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Michigan Football Rewind: The Offense Continues its Struggles Against Michigan State

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the season so far, the purpose of this weekly column has been to pick one element of the previous Michigan football game, evaluate it closely, then discuss why it was successful or how it can be improved upon. But, after the disappointing loss on Saturday against Michigan State, there is too long of a list of serious issues worth discussing to choose one single topic. The game was a disastrous combination of poor performances, seriously questionable play calling, and terrible mistakes at the worst moments. And sadly, the need to critique these areas to better understand Michigan’s situation on offense completely takes away opportunities to evaluate the terrific game played by the defense.

One central theme throughout this season thus far has been poor play calling by the Michigan offensive staff. Continually, Michigan has attempted to field an offensive unit with NFL complexity despite its youth and struggles in key positions. And against Michigan State, even with a backup quarterback playing and in awful weather conditions, Michigan did not step back from this strategy.

The first clear indication Coach Harbaugh, Tim Drevno, and Pep Hamilton were going to continue this style of play was during Michigan’s first trip to the red zone. Prior to its game against Purdue, Michigan was 1/10 for touchdowns in the red zone as the offense tried and failed to complete fades and post routes to its receivers in the endzone. That story briefly ended against Purdue as Michigan went 3/3 in the red zone after finally utilizing its tight ends in the flats and on crossing routes. Yet, on Michigan’s first possession in the red zone on Saturday, the offense returned to its previous playing style with back-to-back fades into the endzone, first to tight end Sean McKeon then to receiver Eddie McDoom. Simply put, these routes are too demanding and with a too low probability of success to continually force Michigan’s young and struggling offense to attempt them.

But the questionable play calling did not end on that drive; it was persistent throughout the game. In the second half, when the weather was at its worst, the Wolverines continued to have John O’Korn drop back for passes. Even with numerous drops by receivers, three interceptions, and a moving Karan Higdon, Michigan chose to put the game in O’Korn’s arm. But yet, when it was 3rd and 4 with 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter, the coaching staff called an inside run to Chris Evans that went nowhere. These play calls, unneeded complexity, and refusal to continually get the ball to a player performing well are what are still hampering the Michigan offense through five games this season.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

But what makes matters even worse is the week-to-week regression of the offensive line. It was easy while first watching the game to critique John O’Korn for his rushed passing decisions and refusal to remain in the pocket, but upon re-watching the game, you really cannot blame him. The right side of the line is an open sieve right now. Almost every play, a defender is in the backfield through the right side. And even when Juwann Bushell-Beatty replaced RT Nolan Ulizio, the problem became inexplicably worse.

The excuses of youth and lack of experience are quickly wearing thin. There are simply too many successful coaches on staff and too much talent in our players for the offensive line to continue to become more of an issue every game. Even senior Mason Cole and returning starter Ben Bredeson struggled on Saturday. Technique looks bad, communication between players is worse, and just the overall fight to move the line of scrimmage has appeared non-existent. This line needs to turn around quickly or Michigan’s offense has no chance at improvement.

And even with bad play calling, preparation, and line play, the Michigan offense still found ways to make matters worse with poor decisions and sloppy play. Grant Perry, Eddie McDoom, and Khalid Hill all had bad dropped balls, with McDoom’s being the worst on the final drive of the game. Karan Higdon’s holding penalty took away a touchdown. Michigan had a delay of game with seconds left on the clock. Two of John O’Korn’s interceptions were due to awful decisions. And there should be no reason senior runningback Ty Isaac fumbles when running up the middle in Michigan’s territory. Five turnovers and costly penalties. Michigan is very lucky it only lost by four points.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

So where does Michigan go from here? The bottom line is that the offense needs to improve drastically and quickly. The fact Michigan lost by one possession despite all its sloppiness on offense is indicative of the caliber of its defense. The Wolverine’s will be competitive in every game it plays because of Don Brown’s unit. But if Michigan’s offensive performance against the Spartans becomes the norm for the rest of the year, there will be few games against good teams that Michigan can win. This offense needs to find an identity and at least one player needs to emerge who can carry the team on his back when other aspects are struggling. Jim Harbaugh has built his coaching career on turning struggling teams around. There is plenty of time in the season for the Michigan offense to do just that. Hopefully next week against Indiana the offense will come out and begin to prove the critics wrong.