ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit has found Michigan’s season puzzling and confounding at times and now sees a team that has put together 2 1/2 games of solid play heading into the final stretch that includes rivalry games at home against Michigan State and Ohio State.
Michigan (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) is No. 14 in the first College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday night. The Wolverines are off Saturday, then host the Spartans at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 16 before traveling to Indiana and then returning home to face arch-rival Ohio State, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the CFP poll.
The Wolverines have won their last two games, including a 45-14 domination of Notre Dame in rainy, windy conditions, and five of their last six. They have played improved football since the second half of the Penn State game when they trailed 21-0 and nearly tied the score late but dropped a pass on fourth down in the end zone. Michigan opened Big Ten play thoroughly outplayed in a loss at Wisconsin.
“Pretty frustrated and concerned and confused with their game up in Madison, like everybody,” Herbstreit said Wednesday afternoon on an ESPN conference call. “Then I continued to watch them play. I think they started to make some progress when they went to Champaign (against Illinois), but you wondered, was that more of a reflection of Illinois, or was that actually Michigan playing better? I happened to be with them the next week when they went to the white out (at Penn State) and things, again, got away from them early, and I think probably all of us, after the game they played against Wisconsin, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, in this atmosphere they’re down 21-0? This is about to get ugly again.’
“They got it to 21-7 at half, and of course Jim Harbaugh said to (ESPN sideline reporter) Maria (Taylor) , ‘This is about to be Michigan’s finest hour,’ and I think we were all like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he said that.’ Sure enough, the second half they outgained Penn State, 230-80 and came so close to tying that game late. (Then) completely, in the rain, dominated Notre Dame, and Notre Dame never had a chance in that game at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We know what happened last week against Maryland, so they’ve got 10 straight quarters of being the team I think a lot of people thought they’d be all year.”
Michigan debuted a new offense this season with first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, and compounding the early-season growing pains were the early season issues with fumbles.
“Sometimes you go through some trials and tribulations and in Michigan’s case they were struggling executing with Josh Gattis,” Herbstreit said. “Wasn’t necessarily what he was calling, maybe. It was fumbling the ball and having penalties and first and 15 and first and 20, and that was a big part of the first three or four games of the season. The last 2 1/2 games, complete opposite. They’ve been great running the ball, not having as many miscues. The defense has been the defense you expect from Don Brown and now they get a bye week and these next three, the rivalry against Michigan State, at IU is never easy — Michigan and IU, that seems like it’s a great game every year — and then they host Ohio State.
“If they keep playing the way they have the last 10 quarters, it’s going to be great football because they’re home against Michigan State, (and) I can’t imagine them losing that game,. Indiana is a little bit tricky, but I would think they’d win that game, and then, here we go with Ohio State on Thanksgiving weekend, which will be awesome.”
Should Ohio State win out and then lose to Michigan — the Buckeyes have won seven straight in the rivalry and 14 of the last 15 — they would still represent the East Division in the Big Ten championship game.
“How many times have you gone to that game where one team has everything to lose, and the other team has nothing to lose?” Herbstreit said. “We know how that goes. That’s always a dangerous thing when you go into a rivalry game. It’ll be great. I always like the see Michigan-Ohio State with a lot at stake. I’d love to see (Michigan) keep playing that way they have these last 10 quarters.”
Herbstreit thinks the 2018 Michigan offense looked much different than other Harbaugh offenses because of the addition of quarterback Shea Patterson, who transferred from Ole Miss. Gattis was hired this year and he installed what he calls a pro-spread offense.
“I still see a lot of similarities from what they did last year to what they’re doing this year,” Herbstreit said. “And I think Shea is getting more and more comfortable with the one wrinkle that’s different, the run-pass option, the RPO game, that’s a little bit different and new and I think he’s getting better and better every week with that, more in command.
“I think the zone read stuff and the play action off the zone read, he just looks better and better. When he’s playing good and they’re running the ball, they’re a dangerous offense.”