MADISON — Tarik Black stopped on a dime, situated himself between two defensive backs and spotted Shea Patterson’s high-arching long ball. As it fell, he leapt to wrestle the ball from both defenders, securing a 32-yard gain and moving Michigan into Wisconsin territory.
It was exactly what the Wolverines had envisioned all offseason, using their physical, talented receiving corps to invigorate a dangerous downfield passing game.
One problem: Michigan trailed 35-8 with seven minutes left, and any hope of escaping Madison with a respectable result had long since dissipated.
On the worst day of his Michigan career, Shea Patterson’s passes were rarely where Black or Nico Collins or Donovan Peoples-Jones would have wanted them, but it didn’t matter. They went up to pinpoint them anyway, out-jumping overmatched defenders and finding gaps in coverage where it seemed impossible to do so.
“(Made) some plays downfield,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Both Nico, Tarik. Shea got the ball — we threw some deep balls and made some plays. Guys kept fighting.”
None of it mattered.
Because in the first half — back when there was some supposition Michigan might play decently — the Wolverines’ three star receivers combined for one catch and five yards on three targets.
Sophomore Ronnie Bell had a 68-yard breakaway catch on Michigan’s first play. Good for him. But the Wolverines’ passing attack isn’t supposed to be built around a sophomore who finished as the 212th-ranked wide receiver in his class and nearly played college basketball. Not when it has three NFL-caliber receivers, each of whom has proven his mettle when given the opportunity.
And yet, through three quarters, Bell had nine targets. The other three had five combined. Between Bell’s opening 68-yard catch and the start of the fourth quarter, Michigan’s passing offense — labeled as the backbone of an offensive revolution in the offseason — managed 2.95 yards per pass attempt on 22 tries.
In the fourth quarter, when it targeted Black, Collins and Peoples-Jones 11 times, that number rose to a respectable 7.41 before two late incompletions from third-string quarterback Joe Milton.
“Yeah, most definitely,” said senior tight end Nick Eubanks, when asked whether the late-game explosiveness would impact the offense going forward. “We’ll see it on film and I believe the coaches will see it as well and we’ll go from there, in terms of who needs to get the ball and what we do on offense.”
Whenever players are posed with gameplan-related questions postgame, there’s a common theme to their responses. The gameplan, they say, is above their pay grade. They need to watch the film, they’ll tell you, before pinpointing the root of any struggles.
And it’s a fair response — mid-season strategic changes are typically nuanced and require more than a few minutes worth of reflection. So amid a sea of pre-packaged quotes about continuing to fight and keeping your head up and believing in your brothers, it stands out when Eubanks says change is needed.
Saturday evening, as the scar of Michigan’s loss began to form, the question shifted to its offensive identity. Fifth-year senior left tackle Jon Runyan said it’s “fair to say” they don’t have one. Harbaugh, after a start in which the Wolverines have rushed for 3.5 yards per carry, said, “To be able to run the ball, to be able to throw the ball both equally, effective and efficient.”
Eubanks, again notable for his candor, said, “I think of it, as a whole group, we don’t have an identity yet.”
Deep in the fourth quarter, it may have been sitting right in front of them.