The second-guessing when it comes to the end of the dramatic Michigan State-Michigan game Saturday has been incessant and seemingly non-stop. With 10 seconds left and up by two at 23-21, U-M head coach Jim Harbaugh opted to punt the ball back to MSU on fourth-and-two from his own 48-yard line. Punter Blake O’Neill, of course, botched the snap and could do nothing but watch as the Spartans’ Jalen Watts-Jackson returned it 38 yards for the game-winning score with no time left on the clock.
Some thought Harbaugh should’ve gone for the first down. The line of thinking goes that, even if the Wolverines wouldn’t have converted, the Spartans, without any timeouts would’ve had anywhere from four to six seconds left seconds to convert what would’ve been a Hail Mary from around midfield.
One of those who espoused that after-the-fact tack? Harbaugh’s predecessor in Ann Arbor.
“Personally, if we have the No. 1 defense in the nation I’m going to test those guys,” Brady Hoke, now a SiriusXM College Sports host, said on his radio show Wednesday. “You’ve got to play to the strength of your football team and the strength of the Michigan football team all year-long has been their defense. …
“Your playbook’s open then, it doesn’t matter if you throw the ball the clock’s going to stop anyway because it’s a fourth down. You have an ability to get De'Veon Smith the ball, challenge your offensive line or play-action pass because Michigan State’s going to be aggressive. You take some time off the clock, four or five seconds. …
“Look, I know it’s easy from where we sit right now. I’ve been on the sideline and had to make decisions.”
Of course, Hoke was fired from those very same sidelines following a mediocre tenure, so many (most?) will see his point of view as nothing more than sour grapes from a dismissed former Wolverines head coach. It is, though, fair to at least bring up the point that Harbaugh could’ve rolled the dice by going for it on fourth instead of taking the chance on a bad snap from the long-snapper or, what ultimately happened, a muffed snap by the punter.
Harbaugh wouldn’t acknowledge that he made a tactical mistake, but earlier in the week he did allow that he would’ve punted from a different formation if he had to do it over.
“It’s been my experience, you would’ve done it a different way,” Harbaugh said after his radio show Monday night. “You’d certainly like an attempt to try it a different way.”
“The strength of the pocket was to catch it, take a step to the right and punt the ball. That’s where the protection (was supposed to be).”