Michigan Football played its long-awaited 2019 season debut on Saturday night from Ann Arbor and — for the most part — ran Middle Tennessee State off the field in a 40-21 victory. It was sloppy, which may have been expected given that the team is breaking in a brand new offense and replacing so many key players on the defensive side of the ball.
Despite this, we learned a lot about where this football team is at now and the offseason hype and training camp takes no longer matter. A football game has been played, and now the bar has been set.
Here are the takeaways.
The early look of the Josh Gattis offense
Outside of a Twitter hashtag and offseason hype, we quite literally had no idea what Michigan’s new offense was set to look like with its first year offensive coordinator. While Saturday night’s game may have left a bit to be desired on film, the change in philosophy is already evident.
On Saturday night, we saw Michigan roll out more RPOs, quick slants, and shots down the field than it feels like we have ever seen. The receivers were pretty much open all night and Shea Patterson just had to deliver them the football. There were not a ton of crossing routes or screens, but the Wolverines switching to a more pass-happy system was not just talk, as they had 25 pass attempts to only 16 rushes in the first half.
However, this group struggled to start the game. Patterson fumbled on the first play of the contest and there was some really goofy play-calling going on that involved Dylan McCaffrey playing wide receiver and on the field as the same time as Patterson (more on what went down between these two in a bit). Once they cut that stuff out, the flood gates started to open when they ran the plays that feel like they will be staples of their offense this season.
With Donovan Peoples-Jones out for the game already, there was a brief scare at the end of the first half where Tarik Black and Nico Collins — the scorers of Michigan’s first two touchdowns of the season — were not on the field, but they were back out there in the second half.
As far as the rushing attack goes, quite honestly, we probably could have seen more of it. True freshman Zach Charbonnet is the real deal and looks to be someone who checks off all of the boxes. He runs tough, is hard to bring down, has nice balance and patience to his game, is able to catch the ball out of the backfield and also does a fine job in pass protection. We’ve heard comparisons to David Johnson this offseason and while those are lofty expectations, he at least looks the part early on. Christian Turner played well, too. He sort of reminds me of Karan Higdon in terms of his build and how he runs. Tru Wilson right now looks like the complementary back that he is probably best-suited for.
I completely understand that Michigan feels like they have two terrific athletes at quarterback in Patterson and McCaffrey, and there may just be a way to have them both on the field at one time and have it be worthwhile, but it really did not seem like that was the case on Saturday night.
Patterson was “working through something” and received treatment in the locker room at halftime, so McCaffrey was brought in for some of the designed QB runs in the second half that we saw, but whenever they were on the field together, it was mostly an overthought momentum killer. It was not the staff’s intent to do so, but all it really did was re-ignite a quarterback debate that does not really have much business being there at this point.
Patterson is still considerably ahead of McCaffrey from a passing standpoint and some of the struggles he had on Saturday night frustrated fans, which is understandable. And McCaffrey is clearly the more dynamic athlete of the two. But at this point, he simply is not the dual-threat that Patterson is. The debate right now starts and ends is basically social media fodder because this is still Shea’s offense.
The state of the offensive line
We knew weeks ago that Jalen Mayfield would start at right tackle and had heard whispers during the week that Jon Runyan Jr. may not play at left tackle, but that all became true on Saturday night. Ryan Hayes got the start at left tackle and at times as a unit, this group sort of struggled.
Things will have to be tightened up on the right side of the line and some of the penalties will need to be cleaned up. But overall, there’s no reason to think this still cannot be one of the best offensive lines in the country. Patterson had great pockets to throw in for most of the night and even some of the backs did solid in pass protection. We will have to see how it looks when Runyan returns, but the stock on this group is neither up or down.
Maybe cornerback isn’t (that big) of a concern
Ambry Thomas was not even a lock to play this week, and then he wound up starting on the other side of Lavert Hill. He showed right off the bat why he is so important to this defense and had a hand in a pair of turnovers just weeks after being diagnosed with colitis and having to fight his way back on the field.
Vincent Gray was also one of the standout players of Saturday night’s game. It was not perfect and he had a few plays where he did not get his head around to look at the ball, but we have to feel a lot better about the redshirt freshman being called into action than we did heading into the season as an unknown.
Defensive line might be, though
Coming into the year, there was hype that Michigan’s defensive line could go 9 to 10 players deep at any given time. When the game was still competitive, we did not see a ton of rotating, and some of that had to do with injuries at defensive tackle to Donovan Jeter, who did not play, and Michael Dwumfour. That led former fullback Ben Mason to getting the start at defensive tackle next to Carlo Kemp with Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye playing on the edge.
For the most part, those guys played pretty well, especially in the pass rush package that got Mike Danna involved in the lineup with Paye, Hutchinson and Joshua Uche (referred to as the NASCAR package). We did not see a ton of freshmen Mazi Smith or Chris Hinton, either, which was sort of a letdown despite the camp hype.
Keep an eye on this position group. They still have a terrific amount of talent, but maybe they are not as deep as we thought they were.
Should we be concerned that Michigan came out of the gates slow and played sloppy throughout the night? Yes and no. Ideally, it would have been great to dominate in all phases of the game, but apparently they aren’t ready for that yet and perhaps we should have expected that with all of the change. They may have even been sharper if this game was played earlier in the day. Who knows?
It’s a lot easier to explain why what happens in a blowout does not matter as opposed to a game where maybe the deficit was closer than it should have been. In the vacuum of a single game against an opponent that did not have a chance to beat them, it can sort of be written off as not being totally ready to play, but that excuse won’t be acceptable moving forward. Good teams get one — maybe two — of these types of showings a year. It was a problem on Saturday night, from players to coaches alike, but do not get concerned until it becomes a trend.
If we’re being honest here, this is probably a game that the 2018 Wolverines may have won 55-14 or something like that if they just wanted to run the ball 50 times and keep the pass attempts low. They probably could have run the ball more on Saturday, but they had a checklist of things to work on offensively and a lot of it worked. A lot of it also didn’t, whic they can correct now.
Despite some of the sloppiness and the errors that occurred, everything that took place on Saturday night is correctable and what held Michigan back was, well, Michigan. There is not a single error that cannot be corrected, whether it be play-calling, missed blocks, dropped passes, turnovers, etc. The Wolverines were amped up to play this game and they know they made mental mistakes that, against superior competition, could really do some damage.
Everyone wants to see a flawless debut, but sometimes putting up 60 points and completely smothering the other team you played serves only to boost statistics and egos. Saturday’s struggles were sobering for the team and for the fanbase, but it serves as a baseline evaluation of where this football team is at and what they need to improve upon.
Do they look like the team to beat in the Big Ten currently? Nope.
Do they look like the team that should be the favorite in the East? Probably not right now.
Do they look like a team that in a few weeks can go into Wisconsin and win? It looks a little more iffy today.
Despite all of this, everything is still there as long as they stay healthy. Depth was tested a bit on Saturday and there are some concerns there, especially on the offensive and defensive lines and at wide receiver. But the pieces are in place and when people step off of the ledge and go back and watch the film, there’s stuff to build off of here.
The test gets much tougher next week when Army, a triple option team, comes to Michigan Stadium. They’ll have a week of practice to go figure it out and try and build on what was, overall, probably still a step in the right direction for Michigan.