Michigan keeping faith in offense amid questions
Shea Patterson wore a pink bomber jacket and stood in the center of the circle. For the number of questions surrounding the Michigan football team he leads, for all the criticism and sarcastic comments, and — for that matter — for all the questions lobbed at the senior quarterback, his demeanor was remarkably low key.
Three days earlier, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh declared that the Wolverines’ offense was hitting its stride. Two days after that, Harbaugh doubled down.
“In all areas,” Harbaugh said, when asked specifically where he saw that stride coming. “The run game, pass game, protection. Quarterback, receiver, running backs. They are, it’s an evolving, improving group and I’ve seen them be at a really high level at practice, consistently at a really high level in games. And getting that consistently high level in both games and practice is what I feel what I see coming.”
Then he filibustered, going over a number of drives in the second half of Michigan’s win over Iowa, almost making you believe that there was some promise shown. Penalties killed one drive, a blown trick play killed another. A third, towards the end of the game, consisted of the Wolverines trying to kill the clock and let their defense win the game. Harbaugh credited Iowa’s defense, which, it should be noted, ranks ninth in SP+. Then his tone reached an inflection point and, for the first time since he stepped to the podium an hour after Saturday’s game, it didn’t seem like he was just selling a line about the offense.
“I feel with our team, the effort is great,” Harbaugh said. “Off the charts. At the highest level. And when you get that, then you can get everything else.”
When Patterson took his turn the next day, though, he was left to deal with the reality.
Michigan ranked 25th in offensive SP+ last year. It brought in a new coordinator, Josh Gattis. Through a month of the season, it ranks 66th in the same category. Pick whatever number you want — the Wolverines are probably down. As Patterson and others pointed out, they are 4-1, their fate still in their hands. But the numbers seem to portend things getting worse once the tough part of the schedule comes around.
“When coach Gattis first got here, he was talking to us about how if we want to score more points, we gotta run more plays,” fifth-year senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. said Monday. “The best teams in the country are out here scoring at least 42 points per game and I think we averaged just under, maybe like 34 last year. So that's something that we tried to do heading into the season.
“And we did that against Rutgers. Obviously didn't do that against Wisconsin or Army or last game (against Iowa).”
So there was Patterson on Tuesday, trying to explain away the answer to questions that will eventually play itself out on a football field against Penn State, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Is the problem on offense as minimal as Harbaugh made it out to be? And how does it get fixed?
“I think that there’s a lot that you guys don’t see, that the fans don’t see,” Patterson said. “They make their adjustments on defense, we make our adjustments on offense. And we aren’t not trying to be explosive, but I do believe that there’s a lot left out there. And the sky’s really the limit for this offense. It’s just a matter of time.”
He was asked to expand on what, specifically, people aren’t seeing.
“I could go on for days,” he said. He ultimately went on for less than 30 seconds.
“I don’t know if you guys could fully dissect a defense but there’s certain things that they take away or have gameplans for. And we make our adjustments. But we’ll get it together.”
Within the muddled nature of Michigan football’s message, the vague outlines of the problem came into focus. Patterson acknowledged that Gattis is experiencing growing pains, just as most people would in their first go around at a new job. He said the Wolverines could do more to amplify their talent at receiver — something the chorus of voices outside of Schembechler Hall has clamored for all year. He used the language of growth and positivity, just as Harbaugh did a day earlier, saying Michigan took what was there against a stout defense.
Of course, that does little to change the reality of the season’s first five games. The Wolverines have struggled to move the ball in all but one of those. And, this weekend’s bout at Illinois aside, the schedule is about to enter an unforgiving stretch. It’s one thing to say that Michigan should use Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black more liberally. It’s another to do it.
“We believe in our coaches, we believe in each other,” Patterson said. “Just taking it day-by-day. First five weeks, we’ve played three of the top 20 defenses and we’re 4-1, so just gotta keep getting better.”