After offseason hype, Michigan offense struggles to deliver against Army

Saturday, September 7, 2019 - 4:56pm

.

Natalie Stephens/Daily

Tarik Black laid on the 15-yard line, face buried in the turf as Shea Patterson’s pass attempt hit the sideline beyond him.

If Army’s final drive of overtime had gone a little differently — ending with the Black Knights streaming into the south end zone rather than the Wolverines into the north one — it would have been the perfect summation of Saturday afternoon.

Instead, Michigan rescued the game from the precipice of disaster and escaped with a 24-21, double-overtime win. Its last offensive play — the mistimed comeback route that sent Black to the turf — faded into memory, but the big-picture offensive frustration remained.

“There are just a lot of details that we need to clean up,” said freshman running back Zach Charbonnet. “And we’ve just got to thank the defense for stopping them when we had those turnovers and just giving us a chance to come back.”

Through no fault of his own, Charbonnet felt the crescendo of Saturday’s frustration. On Michigan’s second play of overtime, he took his 32nd carry of the game, saw only a blur of Army defensive lineman in front of him and got stuffed at the line of scrimmage with no other alternative. As Charbonnet hit the turf, his yards per carry standing at an even 3.0, a parade of boos rained down from a disgruntled fanbase.

Seeing a star running back stopped at the line of scrimmage with nowhere to go is a sight at once familiar and unexpected. Through three first-half turnovers and one missed field goal, it was that innocuous run up the middle that drew Saturday’s biggest boos.

For eight months, after Michigan hired offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, this play-calling — the repeated inside zones, perhaps thinly veiled with a read that carried no threat of a quarterback keeper — was paraded as a relic of the past. When Michigan came out and threw the ball 25 times before halftime against Middle Tennessee State last week, there was evidence to support that promise.

“Obviously, expectations, everyone tries to make it as sunshine and rainbows as possible,” senior guard Ben Bredeson said Saturday. “So this was good for us, it shows us what we need to work on as we head into the Big Ten season.”

Against Army, that all evaporated, culminating in a pair of failed 4th down attempts on consecutive fourth-quarter drives, each in Black Knight territory. Each time, Michigan faced a fourth-and-2 with a chance to right three quarters of offensive wrongs. And each time, Charbonnet was stopped, sending Army’s offense back onto the field.

After the game, the reflections remained calm, various position groups refusing to pin blame on one another. But perhaps Harbaugh, after crediting analytics with the decision to go for it, offered up the reason that reality didn’t follow suit.

“They had a better defensive call than we had a —,” he said, stopping himself mid-sentence, “than we executed our offensive play.”

It was the only time Harbaugh allowed a glimpse into Saturday’s playcalling, even if he cut himself off mid-sentence. When asked about the pass-run split that reverted back to 2018’s averages, he called the question “low-hanging fruit” — “... We could go every game with the ‘Why didn’t you pass when you ran and it didn’t work so you should’ve passed?’ We could do this for every game that’s ever played in football.”

But when an entire offseason carries the promise of a downfield passing attack and your leading receiver from a year ago — junior Nico Collins — sees three targets compared to 45 rushing attempts, these are the questions that follow.

Asked about the reasons he may have shied away from the pass — Army’s defensive setup, inconsistent pass-protection, Patterson’s two fumbles — Harbaugh rebuffed.

“At times, we had a long time back there in the pocket,” Harbaugh said. “And some of the big third down conversions were by pass.”

Therein lies the frustration. According the Harbaugh, the passing game was working. And yet he repeatedly turned to a rushing attack that managed just 2.4 yards per carry.

The play after Charbonnet’s run up the middle brought a chorus of boos, Gattis dialed up a pass and Patterson hit sophomore receiver Ronnie Bell for a first down on a crossing route to keep Michigan alive. Two plays later, Charbonnet was in the end zone.

“When we get our tempo going and we move the ball in the run game, it kind of sets everything else up,” Bredeson said. “We want to get the defense on their heels and keep going. I like when we’re rolling that way.”

Saturday afternoon, those moments were limited to fleeting spells amid a slew of turnovers and penalties.

And with it, the “sunshine and rainbows” of offseason expectations continued to dissolve into a harsher reality.