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The evolution and growth of Michigan’s passing game

From liability to strength, the passing attack of the Wolverines will demand respect from Georgia.

2021 Big Ten Championship - Iowa v Michigan Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Until the last week of the season, the Georgia Bulldogs were viewed as the one sure thing in college football. Week in and week out, the Bulldogs smothered opponents on the backs of defensive tackle Jordan Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean en route to winning all 12 regular season games by an average of nearly34 points.

Davis and Dean anchor a historic front seven that pitched three shutouts and only saw five opponents score more than once. Even with a weak SEC East schedule, this level of dominance is rarely seen in a Power 5 conference.

Georgia (No. 2 Rush Defense; No. 3 Pass Defense; No. 2 Total Defense; No. 1 Scoring Defense) will be the most complete defense the Michigan Wolverines have faced all season. However, Alabama exposed some weaknesses during the SEC Championship the Wolverine’s offense could exploit.

Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and his unit have overcome several formidable tests during the 2021 season. The Wolverines like to pound the rock and will look to “Run the damn ball” against the Bulldogs, but have evolved into a team that can win in a myriad of ways offensively. And against a defense this fast and talented, a respectable passing attack is a prerequisite to four quarters of success.

Here are three benchmark examples of how the Michigan offense has grown from one dimensionality into one of the most balanced and explosive offenses in the country.

First Test: Washington (No. 109 Rush Defense; No. 1 Pass Defense; No. 25 Total Defense; No. 37 Scoring Defense)

In just the second game of the season and the offense in its infancy, the Wolverines welcomed the Washington Huskies to the Big House. With No. 1 wide receiver Ronnie Bell being lost for the season seven days prior, the Michigan passing offense was facing its toughest test without its best weapon while still figuring out their identity.

According to PFF, the Washington cornerback duo of Kyler Gordon and Trent McDuffie are the only pair to each earn an 85+ grade. With more questions than answers in the second game of the season, Gattis was taking zero risks with quarterback Cade McNamara against these Washington cornerbacks.

Because of Washington’s abominable run defense, the Wolverines needed only 44 passing yards to win this one by three touchdowns. Running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins combined for 326 yards and four touchdowns as Michigan literally ran away with the victory.

Michigan was able to avoid a team’s strength and take advantage of their weakness, but how would it fare against a more balanced defensive unit?

First Road Test: Wisconsin (No. 1 Rush Defense; No. 5 Pass Defense; No. 1 Total Defense; No. 6 Scoring Defense)

Michigan had not won at Wisconsin since 2001 and had not beaten the Badgers anywhere since 2018. Coming off the worst home loss in the history of Michigan Stadium in 2020 at the hands of Wisconsin (49-11 in front of DOZENS of cardboard cutouts), revenge was on the mind of the Wolverines.

However, revenge was hard fought and if you told a fan that Haskins and Corum combined for less than 100 yards and zero touchdowns, no one would have guessed Michigan won by 21 and played reserves in the fourth quarter.

McNamara completed 17-of-28 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns. He was accurate and spread the wealth to eight different pass catchers. In their fifth game of the season, on the road, the Michigan passing offense found its footing just when it needed to.

And in what would become a staple of his playing style, when Michigan needed him most, McNamara was at his best.

Final Big Ten Test: Iowa (No. 13 Rush Defense; No. 42 Pass Defense; No. 15 Total Defense; No. 14 Scoring Defense)

Iowa had not given up 40 or more points in a loss since 2016, but unfortunately for Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes, this was not the Michigan they faced the previous two times.

In 2016, Iowa defeated Michigan at Kinnick Staduium 14-13 and in 2019, the Wolverines won unimpressively 10-3. This time, Iowa ran into a buzz saw of a Michigan offense.

This is the Michigan offense in its final form. Three different players attempted a pass, eight different players ran the ball, 10 different players made receptions, and almost all of this allocation came with the final result still hanging in the balance.

Michigan threw for 250 yards and rushed for 211 yards in this 39-point victory in the Big Ten Championship. The Wolverines earned this coveted 13th game of the season and seized an opportunity for a 14th with an explosive attack through the air and on the ground, to fully complement their defense.

Early in the season when the offense was criticized for lack of balance, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh offered this just and playful response: “Heard a little bit of noise about, ‘Why so much running? Are you gonna throw more?’ That kind of thing. We all know there are lot of ways to travel. Some people choose to travel on the ground; some people by air. George Patton was able to get his job done on the ground. Neil Armstrong: through the air. Last Saturday night, we chose to grind it out on the ground. And we were also able to get our mission accomplished.”

Heading into the College Football Playoff, Harbaugh, Gattis and this offense have proven they can travel just as well through the air as on the ground. While Georgia is the most complete defense Michigan will have faced, the Wolverines will be the most complete offense the Bulldogs have faced this season.