When a stoic Nick Eubanks stood at the podium after a defacing 35-14 loss at Wisconsin, his assessment was frank.
“It’s up to us to find an identity,” Eubanks said then. “We got a game coming up next Saturday. We gotta find it quick.”
Up to that point — a game in which Michigan mustered next to nothing until the depths of garbage time — the Wolverines’ self-proclaimed identity had rarely been called into question.
From the outset of the season, Michigan’s offense has tried as hard as it could to be different, in any way, shape or form. “Speed in space” was a distillation of a promised reinvention. The proclamations of change were loud and direct; offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was going to modernize it all, every play would require a read, the bells and whistles would sing.
Two things now appear clear. One: That didn’t work as intended. Two: That’s OK.
Because when things didn’t work in the first half of the season, the players and coaches realized maybe the ways of old weren’t so bad after all. It’s worth remembering, the Wolverines finished 25th in offensive SP+, their best such ranking since 2011.
“We’re bringing back some stuff that worked last year,” said senior guard Michael Onwenu, shortly after his offensive line tossed around a stout Notre Dame front Saturday night. “Watching previous games and it’s important to bring that back and do what worked instead of trying everything else.”
Onwenu and his unit spearheaded a rushing attack that ran for 303 yards on 57 carries in Michigan’s 45-14 win over the Irish. It did so in a manner eerily akin to the Wolverines’ three-game win streak over ranked opponents last year. In those games, wins over No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 24 Michigan State and No. 14 Penn State, the Wolverines averaged 278.3 rushing yards on 51 attempts.
It was the defining stretch for that team, when it found out who it was and harnessed that into some of the best football of the Jim Harbaugh era.
This group appears primed to hit a similar stride. In 21 drives over the last six quarters, the Wolverines’ offense has just five three-and-outs. They have over 400 yards in four of their last five games, with the lone outlier coming against Iowa that is sixth in SP+ defense, and, importantly, came in a 10-3 win.
It’s a group unapologetically anchored by a running game, featuring the same core tenants of last year’s ethos: pin-and-pulls, traps and basic zone looks. It would be remiss not to mention offensive line coach Ed Warinner’s role in this recalibration. He’s the one that overhauled the run scheme a year ago, and simplified the offensive line requirements that ultimately bred vast improvement.
“Every team’s different,” Warinner said last week. “There’s no carry over. You’ve got carry over players, but you have to establish who you are and what you want to do. And then you evaluate. At some point, you have to say, here’s what we’re good at.”
Still, Michigan fired Pep Hamilton and hired Gattis for a reason, and the recent simplification is not inherently an indictment of that decision. There’s a maturity in understanding what you are and what you aren’t, and not trying to shove a square peg in a round hole by hoping to solve the latter.
When Eubanks offered that plea shortly after the loss to the Badgers, he did so under the same pretense of change. There was an idea of what this offense was supposed to be, and it hadn’t lived up to the billing.
The identity is not “speed in space” in the way most conceived that vision, and the players don’t seem to care.
“Our identity is whatever it is for that week,” said junior center Cesar Ruiz. “I don’t wanna say one thing or another cause we can attack it however we want to.”
Increasingly, though, this team is learning that not all change is good. This team now knows what it is — something that could not be said when Eubanks offered his assessment. It’s a team that’s going to look to pound the ball first, then work off of it with a trove of downfield weapons. It’s a team that can lean on its defense, careful not to make the game-changing mistake offensively. It’s not a team that’s going to reinvent the wheel. It is a team that will dispose of inferior ones, and win quite a few games. It’ll beat some good teams, too. It’s a team well in-line with the precedent Harbaugh has set at Michigan through five years.
That’s not such a bad thing, after all.
Marcovitch can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch.