Four parting thoughts from this weekend's disaster

Sunday, September 22, 2019 - 11:01pm

The Michigan football team made the wrong kind of statement in its 35-14 loss to Wisconsin.

The Michigan football team made the wrong kind of statement in its 35-14 loss to Wisconsin. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

Michigan went into Saturday’s game against Wisconsin aiming to make a statement. Well, mission accomplished.

Instead of a statement of affirmation — that this program could win a game in a tough environment, against a team of equal or better talent — the Wolverines confirmed the opposite.

Now forced to pick up the pieces from a 35-14 drubbing in Madison, Michigan has to re-evaluate and re-calibrate. In doing so, it left plenty to digest about a season suddenly teetering on the brink. Here are four parting thoughts on a season-altering weekend and the peril it puts this season in.

So much for offensive balance

After the game Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked what he wanted this team’s offensive identity to be. He didn’t dare utter the phrase that is quickly descending into meme territory. You know the one. “Quickness in open areas,” or something of that ilk. Hard to remember at this point. His answer, though nondescript, spoke to one of this team’s many flaws.

“To be able to run the ball, to be able to throw the ball,” Harbaugh said. “Both equally effective and efficient.”

Through three weeks, Harbaugh’s offense — ahem, sorry, Josh Gattis’ offense — has been neither balanced nor efficient. Saturday against Wisconsin, that play-calling tilted heavily toward the passing attack by a margin of 42-19. Last week against Army, the Wolverines ran the ball 45 times and threw it 31 times. 

Through three weeks, Michigan is averaging 3.49 yards per carry. From a group that was supposed to be anchored by an experienced, sturdy offensive line and a promising young running back, balance should be an attainable necessity. And yet, both Harbaugh and the players lamented the disparity on Saturday.

“(The running game is) one thing we ran away from and I wish we would’ve stayed with it,” said senior tight end Nick Eubanks after the game.

Making strict judgments off the run/pass ratios can be misleading; play-calling is often dictated by game context, and Michigan has allowed a touchdown on the opening drive of all three games this season. That can throw any plan for a loop.

But for an offense that continues to strive for balance, among other things, it’s doing little to actually dictate game context instead of lay victim to it. 

A different kind of quarterback quandry

As Saturday’s first half progressed, the murmurs became rumblings, rumblings became primal screams.

The calls for junior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey stemmed more for a desperate clamor for change of any kind.  

Senior quarterback Shea Patterson continued to display carelessness in terms of ball security. He missed open reads and open receivers. In the third quarter, whether via injury or ineptitude, he was replaced by McCaffrey — only to come back in when McCaffrey exited with a concussion. Asked to assess their play, Harbaugh declined to go into specifics.

“Shea was being evaluated at halftime, and then we put Dylan in to start the second half,” he said after the game. “Dylan, he’s got a concussion.”

It’s easy to funnel any offensive frustrations to one place, and by default, the quarterback is often the victim of that. Patterson has played poorly through three weeks, and the quarterback play is problematic. Solving those issues cannot, and will not, turn a floundering offense into a thriving one on its own. Those two things can be, and are, true. 

In the short term, there’s little discussion to be had. McCaffrey is potentially recovering from his concussion; Patterson will be under center next week against Rutgers.

In the long term, if these issues persist from Patterson, it will become harder to ignore the validity of those frantic pleas from fans.

Keep it simple, stupid

Let’s start with the facts. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins have 33 combined targets through three weeks. That trio, the most talented Michigan has had in quite some time, has 19 combined catches for 313 yards in that span. Saturday, they had one combined catch through three quarters, until all three made plays in garbage time to reiterate the following point:

Michigan’s misuse of its three best playmakers has been inexplicable and inexcusable. It’s an abject failure of coaching. Period. 

They have the potential to spearhead the best receiving corps in the Big Ten. Instead, they haven’t been given a chance. 

Eubanks was asked after the game about their involvement (or lack thereof) in the offense this season. He expressed faith in the staff to figure it out.

“We all see it on film. And I believe the coaches will see it as well,” Eubanks said. “And we’ll go from there in terms of who needs to get the ball and moving through the offense.” 

As this offense searches frantically for its identity, it would seem prudent to start with its best players. As the saying goes, “keep it simple, stupid.”

Michigan’s defense has an identity crisis of its own

It was hard to tell where this defense stood after two weeks. It had allowed 21 points against a meager Middle Tennessee State, but the offense set it up for failure. Same for the showing against Army, in which it held the Black Knights to their lowest rushing yardage total since 2015. The institutional framework, it seemed, had carried over. The defense was not the source for concern. While the offense overcame the speedbumps of its transition, the defense could help tread water.

“We finally can play Michigan defense, where we can go back and run our stuff that we run all preseason and all spring practice,” Brown said last week. “Quite frankly, I've been writing Wisconsin cards (and) I'm kind of: Whew, whew. I can whip 'em out like that, because it's all the stuff our guys know and are comfortable with, and we'll jump in it at a high level without question.”

So much for that.

The Badgers rampaged their way to 354 rushing yards. Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan completed 13 of 16 passes, and with comparative ease. And it wasn’t just that they ran through the Michigan defense, but how. There were no schematic mysteries, no notable gameplan mishaps. This was one team telling its opponent what it planned to do, then shoving it right at them anyway. 

For the Wolverines, these are problems that aren’t going away. The personnel isn’t changing. The coaching staff isn’t changing. Three weeks in, all Michigan’s cards are on the table. 

And it certainly appears Brown was bluffing.