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Fumble-itis makes Michigan sick, but Jim Harbaugh thinks he has a cure

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

So now it gets interesting.

Not that 16th-ranked Michigan hasn’t already played its way to a most interesting 5-1 record so far.

As the Wolverines enter the second half of the season, the challenges are only getting stiffer. In a hurry, too. The Wolverines (5-1, 3-1 Big Ten) head to unbeaten Penn State for an important Big Ten East game Saturday night game in always intimidating “whiteout” conditions at Beaver Stadium.

Michigan then returns home to play its final non-conference game against Notre Dame, before finishing with league road games at Maryland, home against rival Michigan State, on the road at Indiana and then the regular-season and home finale against powerful Ohio State.

Michigan's Tru Wilson, who had a fumble Saturday, runs past Illinois' Sydney Brown.

Let’s take a quick look at the first six games:

►Michigan beat Middle Tennessee State, 40-21, but had four fumbles and lost two.

►Then Michigan struggled in double-overtime against Army and needed a big finish from the defense to seal the 24-21 victory. The Wolverines had four fumbles and lost three.

►Heading into the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin, the Michigan players said they wanted to make a statement. They did. The wrong one. The Wolverines trailed 35-0 in the 35-14 spanking and had three fumbles and lost two.

►Michigan did what it should do against rudderless Rutgers and walloped the Scarlet off the Knights, 52-0. UM recovered its one fumble,

►The Wolverines got a top-15 win over Iowa, 10-3, as the defense had eight sacks and three interceptions. Michigan had two fumbles but recovered both.

►And finally, the Wolverines beat Illinois, 42-25, after the defense took a siesta in the third quarter while the Illini scored 25 unanswered points. UM regrouped, scored two late touchdowns, and for the game had three fumbles, losing two.

There’s one constant thread through all the games – fumbles. Michigan has had 17 fumbles and lost nine, ranking the Wolverines 126th of 130 teams nationally. In two games Michigan didn’t lose a fumble – Rutgers and Iowa – and while not every fumble has been converted to a score, they are disruptive for any offense. For a team working in first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ new system, they have made rhythm difficult to maintain and many fans have joked that Gattis "speed in space" offense could more accurately be labeled "fumble in space."

Quarterback Shea Patterson has fumbled six times, losing four, and the running backs collectively have five fumbles and also lost four. On punt returns, Michigan has fumbled four times and lost one. Left tackle Jon Runyan fumbled on one bizarre play and backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey also fumbled once, but both were recovered.

Against Illinois on Saturday, running backs Zach Charbonnet and Tru Wilson each lost a fumble, while Patterson was able to recover his.

The coaches know fumbles are an issue. The players are aware, too. This has not been a secret, and Gattis joked after the Army game he was going to bring in a “voodoo doctor” to try to take care of the fumble-itis, as it’s called. No one has been joking about it lately, but what the Michigan coaches emphasize is this: What more can you do? They’re practicing ball security, coach Jim Harbaugh said, and sometimes fumbles happen.

“I saw the one with Zach as he was going down, he got hit from the side,” Harbaugh said after the Illinois game. “Keep coaching them, keep learning. A true freshman running back, that’s a tough kid who’s handled some pretty big shots. That drive was shaping up, we came off the goal line. Where we were was the one-foot line. I think the edge of the ball was as close to the goal line as I’ve ever seen it, the back end of it. That was starting to shape up as the longest drive in Michigan football history. Got it all the way to their 40-yard line. We did get the ball back and were able to score on the next possession.

“It happens, but we have to keep making an emphasis of it. Our backs, it’s the biggest emphasis that they have.”

As the opponents get tougher, so do the defenses, which will focus on attacking Michigan’s Achilles heel, trying to force turnovers. Penn State is now ranked No. 7 and has the nation’s fourth-ranked defense, yielding an average 259.7 yards a game, and is ranked 27th in turnover margin. Opponents have 10 fumbles and lost four against the Nittany Lions.

Interestingly, Harbaugh pointed out after the Illinois game that he was relieved to see there was no letdown after the two fumbles. It was well-noted that after Ben Mason fumbled deep in Wisconsin territory on the Wolverines’ opening drive – UM has fumbled on its first drive in three games – the team collectively felt defeated even before the Badgers began to pound them.

“The thing I was proud of as a team, there wasn’t this, ‘Here we go again,’” Harbaugh said, exhaling for effect like balloon losing its air. “They rose up and got a few fumbles of our own. There’s a callus that’s been built there and a toughness that’s been borne out of that.”

He built on that theme.

“A good character builder for the team that when the adversity did hit, the fumbles, our guys didn’t flinch,” he said. “Saw some real growth in that area.”

Tight end Luke Schoonmaker, who scored on a 25-yard pass from Patterson to give Michigan a 14-0 lead at Illinois, said the team understands it has had fumble issues but has learned to cope with them as they try to eliminate them.

“I think we didn’t even really think about it,” Schoonmaker said after the Illinois game. “We got right back up and knew our defense was going to hold for us and we were going to answer and stay confident and keep on going.”

The real growth, of course, is getting to the point Michigan stops fumbling. That will be done, Harbaugh said, by continuing to work on it in practice.

“Keep coaching the fumbles, coaching ball security all the way to the ground and through the whistle and the echo of the whistle and beyond,” Harbaugh said.

And beyond – that’s the key.

Get a grip

Michigan has 17 fumbles and has lost nine this season:

QB Shea Patterson: 6 fumbles (4 lost). 

Running backs: 5 fumbles (4 lost) – Zach Charbonnet (lost), Tru Wilson (lost), Ben VanSumeren (lost), Ben Mason (lost), Christian Turner.

Punt returns: 4 fumbles (1 lost) – Lavert Hill (lost), Ronnie Bell, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Mike Sainristil.

OL Jon Runyan: 1 fumble (0 lost)

QB Dylan McCaffrey: 1 fumble (0 lost)