Sometimes numbers lie. Sometimes statistics can be skewed to make a point.
And often they do tell the story. Or at least most of it.
Michigan lost its Big Ten opener, 35-14, at Wisconsin on Saturday after spotting the Badgers a 35-0 lead with about five minutes left in the third quarter. (Quick aside, at that point Wisconsin had outscored its first three opponents 145-0). Both teams entered the game at 2-0, did not have a game the previous week, and had more time to rest injuries and prepare.
Perhaps the Badgers should have received extra credit — more points — for preparation, because in that important phase of the game, they definitely pitched a shutout.
“We were outplayed,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said when asked after the game how the Wolverines could look so unprepared even with the extra week. “Out-prepared and outcoached. Outplayed. The whole thing. Both offensively and defensively. It was thorough. We knew it about their team. They’ve got the ability. They’re good enough, and if they play good enough they can be good enough to beat you thoroughly, and that’s what happened.”
There were several telling stats in the game, but a couple were glaring: 0-for-11 on third down, 40 yards rushing, four turnovers, and Wisconsin had the ball for 41:07. OK, so that’s more than a couple, but you get the picture. There is a lot wrong with the Wolverines and after a double-overtime scare against Army, the Badgers were the type of team that could expose Michigan's issues.
This was no longer about starters being injured, because a couple, starting left tackle Jon Runyan and receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, were back. This was about a team that didn’t look like the team that talked in the previous week about making a statement and were dismissive about being underdogs. Michigan is now 0-7 under Harbaugh in games in which the Wolverines were underdogs.
“We didn’t come out ready to play,” safety Josh Metellus said on Inside Michigan Football. “I feel as a whole team we weren’t ready to match their energy or have even more energy than they did. We came out flat and they took advantage.”
His statement was telling but three words stand out — “we weren’t ready.”
That falls on coaching.
Safety Brad Hawkins said on the show he couldn’t tell why the team was flat.
“We definitely came out sluggish,” he said. “And definitely came out slow.”
Hawkins added maybe that was because the Wolverines were off last week, but he didn’t seem to buy the words as he said them.
How they prepared — or didn’t — can be hashed out, but the numbers are not up for debate. They’re not very good and illuminate the issues. Josh Gattis was hired as a first-time coordinator and play-caller to install a no-huddle, up-tempo offense, and logic suggests that should have been fraught with difficulties because of the challenge of installing a new offense in the spring and having it ready for the season.
But the promise was "speed in space." Players said they liked what they had seen in practice and the offense would be capable of scoring every possession with the playmakers they have, especially at receiver.
Through three games, Michigan is ranked 97th nationally in both total offense (364 yards per game) and rushing offense (127 yards). It ranks 75th in passing offense (237 yards) and tied for 91st in scoring (26 points). The red-zone offense ranks 114th (nine scores in 13 attempts) and the Wolverines are 114th in time of possession (26 minutes).
Turnovers can kill any style of offense, and they’ve definitely put a stake in the heart of this one. The Wolverines had two fumbles and two interceptions at Wisconsin to add to the five fumbles through the first two games. They rank 118th out of 130 teams in turnovers lost and are 119th in turnover margin (minus-4).
“As a whole group we don’t have an identity yet,” tight end Nick Eubanks said after the loss. “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.
“I believe our offense is not consistent as we hoped it to be. Through the next few practices, we’ll find our identity and we’ll find our rhythm.”
Eubanks added that the offense isn’t far from where it wants to be.
Perhaps more glaring is the defense.
The Wolverines rank 47th nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 343.7 yards per game, 52nd in pass efficiency defense (125.19 rating) and 68th in scoring defense (25.7 points). But this is eye-opening — Michigan is 114th against the run, allowing an average of 208.7 yards. That has been the heart and soul of Don Brown’s defense, and it was nonexistent at Wisconsin. The Badgers rushed for 359 yards, including 203 by Jonathan Taylor.
“There were holes inside and when we shut those holes off inside he (Taylor) had the ability to bounce them to the outside,” Harbaugh said. “Controlled the game with the running game. Easy to see that and make the big plays, as well. He was impressive.”
Michigan lost key players on defense, everyone knew that. Defensive ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary are gone, as well as cornerback David Long and linebacker Devin Bush. Those are enormous shoes to fill but the players insisted there wouldn't be a drop-off. At this point last year — three games into the season that included an opening loss at Notre Dame — Michigan's defense ranked 12th nationally, yielding an average 276.3 yards, and was 37th against the run (121.7 yards).
Michigan has lost three of its last five games dating back to last year’s regular-season finale at Ohio State. In the three losses, including Saturday's mauling, Michigan's defense has allowed 124 points (not including a punt return score at Ohio state and a pick-six in the bowl game) — that’s an average of 41.3 points.
“We pride ourselves on being the best defense in college football and these past couple of weeks we haven’t shown that,” Metellus said. “Going on, we’ve got to keep doing our job, keep putting our faith in Coach 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 Wolverines said they’re not panicked and there’s plenty of time to get things corrected. They also have the good fortune of playing Rutgers on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
“It’s early. It’s Week 3. Third game of the season,” Metellus said. “We’ve got a lot more football left. As we all know, one game doesn’t define a season in college football. The only place we can go is up from here. We’ve got a lot of things to look forward to. I feel like we played great in the fourth quarter on both sides of the ball, so you know we’ve got a lot to push us into next week.”
Metellus said the players are maintaining a positive outlook. He is correct that the season is young, but there is clearly a need for a sense of urgency.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “We ain't got nothing to get down about. We played a good team. They played one of their best games in probably the last couple of years, and we didn’t play our best game. We’ve got a lot to look forward to. We’ve still got a great team. We’ve all got to trust in each other, we’ve all got each other’s back when somebody falls, so we’ve got to keep pushing.”
Rutgers at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 20 Michigan 2-1 (0-1 Big Ten); Rutgers 1-2 (0-1)
Line: Michigan by 27.5