Few events in the sports landscape are as eagerly anticipated as the opening weekend of the college football season. Hope springs eternal, it’s said, and opening weekend offers the first glimpse of that hope (or hopelessness) for fan bases across the country. For Michigan, the anticipation this year has been greater than in most, because this year the Wolverines are unveiling their much-ballyhooed “Pro Spread” offense. The brainchild of new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, the RPO-heavy (run/pass option), no huddle, up tempo offense is designed to usher Michigan into the modern age of college football. At least that’s what they’re saying in Ann Arbor. As such, despite a somewhat re-tooled defense that features new faces and question marks across the field, all eyes were on the offense Saturday night when Michigan kicked off the season against Middle Tennessee State.
Michigan fans are confident that Gattis’s pro spread will propel Michigan to the next level. That with quarterback Shea Patterson and Michigan’s abundance of talented receivers, Gattis’s offense will lead to a wide open, quick strike attack. That with this convergence of coaching and talent, the sky is the limit.
Critics counter that going from a plodding, power running game to a fast paced, precision-based passing attack will take time. Significant improvement, the argument goes, should not be expected immediately. On top of that, in Gattis, Michigan has a first-time offensive coordinator who’s also in his first season calling plays. In short, don’t expect miracles.
If Saturday’s opener proved anything, it’s that both opinions are correct to a certain extent.
It is easy to see why there is so much excitement surrounding Gattis’s offense. Michigan began the game by unleashing a pass-first attack, one in which Patterson regularly found receivers Tarik Black and Nico Collins and tight ends Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks. Patterson wasn’t exactly throwing the ball all over the field, but he looked comfortable at the helm, and completed 16 of 25 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. Spreading the wealth, Patterson found Black, Collins, McKeon and freshman Cornelius Johnson for multiple receptions each, and threw touchdown passes to Black, Collins and McKeon. Michigan also sprinkled in the occasional running plays for Christian Turner, freshman Zach Charbonnet and Patterson, and finished the half 80 yards on the ground. All in all, it was a pretty encouraging 30 minutes.
But if the opener showed the potential of this offense, it also showed that there will be growing pains.
In past seasons, Harbaugh’s Wolverines began each new campaign with a heavy dose of established plays. Beginning with these offensive staples, the Wolverines added new wrinkles as the season progressed. That wasn’t the case Saturday, as the Wolverines hit the ground running, so to speak. Gattis and the Michigan offense opened up the playbook right out of the gate. A little more, perhaps, than it should have. Harbaugh commented on that after the games, saying, “I don’t know how many different plays we ran … but it was a lot.” In opening up its playbook, Michigan got a sense of what is working at this early stage and what isn’t. That’s not a bad thing, but it also robbed the Wolverines of any continuity. There was little flow to Michigan’s offense, particularly in the second half.
Part that was undoubtedly because that Patterson was hurt just before the end of the first half. Harbaugh is never one to discuss injuries in much detail, and didn’t this time either, but he did concede that Patterson was, “working through a little something.” Harbaugh added that, “I was keeping a close eye on him (in the second half).” The result was a limited Patterson in the second half. Patterson didn’t look the same, and completed just one pass in four attempts for eight yards. A far cry from the first half.
Patterson’s injury also likely had something to do with backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey receiving as much playing time as he did. Harbaugh has been vocal about playing both quarterbacks this season, so McCaffrey was likely going to get into the game anyway, but you have to wonder if he played more than was anticipated because of Patterson’s injury. Regardless of the reason, the dual quarterback strategy further derailed Michigan’s offensive flow. McCaffrey acquitted himself well enough, albeit more with his feet than his arm, but rotating quarterbacks led to a clunky second half performance.
When all was said and done, Michigan’s 40-21 victory provided a tantalizing glimpse of what the Wolverines can be, but it also showed that the Wolverines have some kinks to work out. Not unusual for a season opener, but with a trip to Madison looming to take on a Wisconsin team that looked like it was already in midseason form in its 49-0 victory over South Florida Friday, Michigan had better work those kinks out sooner, rather than later.