ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A reporter asked a four-part question to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh in the aftermath of a 56-27 loss to No. 1 Ohio State at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
It was teed up as follows:
“Is this a talent gap? Is it a preparation gap? Is it a coaching gap? What is the biggest difference between you and Ohio State at this point?”
Ohio State (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten) is off to another conference championship game in Indianapolis. No. 13 Michigan (9-3, 6-3) is headed to a second-tier bowl game. Harbaugh fired back with the viral response that will be branded on the program for the next 364 days.
“I’ll answer your questions,” he said. “Not your insults.”
Those four questions are the all-encompassing questions that have dogged the Michigan program in the 21st century in a rivalry that is in danger of being on life-support. The Buckeyes are 17-3 in the last 20 meetings and now have an immutable eight-game win streak that called attention to that gap one more time. Ohio State rolled up 577 yards — Justin Fields threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns, and J.K. Dobbins added 211 more yards and four scores.
Fields then lobbed the insult from the other news conference room.
“It just means more at Ohio State,” Fields said. “That’s pretty much the big reason.”
There is a big difference between the two Big Ten rivals. That much is clear. Michigan needs to address the other three questions in reverse order.
Is it a coaching gap? Harbaugh is now 0-5 against the Buckeyes, a scarlet-and-gray-letter that follows what to this point has been a solid five-year stint. If Michigan wins its bowl game, then that will be four 10-win seasons in five years.
Yet, Michigan’s coaching decisions have been motivated by failures against the Buckeyes. Don Brown was brought in to fix the defense. It worked for a year in 2016, but the Wolverines have allowed 118 points and 1,144 yards in the last two meetings. Josh Gattis was brought on to fix the offense. Shea Patterson was 14 of 19 for 250 yards in the first half. He completed 4 of 24 passes after halftime. Ohio State’s coaches made better half-time adjustments.
Is it a preparation gap? Michigan trailed 28-16 after two quarters, but it was a pile of self-inflicted mistakes that created that difference. Patterson lost a fumble in the red zone. Khaleke Hudson jumped offsides on a punt on fourth-and-4, which the Buckeyes turned into a touchdown in two plays. Donovan Peoples-Jones dropped a pass in the end zone. That three-score swing in points made a difference.
The Wolverines trimmed the lead to 42-27 in the second half and had the ball, but Hassan Haskins was stuffed out of a Wildcat play on fourth-and-1. Ohio State, however, simply rolled through Michigan’s defense for the second straight season, which means Brown will feel the brunt of that criticism after getting torched for the second straight season. Ohio State coach Ryan Day, the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer the last two seasons, had the better game plan.
“Their defensive staff does an excellent job, but you have to be aggressive against them,” Day said. “You have to set the tone. Once it’s the other way around, you are battling uphill.”
Is this a talent gap? This is the easiest answer. Ohio State has a pick-your-Heisman-candidate trio out of Fields, Dobbins and defensive end Chase Young, who could be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Meyer’s recruiting class have given the Buckeyes NFL difference-makers at every position group that have the program impervious to the upsets that dogged the John Cooper teams of the 1990s. The millennial generation has no concept of that now, because it’s been two decades and the dominance has taken away from the lore of the rivalry.
There were whispers of 1969 — the legendary 24-12 Michigan upset that launched the Ten Year War between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler — leading up to this game. Instead, it was 1968 all over again, when the Buckeyes won 50-14. Or even 2018, when Ohio State won 62-39. Michigan, in five years of Harbaugh, has not fired a shot to resuscitate the rivalry.
There is a gap, and the question now becomes whether Harbaugh will be around for the next five years to fix it. No, Harbaugh will not be fired. Would he consider a parachute to the NFL at some point, knowing how much ground is left to cover? That remains an open-ended question.
Michigan is 47-17 since his arrival, and this was Patterson’s first home loss as a starter the last two seasons. Only Clemson (67-4), Alabama (65-5), Ohio State (60-6), Oklahoma (56-9), Georgia (53-14), Wisconsin (51-14) and LSU (47-14) have better records among Power 5 schools. The Wolverines are tied with Penn State (47-17), and those two programs have taken turns chasing Ohio State the last three years.
Harbaugh, however, was brought to Michigan to close that gap and push the program into the elite class of college football. That hasn’t been done with a five-, 10- or even 20-year plan since Jim Tressel took over at Ohio State.
Harbaugh addressed the follow ups in the simplest of terms about those gaps.
“They played really good,” Harbaugh said. “They played better today.”
Anybody with two eyes can see that. There’s a big difference at Ohio State, and it is a combination of talent, coaching and preparation. Insults hurt the most when they are laced with the truth.
The Wolverines, once again, left those questions unanswered.