Measuring Jim Harbaugh’s real impact on Michigan in 2015
Michigan football finished its first regular season under head coach Jim Harbaugh 9-3, a record that surpassed many expectations.
But the Wolverines still couldn’t beat Ohio State. Or Michigan State for that matter.
"I’m very proud of the team and the way they’ve worked and the way they’ve progressed and we’ll just stay at that,” Harbaugh said after his team lost to the Buckeyes 42-13 Saturday. “Closed quite a bit of ground. There’s still more ground to close on but knowing our team, they’ll stay with it."
Looking back, Harbaugh’s first season — with a bowl game yet to go — has been full of notable accomplishments but not without disappointments.
There was the opener at Utah, when the Wolverines were competitive but came up a touchdown short of giving Harbaugh a win in his debut, followed by a five-game winning streak that included three shutouts and vaulted them into the top 15 in the nation.
Then came a stunning last-play loss to Michigan State and a four-game winning streak that included two last-play victories, games in which the Wolverines showed resolve that might have been missing in recent years under coaches Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke.
Few could dispute the notion there was more good than bad for the Wolverines through their first 11 games.
They were betting favorites to begin the week against Ohio State, which looked to be heading in the other direction after also losing to the Spartans on the last play of its game a week earlier, but the line moved over to the side of the Buckeyes before kickoff.
Then Urban Meyer’s team showed why, pushing Michigan around on the Wolverines’ home field for most of the afternoon and sending fans clad in maize and blue to the exits midway through the fourth quarter.
A game that was not as competitive as any of the four Harbaugh’s predecessor, Hoke, coached against the Buckeyes showed some of the differences between the programs at this point.
While Hoke did a few things right, including stocking the Wolverines with Scout.com top-five recruiting classes in 2012 and ’13, he also left Harbaugh with some holes in his roster.
Hoke followed an 11-2 first season by going 8-5 then 7-6. As the on-field product dwindled in quality, so did Hoke’s ability to bring in talent. His last two classes ranked just 27th and 35th nationally.
Meanwhile, Meyer has signed the No. 1 class in the Big Ten all four years since he was hired (Jim Tressel’s last class was No. 1, too), averaging a top-five national ranking the last four years.
While the stars of Michigan’s talented defense were Hoke recruits, the offense was also a reflection of where he fell short.
Despite an emphasis on recruiting offensive linemen, Michigan wasn’t able to consistently open holes against most of the better teams it faced, failing to reach triple digits in rushing yards against Utah, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State.
Hoke recruits Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt had career years as pass catchers, but it took a quarterback (Jake Rudock) brought in by Harbaugh for them to accomplish that.
Harbaugh signed a small class on his first signing day last February, and he is working on what looks like a good one for the 2016 cycle.
He also had the Wolverines appearing to play with more confidence for most of his first season in Ann Arbor, a swagger win-starved fans embraced and an attitude that served the players well for most of the fall.
At least until Nov. 28, when the bullies got bullied by the Scarlet and Gray — again.
Harbaugh became only the third Michigan coach to lose his debut against Ohio State, but no one in Columbus is taking for granted the challenge he presents for future editions of The Game.
Meyer admitted his program would have faced "dire straits" if it closed the season with losses to the Spartans and Wolverines back to back, and he noted how impressed he was with the Michigan team he saw on film.
He even credited Michigan’s improvement with helping his team get refocused quickly after losing to MSU.
“It’s all who you’re going against, too,” Meyer said. “I want to make clear: I think one of the reasons why (we) practiced and got refocused so quickly is because of the respect (we) have for their opponent and that is an excellent football team and very good personnel — excellent personnel.
“To do that against them makes it even extra special.”
Ultimately, Michigan went 2-2 against ranked teams but lost both of its rivalry games (both at home).
The Wolverines were 3-3 against teams with winning records and 6-0 against ones that finished the regular season at .500 or worse.
Through 12 games this season, they have averaged nearly 10 more points and more than 50 more yards per game than they did in 2014, and a defense that was already good got better.
Just not good enough yet.
"We got beat, didn’t play well enough in the game to win it,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “We’ll regroup and come back with the same drive and aspirations that we’ve had."