The game had been over for nearly an hour, but Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson couldn’t stop staring at the final stat sheet. The sophomore defensive end was clearly not happy with what he was reading. “We just didn’t execute like we wanted to,” Hutchinson said, shaking his head. “You’re not going to win many games when you’re letting up 50, 60 points.” For emphasis, he added, “It’s not going to happen.” Hutchinson was right, of course, and that was the story of the game. Again.
For a quarter, at least, it looked like Michigan was up to the challenge this year. After 15 minutes, the Wolverines trailed by a single point (courtesy of a missed extra point), 14-13. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson completed eight of 11 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown and was able to find an open receiver on seemingly every play.
This was the offense, it appeared, that Michigan had been promising all season. One that was capable of picking up yards – and points – in bunches. Trailing 14-6, Patterson connected on throws of nine, 41 and 25 yards in a three-play touchdown drive that took just over a minute. Michigan, it seemed, had come to play.
But that was only half the story. Because while it may have been a new offense for Michigan, it was the same old defense. The same defense that surrendered 62 points and 567 yards to Ohio State last season would ultimately give up 56 points and 577 yards this year. Déjà vu all over again, you might say. But all Yogi-isms aside, for two years running, Michigan’s defense was neither prepared to defend Ohio State’s offense nor able to adjust to do so. And speaking in plain terms, until that changes, Michigan won’t be able to compete with, let alone defeat, Ohio State.
Michigan players talked after the game about the many mistakes the Wolverines made. And mistakes, there were plenty. Missed assignments, blown coverages and crucial penalties. Running backs misreading blocking schemes at key moments. Costly fumbles, curious play calls and dropped passes. Oh, the dropped passes. It seemed there was an entire third quarter full of them. “We made some mistakes” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. He was certainly right. But that wasn’t the entire story.
Why Ohio State was able to execute and Michigan wasn’t is a question for Harbaugh and his coaching staff. But this wasn’t a one or two possession game. Had Michigan executed more cleanly, the Wolverines likely would have kept it closer, but like Hutchinson said, you’re not going to win many games giving up 50 or 60 points. And Michigan has done exactly that. Two years in a row.
So where does this leave Michigan as a program? The same place it was last season.
I wrote last year that under Harbaugh Michigan is, “a very good, but not great team that will struggle against elite teams.” And in that regard, nothing has changed. Despite a new offense that seemed to be playing better every week, until Michigan can find a way to defend truly elite teams, this is the team it will continue to be. Very good, but not elite.