Ghastly Michigan offense hurt by self-inflicted wounds

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – Name an issue with the offense, and Michigan has endured it this season.

Against Michigan State last Saturday, the Wolverines added a new, more pronounced wrinkle – dropped passes. They had seven at Spartan Stadium, some in critical situations and by top receivers.

Michigan is 3-5 overall and is fighting for bowl eligibility, needing to win three of the final four games. That begins Saturday against Indiana at Michigan Stadium. Two of the final four games are on the road against Northwestern and Ohio State.

The Wolverines are last in the Big Ten in total offense (320.8 yards) and scoring offense (20.4 points), and the game at MSU did not go far toward boosting their ranking in pass offense. They are ranked 12th in the conference (169.5 yards).

"It was uncharacteristic, really, of what we've done during the season," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said this week. "We thought the game would boil down to us having the ability to make plays down the field and have opportunities. Those opportunities presented themselves but unfortunately we weren't able to convert. They made a couple of good plays and others were simple plays we should make."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke said a big part of the issue with the drops was lack of concentration.

"I think it's like anything else – I think your focus, intensity and concentration on what you're doing isn't where it needs to be, I think that's a big part of it," Hoke said. "Were they all easy (catches)? Maybe not, but it's like playing a double-team. I'll relate it to a defensive lineman. If you're not focused and (with) intensity on the blocks and leverage and eyes and where your hand placement is, you're not going to play the double-team very well."

Indiana will not come close to providing the defensive test Michigan faced at Michigan State. The Hoosiers are last in the conference in scoring defense, yielding an average 34.9 points, and also last in pass defense (282.6).

But even so, Michigan has been its worst enemy in the majority of circumstances.

The Wolverines are minus-14 in turnover margin, near the bottom of the national rankings, and quarterback Devin Gardner, who has been hobbled with what he described as a high left ankle sprain suffered in the Penn State game three weeks ago, has thrown 10 interceptions. He had two against MSU in addition to a fumble.

Clearly, turnovers have upended anything the offense has tried to establish.

"You cannot turn the ball over three times and expect to win football games," Nussmeier said. "We've talked about it week in and week out. At times we've limited that, but we haven't completely eliminated it the way we need to. It's a focal point every day. We talk about it, do drills in practice, and it's something our kids understand and we've just got to get better at it."

Nussmeier has said the offense all season has lacked consistency. That's in part because of turnovers, but there have been series in which Michigan hasn't turned the ball over, but it simply can't generate offense and is incapable of moving the ball.

"The challenge we've had is getting all 11 guys at one time to be doing the right thing at the right time," Nussmeier said. "You can see it. We get compartmentalized a little bit. You have maybe one time here where this group does it right, but this group doesn't. It's trying to get everybody on the same page, and we're still working to find the answers."

At this point, the questions are more abundant than the answers.

Michigan has 17 offensive touchdowns, but 10 came against its weakest opponents, Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio). The Wolverines went two games – Notre Dame and Utah – without an offensive score, and have scored only one touchdown in each of the last two games.

Obviously, since Michigan is near or at the bottom of the Big Ten, the Wolverines are among the nation's worst. They are 115th in total offense and 110th in scoring offense.

Devin Funchess, the team's leading receiver, was guilty of a few key drops at Michigan State, and then there's Jake Butt, the tight end projected to be a major contributor this fall even after coming off a torn knee ligament.

Butt, who has only 10 catches for 113 yards, was the wide-open receiver on both plays that were interceptions against Michigan State.

"Honestly, I did think I'd probably be targeted a little more," Butt said. "At the end of the day … I just want to win. Personal stats don't matter to me. I want to win at the end of the day."

Indiana at Michigan

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/WWJ

Records: Indiana 3-4, 0-3 Big Ten; Michigan 3-5, 1-3

Line: Michigan by 7

Series: Michigan leads 53-9 (Michigan 63-47, Oct. 19, 2013)