Two Michigan offensive staffers paced briskly back and forth from the sideline to the edge of the field. There were hand motions and wild gesticulations, some yelling and alternative forms of communication. Behind him, another dutiful staffer held signs — a Nike swoosh coating one side. From the press box, Josh Gattis looked on, stoic, conducting his orchestra from a perch.
Moments later, senior quarterback Shea Patterson handed the ball to sophomore running back Christian Turner. A gain of two yards. Then onto the next play.
Gattis was hired to be Michigan’s offensive coordinator exactly 234 days ago. Much of the time since has been spent speculating as to what his offense might look like. There were expectations of improvement from a unit that plainly needed overhauling. There were well-publicized promises of “speed in space”. There were rave reviews from those in and around the program.
Saturday, finally, it was all there for the public to see in the Wolverines’ 40-21 season-opening win over Middle Tennessee State.
The early returns? Some good, some bad and plenty to digest.
“Lot of good things,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Still, we know, we’ve seen in practice that we can operate cleaner. That’s what we’re all going to strive for this week in practice. As I said at first, this is a new offense. I thought for a first time out, it was good. Could it be better? Yeah, sure. And that’s what we’ll be striving for.”
The night began, though, with a thud back to reality. On the Wolverines’ first play from scrimmage, Patterson scooted for 11 yards, before fumbling the ball away. MTSU recovered and scored a touchdown three plays later.
“Obviously didn't get off to a great start,” Patterson said. “I gotta take care of the football. A win's a win, but I think everybody in that locker room knows that we didn’t live up to our standard.”
Overall, though, the statistics bear an overwhelmingly positive performance. The offense totaled 453 yards, with 220 coming through the air and 233 on the ground. Eight different players carried the ball on runs and nine different receivers caught a pass. The speed was there. At times, the space came too.
Patterson followed up his initial miscue up with five consecutive scoring drives, including a 36-yard strike to junior receiver Tarik Black. Black featured heavily on the next series, too, serving as the vessel for two consecutive run-pass options (RPOs) — looks that are integral to Gattis’ offense. That possession ended with a 28-yard touchdown catch by Nico Collins on a picture-perfect post route. That led to a gaudy first half for Patterson, who was 16-for-25 for 197 yards and three touchdowns in the opening frame.
Gattis took his entire treasure trove and threw it out there. At times, it hummed. Others left more to be desired.
“I mentioned to someone earlier, I don’t know how many different plays we ran in the game, but it was a lot,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of the offense that we’ve been practicing we ran. It was all facets of it — play-action pass, drop-back, the RPOs, inside zones, outside zones. It was a good amount of offense that got called tonight.”
All of this, fan hysteria aside, should be expected from such a drastic offensive overhaul in its debut. Flipping the switch from a run-first, pro-style offense to a modern, spread scheme will come with its share of growing pains.
After the game, Harbaugh lamented some of the penalties and miscommunication that clouded Saturday’s performance. Michigan completed just one of its first eight passes in the second half, and had just 23 passing yards after the break. The two-quarterback looks and newfangled option sets often appeared disjointed or ill-conceived.
But the framework is there. And any struggles, Patterson crucially deduced after the game, does not stem from any identity crisis.
“Overall, pretty darn good for the first time seeing a new offense,” Harbaugh said. “It’s come so far from where it was in the spring to now. Keep trying to build on it.”