Cade McNamara, still donning his jersey and sporting smudged eyeblack, clasped his hands together and stated the obvious.
“It’s a lack of execution on our part,” the junior quarterback lamented after Michigan managed just 42 yards of second-half offense in a win against Rutgers. “We know that’s not gonna get the job done. So we’ve got to be better.”
For three weeks, the Wolverines’ offense masqueraded as a complete and robust unit, averaging a whopping 47 points per game. Their rushing attack simply demoralized the opposing defense, buoyed by the electric “thunder and lightning” combination of senior running back Hassan Haskins and sophomore running back Blake Corum.
Yet by the fourth quarter on Saturday, against the Big Ten’s perpetual doormat, that high-powered offense had disappeared. Instead, Michigan’s new, uninspired offense walked off the field to a chorus of boos, on the heels of four consecutive three-and-outs to begin the second half.
The stark run-pass imbalance had at last proved unsustainable. After rushing for 64 yards on the game’s opening drive, the Wolverines managed just 48 yards on the ground the remainder of the game.
In turn, they had to pivot. For the first time this season, McNamara was asked to complete downfield throws with consistency, his right arm entrusted with the fate of the offense.
Michigan’s coaching staff has maintained that it hasn’t “fallen in love” with a particular style of play, despite the clear emphasis on running the football. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reiterated that conviction on Saturday.
“You do that, you can’t get better,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh also knows that relying solely on the running game isn’t sustainable, as Saturday’s contest indicated. Games in which the running backs are stymied could be frequent, especially against stiffer competition.
Michigan will have to find ways to win through McNamara, specifically. On Saturday, though, his performance was a tale of two halves, one strong and the other maddening.
Early in the second quarter, shortly after the Scarlet Knights elected to stack the box in a full-out effort to stop the run, McNamara looked at ease. During one drive, he hit sophomore tight end Erick All down the seams for a 23-yard gain; a few plays later, he found sophomore receiver Roman Wilson darting across the middle for a 38-yard pick up.
Entering halftime, McNamara boasted 156 yards on 8-of-11 passing, capitalizing on soft cushions in the Rutgers’ secondary.
But in the second half, McNamara, and subsequently Michigan’s offense, looked completely out of sorts. Once, McNamara missed a throw to All in the middle of the field, leading to a punt; on the ensuing possession, McNamara skipped a throw in the direction of junior receiver Cornelius Johnson, a critical third-down miscue that gave the ball back to Rutgers in a one-score game.
Overall, McNamara posted just seven passing yards in the second half.
“We were extremely efficient in the first half,” McNamara said after the game, his tone blunt and countenance stern. “In the second half, I think we struggled a little bit, whatever it was. I have to be better as well. When they load the box like that, that’s going to come down to us beating man coverage. I have to do a better job of throwing more accurate balls and we have to do a better job overall offensively. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”
Michigan’s offensive woes stem beyond that; McNamara received little help against Rutgers, particularly in terms of playcalling. An apparent lack of creativity hampered the Wolverines’ ability to sustain drives. Not once did they attempt an end-around style play with sophomore receiver A.J. Henning, which has worked in each of the past two games. Nor did they utilize Corum’s speed on the perimeter, with the bulk of his carries instead coming in between the tackles.
By game’s end, the offense had little to celebrate, a marked difference from the season’s first three games.
“They bailed us out,” McNamara said, crediting the defense’s performance for the victory. “We have to make sure that we don’t put them in that position again.”
Whether Michigan is able to do that will largely depend on McNamara.