Offensive gameplan leaves lingering questions

Sunday, November 25, 2018 - 7:33pm

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s offensive gameplan stalled in the Wolverines’ 62-39 loss at Ohio State.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s offensive gameplan stalled in the Wolverines’ 62-39 loss at Ohio State. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

Standing at the podium, hat fixed, mood stoic, there wasn’t much Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh could say.

One reporter asked broadly about his offensive gameplan. Harbaugh’s response was terse.

“Wanted to run our best plays,” he said. “Throwing, moving the ball, outside zone, inside power. We had basically everything — drop back, zone read. Roll-outs, boots, that was our plan.”

After the thorough undressing that was Saturday’s 62-39 loss to Ohio State, nothing was left unworthy of scrutiny. The offensive gameplan — and the execution that ensued — certainly warranted closer examination. And upon that examination, it was a gameplan devoid of necessary creativity.

On its face, Michigan’s offensive output was far from the main issue. The Wolverines posted 401 total yards and 39 points. Before the game, most would have thought those numbers would have sufficed for a win — even a comfortable one. 

But that fails to encapsulate the lack of ambition, and clear contrast in styles, throughout the game — especially at the outset. 

Harbaugh isn’t wrong; there was plenty sprinkled into the offense throughout the game. The emphasis was clear: He hoped the running game would take control, work the clock and tire Ohio State’s defense. Off that, junior quarterback Shea Patterson could make plays out of zone-read and play-action. It’s what they’d done all year, so why should Saturday have been different?

And for a while, it was working to an extent. Early in the second quarter, Michigan had run 25 plays to Ohio State’s six, tallied 98 total yards to the Buckeyes’ 17 and held possession of the ball for 12:35 to Ohio State’s 1:55. 

Yet at that point the Buckeyes still led the game 7-6.

Ohio State opened up a 21-6 lead in the blink of an eye, and that’s when the challenge was truly pressed on the Wolverines’ offense. Had they been playing with a lead, perhaps this game would have played out differently. For a pro-style, run-first offense, playing with the lead is always the plan until it can’t be.

But when that plan was thrown out the window, Harbaugh and his offense had no response. There were no big plays. The read-option that had become a staple of the offense was few and far between. There was no challenging a susceptible Ohio State secondary Maryland torched for 51 points last week.

Michigan threw the ball 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage just four times in the first half, when the game was within striking distance. Including penalties, those plays averaged 13.5 yards. The other 40 plays averaged 4.5 yards per play.

It seemed like a coaching staff intent on bashing its head against a wall. And all the while, the Buckeyes’ offense was running circles around the Wolverines’ defense by spreading their offense out, getting their weapons in space and letting their All-Big Ten quarterback deliver.

Ohio State ended the game with six touchdown drives that lasted fewer than three minutes. The Wolverines offense ran 16:12 off the clock in their first six possessions and had just six points to show for it. That contrast was evident all day.

There is the larger question now, which many seem eager to litigate, of Jim Harbaugh’s pro-style offense. To be fair, that criticism was muted no less than a week ago.

It would be wrong to insinuate this team ran the same offense it has for the last three years under Harbaugh. To a large extent, Harbaugh altered this offense quite a bit with Patterson in tow — and it was evident in several dominant wins. Saturday, for example, Michigan ran 70 of its 85 plays from the shotgun or pistol formations. That would be unheard of in the last three seasons.

In the end, Harbaugh was right. Michigan ran its “best plays.” It included those concepts he mentioned in the press conference. The Wolverines won’t suddenly become a spead team as long as Harbaugh is the coach. Tweaks are one thing. Overhaul isn’t coming.

On Saturday against Ohio State, those “best plays” were not enough. And now, let the introspection ensue.