I couldn't help but think while watching the game on Saturday that "this is the offense we've been expecting all season." Michigan was unpredictable and constantly attacking the Ohio State defense that couldn't get settled in and try to dictate the flow of the game like some other defenses the Wolverines have faced this month. The offensive line was hitting its assignments and while not always giving Devin a lot of time to throw, at least giving him openings to step around rushers and still get the ball out. The run game moved forward consistently and not only did Michigan post the most rush yards that Ohio State has given up this season in a game, but it also had the longest run from scrimmage that the Buckeyes have allowed.
There are a lot of things that went wrong — most of them happened on against Michigan's beat up defense that struggled to stop one of the best rushing offenses in the country — but this isn't the place to talk about that. Right now we need to celebrate the successes that Michigan's offense had in the biggest game of the season.
Yes, there were two, but given the circumstances of both, Michigan's ability to control the ball for long stretches and not give it away was a very big positive.
Before the failed two-point conversion, Devin Gardner had completed 32 of 44 passes for 451 yards and four touchdowns. That statline is arguably more impressive than his 21/29 for 503 yards and two touchdowns against Indiana — mostly because Ohio State plays with an actual defense and not 11 mannequins in white jerseys.
Michigan's other "turnover" was a questionable fumble call after Michigan had already moved the ball into Ohio State territory and was in manageable fourth down distance. Ohio State got the ball back, but Gardner was probably down.
Michigan ended the game even in turnover margin, something that Michigan absolutely needed to do to have a chance.
The Wolverines are dead last in the nation in tackles for loss allowed and 113th in sacks allowed. Moivng backward has been a huge issue for this team all year and has continually made life harder on the offense as these negative plays led to long passing downs and ultimately drives that were cut short.
Coming into the game it was thought that Ohio State would be able to replicate the success of defenses like Penn State, Michigan State, and Nebraska, all of which spent large portions of their game occupying space in the Michigan backfield. Why would anything change in game twelve against one of the best defenses in the Big Ten?
It did change, and in a big way. Officially Michigan gave up three sacks for 24 yards and three more TFLs for an additional four yards of loss. The striking thing about those numbers is that Michigan didn't lose any yards with its tailbacks, who combined for 137 yards on 24 carries. In fact, only three of those 24 tailback rushes went for no gain. Everything else gained yards. This is, in my mind, the biggest offensive success of the game, and the thing that made everything else possible. This offense has been ineffective and unable to sustain drives all season, and a large part of that is because there was rarely ever any run support. Michigan was losing yards or running for no gain — essentially wasting downs — and putting a bigger burden on the passing offense as well as the offensive line that had to face more and more blitzes as teams didn't worry about blitzing into a run.
Sure, Devin Gardner had a phenomenal game, as did his receivers. But the biggest reason the offense was able to put up 600 yards of offense and rip off so many long drives was all of those 2-4 yard runs that Michigan was finally able to count on to set up shorter conversion opportunities and give the offense a wider range of plays to call.
Massive credit has to go to the offensive line for having one of its best days of the year, to all three of the running backs who ran well behind their blocks and created yards by getting through contact, and to Al Borges who did a good job setting up runs and attacking the Ohio State defense without the use of his best weapon in the run game (the injured Devin Gardner).
When looking only at conference games, Michigan is 91st in the nation on third down, converting just 35.3% of its attempts. The numbers don't improve much when you look at the full season (39%, 73rd). The bottom drops out on that number when you consider Michigan's lack of success on third down in November. Twenty conversions on 74 attempts, which is just 27% and ranks 120th. So of course Michigan comes out and converts eight of its 14 third down attempts on the day, including six of seven in the fourth quarter alone.
Part of this was invariably set up by the lack of negative plays. Michigan faced an average third down distance of six yards. Coming into the game that average distance was almost nine yards, good for last in the nation. The breakdown of those third downs is impressive:
Michigan had an even, manageable spread of third down attempts, and converted them at a solid rate at all distances. Particularly impressive is the fact that of Michigan's seven third down attempts in the fourth quarter, five of those came from six or more yards and all five of those attempts were converted (Michigan was 1/2 from two yards, with the lone fail being then converted on a fourth-down attempt).
What this meant was that Michigan was able to sustain drives better than it has been able to all year. Michigan had three drives that took place primarily in the fourth quarter:
- 11 plays, 83 yards, touchdown
- 13 plays, 41 yards, touchdown
- 11 plays, 84 yards, touchdown.
With its back against the wall, Michigan's offense cranked off three 10+ play drives that combined went for over 200 yards and netted three touchdowns. Two of those drives were game tying (or in the case of the last drive, potentially game winning) touchdown drives that occured in the last ten minutes of the game. The final one went 84 yards in under two minutes.
As impressive as the first quarter was, racking up three touchdown drives in the first 16 minutes of game time and going 99 yards in five plays, 70 yards in seven plays, and 78 yards in four plays, Michigan's final quarter has to stand as its most impressive offensive performance of the season. The Wolverine offense needed every single one of those touchdowns, and it painstakingly worked down the field to score them.
The disappointment of a failed two-point conversion that would have won the game is understandable. Michigan was three yards away from potentially doing something that only Auburn would be able to outdo, and only in the strangest of circumstances.
But that one failed play can't take away from the brilliance that this offense showed over the rest of that game. It may not have ended with the good guys on top, but that offensive performance was as close to perfect as one could ask given the situation. What went right? Almost everything, offensively. Unfortunately, Michigan needed a little more than that to do the improbable.