SportsMonday Column: Plenty was meaningless on Saturday. Here's what wasn't.
That’s how Jim Harbaugh framed the Michigan football team’s problems last Monday. Full-scale. Thorough.
In that context, Saturday was as close to a no-win proposition as a football game can be.
Had Michigan lost — or even played to a close win — we’d be gathered here to eulogize this football season and discuss the dying pulse of the program writ large. Instead, the Wolverines beat Rutgers, 52-0. The Scarlet Knights turned around and fired their head coach Sunday morning, casting their net for a savior from seemingly-interminable irrelevance.
Which is to say: Beating the worst Power Five program in modern history (using SP+ and common logic) does not nullify last week’s loss at Wisconsin, nor is anyone pretending it does.
But that doesn’t mean Saturday’s game was devoid of meaning. There are real things worth carrying forward. Here are a few.
The kids are alright
It’s not just that sophomore Cam McGrone and freshman Daxton Hill showed promise of a bright future Saturday, though both did. It’s that they’re ready to play — right now — for a defense that could really use talent of that ilk.
McGrone filled in at middle linebacker admirably for junior Josh Ross as the latter sat with an injury. He showed signs of the promised speed and physicality that those who followed his recruitment expected.
“If he keeps playing like this, he’s going to be a star,” Harbaugh said of McGrone.
Hill is one of those five-star talents who does things that make it plainly clear why he was so highly-coveted. Saturday, there were multiple instances in which he identified a target, beat his man to the spot and finished the tackle with authority. The tackle on a punt return stands out, of course, but so did his ability to set the edge on runs to the sideline.
His performance Saturday was remiscent of Jabrill Peppers early in his career. It’s hard to say whether Hill, akin to Peppers, is ready to play starter-level snaps in big games, but boy does that talent make it worth finding out.
“(Hill is) growing as a football player very quickly,” Harbaugh said. “He’s just so fast; that speed shows up. It shows up when it shows up. You see it with Dax Hill. You see it with Cam McGrone. You see it with guys like that.”
Then the key.
“I think you can probably predict he’ll be getting more and more time.”
Surely, that’s music to Michigan fans’ ears. It’s time to throw Hill and McGrone into the fire and see if they can hang. If they can, the potential of this defense grows noticeably.
Gattis is growing
Put the scoreline aside for a moment. Notching 52 points and over 450 yards against any semi-functional team is a good sign for this group, but that’s almost secondary to the bigger point.
It can be easy to forget Josh Gattis is no more than a month into a major coaching adjustment. Think about where you were the last time you were mere months into such a formative life transition. Everything at this juncture is still experimental. And so, even against defenses that stand no chance, there are realizations to be gleaned as Gattis and his personnel work toward a coherent marriage.
Saturday, Gattis had senior quarterback Shea Patterson on the move more frequently. For the first time all season, he found a balance of run and pass, with a near even split until garbage time featured largely runs.
And while body language can frequently mislead, Gattis looked like a coach back in his element on the sideline, conversing with the receiver group during breaks, yelling at the referees, high-fiving players after scores.
Everyone is quick to judge this offense, and thus far, there’s been little to feel good about. But Gattis talked a lot about trust this week. Trust with his players. Trust in his system. Trust in himself. Trust that all of this will work.
“All week, (Gattis) emphasized believing in his players, and we just have to believe in him,” said junior running back Christian Turner. “I think him being on the sideline just emphasized that even more.”
Success breeds belief. Belief breeds success.
Both clearly take time, and if you asked those around the program right now, they’ll say it takes adversity like the kind they’ve faced.
Moving to the sideline is not the magic elixir to ensuring that bond, nor is bludgeoning a lowly foe. But it’s reasonable to have some patience as that trust — and hope — builds.
Shea Patterson is not, and has never been, the problem
What you thought Shea Patterson would be is not his fault, nor has it ever been. He’s not good enough to overcome offensive line struggles. He’s not good enough to work through schematic confusion. He, himself, cannot overcome the pervasive issues present in this offense early in the season.
If you thought otherwise, that’s on you, not him.
He’s the best quarterback on this roster. Saturday, he showed what he can do when he has time and a coherent flow. From his throw to sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones on the second drive of the game to his three rushing touchdowns, Patterson showed, above all, that he remains capable of being a well above-average quarterback and doing things no other quarterback on this roster can. His lone interception came on a go-route to junior Nico Collins, a throw that required a bit more air, but was far from a fatal error.
Shea Patterson is who he is — no more, no less. What he’s not is the root of any problem with this team.
Those “A-to-Z” problems did not suddenly vanquish simply because Rutgers was next on the schedule. Much of it still lingers. But to dismiss 60 minutes of gameplay, no matter the opponent, would be a mistake, particularly heading toward a legitimate test against Iowa next weekend.