Opponent outlook: How will Michigan respond to tough loss?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Speculation surrounding the future of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh continues to mount.

The Wolverines have struggled to win big games in Harbaugh’s five seasons at the helm. That common denominator has remained unchanged through Harbaugh’s sifting of 20 assistant coaches and three offensive coordinators.

This past Saturday’s 28-21 loss at Penn State dropped Michigan to 1-10 against Associated Press top 10 teams under Harbaugh. The Wolverines are also 1-7 on the road against ranked teams, 0-8 as an underdog and 0-4 against Ohio State during that span.

Finding a way to defeat Notre Dame (No. 8, 5-1) for the first time since 2013 is the next challenge for Harbaugh and No. 19 Michigan (5-2). ABC will broadcast the Saturday game slated to kick off at 7:30 p.m. EDT from Michigan Stadium.

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel has publicly reassured time and again that Harbaugh’s job is secure for the long haul. That hasn’t stopped rumors from swirling about Harbaugh potentially leaving for the NFL again.

The bright spot in Michigan’s 28-21 loss to Penn State last Saturday night was the improvement of the Michigan offense, led by quarterback Shea Patterson, who helped the Wolverines battle back from a 21-0 deficit.

Trailing 28-21 with just over two minutes remaining, Michigan faced a fourth-and-goal at the PSU three-yard line. Wide receiver Ronnie Bell dropped a perfect Patterson pass in the end zone, however, and the Nittany Lions were able to run the clock out.

How will Michigan respond? We caught up with Nick Baumgardner of the Athletic for more insight on Michigan.

How is Harbaugh being received by the Wolverine fan base after the first half of this season?

Baumgardner: Like most fan bases, it probably depends on who you ask. I think most are so fascinated by Harbaugh at Michigan because it’s not really like this anywhere else. There are sections of the fan base that have been yelling for his job for two years. There are sections that will never call for his job.

The majority would probably tell you they’re disappointed with how things have gone, but they still believe Harbaugh is their best option right now.

What did you learn and what were your biggest takeaways from Michigan’s loss at Penn State?

Baumgardner: That was kind of a tough game to process, given the way it started and the way it ended. In short, we learned that Michigan’s program continues to struggle with starts on the road against top-level opponents. But I think we also learned that in terms of this team, not necessarily the program overall, there’s been some progress made since the embarrassing loss at Wisconsin.

Not enough. But something.

Michigan’s offense seemed to play better after an underwhelming start to the season. Do you foresee more improvement in the coming weeks under offensive coordinator Josh Gattis?

Baumgardner: I’m not sure yet. I want to see if they can have a similar performance against another quality opponent before I put too much stock in it. They did look more functional the last two weeks, including a game at overmatched Illinois and on the road against Penn State. More functional than they’ve looked at any point this season.

I think the jury is still out a bit, to be honest. If it shows up again Saturday, I’ll be more willing to consider this a trend of improvement.

Who are some key Michigan players that will need to shine against Notre Dame?

Baumgardner: Obviously it starts and stops with Shea Patterson offensively. Saturday was his best game of the year (24-for-41, 276 yards) and one of his more impressive days, given the circumstances, since he’s been at Michigan. The Wolverines still have work to do in order to get everything moving offensively, though.

If Donovan Peoples-Jones could break out and make some plays, that’d be a massive help for an offense that has really struggled to get chunks throughout the year.

If Michigan wins, why do you think that would be the case? If Michigan loses, why do you think that would be the case?

Baumgardner: If Michigan wins, then that probably means the offense put together a clean game and built off momentum established at Penn State. The Wolverines are a much better team, generally, at home in games like this. They’ve scored some pretty impressive home wins in the past under Harbaugh and some have come in rather dominating fashion.

But if this is a turnover party again, then there’s no chance. Notre Dame’s too good a football team to mess around with and, frankly, Michigan’s not good enough to do that to itself and survive.

Score prediction: Notre Dame 21, Michigan 17.

Baumgardner: It wouldn’t shock me to see Michigan get this game at home. But it’s kind of hard to pick the Wolverines right now given the offensive inconsistencies and Notre Dame’s level of talent. Should be a good game, though.

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson (2) throws a pass during last Saturday’s game against Penn State in State College, Pa.

WHO: No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. No. 19 Michigan (5-2).

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Michigan Stadium; Ann Arbor, Mich.

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Michigan by 1