Gattis: Bye week allows Michigan offense to get a grip, move forward

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan center Cesar Ruiz said the Wolverines will use the extra time this week to prepare to work out all the blemishes that scarred the first two games.

There are plenty of issues the offensive players have said since beating Army in double-overtime last Saturday to move to 2-0 before opening the Big Ten at Wisconsin on Sept. 21. What are those kinks they kept mentioning?

“You guys saw it,” Ruiz said

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson fumbles the the ball for a turnover as he is tackled by Army linebacker Arik Smith first quarter. It was the first of two fumbles in the first quarter by Patterson.

Yes, everyone knows what Michigan’s issues are on offense, and they start with the turnovers — five lost fumbles in two games, including three in the first half against Army. Michigan lost three fumbles all of last season.

But that’s not all everyone has seen.

“The penalties, picking up blocks, ball security, execution,” Ruiz said. “Every single one of those things we understand completely, and we know how to execute every one of those things. That’s what we practice every day. It’s just taking it to the next level and focus on it more.”

Josh Gattis. Michigan’s first-year offensive coordinator, installed a no-huddle spread in the spring and while he feels his players have a full grasp of the offense, there have been plenty of mistakes and a lot less speed in space — Gattis’ term — than most anticipated.

Gattis, calling plays for the first time in his coaching career, did not sugarcoat during his autopsy of these first two games while meeting with reporters on Monday. The Wolverines, he said, have played clean in practices and ball security hasn’t been an issue, but on the big stage, mistakes have happened and now is when the work begins to fix them.

“I think our kids are just pressing,” Gattis said. “They want to be great. There’s a high level of excitement and standard for them. A lot of pressure. Right now, (with the upcoming Saturday off) it’s a perfect opportunity to get them to calm now (and say), ‘Hey, let’s just play loose, let’s play our type of football.’

“We’ll spend the bye week, hopefully, (to) get some voodoo expert in here, get rid of the curse of the fumbles. We’ve put a ton of work in our ball security. We do ball security drills every day in practice. If it was an issue that showed up in practice, it would be alarming it carries over to games. It’s been totally uncommon. We haven’t put the ball on the ground in practice.”

He was joking about the voodoo expert, of course. Ball handling has been an issue and backs have missed in pass protection. Quarterback Shea Patterson, who has been dealing with an oblique muscle issue since the first play of the Middle Tennessee State game when he fumbled, lost the first fumble and was blindsided on the second and stripped of the ball. Running back Ben VanSumeren also lost a fumble.

“We had two fumbles on sacks,” Gattis said. “Both were easy protection pickups that we kind of missed at the running back position. The first one obviously we’d love Shea to hang onto the ball with two hands on it. We’ve got to clean up the protection deals that we had when we mis-ID’d people and didn’t pick them up at the running back position and we’ve got to make sure we secure the ball throughout all of our touches.

"Those three were big because they happened in the first half so they really deflate a little bit of your momentum going into half with your team and you’re putting your defense in touch positions. We’ve got to secure every ball and make sure we don’t put the ball on the ground.”

There have also been occasions the offense hasn’t taken advantage of plays that have been there for them.

“When you look over the two games, we have seven fumbles, we have 10 penalties and we have seven drops,” Gattis said. “You go back and look at all those plays in critical situations, they’re killing us. There’s been a lot of positives. In the past two games, we’ve run 160 plays, we’ve had 17 explosives and we’ve had a number of different other explosive opportunities we’ve just missed whether it’s overthrown balls, dropped balls, guys wide open to create some big opportunities — we’ve missed about six of those. We’ve got to get our timing down in every phase in every aspect of our operation on offense.

“We have to eliminate the mistakes that hurt us. In drives we’ve been stopped, we’ve stopped ourselves.”

There also has been some interesting decision in play-calling. Michigan was 1-of-3 on third down against Army and passed up a field goal in the fourth quarter with the game tied and was denied the first down. Michigan failed on fourth down the next series, as well.

“We wanted to be aggressive throughout the game,” Gattis said of the decision to go for it and not the field goal. “We had three fourth downs, we were 1-of-3. The analytics supported all three as far as going for it. The last one we wanted to be really aggressive. The situation going into the last drive, we get the ball backed up on our own 20 and there’s six minutes left to go in the game. We go on an 11-play drive right there where we eat up four minutes off the clock and Army has only one timeout left.

"We knew they’re not a two-minute team because they’ve got to run their plays in from the sideline. I wanted to use as much clock as possible. If we could have converted there on fourth down, we could have ended the game on our terms. Had it gone any other way we would have gave the ball back to them with a ton of time left and an opportunity to get even closer for a field goal. I felt like we had a great call. We’ve just got to execute it and we’ve got to be able to put them in better position with some of the things we do from that standpoint.”

Gattis said he and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discussed the options before making the call.

“That’s a discussion we have throughout the series,” he said. ‘Coach says, ‘Hey do you have a call? Do you like your call? Yes, I like my call,’ and I’m going to put our faith in our guys every time. That’s the mentality we’re going to have. Obviously, in situations you want to take the points or you need to take the points.

"There’s two ways you can look at it — you can take the points and you’re still giving the ball back to them with plenty of time or you choose to end it on your own time. We felt good at the time we were moving the ball and we hit a fourth-down conversation earlier than that. I’ll do a better job of putting the guys in position to be successful expecting pressure. We’ve got to go out there and execute.”

If the Wolverines have been pressing, it might be because there has been so much talk and hype about the new offense and what it can do if properly executed.

“The pressure from the outside,” Gattis said. “Obviously, there’s been a huge bubble that’s been put on our program as far as wanting to be successful and our kids want to be successful. It just happens. It happens in college football. This is not rare by any means. You see teams all over the country.

"Our defense has done a really good job supporting us during this time where we’ve had some critical mistakes. I have the utmost faith in our guys, I know who they are, they’ve shown who they are in practice. We’ll get it cleaned up. We’ll go on to be a successful.”

Ruiz searched for a word to describe what the offensive players are going through. He mentioned “growing pains” but said those don't properly illustrate what's been happening.

“We understand the offense, we understand everything, just here and there you’re going to run into some mistakes every game,” Ruiz said. “Every game is not going to be perfect, but it’s up to us to minimize every single one of those mistakes. It’s great we have a bye week to focus on a lot of those things and to get extra focus on those.

“We’re not where we want to be yet. We’re never going to be where we want to be because every time we get to where we want to be, we’re going to want to be better. We’re taking steps in the right direction.”

Twitter: @chengelis