Michigan takeaways: Wolverines' ground game loses its footing

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Five takeaways from Angelique S. Chengelis of The Detroit News following Michigan's 35-14 loss at Wisconsin on Saturday. 

Few answers

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh looked lost and at a loss after the game. He said his team was out-prepared, outplayed, outcoached, and here are a few more — they were out-toughed and out-motivated. He said it — all but the last two — he admitted it and he was right, so give him credit for that. But he can never quite explain why and probably wouldn’t if he does know. What he didn’t say was out-toughed. That’s not something coaches like to admit, but Wisconsin out-toughed Michigan. Where does that start? With coaching. Does that mean having them run more laps if they fumble in practice or miss a read? No. Toughness is innate, but it can also be nurtured by strong motivational tactics. Harbaugh knows something about that. He played for Bo Schembechler, after all, and it’s time to dip into that well.

Players are searching

Sometimes it does take a few games for a team to find its rhythm and — yes, this is an overused word — its identity. That the players freely discussed in postgame interviews they don’t know what their identity is on both sides of the ball is concerning for a team heading into its fourth game. The identity of Michigan’s teams the last few seasons has started with the defense, which has given time for the offense to catch up. But now the Wolverines are looking for an identity on offense and defense, and that’s a problem. How hard is it to develop an identity anyway? Seems pretty simple — the offense should be about a nasty offensive line setting the tone and the defense should be about a nasty defensive line setting the tone. There. That’s what Michigan needs to find on both sides. But that's easier said than done, clearly.

Running woes

Effectively running and stopping the run is pretty fundamental to a sound offense and defense, and Michigan is lacking in both areas. Yes, Army ran and ran its unique triple option, so maybe cut the Wolverines some slack? Nope. Because then they turned around and gave up 359 yards to Wisconsin two weeks later, including 203 to Jonathan Taylor. Michigan ranks 114th in rush defense, allowing 208.7 yards per game. You read that right, and it’s mind-boggling. On offense, it always felt like a line that the coaches settled on. You know the one about how they have five backs they feel comfortable with? It’s freshman Zach Charbonnet and four others. Tru Wilson has been out the last two games and has been sorely missed in pass protection, and Christian Turner is a nice change-up. Michigan got 23 yards rushing from its backs on Saturday and 40 total. Turner had six carries for 17 yards and Charbonnet had two attempts for six yards. Harbaugh said Charbonnet was “limited” but when Michigan was forced to pass every down, he was used in pass protection. Someone has to emerge.

Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet was held to six yards on two carries against Wisconsin.

Can’t find a rhythm

In some ways, this is a continuation of the above. But this time, it’s all focused on the offensive line. Jon Runyan returned to the starting lineup at left tackle, and this isn’t on him, but the group never got it together and the line has been an issue this season. Of course it was put in a difficult position late in the game when Michigan had to throw because they were playing catch-up. But 40 yards rushing? The offensive line always looks at the rushing stats to help determine how solid their play was game to game. But Saturday's outing? Well, that goes without saying. This is not a line that is controlling anything, and that needs to get fixed pronto. The linemen said in the spring they were going to be the strength of the offense. No further comment.

Improving at QB

No one is absolving the play of Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson or his backup Dylan McCaffrey. But don’t overlook the fact Patterson has been beaten up since the first game of the season That’s in part because of the lack of protection — Michigan is tied for 94th in sacks allowed — and sure, Patterson needs to recognize the pressure faster to avoid the sacks. He obviously needs to hang onto the ball and avoid fumbles. The Wolverines did not maintain possession long at Wisconsin, and they never developed any sort of rhythm because they never developed a run game because they didn’t get a strong push from the offensive line. And because of that, the quarterbacks are left with little to work with and suddenly, everyone on offense starts to press. See, there's a domino effect here, and they'll have a chance against Rutgers on Saturday to trend toward the positive. But after that? The Wolverines need to figure that out.


Twitter: @chengelis