The Michigan Wolverines offense has struggled in recent weeks. The unit had just 13 rushing yards against Indiana, and only 219 total yards and 11 points versus Wisconsin. Early on in their tilt against Rutgers, the offense appeared to be on the same downward trajectory.
With Michigan trailing Rutgers 17-0 in the 2nd quarter, they turned to backup quarterback Cade McNamara, who promptly led the team down the field and finished off the drive with a 46-yard TD strike to Cornelius Johnson. This was the second consecutive week McNamara came into the game with Michigan trailing, the offense scored on his first drive in both games. Head coach Jim Harbaugh called McNamara’s play inspiring.
McNamara’s command of the offense and quick decision making kept the defense on their toes. His high-clip of execution, to the tune of 27-of-36 for 260 yards and 4 TDs, helped open up Michigan’s run game. When offenses start scoring, energy can flow. The offensive line had arguably their best few quarters of football this season once the comeback commenced. They were battling, and holding their own. McNamara was getting things done, but the o-line was often giving the QB lanes to step into to get throws off cleanly. The line aided Hassan Haskins’ 109 yards rushing. “I thought there was some really good play on the line. It was just a time in the game where the line was coming off the ball in a way that they hadn’t up to this point. It was like there was a switch that really flipped,” Harbaugh said.
In order to win, Michigan needed contributions from a wide variety of players at the skills positions on offense. For example, Michigan had 7 players who recorded 4 or more receptions, and they needed every last one of those contributions to leave New Jersey victorious. The array of receivers hauling in catches is indicative of McNamara seeing the field well and guys doing their job and getting open. There was a level of cohesion we haven’t seen from the offense to this point in the year. “(WRs) Ronnie Bell and Mikey Sainristil, you can tell by the communication, you can tell by the sense of urgency, and I thought some of our offensive linemen had that as well, and as a unit as good as we’ve had.”
When it came to the running attack, it was all Haskins in this one. He ran with determination, fighting for every single inch and yard he could while displaying a good balance of patience, power, and shiftiness. “I thought his play, talk about heart. I thought our players played with great talent and heart. The amount of runs that Hassan had that were yards after contact in this game, tough, efficient, outstanding runs that were just tremendous,” Harbaugh said. On Monday, Harbaugh mentioned that Haskins was making something out of nothing, gaining yards when it looked like there were no yards to be had.
From a mental and physical standpoint, the offense adjusted. “We had to be warriors. We had to come back. When we came back, we had to keep battling,” McNamara said. “We were just lasered in, we knew our plays to the exact point," Haskins said.
Confidence coincided with execution more often than not, and it appeared on Saturday night versus Rutgers the offense got a bit of their swagger back. It’s still a long road ahead for Michigan to salvage their season and finish .500 or better, but if the offense plays even remotely like they did down the stretch on Saturday night, they’re going to be keeping the team in games that become high-scoring affairs.
If this game took place a few weeks back before Michigan lost three games in a row, the feeling about their performance against an improved Rutgers team would be different. The narrative would be that this offense, with McNamara, has potential. However, now standing at 2-3, Michigan has to prove they’re better than what their record says they are. They now have two opponents left, Penn State and Maryland, before their tilt with Ohio State. Noticeable improvements will continue to be necessary.
Michigan swung and missed on offense at times when McNamara was in the game, too. But success started to unfold. They stuck with the run when it looked like there was no use staying with it, and their patience paid off. They found what was working in the passing game and adjusted when things weren’t. “Coach Gattis did a great job of play calling tonight, being able to get the ball out of my hands fast,” McNamara said. “I think that swagger when it comes to the receivers, when they know they’re going to get the ball fast, those guys are confident as well. They believe in themselves and when they’re out in open field they’re going to make someone miss. I thought that was a huge part of our offensive production tonight.”
It was one game, tempering expectations is warranted. A pattern of consistency remains to be seen, but the unit now knows what it feels like to come from behind in a major way. The program has been around longer than any human has ever lived, and this was tied for the second biggest comeback in Michigan’s history. That’s something. That counts. That matters. That should be commended. Especially factoring in how the game started and that the comeback started with a backup coming into the game.
We’ll see if it’s McNamara’s team now, if he’s the unquestioned leader on offense. We’ll see if the offensive line continues to battle admirably in the trenches. We’ll see if Hassan Haskins can duplicate his efforts and success weekly. And we’ll see if the receivers keep getting open, and equally as important, holding onto the football. There’s a lot of the ‘we’ll see’ to the operation, but this is the best the unit has felt about themselves all season long. There’s energy. Now we’ll see if that energy propels them to greater success or if it was just one good game. What we have in fact seen is a newfound energy on offense, and a leader emerge in McNamara who’s visibly passionate and vocal. Don’t believe in the unit? Understandable. But don’t count them out either.