Irish pull one out, Michigan turns up heat on Harbaugh

Wasn’t that special?

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There they were, two of the biggest lightning rods in a sport that would have invented lightning rods if Ben Franklin hadn’t gotten there first, trying to ring in the New Year by overcoming their quarterback woes.

Are there any college football followers who don’t either love or hate to see Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly win?

They were separated by just 88 miles on Interstate 4, Harbaugh at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Kelly at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.

Their days began and ended very differently.

After skating on thin ice for most of the game, Notre Dame scored on an improbable 55-yard touchdown catch by Miles Boykin with 1:28 left from backup Ian Book, who had replaced ineffective starter Brandon Wimbush late in the second quarter.

That heroic play gave the Fighting Irish a 21-17 victory over LSU, which looked like it would survive its own miscue-filled game when it took a 17-14 lead on a field goal with 2:03 left.

The win gave Notre Dame (10-3) its first New Year’s Day bowl win since the 1994 Cotton Bowl.

And if the Irish, who thought they had sorted out Wimbush’s quarterbacking flaws in the bowl run-up, will have to get their signal-callers straight in the off-season, beating LSU in the Citrus Bowl beat the alternative.

SAYING NO TO MICHIGAN

After leading 19-3 in the third quarter and being on the verge of a knockout punch, Michigan withered on the vine in a 26-19 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

The Wolverines had a first-and-goal-to-go with that 19-3 lead when they lost a fumble. It would be one of five turnovers for Michigan, which gave up 23 unanswered points from there.

``We didn’t get the knockout punch when we needed it,’’ Harbaugh said.

It didn’t help that quarterback Brandon Peters struggled, going 20 of 44 for 186 yards, with two interceptions and no TDs. John O’Korn, who entered the game briefly when Peters was shaken up, wasn’t the answer, either.

The loss left the Big Ten 7-1 in bowl play, a fine showing, but one game short of the perfect 8-0 that was in its grasp.

It was especially disappointing because of the way the Wolverines, who had been favored by at least a touchdown, folded.

Michigan, which was beaten by Wisconsin and Ohio State in its final two regular-season games, ended the season with a three-game losing streak, the first of Harbaugh’s three-year run at his alma mater, where he has gone 10-3, 10-3 and 8-5, including a 5-4 Big Ten sputter this fall. Harbaugh’s teams lost only four Big Ten games in their first two seasons.

And if it looks like the Wolverines are going backwards, that’s because they are.

It’s not easy being in the Big Ten East, where Penn State has joined Ohio State as a perennial national-championship contender, and where Michigan State is back to hitting on all cylinders.

Consider these remarks from Amani Toomer.

``I'm a frustrated fan,’’ the legendary Michigan receiver said in a Detroit radio interview. ``I think that what Michigan signed up for was a Nick Saban, an Urban Meyer. We signed up for somebody who was going to come in and change the culture. I mean, he had a great first year. The first two years I was excited, but last year he had his best team and they lose to Ohio State? That was a heartbreaker. . . . And this year they lose to Ohio State embarrassingly. They lose to Michigan State, another embarrassment. I just think that we deserve better than this. . . . I don't care about the shoes, I don't care about the going to Rome, I don't care about any of that stuff. We are an also-ran team in the Big Ten now and it's embarrassing.’’

And this was all said before Michigan was humbled by South Carolina.

Harbaugh’s three-year run at Michigan now reads like this: 28-11 overall, 18-8 Big Ten, 1-5 vs. key rivals Ohio State and Michigan State.

Toomer stressed that he doesn’t want Harbaugh fired.

``We don't hate Harbaugh,’’ he said. ``That's not the point of this. The point is, I just want the team to be better. I'm not trying to tear apart the program, I love the program. I risked my life on the field for Michigan. I bleed blue. But for people to be OK with this is bothersome to me.’’

My take on this—the obvious take on this—is that Harbaugh needs a huge 2018. My belief that he will win big at Michigan is wavering. I never thought I’d say that, given what he accomplished at Stanford and with the 49ers. I thought he was such a good fit at Michigan that he wouldn’t move on the way he did at those previous stops.

Then again, I didn’t think Penn State would ascend the way it has in the last two years, and I didn’t expect Michigan State to dig in its heels as impressively as it has this year.

Neither of those programs are going away, as far as we can see at this point.

What that means is, Harbaugh better get better. This isn’t just a Michigan-Ohio State deal, or even a Michigan-Ohio State-Michigan State deal.

This is about Harbaugh no longer being able to distract and amuse with his curiosity about life. It’s about winning games. Or moving on.

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Oh, and by the way, Michigan’s 2018 schedule is filled with peril. It starts at Notre Dame, ends at Ohio State. Includes trips to Michigan State and Northwestern, and home dates with Wisconsin and Penn State. And who knows what miracle worker Scott Frost will do at Nebraska?

Sept. 1 -- at Notre Dame
Sept. 8 -- Western Michigan
Sept. 15 -- Southern Methodist
Sept. 22 -- Nebraska*
Sept. 29 -- at Northwestern*
Oct. 6 -- Maryland* (Homecoming)
Oct. 13 -- Wisconsin*
Oct. 20 -- at Michigan State*
Oct. 27 -- Bye Week
Nov. 3 -- Penn State*
Nov. 10 -- at Rutgers*
Nov. 17 -- Indiana*
Nov. 24 -- at Ohio State*[/membership]

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