Michigan's offense regresses further in loss to MSU

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Where to begin?

When you're smack dab at the bottom of most offensive categories, at least in the Big Ten and pretty close to it nationally, and you're turnover margin is just a tick above the worst nationally, apparently you just start at the bottom.

Michigan is 3-5 overall, 1-3 Big Ten and coming off a 35-11 loss at Michigan State, the sixth loss to the Wolverines' in-state rival in seven years.

That's not bottom, but it almost is — Indiana, Michigan's opponent Saturday at Michigan Stadium, is winless in the conference and last in the Big Ten's East Division. Michigan is tied at 1-3 with Rutgers and Penn State.

This, of course, is not how you win a Big Ten championship, something the Wolverines have not done since 2014 and which Brady Hoke set out to do when he became head coach in 2011.

There wasn't just one area that was exposed at Michigan State, but there was one most glaring — the lack of offensive production. Sure, Michigan kept plugging and scored a late touchdown, its first against MSU since the third quarter of the 2011 game, but the offensive output resembled what has been evident all season.

Fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner had two interceptions, one of them returned for a touchdown. He had an interception and fumble deep in Michigan State territory. He was 13-of-28 for 121 yards (to be fair, there were several dropped balls) and did not throw a touchdown.

Michigan is minus-14 in turnover margin, last in the Big Ten and second-to-last nationally. Gardner has thrown 10 interceptions to six touchdowns.

In the first quarter, Michigan got the ball at the MSU 29-yard line after a personal foul on the punt return. Gardner fumbled on the first play of that drive. Michigan State did not capitalize, however, missing on a field goal off that turnover.

Gardner was intercepted in the third quarter by RJ Williamson, who returned it 29 yards for a touchdown to give Michigan State a 21-3 lead. And on Michigan's first drive of the fourth quarter, Gardner had moved the Wolverines to the MSU 22when his befuddling shovel pass was intercepted by Taiwan Jones.

"He thought he had something there or he wouldn't have done it," Hoke said.

Gardner was not available after the game.

Hoke tried to explain Gardner's turnovers.

"He's constantly trying to make a play," Hoke said. "The pick-6 was a pretty athletic play in some regards by the defender. Tried to maybe put it in there in a small window. Part of it is he's aggressive, he believes in himself, believes in making plays. Do you coach to try and not to? Yeah, every day."

Turnovers certainly are a culprit when it comes to diminishing offensive numbers, but that's not the whole picture.

The Wolverines have 17 offensive touchdowns this season, and that includes the 10 total they scored against Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio). They were scoreless at Notre Dame and failed to score an offensive touchdown against Utah.

After scoring two touchdowns against Minnesota and three at Rutgers, Michigan has scored only one touchdown in each of the last two games.

Michigan is 115th nationally in total offense, last in the Big Ten, averaging 320.8 yards under Doug Nussmeier, in his first season asoffensive coordinator. Rich Rodriguez's inaugural team averaged 290.8 yards during a 3-9 season in 2008, but beyond that, this has been Michigan's worst output since 1984. That season, Michigan averaged 308.4 yards and finished 6-6.

Not surprisingly, with four games remaining, Michigan is last in the Big Ten and 110th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 20.4 points. That is just a hair above what the Wolverines averaged in 2008 (20.2 points). Again, you'd have to go back to 1984 for a worse scoring offense when Michigan averaged 17.8 points.

"We've got some fixing to do," Hoke said Saturday. "There's no doubt Doug and the offensive staff and the players will go back to work and work hard to make it better."

What that doesn't indicate is whether Gardner or sophomore Shane Morris will be the quarterback to help try to make the offense better.

With 5:24 left, Morris entered the game for one play. Gardner returned the next play. It was an odd exchange that wasn't fully explained after the game.

"What happened at the end, Devin was going to finish the game," Hoke said. "As I thought of it, I thought it was important. He wanted to — he's from this state, last time he'll play Michigan State — to finish the game."

Gardner's 121 yards against Michigan State represented his lowest output of the season.

Michigan plays at home against Indiana on Saturday. Hoke did not offer a firm answer when asked after the MSU loss if Gardner will be the starter.

"Why don't you let us think about it tonight?" Hoke said after the game. "I think it's Devin's job right now."