The Michigan Wolverines are human.
After a non-conference run that was characterized as “easier than completing a pass against Michigan State,” for the second year in a row, the Wolverines struggled in their Big Ten opener.
Maryland followed in the footsteps of Rutgers from a year ago by executing a physical game plan with clever schemes and playing with a tenacious underdog mentality. Both games came down to the final few possessions and was swung by a timely turnover created by the Michigan defense.
But in the end, the Scarlet Knights were unable to storm the castle and the turtles couldn’t quite catch the hare.
Team 143 has been widely propped up by fans and pundits alike, but projecting November results before handling September business is an exercise in futility — just ask Oklahoma. The team and the hype surrounding them was gaining momentum like arguments in the 1990s focused on Tom Hanks becoming the best actor of his generation.
After a string of hits with performances that can be described with words from Adam Levine DMs, Hanks’ next movie is That Thing You Do; it wasn’t a failure, but it’s far from the level of his previous work. The argument for Hanks isn’t proven wrong, but it is showing some cracks in the foundation.
Michigan had been advertised as a powerhouse, but a less than convincing win exposes visible cracks and concerns moving forward. What we learned on Saturday is that panic meters may vary among fans, but they will more than likely fall into one of three tiers.
So where is your level of panic?
Tier 1 — Not Panicked: “This isn’t even as bad as Rutgers last year”
Rutgers entered the Big House last year as a 20.5-point underdog and punched Michigan in the mouth. The Scarlet Knights out-gained the Wolverines 353-275 (Michigan’s worst offensive outing in 2021 in terms of yards), out-rushed Michigan 119-112 (second-worst outing of the season), held the Wolverines to 2.9 yards per carry (second worst of the season), shut Michigan out in the second half (the only scoreless half of the season), and limited quarterback Cade McNamara and the Wolverines to only one completed pass in the second half. One.
Michigan’s second half possessions:
-Three and out
-Three and out
-Three and out
-Three and out
-Missed field goal
Michigan had to force a turnover on downs and a fumble on Rutgers’ final possession to cling to victory.
On Saturday, Maryland played like a team that brought back 15 starters — including its entire offensive line — and also welcomed back key skill players from injuries. The Terrapins won’t contend for a national title, but they will win more than five games.
Saturday’s win was ugly, but not remotely as ugly or concerning as last year’s against Rutgers.
Tier 2 — Slightly panicked: “Could this team be the 2018 team with an easier non-conference schedule and better PR?”
The 2018 Wolverines were one of the most exciting Michigan teams of the 2010s. After falling to Notre Dame in the season opener, the Wolverines won 10 straight including the infamous Revenge Tour where Michigan avenged 2017 losses against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State, in back-to-back-to-back weeks.
All signs were pointing to an unforgettable game against Ohio State and it was, except for the absolute worst of reasons. The Wolverines were demolished in Columbus, 62-39, and the culmination of the Revenge Tour was put on ice until 2021.
Michigan’s multiple play-caller approach and overly-aggressive defense were finally exploited by a talented team with a clear identity on both sides of the ball. The Wolverines’ undersized lead back Karan Higdon wore down throughout the course of the year due to a heavy workload, and quarterback Shea Patterson was a mixed cocktail: equal parts excitement and erraticism.
Defensively, the unit’s group pass rushing approach (seven sacks led the team, but seven players registered two or more) was stymied and Ohio State ripped through the nation’s second-best secondary like a knife through butter.
If the 2022 Wolverines cannot sort out their potentially paralleling characteristics, this could be an 11-1 season with several great moments, but an unforgettably familiar dark ending.
Tier 3 — Very panicked: “Oh no, we suck again!”
This is a bad tier — Michigan is taking a step back this year for several reasons and Saturday is just the beginning.
Losing both coordinators and play-callers on both sides of the ball is one thing, but defensively, losing two elite pass rushers, a veteran linebacker and a first-round safety makes competing with Penn State and Ohio State almost an impossibility.
Offensively, there is talent everywhere, but the blueprint has already been written to frustrate the unit: rush three or four, drop everyone else and let J.J. McCarthy beat himself.
The 2021 season was lightning in a bottle — a magical season — and Team 143 is missing the talent, hunger and leadership of the previous season. Much like the 2017 team trying to replicate the magic of the prior year, this team has been a victim of unrealistic expectations and they are going to come crashing down sooner than later as Michigan struggles to eight or nine wins.
Following the lackluster performance against Rutgers last season, the Wolverines marched into Madison and decisively beat Wisconsin 38-17 to secure their first victory at Camp Randall since 2001.
Can the Wolverines turn in a Tom Hanks Saving Private Ryan bounce back performance against Iowa next weekend — a place where Michigan has not won since 2005? Or is Michigan parading around like a generational talent when in actuality they are closer to Christian Slater?
Saturday will just be the start, but like every year, all questions will be answered against That Team Down South.
Until then, panic accordingly.