This season, Michigan has played as if it were re-enacting a chapter from Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” It’s been the best of times in the first half and the worst of times in the second.
In six games, the Michigan offense has put up 118 points in the first half, and the Wolverines have trailed at halftime just once. But it’s a different story after the intermission, when Michigan’s offensive output has decreased by more than 50 percent. The Wolverines have scored 51 points in the second half, including just 10 in the third quarter. But when their 55-point showing against Eastern Michigan is removed, they have scored just 31 after halftime.
“We start our games great – going down the field on our first drive and playing strong in the first quarter – but we’re inconsistent,” tight end Tim Massaquoi said. “We don’t start the second half the same way we start the first half. It’s a lack of consistency that has hurt Michigan.”
But just looking at total points scored disguises the fact that some of those points have been put up by the defense and special teams. Of the 10 points Michigan has scored in the third quarter, just three have come courtesy of the offense. Those points came off a 38-yard field goal from placekicker Garrett Rivas against Notre Dame. Wide receiver Steve Breaston returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown last weekend for the Wolverines’ only other third-quarter points this season.
The picture is brighter in the fourth quarter. Michigan has scored 41 points in the final frame this year, all of which were put up by the offense. In all, the Wolverines have scored 63 more points on offense in the first half than they have in the second.
No one on the Michigan offense seems to have an explanation for the unit’s second-half problems. Massaquoi attributed it to a lack of focus, but he wasn’t sure why it continued to happen.
But one major effect of the offense’s struggles to score late in the game – or even to stay out on the field – has been extra pressure on the defense to stop opponents.
Even though the defense has given up its share of big plays in crunch time – most recently Minnesota tailback Gary Russell’s 61-yard run in the fourth quarter last week – its struggles have resulted, in part, from the offense’s inability to put together long drives. Michigan has lost the time-of-possession battle in each of its last two losses. Minnesota held the ball for six minutes more than the Wolverines, but time of possession hurt Michigan most in its loss at Wisconsin, when the Badgers held the ball for more than 20 minutes in the second half alone. It’s impossible to know for sure, but the inability of Michigan’s defense to contain Wisconsin tailback Brian Calhoun as the game progressed might have stemmed from fatigue.
Against the Gophers, the Wolverines’ defense was on the field for 91 plays, which coach Lloyd Carr says is 25 to 30 more plays than he would like to see. Michigan didn’t run an offensive play in the second half until there was just six minutes remaining in the third quarter.
“Part of that – was the fact that our defense made a great stop (and held the Gophers to a field goal) after a long kickoff return that gave Minnesota great field position,” Carr said. “Then Steve Breaston ran the kickoff back, and our defense had to go right back out.”
But the Wolverines still allowed the Gophers to string together a 13-play, 61-yard drive that took more than six minutes off the clock in the middle of that frame.
“Considering our inability on third down to keep drives alive, the number of plays that our defense was on the field and the fact that Willis Barringer and Brandent Englemon went out of there, I give our defense some credit there,” Carr said.
But odds are, the defense’s effort alone will not be enough to reverse Michigan’s fortunes.