To a certain extent, the outcome of a non-conference game is not critical. That’s not to say it doesn’t count, but if a team has designs on winning its conference, it’s the battles against familiar foes that will determine which team ultimately wears the conference crown. For Michigan, the Big Ten will be won or lost in games against Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State. That doesn’t mean Saturday’s nail-biter against Army didn’t matter, however, or that it didn’t expose anything. If Michigan’s double-overtime victory over Army showed anything, it’s that as things currently stand, Michigan is not championship caliber team, especially on offense.
In Michigan’s three-point victory over three-touchdown underdog Army, both the Wolverine offense and defense received their share of criticism. The defense, unfairly so, however. Michigan’s Ronnie Bell said after the game that he wasn’t surprised by Army’s performance, adding that Michigan was, “well aware that Army was going to play well.” That’s exactly what the Black Knights did. A team doesn’t take playoff-bound Oklahoma to overtime, run off ten consecutive victories or score 70 points in a bowl game by accident. Army returned a substantial amount of production from last season’s 11-win team and looked every bit the veteran unit it was, pushing Michigan to the brink. However, not only did the Wolverines hold Army to two just touchdowns during regulation, but the defense made day’s the biggest plays. First to keep the Wolverines in the game, and later to decide the game’s outcome.
In the second quarter, Lavert Hill thwarted an Army drive with an interception in the shadow of Michigan’s end zone. Hill’s play prevented the Black Knights from building on their seven-point lead. Had Army upped its lead to two touchdowns, it’s not certain the Wolverines could have come back. Later, in the second overtime period, led by Aiden Hutchinson, Michigan’s defensive line put the game on ice. First, stoning Army on a second-and-eight and then getting to Army quarterback Kendall Hopkins Jr. on the subsequent third-and-long, forcing the ball free and ending Army’s upset bid.
When all was said and done, the defense acquitted itself rather well. The offense, however, was another story.
I wrote last year that, “Michigan’s “grind-it-out” style simply isn’t enough in today’s game. At least not against elite teams”. Head coach Jim Harbaugh saw things similarly, and brought in a new offensive coordinator with designs on creating an offense that could compete with elite teams and win shootouts, when necessary. Michigan’s offense, as it stands now, isn’t capable of doing either. But is it asking too much for that to be the case at this stage of the season?
Michigan fans were confident that Michigan’s new offense would produce instant results. That the up-tempo, RPO-heavy (run/pass option) scheme would instantly, or at least quickly, propel Michigan into the ranks of the elite. Critics countered that transitioning from a power running game to pass-first attack, a “Pro Spread” as new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis calls it, would take time, and that there would be significant growing pains along the way.
Score one for the critics. But few critics could have even foreseen this much difficulty, as Michigan struggled to put up the same number of points against Army through 60 minutes as did Rice the previous week.
Part of Michigan’s problems Saturday were self-inflicted, as Michigan turned the ball over three times. At least two of those were the result of, “getting a little loose with the ball,” as Harbaugh put it. Ball security can be addressed and worked on in practice. For the rest of Michigan’s offensive ails, however, there doesn’t seem to be an easy fix. After the game, Michigan’s Ben Bredesen conceded that there are, “things we need to clean up,” and that, “there are some kinks (we) need to work out.” One of the things that needs to be cleaned up is creating a better offensive flow.
A week after throwing the ball all over the field in a 40-21 victory over Middle Tennessee State, Michigan seemed adverse to putting the ball in the air against Army. In the second half particularly, Michigan all but abandoned the passing game. Patterson attempted only nine passes in the half, and at one point, Michigan ran the ball 12 consecutive plays, with ten of those carries going to freshman Zach Charbonnet.
Charbonnet played a starring role for the Wolverines, carrying the ball 33 times for an even 100 yards, often serving as Michigan’s only offense. Charbonnet ran well, but all-too-often had little room with which to work. When the defense knows what’s coming, and it floods the box like Army often did, yards don’t come easy.
Why Michigan rarely passed, and further, why Patterson didn’t call his own number more often, was the question of the day. Was the limited game plan the result of Patterson still being dinged up from the prior week? Did the coaches direct him not to run? Watching the game, Patterson didn’t seem to be his usual self, but Harbaugh insisted that Patterson was, “close to 100%,” and was not directed not to run. There were several plays that seemed to be ripe for a quarterback keeper. If Patterson was healthy, why he didn’t take advantage of these opportunities is a mystery. As was Michigan’s abandonment of the passing game.
Even when Michigan did take to the air, it did so with little flow to the playcalling. The result was a very choppy offensive performance, and one that left the home fans frustrated.
In the end, Michigan did just enough to pull out the victory. But while the Wolverines may have salvaged the win, they also proved that their transition to a new offense will take longer than many had anticipated. Michigan has an off week coming up, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Because if Michigan continues to play the way it did Saturday, Wisconsin, Michigan’s next opponent, will win going away.
There is little doubt that Michigan will improve as the season progresses. But how much will the Wolverines improve? And how quickly? With a trip to Madison looming in two weeks, the clock is ticking.