Blame Jim Harbaugh — and lack of a QB — for Michigan football’s purgatory
With back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Alabama, the Wolverines coach is again under scrutiny.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Michigan football is in purgatory. Good season followed by good season followed by down season followed by good season.
Jim Harbaugh arrived five years ago and immediately gave Michigan a jolt. He deserves credit for stabilizing the program.
Yet he was hired to win big. Until he finds and develops an elite quarterback, he won’t.
He’s tried everything else.
Harbaugh has changed defensive coordinators, defensive line coaches, offensive coordinators, quarterbacks coaches. He’s changed schemes and philosophies and the way he communicates with his players.
He’s gone from headline-making recruiting jaunts and firing lobs on Twitter to receding into the (relative) quiet inside Schembechler Hall. He’s tried everything, really, to sell the program and build the program and win the kind of game he lost Wednesday against Alabama.
The kind of game he’s yet to win.
He came close against Ohio State in his second season in Ann Arbor and lost by a few inches in the end. Everyone remembers the agonizing replay that gave the Buckeyes a first down that led to their winning score in overtime.
But Michigan would not have been in overtime if its quarterback, Wilton Speight, hadn’t thrown a pick-six late in the second quarter. Speight was playing hurt that game and maybe he steps into the rushing defender in a more commanding way if he’d been healthy.
Not that the Wolverines lost because of Speight. There were other chances to make plays. Many chances.
Yet in football it’s still about the quarterback. And while it’s not fair to lay the loss at Speight’s feet, it is fair to say he couldn’t do enough to lift his team.
He’s not alone.
No Michigan quarterback has. Not in the moments when a Big Ten title is on the line.
If you’re looking for a reason Harbaugh hasn’t been able to win the conference or get to the college football playoff, this is the place to start.
He has no one to blame but himself.
Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor with a reputation as a quarterback guru for good reason. Everywhere he’d been, he developed a difference-maker at the most critical spot on the field.
At San Diego, he produced Josh Johnson. At Stanford, Andrew Luck. At San Francisco he propped up Alex Smith and unleashed Colin Kaepernick.
Yeah, most coaches would’ve won with Luck. He was that kind of talent. But Harbaugh hasn’t even found a Josh Johnson for Michigan.
Jake Rudock was the closest. A grad transfer from Iowa who got to Ann Arbor when Harbaugh did five years ago. Rudock was a fine player and is hanging around the fringes of the NFL.
At the time, he seemed like the starting point. Instead, he’s been the high point. Better than anyone who has followed. Certainly, more consistent.
And while Shea Patterson had more overall playmaking ability and absolutely improved during his two seasons under Harbaugh, he still had too many moments like Wednesday, when he’d drop back, feel the pressure, take off running, and … fumble.
Or throw an interception.
Or miss a deep ball to an open receiver. Though Michigan’s receivers struggled to get consistently open against Alabama.
Which brings us to Harbaugh’s other struggle since he took over the Wolverines: finding game-breakers. For if you don’t have an elite quarterback, you’ve got to have elite playmaking.
Michigan hasn’t had either. Not at the level you see at Alabama, or Ohio State, or Clemson, or LSU, or even Georgia.
If you watched the semifinal last week between Ohio State and Clemson you saw speed all over the field. You also saw two endlessly talented quarterbacks.
Again, if you don’t have one, you better have the other. Give Patterson Alabama’s collection of future pros and Harbaugh doesn’t lose Wednesday. Heck, give Patterson just Jerry Jeudy and the game flips.
But then Jeudy is the best receiver in college football. He runs routes like a 10-year NFL veteran and he’s fast. And his 204-yard receiving performance earned him MVP honors in the Citrus Bowl.
Harbaugh said Patterson played well against Alabama. He said his receivers were mostly covered. One of those statements is true.
Even Patterson admitted he struggled. Said he missed some throws — he did. Said he couldn’t calm his happy feet — he couldn’t.
Still, his feet might have been happier if his receivers found more open space down the field. Which means asking him to fit passes into impossibly tight spaces isn’t fair.
He isn’t built to do that. The truth, though, is that no quarterback at Michigan under Harbaugh has done that consistently, either.
Patterson, like every quarterback who has played for Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, is a fine player. He’s helped Michigan win lots of games.
Just not the big games.
Unless Harbaugh rediscovers the magic unearthing and developing quarterbacks, this isn’t going to change. And U-M will be back here again next January, talking about another season that ended with a couple of losses.
Read more at usatoday.com