Michigan offense getting past early jitters but will face big challenge at Penn State

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — There was an illusion created in the offseason, equal parts the result of Michigan offensive coaches and players and the media messengers, that the Wolverines would take a new offense installed by a first-year offensive coordinator calling plays for the first time in his career, and instantly take flight.

The concept behind offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ speed-in-space — his term — offense was to no huddle and get the ball to the playmakers from a spread approach.

Zach Charbonnet and Michigan's offense have been more productive since they re-embraced the running game.

Clearly, this has taken a bit more time than most expected, but the 16th-ranked Wolverines (5-1, 3-1 Big Ten) are feeling confident as they prepare to play at No. 7 Penn State (6-0, 3-0). The Nittany Lions boast the No. 4-ranked defense, yielding an average 259.7 yards per game. They're coming off a 17-12 win at Iowa, while Michigan won 42-25 at Illinois where the Wolverines had a 28-0 lead, then gave up 25 straight before closing out the game.

Michigan has won three straight since a dismal performance in the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin, a 35-14 defeat. At that time, tight end Nick Eubanks said the offense was searching for an identity. Now, he thinks the Wolverines are closing in on one. Since then, they have outscored opponents 104-28, being mindful that two games were bottom-rung Rutgers and Illinois. A 10-3 victory over then-No. 14 Iowa caused Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to say the offense was hitting its stride.

Eubanks thinks it is.

“We know with a new offense adversity is going to come,” Eubanks said Monday. “We came together.”

How much the Wolverines have it together will be borne out this latter half of the season when the defenses get tougher, starting at Penn State, then back at home for a night game against Notre Dame. They’ll also play Michigan State and Ohio State at home.

“This is the most important game, the next game,” Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. “That one-game approach is the way we’re looking at it. There’s an excitement to it. There’s a bounce in the step in everybody on the team. We accomplished what we wanted to this past week, which was win the game and improve as a football team. Now onward. Have at it.”

Eubanks said the players had probably been overthinking the offense earlier this season. After the Wisconsin game, the Wolverines hit the reset button.

“That’s when coach Gattis stepped in and was like, ‘We’re going to do things we’re good at,’ ” Eubanks said.

After the Wisconsin game, Eubanks expressed disappointment that the Wolverines, who had only 40 yards rushing, went away from trying to run the ball.

“Now we’re back to it, and it’s starting to balance (the offense) more,” Eubanks said.

Michigan ran for a season-best 295 yards — with two 100-yard rushers in Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet — against the Illini’s porous defense.

.“We’re doing a great job in terms of blocking dudes, coming off the ball, physicality,” said Eubanks, who had key downfield blocking on a 71-yard reception by Ronnie Bell against Illinois. Eubanks caught a 4-yard touchdown pass to finish that drive and give Michigan a 28-0 lead. “Just being able to do our job and trust each other.”

Wisconsin had its way with the Michigan offensive line and had six tackles for loss, significant considering the Wolverines only had possession 18:53 for the game, 6:57 in the first half. Since then, Rutgers had three tackles for loss, Iowa had four and Illinois had three.

“Offensive line play is really getting consistent at gelling and playing with a style of play that is physical, smart and tough,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh also praised Patterson, who stepped up late at Illinois, made big throws for 12 yards to Tarik Black and 18 to Donovan Peoples-Jones, and made a critical 4-yard run on 4th and 2. Two plays later, he and Peoples-Jones connected for a 5-yard touchdown pass for a 10-point lead. Patterson accounted for four touchdowns, including three passing, and he ran for a 1-yard score for the 42-25 lead after the defense delivered a second-straight fumble recovery.

“I felt like he’s been the best quarterback on the field in each and every game,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a winner. He’s tough. He makes great decisions, again accented this past game knowing when to run, when to throw, giving ourselves the best chance to win. He’s so competitive and good. The receivers, as well. Each week, they’re more involved in the running game in terms of style of play. The running backs are ascending as well.”

But the schedule only gets tougher, and the Wolverines will play in prime time in a Beaver Stadium whiteout where they were pummeled in 2017, 42-13.

“We locked with a laser-like focus on this game,” Harbaugh said.


Twitter: @chengelis