Michigan players say team lacks 'identity,' will be fine in time

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Wisconsin safety Eric Burrell celebrates after recovering a Michigan fumble near the end zone in the first quarter.

Madison, Wis. — Through three games, it’s difficult to know what kind of team Michigan is and could become.

The players are aware the Wolverines lack an identity and are searching. It became more obvious during their 35-14 beatdown at Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Michigan’s offense is still trying to find the speed and the space in new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ self-proclaimed speed-in-space no-huddle scheme. Meanwhile, the defense is still trying to establish itself and find the play that had made the Wolverines among the nation’s best statistically the last few seasons.

Michigan was 0-for-10 on third down and had 40 yards rushing in the loss. Turnovers have tarnished their efforts the first three games, stymied progress and put a hitch in finding any sort of consistent rhythm. They affected the team again on Saturday.

It might have looked like a rock-bottom performance, but tight end Nick Eubanks is confident the Wolverines aren’t that far down in a hole looking up.

“Not necessarily,” Eubanks said after the loss that pushes Michigan to 2-1. “I think of it as a whole group we don’t have an identity yet. It’s up to us to find our identity even though we’ve got a game coming up next Saturday. We gotta find it quick. We know what type of season it is — it’s a long season. It’s a gut check, but we’ve got to be able to capitalize on it.”

They had a spring to work on the new offense, an offseason and preseason camp. The Wolverines did not have a game last week and said they spent time working on ball security and getting the offense more in sync. That hasn’t been easy or as quick as anyone might have thought. Eubanks said transitioning to the new offense isn’t easy to “get accustomed to right away.” He doesn’t think they’re way off, but they certainly need to capitalize more.

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Turnovers hinder any offense’s attempt at finding rhythm. Coming into the Wisconsin game, Michigan had lost five fumbles. Against the Badgers, Michigan had two interceptions and two fumbles.

“I believe our offense is not consistent as we hoped it to be,” Eubanks said. “Through the next few practices, we’ll find our identity and we’ll find our rhythm.”

Left tackle Jon Runyan, making his first start of the year after missing the first two with an injury, credited the Badgers defense for countering everything Michigan tried. He agreed with Eubanks’ assessment that the team lacks an identity.

“I’d say that’s fair to say,” Runyan said. “First three games haven’t been able to dictate the game how we wanted, being able to throw the ball when we want, being able to run the ball. We got into tough situations the whole fourth quarter. I think we threw the ball, it felt like 30 times in a row and that’s tough on our receivers, our linemen, it’s tough on everybody, running backs picking up blitzes. You don’t want to be in that situation, obviously, but you’ve got to make the best of it.”

Defensively, the Wolverines also haven’t had a rhythm and haven’t been able to dictate all that much through the first three games, and especially against Wisconsin.

“We pride ourself on being the best defense in college football and these past couple of weeks we haven’t shown that,” safety Josh Metellus said. “Going on, we’ve got to keep doing our job, keep putting our faith in coach (Don) Brown and that he’ll put us in the right positions to keep making plays and see what happens every day, one play at a time.”

Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said improvement will come.

“We’re looking right now,” Hutchinson said of the defense’s identity. “We struggled a lot offensively and defensively. We’ll get better every week, though.”

The players believe they will make the proper adjustments and improvement.

“I wouldn’t say we’re that far off,” Eubanks said. “We’re there, but we’re not where we want to be. It’s a trouble, it’s a hassle with it right now. We’ve just got to fine tune and tune into that detail, and we’ll be fluent.”


Twitter: @chengelis