Last season, the Michigan football team had well-documented offensive issues: quarterback injuries, inconsistent pass protection and play calling that was forced to become less complex. You’ve heard some version of that before.
But lost in the fold, perhaps, was how ineffective the Wolverines were on third down. They moved the chains at just a 33-percent rate in 2017, which ranked 112th nationally — the worst during coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure. That was one of several factors that prompted an offseason full of assistant coaching changes, including the hiring of offensive line coach Ed Warinner and wide receiver coach Jim McElwain, on top of the departure of offensive coordinator Tim Drevno.
The moves have helped Michigan transpose that unseemly third-down statistic. The Wolverines are converting just over 47 percent of their third-down opportunities, up 97 spots from last season.
“It’s nobody’s fault for what happened last year and the last couple years,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich on Monday. “But I’d just say in general this year, it’s a big relief knowing we can actually score touchdowns on a pretty consistent basis and move the ball and control time of possession.”
More of that responsibility has fallen on junior quarterback Shea Patterson’s running ability in recent weeks. On a 4th-and-2 during the Wolverines’ eventual game-sealing drive against Michigan State, Patterson faked to 245-pound sophomore fullback Ben Mason and picked up the conversion himself.
Excluding sacks, Patterson has 242 yards and a touchdown on the ground this season. Over 60 percent of that has come in his last two games, per SB Nation’s Bill Connelly. Lopsided scores took the load off Patterson early in the season, but his scope has been widened with more zone read and run-pass-option looks.
“(Patterson’s running) opens up a lot in the offense — it’s something the defense has to defend,” Harbaugh said after Patterson ran for 113 yards against Wisconsin on Oct. 6. “I thought he did a heck of a job with his fakes, with his ball handling, with his running ability, all facets.”
Improved run blocking has also opened up Michigan’s offense. Karan Higdon, despite missing the season’s third game, has already amassed 831 yards.
The senior running back’s production continues to be the backbone of Michigan’s offense. 20 percent of the Wolverines’ third downs come in short-yardage situations, which ranks first nationally. Getting 5.4 yards-per-carry from Higdon is undoubtably pivotal to that.
“Karan deserves a lot of credit,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He’s gotten tough yards and yards after contact and yards more than what the play is blocked for.”
Hidgon’s efforts appear even more critical when you consider the flip side of the Wolverines’ third-down coin. Michigan has the country’s third-worst conversion rate — 14.6 percent — when faced with 3rd-and-6 or longer.
It reveals another linchpin to the Wolverines’ offense: staying on schedule. By giving itself manageable situations on third down, Michigan keeps the chains moving to wear down defenses eventually. It’s second to only Texas A&M in time of possession among Power Five teams.
Perhaps that is not a surprise considering Harbaugh’s style. His background lies within the West Coast offense, which is predicated on the short-to-intermediate passing game. That allows Michigan chances to keep the ball and chew the clock.
But system aside, a simple truth remains: When they work themselves into manageable third-down situations, few teams are better than the fifth-ranked Wolverines.