With only a minute remaining, the Wolverines’ hopes remained alive.
On the final drive of the now-No. 7 Michigan football team’s loss against Michigan State Saturday, junior quarterback Cade McNamara threw just his second interception of the season. With only one minute left on the clock and no timeouts remaining, the play wiped out whatever slim hopes of a comeback the Wolverines may have had, sealing their first loss of the season.
The interception also illustrated Michigan’s game-long struggles with finishing drives in time-limited situations. In the Wolverines’ three opportunities to execute two-minute drills on Saturday — one at the end of the first half, and two at the end of the game — the first resulted in a field goal, while both fourth quarter attempts ended with turnovers. Just as striking: All three ended in Spartan territory.
Still, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t seem concerned.
“The two-minute has been pretty successful,” Harbaugh said. “The (first half) one, we really didn’t have enough time. Got far, got a field goal before half. And then the last two, got stopped on fourth down — clear pass interference — and then we threw the corner route into a cover 2, and they made an interception.”
Despite Harbaugh’s qualms, there’s no guarantee the Wolverines would have scored a touchdown had the officials called pass interference on that fourth down. As it stands right now, the bigger issue is that Michigan’s offense isn’t built to run when time is low, and it doesn’t adjust in those situations.
The final drive of the first half exemplified the issue. As Harbaugh pointed out, the offense was forced into a field goal as time expired, but this result was by no means inevitable. The Wolverines began the drive with 1:13 remaining in the half and made it to midfield within one play. Six plays later, Michigan used its final timeout at the 17-yard line with 14 seconds left.
Those struggles to move the ball quickly even during a career game from McNamara stem partially from the Wolverines’ tendency to lean on crossing routes on passing downs. In normal situations, that isn’t a problem — freshman receiver Andrel Anthony’s 93-yard touchdown reception proves that — but in a two-minute offense, routes over the middle are huge time wasters.
On four different plays in that half-ending drive, Michigan’s receivers failed to get out of bounds after the catch. Sure, out routes can be difficult for the quarterback to hit, but they’re easier than the two deep balls McNamara threw before the field goal. And while junior Erick All is a great pass-catching tight end — he finished with a team-leading 10 receptions for 98 yards — he can’t be the first read over the middle when the team needs to find the endzone late in the half.
“When it comes to the red zone, just finishing drives off,” junior receiver Mike Sainristil said when asked about the two-minute offense. “Whether that’s in the run game, pass game, just that extra effort to not leave it up to (senior kicker Jake) Moody all the time. That’s just where we need to grow as an offense.”
Even if the offense has upped its tempo since last season — it averages 72 plays per game, 6.5 more than it did in 2020 — it needs to be more effective when crunched for time. Last Saturday won’t be the last time the Wolverines need a score at the end of a half to keep them in the game.
The team’s Nov. 13 matchup against Penn State looms large, and its chances against No. 5 Ohio State already look slim.
If Michigan wants to win either game, it’ll have to translate promising late drives into touchdowns.