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Michigan Wolverines 2016 Football Preview: Harbaugh’s debut had immediate impact in 2015

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A changing of the guard was necessary following another disappointing season in 2014. With the Wolverines still searching for a new athletic director, the administration still managed to pry the No. 1 target away from the NFL in ex-Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

Just a bit later it would be Harbaugh teaming up with his old football teammate Warde Manuel, who was hired as his athletic director.

Some questioned if the high-profile hire of Harbaugh was more publicity stunt than actual good news on the field. Well, the results spoke for themselves in year one of the Harbaugh era and those questions quickly went by the wayside.

Not everything was fixed in just one year though, and that means there was plenty of good, bad and ugly to the Wolverines 2015 season. It also means that before we look ahead we understand where Michigan comes from heading in to 2016.

 

The Good

No doubt about it, winning 10 games in ones first season on the job anywhere is a good start. That was especially so following Michigan’s 2014 season that ended with a 5-7 record and no bowl game.

From that dumpster fire rose a team capable of playing on a very high level almost every week, and a solid foundation for the future was put in place. Expectations of individual effort, team effort and coaching were all raised heading in to 2015 and it showed.

Perhaps most encouraging were the results in Big Ten play, where the Wolverines went 6-2 on the season and managed to hold opponents under 20 points in four of those six wins.

For all the talk of Harbaugh’s offensive mind, it was his defense that carried the day in 2015 and set the tone for this team as one of the toughest to score on in the Big Ten. That was the best thing that could happen given the past, as the defense was always a strength but never to the level that was put on the field in 2015.

The Bad

Winning double-digit games and having six conference wins is good and all, but the bad news is that both of the losses Michigan suffered in conference play were to its bitter rivals. More on the loss to Michigan State in a bit, but there was nothing worse than what took place on the final Saturday of the regular season.

Losing to Ohio State has become commonplace, with just one win in the last 12 games against the Buckeyes. However, the gulf between the two teams was on full display in 2015, as OSU put up 42 points on the Wolverines for the third straight season and won convincingly, 42-13, in Ann Arbor.

One wouldn’t have thought of it as a blowout after watching the first half though, as the two teams went in to the locker rooms with OSU leading just 14-10. Urban Meyer’s team made plenty of adjustments and Michigan mustered up just three points the rest of the way.

The struggles of the running game also creeped up, as Michigan gained just 57 yards on the ground and the defense gave up a whopping 369 yards on the ground to “Ohio.”

The Ugly

No two ways around this one — losing to in-state rival Michigan State once again was bad. Doing so in a dramatic, never before seen way? That was gut-wrenching and downright ugly for Michigan.

Leading 23-21 with 10 seconds on the clock and just having to punt the ball away to secure a much-needed victory over their rivals, the Wolverines saw disaster before their very eyes. Punter Blake O’Neill lost the handle on a punt, and the rest as they say…is history:

In a season of great moments, that was about as unlucky and ugly as it gets.

What It Means For 2016

Winning double-digit games and getting back on the national stage was a huge accomplishment considering where the team was before Harbaugh took over. However, we’ve seen this play out before over the past decade with Michigan.

One need only look at the start of the Brady Hoke era to realize that one year does not a turnaround make. You know, making a Sugar Bowl appearance, winning it and then being a pick for a top 10 position in the following preseason polls.

Sound a bit familiar?

The good news is that this team looks and feels different heading in to the second year of Harbaugh. His players have firmly bought in to what he is speaking of and with everyone pulling in the right direction this may be the team to break the curse at Michigan.

Of course, time will tell, but having been around the program for both the 2012 year and this year, there is a very different vibe being put out there and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team be as competitive as it was last year.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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U-M Football

Michigan’s blow out loss by Florida proves ‘next man up’ doesn’t always work

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If there was any question the importance of NFL caliber players to the Michigan Wolverines, Saturday’s Peach Bowl provided your answer.

Some may also point to the ‘next man up’ philosophy and time to prepare for this game, but the Peach Bowl proved that sometimes the next man up really isn’t the answer you were looking for.

Michigan went in to the Peach Bowl without big-time names like defensive lineman Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush and running back Karan Higdon and it showed in a 41-15 loss to Florida in the first of the New Year’s Six bowl games, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

The Wolverines defense started out hot against Florida’s redshirt sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks, but a sputtering offense cause the defense to eventually fold under the weight of being on the field for way too long.

Franks would only complete 13 passes for 173 yards and one touchdown in the Gators win. But, it was the run game that Michigan couldn’t stop and where the missing pieces came in to play the most.

After coming in to the game giving up just 116.6 yards per game on the season, Florida gashed Michigan’s defense for 257 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

It was the most yards given up in a single game this season, topping the 193 yards that were allowed to Rutgers in early November. Not having a player like Bush, who racked up 79 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks on the season certainly hurt.

So did the fact that two key pieces to the puzzle that were on the field went down to injury. Both defensive end Kwity Paye and linebacker Devin Gil ended up injured and never returned to the game.

Florida eventually went on to win the battle of time of possession as well, even if that isn’t how their offense is built. The Gators held the ball for 31:19 compared to 28:41 of the game for the Wolverines.

However, all of this could have been pointed to an offense that missed opportunity after opportunity to keep themselves in the game or even take a lead and dictate the game.

Following a 46-yard touchdown run by Chris Turner that was called back after replay showed he stepped out of bounds before dashing to the end zone, Michigan was stuffed on a 4th and 1 on it’s opening possession of the game.

The Gators responded with a field goal as Michigan’s defense stiffened up inside the red zone.

Michigan actually held a pair of leads in the game, as Donovan People-Jones grabbed a 9-yard touchdown pass from Shea Patterson for a 7-3 lead in response to Florida’s field goal.

The Wolverines tacked on a field goal after blocking a punt and starting at the Florida 30-yard line in a to 48-yard field goal following zero yards gained on the drive. The made field goal extended Michigan’s lead to 10-6 with 5:56 remaining in the half.

But, that was the end of the party for the Wolverines as Florida ripped off 21 unanswered points to take a 27-10 lead with 2:34 left in the third quarter.

Michigan would be outscored 38-3 in the second half overall, as they struggled to get anything going in the run game and became too one-dimensional without Higdon in the game.

His replacement, Chris Evans, managed just 20 yards on a seven carries and even Chris Turner couldn’t help much. He managed just 32 yards and the team was held to just 77 yards on the day.

Quarterback Shea Patterson was forced to attempt 36 passes, completing just 22 of them for 237 yards with just the one touchdown to two interceptions in the game.

Patterson didn’t get much help from his offensive line either, giving up five sacks on the day and having Patterson scrambling for his life far too often to sustain anything on offense.

We’ll never know if having Bush, Gary or Higdon would’ve been the ultimate difference, but not having them available from the start meant a depleted depth chart and that proved pivotal in this matchup.

It also proved that sometimes the next man up really is a step down and that matters when playing against fellow top teams.

Something needs to happen in college football if these types of games also begin to mean nothing to the players. Not playing on even footing is killing some of the tradition of college football and this game proved that in a big way.

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Michigan’s Karan Higdon guarantees a win over OSU

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Well, that escalated quickly. 

It took all of one media session ahead of “The Game” between Michigan and Ohio State for things to get really interesting. 

That’s because Michigan running back Karan Higdon decided to call the Wolverines shot…guaranteeing a win over the hated Buckeyes from Ohio State this Saturday. 

To be fair, this all started with Higdon’s head coach, Jim Harbaugh, who guaranteed a victory way back in 1986. 

Harbaugh was right that day, leading the Wolverines to a 26-24 win and the Rose Bowl just like he said they would. 

Ever since then, it’s been an annual tradition, but there hasn’t been this much on the line for “The Game” since the 2006 edition which pitted No. 1 against No. 2 in the nation. 

Ohio State won that game and went on to play Florida in the BCS national championship game. 

This year’s game has a lot of the feel of the 2006 and 1986 versions. All that is on the line is a Big Ten East division title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. You know, nothing big. 

For Michigan, there is also the six-game losing streak to Ohio State and the fact that they are 1-13 since 2004 in the most-heated and hated of rivalries within the Big Ten. 

Higdon may have been goaded in to the statement, but he also didn’t back down from it. 

We’ll see if the Wolverines can back up the talk of their running back. 

You can bet Ohio State will find some serious motivation that big of a statement. 

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Can Shea Patterson transfer finally be the answer at QB for Michigan?

Shea Patterson arrives at Michigan with pedigree and production, will it transform the QB position enough to matter for the Wolverines?

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There’s no way around it — 2017 was not the year everyone expected to see from the Michigan Wolverines. A one-time national title contender (no seriously) turned in to an 8-4 team that finished fourth in the Big Ten East division.

Many have pinpointed the issues at quarterback as a large reason for that struggle.

It would be an easy and correct assumption, as 2017 was an unmitigated disaster at QB for the Wolverines. Michigan’s quarterbacks combined to complete just 54.5 percent of their passes for just 2,023 yards and nine touchdowns to eight interceptions.

Yes, that was nine touchdowns in 12 games played by three different quarterbacks for Michigan in 2017.

Apparently the coaching staff believes that was a major issue as well, as they went hard after Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson once he announced his intention to transfer from the program.

On Monday, Patterson announced he would be enrolling at Michigan as a transfer.

We’ll have to wait and see if the NCAA allows him to immediately become eligible, but that shouldn’t be an issue given Ole Miss’ NCAA penalties. He doesn’t qualify as a soon-to-be senior, so he will have to apply for and be granted a waiver. That appears not to be a major hurdle, but one can never assume when it comes to the NCAA waiver decisions these days.

As for Michigan, Patterson is the second transfer quarterback Michigan has brought in during the Jim Harbaugh era. The first was John O’Korn from Houston.

O’Korn never took full control of the Wolverines offense, ending his career as the third option on the depth chart before being forced back on to the field thanks to multiple injuries at the QB position.

But, Patterson is not O’Korn — in so much as Patterson has actually proven to be a quality quarterback and isn’t transferring because he is being pushed out at his old school.

He threw for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns in seven games at Ole Miss in 2017, before suffering a season-ending tear to his right posterior cruciate ligament.

So, there is risk in bringing Patterson in to the fold. Will he be 100 percent back to normal in 2018 or will the injury keep him from progressing? That’s likely not an issue though, as the PCL tear isn’t the most significant of knee injuries. Additionally, Patterson comes with a great pedigree on the recruiting trail.

He was the No. 1 rated pro-style quarterback in the 2015 class, started and played in his freshman season in 2016 and did work in his sophomore year in 2017.

While this move may smack of desperation for Michigan, these are desperate times in Ann Arbor. The lack of championship football is starting to wear off the shine of Harbaugh’s hire four years ago.

It’s also a good move for depth alone, as Michigan will see both O’Korn and Wilton Speight out of the program. Speight has declared his intention to transfer already.

That would leave just Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey on the depth chart.

Patterson has the experience and production advantage on both and the offense should be familiar to him as Ole Miss runs a pro-style offense.

Given the lack of production at QB since Harbaugh’s arrival, something has to change. Will Patterson’s addition be the change that is needed?

Clearly the quarterback position needs to get stronger. Adding Patterson does that, but it remains to be seen if it will be the transformational move that has been lacking since Harbaugh arrived.

If he can’t get the quarterback position right again in 2018, Harbaugh may not be long for the job everyone thought he’d have for a lifetime as long as he wanted it.

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Dantonio, Harbaugh jab at each other after bowl game selections

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Rivalries have no offseason, and that certainly is the case for Michigan State when it comes to in-state rival Michigan. That’s especially the case when bowl season rolled around in 2017.

That’s because Michigan is headed to Tampa Bay to play in the Outback Bowl, while Michigan State is off the…gasp…horrific site of San Diego for its bowl game.

No. 16 Michigan State is slated to play No. 18 Washington State in easily the best non-New Years Six bowl game the Big Ten has, while Michigan gets South Carolina. Despite the disparity in location and quality of opponent, some felt the Spartans were slighted.

Dantonio was asked if the program felt slighted by not playing on New Year’s Day, and this was his response:

It was a clear dig at the Wolverines, whom the Spartans have owned since Dantonio took over as head coach at Michigan State.

Harbaugh just couldn’t let that go, responding back on Twitter on Monday.

Backhanded compliment much?

It’s clear these two don’t get along much, because usually these things get settled behind closed doors. Instead, Harbaugh took a very public jab at Dantonio and all the off-field issues that took place over the last year and a half.

Who will get the ultimate last word? Well, this season that was certainly Michigan State. Not only did the Spartans beat Michigan, but they finished second in the East division, while Michigan faltered to an 8-4 finish in the regular season.

If anything, this should fuel an offseason of rivalry fun between these two programs.

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