ORLANDO, Fla. — Josh Gattis can laugh about it now.
The first snap of his Michigan tenure, the first play-call of his career, the first play of the Wolverines’ season ended with a fumble. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson scampered for 12 yards before coughing the ball up — the first of 13 giveaways in Michigan’s first six games of the year.
“So when you’re sitting there on your first play call, the first thing that happens and the next thing you know, the ball’s on the ground, you’ve got to learn how to deal with adversity,” Gattis said Sunday morning, four days before Michigan plays Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. “So I think that was the unique thing.”
It was unique in that it was his first time tossing and turning at night, unable to sleep, “processing every game, every call,” in his words. It would become commonplace, he soon learned, in a season best understood from an offensive perspective in two halves.
The point totals in Michigan’s first six games — which averaged to 30 points per game — hardly convey the struggles the offense had. The Wolverines nearly fell at home to Army, a team which finished the year 5-8, as the offense averaged fewer than five yards per play. Against Wisconsin the following week, Michigan didn’t score until there was 2:08 left in the third quarter, after the Badgers had already put the game well out of hand and led, 35-0.
There was no laughing then, as senior tight end Nick Eubanks offered a sober assessment of the state of the offense: “It’s up to us to find an identity.” The plea was a direct indictment on the “speed-in-space” mantra Gattis had so ardently emphasized publicly.
Gattis, brought in from Alabama to incorporate a “pro-spead” style of offense, appeared aimless. The team insisted what was clicking in practice simply failed to translate to the games at times.
But since the halftime of the Penn State game, the trajectory of this offense has followed a steady ascent. In that span, Michigan has averaged 39 points per four quarters. Patterson has found his stride, stringing together perhaps the best span of his career, with three consecutive 300-plus yard games to end the year. The statistic maybe most emblematic of this team’s growth? Just three turnovers over the final six games.
“I mean, anytime (you have a) new offense and coach Gattis had to come in and adjust to new players and we had to learn new schemes, there’s going to be some growing pains,” Patterson said. “But I know in the end — right now it’s going really well.”
On the whole, Michigan heads into Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl ranked 20th in SP+ offense, which would be the highest such ranking in the Jim Harbaugh era. Wednesday’s game presents a chance to carry real momentum into Gattis’ second year at the helm. Alabama’s defense, while undoubtedly talented, has proven uncharacteristically vulnerable throughout the season.
The Crimson Tide are coming off a loss themselves, after allowing 45 points to Auburn in an Iron Bowl defeat. They’ll also be without outside linebacker Terrell Lewis and cornerback Trevon Diggs, who will be sitting out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Gattis can laugh now, sitting at a podium above a bowl of various citrus fruits, knowing the early-season woes are long gone. The offensive strides might be the single biggest positive to carry forward into the offseason.
“You know, there was a point in the year when a lot of people were saying, give up and quit,” Gattis said. “ ‘Hey, this isn’t working. This isn’t this.’ But none of our kids believed that because they truly knew who we were in practice, they knew who we were in practice, who we were in games. And it was a testament to their character, to fight through everything.”