SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Perhaps Jim Harbaugh wishes he endured an offseason scandal.
Anything to redirect attention from what’s occurring on the field.
Notre Dame Stadium played host to another Harbaugh-produced dud Saturday night, an evening that went from sanguine to inauspicious as quickly as you can travel 96 yards in seven plays. It was as dispiriting as it was cautionary.
As Harbaugh and a handful of players filed into an overflowing media room for postgame interviews after their 24-17 defeat, a similar theme came from the mouth of each respondent: show resolve, fight hard, be resilient, compete to the end, dig deep.
If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The same message was used last November and the November before that. It’s what teams that lose say, and Michigan’s done a lot of that lately. Since starting his Michigan tenure 19-3, Harbaugh is 9-9 in the past 18 games.
Even worse, UM is in the midst of its first four-game losing streak since the Rich Rodriguez era. Not even Michigan punching bag Brady Hoke experienced a stretch this bad.
The buildup all summer centered on this game, the return of a time-honored rivalry with Notre Dame and the restoration of Michigan football into the spotlight with a modern, dynamic offense. But an entirely different story unfolded in the shadows of the Golden Dome.
The same rustic offense was unveiled, just with a better quarterback. Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton called another unimaginative game, with nary a hint of the explosive wide open offense discussed in August. In truth, it didn’t look too different from last season — a poor offensive line, a run game that couldn’t find space, and average receivers. In Michigan’s four consecutive losses, the offense has scored six touchdowns.
If the offensive line fails to block, it doesn’t matter how enterprising quarterback Shea Patterson is because his ability to make the right play is hindered.
“There’s a lot of potential,” Patterson said. “We’ve just got to learn from it. It’s a long season.”
“We played hard,” said senior running back Karan Higdon, who finished with 72 yards and a touchdown. “We played all four quarters. We can’t let this game define us.”
Defensive breakdowns in the first half only added to Michigan’s misery. Notre Dame scored on drives of 75 and 96 yards on its first two possessions, gaining chunks of yards with little resistance. There were missed tackles, careless penalties on third downs, and missed assignments that allowed the Irish offense to stay on the field.
Senior defensive end Chase Winovich, who had a costly third-down roughing the passer penalty, said earlier in the week the team’s trajectory would be revealed in South Bend. So what does that mean now?
“Sometimes quotes don’t age very well,” Winovich said. “If there’s anything about the trajectory, I’d say we were battling out there and sometimes things don’t go your way. That’s life. That’s football on the road under the lights. We’re just going to move on, and we’re going to keep at it. We’re coming together. In the locker room, one thing I did note, there wasn’t a lot of blaming.”
There’s plenty to go around. The offense didn’t move the football efficiently, the defense was uncharacteristically undisciplined, and the coaching staff — starting at the top — was outsmarted and startlingly ill-prepared.
One can’t lose sight of Notre Dame, ranked 12th, looking like a top-10 team. At the same time, it appears Michigan is the same team that can’t win a big game or beat anyone of substance on the road.
“It’s a beginning for us,” Harbaugh said. “We’re not treating it like the end.”
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