WEST LAFAYETTE – Is there anybody else pulling their hair out each week watching this “new” Michigan offense teeter between perfect execution and absolute ineptitude?
If you’re happy with what you’re seeing because it has produced six victories, then you’re just a contributing factor to the problem. The fact is that this offense, which is producing just over 27 points per game, could be averaging 37 without its weekly problem (exclude the Illinois game).
And that problem certainly doesn’t reserve itself to one thing. It’s something new every week, although the one constant has been first half play-calling. It seems like every game the Michigan defense is stranded on the field in the first 30 minutes as the offense works itself into a rhythm. The play-calling isn’t giving Michigan a chance to score points and get going early in games.
Chris Perry continually finishes the first half with fewer than 10 carries. Yet, he is averaging at least four yards a carry. That doesn’t add up. Establishing Perry in the first half is something that must occur, because it will not only help put points on the board, it will also keep time of possession in Michigan’s favor – something that hasn’t happened often.
New offensive coordinator Terry Malone has run more passing plays than rushing. But if you’re going to pass, pass. If you’re going to take carries away from Perry, who could be a legitimate threat, you better make the passing calls count. The plays that are called early in the game are normally short passes, ones in which John Navarre already has a chosen receiver before he even takes the snap (the quick three-yard out that is rarely completed or the screen to B. J. Askew, for instance). But Malone doesn’t have to call these plays anymore. Navarre is not a machine any longer – he is actually a strength of this offense, week in and week out. He has shown that he can make reads and hit his third and fourth receiver, so why not let him do that in the first half, on the first series?
If this play-calling trend continues against Iowa, which is averaging 38 points per game, Michigan will find itself in a hole early at home, and the “Big House” will be more silent than usual.
But play selection isn’t the only thing keeping this offense from playing to its full potential. The stupid mistakes that creep up are keeping the Wolverines’ attack grounded. At Notre Dame, it was drops and fumbles that cost the offense valuable time of possession and in the end, the game.
Against Utah, Malone’s crew couldn’t convert on third down, and mental mistakes, such as Perry’s goalline fumble and countless penalties, kept the Utes in the game and almost proved to be fatal blows.
This past week, the Michigan offensive line’s lack of push on three key short-yardage situations was the halting factor. There is no excuse for not converting on 3rd-and-one and then 4th-and-one. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr knows it. Malone knows it. The Michigan “big uglies” know it.
And what makes it so frustrating to watch Michigan’s bumbling, plodding offense for 75 percent of this season is that masterful, unstoppable 25 percent. Take the Utah game. Michigan’s one touchdown drive consisted of passes of 44 and 12 yards to Braylon Edwards. Three plays, 55 yards – easy.
This is a unit that is capable of perfect execution, believe it or not. How about that reverse that was three weeks in the making? Every part of that play worked as it was planned, as blocks from receiver Ron Bellamy and Navarre down field were the key to Calvin Bell’s 34-yard touchdown run that sealed the game for Michigan.
Of course, the Illinois game – which featured an offensive performance unequalled in the past two seasons – has to be mentioned. Maybe it can never be duplicated. I think it can. Malone’s offense ran as smoothly as a Ford assembly line, as each receiver was fed in plenty and Perry punished the Illinois defenders for four quarters.
This can happen again, and frankly, a performance near its level of perfection will be necessary to beat Iowa this coming Saturday. The 14th-ranked Hawkeyes are playing like the eighth-ranked team in the country – the eighth-ranked Wolverines like the 14th.
Malone has the tools to put a lot of points on the Michigan Stadium scoreboard. He just needs to loosen up that maize-and-blue tie, wipe the sweat off his brow and let his athletes make the plays that they are fully capable of making.
The Big Ten championship depends on it.
J. Brady McCollough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.