Book Review – Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football

Who has it better than us? NOBODY.

Once again, John Bacon has delivered a riveting, detail-rich, insider view of the Michigan football program under head coach Jim Harbaugh.

One can imagine future historians struggling to make sense of how college football has become such an integral part of our culture.

Hopefully, the collected works of John Bacon will survive to help explain why players spend 8,760 hours a year in preparation to play games representing institutions of higher education and why millions of fans cheer them on.

“Overtime” is aptly named; indeed after the Bacon’s previous book on Michigan football, “Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football,” it seemed that the Wolverine trilogy was complete. Feckless Michigan Athletic Director David Brandon had been cast out, Michigan’s hometown hero Jim Harbaugh had returned, and all was well in the kingdom.

Surely Big Ten Championships and College Football Play-off berths were right around corner.

Bo- The book that started it all.

Bacon’s first Michigan football book “Bo’s Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership,” was a primer on how to lead organizations while instilling values, was a huge hit. Perhaps its only defect was the inclusion a relatively minor former player named David Brandon who would later threaten the very culture that Schembechler helped build.

Bacon returned with “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” the story of a bungled coaching search which could have been subtitled, “how Michigan tried to force a round peg in a square hole powered by egomania of David Brandon”. “Endzone” was the fallout of the Brandon era and the triumphant return of Harbaugh to Ann Arbor.

The dark days- Think The Empire Strikes Back

While all of Bacon’s Michigan football books are great, “Overtime” may be his finest work on the subject.

While football fans have known the name Jim Harbaugh since his time playing QB in college, he is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the history of Michigan football. With no misunderstood outsider (Rodriguez) or clueless administrator (Brandon) to play foil to the glory of Wolverine football, “Overtime” dedicates 400+ pages to a deep dive on Jim Harbaugh as his team competes during the 2018 season.

Football is a religion for Harbaugh, the every day work to drill and prepare for games is a reward unto itself. While outsiders may roll their eyes at a coach making millions of dollars a year espousing such fundamental values, Bacon makes a compelling case that this who Harbaugh is.

Brandon exiled, Harbaugh returns to Ann Arbor

Schembechler is adored but he never won a national championship. The college football world today is much more difficult than the one Schembechler faced during his career. The Big Ten is no longer the big two and the little eight; Michigan faces a much harder gauntlet to win a Big Ten Championship since the conference has expanded.

Nationally, it competes against SEC schools fueled by home field recruiting advantage, a tolerance for gray shirting practices, and a willingness to bend NCAA rules to compensate their players for living expenses more than other conferences.

“Overtime” poses some difficult questions for Michigan football fans.

Harbaugh hasn’t yet delivered a victory over Ohio State or a Big Ten Championship. Are the advantages allowed to other schools by the NCAA (and blatant rule breaking) too much for Michigan to overcome?

Much has been made of Harbaugh’s quote, “It’s hard to beat the cheaters,” but taken in context readers understand that he is not resigned to taking a backseat to these programs, but rather relishes the opportunity to win the right way while not compromising his values.

The individual stories of Michigan players are a running thread throughout the book. One player has his post football career derailed due to a lingering injury. It comes as a punch to the gut after a disappointing senior football season.

It’s not fair.

And that’s the ultimate lesson of “Overtime.” Harbaugh turned down NFL jobs to return to Michigan but beating Ohio State isn’t guaranteed. The players may spend 8,760 hours every year preparing for a dozen or so football games but NFL jobs are a long shot.

The competitive landscape of college football is tilted towards the cheaters and the NCAA (No Common sense At All) is a joke.

Some of these 400+ pages will be difficult for Michigan fans but they will be proud of their coach and the young men who play for their team.

The best of the lot- what Michigan football is really about.

Note – I’m not counting 4th and Long as a Michigan football title since it also covers Northwestern and Penn State.

By the Numbers: Bye Week Offense Review

Welcome to the bye week! For fans, the off week will present a challenge to avoid yanking every hair out of our heads. However, I think the timing favors the Wolverines considering Wisconsin is off to a 110-0 start, and Michigan…is not. Let’s use the extra time to look at the 2019 offense through two games and compare to two early season home games from 2018: Week 2 vs. WMU and Week 3 vs. SMU. Click here for more detail on the Five Factors (Explosiveness, Efficiency, Finish Drives, Field Position, TOs / Penalties).

2018 OFFENSE vs. 2019 OFFENSE

Overall Offense Five Factors
Passing Offense
Rushing Offense

POSITIVES

Despite the most pervasive feelings in the fan base ranging from nervous to apocalyptic, we have seen significant positive building blocks for the offense:

  1. Zach Charbonnet: a) ball security, b) pass protection, & c) zone running
  2. TE blocking improvement creates mismatches & TEs don’t tip Run or Pass
  3. Depth: a) TE, b) WR, c) OL, d) RB, e) QB
  4. Challenge for Defensive Coordinators to prepare for what is yet unseen

My list of positives so far in 2019 starts with the introduction of Zach Charbonnet.  Typically, early season breakout parties come from explosive plays and shiny stat lines that may or may not be sustainable throughout a whole season.  This feels different. The praise being heaped on Charbonnet centers around things freshmen running backs are typically very shaky on: ball security and pass protection.  We have seen the physical thump he brings both with the ball in his hand on the goal line vs. Army and in the face of pressure from blitzing linebackers vs. MTSU. I am confident that shiny stats and explosive plays are coming.

In 2018, Sean McKeon was challenged to become a key blocker as Michigan diversified their zone running scheme to include an Arc Read Option.  You may remember Shea Patterson’s surprise long run from the 2018 Wisconsin game. That was the introduction of the Arc Read series complementing the Split Zone play.  While this series was moderately successful, it was a lot to handle for McKeon. Fast forward to present day, and not only is McKeon improved in the blocking role, but he is joined by Nick Eubanks.  When the Arc Series is combined with the potential of either tight end threatening vertically in the passing game, we can see how Josh Gattis can create more space for the faster skill players in 2019.

Numbers 2 and 3 on the list are both a testament to year-over-year individual improvement and solid recruiting.  The depth at tight end is matched by the wide receivers. Michigan fans should be grateful that receiver, offensive line, and running back depth were strengths coming out of fall camp, because injuries have put that depth to use early in 2019.  Large portions of the fan base are focusing on the quarterback depth as a silver bullet solution to early season questions. In reality, the QB depth should help lighten the load on Shea Patterson as he recovers from an oblique injury, and reassure fans that the future of the program remains built on a strong foundation.

Finally, the element of surprise still may be another factor working in favor of the Wolverines.  Both national and local media have fully documented the lack of answers to off season questions for this offense.  The silver lining to that cloud is that defensive coordinators still have to ask themselves those questions while trying to prepare for Michigan, especially at Wisconsin and Rutgers.  This can pay dividends in two ways: 1) we may see the #SpeedInSpace scheme unleashed against under-prepared defensive units or 2) even if those defensive units are well prepared, they had to dedicate a boat load of man-hours and energy to preparing for many what-if scenarios and Gattis’ counterattacks.  That means other defensive fundamentals, or new exotic defensive schemes probably took a back seat for Michigan week.

PROBLEMS

OK, now we can discuss what has caused so much of our fan stress, and what I think needs to be corrected in order for this offense to tighten up their execution and take off.  After viewing the 2019 games and comparing the metrics, I bucketed known (observed) problems and potential (implied/assumed) problems. Here is the list, in order of severity:

KNOWN

  1. Fumbles: a) QB Security, b) Blitz Pickups
  2. Injuries: a) QB, b) OL, c) WR
  3. QB / WR Connection: a) timing, b) accuracy, c) drops

POTENTIAL

  1. Road Game Execution 
  2. Distribution of Passing Game Targets
  3. Zone Read: a) QB Run, b) Interior Push

First, let me admit that the TO issue is even worse than it looks in the numbers above.  I did not include Lavert Hill’s muffed punt in Week 1 as a turnover by the offense. Of course, it still affected the game outcome and the fans’ current state of mind.  Now, why the big uptick in fumbles lost? The largest factor in fumble stats is bad short term luck. An oblong football bounces in weird ways, and you never know what could happen.  However, other factors are more controllable, and must be addressed by the players and coaches in the bye week. Shea Patterson absolutely has to tighten his ball security, both in the pocket as a passer and as a runner.  Far too often, we can see images of Shea holding the ball one-handed and out away from his body. These fundamentals can be improved quickly through specific drills and coaching reinforcement. Additionally, any running back that enters the game must be able to pick up protection calls. Michigan cannot allow free shots on the quarterback.  Charbonnet and Tru Wilson have shown their reliability. Christian Turner and Hassan Haskins both need to improve their pass protection to earn more snaps. 

The next issue challenging the offense has been a rash of injuries in the early season.  Coming out of fall camp, only the Andrew Stueber injury and Ambry Thomas illness were widely reported.  Since the end of camp the injury list has grown. Running back Tru Wilson missed a game and a half. Neither Donovan Peoples-Jones nor Jon Runyan has yet to play a snap.  Shea Patterson is reportedly battling an oblique injury. He has missed a few snaps, and appeared hampered on others. The depth we discussed in the positives section has been immediately tested on offense. Perhaps the early bye week is just what the doctor ordered for the Wolverines.

In a problem that seems to have carried over from 2018, Shea Patterson has still not established precise timing with his talented receiving threats.  Last year under Pep Hamilton, the vertical passing attack favored deep drops and slow developing routes. Many long throws, even the completions, ended with the wide receiver slowing down to jump and high point a contested ball against a defender.  I doubt this issue is related to any question about Patterson’s arm strength. I have maintained that he holds the ball for a split second too long before throwing to an area and allowing the receiver to run to it. In 2019 there is an added challenge of totally revamped reads for the quarterback.  It’s understandable to see more examples of missed timing (like the missed post route to Nico Collins in 2OT) than we see rhythmic pitch-and-catch (like the seam route TD to Sean McKeon vs. MTSU) early in the season. We should only be concerned if this issue persists into the middle and second half of the season.  I am a believer in Ben McDaniels and Jim Harbaugh as QB coaches, and in Josh Gattis as a receivers coach. The explosive plays are coming.

In addition to the issues we’ve seen so far in 2019, there are still lingering questions to be answered from Michigan’s recent performance history.  Top of my potential issues list is execution in road games. As I laid out in my season preview, Michigan’s 2018 average performance relative to SP+ projections decreased by 15+ points away from the Big House.  There is an unending list of possible variables that could contribute to this problem, so there is not a simple correction. Somehow, the coaching staff has to make mental preparation and solid first quarter starts a priority in road games.  Additionally, I think this challenge falls to the leaders in the Michigan locker room. Championship performances require mental toughness and diligent focus in the face of adversity, especially in a hostile environment. I think Michigan’s captains, seniors, and best players must first lead by example, as well as relentlessly elevate every teammate to match the championship intensity.  

The next challenge is trying to find balance in distributing touches between the various offensive weapons.  Gattis’ increased tempo resulted in 79 offensive snaps in Week1, and even managed 69 snaps in regulation versus the ball hogs of Army (equal to the 2018 average for Michigan).  More snaps per game should help to distribute the ball to more players. More importantly, eliminating the turnover bug would be even more beneficial. The #SpeedInSpace philosophy centers around putting the defense in conflict by forcing them to pick their poison: Charbonnet or McCaffrey?  Collins or McKeon? DPJ in space or Tarik Black deep? . To accomplish this, Michigan needs to get into a regular rhythm and needs to string successful plays together to knock the defense back onto their heels. Nothing disrupts an offense’s rhythm and reanimates a reeling defense like a turnover.   Consistent repetitions with all the healthy first stringers during the bye week will also be critical to solving this problem.

The final problem on offense to keep your eye on is the success of the read option rushing attack.  In the aftermath of the Army Scare, many conspiracy theories circulated on all forms of media. Can Shea Patterson run the ball despite an injury?  If not, why don’t the coaches trust Dylan McCaffrey? If he’s healthy, is he just misreading the option plays, or has Harbaugh grabbed the keys back from Gattis and demanded a return to vanilla inside zone hand offs?  I am here to tell you, all of these theories are white noise, and can be labeled “we’ll see”, then put onto the shelf. We confirmed Patterson’s not 100%, but Gattis was clear in his Monday interview that the called plays all required the quarterback to read the defense.  Fans observing video clips online began analyzing defensive scrape exchanges and open space on the edge, then began to formulate the various questions above.

Instead, there is actual evidence that Army pulled many of the correct levers for their defensive scheme vs. Michigan’s read option.  When Michigan adjusted to a shortage of remaining second half possessions against Army, they committed to the low risk read option play almost exclusively (three first half turnovers will do that to ya!).  Army correctly countered with corner blitzes, and linebacker scrape exchanges to force Patterson to hand the ball off (usually correctly, but not always). We can still wonder why Michigan didn’t call the “counter to the counter”, but the simpler run scheme was moving the ball.  Despite the fans’ frustration at the consecutive run plays, the Wolverines’ only punted one time last Saturday.  

All of this is a long-winded way to advocate for practicing just a bit more patience with the offense through its infancy.  The explosive plays are coming! I just hope they arrive in time to win the first key Big Ten match up in Madison next Saturday.

Michigan 24 Army 21 – Week 2 Recap

WEEK 2 PROJECTION vs. RESULTS

Final Score: 24-21 2OT, Michigan by 3 over Army
SP+ Projection: Michigan by 25.2 (-22.2)
CD Projection: Michigan by 20 (-17)

FIVE FACTORS

Click here for more description of the Five Factors from Week 1

WEEK 2 RECAP vs. Army

There was not much magic hidden beneath the surface of Michigan’s double overtime victory over the Army Black Knights.  Typically, the soldiers dominate time of possession. Today, Army only had a slight edge 31:35 to 28:25 for Michigan.  On the Five Factors table above, only the Explosiveness metric displayed a distinct advantage for one team. While the edge went to Michigan, there wasn’t a lopsided margin in YPP and IsoPPP that we expected from #SpeedInSpace.

The Wolverines were in serious trouble at the half.  Michigan was fortunate to only be down one score after two quarters. The Black Knights had cashed in on two short field opportunities for touchdowns.  Meanwhile, Michigan had only mustered one score as freshman Zach Charbonnet scored his first career touchdown as a Wolverine. After three turnovers and missing a long Quinn Nordin field goal attempt, Michigan averaged a paltry 1.75 points per first half scoring opportunity.

The uneasy feeling lingered into the second half. The referees called back a Giles Jackson kickoff return of 42 yards due to an illegal blindside block.  After Michigan went three and out, Army showed they had made some shrewd halftime adjustments and began to march. A 60 yard, 7:43 drive added to Michigan fans’ anxiety. However, once they reached the red zone, Army QB Kelvin Hopkins, Jr. was intercepted by corner back Lavert Hill.   5:19 later Charbonnet punched in his second touchdown of the day to tie the score. The interception by Hill was clearly a pivotal moment in this game, but not the final critical play.

The Michigan defense started the fourth quarter by forcing another three-and-out. Michigan’s offense took the momentum and drove back into Army territory with the score tied 14-14.  With the clock nearing 10:00 left in regulation, and facing 4th & 2 from the Army 19 yard line, Jim Harbaugh chose to keep the offense on the field. Shea Patterson handed off on a zone run to the right, but the Black Knights had called the perfect run blitz. Charbonnet was tackled immediately for a four yard loss. 

The decision to forego the 37 yard field goal attempt that could have broken the tie will be questioned for the next two weeks. The conservative play calls will also be a popular topic of discussion. Michigan chose to run the ball on 74% of their 4th quarter plays. A third confounding facet of this particular 4th down play is whether it was a called hand off to Charbonnet, or if it may have been a poor read by QB Shea Patterson.  Regardless, the ball went back to the Black Knights, and 110,000 Michigan heart rates increased rapidly.

A similar sequence followed: the Wolverines’ defense forced another Army punt, and again Jim Harbaugh kept the offense on the field for a failed 4th down conversion attempt, this time at the Army 42 yard line.  The Black Knights leveraged their one time out and marched into position for a potential 50 yard game-winning field goal. Somehow, Michigan fans were spared again as the kick fell short and wide right. Blood pressure continued to rise in the Greater Ann Arbor area as the teams prepared for overtime.

Both offenses converted in key spots to score touchdowns in the first over time period. Army used an unbalanced formation to outflank the Wolverines to score first.  Michigan answered with a clutch 3rd & 6 pass from Patterson to Ronnie Bell. After pass interference placed the ball at the 2 yard line, Charbonnet was able to burrow into the end zone for his third touchdown of the day.  

In the second overtime period, Michigan led off with three incomplete passes. Jake Moody provided some reliefe by converting a 43 yard field goal attempt to take their first lead of the game.  Again, Michigan called on their fatigued defense to at least hold Army to a field goal attempt. Defensive end Aiden Hutchinson answered the bell with a tackle for loss on 2nd down to force a 3rd & 11 from the 26 yard line.  As Army called just their fifth pass play of the game, Hutchinson was joined by Carlo Kemp in a huge inside pass rash to strip the ball from Hopkins. When Quity Paye fell on the fumble, he sealed Michigan’s second victory of the 2019 season.

I am sure this nail-biter may have been wildly entertaining for outside observers, but there was a deep and collectively frustrated sigh of relief from the Big House faithful after the Wolverines were finally able to move to 2-0. There will be no shortage of questions to answer during the upcoming first bye week.  Don Brown may have come up with some answers in Week 2. Let’s hope the offense can follow suit as Michigan preps for Wisconsin and the rest of the Big Ten.

Michigan Football Game 2 – Game Grades – Michigan 24 Army 21 2OT.

“We got to get the well-oiled machine running.”

Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh

Phil’s Game Grades

OffenseD
DefenseC
Special TeamsB
CoachingC
OverallC


Michigan very nearly was upset by the Black Knights. Not a pretty game.

Offense-  Another great performance from freshman RB Zach Charbonnet (33 carries for 100 yards, 3 TDs) saved the day but 4 sacks and 3 fumbles made for a much tighter game than expected. QB Shea Patterson (19 for 29, 207 yards passing) looks unsteady in the new offense. I’m not convinced he’s not hurt…

Defense –  Yeah, the defense got a bad call that negated a pick 6. Yeah, Army runs a non-conventional offense. But defensive coach Don Brown has said he’d been planning for this attack all off-season. Gulp…

Special Teams –  Not a lot to say here, more to come as the Big Ten conference schedule begins after the bye week.

Coaching –  The offense is still very rough, lots of concerns heading into the Big Ten schedule. Michigan will use the bye week to get healthy before heading on the road to play Wisconsin. Why didn’t Michigan use its size at wide receiver and go downfield more often? If QB Shea Patterson is hurt why not get Dylan McCaffrey more reps?

Comments – An ugly win is still a win but the dashboard has all kinds or warning lights on right now. Maybe once everything warms up they’ll go off…Hopefully.