As the crowd filed toward the exits, the clock ticking toward zero and the score meandering toward a 40-21 Michigan win, the Wolverines’ slow start — and the fleeting doubt over Saturday night’s result that came with it — had faded into memory.
The game’s early uneasy feeling started before kickoff, when junior receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones was dressed in street clothes and a walking boot — an early blow to new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ promise of a high-flying spread offense built around the Wolverines’ slew of star receivers.
And when a Shea Patterson fumble ended Michigan’s first drive on the first play from scrimmage, doubt continued to creep into Michigan Stadium. Even if the Wolverines would still stroll to an easy win against an overmatched opponent, the grand reveal of Gattis’ offense was temporarily on hold.
The dominant, make-you-read-it-twice scoreline No. 7 Michigan (1-0) might have been hoping for against MTSU (0-1) never came — two turnovers in its own half and inconsistency on the offensive line made sure of that. But the diversity of Gattis’ offense shown through plenty in the Wolverines’ five-touchdown day.
“I was pleased, really, with the way (the offense) operated,” said head coach Jim Harbaugh. “… A lot of the offense that we've been practicing, we ran. All facets of it — the play-action pass, the drop back, the RPOs, the inside zones, the outside zones.”
Tarik Black — part of a talented, but often under-utilized junior receiving trio featuring himself, Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins — put the Wolverines on top by streaking down the field, unguarded on a go route as he allowed himself to collapse beneath the ball for his first touchdown since the first game of his career two injury-riddled years ago.
Two minutes into the second quarter, his stat line stood at four receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown — better than or equal to his totals from a year ago on all three counts. Black was also the leading beneficiary of Michigan’s run-pass option, one of Gattis’ most anticipated offseason introductions.
“He’s gone through a lot and when healthy, we have probably one of the best receiving corps in the country,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Jordan Glasgow. “So seeing an athlete and a receiver as good as him be able to come back out here, make plays and get that touchdown. … I’m just happy that (he) got back out there, able to make plays.”
With Black and Collins at full throttle, bursting the top off the MTSU defense at ease, Saturday’s game had already served its intended purpose by the time Collins capped off Michigan’s fifth drive with a leaping touchdown catch.
The Wolverines’ lead stood at just 17-7, but any hope for a MTSU miracle faded into the night with junior cornerback Ambry Thomas coming up with an interception and recovering a fumble on consecutive drives.
On the other side of the ball, Gattis’ proclaimed staples of downfield passing and RPOs manifested themselves in a first half that looked unlike anything Michigan showcased last season — to the point, Patterson attempted 25 passes in the first half, matching his full-game average from a year ago.
The dream-like domination many envisioned when Gattis arrived only shone through in spurts, hence the 19-point victory in a game that closed with a 36-point spread. But while Patterson’s first words postgame included the phrase “I think everybody in that locker room knows that we didn't live up to our standard,” Harbaugh offered a more balanced perspective.
“This offense, they handle the ball a lot,” Harbaugh said. “It's a lot — the snap, the ride, the decision, the pull and throw. So actually it's quite good. Obviously, we're not taking a deep, long bow. We know we can play better. That's an area we've got to get better at, be more efficient at.”
As for that early doubt over the Wolverines’ nascent offensive identity?
“I think we definitely know who we are,” Patterson said. “From day one, I think we knew who we were, right when Gattis came in.”