Asked to evaluate Michigan’s passing game following an uneasy 19-17 victory over Illinois, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh pounded his chest in appreciation.
“I was super happy with the passing game because we needed it to win,” Harbaugh said, smiling. “The clutch plays, those are clutch plays that needed to be made, and they were made. Man. Good job passing game.”
Harbaugh’s rhetoric misconstrues the reality of what happened Saturday afternoon. Sure, the Wolverines managed a number of pivotal late-game conversions through the air. A pair of fourth-down completions — one to junior receiver Roman Wilson, the other to junior running back Isaiah Gash — each kept Michigan’s hopes alive.
But those conversions were only necessary because of all that the passing game failed to accomplish.
The onus is on sophomore receiver Andrel Anthony, who dropped a would-be touchdown in the third quarter, letting a perfectly-placed ball slip through his hands. It’s also on sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who overthrew freshman tight end Colston Loveland on a would-be touchdown late in the fourth quarter, forcing the Wolverines to settle for a field goal. Everyone is at fault here; there’s enough blame to go around.
Those struggles bring us back to Harbaugh’s quote. Yes, Michigan needed its passing game to win — in fact, more so than usual. But the Wolverines pulled out a miraculous victory in spite of the passing game, not because of it.
All season, the domineering rushing game — namely, the exploits of junior Blake Corum and sophomore Donovan Edwards — mitigated those issues. But with Edwards and Corum each sidelined due to injury, the safety blanket disintegrated. Instead of rising to the occasion, instead of showing the improvement that it’s allegedly made over the past few weeks, the passing game faltered.
“Everything’s a work in progress,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, we have so high expectations for us as an offense, especially in the passing game. So of course, everyone’s looking at the gap (with the rushing game). … There’s always gonna be questions of why it isn’t there, we should be throwing for 400 yards and all that.”
Nobody expected McCarthy to throw for 400 yards against Illinois. At one time — a more blissful time –- enamored fans anticipated McCarthy would light up the scoreboard every game. That hasn’t happened, in part because of the team’s complexion.
“Our identity is a smashfest,” McCarthy continued. “We love to run the rock. We love to do it and inflict our force on whatever opponent we play.”
Saturday, though, Michigan faced an identity crisis. The Illini defensive front — the second-best rushing defense in the Big Ten — dominated the Wolverines’ offensive line. Forced to shuffle between three uninspiring running backs, Michigan managed just 60 non-Corum rushing yards.
And yet it stuck to the run game as much as it could, a decision that is more of an indictment on the passing game than it is a testament to the success of the run game.
McCarthy finished 18-of-34 for 208 yards. It’s his third consecutive week with a completion percentage below 53%. His QBR — 38.6 — was his lowest of the season, below last week’s 50.0 rating against Nebraska. Explosive plays were non-existent. In the stands, each pass attempt was met with bated breath, each completion with a sigh of relief.
That being said, after the game, graduate receiver Ronnie Bell refuted the notion that the passing game is “not there.”
“Like today, with the meat on the bone, it’s just the slightest of things that we’re missing on,” Bell said with an offended expression. “I don’t think it’s necessarily — I don’t know if I’d say it’s not there, that’s kind of crazy.”
The narrative of progress and a fast-approaching breakthrough is exhausted by now. Players and coaches alike have cycled through excuses and bluffs of false hope ad nauseam.
On Nov. 2, Michigan co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss maintained that “it’s just a matter of time” before the passing game translates to the game. He reasoned that practices are a larger sample size, therefore better reflective of the situation’s reality.
McCarthy, much like Bell, has repeatedly stressed the need for more repetition and practice. On Nov. 8, he promised that the deep passes will click, simply because of the work in practice.
So why didn’t it work Saturday?
“It’s tough to throw in that environment, especially for guys that aren’t always thrown in that environment,” Harbaugh said, citing the nipping wind and low-20s temperatures. “… It was a big factor.”
At some point, that rhetoric falls on deaf ears. It’s Nov. 19. There’s one game left in the regular season. Reps should be to iron out kinks, not to fix glaring problems that have persisted the entire season.
“When you win, it feels a lot better to go back and look at the film and correct things,” Bell said.
McCarthy and the receiving corps are afforded that opportunity, though not because of their own performance. Still, the win seemed to shroud any notion of panic — even with a potential undefeated showdown looming next Saturday against No. 2 Ohio State, a game that will require Michigan’s best.
“A lot of the meat on the bone, it’s still on the bone, and it’s ready to come off next Saturday,” McCarthy insisted.
At this point, what reason is there to believe him?