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Michigan football and the improvement needed for a memorable season

Jim Harbaugh is asking his team two questions and the answer to them will ultimately define their season

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines won their first game of the season, beating Middle Tennessee State 40-21 at The Big House. The team had fine moments on the field, but there were a lot of things they could improve upon.

It’s one thing to have errors against teams like Middle Tennessee State, where they can get away with them and still win by a healthy clip. However, against teams such as Ohio State, and most of the teams on their schedule, Michigan won’t have much margin for error.

Jim Harbaugh went philosophical at his Monday press conference, saying the team is asking itself two questions moving forward:

1. “When we were playing really good, and the good, positive things we did, is that gonna be good enough to beat the teams we have to beat on our schedule?”

2. “The things that we need to improve on, the things we didn’t play as well, we didn’t make the play when it was a tough play to make, in those instances is that good enough to beat the teams on our schedule?”

Harbaugh’s two questions are a good way for Michigan to reflect after a Week 1 performance that could have been better. That’s not to take away from positive developments that unfolded, such as RB Zach Charbonnet’s impressive debut, QB Shea Patterson’s 3 touchdown passes, Jordan Glasgow’s 2 sacks, and so on. Even so, the answer to Harbaugh’s questions are clear.

The Good: Was it good enough to beat the teams on their schedule?

To answer in one word, no.

The good can get better, and needs to. This isn’t a knock on Michigan, but rather a reminder that they’ve played just one game this season and their offense is not a finished product. New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis installed a scheme that looks a whole lot different than what Michigan has seen in recent years under Harbaugh, and a new offense needs time to grow.

Shea Patterson was able to hit Tarik Black, Nico Collins, and Sean McKeon for long-to-intermediate TD’s, QB runs from Patterson and McCaffrey were successful, the running game was churning out sizable gains. The offense looked like it has the ability to be a dangerous one, but they need more time on task, and Gattis does as well as a play-caller.

Michigan has an offensive identity, but they’re still at a stage where they’re figuring out what works best and what they should dial back. In some ways, Week 1 served as an experiment for Gattis, a trial run of what’s to come in terms of game-flow.

To put it simply, did Michigan play good enough in all three phases to beat a team in the College Football Playoff? No. The goal is to thoroughly dominate every opponent from whistle to whistle, and they didn’t do that against a team they could have beat by more than 19 points. It’s fair to think Michigan would have fared to well against a team like Oklahoma or Clemson if they played them last Saturday instead of Middle Tennessee. And the goal is to give the Clemson’s of college football all they can handle.

Areas where Michigan needs to improve

With Harbaugh asking if what they didn’t do well is good enough to beat the teams on their schedule, he provided further self-reflection that has a clear answer. The errors Michigan had, the things they didn’t do well, will not be good enough down the road to beat top-tier teams. The good news is they now have film to evaluate that can help clean up the mistakes.

Ball security by the QB’s

The first play from scrimmage for the Michigan offense led to a turnover via Shea Patterson fumbling the ball on a scramble. Patterson had the ball out-stretched with one hand on it with a defender closing in on him, a recipe for disaster. Backup Dylan McCaffrey also fumbled on a QB run, but the ball rolled out of bounds and Michigan retained possession.

Harbaugh said that the fumbles are something that will be addressed and they’ll get better on that front. Patterson had a 3 TD game, but at his post-game presser his frustration with the turnover was evident, saying that he has to do a better job of protecting the football.

Michigan’s defense vs scrambling QB’s

For the most part, Michigan’s defense had a steady game. There were a few lapses in coverage, a missed tackle here and there, and a long garbage time TD pass that I’m sure Don Brown was mad about, but the defense played well overall. One area of concern, one achilles heel of the defense during the Brown era sprung up against MTSU.

A few plays after Patterson’s fumble, Blue Raiders QB Asher O’Hara took off for an 18-yard TD run.

O’Hara should have been sacked, but after he broke the tackle there was a clean lane for him to run with Michigan’s defenders in man-coverage. Michigan has lost games the past few years due in part to QB’s moving the chains with their legs. Maybe a goal Michigan can set for themselves is to not allow another QB rushing TD this season. A lofty goal, I know.

O-line pass protection

The Michigan offensive line performed above average, especially with two first time starters, but the unit didn’t have a slam dunk performance by any means. Case in point above with a third down in the red-zone. The o-line didn’t give Patterson enough time to throw and the play results in an incompletion. If the line protects for even a half second longer, Patterson’s throw to Ronnie Bell in the end-zone is likely a touchdown and not a throw that goes just wide of Bell.

Costly sacks

3rd & 11 with Michigan at the edge of field goal range, they can’t afford to go backwards in this spot whatsoever. There’s blame to go around on this one. Running back Hassan Haskins doesn’t pick up the blitz well, and another defender gets loose into the backfield. Even with the impending pressure, Patterson held onto the ball too long, he had enough time to get rid of it. Patterson could have hit Ronnie Bell in the middle of the field for a marginal gain, but he was too tentative and absorbs a sack he shouldn’t have.

This was a problem multiple times for Patterson last season, taking a sack to push Michigan out of field goal range. And it actually happened again in this game, but luckily that time around there was a penalty on MTSU for an automatic first down.

Scoring droughts

There was a stretch where Patterson completed just 1-of-8 passes, with his incompletions being quite inaccurate. Harbaugh said that Patterson was working through something in the game, so this may have led to a surprisingly erratic stretch from Michigan’s QB.

Granted, Michigan still put up 40 points, a respectable number against any opponent. What’s concerning is what happened in between the scoring drives. Long lapses occurred where the offense wasn’t churning, and against the best in what could be a shootout, that type of flow offensively could do them in.

Where does Michigan go from here?

All the things mentioned above are correctable, none of them should be overly concerning just yet in the young season.

As Patterson put it, “A win is a win, but I don’t think anyone in that locker room felt like we lived up to our standard.”

That’s the right mindset to have. Patterson’s demeanor after the game wasn’t jubilant, he realized there are areas of improvement and their play wasn’t up to the high-bar Michigan sets for itself. Maybe Patterson was a little too hard on himself, but that’s an approach that can lead to improvement.

There’s no complacency right now at Schembechler Hall, from Patterson to Gattis to Harbaugh to Brown, they’re rolling up their sleeves and getting back to work. “Looking at how the teams on our schedule played in week one, we’ve got to be in sprint mode,” Harbaugh said on Monday. And that’s what it’s going to take for Michigan to remain undefeated in the regular season.