Michigan hoping to use explosive plays to spur offensive improvement

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 - 10:56pm

Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ offense has scored 7.2 fewer points per game and over 51 fewer yards than the group did last season.

Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ offense has scored 7.2 fewer points per game and over 51 fewer yards than the group did last season. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

While Jim Harbaugh stood in front of the media Saturday afternoon — and again on Monday — to declare that Michigan’s offense is “hitting their stride,” the numbers tell a different story.

Unless this is the Wolverines’ stride, in which case there’s a different conversation to be had. That’s beside the point.

What’s not is this: Josh Gattis came in with a plan to revolutionize Michigan’s offense and bring it into the modern era of college football. Through five games, the unit is down 51.7 yards and 7.2 points per game from a season ago, when it was roundly criticized as antiquated and inefficient.

Among the keys to changing it all — according to fifth-year senior left tackle Jon Runyan, one of few players to acknowledge the struggles — is increasing the number of explosive plays.

“That’s what this offense is all about, is being explosive,” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson, “and letting our playmakers go make plays.”

And yet, despite Patterson himself saying the offense is “right where we want to be,” as he did Tuesday evening, those plays have been near-impossible to come by.

According to defensive coordinator Don Brown, the Wolverines consider explosive plays to be runs of 12 or more yards or passes of 16 or more yards. In Saturday’s 10-3 win over Iowa, they had just two of each.

“We pride ourselves on explosive plays, and we know that we have a quota that we have to get and meet,” Runyan said. “And we didn’t meet that this week when we had two explosive run plays and two explosive pass plays. And that’s not gonna cut it if we’re gonna try to win against these teams.”

As Runyan acknowledges, Michigan managed to “somehow” win anyway. That somehow is its defense. The Wolverines, though, know their defense isn’t going to bail them out every time.

In September’s 35-14 loss at Wisconsin, that’s exactly what happened. The defense folded and the offense — billed as this team’s calling card all spring — managed just 14 points. Beneath it all was a pitiful, singular explosive play before the game was well out of hand late in the second half.

By the final whistle in Madison, Michigan had five explosive plays. Zero came on the ground.

“I feel like in the run game, explosive plays just come down to hand placement,” Runyan said. “Whether it’s by a guard keeping his block or myself or Jalen keeping our head inside the defender or where best we can find a seam.”

The blame, though, goes well beyond the offensive line. While Patterson said Tuesday that he’s content with his play so far, the numbers tell the story of a quarterback who hasn’t found the same success he did a year ago.

When junior wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones was asked about the lack of explosive plays, he said: “When I have an opportunity to touch the ball, gotta make an explosive play.” In three games since returning from injury, he has just three explosive plays — all against lowly Rutgers.

It all stands in direct contrast to Gattis’ grand offseason proclamations, when he told his team their 35.2 points per game wasn’t good enough and pointed out that the best teams in the country average at least 42, according to Runyan.

This year, that was his challenge for the Wolverines.

“And we did that against Rutgers,” Runyan said, before pausing. “Obviously didn’t do that against Wisconsin.”

He paused again.

“Or Army.”

Another pause.

“Or last game.”

So, despite his confident proclamations, when Patterson was asked whether explosive plays can help Michigan reach “the next level,” he could muster only one word.

“Definitely.”