Offense is up around college football. Can Michigan adapt?

Thursday, October 15, 2020 - 8:06pm

With a clear increase in scoring across college football this season, Michigan and other Big Ten teams will have to keep up.

With a clear increase in scoring across college football this season, Michigan and other Big Ten teams will have to keep up. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Of 29 FBS games played last week, 21 had 50 or more total points scored. The previous week, that number was 20 out of 32. Even teams known for defense have struggled to contain the scoring — just look at Pitt’s 31-30 loss to Boston College or Alabama’s 63-48 shootout with Mississippi.

Whether it’s a pandemic-induced blip on the radar or a further transformation of college football into a game dominated by offense, there’s no doubt offense is up this year across the board. According to MLive, 55% of teams that have played at least one game are averaging 30 points or more per game, up from 45% in 2019.

If that trend carries over to the Big Ten, it would be a transformation in a league somewhat infamous for its low-scoring games.

Michigan players and coaches have their own theories on why this is and how to adapt to the new trend. Defensive line coach Shaun Nua thinks that the lack of spring ball and a fall camp without pads affected defense more than offense because defense requires more cohesion. But that doesn’t explain everything.

“It was harder to build a team thing and defense is all team,” Nua said Wednesday. “If you don’t have all 11 guys bought in, that’s hard to do. It’s hard to play sound, aggressive defense if you don’t have all 11 guys bought into it. … (But) we can’t always blame it on, oh they missed spring ball or fall camp, because the offense is doing good. So hopefully we can figure it out.”

Even with teams passing more frequently and utilizing up-tempo no-huddle offenses, Nua believes the key to his unit’s performance still lies in stopping the run. An offense can only go so fast, Nua said, if its run game isn’t working.

According to senior defensive end Kwity Paye, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reads the team statistics before practice. One of those stats is that the team that scores first has the definite advantage in the game. For a defensive player like Paye, that’s a matter of execution: Stop the opposing offense and hope your own guys can get points on the board.

For the offense, this scoring trend means a renewed focus on explosive plays. Last year, the Wolverines saw the importance of big plays from both sides; Penn State’s execution of such plays helped lift it to a win against Michigan, while a failure to finish drives against Alabama proved to be the offense’s undoing in the Citrus Bowl.

As an offense, we know what we need to do to be able to score more points, move the ball the way we want to and beat the teams that are gonna be on our schedule and one of those things is being more explosive,” running backs coach Jay Harbaugh said on Oct. 7. “ ... Playcalling is harder when you’re just inching down the field, that’s where I think myself and (offensive line coach Ed) Warinner and (tight ends coach Sherrone) Moore collectively, all of us plus (quarterbacks coach Ben) McDaniels, we buy into the vision of the offense, we love what (offensive coordinator Josh) Gattis puts on the game plan for us, we love the way he sees the game. We gotta create more explosive plays as a unit to be able to take some of that pressure off of him.”

Jay Harbaugh also spoke to a philosophical shift in teams’ defensive approaches. Back when college football was predicated on the run, teams often stuffed the tackle box with eight linemen. That’s no longer a realistic approach in most situations given the growing threat of the pass. Now, with defenses forced to cover more of the field, the likelihood of a conversion goes up.

That’s the theory behind the spread offense, which first came into use in college football in the early 2000s. Now, though, more and more teams are using some variation of the spread — including Minnesota, the opponent the Wolverines will face in just over a week.

“It’s the spread offense, run principles, spread offense, RPOs,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said Sept. 30. “That’s what we anticipate getting.”

The Big Ten has in general been slow to adapt to the growing offensive trend in college football. But maybe a long layoff for the league this year will help. Now, its teams have seen the rising offensive tide and with it, have their own chance to adapt.

 

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