this bad the rest of the season? No. But even being playing better than Saturday does not guarantee the Wolverines a .500 record with Indiana, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State remaining on the schedule.

We have seen Harbaugh’s ceiling, but now are we starting to see the floor?

The entire staff will be evaluated on a game-by-game basis the rest of the season culminating in The Game with everything at stake.

In one week, the season narrative has swung from “Harbaugh’s best team” to “Harbaugh’s last team.” Life comes at you fast.

Last week in a roundtable, I said this game was a Civil War, except it was 49 states against Delaware.

Congratulations to the Diamond State.