When the Michigan offense saw Michigan State down the punt inside the two-yard line in the middle of the second quarter, the players all shared the same feeling.

“We all thought it was on the (one-yard line),” said sophomore receiver Ronnie Bell. So everyone was saying, ‘Let’s take it 99.’ ”

“Every time we take the field we’re trying to score,” added senior quarterback Shea Patterson. “So just the mindset going into that drive was go down and score whenever we’re on the field.” 

The semantics of that extra yard aside, the Wolverines subsequently took the field and pieced together their most impressive drive of the season — and the most complete drive of the Josh Gattis era.

In 12 plays and 5:39, Michigan’s offense showed it all, and in the process offered a tantalizing hypothetical: Maybe this offense actually could be everything it once promised.

It started with a key third-down conversion, Patterson and junior receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones taking what the defense gave them. As soon as Patterson sees the soft man coverage, Peoples-Jones is his first read, and the hard route from the receiver makes this one look easy. It’s not.

The timing has to be perfect — ball finding his hands immediately out of the break. The route has to be sharp. The protection has to hold up. The quarterback can’t get skittish, nudging up against his own goal line. All the above takes place, and Michigan gets a first down vital for flipping field position, at minimum.

Prior to Saturday, Michigan quarterbacks had only kept 14 zone reads on the season, which averaged 7.5 yards. It’s quite obvious that when Patterson’s legs offer a legitimate threat, this running game adds layers. Here’s a textbook decision to keep, as the defensive lineman and linebacker both crash inside the tackle, anticipating a handoff to freshman Zach Charbonnet.

“Speed in space” occupied the most popular distillation of this offense’s promise, but what Gattis said on Sept. 9 might be more important.

Everything we do has some level of a read,” he said then, “whether it’s an RPO read or quarterback read run.”

Whether that’s been misguided ambition or hesitant execution remains muddled, but when this offense can keep the opposing defense guessing, it can properly utilize its weapons. The threat alone is a weapon.

At this point, Michigan’s offense is starting to hum, a methodical march beginning to sync.

What you see is obvious: Patterson using his legs to escape the pocket, Bell breaking from his route and finding a soft spot in the zone, Patterson shooting a laser on the run. Easy money.

What’s harder to notice on first watch is the route concept, and the strain that puts on Michigan State’s defense. You see the pocket of space, you don’t see how that pocket opens in the first place. With a trips right formation, junior Nico Collins and junior Tarik Black run “go” routes. Their speed and downfield ability put a tremendous strain on the secondary, stretching the safeties with them downfield. 

Though Bell’s route doesn’t open as intended, he does a good job redirecting the route in order to salvage the play — a particular strength of Bell’s. 

“I think we just play well together — Donovan and Ronnie and all those guys,” Patterson said. “When stuff breaks down in the pocket, they just find the open space. At that point, you’re just playing backyard football.”

Perhaps the most striking feature of this drive was the ease with which it flowed. The Wolverines did not move backwards via penalty or yardage loss. The lone third-and-long they faced came on the aforementioned Peoples-Jones reception.

It seems simple to say, but always moving the ball forward affords an offense maximal options. There are infinite options at Michigan’s disposal on this second-and-one from the Spartans’ 42. They choose the give to Charbonnet, allowing the pass rushers to over-pursue the edges. A spread-based offense doesn’t necessitate a “run-n-gun”, Big 12-style offense, as some seem to envision. 

This is what Josh Gattis wanted: a run-first, unpredictable offense that uses its weapons in their best situations. Facing three friendly downs and distances, the offense turns to three different types of play. The Michigan State defense is on its heels. It only gets worse from there.

Here’s the second of those calls — the kind of play Michigan would not have run in the pre-Gattis days. It’s a simple speed option, and even with Patterson unlikely to ever keep this, the lateral movement with options on the edge strains the defense. With the linebacker blitzing on the edge, Patterson’s pitch is inevitable, and it results in a pretty comfortable first down. 

File this one away, though. A broken tackle or two and Charbonnet is off to the races. 

One play later, the shot everyone in the stands is clamoring for. In the early going, Michigan State shadowed Collins’ side with a safety over the top, essentially trying to take that option off the table.

As soon as Patterson sees the coverage here, though, it’s an easy choice. With three receivers lined up to the left, Collins alone on the right, the safety is forced to shift over to the middle. Patterson has his eyes on Collins in single coverage before he even pulls the play action.

From there, all he’s got to do is give his six-foot-four receiver a shot. He does. Easy pass interference.

Some of the “just throw it to Nico and Peoples-Jones over the top” simplicity from fans is misguided at times. Patterson mentioned after the game the defense was “dropping a lot in coverage fairly early on.”

“Then they started playing underneath,” he said, “and (we) took the over-the-top stuff.”

Here, the latter. And when you give Nico Collins a chance, good things tend to happen.

Finally, the capper. The cherry on top of a masterful drive, beginning to end. Given the dearth of options in the running game, Michigan State’s linebackers are clearly selling out to stop the run. They bite hard on the fake handoff. 

From there, Patterson rolls to his left to find some room, spots senior tight end Nick Eubanks — who briefly bluffed a block — wide open in the end zone. 

Sometimes it takes a new offense time to find its footing. It’s possible, even likely, that the feeling out process cost this team a shot at a Big Ten title in 2019. But what’s clear is the panic surrounding the Gattis offense and its future were premature.

In 12 plays and 5:39, over 98 yards, the Wolverines grabbed a 14-7 lead, which would quickly unfurl into 17-7, then 24-7, then 34-10, finally 44-10. More importantly, though, the drive was the clearest tangible sign of growth from an offense that, no less than four weeks ago, looked listless and overcomplicated.

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