Michigan's sputtering offense not living up to 'speed in space' hype
Ann Arbor — There’s something about overpromising and overhyping that if results aren’t immediate, consumers become increasingly irate and might even want their money back.
After two games, but particularly after Michigan’s 24-21 double-overtime win over Army, it is no wonder people are questioning just where is this “speed in space?”
In this era of immediate gratification, it is understandable why fans are grousing. It is understandable that a fan base that hasn’t seen a Big Ten championship since 2004 already is shifting uncomfortably in their seats and in front of their televisions.
When Josh Gattis was hired earlier this year as a first-time offensive coordinator/play caller, he introduced himself on Twitter with rave views thanks in large part to his calling card: #speedinspace. That was music to the ears of those who wanted to see the Wolverines take not just a step but a leap to a more modern approach to offense.
It is overstating it to say Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was stuck in some time warp of old-school football, because that’s just not true. But were there bouts of conservative play-calling during his first four seasons coaching the Wolverines? Absolutely.
As a word of caution, it’s two games into the season and Michigan has the luxury of a very nicely timed free Saturday before opening Big Ten play at Wisconsin in less than two weeks. Starting left tackle Jon Runyan hasn’t played because of an injury, and that’s huge, because after closer inspection, this offensive line still isn’t “there” and he’s a big missing piece. Also, receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who should thrive in Gattis’ offense, also hasn’t played.
But that doesn’t explain why it felt like Michigan’s offense on Saturday made a U-turn from the season opener when it seemed Michigan opened its playbook and tried this and tried that and tried more of this and more of that to shutting things down and becoming conservative against the Black Knights. It didn’t look like speed in space but more like speed in the continuum, which suggests that eventually Michigan will get there. But when?
Michigan had three first-half fumbles — quarterback Shea Patterson was way too loose with the ball on the first fumble, Christian Turner blew a protection on the second allowing Patterson to get hit and stripped of the ball, and Ben VanSumeren, on his first carry, fumbled. But those errors, on top of being heavily penalized in the first half, seemed to force the offense into a shell and abandon options. After all, all we heard about all camp is the number of skill players the offense has and the potential for scoring every time Michigan has the ball.
“That’s not really new offensive stuff,” Harbaugh said, when discussing the fumbles, trying to take the blame from the scheme.
Gattis felt compelled to tweet after the game that everyone is “sticking together! We will get it cleaned up! We are strong enough with US!”
Again, a second reminder of caution — it is two games into the season, it’s too early for people to panic, because the first game provided evidence of said playmakers.
Patterson was hurt on that first play in the opener. How hurt, no one will say, but did that alter the game plan against Army? Could it be the offensive line, without Runyan, just isn’t good enough yet?
Not lost in all of this is after the game, the players said they know this offense is by no means a finished product. Gattis with his tweet indicated that, but turnovers are a rhythm killer on offense and against a ball-control offense like Army, teams have to make the most of their possessions and Michigan didn’t. Two-time captain Ben Bredeson, the starting left guard, said the offense obviously created its own issues early on.
“It’s tough, especially when you’re starting to get things going, we had some mistakes,” Bredeson said. “We had some penalties, some turnovers, things we need to clean up. It’s hard to get in an offensive rhythm with that, but really liked how the team fought through at the end of the game, through all those mistakes we had earlier to be able to close it out.”
But where was the “speed in space?"
“We’ve just got some kinks in the offense we’re still working through,” Bredeson said. “It’s a new look for us. We’re two weeks in and going through this bye week going into the Big Ten season will be good for us. We’ve seen what’s working for us, what’s not, and we’ll be able to make some changes.”
Bredeson’s words should calm some of the overreaction, but it is certainly reasonable to wonder why this offense hasn’t come out of the gate quickly. Perhaps it’s a function of weeks of preseason hype that only serve to increase expectations to an absurd level.
No one, it seems, wants to listen to retired Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, but he knows this type of offense well and weeks ago said you can’t just install a spread offense and, voila, expect it to work instantly. He wondered if Harbaugh would have the patience to get through the growing pains until the offensive players really “get” it.
No matter how high a bar fans have set, it is fair to say more was expected from the offense against Army, and that’s understanding the fumbles and the absences of a few key players. Yes, Michigan played hard and the defense came through at the end, but it’s difficult to overlook decisions to go for it on fourth down, especially the first of two in the fourth quarter, when a makeable field goal would have snapped the tie.
Harbaugh said the “analytics” indicated the Wolverines should have gone for it, but since when did analytics take the place of a coach making a decision based on the “feel” of the game? There is no denying freshman back Zach Charbonnet appears to be tough-running back, but he also wasn’t getting big-time chunks of yards — offensive line needs to take some of the blame here — and there are two kickers who are capable to getting those three points.
Michigan has time now to keep working, but playing at Wisconsin is never easy and that game will tell people a lot about where this offense is and how far it can go.
“There’s some kinks to work out,” Bredeson said. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job of (running this offense) now. We’ve been able to run this system for one spring ball, one camp and now two games. I’m liking where we’re at and we’re still learning and working some kinks out.”
What does Bredeson think they need to work on?
“It’s just the mental focus on everybody,” he said. “We had some penalties. We lost the ball a few times. Things like that we can’t afford late in the season. We made strides in the way we finished the game. Really proud of the guys for fighting through it. Just about everything that could have gone wrong for us went wrong in this game and everyone was able to stay together and finish it out. A win is a win at the end of the day.”