The Wolverine

January 2020

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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66 THE WOLVERINE JANUARY 2020 M edia covering Big Ten football got the Ohio State fan base's atten- tion this summer when they picked Michigan to win the conference, narrowly choosing the Wolverines over the Buck- eyes to claim the East Division. That's not likely to happen again anytime soon. A second straight OSU shellacking of U-M will all but secure the notion in their eyes that the gap between the two programs is so wide that there's no end in sight, and based on what we witnessed Nov. 30 — a 56-27 Buckeyes win in Ann Arbor, the second year in which the OSU offense has made mincemeat of the Wolverines' defense — it's hard to argue anymore. What's also clear now is there are no easy answers to what ESPN analyst and former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit called Michigan's "Ohio State prob- lem" after last year's 62-39 OSU win in Columbus. The Buckeyes consis- tently recruit top-five classes with high NFL Draft picks, the kind that make the explosive plays that have killed U-M in the last 15 years of this rivalry, and simply reload. Former OSU head coach Urban Meyer, now a FOX TV analyst, noted that all 22 Ohio State starters would likely be NFL guys, an astounding testament to the program's talent. The Buckeyes have had 40 players drafted in the past five years, 12 of those players were chosen in the first round. In the same period, Michigan has had 24 players drafted with four in the first round. How does Jim Harbaugh counter? According to The Athletic's Andy Staples in his postgame article titled, "What's keeping a good Michigan from a great Ohio State" … well, the coach is in a tough spot. "Harbaugh either doesn't know what a team that can compete with Ohio State looks like or — more likely — knows and has elected not to try to wade into the same recruit- ing waters," Staples wrote. "Ohio State doesn't compete with Michi- gan for players. It competes with Clemson, Alabama and Georgia for players. Only by signing multiple players that those schools want can a program join that club." But that's difficult to do, he added, plus "it requires a choice Harbaugh has thus far seemed unwilling to make." If you're not aware of what that choice is, you haven't been paying attention to the landscape of college football over the last 20 years and the "win at any cost" mentality that's rotted the sport at its core. And for those screaming "sour grapes!" … this is a national col- umnist speaking, one who covered Meyer's Florida team as a beat writer for The Tampa Tribune, not someone with an inherent bias. Harbaugh was brought here to compete for titles, and as many Michigan fans point out after every loss, he's paid extremely well. At the same time, he's winning at a clip consistent with former coaches like Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr, minus the Big Ten titles — a win in the bowl game would give the Wol- verines four 10-win seasons in a five- year period for the first time since the late 1970s — and in fairness to him, winning a champion- ship is much tougher now than it was pre-Big Ten title game. He would have captured one in 2016, too, had his team gotten a few more breaks (and better officiating). In addition, as one retired Di- vision I coach told us recently, the football factories "operate differently" when it comes to which part of student-athlete is most important. He shared how while he was trying to organize classes for a potential graduate transfer, he was los- ing him to a school that prom- ised him online classes for just enough weeks to get to the meat of the schedule, when he could then concentrate solely on his sport. All that said … Harbaugh's teams need to be better against the Buckeyes, win or lose, and it starts by controlling the controllables. That means playing its best game of the year against its rivals, something Ohio State seems to do regularly against the Wolverines. Michigan has lost the turnover battle 9-3 in Harbaugh's five years, and two of OSU's were muffed kicks. U-M dropped eight passes in this year's 56-27 loss, and there were a number of mental lapses on defense that led to big plays. An offsides pen- alty by a senior on a fourth-and-four punt turned a tight game into a two- score lead at halftime, something that simply can't happen against an elite opponent. And make no mistake about it — the Buckeyes are in that class. U-M now has one of the football factories in its own division, something that's going to be tough to overcome. Chipping away starts with being competitive, though, and that one is all on the guys in the locker room. ❑ Chris Balas has been with The Wolver- ine since 1997, working part time for five years before joining the staff full time in 2002. Contact him at cbalas@ and follow him on Twitter @Balas_Wolverine. INSIDE MICHIGAN   CHRIS BALAS The Ohio State Conundrum OSU's explosive offense — loaded with top-five recruiting classes that have produced high NFL Draft picks — has aver- aged 59.0 points per game against U-M's otherwise stout defense in the last two meetings between the rivals. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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