Josh Gattis made a mad dash for the elevator.
For the second straight week, the Michigan football team had done something that, a few months prior, seemed unthinkable. Even before the confetti fell from the rafters following the Wolverines’ 42-3 throttling of Iowa, Gattis and his analysts had begun their descent, anxious to join the celebration of the program’s first Big Ten Championship since 2004.
For Gattis individually, though, the win meant even more. His offense’s performance — a complete, 42-point dismantling of one of the nation’s top defenses statistically — represented the full realization of a vision that, in prior years, had failed to materialize.
It was abundantly clear: The efforts of Gattis, Jim Harbaugh and the entire offense had fully borne fruit.
“I think (it’s) just the commitment from both sources — coach Gattis and then us believing in him,” sophomore running back Blake Corum said.
That commitment has taken time. The program Gattis joined in 2019 — one that was entering its fifth season with Jim Harbaugh at the helm — ran an archaic, uninspiring offense that had visibly reached its ceiling. Gattis had the potential to fix that; he brought promises of modern schemes and a catchy “speed in space” slogan, a refreshing message for an offense that, up to that point, looked anything but modern.
In Gattis’ first two years, though, the offense lacked an identity. At times, it made little sense, featuring gimmicky two-quarterback systems and wildcat packages that only helped it get in its own way. Soon, it became a question whether the same fate that doomed promising Michigan offenses of old — the “innovations” of Rich Rodriguez, of Pep Hamilton, of offensive coordinators dating back to the Wolverines’ last conference title — would come to meet Josh Gattis.
It didn’t. Where other coaches in Michigan’s past had doubled down on their failures, Gattis adapted. Instead of forcing his offense into a pass-first system with personnel not suited to it, he looked at the talent in his running backs room and on his offensive line and worked with Harbaugh to accentuate it.
“He committed to the run game early,” Corum said. “In the interview (prior to the season), he said last year he didn’t really focus on the run game. He’s been a tremendous play caller.”
Harbaugh, too, learned from Gattis. The head coach’s fingerprints are all over the Wolverines’ offense — they’re most visible in the old-fashioned power runs that have opened up space for the backs all season. But he’s also allowed Gattis’ own creativity to flourish. On Saturday, that was evident in Michigan’s multiple big plays, in the double pass for a touchdown from freshman running back Donovan Edwards, in the flea flicker that’s called basically every week and in the endless jet sweeps and end arounds that — yes — put speed in space.
The results are easy to see. The Wolverines have gone from tallying 381.3 yards per game last year to 451.9 this year. In both of their biggest two games of the season — against Ohio State last week and the Hawkeyes on Saturday — they’ve put up 42 points and over 450 yards. From the eye-test standpoint, the offense is playing with as much confidence as any team in the country and having fun while doing it.
“Toughness is something that we take to heart and that we have made our identity,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara said. “I just love the identity that we’ve created, no matter what the style of football is at this day and age.”
Truthfully, the offense that Gattis and Harbaugh have crafted together has been a long time coming. When Gattis first arrived on campus, he struggled to live up to the expectations placed upon him to shape a championship-caliber system.
Now, with a Big Ten Championship under his belt and as a finalist for the Broyles Award — given to the nation’s top assistant coach every year — Gattis has proven that he belongs at Michigan. Through the speed bumps the program has hit along the way, both he and Harbaugh have managed to adapt and help build a true contender.
“We’ve really had the mentality of ‘Michigan versus everybody,’ ” McNamara said. “I just don’t know much to say other than I love these dudes. Like, really.”
That mentality has lifted the Wolverines to new heights. Soon, we’ll see if they hit a ceiling.