The poet Omarion once said, “I got this icebox where my heart used to be,” and nothing sums up 2019 Michigan fandom quite like this. With annual heartbreak always in the forecast, it is difficult to allow yourself any semblance of hope.
We learn more in defeat than we do in victory and for the second time this season, the Michigan Wolverines provided fans with a wealth of knowledge. Despite the heart-breaking 28-21 loss at Penn State, we learned that Michigan is getting close.
Until this week, ‘Speed in Space’ has been an unimaginable, mythical concept like extraterrestrials or Michigan highways without traffic cones. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis had us all drinking the off-season Kool-Aid and then we witnessed Shea Patterson’s fragile confidence, the veteran offensive line opening up like saloon doors, and incessantly running halfback dives from shotgun.
While most cannot comprehend the complex installation of an entire offensive system in a short amount of time, growing pains will arise and persist until players can master the fundamentals.
The Industrial Revolution was imperative for the advancement of society, but if you have ever read Charles Dickens, you understand it was far from uninhibited, linear innovation. Michigan’s offense had to change and join its contemporaries, but with change to this degree inevitably comes struggle.
Maybe Gattis should have allowed his players to take smaller bites, instead of force feeding them a myriad of new philosophies to comprehend. But being a first time solo offensive coordinator and play-caller, his ambition got the better of him as he demanded Joey Chestnut level consumption of his system from the Spring.
Finally, seven games into the season, players are beginning to digest the new offense.
A few key nuanced areas of growth on display Saturday: offensive line communication, wide receiver route depth & distribution, and quarterback processing.
-Facing one of the best defensive fronts in a deafening environment, Michigan’s offensive line was able to audible, shift protections, and deliver their best performance of the season. Solid in run blocking and pass protection, the line only gave up 1 sack and 3 tackles-for-loss to a team averaging 4 and 9 respectively.
-Wide receivers are grasping the intricacies of their assignments and while they are still sick with a severe case of the drops, they are progressing in their ability to create and utilize space.
-Quarterback Shea Patterson has shown the most growth over the last two weeks with back-against-wall drives weekly, command of the team, and confidence to attack what the opposition gives him.
Lastly, Josh Gattis has progressed as a play-caller. Mixing it up with the run and pass, Gattis is finally understanding the complex chess match that goes into calling a game. He may still force the ball between the tackles and not take enough deep shots, but he is improving.
This offensive performance was far from flawless, but on Michigan’s final drive, for the first time this season, I believed that Patterson was going to lead the offense down the field to tie the game. Unfortunately, the Wolverines came up one play short, but this level of belief in the unit and coaching was nonexistent merely a week ago.
Michigan’s offense is almost there and this calls back to a few weeks ago, when head coach Jim Harbaugh was heavily criticized for saying, “I feel like we’re very close offensively and very close to hitting our stride.”
The offense is close.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown is one of the best in the business and has coached perennially elite defenses at Michigan since his arrival in 2016. But his stubbornness to alter his approach proved to be the Achilles heel of this unit yet again.
A few weeks ago, Brown spoke to the media at length, about his unwillingness to change his aggressive philosophies and for the majority of the Penn State game, his defense was aggressive and suffocating.
The defense only allowed 16 yards in the third quarter and aside from 6 plays in the entire game, it was a masterful performance. However, those 6 plays accounted for 194 of the Nittany Lions’ 283 total yards.
The glaring schematic fault was that electric Penn State receiver K.J. Hamler was consistently single-covered by safeties on an island. If you want to play your patented press man-to-man, do so on everyone else, but not against one of the best in the country.
Michigan can still be aggressive, but does not have to hang their safeties out to dry in unwinnable situations.
Brown is a great coach, but he has to understand, adapting is not a surrendering of personal beliefs and philosophies; winning with any scheme, coverage, and style that benefits the team should be the only philosophy Brown subscribes to.
Aside from a few penalties and six plays, this defense is elite and is vastly improved from what we saw to start the season. Moving forward, the defense and Brown must only be better for roughly ten moments (penalties and play combined) in an entire game for complete dominance.
The defense is close.
The Wolverines spotted a top ten opponent a three touchdown lead in one of the most hostile environments in college football and were one play away from tying the game.
Michigan proved that they are a good team that is improving, but lasting improvement takes time and it is far from a linear process.
At halftime, Harbaugh said the second half would be, “Michigan’s finest hour,” and it almost was. Disappointment has turned supporters cold, hostile even, but what happened Saturday at State College should help thaw some of that dormant passion from that icebox where your heart used to be.
It could take another week or it could take several, but Michigan is getting closer.