It took a loss, 26 quarters and a 21-7 deficit heading into the 27th, but we finally know what speed in space looks like.
Senior quarterback Shea Patterson slinging it. Freshman running back Zach Charbonnet bursting through open holes. A talented receiving corps getting put to use. Run-pass options and tempo wearing down the opponent. Explosive plays putting an exclamation mark on the whole thing.
It was easy to forget as Michigan football slogged through its first six games of the season with one unconvincing offensive performance after another, as coaches and players faced media and seemed to ignore the obvious issues right in front of them. But this was what offensive coordinator Josh Gattis came to Ann Arbor advertising 10 long months ago.
And for the last two quarters in a whiteout at State College on Saturday night, against a Penn State defense that came into the game ranked top-10 in SP+, the Wolverines lived up to the billing.
“Everybody saw it,” said senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. “(Being) able to move the ball with ease, running RPOs, wide receivers getting open, catching the ball. Really important, we weren’t getting in those second and third-and-longs.
“We were able to run our style of offense that we wanted to. Banging out the explosive plays, I think we had five explosive runs and seven explosive passes.”
It is, of course, no mere footnote that football games last four quarters, not two. Nor is it trivial that Michigan ultimately came up short, losing, 28-21, and as a result, those first 26 quarters where the offense looked lost will likely cost the Wolverines all of their goals. A College Football Playoff is out. A Big Ten title would require a lot of dominos falling in Michigan’s favor. The jury is still out on Gattis as a coordinator, though, and Saturday was the first time, sans-Rutgers and Illinois, that his offense looked like what was promised.
Michigan went on the road and outgained Penn State, 417-283. Patterson commanded the pocket like he hadn’t all year, throwing for 276 yards with one costly mistake, an interception to Tariq Castro-Fields. The Wolverines ran over 80 plays and by the end of the game, the Nittany Lions were gassed.
“That’s kinda sorta the confidence we’ve had all year,” Patterson said Tuesday in a surprise appearance in front of reporters. “No matter how many times that happened, just so proud of our O-Line. … Charbonnet had a great second half on the ground. The receivers were getting out on the perimeter and making big-time plays. It was really exciting.”
It’s hard to reconcile that with the loss and all it means, with the cold hard fact that the needed offensive progress ultimately came too late in the season. The most Michigan can reasonably hope to get out of the next five weeks are feel-good wins over its three biggest rivals. As much as that would mean (particularly beating Ohio State), it isn’t a Big Ten trophy.
The offense, ultimately, holds a lot of the fault for that. Even against Penn State, dropped balls, penalties and an early failure to convert a fourth down will haunt the Wolverines. They had four drives end in Nittany Lion territory without a point, and a fifth at midfield. Even in what was arguably his best game since taking the job, there are spots to nitpick Gattis’ performance.
Yet, it’s hard to argue with tangible progress.
“I feel like our guys just went out there and played loose,” Patterson said. “I was battling some injuries all year, and for the first time, I think I went out there and was 100 percent healthy. I felt good, and our guys felt good.”
For much of the season, Michigan has harped on how the offense has worked in practice and merely not translated into games. Otherwise, the Wolverines pointed to a lack of outside knowledge on an offense that came into Saturday’s game ranked 53rd in offensive SP+.
Outside of two games against the Big Ten’s bottom-feeders, Saturday was the first time the offense backed up those claims to the naked eye.
“We were just moving the ball,” said junior receiver Nico Collins. “We were focusing on our deals, fundamentals. And it worked.”
It worked. And Michigan lost.
If Gattis is to succeed over the long term, he’ll need greater consistency than his unit has shown thus far. But Saturday was at least a step in the right direction.