An hour after a game in which Michigan scored just 10 points, averaged just 4.5 yards per play and gained less than 300 yards total, Jim Harbaugh sat behind a microphone and declared that his team’s offense was “hitting our stride.”
There are a lot of ways to deflect criticism after a game like Saturday’s. Harbaugh might have pointed to Iowa’s defense. He might have said things are still working into place under offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, that even in the second month of the season, it’s OK to be working out kinks in a new system. He might have reiterated what he had said five minutes prior — that the Wolverines took what was there against an opponent whose games always look like Saturday’s 10-3 Michigan win.
It’s hard to sell that the offense actually played well. It’s harder to sell that this was some kind of peak.
Because if there’s even an inkling of truth to it, then the Wolverines have a long eight weeks ahead.
Whatever good will built up since Michigan’s 52-0 demolition of Rutgers a week ago — the first time Gattis’ offense seemed to have a clear, well-executed plan of attack — evaporated into confusion and consternation against Iowa. After a solid first few drives in which the run game seemed to get some momentum, senior quarterback Shea Patterson found junior wideout Nico Collins on a jump ball and freshman Zach Charbonnet ran for a two-yard score, Michigan failed to string together another coherent set of plays until the start of the fourth quarter.
When that finally happened, it ended in Jake Moody missing a 34-yard field goal.
While the defense played to the moment, showing the kind of urgency needed to win against a top-20 opponent, the offense looked listless and disinterested. Patterson finished 14-of-26 for 147 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. It added up to a 93.6 rating — worse than every game he played last season in an offense that was accused of being antiquated and out of style.
“Once we hit that (pass to Collins), they started to back off a little bit and we started to take our underneath reads,” Patterson said.
In other words, the Hawkeyes’ defense dictated what Michigan could and couldn’t do. Gattis has said he wants exactly the opposite to happen in his system, one predicated on putting players in conflict, so no matter what choice they make, it’s wrong. And yet, his unit has been the one forced into impossible choices repeatedly — and it happened all day long on Saturday.
“I thought Shea in particular took what was there and sometimes there wasn’t anything there,” Harbaugh said. “And managed the game extremely well.”
But Harbaugh didn’t recruit Patterson as a game-manager. The nervous tension in the building when Patterson took a seat next to Harbaugh at Crisler Center for a basketball game two years ago, and the explosion of joy in Ann Arbor when he eventually committed wasn’t because Michigan had secured another Brandon Peters or John O’Korn. Patterson came here to fix an offense that, in 2017, looked a whole lot like the offense we saw on Saturday. One that couldn’t keep a drive going, get opponents to respect the passing game or take advantage of the talent on the field.
For a year in between, Patterson’s first under center in a Michigan uniform, things were not perfect, but they were markedly better. The run game hummed as the offensive line overperformed expectations. Patterson proved to excel at creating something out of nothing, running around out of the pocket with a knack for finding whoever would inevitably break open. It didn’t look great against Ohio State, and Florida stopped the Wolverines in their tracks, but it’s hard not to acknowledge that Michigan might have spent this offseason trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.
The first five games of this season are the result. The Wolverines managed to win four of those on the back of their defense. But every opponent left is either on the road or ranked, and most of them won’t commit the comedy of errors Iowa fell victim to at times on Saturday.
“That’s just kinda football. That’s how it goes sometimes,” Patterson said. “You’re gonna have days like that. And when the defense is playing lights-out like that, just stay patient.”
It would be much easier to buy that if Michigan hadn’t waded the last five games of the season like a team searching for an answer. Or if they seemed any closer to finding one against Iowa than they were before.
“I really do think they’re hitting their stride,” Harbaugh reiterated when pressed on his answer. “Got great faith in our players and our coaches.”
He was asked in exactly what ways that might be the case.
“In every way,” he said. Then he repeated himself. “In every way. That’s what I see.”
Harbaugh knows far more about football than most people on this planet. But it doesn’t take a genius to realize what anyone can see with two plain eyes.
If this is Michigan’s stride, then Michigan’s offensive reclamation has failed.