This was supposed to be the year.
That was the talk even before the season, with Ohio State breaking in a new quarterback and with Michigan bringing in an elite, experienced defense. That was the talk when the Wolverines picked up a five-star transfer QB in Shea Patterson, finally giving Jim Harbaugh the high-level talent under center to realize his schematic dreams.
And that was the talk before the game. After all, Michigan was the Vegas favorite.
The Buckeyes hadn’t played a truly complete game since Tulane, and their deficiencies, from their inability to prevent big plays on defense or run the ball efficiently on offense, seemed to play directly into Michigan’s strengths.
Ohio State had dominated the rivalry in recent memory. Jim Harbaugh was 0-3 against Ohio State. The Buckeyes had won six in a row and 15 of the previous 17.
But this was supposed to be Michigan’s year. And then it wasn’t.
Michigan had so many advantages going into this game!
Sure, the Wolverines hadn’t faced a bevy of explosive offenses, but by any metric you want to use, they were an elite defense. Headed into the game, Michigan ranked second in defensive S&P+, trailing only Clemson. Ohio State was fresh off BARELY beating Maryland, and if watching Ohio State’s defense wasn’t uncomfortable enough, watching Urban Meyer certainly was. There was no question which program was entering with real momentum, and it wasn’t the home squad.
But that didn’t matter. Ohio State torched Michigan for 567 total yards, including 318 and five touchdowns in the air. They blocked a punt for a touchdown. And despite giving the Wolverines a score before halftime thanks to a botched kickoff return, plus a staggering 150 penalty yards, Michigan couldn’t come close to matching score for score.
Did the Wolverines have some bad luck? Sure. Some of their best defensive players, like Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, were banged up, and Devin Bush left due to injury during the game. But Ohio State was also without Nick Bosa and Austin Mack. That’s football.
So when is Michigan actually going to win this game?
Michigan almost certainly isn’t winning the Big Ten or going to the Playoff if they can’t beat Ohio State. And while they get the Buckeyes at home next season, they’ll need to replace multiple key contributors. Winovich, the emotional heart and soul of the defense, will be gone. So will tight end Zach Gentry, tailback Karan Higdon, nose tackle Lawrence Marshall, and safety Tryee Kinnel. Plenty of other players, like Bush and Gary, will have NFL decisions to make. It’s highly probable that this defense will be breaking in plenty of new faces next season.
There’s also the question at quarterback. Patterson has eligibility remaining, but could theoretically take a shot at the NFL Draft. He had a solid season, and in a weaker quarterback class, could elect to try and make money now. The Wolverines have plenty of highly rated recruits on the roster, but exactly how the QB depth chart shakes out is unclear. Brandon Peters? Dylan McCaffery? Another transfer?
Ohio State will have questions too, but they’ll probably have more wiggle room.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins left for the NFL. But that would mean the Buckeyes would go back to a more dual-threat style quarterback (Tate Martell, an elite recruit in his own right), which aligns more with Urban Meyer’s background anyway. The Buckeyes will need to replace a ton of talented pass catchers, but depending on how the NFL Draft shakes out, should still return plenty of offensive skill players with experience and most of this year’s defense. They’ll lose Bosa, but haven’t had him since September anyway.
Both teams have recruited well, but Ohio State still has the talent advantage. The Wolverines had a disappointing 2018 recruiting class, finishing third in the Big Ten, adding only seven blue-clip players. Ohio State signed 23. The Buckeyes had five five-star recruits in 2017 as well (Michigan had two) and have signed a superior recruiting class in each of the last four seasons.
That probably won’t be the case in 2019, as Ohio State is bringing in a smaller class and lost momentum amid concerns over Meyer’s longevity, but for next year’s roster, Ohio State is likely to have superior talent again.
Can Michigan win with Harbaugh against Meyer?
In those four games, Michigan's been outscored 165-99. https://t.co/Ken4nDI29C— Kyle Rowland (@KyleRowland) November 24, 2018
The Wolverines have lost when they’ve had superior teams, like in 2016, when they could have made the playoff if not for a Good Spot. They’ve lost when they’ve outcoached Ohio State for the bulk of the game, like they arguably did last season. And they’ve lost when they haven’t.
When does this change? It’s hard to imagine Michigan getting a better coach than Harbaugh, although they’ll likely make some assistant changes. Against a Meyer team, Michigan would likely need to find a way to engineer more offensive explosiveness, which will be difficult under the Wolverines’ offensive scheme. And they might not catch a more favorable matchup against a weakened Ohio State defense for a few years.
Now, Meyer is no lock to remain at Ohio State forever. Maybe he should retire after this season. And maybe that’s when the tables will start to turn for Michigan.
But they won’t be able to achieve their goals as a program until they find a way to get over that hump. And after today, it’s harder to see that happening very soon.