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Jim Harbaugh says his team was outprepared, outcoached, outplayed, after Michigan’s thorough beatdown in Wisconsin, Sept. 21, 2019.
Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press

That wasn’t a football game.

That was Waterloo.

Forget national playoffs, forget challenging the elite programs, forget even moving the bar higher than last season. The Michigan Wolverines on Saturday looked as bad as they’ve looked since Jim Harbaugh arrived, not losing as much as surrendering a critical Big Ten game for which they had two weeks to prepare.

There’s no excuse. Worse, there’s no explanation. Where would you begin to explain this 35-14 beatdown by Wisconsin — which wasn’t remotely as close as that score suggests? The offensive line got crushed like walnuts. The defense gave up 143 yards to a running back — in the first quarter! The endless series of mistakes, miscues, missed assignments and missed chances stacked so high, watching it was like squinting into the sun.

I watched it, as many of you did, at home, and was left, as many of you were, stunned.  Stunned at the lack of preparation. Stunned at the apparent lack of inspiration. Stunned at the execution, errors and ineffectiveness of the Wolverines in areas they used to be known for, like an offensive line, like a running game, like a defense.

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The defense. Oh, Lord. What happened there? The strong suit of the Wolverines with Don Brown directing looked like some weak impostor wearing maize and blue. There were more players out of position than a chessboard overturned by a dog. Wisconsin was all but laughing at the lack of resistance, and went for a fourth down on its own 34-yard line to prove it.

They made it easily.

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Josh Metellus says one game doesn’t define a season, after Michigan’s 35-14 loss to Wisconsin, says there are things to build on, Sept. 21, 2019.
Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press

Jonathan Taylor, the star running back for the Badgers, had such an easy time gaining yards Saturday, he looked like the NFL and the Wolverines like high school. Taylor had 203 yards on just 23 carries — and missed a big chunk of the game with cramps!

As for the Michigan offensive line? Wow. The area once the pride of Bo Schembechler was the shame of the Michigan game film Saturday. It allowed the U-M quarterbacks to be hit or rushed on nearly every play. It opened so few holes, the Wolverines recorded a paltry 40 yards rushing, barely averaging two yards per carry.

And yet for all the terrible performances, the origin of this debacle was, once again, mistakes. As it has been since the season started.

Windsor on U-M: Harbaugh’s fire is missing. Michigan won’t recover without it

And that, for a program under a coach as accomplished as Harbaugh, is head-shaking.

Here’s what went wrong

Let’s just list some of the early mistakes. You’ll see how quickly they add up to disaster.

  • On the Wolverines’ first drive, they hit a huge pass-and-run, then promptly fumbled four yards from the goal line on a handoff to a fullback, Ben Mason, who hadn’t taken a handoff all year. That was their ninth fumble of the year.
  • On the Badgers’ third drive, the Michigan defenders were out of position, allowing Taylor to race 72 yards for a touchdown.
  • On the next drive, U-M drew a pass interference call, but followed it with a foolish unsportsmanlike penalty by Donovan Peoples-Jones. Shea Patterson missed two receivers he could have hit, and the Wolverines wound up punting.
  • In the second quarter, on a fourth-and-3, Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan again found Michigan defenders out of position and hit a 26-yard over-the-shoulder pass to Quintez Cephus.
  • On the Wolverines’ next drive, Patterson threw an interception.

All that was in the first 25 minutes. I could fast-forward to the final quarter, when Michigan blew a great punt with an illegal formation penalty, or got called for offensive pass interference, or ended its offensive day — and I do mean offensive — with an interception by the third-string quarterback Joe Milton.

But I’m stopping now, before you break something valuable.

More on U-M: Wolverines face a ‘gut check’ with major problems on offense, defense

Suffice it to say, by the time the game was (mercifully) over, the Wolverines had four turnovers and no third-down conversions.

Four turnovers? No third-down conversions?

Come on. We’re used to seeing that on Sundays around here, not Saturdays.

Some losses uglier than others

Now, this might not warrant commentary if it was simply a “bad day.” Or the game was played in a hurricane. But it wasn’t. Michigan was shut out in the first half for the first time since Harbaugh has been here.

And what riles U-M fans is that you could have seen this coming.

This is how the Wolverines have been playing since the season began — only against weaker opponents. Wisconsin, which outmuscled Michigan and regularly went for it on fourth down, didn’t seem at all impressed with the Wolverines. Why should it be? Michigan is one missed Army field goal away from being 1-2 and out of the top 20.

As it is, it is almost certainly out of the top 15, which means any thoughts of climbing back into a playoff discussion seem dreamlike, given the strength at the top of the rankings.

So once again, the Wolverines must try to salvage a season as opposed to commanding it. This is not how it was supposed to work under Harbaugh. It’s not about someone else’s recruits anymore. It’s not about an unfair amount of injuries (true, the running game is banged up, but hey, the Badgers didn’t have Taylor half the game and still stacked up a 35-0 lead. And didn’t Michigan used to have one great running back to replace another?).

No, this is about fixing something fundamental. The offense, under new coordinator Josh Gattis, was supposed to be inspiring. It just looks indecisive. Patterson, the senior quarterback, was supposed to stabilize the attack with his experience; instead, he’s often fumbling or overthrowing, and looks less in control than he did last year.

And if the offensive line repeats this performance, you can forget about Ohio State. Winning ANY Saturday will be a challenge.

Yes, it’s only three games. Yes, it’s only one loss. But in college football, like it or not, three games sets a position and one loss can knock you out of opportunities. Be honest. Right now, would you pick Michigan to beat any top-tier program?

The answer is no. And the question is why. Some losses are bigger than others. This was big and ugly.

Kind of like the mountain Michigan now has in front of it.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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Shawn Windsor and Orion Sang discuss what they saw in Michigan football’s 35-14 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, and what it all means.
Orion Sang and Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press