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Michigan struggled to move the chains on third down

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Too many drives against Florida ended in field goal attempts instead of touchdowns.

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It took a little time to settle into the game, but it became clear that Michigan was the better team in Arlington, TX. While Florida took the lead early in the second quarter, the momentum had shifted in the Wolverines’ favor heading into the half, and that came to fruition soon after the break. A solid Week 1 victory was well earned, though the performance was far from perfect.

A 33-17 win is nothing to complain about, but many feel that this score line is not a great representation of how the game actually played out. Taking away defensive scores leaves a 26-3 margin, which is a bit more accurate but still sells the Michigan offense short. This is mostly due to six different drives that stalled into field goal attempts – four successful – instead of ending with a touchdown.

As good as the offense looked at times, too many drives ended short of the end zone. The interceptions were bad, but giving away multiple defensive touchdowns is very unlikely to happen every week. Instead, the more concerning aspect was Michigan’s inability to convert first downs. After moving the chains at a decent rate early on, the offense was unable to pick up many key conversions later in the game.

Third-and-meh

The 2016 Michigan squad converted third downs at a 43.17 percent clip, ranking 40th in the nation. This figure was neither a weapon nor a hindrance, but typically served as a representative gauge for the offense’s performance each week. Against the Gators, Michigan finished 6-for-18, a 33.33 percent rate which would have tied for their third-worst last season. The opposing defense was no slouch, but this is an area which will need to be improved going forward.

Surprisingly, Michigan fared decently on third down to start the game, racking up five of their six conversions before halftime. Three of these came on the very first drive via a Wilton Speight scramble and designed runs by Ty Isaac and Chris Evans. The fourth came early in the second quarter on a spin-the-ball-inducing pass to Grant Perry. The fifth was on a third-and-short as the first half wound to a close. Michigan’s final third down conversion came on a delayed handoff to Isaac with 20 minutes left in the game.

A few items stand out among this list. The first is that Michigan converted third-and-14, third-and-4, and third-and-13 with designed runs against a defense who dropped in coverage. This is smart play calling and a great job by the coaching staff to recognize a way to take advantage of the situation and utilize assets like Isaac and Evans out of the backfield. Head coach Jim Harbaugh alluded to this during his press conference on Monday:

I refer to it as an off-schedule, third-and-10, third-and-9 type of run play. There’s a bit of element of surprise there, no question.

However, the bigger takeaway is that Michigan was abysmal on third down in the second half, going just 1-for-8. The majority of these failures came with the lead, and while that may mean more predictable play calls, it also brings up a weakness that the Wolverines had last year in closing out games. There will be plenty of times this season where Michigan needs to continue to move the chains and eat up the clock; an inability to convert on late third downs is not a good indication of things changing.

Moving forward

Though the team struggled on third downs, there is not a compelling reason to suggest they will be tied to this fate. Speight had far from his best game and the majority of his targets were seeing their first action as legitimate pieces of the Michigan offense, which may have contributed to some of the third-down play calls. Just because the team ended around a 33 percent conversion rate, there is no reason to think that this number will not improve.

To use one measure from one game as a complete indictment of the offense is foolish and unfair to a Michigan team that accumulated 19 total first downs. Many of these came in forms other than third down conversions, and the offense moved the ball down the field plenty throughout the game. Saturday’s matchup was only Week 1, and Florida boasts one of the better defenses the Wolverines will face this season.

Even if there are more early struggles, the offense can be thankful for a dominant unit on the other side of the ball, who happens to excel in this area. Michigan ranked first in the country last year in opposing third down conversions, allowing a rate of just 21.02 percent. Florida’s 2-for-13 effort equals a 15.38 percent rate that even eclipses last year’s mark.

Still, this is an area to watch going forward, especially later in games. In early weeks there will still be growing pains, but the same incapacities cannot remain in the latter part of the season. Until the offense puts everything together, at least Michigan can feel strongly on the defensive side of the ball. Hopefully both units can find success on third downs and dominate one of the game’s big keys for success.