Despite Utah loss, Harbaugh finds hope; too bad he can’t play quarterback

September 4, 2015

Despite the months of fanfare, it was still the same old, soul-crushing story for Michigan. Too many interceptions from the Wolverines quarterback.

Just like last year.

Iowa transfer Jake Rudock, the guy whose biggest strength — that he wasn’t prone to throwing picks — did just that once he put on the fabled winged helmet. Rudock, who only threw five INTs as the Hawkeyes starter last year, threw three Thursday night, including a pick-six.

"I thought he was seeing the field, seeing the defenses and (making) the reads, really well,” Harbaugh said of Rudock, adding that the second interception was the result of a bad throw. The first was a miscommunication with a freshman receiver and the third, the one that was returned for a touchdown, was the product of Utes nickel Cory Butler-Byrd making a great play.

Harbaugh, though, also talked up the way his new QB rallied after the pick-six to lead Michigan on a TD drive. “I thought that was outstanding,” he said. “He shook that play off and came fighting back.”

That was the tone for almost all of the coach’s postgame presser. He knows that while this situation is nowhere near as bleak as Stanford was when he took over that job almost a decade ago, it’s still going to be an uphill climb. And also that in reality, this trip to Salt Lake City is probably Michigan’s toughest road trip of the 2015 season.

So there Harbaugh was in front of the podium, harping on the positives, talking about so many “good things to build on and grow from."

He can start with tight end Jake Butt. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior, who the UM staff has raved about, looks like he’ll be a difference-maker for Michigan, much as Harbaugh’s old recruits Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz were for Stanford. Butt had eight catches, including a spectacular leaping TD grab between three defenders. The prediction here is Butt will be Harbaugh’s first star in Ann Arbor.

Wideout Amara Darboh, a 6-2, 215-pound senior, also flashed some potential. He had eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. The key, of course, is can Rudock connect on those downfield throws when these guys get open to stretch defenses and give a team that was second-to-last in the country last year in big plays some punch deep?

Harbaugh also talked postgame about how much he liked his O-line and how it cranked things up in the second half after starting out a bit tentative. "They asserted (themselves) well and started making some holes.”

But there really weren’t enough holes Thursday night. Michigan had 29 rushing attempts, yet the Wolverines didn’t have a run go for longer than seven yards.

As Harbaugh said, De’Veon Smith did run hard, but 47 yards on 17 carries is hardly the kind of output it’s going to take for Michigan to churn out the kind of run game that’ll fuel the play-action attack the Wolverines want. It also didn’t help that UM got stoned on too many short-yardage situations where the Utes proved just too tough.

Back on the plus side, Harbaugh said he was also pleased with his team’s tackling. After all, holding stud running back Devontae Booker to 69 yards on 22 carries is excellent. The defense, which was very solid in 2014, appears to be very capable again.

“There were a lot of things to build on and improve upon,” he said.

Among those is a defense that does have some playmakers, led by 300-pound defensive lineman Chris Wormley, steady linebacker Joe Bolden and a dynamic defensive back in Jabrill Peppers, who lived up to his lofty recruiting hype and repeatedly displayed a different gear from everyone else on the field.

Harbaugh’s history says that improvement will happen sooner than later. I didn’t expect Michigan to win this one. I still think this team winning eight games this season is very possible. It just needs to be cleaner in the passing game.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.