With as many twists and turns as Michigan’s 2018 season took, as many swings of emotion, it could almost be turned into a play. In fact, with its highs and lows, ebbs and flows, the season was borderline Shakespearean. Dinner theater on turf. Shakespeare in the rectangle. In the end, Michigan was more or less the team many suspected it would be, but the path there was far from direct.
Act I: Notre Dame
Michigan’s season started with the resumption of its rivalry with Notre Dame. The fact that few missed the game in the four years it hadn’t been played did little to dampen spirits when the intra-sectional rivals kicked off the season under the lights in South Bend. If the Notre Dame game served as a test for the Wolverines, however, it was one for which they didn’t seem to be especially well prepared. The Wolverines never looked sharp, got out of the blocks slowly, rallied late, but ultimately ended up on the short end of a 24-17 final score. I wrote at the time that there is no shame in losing to Notre Dame, a statement that proved more true as the season progressed, as the Irish ultimately ran the table and earned a spot in the college football playoff. But the way the Wolverines lost was troubling. Offensive line play had long been a concern for the Wolverines and it proved to be the difference against the Notre Dame, as Michigan simply couldn’t keep the Irish defensive front at bay. Late game comeback or not, it was an inauspicious start for the Wolverines, and one that didn’t bode well for the rest of the season.
Act II: The Revenge Tour
In the wake of the Notre Dame loss, senior tailback Karan Higdon insisted the setback wouldn’t define Michigan’s season. It seemed like little more than rhetoric at the time, after all, the season opener didn’t resemble the start of a new season as much as a continuation of Michigan’s prior season. Over time, however, Higdon would prove prescient. Michigan bounced back with victories against non-conference opponents Western Michigan and Air Force, but it wasn’t until the conference season that Michigan really found its groove, as the Wolverines rolled off ten consecutive victories, highlighted by convincing decisions over Nebraska, Wisconsin and Penn State.
It was after defeating Wisconsin in October that the “Revenge Tour” was born. Senior defensive end Chase Winovich is generally credited with coining the term, or the cause, if you prefer. Winovich explained that the “Revenge Tour” provided inspiration to get even with teams that “bullied” the Wolverines the season before. “I wanted our lunch money back,” Winovich said, adding that, “and I wanted them (Michigan’s opponents) to pay interest.” Suddenly Michigan had a mission, a rallying cry.
Continuing the “payback” theme, in a Dantonian maneuver, the Wolverines sought motivation wherever they could find it. From two-year-old, post-game comments uttered by Scott Frost (when he coached Central Florida, no less), to Penn State coaches reportedly laughing on the sidelines as the Nittany Lions rolled up the score last season to pre-game shenanigans in East Lansing slight was too, well, slight.
Through it all, Michigan improved each week, and by the time the trees were bare, the Wolverines were playing as well as any team in the country. Michigan had finally found its quarterback in transfer Shane Patterson, had largely straightened out its offensive line issues and Higdon thrived leading the ground attack upon which the offense was based.
Michigan was clicking on offense, but it was on defense where the Wolverines really shone. Ranked among the nation’s leading defenses much of the year, All-American Devin Bush led an ever-attacking defense that held opponents to fewer than two touchdowns and 235 total yards a game over the season’s first 11 games. With a defensive line led by Winovich and Rashan Gary and a secondary led by cornerbacks David Long and LaVert Hill, Michigan was almost impossible to throw on. The Wolverines weren’t much easier to run on.
As the season progressed, the Wolverines climbed to polls and impressed the pundits. So much so that Michigan was described by some as “Bama Ready” and went into Columbus for the season finale as a road favorite to take on a struggling Buckeye team. Everything seemed to be lining up for the Wolverines and even those in Scarlet and Gray seemed resigned to the fact that this was Michigan’s year.
Act III: The Letdown
Since someone brought up Shakespeare, the Bard wrote that, “all causes shall give way.” The “Revenge Tour” not only eventually gave way, but did so in spectacular fashion. We may never know if Michigan was “Bama Ready” (although, I think the answer is pretty clear at this point), but it certainly wasn’t “Ohio State Ready,” as the Buckeyes embarrassed the Wolverines in the season finale, rolling up 62 points and more than 500 yards of total offense. The defeat brought a once-promising season to a sudden and violent end. A month later in the Peach Bowl, emotionally wounded and physically undermanned, as four Wolverines opted to skip the bowl game in lieu of preparing for the NFL draft, Michigan completed its late-season swoon with another embarrassing loss, as a Florida team that struggled offensively throughout the year cruised to 41 points and 400-plus yards. When the dust settled, a defense had been considered the nation’s best just two games prior finished the season by giving up more than 100 points and nearly 1,000 yards over its last two games. And as a result, a season that looked to be different from past seasons ended very similarly, with multiple-game, season-ending losing streaks.
To come full circle, it was more than 400 years ago that Shakespeare famously penned, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” On first glance, it seems a rather ominous sentiment, one that surely resonates in Ann Arbor today. However, when taken in context, it’s actually the first line of a speech meant to suggest that the bad times have crested and that better days lay ahead. Can that be the case with Harbaugh’s Michigan?
Toward that end, there could be a silver lining to this season’s disappointing finish. There can be no more debate, inside or outside of Schembechler Hall, that for Michigan to make the leap from good to great, to truly be elite, the Wolverines need to make fundamental changes. Michigan’s “grind-it-out” style content to deliver four quarters of body blows simply isn’t enough in today’s game. At least not against elite teams. There are signs that Harbaugh, if not embracing change, is at least accepting the necessity of it. Harbaugh will open next season with four new assistant coaches, highlighted by new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. It remains to be seen whether the hires will result in simply a change in faces around the football complex or if the hires signal a change in the direction of the program. If Michigan wants to take the next step, and end its practice of ending the season on a down note, it will have to be the latter.