After Saturday’s comeback victory over Penn State, euphoria permeated Michigan’s locker room.
And offensive coordinator Josh Gattis found himself smack in the middle of it all.
At the prodding of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Gattis maneuvered his way to the center of the celebratory scrum. Within seconds, players hoisted him onto their shoulders, turning Gattis into a crowd surfer.
Gattis, now in his third-year with the Wolverines, is frequently maligned by a fanbase often impatient with his alleged conservative, unimaginative playcalling. But on Saturday, in that locker room, no criticism could be found.
“Very emotional,” Gattis said on Wednesday, when asked to reflect on the celebration. “You saw the cohesiveness of this team, the camaraderie, the togetherness, I think that’s what led to make this team very special this year.
“… You’re talking about a team that was in a very bad place at the start of the year, that had to commit, commit to loving each other, to believing in each other.”
Gattis, as much as anything, had to believe in himself. He took last year’s offensive shortcomings hard, blaming himself for the Wolverines’ third-down woes and stark run-pass imbalance.
Around him, pieces changed — of the entire offensive coaching staff, only Gattis remained in the same role. While his job title remained the same, he would have to adjust. A lot.
When Gattis first arrived in Ann Arbor from Alabama in 2019, he boasted about modernizing Michigan’s anemic offense with “speed in space,” a catchy slogan that captivated fans’ imaginations.
Two years later, there are few remnants of that scheme — at least not the one initially conjured. There’s no air-raid offense, but “speed in space” is more than that, Gattis insisted. For instance, it’s getting the running backs favorable matchups with the opposing secondary, for instance.
In part, that refined mindset is a testament to Gattis’s and Harbaugh’s ability to acclimate.
“I think that you’ve always gotta be able to change and grow,” Gattis said of developing an offensive identity. “Grow with your players and what they do best. Grow with your team and where your team is positioned.”
Last season, Gattis seemed to imply, Michigan failed to do that. Rotating pieces on the offensive line made it difficult to run the football. In consequence, they relied too heavily on quarterback Joe Milton, whose persistent struggles only made matters more complicated.
This year, everyone involved — from offensive linemen to wide receivers — have embraced the run-first identity.
“The commitment to run has been tremendous for us,” Gattis said. “… When we talked about it in the offseason for the first time, we wanted to make a commitment to the run game. We wanted to establish that.
“… We haven’t passed the ball as much as some people would like, or maybe to their liking, but (the players have) never complained one bit. They’ve bought into the mentality, the identity of our team.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though, even as the running back duo of senior Hassan Haskins and sophomore Blake Corum has propelled Michigan to a number of victories. In the early season, Michigan’s passing game drew criticism for an apparent inability to complete a deep ball.
Gattis viewed that assessment as misguided.
“There were times when people were questioning, for some reason, if we could pass the ball,” Gattis said. “It wasn’t because we were unsuccessful passing the ball. It was just because we were not attempting to pass the ball as much.
“That was the style of play we chose to have.”
Gattis took it upon himself to, in his words, “protect” junior quarterback Cade McNamara from the outside noise. He’d offer affirmation, letting McNamara know that his development was “right along where we need to be.” He’d clarify that none of the comments were “a personal attack.”
Sure enough, much as Gattis envisioned, McNamara has come along as the season progressed. And now, in the home stretch, the style of “complementary football” that Gattis so often preaches is flourishing.
“We’ve done an exceptional job,” Gattis said bluntly.
Gattis is well aware that the upcoming games will define Michigan’s season. Improvements will mean little if the Wolverines soon wilt and revert to the offense of old.
“Two weeks guaranteed left in the season, and these are the two most important weeks for our program,” Gattis said, his voice determined. “We’ve gotta go out there and accomplish our goal of winning this upcoming week.”