The same-old narratives surrounding Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh simply are back again, and with good reason.
No. 6 Michigan held a 30-14 lead with 6:47 left in the third quarter against No. 8 Michigan State at Spartan Stadium and looked poised to take control of the Big Ten East race and maybe even give No.5 Ohio State something to think about — for real, this time.
Instead, Michigan endured a head-scratching collapse. Again.
It happened at the hands of its in-state rival in stunning fashion. Again.
Now, that narrative that the Wolverines can’t win the big game after a 37-33 loss to the Spartans is back. Again.
The blame will fall on Harbaugh, who fell to 2-13 against top-10 opponents since taking over at Michigan in 2015. That first top-10 loss was against No. 7 Michigan State on the “Punt Fumble” on Oct. 10, 2015.
Saturday’s loss will not be remembered in that vein, even if it was worse in some respects. Michigan State won the biggest matchup between the teams since the 1960s. The Spartans are now 4-3 against Harbaugh and 2-0 under second-year coach Mel Tucker, who has instilled a can’t-quit-toughness in the program that isn’t all that different from the peak of the Mark Dantonio era.
Running back Kenneth Walker used that to validate a Heisman Trophy campaign that resembles the year Lorenzo White carried the Spartans to a Big Ten championship in 1987. Walker rushed for 197 yards and five TDs. That included the game-tying 58-yard TD with 12:29 left in the fourth and the go-ahead score from 23 yards out with 5:08 remaining.
Michigan State suddenly will be the highest-ranked team in the first CFP rankings (even ahead of Ohio State), and with that complementary football will give the Buckeyes something to think about ahead of their showdown at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 20. Hey, the Spartans are the last Big Ten team to win there, and they did it on a CFP run in 2015. Ohio State fans remember that one.
Michigan? Well, those second-guesses are back. Again.
Running backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum were limited to 104 total yards, but quarterback Cade McNamara was dealing. He was 21 of 29 for 293 yards and two TDs heading into the fourth quarter.
Why did Harbaugh put freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy on the field with a 33-30 lead with 7:12 remaining? McCarthy fumbled, just as he had on his last play the previous series, and Michigan State’s Jacub Panasuik pounced on it. McCarthy might be the answer for the Wolverines at quarterback soon, but this was McNamara’s game. For what it’s worth, Harbaugh said afterward McNamara was working through an injury in the moment.
What happened to the defense? Michigan State’s offense revved up in the second half, and Payton Thorne shook off two first-half interceptions. Michigan State made the plays in crunch time and sealed the upset with a one-handed interception by Charles Brantley.
Not quite the “Punt Fumble,” but the same effect. Seriously, what has changed for Michigan six years later?
The Wolverines’ Big Ten championship hopes require help.
Michigan still has road games at No. 20 Penn State and Ohio State. All of the goodwill built up from an encouraging start with a revamped staff is gone. What’s most-disheartening in Ann Arbor is that McNamara put Michigan in position to win, but he wasn’t on the field in key second-half moments.
He won’t have to answer for that, but Harbaugh will.
That same-old narrative is alive and well, and it left Michigan wondering the same thing.
How did this happen again?