Josh Gattis told his players a story this week.
He recalled a time, three years ago, when his Penn State group sputtered out of the gate. The Nittany Lions lost by three to Pittsburgh early in the year, before traveling on the road and getting shellacked by Michigan, 49-10. They took that adversity and responded, ripping off nine straight wins en route to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance.
The underlying parallels to this Wolverines group were clear: a talented team, a scuffle out of the gate, a sobering road loss, a moment of reflection. It is possible, the thinking goes, for this team to respond and make something of this year.
“Sometimes adversity is something that you never want to use to bond your guys together,” Gattis said Wednesday, “but it’s something that forms a bond.”
For Josh Gattis, crucially, that is where the 2016 Penn State parallels diverge. He is not a mere wide receivers coach. This is his offense. It has been from the moment he took the job. And with that comes the responsibility of its failures.
“Being the guy that’s in charge, I hurt when I’m not able to see those guys have that success,” Gattis said. “I take it very personal just as (the players) take it personal.”
After three weeks, Gattis’ offense, expected to bring the dawn of a new era, has appeared to be some combination of ill-conceived and ill-prepared. The unit showed signs of vertical ability against Middle Tennessee State, but ultimately struggled to sustain consistency throughout the game. Against Army, the offense was suddenly devoid of the creativity it promised, hammering inside zone into oblivion. Last week against Wisconsin, the Wolverines failed to convert a third down for the first time since at least 1995. Through three weeks, Michigan is 116th of 130 teams in yards gained, 91st in points and 104th in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN. Nine turnovers haven’t helped, either.
But if you’ve watched any significant portion of the Wolverines’ first three games, you don’t need that empirical data to parse through what’s painfully obvious: This offense has been a mess.
The promised spread has turned into muddled ineptitude. The impending RPO cascade has bewildered its signal-caller, Shea Patterson, not to mention imperiled his health. All the while, the most talented weapons on the offense have been indisputably underutilized. To an untrained eye, Gattis appears to have outsmarted himself. The result is a unit that, even its own players say, has no discernible identity.
Sometimes a cute hashtag is just that.
And now, Gattis faces a moment of truth — a point of inflection, perhaps. A dose of reality, no doubt. Asked Tuesday whether anything has taken him by surprise in his first few weeks as an offensive coordinator, he offered a rhetorical chuckle.
“A lot,” Gattis said.
If the bye week hadn’t already done so, the 35-14 drubbing at Wisconsin on Saturday poured cold water on the hype. Monday, Gattis put together a 100-play cut-up, both for his own viewing and ultimately to pass along to players. It included every negative play the unit has accrued thus far. For each play, he showed his team what happens when it’s run correctly and what happens when it isn’t.
“For us, offensively, it’s a consistency deal,” Gattis said. “There hasn’t been a lot thrown at them that they haven’t previously had experience with. There’s some things that we’re still carrying over from last year.”
On Monday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh did not waver on his faith in his new offensive play-caller. It’s clear, for whatever it’s worth, that Gattis hasn’t lost faith in himself, either.
There is a learning curve to all of this — calling plays, directing an offense — that Gattis never had the luxury to adjust to. When you’re pegged as the savior of a woebegone unit, the vessel through which this program intended to enter the modern era, that pressure mounts quickly.
Still, even the most staunch pessimists couldn’t have seen that breaking point come this early.
To Gattis’ credit, he stood in front of the media Wednesday and answered every question. He didn’t deflect. Didn’t excuse anything. He assumed the blame, and assured they’d turn things around. At this point, it would be as unwise to relinquish hope in Gattis as it would to assume a breakthrough is imminent.
Sure, this team could be a redux of 2016 Penn State. It could just as easily mirror the 2017 Michigan team that went 8-5, a low point of the Harbaugh era.
“When you go through the pressure situation, it only makes you tighter,” Gattis said. “I believe in every single one of our players.”
The real question now, though, is whether those players feel the same about him. Because if they don’t, this house of cards will come tumbling down sooner than later.
Marcovitch can be reached on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.