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Fan Roundtable: Michigan’s offense has faltered in September

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September has not been kind to Michigan’s offense - but there’s still plenty of time to right the ship. So I sat down with Adam, Chris and Koji and discussed the various problems with Michigan’s offensive attack.

Cincinnati v Michigan

Nick: Hello, guys! How’s life treating you all?

Adam: It’s football season, so all is well. Considering driving 804 miles from Long Island to W. Lafayette for the game.

Koji: Always better when it’s football season, though saturdays certainly become more stressful.

Chris: Good! Happy to be here. Was up in Ann Arbor this past Saturday for my annual breath-of-fresh-air trip to AA.

Nick: Great! It’s been a lot of fun getting everybody back together, all the Michigan fans who are watching the season unfold. The actual on-field product has been a little stressful at times, though - you’re right, Koji.

Alright, so I wanted to get your thoughts today on probably the biggest concern with this team - the offense. All due (dis)respect to the secondary or defensive line depth, this offense has been like watching a death by a million self-inflicted cuts at times, with how guys are collectively struggling to put points on the board. What do you think’s going on?

Koji: While I can’t understate how frustrating the lack of touchdowns has been, consistently getting to the red zone is at least a start, not that I’m happy with kicking five field goals a game, even if we seem to have an elite kicker (few and far between these days). Once they get to the red zone, it seems like the play calling breaks down a bit, and as a result, Speight has been stuck looking at only one or two reads, often to the corner of the end zone, resulting in some ugly plays.

Adam: What I see is a lack of rhythm caused by missed assignments, penalties, fumbles and poor execution. Throw in conservative play-calling and you have a mess. So now we are lacking confidence and continuity. Speight does not look like he’s having fun out there. And he has so many new receivers he is not in sync with them.

Chris: The offense does have issues with youth. But the big issues I see is just a complete out-of-sync(ness). Personally, I think Speight...as the QB...has to take the keys and drive the car. He’s having issues doing that.

There was a play in the red zone against Air Force...3rd and goal from the 8. We run up the gut and lose 1 or 2 yards. What I have a hard time with is how the leader of the offense doesn’t see that all out blitz and audible or do something...anything...else. Anyone can say (and be right) that it’s a poor call. But as the leader of this machine...you gotta see it and check out of it.

Koji: I’m actually glad you mentioned the audible thing, Chris. I was ecstatic when Speight audibled late in the game against Cincinnati (and made the right call), only to be let down by another throw that he left long, that would’ve been a touchdown had the ball been anywhere other than out of bounds. I’m actually more in Speight’s camp overall than I think a lot of people are, it seems like there’s just some little things, like driving through his front foot on throws so he doesn’t leave them high, and trusting his abilities.

Chris: Koji...You’re right. But there was a pass versus Air Force which Speight overthrew Tarik in the End Zone which...if you watch closely...Tarik throws his hands up like “WTF?!?” Kinda saw that when the camera zoomed in on Tarik. Just the look like, “I had this if it were in the same zip code.”

Adam: I think we are all talking about the same fairly obvious issue, that Wilton Speight is way off his game. Koji’s point about not stepping into the throws is key. Aaron Rodgers can throw like that but not too many others can. But I think that QB comfort speaks to wonky O-Line pass protection too and maybe to receivers not being open? I am curious Chris when you were at the Air Force game did you see open receivers?

Nick: Yeah, I definitely think there are multiple issues going on that end up compounding. Speight might make the right audible or the right progressions on one play, but the O-Line might not give him time to execute. Next time, the O-Line gives him time, but the receivers can’t get open. And when everything works out right, sometimes Speight just decides to take out his revenge on Michigan Stadium’s popcorn vendors.

Cincinnati v Michigan
“Hey! Salt THIS!”

Koji: Nick and Adam, you bring up a very important point about the protection. I think the lack of faith (deservedly so at this point) in the offensive line to pass protect as just the five linemen has led to more plays being called with only two or three routes being run, giving Speight less options, and making the opposing secondaries’ job much easier, essentially being able to double team all the receivers.

This has led to some of his throws that look really bad, when he’s trying to force the ball to one of his two/three options with two defenders in close proximity, even though he appears to have more time due to backs or tight ends staying in to block.

Adam: We all saw the right side of the line get burned on stunts. Reality is the line has new starters at 4 of 5 slots, and yes Mason Cole is terrific but he played center last year not Left Tackle so getting a new front to play as one unit doesn’t happen overnight.

Chris: And here’s where the concern (I think) with Speight comes in. The right side of the OLine is young. The WRs are young. That absolutely does factor into the issues contributing to Speight’s lack of execution. But Speight is in his 4th year. 2nd year of on-field play. He’s got to be able to look like he’s in command. I’m going to forgive a two-game WR or OLineman...It’s harder to accept it from a guy who’s played 2 years.

Adam: Is it me, or does Speight seem to be playing robotically, no emotion or fire? Like I said earlier he does not look like he’s having fun out there.?

Nick: You know, this is purely just armchair psychology on my part, but I feel like he struggles with keeping a cool head through adrenaline sometimes. He’s got that game manager in him somewhere, and he’s learning how to be a proper risk taker in a similar way that Connor Cook developed during his time at MSU. But sometimes he just spazzes a little and throws a ball way too far or makes a dumb mistake. He hasn’t combined the cool head with the smart execution.

Chris: Not sure if this is fair...so excuse me in advance... TRUE FRESHMAN Kasim Hill in one game and 10 minutes of the Texas game is 16 of 19. How do you have a 4 year guy with a full year of experience make this kid look like Joe Namath?

Koji: While I agree, Speight has to be better, I don’t think comparing the defenses of Texas and Towson to the defenses of Florida, Cincy, and Air Force, isn’t fair to Speight, or those defenses for that matter.

Adam: Maryland’s consistently solid run game may be a factor in the way defenses are approaching Mr. Hill. I don’t see teams needing to load the box against Michigan right now.

Chris: Adam, that’s fair.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: I also think that the situations are a little bit different, although I get that it’s frustrating to watch. Kasim Hill has a fairly veteran offense to work around, and he’s also deadly as a runner himself, so dropbacks are the curveballs that Maryland throws at defenses. That helps to get guys open.

With Speight, I also think the responsibilities are greater - he’s running a more complicated offense for Jim Harbaugh, with a lot of checks and managing to do. But it is frustrating, regardless.

Koji: Speaking of the run game, I actually think there’s an interesting offensive wrinkle there, too. Over the past two years we’ve seen Harbaugh’s offense run endless play action, even without any success on the ground, and now, while averaging nearly 200 yards/game rushing, the play action calls seem few and far between, but are successful when called, so why not use it more? It should be even more potent now that the ground game is at least somewhat respectable.

Chris: Koji, I would agree with you, if the running game were more consistent. In fact, the play action would/should be deadly with a more consistent running game. Yes, we’re at nearly 200 yards per game. But there’ll be 30-35 yard chunks off the edge and then 5 or 6 plays of minus 2 going up the middle. Sometimes Isaac runs like Eric Dickerson and then other times he’ll run this stutter-step nonsense and essentially kill his own run. If we could get that running game more consistent...and I do believe it will happen..you’re right, the play action should be like a viking feast.

Adam: Michigan does not have a running game identity yet. Last year we were Thunder and Lightning. DeVeon Smith pounded the opponent’s defense and then Chris Evans came and hit them with lightning.

This year we have not established an identity other than Isaac slashing on the edges. Evans has struggled as has anyone running between the tackles. Isaac’s clearly the lead back but I think we need more of Karan Higdon. I agree with Chris that when Isaac dances he is less effective (especially on 3rd and short where you need to just pound it). And without a legit run threat...well you guys covered the play action pretty well. And add to that play-action list is the naked bootleg, a Michigan staple for decades. The big plays are great but they are not keeping us ahead of the chains.

Koji: As both of you mentioned, Isaac has shown promise, but especially last week, dancing too much killed him, when he commits to a hole, he’s actually be a strong runner this year, but when he dances and gets hit at or behind the line, it’s hard for anyone to make something out of that situation.

A pleasant surprise for me has been the success of running outside, whether it be toss sweeps, or using McDoom (DOOOOOOOOM as the students call him), or Peoples-Jones in jet-sweep packages. While it doesn’t exactly set up play action or draw the defense in like conventional power running, it’s certainly a nice option to have, and has been quite successful so far amidst the other offensive struggles.

Air Force v Michigan

Since we’ve mentioned a lot of issues with the offense so far, do we think these are problems that the current personnel can solve? Or are the more significant changes that need to be made rather than letting the guys figure it out?

Nick: I’m pretty safely on the boat that experience will help young guys get better. That’s why I support trotting Speight out there even when he’s struggling, and why I’m thanking my lucky stars we have Ty Isaac doing so well. He’s been the offense’s MVP, unless you want to give it to Mason Cole or Kugler.

Chris: Koji, I think the current personnel CAN do...as the Marines say...Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome. I hope Harbaugh and staff can “motivate” them to do so. I hope Harbaugh putting Evans in the doghouse for 2 quarters cures that fumble thing. I hope someone on the staff gets ahold of Isaac and let’s him know that when he’s not doing his dancin-with-the-stars routine, he gets a ton more yards. Every time he does that...the play dies within a couple yards. When he runs full bore, it rarely fails.

Adam: My last name is Kugler so of course I would give Patrick Kugler MVP :) But on a more serious note about youth...I posted on one of the articles about how few freshmen can contribute meaningfully at WR, even the all-time great UM WRs. But Tarik was on an historic pace and losing him really hurts. I would like to see Speight find a go to guy, maybe Perry or a TE.

Chris: Ooooh ooh... TE. One pass to a TE last week. It went for 30 yards or so. If you’re going to throw the ball 8 feet tall... at least throw it in the direction of a guy who’s 6’7”.

Nick: Yeah, I agree. I think that’s the direction the offense will end up going, as far as personnel. I expect Michigan to tighten up its rotation a little bit, and lean on guys who prove the best at getting open and get on the same page as Speight.

It’s not helping right now to have a rotation of 10 guys, I think. Accelerate the growth and comfort between Speight and five or six options right now. And tight ends like Zach Gentry, Sean McKeon, and either Bunting or Wheatley are right at the top of the list.

Koji: I completely agree about the tight ends, and that could stem from some play action, too. Not that they used any tight ends much last week, but Wheatley did appear to have both hands wrapped quite heavily, which could be a reason he wasn’t out there more.

Nick: Yeah, it’d be great to have Tyrone Wheatley break out of his pass protection and run a route. This offense hasn’t done that very much. Good catch on the hands being wrapped.

Adam: Let’s not forget about Eubanks. He has made some big plays and I noticed him leading the team getting psyched up. We need that kind of leadership and energy.

Chris: Koji is right. Play action would be great there. But these are the guys (TEs) who need to be Speight’s check downs. Going all the way back to the gaff I alluded to earlier where Speight should have audibled and instead the RB up the middle call gets snuffed out by 7!!!! Air Force jerseys. A TE coulda been a safety net for Speight there. And it woulda been a TD,

Koji: Great point there Chris, while sometimes it’s due to only two or three receivers being available on certain play calls, Speight seems to avoid checking down, ever. But to conclude this point, I agree with all of you, all of the problems seem fixable, and as time goes on, I have faith that Speight will find his footing, and that this offense can start to finish drives in the red zone.

Nick: Well, gentlemen, that’s about a wrap. Can I just get a quick score prediction from each of you for tomorrow’s game?

Chris: I think we’ll get it. I have Michigan winning 33-24.

Koji: Offense sures up the mistakes and punches a few into the end zone, defensive secondary does enough but allows some points, Michigan returns to Ann Arbor with a 30-17 victory to start the B1G season

Adam: Well originally (See Nostr-adam-us in Fanposts) I was 41-19, but given current events I’ll go with UM 38 - PU 24.

Nick: All right, hopefully you’re all right. Thanks so much for participating in this - this was a lot of fun, guys.

Thanks to Chris, Adam, and Koji for participating, and thanks to Tyler for getting the ball rolling on this idea in the first place. Check in next time as we’ll discuss more Michigan football. If you’re interested in participating in future editions, click here.