Five interceptions in three games for fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock led fans to question Rudock’s performance at the helm of the Michigan football team’s offense.
But coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t having it.
Asked Monday in his weekly press conference what areas Rudock can improve, Harbaugh said simply, “There’s areas.”
When pressed to specify which areas, he vigorously defended his offense.
“The question, to me, just the way you started the question after the game, questions to divide and compare, we’re all working,” Harbaugh said. “We’re all working to get better.
“I sense sometimes the questions to compare and be divisive. I’m quick to turn those off.”
He didn’t turn off the next question — rather, he gave a vote of confidence for Rudock.
“To be clear, Jake Rudock is the best quarterback. Not by a small margin, he’s our best quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “And when it comes to precision of the passing game and the timing, that’s something that we’re all working together at.”
Still, the statistics show a need for improvement.
While Rudock has proved a capable game manager and his receivers have made plays, the passing game has yet to establish a rhythm. The Wolverines’ longest pass play of the season is 28 yards. Every Big Ten team has one longer — even the struggling offenses of Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland.
Rudock has overthrown deep balls in every game, but his receivers are quick to share the blame. They anticipate seeing an improvement soon.
“It’s getting there,” said redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson. “I don’t think I can say we’ve completed a deep pass, but his confidence is there. In terms of getting us in the right plays, checking, audibles, that nature, he’s doing great. The passing game will come. I’m very confident that it will. He’s very confident that it will. Coach Harbaugh is very confident that it will.”
Rudock, a fifth-year senior with plenty of experience, has other assets, too. He picks up the play or a choice of plays from the sidelines. Then, he decides the one he thinks will be better, or even calls an audible at the line.
On a more micro level, Chesson also said he does a nice job of enunciating the play calls in the huddle. It might seem minor, but with players fatigued and the stadium contributing noise, a couple of miscommunicated words can switch the play.
All of these factors go into Michigan’s impression of Rudock, and all of them lower the anxiety level inside the program as compared to outside of it.
“At the end of the day, nobody really sees the 90 percent that goes into the game, only the 10 percent that we have to execute that Saturday,” Chesson said. “We’re judged by our performance, and (that’s) how it should be. But at the same time, if we could understand how hard this kid works leading from Sunday after the game to Saturday to get the whole team prepared, it’s amazing.”
Rudock was not available to the media Monday afternoon or after the game Saturday, but when he talked after the games against Utah and Oregon State, he took responsibility for his mistakes.
He and the receivers will shift their focus ahead toward cleaning up the deep passing game and making it a threat in the coming weeks.
“It’s definitely something that’s emphasized, because we do need to do that,” Chesson said. “We have the ability to do that, so we’re only short-handing ourselves if we don’t attempt to do it and if we don’t execute it either.”
The Wolverines know it’s important for them to establish timing sooner rather than later. No. 22 Brigham Young comes to town this weekend, and then Big Ten play opens, with a home game against No. 2 Michigan State looming on Oct. 17.
The power running game has gotten Michigan to 2-1, but it might not always be enough.
“When the bullets start flying and guys start thinking, you’re just trained for that situation,” Chesson said. “You do what you’re trained to do.”
Perhaps an improvement in that area will help Michigan establish an offensive identity. Harbaugh said Monday he doesn’t have a word for its identity yet, and Chesson added that the Wolverines get a chance to prove it every week. They’ll get another opportunity against BYU, and a chance to solidify it with consistency at Maryland after that.
It’s up to the quarterback and the receivers, but the onus inevitably falls largely on Rudock either way, fair or unfair.
“The nature of the position is, you get too much glory when you’re doing great, and you get too much ridicule when you’re doing bad,” Chesson said. “But I think he has a very level head. Things are going to click for us. I really do believe it.”