Karan Higdon paused for a moment when he was asked the question.
If you had to sum up your offense in one word, one sentence, how would you describe it right now?
The Wolverines’ sophomore running back had just scored the Michigan football team’s sole offensive touchdown in a 29-13 victory over Air Force that was far closer than the score indicated.
It was a rough day at the office for the offense, which entered the red zone four times and didn’t come away with a single touchdown. It’s not an anomaly, either. The Wolverines have converted on only one of their 10 red zone opportunities this season.
Higdon’s 36-yard rush — a break to the outside that turned into a foot race to the end zone with just over a minute left in the game — was the singular exclamation point.
And yet, it’s not really the discrepancies in production between Michigan’s offensive and defensive units that are the problem.
So: If you had to sum up your offense in one word, one sentence, how would you describe it right now?
“Courageous,” Higdon finally said. “Our offense is very courageous. Don’t give up and we won’t be denied, no matter what happens in a game. And I think we believe in each other, we have faith in each other and we know that we’re gonna come around and make things happen.”
But those things haven’t happened yet.
Later, Higdon admitted that Michigan shot itself in the foot on multiple occasions. It did.
He admitted that the Wolverines need to get back to the drawing board. They do.
And he admitted that the Wolverines’ offensive unit is still searching for its identity. Undoubtedly.
Higdon has an idealistic vision of what Michigan’s offense could be. He said the Wolverines have shown flashes of it, and he’s not wrong.
The first score against Florida, which ended in a 46-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Tarik Black, was a flash.
The opening drive against Cincinnati, which ended in 43-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kekoa Crawford, was a flash.
And the multiple touchdown rushes by fifth-year senior Ty Isaac that have been called back? Those are flashes, too.
On Saturday, Higdon looked to the future, painting a picture of what his unit’s identity could be.
“I think we’re great,” he said. “I think we’re physical. I think we know ourselves, we’re gonna play hard, we’re determined and we won’t be denied.”
The problem is that they have been denied plenty of times. The flashes don’t create an identity, and the Wolverines are still in need of one.
I don’t mean to suggest that Michigan should be perfect already. But we still don’t know what makes Michigan’s offense, well, Michigan’s offense.
That’s a problem. Michigan has a playoff-caliber defense, and right now, it looks like its offense might waste it.
The Wolverines’ young defensive unit attacked Air Force’s triple option, and barring the Falcons’ 64-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, they were successful.
Through three games, Michigan is allowing an average of 14.7 points, 82.3 rushing yards and 125.7 passing yards. The Wolverines have surrendered just two touchdowns, while scoring three of their own.
On Saturday, sophomore linebacker Devin Bush Jr. said the defensive unit is starting to reveal “who we are, who we want to be.” Taken at face value, it would appear Michigan’s offense and defense are each progressing simultaneously.
But it’s in the subtle statements that it becomes clear the Wolverines’ defense is miles ahead of their counterpart.
When you’re stuffing them on the run like that, do you feel like nobody can run the ball on you guys?
“Nobody can run the ball on us,” he said. “Nobody.”
You mentioned their offense being almost annoying to face, does that make it more fun to blow a play up when you do get a chance to do that?
“Just to stop what they love to do,” he said. “It’s always a good feeling.”
Is that the identity of this team, the defense helping the offense along?
“Yeah, that’s how it should be,” he said. “Championship. Let’s get it.”
It’s Bush’s unbridled confidence that makes this much clear: The defense knows who it is. They are confident, with the appropriate touch of arrogance. They find pleasure in ruining another team’s Saturday. They know — and are not intimidated by — the likelihood that, as of Saturday night, this team will go as far as the defense can take it.
There’s nothing wrong with that collective identity — a team that thrives on the defensive end while its offense does enough. Plenty of championship-caliber programs have succeeded under the same model. You don’t need to look further than when Jim Harbaugh was in the NFL with San Francisco. From 2011 to 2013, the 49ers went to two conference championships and a Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick or Alex Smith as their quarterback. Their defense ranked fourth, third and fifth in the NFL.
The NFL is a low-scoring league. Comparatively, each of last year’s College Football Playoff contenders averaged at least 38 points. The Wolverines don’t need to be that, but they certainly need to be better.
But right now, Michigan’s offense doesn’t know what to hang its hat on. And the time to play catch up is over.
Santo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo.