MADISON — For a fleeting moment on Saturday, as Ronnie Bell streaked across an open field and into an unmanned secondary with only green grass ahead of him, it seemed like everything might be OK.
Bell eyed the end zone and all those concerns about senior quarterback Shea Patterson ameliorated. He ran towards it, and the noise around offensive coordinator Josh Gattis dissipated. He got pushed out of bounds at Wisconsin’s 7-yard line and it didn’t matter, because this was speed in space, the kind of up-tempo juggernaut that can go into a place like Madison and throw a defense like the Badgers off their game.
Two plays later, Ben Mason fumbled. Wisconsin recovered and the Wolverines snapped out of their haze — falling into an ugly reality that engulfed them for the game’s next 53 minutes.
Patterson left the game at halftime after an abominable start. He came back in later on and finished by completing less than half of his passes. Backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey was lucky not to be intercepted numerous times, then left the game himself with a concussion. Receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, in his much-anticipated return from injury, got hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty early that took away more yards than his lone catch gained. Collectively, eight rushers combined for 40 yards on 19 carries. Take out the negative-9 yards Jon Runyan Jr. got on an ill-fated Patterson decision under pressure and it balanced out to 49 on 18, or 2.72 per carry.
Michigan scored 14 points and had 299 total yards. All 14 of those points came once Wisconsin had gone up 35-0 and 128 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, well after the student section had started to flood out, getting an early start on celebrating a statement win.
“We just can’t play like this again, cause we’re gonna get our butts kicked every week,” Runyan said, and it doesn’t take a football expert to see that he’s right.
Call it a result of changing schemes — and senior tight end Nick Eubanks did — but the Wolverines had all spring, fall camp, two games and a bye week to get used to Gattis’ offense, which was advertised as simple. At this point, the learning curve is barely a valid excuse.
Call it a result of personnel or not having enough talent, but this is a group that returned a senior quarterback, four starters on a good offensive line and three NFL-caliber receivers (all of whom were healthy on Saturday). There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
Call it a result of Gattis, a first-time play caller, walking into a situation in which he may not be ready for and struggling at the first sign of trouble. But the tape of the first two games showed open passes left on the field, and Eubanks alluded Saturday to “things we missed and opportunities we had.”
Or you could do what Jim Harbaugh did, and acknowledge that this is not one problem. On every level, Wisconsin was just better, and on every level, Michigan must improve.
“We were outplayed,” Harbaugh said. “Out-prepared, outcoached, outplayed.”
Patterson has yet to look himself in three games. The offensive line has repeatedly struggled, leaving Patterson out to dry and putting running back Zach Charbonnet into situations where a two-yard gain constitutes success. Those three NFL-caliber receivers — Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black — combined for three targets and five yards through Michigan’s opening drive of the second half on Saturday. When the Wolverines lined up to punt after that drive, down 28-0, the TV camera cut to Harbaugh uttering an expletive.
What else could he do?
A couple hours later, a reporter asked Harbaugh about the identity he wants for the offense.
“To be able to run the ball, to be able to throw the ball both equally, effective and efficient,” Harbaugh said. “Definitely little things that we gotta do and we gotta do better.”
Thus far, all the offense has been able to show is short glimpses of what it could be. Like Bell’s on Saturday, those don’t amount to much in the long run.