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College football takeaways: Jim Harbaugh's failings still on full display despite last-gasp win over Rutgers

Pete Thamel
·15-min read

The Michigan football program is the winningest in the history of the sport, with 938 victories since 1881. Over the 130 years that the school has played intercollegiate football, few of the victories would register as uniquely unsatisfying as the Wolverines’ triple-overtime win at Rutgers on Saturday.

Michigan’s 48-42 slog offered perhaps the clearest indictment in the case against Jim Harbaugh returning as Michigan coach in 2021. One year after trouncing Rutgers 52-0, Michigan needed a missed field goal in overtime and a fourth-down touchdown in the third overtime to white-knuckle its way to victory.

The win came just after midnight eastern time on a relatively sleepy college football Saturday, and the mind-bending idea of perennial laughingstock Rutgers upsetting a program as storied as Michigan made it must-watch television. There was the entire college football world, seeing precisely how far this Michigan program had fallen. Even Michigan’s victory celebration drew social media mockery, as the sideline stormed the end zone like they’d won the Rose Bowl instead of barely escaping the stadium of the league’s perennial basement tenant.

Michigan managed to lose by winning — even a victory can be a confirmation of a lost season when it’s done like this. And the most damning part came from what was so clear throughout the game. Rutgers played with an indomitable spirit, creative gameplans and relentless energy, early signs of extreme progress in coach Greg Schiano’s first year back at Rutgers. They played connected and inspired.

Michigan, yet again, looked listless and directionless. They brought a clear talent advantage they failed to exploit, exposing a lack of physicality on the offensive front and looked lost enough on defense that they yielded 486 yards and 5.8 yards per play to Rutgers. Last year they gave up 152 yards and 2.9. Forget the final score and ponder those trendlines 14 months apart.

Michigan survived after a much-needed spark from sophomore quarterback Cade McNamara, who finished with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 260 passing yards. The Michigan media already made the mistake of hailing Joe Milton as the quarterback of the future early this season, so we should be especially skeptical of McNamara until the competition level increases. But for a program that was on the cusp of flatlining down 17-0 late in the second quarter, McNamara has proven he can shock a team back to life.

This season managed to get worse for Michigan and head coach Jim Harbaugh despite beating Rutgers. (Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
This season managed to get worse for Michigan and head coach Jim Harbaugh despite beating Rutgers. (Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s surreal to be writing that Michigan lacked so many things as a program that Rutgers had. But in Schiano’s first season, an energy has accompanied the baseline competency that he’s delivered after the dreadful Chris Ash experiment. Rutgers is 1-4 after squandering double-digit leads in back-to-back weeks, but inability to hold large leads wasn’t high on Rutgers’ prediction list for 2020.

Here are two things that jumped off the television tonight and epitomized the Wolverines’ futility.

On the final possession of regulation for Rutgers, quarterback Noah Vedral ran in the two-point conversation for a score. The play looked completely doomed, as Michigan penetrated the middle and Vedral, who is 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, connected with his first Michigan defender, DB Makari Paige, near the 4-yard-line.

Vedral won’t be mistaken for Cam Newton or Josh Allen walking off the plane, but he managed to absorb Paige’s hit and drag he and another Wolverine into the end zone to tie the game and send it to overtime.

The lack of bodies swarming to Vedral underscores the greater point about coordinator Don Brown’s underperforming defensive unit. Michigan’s defense doesn’t beehive to the ball, it watches it. The best defenses, the ones that play with energy, effort and cohesion, have seven or eight players surrounding the tackle on every play. Michigan’s defense doesn’t have near that spark, as the Wolverines remain rudderless, emotionless and disconnected. And that’s the scariest part for Michigan as it ponders how to move forward.

We’ve covered the depths of Michigan pretty thoroughly, as Harbaugh has nearly 13 months remaining on his contract and is seemingly real-time campaigning via performance to make sure it’s not extended. Self-awareness is not Harbaugh’s strength, but even he has to realize the depths he dragged the program to and how overwhelming some type of fix would be. A staff overhaul and a detonation of the recruiting department is necessary, but luring quality replacements isn’t easy when you would enter 2021 wheezing with no contractual support.

There’s still a prevailing notion that Michigan won’t fire Harbaugh. The program has been gutted by opt-outs (Ambry Thomas and Nico Collins), injuries to its two best defensive players (Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye) and has been without both starting offensive tackles (Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes).

While those are among the best players in the program – three of them are potential first-round picks in the 2021 NFL draft – it strains credulity to pinpoint Michigan’s issues solely to high-end talent missing. The bigger issue appears to be a missing heartbeat.

The best way to sum up the conundrum of Michigan’s administration with Harbaugh after a triple-overtime clunker is this: When watching Michigan on Saturday night, it became clear the Wolverines needed to be more like Rutgers.

Blue-blood flops prompt COVID question

Penn State is 0-5 for the first time in school history, as it showed little life in a 20-point home loss to Iowa. Virginia Tech (4-5) has lost three straight games, going scoreless in the second half of a 47-14 blowout loss to Pitt. Nebraska lost to a dismal Illinois program and suffered the indignity of the Illini (2-3) taunting them on Twitter after the game.

There’s a free fall at Tennessee, sputtering at UCLA and a Michigan season that’s redefining program lows almost weekly. There are plenty more examples of seasons that have doubled as flops – impotence at Syracuse (1-8), flatlining at Temple (1-6) and hopelessness at Kansas (0-7).

Those programs that have plummeted this season seem to have done so a bit more violently in the era of COVID-19. Some of that can be due to the personnel missing from COVID-19, the flurry of high-end opt-outs and the general chaos that has accompanied this frenetic season.

As the college football season slinks to a finish at those – and other – undistinguished locales, a question emerges of just how to judge this season played under the shroud of a pandemic. A loss with 14 players missing from contact tracing still counts as a loss. How will athletic directors and other university personnel judge it?

“It’s like a grading-against-the-curve year,” said Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, who stressed he was speaking generally about the administrative conundrum. “If you’re not sold on your [coach] and you don’t think he’s managing distractions or helping the team, you add that to the list of reasons to make a change. If you really like your coach and the team is struggling, you can say, ‘Well, it’s just because of COVID.”

At South Carolina, we already received the answer. A powerful board wanted Will Muschamp out and is ready to eat $13.2 million for his contract. Coaches not working out at Southern Miss and Utah State were already guided to the door. How will other schools make the decision?

“In a typical year, we have these filters to look at and judge and determine [how coaches are doing],” Stricklin said. “The filters are all wonky this year.”

Athletic directors have to confront the reality of how difficult it’ll be to lure new staff in a tough year. Think anyone is giddy to join the Tennessee Titanic and become Jeremy Pruitt’s offensive coordinator? Why would an elite young defensive coordinator risk his career to attempt to save the Jim Harbaugh era? Those types of contracts would have to be long, heavily guaranteed and take an irrational amount of confidence by a coach who thinks he can pull water off a sinking ship.

For the programs that have hit hard times this year, there are no easy answers.

Northwestern’s special tribute

A few hours after No. 19 Northwestern’s 17-7 victory over No. 10 Wisconsin on Saturday, the emotion caught in Pat Fitzgerald’s voice.

In the locker room after the game, Fitzgerald presented a signed helmet to the family of former Northwestern assistant strength coach Joe Orozco, who died suddenly at the age of 30 earlier this week. Orozco had spent the past two years as the director of performance at Eastern Illinois, going there when former Wildcat Adam Cushing took the EIU job.

“That was a special moment,” Fitzgerald said. “His spirit will live on with us.”

Fitzgerald presented the helmet to four of Orozco’s family members – his parents, sister and uncle. He fondly recalled the saying that Orozco coined at Northwestern: “If you are juiceless, you are useless.”

Northwestern’s defense brought plenty of juice on Saturday, forcing five turnovers and making freshman quarterback Graham Mertz look like a freshman. He threw three interceptions, lost a fumble and finished just 23-for-41 passing.

Northwestern is 5-0 for the first time since its magical 1996 Rose Bowl season, when Fitzgerald was a star player. He mentioned that this game was supposed to be the reunion, at least until COVID-19 happened.

The Wildcats are conjuring up the ghosts of that team with a familiar formula under Fitzgerald – a mauling defense, just enough offense and a deep comfort in winning as an underdog. According to ESPN, it marked the 23rd time Northwestern won as an underdog of six or more points in the last 15 years.

There have been many factors that have enabled Northwestern to bounce back from a 3-9 season in 2019. The arrival of Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey, the upgrade to OC Mike Bajakian and the aggression of 72-year-old defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who has one of the country’s top linebacker trios – Chris Bergin (eight tackles), Blake Gallagher (14 tackles) and Paddy Fisher (13 tackles) – who thrived in Saturday’s slugfest.

If 2020 has doubled as a program culture test, Northwestern has passed as well as any program in the country. They’ve had zero positive tests since returning to campus this summer, and Fitzgerald credited team physician Jeff Mjaanes and trainer Kevin Kikugawa.

“They’ve stressed that every choice, every day, really matters,” Fitzgerald said. “Our guys have bought into that, our campus community has been awesome and our families have been terrific.”

Northwestern’s win essentially gives them a two-game lead in the Big Ten West, with games remaining against Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois. With wins over Wisconsin, Purdue and Iowa, it’s hard to imagine anyone catching the ‘Cats.

Is USC good?

What should we make of 3-0 USC? Well, the best early read on the Trojans at the halfway point of their Pac-12 regular season schedule is to congratulate them on being undefeated. They managed to outlast Arizona State, squeeze by Arizona and then handle Utah, 33-17, late Saturday night.

Utah’s defense returned just two starters, and the Utes have been handcuffed by COVID-19. The fact that Utah played its season opener on Nov. 21, after some programs have completed as many as 10 games, is one of the more remarkable statistics in a season defined by remarkable statistics.

It’s impossible to get too excited about this USC team, even after its most impressive win of the season. Even if USC goes 6-0 in the regular season, it’s virtually impossible for the Trojans to enter serious College Football Playoff discussion. There are too few data points, and not much to get excited about. And there’s not much left on the schedule, as games remain with Colorado, Washington State and UCLA. None will be ranked, limiting USC’s ability to make any kind of statement.

The biggest big-picture takeaway from USC so far this season is that it would be nearly impossible for the school to fire Clay Helton, as he continues to be the sport’s consummate survivor. New athletic director Mike Bohn has done a nice job upgrading and modernizing the program, putting USC in better long-term position to succeed. There have been upgrades to support Helton that were long overdue in recruiting, video and social media.

And for now, Helton has seemingly earned a trip to 2021.

New QB at Georgia

Few box scores on Saturday provided the bizarre statistical variance of Georgia's game against Mississippi State. Georgia won, 31-24, after new starting quarterback J.T. Daniels threw more for yards than any quarterback in Kirby Smart's tenure (401). Georgia also rushed for fewer yards than any game in Smart's tenure (8).

The statline of Daniels will be torturous to UGA fans who feel like this season (5-2) has been squandered because of subpar play at the position. Daniels finished 28-for-38 with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He showed the ability to stretch the field vertically, a distinct weakness of Stetson Bennett.

The biggest beneficiary of Daniels' arrival was freshman receiver Jermaine Burton, who racked up 197 receiving yards on Saturday after entering the night with 130 on the season.

Will this be an evolution of Georgia's offense or an aberration because Georgia needed to bail out a leaky defense? The answer for Georgia's future at quarterback appears to have arrived.

The question becomes simple: Will Kirby Smart welcome the evolution?

Georgia beat Mississippi State on Saturday behind J.T. Daniels' 401 passing yards. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
Georgia beat Mississippi State on Saturday behind J.T. Daniels' 401 passing yards. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

Cyclone warning

Iowa State has a bit of breathing room in first place in the Big 12 after one of the day’s most startling performances, a 45-0 home win over Kansas State. While it wasn’t surprising ISU won, the tenor of the victory included a 35-0 halftime lead and the biggest victory over the Wildcats since 1943.

Iowa State is on the cusp of one of the program’s biggest showcases this generation. They play Texas in Austin on Friday in one of the marquee games next week.

A win would boost Iowa State to 7-1 in the Big 12 and come close to clinching a spot in the conference title game. (Tiebreakers and comparing records is tricky in 2020.)

Iowa State has never won the Big 12. It also never won the Big 8. It hasn’t won a league title since the Missouri Valley in 1912, when the Cyclones went 2-0 in conference play.

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell told Yahoo Sports last week that he overhauled some of the structure of his program to make sure his teams were fresher in November after some late-season fades earlier in his ISU tenure.

The lack of hitting in spring practice and fewer work hours for his coaches – nearly 1.5 hours per day – were all things that helped Iowa State build toward this. Sophomore tailback Breece Hall’s 135 rushing yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Brock Purdy’s 236 passing yards and three touchdowns indicated little wear and tear from the season.

And how the Cyclones recover and rejuvenate themselves in the short week will prove the ultimate test of Campbell’s plan to get more results from fewer hours.

Coastal Carolina moving up the ladder

In just its fourth season of FBS play, it’s amazing how No. 15 Coastal Carolina has already built an identity. As the Chanticleers outlasted Sun Belt power Appalachian State to wrestle control of the conference’s east division, 34-23, buzz already began building about how the team would celebrate.

They delivered with aplomb again, as one staff member dressed up as the Appalachian State mascot, Yosef, and they put on a mock boxing match with Coastal Carolina’s mascot, Chauncey the Chanticleer. (He even had boxing gloves.) Not surprisingly, Chauncey won the skit and electrified the postgame locker room.

“That was a great locker room,” Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell told Yahoo Sports late Saturday. “Our guys have been working to win a Sun Belt East championship, and we knew we had to go through them to do it.”

App State is the back-to-back Sun Belt champion. And Chadwell expressed a deep respect for what Shawn Clark’s program has accomplished. “To ultimately get respect in the East Division, you have to beat them,” Chadwell said. “I hope what this does is show that we can play with the best in this league.”

Coastal Carolina improved to 8-0 overall and is 6-0 in the Sun Belt this year. It would be a surprise if they didn’t end up playing Louisiana for the league title.

It didn’t come without some dramatics. When D’Jordan Strong returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown to seal the game with 1:20 remaining, Chadwell was on the sideline screaming at him.

“One-hundred percent,” Chadwell said when asked if he were hoping Strong would get down. “I was screaming, ‘Get down! Get down!’ Young people get excited. They want to get in that end zone.”

Chadwell’s program has captured both the attention of the nation and the local community in the Myrtle Beach area. He and his wife, Solmaz, had dinner at Sea Captain’s House after the game on Saturday and could feel the buzz of excitement while eating his halibut and grits.

“It’s a pretty special feeling,” he said. “One of the reasons we went to FBS was for moments like this.”

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