SOUTH BEND — Lloyd Carr knew
it wasn’t worth denying.

Sharad Mattu

“I just don’t think — right now, offensively
— we’re a very good football team.”

As Ray Zalinsky said to Tommy Callahan in the elevator after he
rubbed air freshener all over himself in Tommy Boy: “Good,
you’ve pinpointed it. Now the next step is washin’ it
out.”

The Wolverines weren’t just running a conservative offense
Saturday against Notre Dame. They were running a bad conservative
offense.

One in which they couldn’t run the ball (apparently
Michigan is trying to revolutionize the conservative offense) and
didn’t trust their quarterback (though this is nothing new
— Carr barely trusted John Navarre last year when he was a
senior, and he holds just about every Michigan passing record).

When the plan is to take an early lead and let the defense take
you home from there, I wouldn’t recommend three turnovers and
a blocked punt — all of which give the Irish the ball within
sight of the endzone.

I’m still baffled by the Michigan offense. Initially, it
seemed like the goal was to ease true freshman Chad Henne into his
first road game with safe plays.

OK, I thought. That makes sense.

Then, before I knew it, the Wolverines were running on
3rd-and-goal to end the first half and on 3rd-and-17 immediately
after Notre Dame had taken the lead in the fourth quarter.

Of course Michigan’s offense is a work in progress. But
how did Carr, offensive coordinator Terry Malone, quarterbacks
coach Scot Loeffler and company sit down and come up with that?

Now, Henne is a true freshman, so I understand that a sizable
chunk of the playbook has been tossed aside. But didn’t
Michigan take it too far? It seemed like Carr had sent a
pre-programmed robot out on the field for the first 50 minutes.

Drop back three steps and throw a 3-yard pass over the middle to
the tight end.

Roll out to the right. After your fifth stride, give me three
chop steps and fire the ball off your left foot to the wide
receiver’s left shoulder, five yards in front of you at the
hash mark.

In Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston, Michigan has
a trio of wide receivers that would put fear in just about every
defense in the nation. But you wouldn’t have known that
Saturday, seeing short route after short route get stuffed shy of
the first-down marker.

Granted, the three of them were involved in Michigan’s
three turnovers, but didn’t that at least partly have to do
with the fact that so much was up to them? This is what they were
told: We’re ten yards from a first down, so run three yards,
catch the ball and do what you have to do.

Why are a quarterback-friendly offense and down-field passing
attack truly mutually exclusive? The Wolverines — with or
without a running attack and with or without a freshman quarterback
— will be better off making proper use of their
receivers.

Better off for the next two months.

Better off for the next three years.

Michigan shouldn’t be a program that goes through
“cycles,” but that’s exactly what it has
become.

Think about the last three years. There’s been the rough
year with key new personnel (2001), the year with promise (2002)
and the year where everything comes together (2003). Sure, last
year was fun, but there’s more than one way to get to the
same place.

This year, Michigan has great receivers and defensive backs.
Next year, it will be the defense’s front seven. Are they
just supposed to play out the season while the quarterback and
running back develop?

Now, maybe Carr is ready and willing to open up with redshirt
sophomore Matt Gutierrez. Maybe he really was set to be the starter
before his shoulder injury. Maybe Carr just wanted to survive with
Henne in the meantime.

But if Henne was the starter and is still the starter, spread
out the offense anyway and deal with the lumps. He’s a
freshman and mistakes will come, but he’ll learn. Soon,
he’ll learn to feel the pressure coming from his blindside
and get rid of the ball. He’ll learn how linebackers and
secondaries disguise blitzes. He’ll learn how to freeze the
safety and to set up single-coverage.

Michigan’s wide-receiving trio should be carrying Henne
(or Gutierrez or any other quarterback Michigan decides to send out
there) through this season, and then the quarterback could pick up
the slack and carry Michigan’s young receivers in two
years.

That’s how the true national powerhouses work.

Sharad Mattu can be reached at
“mailto:smattu@umich.edu”>smattu@umich.edu

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