Of all the contrasts to draw between Michigan’s first three games and its win over Rutgers on Saturday, the most striking was also the first.
For the first three games of the season, the Wolverines put the ball on the ground on their first drive. And all three times, it foreshadowed a disappointing offensive performance.
Against Rutgers, Michigan came out firing. The Wolverines played mistake-free football to start, stuck to their guns and scored in five plays. Then they marched down the field again on the second drive, going up 14-0 before 10 minutes of game time had passed. Call it a result of Josh Gattis calling plays from the field or a result of simply playing a defense as porous as Rutgers’. But, as the Wolverines worked off their script for the opening drive, the offense looked the way it was advertised for the first time all season.
The Daily dove into the tape of that drive to find out why.
First-and-10: Zach Charbonnet 6-yard run
In the wake of last week’s loss at Wisconsin, we heard a lot about offensive identity. Specifically, the Wolverines wanted to run the ball more after throwing more than 40 times against the Badgers.
Against Rutgers, Michigan starts by running a counter, clearly with establishing the run in mind. But this play has jet motion attached, so the linebackers get caught going the wrong way. In theory, senior quarterback Shea Patterson could turn this into an option with receiver Ronnie Bell, the player in motion, as well.
Second-and-4: Ronnie Bell 14-yard catch
This is a slight tweak to the way Gattis ran things for the first few weeks. It’s a run-pass option, but instead of Patterson standing back in the pocket, the play turns into a naked bootleg, as the offensive line goes left while Patterson goes right, without any protection.
Patterson has looked uncomfortable running RPOs with dropbacks attached. Rarely had he gotten to break the pocket and throw on the move, an area in which he excelled in 2018. Here, Gattis puts Patterson in a position to do that without compromising his own philosophy.
First-and-10: Christian Turner 2-yard run
Gattis keeps it basic on first down again, this time with a pin-and-pull. Like the first run of the game, it seems to have an RPO attached with Bell, but Patterson hands the ball off and Rutgers linebacker Avery Young makes a nice play on the stop.
Second-and-8: Christian Turner 10-yard run
This is the first run of the game that appears to be a straight give, with no read of any kind attached. It’s just inside zone, hat on a hat — the kind of thing Michigan excelled at doing last season, which is apparent here.
The line moves people, Turner hits the hole and it goes for a considerable gain. This is just as you draw it up.
First-and-10: Nico Collins touchdown, 48-yard catch
There’s nothing complicated going on here, and that’s the beauty of it. Collins is matched up against a smaller, less athletic cornerback. Gattis isolates him with a flat route while freshman tight end Erick All runs the other way. It’s what everyone clamored for Collins to get — a chance to win a 1-on-1 matchup with his physical ability.
And he does just that, getting initial separation on the route, then runs right by the defensive back and has a clear path to the end zone.
Gattis’ problem for the first three weeks of the year was that he couldn’t find a way to imprint his philosophy onto Michigan’s personnel. For all the talk about identity, all you had to do to see what the Wolverines wanted to be was go on Twitter at any point in the last six months. Actually doing it in a game, though, is a different matter altogether.
On Saturday, from the first play, Gattis seemed to have it figured out.
That all comes with the asterisk that it was against Rutgers. But the emphasis on getting Patterson out of the pocket was obvious throughout. So was using their best receivers in the passing game. Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black were noticeably more involved. More than that, Gattis put them in positions to use their physical skill, like that throw to Collins, or a fade to Peoples-Jones on the next drive.
The first drive set a tone that went on for the rest of the game — Gattis’ ideology tailored to this roster. It’s no coincidence that Michigan scored 52 points once the coaching staff started to think about how those two elements could work in tandem instead of forcing one on the other.
Whether the Wolverines can replicate it against Iowa or Penn State is another story. But for now, they at least know what the plans should look like.