Over the last month, as Michigan’s offense has rounded into shape — finally starting to look like the high-powered machine that was promised during the offseason and what it so plainly wasn’t during the season’s first five weeks — the explanations from the program have been simple.
Better execution. A lack of turnovers. The natural learning curve that comes with a new offense over the course of the season.
It’s not rocket science, or even a wholesale change on coordinator Josh Gattis’ part, to hear the Wolverines tell it. Merely, it’s just the little things.
“Just playing good. Playing better,” said running backs coach Jay Harbaugh. “I think steadily over the course of the year, we’ve gotten better and better and cleaned things up that were — things that weren’t going our way early, whether it be taking care of the ball or just being assignment-sound.
“Gradually as we’ve gone on, individuals have gotten better. The units, the running backs, the line, receivers, the quarterbacks. Everyone’s kinda elevating their play, and you’re just seeing that happen here at the end of the season, what it looks like when a bunch of different individuals do it together.”
During the early part of the year, when the offense couldn’t get started against the likes of Army, Wisconsin and Iowa, Michigan couldn’t seem to stop fumbling. After an Oct. 12 win at Illinois in which the Wolverines nearly let the Illini claw back after jumping out to a seemingly decisive lead, Michigan led the nation with 17 fumbles. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson, dealing with an oblique injury, seemed reluctant to run the ball. The offense itself didn’t run smoothly.
Since the following week, when the Wolverines came tantalizingly close to a comeback at Penn State, all of that has shifted. In the last 14 quarters, they’ve scored 141 points, including blowing the doors off rivals Notre Dame and Michigan State. Patterson has made use of his legs like he did in 2018, keeping zone-read looks when defensive ends have overplayed the run and forcing them to acknowledge the threat. And Michigan has lost just one fumble, which came toward the end of a blowout win.
It’s undeniable that certain tweaks have been made in the offense — that much is plain for any onlooker to see. But the little things, those that don’t come through Gattis’ headset on Saturday, are what seem to matter most.
“A lot of people say the Penn State game (was when things changed), second half, and I think it definitely started there for sure,” said senior tight end Sean McKeon on Monday. “Kinda just eliminating all the turnovers was a big thing. Really being able to finish drives with a kick, like coach Harbaugh says, either a punt, field goal or extra point.”
Senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. was asked Monday if the preseason characterization of the offense — that it would walk into the opener against Middle Tennessee State ready to light the world on fire — was unfair in retrospect. He didn’t give a yes or no, but noted that an adjustment period was needed. He didn’t need to add that those outside the building weren’t particularly willing to acknowledge that at the time.
Now, though, it’s obvious not only that an adjustment period was needed, but that it has passed. The Wolverines moved the ball on Michigan State with ease last Saturday, scoring 44 points and finishing with 470 yards. They ended every drive but two with a kick, and things have looked that way for nearly a full month of games.
It’s not what people envisioned in August. But it bodes well nonetheless.
“It’s a little bit expected to get better as the course of the year goes,” Jay Harbaugh said. “Obviously you’d like to do that from the get-go and play your best, but unfortunately that’s not how it goes all the time.
“You’re always gonna start somewhere and graduate, gotta build from there.”