What’s wrong with Wolver­ines?

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Nick Baum­gard­ner

COLUM­BUS, Ohio – Michi­gan foot­ball woke up the morn­ing of Nov. 24 in con­trol of its Big Ten ti­tle and Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off des­tiny.

Know­ing what we know now, it’s al­most ridicu­lous to think that was pos­si­ble.

Four years into head coach Jim Har­baugh’s ten­ure, four losses to Ohio State. Four­teen years with­out a Big Ten ti­tle. Four­teen losses in 15 tries in this once iconic ri­valry. Count­less let­downs. An end­less pa­rade of what-ifs.

One re­al­ity.

When it comes to the big stage and big mo­ment, Michi­gan foot­ball sim­ply doesn’t de­liver. It hasn’t in years. Nov. 24 in the Horse­shoe, just hours af­ter hold­ing the an­ti­dote to this al­lergy in the palm of its hand, the pro­gram felt as far away from solv­ing that rid­dle as it did at the end of a malaise-filled five-loss cam­paign a year ago.

“We’ll come back mo­ti­vated to make darn sure it doesn’t hap­pen again,” Har­baugh said af­ter a 62-39 past­ing in Colum­bus.

Down and out, talk­ing about not let­ting stuff like this hap­pen again — for the umpteenth time in the last umpteen years.

Part of U-M’s prob­lem has been its chief com­peti­tors. Namely Ohio State.

Ur­ban Meyer might strug­gle to make some hu­man Hall of Fame lists af­ter the calamity his pro­gram went through this sum­mer. But this is one of the great­est col­lege foot­ball coaches ever. He ad­justs, he adapts, he evolves, he grinds and he wins. He’s 81-9 at Ohio State. Nick Sa­ban is the only hu­man alive who has done it bet­ter for longer.

But there’s also this. Michi­gan woke up Nov. 24 with ev­ery­thing on the line. It got off the bus, warmed up, lined up for the kick­off.

And then com­pletely and to­tally froze. A pack of deer star­ing into the world’s largest pair of head­lights.

As this pro­gram has done in vir­tu­ally ev­ery sea­son-defining mo­ment it’s faced over the past 15 years.

Har­baugh in­her­ited this prob­lem and was brought here to solve it. He hasn’t been able to. There’s some­thing deeper here that seems im­pos­si­ble to put your finger on, though. Be­cause this is sys­temic. Frus­tra­tion begets more frus­tra­tion, which leads to more sit­u­a­tions like Nov. 24. Over and over again. U-M doesn’t have a sin­gle player on its ros­ter who had won a game like this. Last year’s team didn’t ei­ther. Nei­ther did the group be­fore that, or be­fore that.

The only Michi­gan team to beat Ohio State in the last 14 years did so by six at home against coach Luke Fick­ell. U-M foot­ball once stood on a foun­da­tion of con­sis­tency where play­ers passed down habits and at­ti­tude and the knowl­edge of what, ex­actly, it takes to thrive on stages like this.

That’s been gone for years.

This isn’t the 1970s, ’80s or even the ’90s any­more. Ev­ery­one spends money on foot­ball now. You don’t get to hang your hat on shared ti­tles any­more. There’s an all-or-noth­ing as­pect to col­lege foot­ball now that’s far too in­tense for many to han­dle.

Har­baugh has stead­ied a num­ber of things at Michi­gan. The Wolver­ines aren’t watch­ing Rut­gers tear down goal­posts like Brady Hoke did in 2014. They’re not los­ing to Toledo or get­ting con­sis­tently pounded by the ma­jor­ity of the Big Ten ev­ery year like Rich Ro­driguez did. UM’s aca­demic num­bers are ter­rific. Har­baugh is 2-1 vs. Wis­con­sin, 3-1 vs. Penn State and has now pulled even at 2-2 vs. Mark Dan­to­nio.

But they’re still win­less against big, bad Ohio State. And the longer that con­tin­ues, the more this process will re­peat it­self. The more you’ll con­tinue to lose crit­i­cal head-to-head re­cruit­ing bat­tles that keep the tal­ent differ­en­tial the way it is. The more you’ll strug­gle to es­tab­lish a big-game cul­ture. The more frus­tra­tion you’ll face.

There are many things that can be pointed to for blame for the drub­bing in Colum­bus. Har­baugh, who had made progress this sea­son in be­ing less stub­born offen­sively, went right back to the old con­ser­va­tive well by try­ing to tip­toe his way up a moun­tain. The zone-read wrin­kles? Gone. At­tack­ing mis­matches on Ohio State’s lineback­ers in cov­er­age? Nope. Be­ing less pre­dictable? Not even close.

Don Brown’s de­fense clearly over­sold its abil­ity to run with Ohio State and never had an an­swer in space. Nor­mally a unit that brings the fight to op­po­nents, U-M’s de­fense stood there and watched Ohio State throw hay­maker af­ter hay­maker with its jaw on the ground.

Dropped passes, poor block­ing, missed as­sign­ments.

A lot of stuff that re­ally boils down to one thing.

This was an­other big-stage throat-grab.

There are no clear so­lu­tions for this. At this point, Michi­gan’s best bet might be to hope Meyer re­tires and Ohio State bun­gles its next hire. Oth­er­wise, you’re just go­ing to have to find a way to kick down the tough­est door the mod­ern ver­sion of Michi­gan foot­ball has ever faced.

With play­ers and coaches who have never done it.

A pop­u­lar fan re­sponse to the state­ment that Har­baugh has to find a way to beat Ohio State is “or what?” As in, “Are they go­ing to fire him if he doesn’t? Stop play­ing foot­ball? What?”

Michi­gan is liv­ing the “or what” right now.

An­other year where your big­gest ri­val made you look in­fe­rior. An­other year of dashed hope. An­other year of missed op­por­tu­nity. An­other year of not de­liv­er­ing in the sea­son’s big­gest mo­ment.

Cham­pi­onship pro­grams de­liver. Michi­gan hasn’t been a cham­pi­onship-level pro­gram in more than a decade.

And the cur­rent dis­tance be­tween what­ever this is and that seems aw­fully wide right now.

JOE MAIO­RANA/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Jim Har­baugh’s Michi­gan squad lost all chance for a Big Ten ti­tle and Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off berth with the Buck­eyes’ sev­enth con­sec­u­tive vic­tory over the Wolver­ines, 62-39.

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