The Michigan Wolverines offense has been under much scrutiny for a couple of years at this point. Fans were irate at the conservative and timid nature of the offense led by Pep Hamilton and Jim Harbaugh where the focus was to ram the ball down a team’s throat.
That philosophy changed (or was supposed to) when Harbaugh hired a new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis from Alabama this past offseason. Gattis came whipping around his favorite hashtag “Speed In Space” that has now become a cringe-worthy statement to the Michigan faithful.
No one expected perfection out of the gates for the Wolverines. A learning curve was certainly going to take place in switching the identity of the offense in a single offseason, especially because of the returning starters who had never seen an offense like this.
The problem is that Gattis and the Wolverines have lacked any sort of identity in general, they’ve misused their top offensive talents, and they have failed to execute even the best designed plays from the coaching staff.
In the first game of the season against MTSU, Michigan threw the ball 25 times in the first half. It was completely unheard of in the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan, but after an injury to Shea Patterson, the Wolverines ran the football with Dylan McCaffrey at the helm for the majority of the second half.
Then against Army, true freshman running back Zach Charbonnet ran the ball 33 times, most of which came in the second half, and the team ran the ball 45 times compared to just 31 pass attempts in the game as a whole. Still, after two games, no one had seen any speed in space nor any balance in what Michigan was attempting to accomplish offensively.
Excuses of players battling injuries and the learning curve needed to end on Saturday after the team had a bye week and then took on Wisconsin in Madison. It was the first game this season where everyone was going to learn exactly who the Wolverines were and if there was any semblance of an offense that could beat a top-15 team in the country.
After a week of controversy over the health status of Charbonnet, Michigan came out with a punch offensively against Wisconsin hitting Ronnie Bell for a 68-yard pass, but fumbled after handing the ball of to Ben Mason, the former fullback, now defensive lineman, out of the shotgun formation.
This series was the perfect example of what Michigan is capable of and what the coaching staff is prohibiting them from accomplishing. Boneheaded playcalling and trying to get cute has cost the Wolverines several times already this season.
After a 28-0 score at halftime, Michigan had run the ball for an abysmal 9 yards in the first half with only 2 rushing attempts by Michigan’s top tailback, Charbonnet. That large of a difference in production is simply outstanding and speaks to either his injury or the lack of awareness from the Michigan coaching staff to continue to feed one of their top players.
Michigan once again was embarrassed on the national stage on the road. Harbaugh cited that the team was “outplayed, out-prepared, (and) out-coached,” following his sixth loss on the road against a top-25 opponent in five seasons.
Now that is a lot of negativity surrounding the team and the offense itself, but there was something that caught my eye in two of the last drives of the game.
Could it have been desperation? Absolutely. Was it likely that Michigan was not facing the same toughness they saw from the Badgers defense at the beginning of the game? Without a doubt. But, the offense was finally clicking in a moment where they were basically on the field to try a bunch of different things to see if anything sticks.
It may be astounding, but targeting the three all-conference caliber wide receivers on the roster— Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Nico Collins— was making it look like there could be an offense hidden under all of the crud fans have all seen thus far.
It was a vertical/spread offense where the focus is on hitting big receivers like Collins, DPJ, and Black on fly routes and throwing them open, or allowing them to make a play on the ball.
This pass from Patterson to Collins was beautiful. Collins was on the run deep down the field, and Shea hit him with a nice pass on his left shoulder towards the sideline. All that the 6’4” receiver has to do is turn and jump up for it and he has an easy 32 yards.
Even if nobody is open in this offensive set down the field, it allows Patterson more time to maneuver in the backfield and make a play happen. See here on this touchdown pass where Patterson rolls right and motions for Peoples-Jones to keep moving left on the broken play so he can toss a ball up to the 6’2” wideout:
Obviously the play wasn’t designed to end like that, but the spread offense allows for the talent on your roster to make plays happen themselves.
When you have three receivers taller than 6’2” and a speedy guy to put in the slot like Ronnie Bell, it would make sense to have four of your best players on the field at the same time offensively.
That is exactly the formation we see on this fourth and long play. Before even watching the clip, just pause it to see the weapons that Patterson has on this play and why it would be so difficult to stop:
Its a trips right (three wide receivers to the right of the quarterback) and all four receivers that I just listed were on the field a the same time, and it was a successful play. What a novel concept to have your best players on the field at the same time. This shouldn’t just be a third or fourth and long formation, this style of offense should be seen on every drive/down.
Even on ugly plays and passes like this one, a spread offense with incredible weapons at wide receiver can be successful:
Patterson throws a bit of a duck, but Collins still makes an effort to get to the football and he makes a really nice catch despite being held. Defensive pass interference and holding penalties will be routine when defenses try and slow down the big, strong, and fast receivers that Michigan has.
The spread formations that we saw late in the blowout loss to Wisconsin should be what we see every drive for the rest of the season. Put your best eleven guys on the field. Four of those eleven are going to be wide receivers, so Gattis needs to scheme the offense around the talent he has from the position group. The vertical/spread offense is the best way to do that, and we saw it late in the blowout loss to Wisconsin.
If Gattis focuses on the incredible depth he has at the wide receiver position, Michigan will have a coherent offense by the end of the season and coming into next year.