Michigan powered through Iowa in a 10-3 defensive struggle. Some questions were answered on defense, but many remain for the offensive staff.
NEXT UP: @ Illinois: 71st, -0.3
PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 15.4, Michigan Win Probability 81% The Wolverines are back into a spot where only under-performance against the Illini will garner any attention. If they manage to win by 3+ scores, the caveats will lead every conversation.
Michigan Offense (66th) vs. Illinois Defense (82nd) Josh Gattis gets a second opportunity for a “get right game”. This Illinois defense currently ranks twelve spots behind the Rutgers unit that gave up 52 points in the Big House. I expect this week’s offensive strategy to mirror what we saw against the Scarlet Knights. Shea Patterson will be moving out of the pocket and the Big 3 receivers will be mixing and matching on a handful of downfield route combos. Michigan will attempt to run only a handful of play types out of multiple formations and personnel groupings. The challenge will be to execute plays consecutively. I’d like to see a very specific script in the first quarter that let’s each play maker touch the ball at least once. The concepts that work should come back in the second quarter forward.
Michigan Defense (2nd) vs. Illinois Offense (54th) Illinois’ offensive coordinator, Rod Smith, just watched Don Brown flood Iowa’s backfield with varying blitz packages to rattle Nate Stanley. How will the Illini adjust to what they’ve seen on tape? I expect to see max protection packages on the majority of snaps. That means limited short route combinations that require a quick release. And if Brandon Peters cannot play in this game, then Smith will try to use the legs of either freshman QB Isiah Williams or freshman QB Matt Robinson to flee from Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye (Salt & Pepper). I cannot envision a scenario where Illinois can march down the field on sustained drives. To make any impact on the scoreboard, the Illini will need explosive plays or turnovers from their defense to play on a short field.
PREDICTION: Illinois’ offense was ranked 54th in SP+ in the preseason and are still right in that spot. However, the previous five games were started by Brandon Peters. Don Brown’s group will be teeing off this week. For Michigan, the real challenge of this game is getting off to a quick start on the road. In 2018 Michigan averaged minus-7 to the SP+ projection in road games. I still have to see the Wolverines respond effectively to adversity on the road before I can predict success ahead of time. I’ll keep my expected offensive prediction from the preseason, but the Illini aren’t going to reach the end zone twice. Michigan 27 Illinois 6 (PRESEASON Michigan 27 Illinois 14)
The Wolverines trounced Rutgers and kicked off the search to replace Chris Ash as head coach in Piscataway.
NEXT UP: vs. Iowa: 20th, 17.0
PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 4.0, Michigan Win Probability 59% Michigan finds themselves seven spots in front of the Hawkeyes in overall SP+ rankings. However the margin has come down from 11.6 in the preseason to 4.0 in week six.
Michigan Offense (48th) vs. Iowa Defense (22nd) The key question we need to see answered is whether or not Michigan will be able to run the ball successfully against a solid defense. Iowa has yet to give up 100 yards on the ground through their first four games. The only Power 5 opponent, Iowa State, did manage 4.8 yards per rush. That gives me reason for optimism that the Wolverines offensive line will have a fine day. I’ll be keeping an eye on the Shea Patterson’s role in the run game. It would be a major addition to the #SpeedInSpace concept to make the Hawkeye defense account for the QB as a run threat. Michigan may still be wary of Shea taking additional hits after he finally looked healthy and comfortable last week versus Rutgers. If he is not utilizing the QB rushing the ball on the read option, then Josh Gattis will likely be more focused on keeping Patterson clean in the pocket, or rolling out to ensure he can see his reads clearly downfield.
Michigan Defense (6th) vs. Iowa Offense (30th) The fear for most Michigan fans is that Iowa will download the Wisconsin offensive road map to gash the Wolverines’ defense. I expect to see a much better performance against the Hawkeyes for a couple reasons. First, the depth at defensive tackle will be greatly improved with Michael Dwumfour available to start. Giving Don Brown the personnel option to put Dwumfour next to Carlo Kemp inside, and allow Kwity Paye and Aiden Hutchinson to stay on the ends is a major improvement over what we saw in Madison. Second, I was encouraged by the week-over-week improvement of Cam McGrone. The defensive game plan against the Badgers expected senior Josh Ross in the middle. The plan with McGrone in the middle against Rutgers looked to better utilize his speed, without requiring him to read and think a great deal on the snap of the ball. I’ll be looking at how often McGrone is sent as a blitzer, requiring upperclassmen Jordan Glasgow Kaleke Hudson, and Josh Uche to read and react more often than McGrone.
PREDICTION: The Hawkeyes’ offense and Michigan’s defense have both moved up the SP+ rankings since preseason. This creates a fascinating strength vs. strength match up. Who can limit the big mistakes when Michigan’s offense takes the field vs. Iowa’s defense? I think both teams will be relatively conservative to eliminate game-changing mistakes. If the Offense vs. Defense phases of the game turn into a wash, then the difference will be special teams where Michigan is ranked 4th in SP+ and Iowa 13th. I expect at least one key big play to come from the return game to go along with a significant field position advantage for the Wolverines. Michigan 30 Iowa 23 (same as PRESEASON)
The Wolverines traveled to Madison. Not good. Actually, to quote Jim Harbaugh, “unacceptable”.
NEXT UP: vs. Rutgers: 105th, -10.9
PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 27.3, Michigan Win Probability 94% If seeing Michigan at 26th overall in SP+ surprises you like it did me, you’ll be floored to find out that the offense moved UP two spots after the Wisconsin loss.
Michigan Offense (72nd) vs. Rutgers Defense (78th) We see and hear many pundits calling for more deep shots and 50-50 balls to the outside wide receivers. Consider these words of caution: making downfield vertical attacks the core offensive philosophy puts even more responsibility on the shaky pass protection. Such a path could turn out disastrous. Personally, I advocate for a philosophy that draws the offense up toward the line of scrimmage, then attempts to hit three or four big plays over the top, perhaps on double moves. The core package should remain inside zone, split zone, the Arc Read on the ground. Through the air, we could probably start with a mesh concept that Indiana and Ohio State killed our defense with, in addition to the RPOs off of the inside and split zone runs. These are just my two cents. I would be happy with any game plan that ends up greater than 45% success rate.
Michigan Defense (12th) vs. Rutgers Offense (112th) Don Brown is not the problem. He remains one of the top five defensive coordinators nationally, in my opinion. However, his aggressive philosophy and man-to-man scheme provide clear opportunities for opposing offensive coordinators to exploit his tendencies. One repeatedly successful tactic is employing pre-snap shifts and motions that force Michigan’s outside run support players to be moving inward and away from the line of scrimmage at the snap. The Wolverines’ typically identify these scripted attacks in real time during the game and Don Brown’s adjustments normally shut out the lights. Against Wisconsin, some individual players were beaten, and others were caught out of position trying to do too much. This week against Rutgers, Michigan won’t be at the same disadvantage up front. I expect to see some frustrating run game success for Rutgers early, but very little after the first quarter.
PREDICTION: In the preseason, I expected Michigan to be returning to the Big House with something to prove. Somehow I underestimated. The Wolverines have EVERYTHING to prove. Both the offensive and defensive coaches need to establish clear visions of how they plan to attack successfully. More importantly, the players need to start experiencing some sustained success to rebuild trust and confidence in their respective systems and coaching staffs. The lingering injuries and what I expect will be simplified offensive and defensive game plans still make me anxious. However, I think we’ll see a much more acceptable performance from the Wolverines this week. Michigan 34 Rutgers 14 (PRESEASON Michigan 55 Rutgers 10)
During the bye week, I was able to take a peek back to the three previous meetings between Michigan and Wisconsin. Here is a quick review of those games through an SP+ lens. When game statistics feed into Bill Connelly’s SP+ system, a Postgame Win Expectancy gets created. The system calculates the percentage of repeated games with those statistics that would result in a Michigan win. Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan has a 2-1 record versus the Badgers.
2018: #17 Wisconsin @ #5 Michigan; W 38-13; Postgame Win Exp. 86% Michigan started to see the offensive line gel as a unit, and the Arc Read QB read option package made its debut. The defense was without Rashan Gary, but Kwity Paye and Josh Uche filled in admirably. Inexplicably, Wisconsin continually took Jonathon Taylor off the field on 3rd down.
2017 (SBNation): #27 Michigan @ #6 Wisconsin; L 10-24; Postgame Win Exp. 26% Both defensive units established dominance in 2017, but the Wisconsin offense was able to make more big plays in key spots. Wisconsin edged Michigan slightly in success rate 31% to 27%, but had a much more prominent edge in explosiveness. The Badgers dominated the Yards/Play metric 5.27 to 3.68. On standard downs, the Badgers recorded an IsoPPP of 1.08 compared to 0.75 for the Wolverines.
2016 (SBNation): #11 Wisconsin @ #3 Michigan; W 14-7; Postgame Win Exp. 97% In 2016, Michigan utilized an Army-style game plan to grind out a one-score victory. The Wolverines ran 80 offensive plays, compared to just 53 for the Badgers, and were also boosted by a +2 turnover margin. While being slightly less explosive, especially in the ground game, Michigan doubled the success rate of Wisconsin 42% to 21%. The game was kept close largely because of the Wolverines’ inability to finish drives. Michigan averaged 2.33 points in six trips inside Wisconsin’s 40 yard line. The Badgers only created three scoring opportunities in the game.
NEXT UP: @ Wisconsin: 7th, 24.9
PREGAME SP+: Wisconsin by 9.0, Michigan Win Probability 30% Michigan’s defense has moved up to 1st in SP+ unit rankings, but the offense is down to 74th. That is below average for FBS, and way below Power 5 average.
Michigan Offense (74th) vs. Wisconsin Defense (10th) This match up will likely determine Saturday’s winner. The Wolverines absolutely MUST eliminate turnovers, and they would be well served to continually move the chains and give the defense a break. I expect to see an outing that looks more like Week 1 vs. MTSU (still not flawless) as opposed to what we saw in Week 2 vs. Army. The expected return of Donovan Peoples-Jones should lead to increased space for Shea Patterson to attack through the air. That in turn could stretch the Wisconsin linebackers out of the zone running lanes for Zach Charbonnet and Christian Turner.
Michigan Defense (1st) vs. Wisconsin Offense (16th) Don Brown will come up with a creative game plan to contain the Badgers’ rushing attack. The key for the game will be whether Wisconsin can exploit Michigan’s lack of depth on the interior defensive line. The Wolverines will need to swarm to the ball on every tackle to limit +2, +3, and +4 yard running play add-ons by Jonathon Taylor. It would also be crucial for an opportunistic Michigan defense to create an early turnover and help take the crowd out of the game.
PREDICTION: Jim Harbaugh’s appreciation of this team’s work ethic, and their ability to string together good practices encourages me a bit. His short press conference answer about “having a good team” as the key to winning on the road seemed abrupt to some. However, he has previously discussed that being a “good team” is being able to find a way to be successful in the face of adversity. In the Army post game, he also alluded to good teams having to win a “football fight” like the Wolverines did against the Black Knights. These intangibles should be a program focus for improving road game performance in 2019. With all of that said, I haven’t seen enough offensive cohesion or explosiveness to outweigh my preseason concerns about Michigan winning away from Ann Arbor. Wisconsin 27 Michigan 23 (PRESEASON Wisconsin 26 Michigan 24)
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
Despite the most pervasive feelings in the fan base ranging from nervous to apocalyptic, we have seen significant positive building blocks for the offense:
Zach Charbonnet: a) ball security, b) pass protection, & c) zone running
TE blocking improvement creates mismatches & TEs don’t tip Run or Pass
Depth: a) TE, b) WR, c) OL, d) RB, e) QB
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.
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:
Fumbles: a) QB Security, b) Blitz Pickups
Injuries: a) QB, b) OL, c) WR
QB / WR Connection: a) timing, b) accuracy, c) drops
Road Game Execution
Distribution of Passing Game Targets
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.