STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Jammed into the visitor’s interview room that could easily double as a tool shed underneath Beaver Stadium, Jim Harbaugh assessed where Michigan goes from here with his typical brevity.
“We solve it with our team and no one else can help us, but us. We put our best people on it, which is our players and our coaches,” Harbaugh said late Saturday night after Michigan was routed 42-13 by No. 2 Penn State.
The second loss in three weeks for the Wolverines dropped them out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since September 2015, Harbaugh’s first season as coach of his alma mater.
The downside of being the most interesting man in college football, the coach who made $9 million last season, started a war of words with the SEC over football camps, and took his team to Italy this past spring is that there is little patience for a setback season.
Michigan went 10-3 in Harbaugh’s first year, exceeding expectations. Last season’s 10-3 was not quite as satisfying, but three losses by a total of five points was no reason to question Harbaugh.
Year three of Harbaugh at Michigan brought a more cautious optimism. For the elite coaches whom Harbaugh is often mentioned alongside, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, year three with their current schools produced national championships.
But the reality of this Michigan team was different. It had just lost 16 NFL draft picks and about 20 starters — players recruited by Harbaugh’s predecessor but developed under his regime. Harbaugh’s first two full recruiting classes were consensus top 10 in the nation, according to 247 Sports’ composite rankings, but those players are sophomores and freshmen.
Michigan started the season ranked No. 11 in the country, and much of that optimism seemed based on confidence in Harbaugh and his staff’s ability to quickly develop a relatively inexperienced group.
On the defensive side that has mostly been the case. Even after being dissected by Penn State, Michigan still ranks ninth in the nation in yards per play allowed 4.34. The offense has been bogged down all season, with average to below average play from almost every position. Name an offensive category and Michigan is far closer to the bottom of FBS than top.
As is standard in college football these days, two losses equates to a crisis. Michigan fans were euphoric about Harbaugh when they landed him to replace Brady Hoke in January 2015. Now, well, let’s just say it some are less so — even if it is only a very vocal minority.
“The fake love’s gone,” Michigan quarterback John O’Korn said. “There’s no bandwagon. It’s us.”
Michigan currently sits tied for fourth in the Big Ten East with Rutgers, which comes to Ann Arbor next week. The Wolverines main competition, the teams they measure themselves against, are all 4-0 in the league and ranked — No. 2 Penn State, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 16 Michigan State.
The loss earlier this month to Michigan State left Harbaugh 1-4 against the Spartans and Buckeyes. The coach who was supposed to close the gap between Meyer and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio has not. And right now James Franklin at Penn State is way out in front, too.
But, of course, it was only about 13 months that Michigan beat Penn State 49-10 in Ann Arbor and there were folks in Happy Valley asking whether Franklin, in his third season then, was the right man for the job.
Most of this Michigan team will be back next season and why can’t it take a big step forward the way Penn State? In the short-term, Michigan has winnable games against Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland before finishing the regular season against No. 5 Wisconsin and Ohio State.
A strong finish is possible. Beat the Buckeyes at the Big House and pretty much all is forgiven.
That seems like a wishful thinking after the Penn State beat down, but asked whether Michigan’s problems are solvable this season, Harbaugh answered succinctly: “Yes.”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP