When Lloyd Carr retired as Michigan head coach in 2007, it didn’t seem like there would be much drop off when Rich Rodriguez assumed the reigns. But since then, Michigan football has been plagued by six years of mediocrity, and one 11-2 season thanks to Brady Hoke’s best year during an otherwise forgetful 4-year tenure. So fans of the Wolverines owe little apology to anyone for their unbridled enthusiasm with Jim Harbaugh now coaching the team. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm may be a bit low key for the remainder of the 2015 season.
The unranked Utah Utes delivered sobering reality for the program last Thursday. Utah grabbed the lead early and never looked as threatened as the 24-17 final score might suggest. But perhaps the Wolverines could have threatened if not for some crucial mistakes.
The most-obvious mistakes are owed to Iowa transfer quarterback Jake Rudock, who had three interceptions on the afternoon. One was a painful red-zone interception while the other was a pick-six that hurt any chance of a comeback.
However, this loss was more than just about one guy tossing picks. The Michigan running game only managed a paltry 76 yards on 29 carries – good for 2.6 yards per carry. The offensive line didn’t do the greatest job of creating holes and the running backs didn’t offer any sort of explosion, with the longest run being just 7 yards.
It’s not like the offense can look towards the receivers for big-play potential either; after all, there’s not one pass catcher on the roster who tallied a reception for 35 yards or more last season.
Moving to the other side of the ball, Michigan doesn’t feature a defense with big-play potential. This unit only forced 10 turnovers last year – good for 126th in Division 1A – and they got just one turnover against the Utes. It was a mere interception on a half-time Hail Mary attempt by Utah.
If there’s one thing that the defense did good, it was holding star running back Devontae Booker to 69 yards on 22 carries. But on the downside, QB Travis Wilson burned them for 53 yards while they were trying to contain Booker.
One takeaway from the Utah game is that college football’s winningest program won’t be restored to glory overnight – even with a fiery Harbaugh screaming into his headset. This team is coming off a 5-7 season under Hoke and they’ve lost at least seven games in five of the past season seasons.
This wouldn’t be Harbaugh’s first time taking over a reclamation project since he did so at Stanford before making the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers relevant again. Success with the Niners came quick, with Harbaugh going 13-3 in just his first season. But at Stanford, he was just 4-8 and 5-7 before engineering a big turnaround. Based on Michigan’s 2015 schedule, the Stanford scenario might be a little more realistic. Games at Maryland, vs. Michigan State, vs. Northwestern, at Minnesota, at Penn State and vs. Ohio State all figure to test this team greatly.
But it appears that Harbaugh is more than prepared to deal with the ups and downs. He said that overall he was “impressed” with his team’s effort in the first outing. And if Harbaugh seems pretty lenient about his school’s losing effort, it’s probably because he knows better days are coming in the future.