It’s easy to make snap judgments, to overreact based on one performance, particularly early in the season. Doing so can result in perceptions ranging from great to terrible and back again from week to week. As difficult as it may be in the moment, it’s always prudent to take the long view, to try to put things in perspective. That’s probably the best way to approach Michigan’s season-opening loss to Notre Dame Saturday night, a game that wasn’t as close as the 24-17 final score might suggest.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said afterward that the loss wasn’t the end, but rather the beginning for the Wolverines. Senior Captain Karan Higdon echoed his coach’s sentiments, saying, “We can’t let this game define us. This is only the beginning.” All of this is true. It was the first game of the season, after all, and there’s no shame in losing to Notre Dame. The Irish are a top 15 team led by a dynamic quarterback, and were playing at home in front of a raucous, opening night crowd. But for the Wolverines, Saturday night’s game wasn’t as much a beginning as it was the continuation of a trend (one brought up in my closing argument), and a troubling one, at that.
Last season, Michigan was undone by an offense that couldn’t keep up with its defense, largely due to one fundamental flaw: The Wolverines simply weren’t strong enough at the point of attack. Football games are largely won and lost in the trenches, and that’s where the Wolverines still cannot compete with elite teams. Michigan’s offensive line was a concern heading into the season, and it was the story Saturday night. Michigan was held to a mere 58 yards rushing while allowing three sacks and six QB-hurries. The Notre Dame defensive front dominated the line of scrimmage, as Michigan’s linemen, particularly its tackles, looked as if they were playing on skates much of the night. Michigan had no answer for the Irish up front, and that was the game, in a nutshell.
Not that there wasn’t plenty of blame to pass around. Michigan’s defense was gashed in the first quarter, and continues to surrender crucial third down conversions. There were bad penalties, muffed snaps and confounding time management (there were times late in the fourth quarter when you would be forgiven for thinking that Michigan, and not Notre Dame, was trying to run the clock). But ultimately, you can’t win if you can’t block. And against the Irish, Michigan couldn’t.
Karan Higdon ran hard, and probably deserved more than the 72 yards with which he finished. Despite a rather pedestrian stat line, Quarterback Shea Patterson, acquitted himself well enough in his debut for the Wolverines, considering he had neither a running game on which to rely or any time in the pocket. And that’s what really hurt the Wolverines. It’s not just that Patterson was constantly hurried, often forced out of the pocket, but rather the offensive line’s impact on the flow of the game, particularly the play-calling.
Much was made of Michigan’s play-calling and the Wolverines’ refusal to stretch the field, but when you can’t protect your quarterback long enough for your receivers to advance downfield, you get what you got, a game plan that consisted of roll-outs, dump-offs and short passes. Notre Dame crowded the line of scrimmage knowing that Michigan couldn’t go over the top, and by doing so, largely made life miserable for Patterson and company.
Michigan recorded just one road victory against a team with a winning record last season, and that was against a 7-6 Purdue team. That trend continued Saturday in South Bend and isn’t likely to change until Michigan straightens out its offensive line. But while many of the mistakes Michigan made can be corrected, offensive line play isn’t such an easy fix. So while the outcome of Saturday night’s game might not define Michigan’s season, the way in which the Wolverines lost just might.