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Reality Check: Michigan Humbled in Blowout Loss to Wisconsin

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Michigan’s loss to Wisconsin further highlighted issues to which there don’t seem to be many easy fixes.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

What can even be said about a game like this? A game so thoroughly dominated by Wisconsin that the second half was rendered meaningless. A game in which Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor rushed for 143 yards … in the first quarter. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh summed up the game about as succinctly as anyone could, saying that his Wolverines were out-prepared, out-coached and out-played. If you watched the game, that’s something you already knew.

Wisconsin dominated the Wolverines in every phase of the game in a wire-to-wire thrashing that wasn’t as close as the 35-14 final score. But how could Michigan have been as unprepared as it was? Coming off a bye week, at that. It was a question to which no one seemed to have an answer.

After the game, Michigan defensive end Aiden Hutchinson said Michigan wasn’t surprised by anything that Wisconsin did offensively. Safety Josh Metellus echoed his teammate’s sentiments, saying the Wolverines knew what Wisconsin was going to try to do. Establish the run. Ride Taylor. That’s exactly what the Badgers did, yet the Wolverines had no answers. “They (Wisconsin) did what they’ve been doing the past couple seasons,” Metellus said. “They came in with the mindset that they were going to try to run the ball on us. We tried to limit it as much as possible, but we just couldn’t get it done.” Credit Metellus for his candor.

With Michigan defenseless, the Badgers controlled the game, outrushing Michigan 200-0 in the first half (yes, you read that correctly) and 359-40 for the game. And when Wisconsin did take to the air, Michigan could do little to stop that either, as Badger quarterback Jack Coan completed 13 of 16 passes for an efficient 128 yards.

Michigan, for its part, couldn’t put anything together offensively. The Wolverines misfired and missed blocks. Michigan didn’t reach the end zone until deep into the second half, at a point when the game was long out of reach. A more thorough beating would be hard to imagine, particularly in a game that supposedly pitted evenly matched opponents.

After the game, I caught up with Joel Klatt, who called the game for Fox Sports. I asked him if he ever saw that coming, such a decisive victory for the Badgers. Not at all, Klatt said, adding that he fully anticipated a close game. Klatt added that the game’s outcome, to him, was a testament to how good Wisconsin is, more than anything else.

Klatt is correct. Wisconsin is a very good team, probably better than people realized, and the Badgers played about as well as a team could play Saturday. But to focus only on Wisconsin is only telling half the story. Because Michigan’s performance Saturday said more about the Wolverines than it did about the Badgers.

Michigan came into this season with the promise a fancy new offense and a defense that would be better able to adapt. Three games into the season and Michigan has shown neither. Three games into the season and Michigan continues to look confused all-too-often, on defense and especially on offense.

Michigan players vowed not to give up and further vowed to get better every week. There’s no reason to doubt their sincerity nor their drive. But these are not quick fixes. And it’s not solely on the players. Michigan isn’t struggling due to lack of effort. The real question is, can Harbaugh and his coaches make the necessary adjustments to pull the Wolverines out of their funk? Saturday’s performance against Wisconsin doesn’t provide much reason to believe they can.

After the game, Harbaugh acknowledged that he and his team, “have a lot to clean up.” That, they do.