If there was a surprise in this year’s Citrus Bowl match-up between Michigan and Alabama, it was that through one half of football, the Wolverines showed they could play with the Crimson Tide. Heck, the Wolverines did more than play with the Tide, they outplayed them.
Despite ceding an 85-yard touchdown on Alabama’s first play from scrimmage, Michigan maintained its composure and took a 16-14 lead into the locker room. Led by senior quarterback Shea Patterson, Michigan not only led on the scoreboard, but also led in total yards (286 to 205) and time of possession (19:41 to 10:19).
If it was a surprise that Michigan was outplaying and outgaining the Tide, it was even more surprising how Michigan was doing so. Led by freshman Zach Charbonnet and Sophomore Hassan Haskins, the Wolverines had their way on the ground, rushing for 135 yards at a clip of 5.0 yards per carry.
Yet, as well as Michigan played, the Wolverines were often their own worst enemy. Despite moving up and down the field, Michigan had trouble finishing drives, and settled for field goals on its final three possessions of the half. You can’t beat Alabama by kicking field goals, and despite the strong start, the missed opportunities ultimately caught up with Michigan.
Not surprisingly, Alabama made defensive adjustments at the half. Alabama coach Nick Saban said the Tide changed to a defensive scheme that featured more nickel coverage, which made it easier to adjust to Michigan’s offense. Alabama’s adjustments surely helped slow the Wolverine attack, but Michigan’s second half performance was not solely a byproduct of Alabama’s improved defense. The Wolverines inexplicably stopped doing what they were doing well in the first half.
During the first 30 minutes, Michigan’s play-calling was as good as it’s been at any time during the year. Leaning heavily on the run game, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis mixed in enough passing, and did so creatively enough, that he often had the Alabama defense guessing ... and many times guessing incorrectly.
In the second half, however, that creativity disappeared. After running the ball so effectively in the first half, the Wolverines all but abandoned the run in the second half. Similarly, the short passing game, which Patterson directed so well in the first half, was replaced by a steady diet of long passes, few of which were converted.
Meanwhile, Alabama, led by Mac Jones, a back-up a quarterback making his sixth collegiate start, methodically took what it wanted from the Wolverines. Jones played exceptionally well in relief of injured Starter Tua Tagovailoa, competing 16 of 25 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Granted, he was working behind a stellar offensive line and throwing to the best wide receiver corps in the country, but for the majority of the afternoon, when Jones had an open receiver, he was on target.
And that, as much as anything, was the story of the game. When there were open receivers downfield, when there were plays to be made, Alabama and Jones were able to convert and Michigan and Patterson weren’t.
As a result, Michigan again ended its season in disappointment. Sure, Michigan made some gains this year. Over the second half of the season, its new offense began to click, and the Wolverines averaged nearly 40 points a game over the final five games of the regular season. Along the way, Michigan throttled rivals Notre Dame (45-14) and Michigan State (44-10). Yet when all was said and done, for the fourth consecutive season, the Wolverines ended their season with disappointing losses to Ohio State and their bowl opponent. Deja Vu all over again, you might say.
So here we are again. A Michigan team that is very good, but far from elite. Clearly Michigan has improved under head coach Jim Harbaugh’s watch, but that improvement seems to have plateaued. Is this a team that’s still in transition? Still improving? Or is this simply what Michigan is? With each passing year, it’s harder and harder to argue the former.
Next season will bring changes for the Wolverines. A new quarterback, a largely new offensive line, and at least one new assistant coach. Whether these changes result in a different direction, a different result, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: It will be another long offseason in Ann Arbor.