One of the most popular questions that everyone is asking themselves after Michigan football’s decimation of Notre Dame last weekend is, “Where the heck has this team been and why didn’t we see it sooner?”
That’s a fair and valid question to ask, because the ingredients have obviously been there all along. The blowout loss at Wisconsin was, at the time, one of the lowest points for the Jim Harbaugh era and what it really did was emphasize was how many problems they had coming out of the Middle Tennessee and Army games.
The truth of the matter is that this performance on Saturday was born out of the Wisconsin loss, which forced the staff and team to hit the reset button over the next number of weeks. That does not excuse some of the problems they had at Illinois or Penn State, but the fight and resiliency shown in both of those efforts was much more than they had shown in Madison.
So why did it take eight weeks for them to find themselves and put together a full 60-minute effort? Here are a few theories.
Ohio State broke them last season and it lingered
Anyone who listens to our podcasts (subscribe anywhere you get your shows!) is familiar with the term “Battered Wolverine Syndrome,” which is a phrase I’ve been using to discuss just how badly this program was shell-shocked by what happened to them in Columbus last season. That loss rightfully called into question Harbaugh and his staff’s ability to prepare for a big game on the road and make adjustments in real time. And it was the start of three-straight losing efforts by the Wolverines that saw them lose by 21 or more points with the Peach Bowl against Florida and the game against Wisconsin this year being the other two.
Michigan rightfully asked itself coming out of last season and the beginning part of this season if what they were doing at their best and worst would be good enough to beat the best teams on their schedule, which was a bit of a departure from the popular refrain of “we’re just taking things one day, one game at a time” that we are used to.
Jim Harbaugh is happy about the way things went in #Michigan’s opener, but is it enough to beat their rivals and win the big ones?— Anthony Broome (@anthonytbroome) September 2, 2019
That’s what he says is the big emphasis on how they approach preparation this year. pic.twitter.com/D3wdqMf5pD
That’s a sound way to go about it, and certainly was a bit of a change in approach. But when you go back and look at a lot of these early-season performances, this felt like a group that was pressing and trying to make up too much ground too quickly. A lot of that leads into the next few things we will hit on, but this was a group that was feeling the pressure. You saw it in their play and you saw it a bit in the way they had been coached.
You mix their struggles in with how quickly they were seeing their rivals down the road in Columbus get it going despite massive changes of their own, and it’s easy to imagine at least a little bit of a human element coming into play here.
Perhaps one of the bigger things that played into the win over Notre Dame was there is no more pressure on this team. They will not go to the College Football Playoff and they do not control their destiny in the Big Ten race anymore, outside of what would be shocking chaos above them. When they play loose and stay out of their way, what you saw Saturday is what they can be. The key next is to bring one of those efforts on the road with them, which is where most of these problems have occurred.
They completely changed offenses
Harbaugh rightfully got rid of Pep Hamilton after last season and took a step into the future with an offense that not only is more spread out, but in some ways mirrors a bit more where the NFL is heading in terms of an increased emphasis on RPOs. That’s a far cry from the manball offense of the past, which still does have its place in doses. The Wolverines were coming into 2019 with a plethora of playmakers at wide receiver and tight end and simply had to make an effort to get them the football, as well as use the athleticism of their quarterbacks.
Even Urban Meyer noted early in the season that some of the concepts that Michigan was running were reminiscent of some of the things he and former assistant (and now Michigan OL coach) Ed Warriner were doing at Ohio State. Add in the fact that they were being led by a first-time playcaller in Josh Gattis, and yeah, offensive issues across the board makes sense.
Gattis had a rough go of it early on in the year, but it finally feels like in the last six and a half quarters of football or so that he has begun to develop as a playcaller and emphasize the things that Michigan does well.
Offensive scheme changes take time, especially with new concepts, new terminology and new intricacies with how plays are designed and blocked. It’s still frustrating to have so much talent in the passing game feel like it is being used infrequently, but you cannot fault the team for finding its groove in what it does well in the last few weeks.
Shea Patterson wasn’t healthy or comfortable
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to Michigan not unleashing its potential until the last few weeks came on the very first play of the season. Patterson fumbled the ball on the Wolverines’ first offensive play from scrimmage this year and was injured in the process, which led to a whole heck of a lot of issues from there. Michigan maintained that Patterson was healthy and that the injury was not holding him back, but he had not looked like his normal self outside of Rutgers and until the Illinois game through what we’ve seen recently.
Outside of the injury, Patterson just did not seem comfortable in what he was being asked to do. Amidst the chaos of a fanbase calling for a quarterback change, Patterson has begun to play the type of football we are accustomed to seeing and everything seems to be happening faster for him now, whether it be how he processes things on the field or just the speed in which he has been running and making decisions. Nobody inside Schembechler Hall has ever wavered in their belief of him and it appears that it has paid off.
Don Brown is starting to mix it up
Defensively, the Wolverines under Don Brown will remain aggressive until he’s removed from his post kicking and screaming about it. Teams have used that against Michigan in the last few years, but even in their most recent efforts, the Wolverines have started to show some different looks defensively.
It starts with being able to play some of their young athletes on defense like safety Daxton Hill and linebacker Cam McGrone. Their emergence and continued progress has allowed Michigan to mix in some different coverage looks and it has (GASP) led to them slowing down some of those darn crossing routes that had eaten them up over the last year or so.
Notre Dame had no idea what Brown was throwing at them on Saturday night after jumping out to a quick and aggressive start in last year’s game in South Bend. If they can continue to mix coverages and their young talent continues to develop, the defense might only continue to get better.
Where they’re at now
Has Michigan turned the corner because of one win? Not completely, but what it did show is that they are capable of putting forth a memorable effort when they play their best football. All of the disappointments are in the rearview mirror, but they are not absolved just yet. In order to completely do that, this team probably at the very least needs to go out and give themselves a shot to beat Ohio State, if not pull off the upset. The progress of the last few weeks, which feels like it has a chance to continue, heading into The Game is all for naught if they come out and lay an egg on Nov. 30. They need to continue to fight, compete and give themselves enough of a chance to make things interesting against the Buckeyes.
Regardless, it feels like this program is back to a point of where it was before the effort in Columbus last year. They’re confident and sure of themselves and it took them about 10 months to get that back after hitting the reset button coming out of a rock bottom game at Wisconsin this year. Truth be told, we may not know how successful the offensive and philosophical reboot is until next season. At that point, we should be able to tell if a bit of a step backward in 2019 was worth it and healthy in order to be set up for more success long-term.
In the here and now, it feels like things are finally starting to click, which is great to see even if people are frustrated we did not see it sooner. Sometimes, perhaps we just need to take a step back and wait for the totality of a season to play out. Even now it’s too early to call this year redeemed, but they at least have provided some hope that things are getting turned around.