Gattis sees eliminating turnovers as top priority for reestablishing Michigan's offensive morale

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Turnovers are drive killers, and they’re also devastating for in-game morale.

That’s what Michigan first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis saw in the Wolverines’ Big Ten opener last Saturday at Wisconsin. In the 35-14 beatdown, the Wolverines were held to 40 yards rushing, 0-for-10 on third down and added to their ever-expanding turnover total — they had four against the Badgers and nine for the season through three games.

Wisconsin's Eric Burrell holds the football after Michigan's Ben Mason fumbles in the first quarter.

In fact, Michigan’s first series of each game has ended with a fumble, but perhaps the most devastating was Ben Mason’s at the Wisconsin 4-yard line. Mason, a fullback last season converted to defensive tackle, had been working some at running back in the weeks prior to the opener. He had not had a carry since the bowl game. A score there would have answered the Badgers’ opening-drive touchdown, but they went on to build a 35-0 lead.

“When you look at the game, you don’t really have to look at the stats,” Gattis said Wednesday before practice. "Obviously, we didn’t play great. Obviously, we fell behind early. Missed some opportunities to capitalize on some big plays in the game, that really kinda devastated the morale of the team and, really, as an offense. The thing for us is responding to the adversity early on.

“You look at it, we’ve had three opening drives that have all ended in fumbles, and we’ve got to learn how to respond in those situations when we face adversity. And so, the statistics at the end of the game didn’t really matter. We saw it. I felt the pain for the kids. When you’re able to go in that locker room and look in their eyes and see what they’re going through and how they feel, it hurt. It hurt. It’s one of those feelings you never want to experience again.”

Michigan is ranked 118th of 130 teams nationally in turnovers lost and is 119th in turnover margin.

“I think when you look at all three first series, there was opportunities for plays to be made,” Gattis said. “Obviously, the first play of the first game was the missed route by the back, didn’t get out, quarterback scrambles and then we put the ball on the ground. Then, the other series, wee’re driving and starting to have momentum, and then you face adversity, and it kind of deflates and takes the air out of the unit.

“The biggest thing for us is being able to overcome adversity, play with confidence and continue to play with confidence throughout the game. Don’t let outside factors or within-the-game factors decide how the game finishes. And that’s something we’re gonna keep emphasizing and keep stressing. To see the kids show up on Monday ready to work, there was a sense of — obviously, there was a sense of humility for everyone leaving that field — but the thing you want to see as a coach is how they’re willing to respond. And to look into the eyes of these young men and see their commitment, to see they didn’t just quit at the end of the game — morally, OK, did we feel defeated? Yes, but I think there’s an element that the kids fought to the end. We’re ready to overcome It, move on and focus on Rutgers.”

But can they jump off this turnover train and allow Gattis' speed-in-space offense to finally find a rhythm? Gattis described the offense as having “undisciplined characteristics” but the thing is, he doesn’t see that in practices. He is at a loss to explain why they keep occurring, especially, he said, because of the amount of time they’ve spent on ball security.

“I really don’t know.” Gattis said. “There has been a disparity (from practices to the games) and that’s kinda what I talked about with our unit — ‘Where is the disconnect between practice and now getting into the games?’ ”

He hopes the players can push the negative plays from their minds and keep focusing on improving.

“I don’t blame them, I feel for them,” Gattis said. “But it’s something we’ve got to overcome. When the first piece of adversity strikes, we can’t fold It’s become a little bit of an issue that we’ve put our team in some bad positions with so many of ‘em being so early. We’ve got to keep stressing the importance of the details of ball security. Each and every player has got to make it really important on each and every play that we’re protecting the ball. It’s not just the ball carrier, it’s everybody finishing on blocks. It’s blocking on the perimeter. It’s blocking secondary players so guys don’t get hit at the second level.

“But it’s definitely devastating to go through. We’ve just got to find a way. We lost the game on Saturday. We can’t let it beat us twice. Facing the players in the locker room and the thing I told them on Monday is we’ve got to be ready to move on. They need leadership more than anything right now. I stressed my belief in them and my belief in the system. We’ve got to move forward from this point on and be ready to focus this week on beating Rutgers and that’s what matters.”

Gattis was on the Penn State staff in 2016 when the Nittany Lions were 2-2 and then beaten badly by Michigan, 49-10. The Nittany Lions rebounded and won the Big Ten championship, so that’s what he has reminded the Michigan players who are 2-1 with Rutgers coming to Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

He said the Wolverines have gone a bit old-school this week, having the first-team offense face the first-team defense, a departure from typically practicing against the scout teams. They refer to it as a “good on good” which is how they practice in the spring and much of fall camp. That likely makes for more physical practices although they lose reps preparing for the next opponent.

“But for us, it’s not about anything else — it’s about us,” Gattis said. “It’s about the team. It’s about us as an offense. It’s about us as a unit. Obviously, our focus this week is on Rutgers and solely on Rutgers, but our main focus internally is improving the way we can improve and eliminating the mistakes that we’ve made.” @chengelis