I don’t know what the five stages of grief are for Michigan fans, but I imagine after this last dozen years or so, at least the first two stages are pure numbness.
After watching Michigan’s 24-17 loss at Notre Dame on Saturday, the third stage is probably disbelief that nothing has changed, followed by a fourth stage of anger at so many wasted years.
The fifth stage is acceptance because if Jim Harbaugh hasn’t figured it out by now, he’s no longer even looking at the instructions.
Watching Michigan’s conservative offense on Saturday, I kept finding myself wondering what Jeff Brohm could do with Shea Patterson and Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins and Chris Evans and Karan Higdon.
I have long said that bad offense is a choice, and for as much as people like to talk about Harbaugh’s complex offensive system, maybe it’s only complex to Michigan.
Jim Harbaugh has now been at Michigan for 40 games. His offense has seven games of at least 500 yards of total offense and nine games of under 300 yards. In 2015, the Wolverines had two 500-yard games. In 2016 they increased that number to five. Last year, however, there was nothing.
Each year the number of games with fewer than 300 yards has increased — from two in 2015, to three in 2016, to four last year.
Over Ohio State’s last 40 games, they have 16 games of 500 yards or more and just four games of less than 300 yards. Two of those 300-yard days came in the postseason, including last year’s 24-7 Cotton Bowl win over USC.
The Buckeyes have six 600-yard days over the last 40 games, compared to Michigan’s seven 500-yard outings.
Ohio State fans get mad at Urban Meyer’s stubborness when it comes to his offense, but even through that stubborness his offenses have averaged 480 yards per game since his arrival in 2012 and rewritten OSU’s record books.
The only thing Jim Harbaugh’s offense is rewriting is expectations.
I came into this game expecting much more than 307 yards of total offense and one offensive touchdown, and after considering all of the struggles last year, we can only blame ourselves for the expectations that we brought into this game.
At this point, Jim Harbaugh now has to prove it, and not just here and there. Just as Ohio State needs a quarterback who can get them over the hump against elite defenses, Michigan needs an offense that doesn’t allow opposing defensive coordinators the confidence to upgrade from a 6-pack to a 12-pack on the way home from work the Tuesday before the game.
I don’t believe it is time to panic. I lived through Ohio State’s 2014 season, so I know an offense can look average for a bit before things start clicking. But so much of what Michigan’s offense is right now is choice.
The confidence in the offense will build over the next few weeks, but will it actually be better by the time they head to Northwestern, or will we once again see what we saw on Saturday?
Will we again get suckered in by the potential of an offense that could be every bit as good as the 2016 offense, or will we find out that this is just what Michigan football is. We look at it and think it should be more, but if Harbaugh never takes the offense out of second gear, why do we keep expecting them to win races?
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines rushed for 58 yards against a Notre Dame defense that allowed 215 yards rushing per game over their final five contests last season.
Even removing the 32 yards lost on sacks and the 11 yards on a botched field goal attempt, Michigan still only rushed for 107 yards on 29 carries (3.7 ypc). Running back Karan Higdon rushed for 72 yards on 21 carries (3.4 ypc), while Chris Evans apparently didn’t show up until the second half, and only carried the ball twice for a yard. I don’t know if he was serving some kind of secret suspension, but he’s a guy that would actually help a struggling offense — as Michigan found out later in the game when they threw it to him twice for 37 yards.
This was also the much-anticipated debut for transfer quarterback Shea Patterson. Patterson was okay on the day, completing 20-of-30 passes for 227 yards with no touchdowns, one interception, and one game-clinching fumble.
There was plenty to like about Patterson, but there was the same old, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” that we have come to expect from Jim Harbaugh’s quarterbacks. Decision making continues to be an issue. And it’s not always interceptions. Michigan had a third down at Notre Dame’s 25-yard line, but Patterson ended up getting sacked for a 16-yard loss, knocking Michigan out of field goal range.
The receivers were okay, I guess. Nico Collins has stepped in for the injured Tarik Black and came down with a 52-yard reception. He was the only receiver who averaged over 10 yards per catch on the day, which gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of routes these guys are running.
Donovan Peoples-Jones — arguably the most dynamic athlete in the Big Ten — caught six passes for 38 yards. That’s two straight games with six catches, but he’s not doing anything with them.
Somehow, Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, and now new receivers coach Jim McElwain have managed to turn Donovan Peoples-Jones into Donovan Peoples-McDoom. This is a guy that Ohio State assistant coaches risked their lives driving through a blizzard for, and now he’s averaging six yards per catch while running routes like he has a curfew so he better not get too far from home.
There may need to be another independent investigation in the Big Ten in order to figure that one out.
The offensive line wasn’t great, obviously. They gave up three sacks and paved the way for a running game that found less and less room the longer this one went on.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Dylan McCaffrey also got in due to cramps late in the game for Shea Patterson, which simply cannot happen. He didn’t play poorly, which is a plus.
Middle linebacker Devin Bush also cramped up earlier in the game. Patterson cramping up late when the game was on the line was something that the strength and conditioning coaches need to answer for. That was completely unacceptable.
Overall, this was not an offensive outing that is going to worry anybody in the Big Ten. Individually, there are definitely players to be concerned about, however, right now the execution is lacking. I expect that execution to be much better in November, but it will be interesting to see how things go early on in Big Ten play.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Notre Dame had weeks to prepare for the Michigan defense and their resulting script was a good one. It also didn’t hurt that quarterback Brandon Wimbush had the ability to run out of trouble when it presented itself.
The Irish scored touchdowns on three of their first four drives, covering 75, 96, and 75 yards. Over their final seven drives — not including the end of the game where they took two knees to run the clock out — the Notre Dame offense managed just 96 yards total.
The 96-yard drive was the first drive of over 90 yards that Michigan’s defense has given up since the Orange Bowl in 2016 against Florida State, and that came on a 92-yard touchdown pass.
Even with those three drives, the Irish only managed 302 yards of total offense. Notre Dame rushed for 132 yards on 47 attempts (2.8 ypc) and Wimbush completed 12-of-22 passes for 170 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Wimbush led the team with 59 yards rushing, including the 18 yards he lost on two sacks. He was able to keep drives going — at least in the first half.
Defensive end Chase Winovich was his typical harassing self. He had a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. He also had a crucial roughing the passer penalty on third down that turned what would have been a field goal drive into a touchdown drive.
I’m not really sure what kind of skill Notre Dame has on offense. They didn’t seem overly dynamic. They’re good, but I’m not sure anybody is great.
I was disappointed in Michigan’s inability to take advantage of more of Wimbush’s poor passing decisions. He threw the ball up for grabs at times and the Wolverines didn’t make him pay for it.
Outside linebacker Khaleke Hudson had just two tackles — and the first one came on Notre Dame’s first play. The second came in the second quarter. This is a guy who was a play maker for the Wolverines last season. Hudson averaged nearly eight tackles per game over his final eight games last season, so this was a disappointment. Being the kind of hybrid defender he is, coverage can oftentimes take him away from the play, but that’s wasn’t always the case on Saturday.
By the way, the last time he only had two tackles in a game was last year’s 14-10 loss to Michigan State. Maybe not a coincidence.
Defensive end Rashan Gary wasn’t the All-American we were promised. So many times Wimbush would simply step into the pocket as Gary’s pass rush would take him deep and out of the play.
Starting safety Josh Metellus was kicked out of the game early due to targeting. Brad Hawkins then came in for him and I don’t know that he was all that bad. He gave up a touchdown pass on a jump ball, but he was right there in coverage. It was his first serious action and he didn’t do anything the starters haven’t done. The other safety — Tyree Kinnel — struggled on some run supports, but when you lead the team with eight tackles and your defense allowed just 2.8 yards per carry, you did alright.
Overall, Michigan’s defense eventually showed up, but how much of that was Brian Kelly dialing things back because Michigan’s offense wasn’t going to score 24 points to tie the game?
The Michigan Special Teams
Cornerback Ambry Thomas returned two kickoffs for 120 yards, including a 99-yarder for a touchdown that swung the momentum back into the middle after being firmly pointed at Notre Dame.
Punter Will Hart dropped the snap on a field goal attempt, costing the Wolverines a likely three points.
Donovan Peoples-Jones returned two punts for six yards, and also fielded one of those punts inside the 5-yard line for some reason.
The great night by Thomas saved what was a pretty below average night for Michigan’s special teams.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Michigan finally has a quarterback who can lead them to great things, but he still makes some very foolish plays. No matter where Jim Harbaugh gets his quarterbacks from, they all have the same WTF gaffes throughout a game. He seems unable to coach it out of them. Or maybe he’s coaching it into them?
In a 7-point game, one quarterback mistake can be the difference in a game. Two or three mistakes only multiply the likelihood of losing to a good team.
That being said, I don’t think it helps matters that Shea Patterson is stuck in an offense that believes receivers exist to lure defensive backs away from tight ends and fullbacks.
At Ole Miss, he had NFL receivers running downfield. Now he has decoys trying to clear out a defense for a 4-yard waggle.
When Michigan takes the field next week, it will have been one year since they've had a wide receiver record a touchdown reception. Ohio State has had 30 in that same span.
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) September 2, 2018
I expected to see a more wide-open offense from Michigan, and maybe we will down the road. There are enough skill players here to make some noise. Only Ohio State has more in the Big Ten.
This should be one of the best offenses in the conference, but it’s not.
The worst part is that it feels like Michigan is okay with it because nothing has changed from their struggles to end the season last year.
However, it also means that losing at Notre Dame as an underdog by seven points is not the end of the world. Better execution on defense and special teams — and in the red zone – makes this a win for the Wolverines. A handful of plays — maybe three or four — would change this game completely, and then what would the story be?
We’d be talking about Michigan’s toughness and ability to grind it out on the road in a hostile environment.
The problem is that it was the Wolverines’ veterans making the mistakes that are usually reserved for young players — just look at the Ohio State defense on Saturday if you want to see some young guys screwing up.
For the leaders on the team to be the ones making the costly errors, however, doesn’t bode well for the future. Yes, this is just one game, but it was a big one and nobody stepped up to go and win it.
We will see if they grow from this adversity, but that hasn’t really been Jim Harbaugh’s M.O.
After the loss to Michigan State last year, they went to Indiana and snuck out with an overtime win. The week after that, Penn State put it to them 42-13. After cupcake row, they ended the season on a 3-game losing streak.
In 2016, they lost three of their last four.
It feels like the longer Jim Harbaugh is around, the weight of disappointment gets heavier and heavier. Somehow this team either needs to shed that heaviness, or use it to become stronger.
There is nothing like adversity for bringing a team together.
We know the offense isn’t changing anytime soon, but at least now we’ll see if he can change how his team reacts to difficult situations.