Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Harbaugh said Michigan’s offense is hitting their stride. We take a look at what realistic expectations for the unit could be the rest of the season.
There was the highest amount of positive hype surrounding Michigan’s revamped offense with new offense coordinator Josh Gattis bringing in a pro-spread ‘speed in space’ scheme.
The expectation was for the Michigan offense to hit the ground running and be one of the most prolific and exciting in college football with a veteran offensive line, highly talented receiving corp, and a quarterback in Shea Patterson that had a pretty good season in 2018.
And then the inevitable happened, growing pains. Currently, Michigan’s offense is ranked No. 93 in total offense, No. 102 in rushing offense, No. 73 in passing offense, No. 105 in completion percentage, No. 106 in turnovers lost, and No. 87 in third down completion percentage. None of those numbers are good, none of them are where Michigan wants or needs to be to beat the best teams on their schedule.
A new offensive scheme doesn’t blossom overnight. But one thing to keep in mind, Michigan’s two worst days offensively came against top ten defenses with stout front sevens. “As I said, I think it’s coming, I think it’s showing,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “As I said earlier, a top defense in the country against Wisconsin, a top defense against Iowa. There’s a point where you say, good job. Well played. That was a good game. Recognizing the efforts of the opponent and your own players. I feel with our team, the effort is great. Off the charts. At the highest level. And when you get that, then you can get everything else.”
There’s a balance to tipping the cap to a talented opposing defense while also realizing the offense has room for improvement. Yes, they played good defenses, but as Shea Patterson put it, they know they left a lot out there.
However, in the realm of effort, Harbaugh is absolutely correct with where the effort stands at the moment from his team.
Michigan’s effort was not where it needed to be after the Wisconsin loss, and Harbaugh was as self-critical about himself and his team as he has been during his time at Michigan, saying the Wolverines were out-coached and out-hustled. Harbaugh went on to say after the loss to the Badgers that Michigan wasn’t playing physical enough and that the players who hustled at all times would be the ones on the field. It may have been a 10-3 throwback of a game against Iowa that wasn’t necessarily a pretty watch, but the offensive line pass protected well, they were getting off the snap quicker, and the defense was the definition of max-effort and max-hustle. It appears Michigan may have turned the corner in this regard and win or lose, they’ll likely be playing tougher from here on out.
Even with the added hustle and toughness, the offense still needs to execute, and there are more than a few reasons to expect better days are coming.
- Running back Zach Charbonnet rushed 33 times against Army for 100 yards and 3 scores, but came out of the game banged up. The next two weeks Charbonnet carried the ball just 7 times for 28 yards. The good news is Charbonnet appears to be close to full strength, receiving 13 carries against Iowa. Not only has Charbonnet been Michigan’s best back this season, he’s been a tremendous asset in pass protection. Charbonnet’s lack of volume versus Wisconsin was a big blow, and his presence is a big advantage.
- Wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones , a player who has been electric at times as both a receiver and return man missed the first two games of the year with a high ankle sprain, and still wasn’t 100 percent once he came back versus Wisconsin, DPJ has needed a couple games to get back in the swing of things. A fully healthy Peoples-Jones changes things for Michigan’s offense. They’re better with him, that’s for sure.
- Other injuries have racked up for Michigan’s offense. Offensive tackle Jon Runyan Jr. missed time early in the year, now he’s back to full strength. Running back Tru Wilson missed two games due to a broken hand, now he’s back. Tight end Sean McKeon has been out since the Wisconsin game and it’s likely he’ll be back in the fold against Illinois or Wisconsin. As long as Michigan doesn’t suffer any more long term injuries, their offense is almost back to full strength.
- Shea Patterson noted that “it’s going to take a few games to get it really, really going” on offense in a new scheme, and he’s not wrong. While that may sound like an excuse from Patterson, there’s still truth within it. “I think we all trust in it, and we’re all trusting the process and we think it’s going to take off,” Patterson said. While fans and media alike have a wait and see approach, it’s important for Michigan’s belief on offense to outweigh the outside doubt. One stat I found to be quite interesting is where Michigan ranks in yards per completion, they’re currently ranked No. 32 there and No. 4 in the Big Ten. It’s not like Michigan hasn’t had any explosive plays, there have been glimpses of what this offense could become, the problem is there isn’t much margin for error in college football and they have to reach their potential soon.
- Patterson has a major say as to whether Michigan reaches their potential or not. Patterson has committed a turnover in every game this season, and there will be games where even one turnover on offense will cost a team the game. Further, Michigan’s offense left their defense on the field to finish the game against Army and Iowa, the offense did not put the game away. In those games Michigan’s D carried the load and had little to no margin for error, it’s time for Michigan’s offense to sustain drives, keep their defense off the field, and create breathing room on the scoreboard. Can they do that? I believe so, but the answer coincides with aggression. Patterson said they’re “not not trying to be explosive” and he believes the sky is the limit and it’s just a matter of time. The time is coming to be explosive, or try their damnedest to be, because Penn State and Notre Dame, who Michigan play this month, love to take their shots down the field and score a lot of points in the process.
A big element of football or any profession is the mental side of it all, and Michigan’s success on offense, if they’re to have notable success, will have to be a mindset. Josh Gattis has said they want to dictate what they do on offense, be it running uptempo or chewing clock, running the ball down the D’s throat or letting it rip to wideouts. The offense needs swagger, it needs confidence. With the swagger comes toughness and execution. This is a talented Michigan offense in terms of the playmakers it has, Patterson included, who was one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten last season. We should expect Patterson to play better than he has, but whether that’s marginal improvement or remarkable improvement remains to be seen. You’d think hungry backups like Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton who’d love to take his job away is all the motivation he’ll need to perform at a high clip.
So what are realistic expectations for Michigan’s offense the rest of the season? What’s realistic is for them to get better and to have games where they put up a lot of points. Like I said, the talent is there. It’s there along the line, at running back, at wideout, at tight end, and at quarterback as well. And with more time on task in a new scheme, a healthy lineup, maybe they’ll reach a level of play that many expected before week one. There’s a ceiling that hasn’t been reached, and they’re going to have to bust right on through it and keep ascending to accomplish their goals. One thing I guarantee, we may have seen Michigan’s offense at their worst, but we haven’t seen them at their best. The question is how good will their best be? The evidence will unfold before our very eyes and become apparent in the coming weeks.