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MnB staff roundtable: Why Michigan can still get the offense on track against Illinois

Michigan has got to stick with this offense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Iowa at Michigan

When I said that good, old-fashioned Big Ten football was coming to Ann Arbor...I didn’t think it would turn out to be possibly the B1G-iest B1G game I’ve ever witnessed. Harbaugh beat a ranked team at home...but it didn’t calm the jitters over whether this team will be able to score points when it’s necessary. A few things in that game were legitimate #chaos, including whatever that two-minute drive before halftime was that ended in a missed field goal. The inability to get out of their own way is a concern...and the simplicity of putting the ball in the hands of playmakers seems a distant goal, with the serious part of the schedule fast approaching. Illinois likely won’t push back hard, but it’s still the kind of game where a riled up opponent will try to send Michigan spiraling out of control. I’m not sure how much of an asset Brandon Peters will be in this game, as he seemingly never fully grasped Michigan’s scheme...but any quarterback can exploit a zone coverage scheme that leaves the middle of the field exposed because the linebackers aren’t seeing the field or getting pressure. Thankfully, that worked for the most part against Iowa, but that’s still how you beat Michigan, and more teams are figuring that out. Illinois can be good at home, but Michigan needs to get accustomed to getting into the endzone, and quick.

We can talk about how to solve the offense until we run out of things to say, but perhaps for this week, look at the wider picture...what are some legitimate problems we see on this team, what do other teams do that Michigan can learn from; how do they just plain get better?

Whatever else is on your mind, take it away. Treat this like a midseason status report, since starting next week, we’ll be dreading each matchup…

Jared: You never want to focus on the negatives after a gritty victory against a top 15 opponent, but if we are talking big picture here, there are obviously some areas for improvement.

Don Brown seems to have leveled up back to the level of elite play that we have come to expect by now, which is as welcome getting a bye week or Illinois on the schedule. Any questions that were being asked about the defense before the season- Will game changers emerge to take up the mantle of all that departed talent? Will younger players in the secondary be a liability in pass coverage?- are being answered right in front of our eyes. That is the good news.

What concerns me above all else with this team right now, is the fact that they have more talent on offense than anyone in the Big Ten outside of Ohio State, and look like they are about the 9th or 10th best offense in the conference. This is essentially the same group as last year, with an upgraded running back and a healthy receiving corps loaded with elite athletes. Something is not clicking, and it is not personnel based. That suggests that the issue is either coaching, confidence, or both- and I am going with a little bit of both. This offense, and Shea Patterson in particular, do not know how to respond when things don’t go their way. Josh Gattis called a pretty good game against Iowa all things considered, but has looked overwhelmed and without a plan in other contests. That is a dangerous recipe with the murderers row that faces the Wolverines after Illinois.

Daniel A: I’m going to be honest guys. I did not watch this game live. Or, at the most, I saw about 10 plays while trying to connect my phone to the power strip at a tailgate. I spent my Saturday down in The Swamp watching Florida vs Auburn and it was frankly depressing how far ahead Dan Mullen is in his second year than Harbaugh is in his fifth. He’s using a back-up quarterback who hasn’t played since his freshman year of high school with an atrociously bad offensive line… and he still produced a better offensive effort than Michigan did with its 5-star QB, borderline 5-star RB, and armada of top-100 WRs. I mean, it is really really depressing the state of Michigan’s offense.

I’ve been one of Shea’s biggest hype men and defenders over the last two seasons, but I’m about ready to jump off the boat. I don’t think he’s healthy and that’s having a terrible ripple effect on the rest of the offense. Rewatching, I think it physically hurts him to both run the ball and throw the ball down field. That limits Michigan’s offense tremendously… especially since the gameplan going into the season was to lean on RPOs and take numerous shots downfield. If your quarterback physically cannot do either at this point in time, what are we doing here?

I’m not convinced that Dylan McCaffrey is the answer, but when he gets healthy, I think I’m ready to see what he can do with the full set of weapons. There’s not a secondary in America, particularly in this conference, that can hang with the size and athleticism of Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, and Nico Collins. The offense should be built around forcing them into one on one matchups and giving them opportunities to make plays. I don’t think in his current state, Shea is the guy to do that. Try something else.

Defensively, I guess the stats look nice, but they looked good against Rutgers last year. That doesn’t cover up that the same weaknesses we’ve seen exploited in yesteryears still being there. Ohio State is going to kill this team with drag routes and a relentless attack over the middle. Statistically dominating a dinosaur like Ferentz with garbage QB play doesn’t mean that issue is solved… though I guess it’s a step up from letting Wisconsin run them over.

In Harbaugh’s first year, he won 10 games and blew the doors off of Jim McElwain’s Florida team. A half-decade later, one of these programs looks demonstrably better than the other… and it’s a problem that it’s a different one than it was on January 1st, 2016.

Jay S: Similar to Daniel, I was not present in Ann Arbor on Saturday. I watched the game with other Michigan friends at a wedding I was attending. The groupthink though all held collectively the same: how can the offense be so putrid when the defense is putting up a genuine all-world effort against a Top 15 opponent at home? Granted, Kirk Ferentz doesn’t exactly run Ohio State’s pass-happy scheme, but Don Brown’s unit earned their stripes on Saturday. What concerns me more is Brown’s quotes from his media availability on Wednesday. Blitzing can work yes, but if you don’t adapt to schemes the other team is running in-game, that is how Penn State, Ohio State and yet to be named bowl opponent doom Michigan to a disappointing fate.

As for the offense, something is wrong with Shea Patterson. Joe Burrow at LSU is having the season and running the offense that Josh Gattis and Michigan’s players spent the offseason hyping up to almost no results through five games. Whoever plays quarterback for Michigan against Illinois not only needs a strong performance, Patterson, McCaffery, or Milton needs to be incredibly confident going into Happy Valley the following Saturday night under white out conditions. Aside from Patterson slinging it to Nico Collins for a 57 yard gain last week, Michigan’s offense showed little speed or space against the Hawkeyes. Whether Patterson is nursing an injury (nothing has been officially announced) or is suffering from regression from last season, change must occur or Michigan’s defense is going to find itself trying to sustain an offense on life support against a tough slate of opponents the rest of the year. I have seen that movie before, and it resembles the 2018 Michigan State Spartans.

The Wolverines need to go into Champaign and win convincingly. They need the offense to look how it should with the ball being slung around to Black, Collins and Peoples-Jones. The three of them combined have 35 catches and four touchdowns. For reference, Michigan State’s Darrell Stewart Jr. the Big Ten’s leader in receiving, has a league high 41 receptions and four touchdowns. By himself. At some point, Michigan needs to realize having its three most talented recievers plus Ronnie Bell running wind sprints for a bulk of the game will not get the Wolverines much of anywhere. Saturday’s game marks the end of the cupcakes for Michigan with Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State making up 66 percent of the back half of the schedule with road trips to Maryland and Indiana thrown in for good measure. If there is going to be a change made at quarterback or if the offense is to figure it out, it needs to happen Saturday.

Dan P: I agree with Jay, this needs to be a win, and a big one at that. The Wolverines showed they could put away teams when they pummeled Rutgers, and they have got to do the same against another bottom feeder in the Big Ten.

The biggest thing for me is how will Shea Patterson play? He obviously hasn’t taken the step that everyone hoped he would in his second year under Jim Harbaugh, and while that may also be on the hands of Josh Gattis’s playcalling, he still has a lot yet to prove if he wants the fan support to resume.

After this game the team will hit the meat of their schedule, but they can’t be looking beyond the Illini. Take care of business and look sharp heading into the most important games of the year.

Kevin: I read a piece on our sister site, Banner Society, two days ago about LSU’s terror offense. They run a similar scheme to Michigan’s, or at least, what Michigan’s is supposed to be. A lot of shotgun formations, downfield throws to playmakers, and only rushing formations when the situation demands them. Joe Burrow isn’t quite as naturally mobile as Patterson, but, the point of the analysis was to show how LSU looked at their offense, and realized they had all these giant receivers who could create mismatches, and hired (poached) a passing game coordinator from the NFL. Sound familiar?

Where the LSU system differs from Michigan’s is that they have stuck to that scheme to make it work. It hasn’t devolved into a run-first offense out of desperation because the quarterback can’t make throws downfield. Burrow is pretty good, and it was like deja vu reading how they have taught him to throw to a playmaker IN SPACE for what the opposing defense gives him, and pile up the yards on those intermediate throws. Running backs act as a compliment and not the anchor, and it all hums when the quarterback is seeing the whole field. That is what has me scratching my head, because as Michigan plays more games, and fails to work out this problem, the more predictable their offense is going to be. They’re never going to get out of that hole, and it’s going to take even longer to get the offense off the ground. The phrase that shocked me even more with this LSU comparison:

“LSU’s offense now plays a lot like their defense does. For years, the LSU defense has prided itself on having dynamic players working in a system that allowed them to flourish off quick decision-making. It only took 15 years or so, but LSU finally decided to go out and get an offense to match.”

Michigan has been trying to do the same, and a program that mirrors theirs in a lot of ways went the exact opposite route to fixing the same problem.