When Michigan offensive coordinator Terry Malone was asked whether he was surprised by the Wolverines’ ability to rack up points despite not having “great” statistics, he immediately got on the defensive.

Paul Wong
DAVID KATZ/Daily
Michigan senior wide receiver Ron Bellamy has taken advantage of the more balanced “new offense,” recording a career-high 32 catches so far this season.

“What do you mean not ‘great’?” Malone asked.

A running game that ranks 10th in the Big Ten, a quarterback that’s eighth in the conference in pass efficiency and an offense that puts up just 377 yards per contest won’t earn Michigan many accolades.

But such stats have been good enough for the Wolverines to win plenty of games, thanks in large part to Michigan’s proficiencies in other unheralded categories.

And Malone had a hard time dishing out praise to anyone other than his much-improved quarterback John Navarre. The junior is a main reason why the Wolverines are second in giveaway/takeaway ratio (plus-7) and top the conference in third down conversion ratio (50 percent).

“I can’t imagine anyone improving more than John Navarre,” Malone said. “He’s really blossomed into the type of leader and quarterback everyone is looking for.”

Just as important, Navarre has 12 touchdowns and one interception in six Big Ten games this season – compared to the six picks he had thrown at this point last year.

“I think protecting the ball was the worst thing we did in the beginning of the year,” Malone said. “But it’s been a major emphasis in practice because if we can at the very least protect the football, we’ll have a chance to win.”

Eight of Michigan’s 12 turnovers came during the first four games of the season, as the Wolverines tried to adjust to the new offense.

Wide receiver Ron Bellamy credits the more efficient offense to the depth at wide receiver: Five Wolverines have at least 21 catches. Nobody has anywhere near the 66 receptions Marquise Walker had through 10 games last season, making this year’s offense less one-dimensional.

“We’ve got so many guys that can beat you now,” Bellamy said. “Last year I don’t think John Navarre had any progressions. It was more throw this way, throw that way, or run. This year with the new offense, it gives John a chance to look at his first read, second read and then third read.”

And on third down, Michigan has found a way to execute and keep its drives alive 50 percent of the time, which ranks the Wolverines atop the conference. Coach Lloyd Carr feels that conversion rate has played a major factor this season, especially after he saw the Wolverines convert on just 41 percent of his team’s third downs last year – mostly in third-and-long situations.

While Michigan has struggled on the ground – just 3.8 yards per carry – such problems are partly due to tailback Chris Perry’s nagging injuries. Carr said he’s more impressed that the Wolverines have 19 rushing touchdowns.

“It shows we can run the ball when we really need to,” Carr said.

But Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of the Michigan offense’s worst performance of last season, when the Wolverines could muster just 158 yards of total offense against Wisconsin – yet still won thanks to inspired special teams play. Navarre was 11-of-24 for 58 yards in the air and one interception in a game he said he’d like to forget.

“Watching clips from the game last year, you want to look away because you don’t want to pick up those old habits again,” Navarre said. “It’s good to look back to see how far you’ve come. I still have a long way to go and a lot to work on.”

But, just like the much maligned Michigan offense of last year, Malone feels it was tough for Navarre to have an answer for every little criticism he was bombarded with.

“That would be almost impossible,” the offensive coordinator said. “Especially for as much criticism as he takes and the wide variety he takes, but he certainly has addressed some of the issues from last year. Those type of situations sometimes break kids and they never become they player they want to be. In John’s case, it really made him stronger.”

And in turn, he’s made the offense better too.

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