Michigan's football offense is running out of time as it scrambles for answers

Orion Sang
Detroit Free Press

When Michigan football overhauled its offense in the offseason, the expectation was that the move would help the Wolverines adapt to the modern college game.

The transition to a no-huddle, spread attack was supposed to help them keep up with high-scoring opponents and avoid falling behind in shootouts like they did at Ohio State in November.

The Wolverines were supposed to be able to vary tempo effectively. They were supposed to finally take full advantage of a deep and talented receiving corps. 

The new offense was supposed to be a lot of things. 

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson (2) flicks a pass in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Iowa in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

So far, it seems to be only a disappointment.

In fact, Michigan's 10-3 win against No. 14 Iowa on Saturday afternoon seemed to come in spite of the offense.

The Wolverines scored a touchdown with 8:33 left in the first quarter, opening up a 10-point lead. 

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They didn't score the rest of the game. 

Michigan totaled just 267 total yards, 120 rushing and 147 passing.   The run game seemed promising at times, but averaged just 3.6 yards per carry — which is technically above the season average of 3.5 yards. The passing game was erratic, at best, with quarterback Shea Patterson averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt.

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) sacks Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Luckily for the Wolverines, the defense played a near-perfect game. That was how they beat Iowa, keeping their Big Ten title hopes intact through another weekend.

The problem: Those title hopes may not last much longer if the offense continues on its current trajectory. The schedule gets only harder, and Saturday's performance can't be written off as an outlier. If anything, it's part of a worrying trend.

Michigan has put together one complete offensive performance all season, a 52-0 beatdown of Rutgers last week. The week before that, the offense didn't score until Michigan trailed Wisconsin by 35. Against Army, the offense's turnovers and lack of scoring nearly sent the Wolverines to a home loss.

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Iowa is a solid team with a defense that plays sound assignment football. But it shouldn't be this difficult to move the ball against the Hawkeyes. Just two weeks ago, they allowed Iowa State to gain 418 total yards. The Cyclones had more passing yards (327) than Michigan had total yards.

It's impossible to pinpoint one overarching reason that would explain why the Wolverines' offense has struggled so much. They've had issues with turnovers but committed only one against Iowa, and still scored just 10 points. There seem to be fundamental issues in every facet of the offense: run game, passing game, blocking — and yes, even the play-calling. They've all reared their heads on multiple occasions this season. Against Iowa, they all seemed to pop up at once.

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson runs against Iowa during the first half of U-M's 10-3 win on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at Michigan Stadium.

Michigan isn't creating enough chunk plays. It still isn't targeting those talented receivers enough, and even when it is, it's not at a good enough clip. There's pre-snap motion at times, but it doesn't throw the defense out of sync or open up a big play because the defense doesn't perceive it as a threat. The quarterback zone read plays that were so effective last fall haven't been much of a factor. The screen game, which was so inventive at the beginning of Jim Harbaugh's tenure, is missing bite. The newfangled run-pass options haven't been all that frequent or successful.

The no-huddle aspect of the offense is supposed to help Michigan get the right play in. In theory, the Wolverines line up quickly, turn their heads toward the sideline and take in the call. If the sideline notices something with the defense that it doesn't like or wants to exploit, it can adjust the call. 

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins is tackles by Iowa defensive back Michael Ojemudia during the second half of U-M's 10-3 win on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at Michigan Stadium.

But it doesn't appear that many in-game adjustments are made. And if there are, they don't seem to be effective. Patterson said Saturday that Iowa's defense "started to back off a little bit" after his first deep ball to Nico Collins, which eventually led to a touchdown. "We started to take our underneath stuff," he said.

But in the seven possessions following that scoring drive, Michigan ran 30 plays for 110 yards, scoring zero points. On the eighth drive, it found some success, moving the ball 64 yards in nine plays. The 10th play: a missed field goal.

There's a lot to work on in the coming weeks.

After the game, Harbaugh told reporters that he believes the Wolverines are "hitting their stride" on offense with the way they have "been practicing, the way they've been preparing."

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson passes against Iowa during the second half of U-M's 10-3 win on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at Michigan Stadium.

You can interpret those words how you'd like. The biggest question, though, is if Michigan will finally hit full stride and fix the offense in time for its biggest games.

The Wolverines play at No. 11 Penn State on Oct. 19, and host No. 10 Notre Dame on Oct 26. Games against No. 23 Michigan State and No. 5 Ohio State loom in November.

At this point, there's no reversing course. Michigan sank an entire offseason into the new scheme. We're approaching the halfway point of the regular season. There's nothing to do but press forward and hope that things click.

The Wolverines were willing to bet their entire season that the payoff would outweigh the transition costs. 

At this point, all available evidence suggests that bet isn't likely to pay off. 

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.