There’s a certain expectation to Michigan’s press conferences after a stunning loss.
There’s deflection and reflection, combined with a fair bit of coach-speak. Players and coaches alike take responsibility without ever divulging enough to pointedly criticize.
It is, by now, a routine well-drilled into Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines. They repeat it every year at the start of bowl season — a few weeks after losing to Ohio State — and a few other times dispersed throughout each season. Such is the nature of Michigan’s position in college football’s hierarchy — good enough for losses to be cataclysmic, not good enough to avoid them all together.
So when graduate student tight end Nick Eubanks diverged from the expectation Monday, it was eye-opening.
“We got a lot of younger dudes and chemistry isn’t there,” Eubanks said on a Zoom call with local media.
Two weeks into the season, five weeks into padded practices and four months into team workouts, the chemistry isn’t there. That’s … notable.
And in Saturday’s 27-24 loss to unranked Michigan State, it was clear from the start, even if it wasn’t the defining feature of Michigan’s offensive performance.
More notable was junior quarterback Joe Milton’s lack of comfort in the pocket, as well as his tendency to force passes into double coverage.
There were positives, though, too. Milton threw for 300 yards thanks to a slew of well-delivered passes into tight windows. And at times, he showed good chemistry with his pass-catchers, improvising to find receivers on broken plays.
But a week after a comfortable, commanding performance against Minnesota, Michigan’s lack of offensive cohesiveness shone through too often.
On this play, Milton’s timing with sophomore receiver Mike Sainristil is a touch late. A curl route like this one is all timing. A moment early and Sainristil won’t be ready to catch the ball. A moment late and the defensive backs will have adjusted to the route. Either outcome can lead to an interception.
Here, Milton is fortunate to sail his throw, preventing the slot corner from cutting off Sainristil’s route for a likely pick-six. Still, the lack of timing costs Michigan a six-yard first-down pickup, forcing one of far too many second-and-longs on the day.
“Too many drives without getting any points from the drive,” Harbaugh said Monday. “12 drives and not enough points per drive. And a lot of that was a lot of second-and-longs.”
This first-down play late in the third quarter exhibits another case of Milton lacking chemistry. Sophomore tight end Erick All is lined up in the slot to the left, running a post route over the middle. All seems to recognize the strong-side linebacker dropping over the top of his route and runs a shallower route, cutting over the middle of the field. Milton, though, seemingly expects All to run a skinny post, leading him to throw the ball well behind All.
Milton and All being on different pages here cost Michigan a first down in field-goal range. Three plays later, the Wolverines punted — in a game they would eventually lose by three points.
According to Eubanks, building chemistry between Milton and his receiving corps has been an emphasis for Michigan this week.
“Just being able to watch film and being able to put in more work in practice, getting the timing right with Joe would be very good in terms of us moving the ball down the field, especially in the passing game,” Eubanks said.
For the Wolverines, unlocking the deep passing game would be a critical step toward maximizing their offensive potential. Josh Gattis’s offense is at its best when it can spread out opposing defenses, giving its fastest weapons space to make plays.
Through two weeks, though, Milton has struggled to connect with his receivers downfield — a problem exacerbated by a lack of chemistry. And when safeties can crowd the box without fear of being beaten over the top, it makes everything else more challenging for both Gattis and Milton.