Ann Arbor — It’s all set up, in theory, from the personnel to the personal drive, from the schedule to the scheme.
If Michigan is going to bust through, this is the year, right? That’s the prevailing opinion, based on polls and odds, and Jim Harbaugh and his team aren’t shying from it. There’s benefit in outward confidence, in touting a new offense tailored to a senior quarterback, Shea Patterson. There’s also caution, because the Wolverines have been squeezed by the big moments often enough, they’re locked in prove-it mode.
This is Harbaugh’s fifth season, and he’s never been bashful saying what he thinks and doing what he wants. He keeps putting himself out there, and after another year of adjustment, you can argue this is his boldest move yet. The Wolverines’ new offense, directed by first-time coordinator Josh Gattis, is designed to specifically address one of the major reasons they’ve lost big games.
Under Harbaugh, Michigan is 0-4 against Ohio State, 1-3 in bowls, 1-9 against top-10 teams and 5-8 in contests decided by a touchdown or less. When the Wolverines have the talent to mash outmanned opponents, they generally mash ‘em. When they’ve needed a clutch play in a close game against a top team, they’ve come up short.
That’s why Gattis is here. That’s why many rate the Wolverines highly, because if they ramp up that offense, anything is possible, right? That’s why Patterson was nodding his head vigorously Thursday when asked if all the diverse elements — no-huddle, spread formation, RPOs — are better equipped to excel in big games.
“Yes,” he said with a smile. “I think the sky’s the limit for this offense. We can do so many different things out of so many different personnel and looks. When you have playmakers all around you getting open, and the O-line doing what they do, it makes it easier on me.”
Oh, it still won’t be easy. The Wolverines have a solid chance to win their first Big Ten title since 2004, with four returning starters on an offensive line Harbaugh says could be his best. They have three tough rivalry games — Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State — all at home.
But the schedule is still daunting. Urban Meyer is gone but the Buckeyes aren’t going away. Michigan State has a stacked defense and a coach in Mark Dantonio famous for crafting rebounds.
On the attack
The Wolverines have had great defenses before, piled up points before, churned to the cusp of the playoff before, and in the biggest games, they’ve stumbled. The common denominator is the failure to make the key play, the key tackle, the key first down. (See: 27-23 against Michigan State, 14-13 against Iowa, 30-27 against Ohio State, 33-32 against Florida State). Whether it’s a systemic or schematic problem, it’s been acknowledged and addressed.
Gattis was hired from Alabama to install an up-tempo offense that better utilizes Michigan’s skill, especially its talented receiving trio of Tarik Black, Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Defensive coordinator Don Brown chews on his words as he promises adjustments in response to the 62-39 crushing at Ohio State.
After teasing fans with the occasional 10-game winning streak, Michigan will be judged by how it finishes. At some point, one guy will have to make a critical play, and Michigan is hoping it has its guy. Patterson was pushed in training camp by Dylan McCaffrey, and there may yet be an opportunity for McCaffrey, but it starts with the senior who began his college career running a similar no-huddle at Ole Miss.
“I like a lot of things about the offense,” Harbaugh said. “I think it really fits our quarterbacks and gives the receivers an opportunity to be in space. It also allows us to have a physical running game. It’s an attacking type of offense.”
Besides the receivers, there’s a very good tight end in Sean McKeon and a touted runner in freshman Zach Charbonnet. Again, we have to see it, and Gattis has to handle his first play-calling job, but no one’s being bashful.
“There’s big play after big play, every practice,” center Cesar Ruiz said. “And it’s not just one guy. I see (Patterson) do a lot of Shea things, turning a play from nothing into something, mind-blowing things.”
Although the Wolverines have been grindingly effective under Harbaugh, they’ve either lacked playmakers or underutilized them. In four losses to the Buckeyes, Michigan has been badly outplayed at quarterback and hasn’t run the ball well enough to make up for it. Brown’s defense made huge plays last season, until the second half against Ohio State, when Dwayne Haskins and his speedy receivers destroyed it.
Go back to the double-overtime defeat in Columbus in 2016, when the Wolverines let J.T. Barrett loose to complete a third-down pass, setting up the infamous fourth-down plunge. Earlier in that game, Wilton Speight threw an interception from his end zone and had another returned for a touchdown. Risky calls by Harbaugh? Sure. But just as often, the Wolverines have been slowed by conservativeness, partly because they were breaking in a new quarterback, from Jake Rudock to Speight to John O’Korn to Brandon Peters to Patterson.
No excuse now. When Michigan State dominated, it had dominant quarterbacks in Connor Cook and Kirk Cousins. Ohio State has dominated with Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones, Barrett and Haskins.
Harbaugh had no choice but to evolve, recognizing it’s too difficult to outmuscle elite opponents. His 38-14 record is ninth among Power 5 coaches at their current schools, better than people might realize, not up to expectations. He has elevated Michigan’s profile and broadened the target, but the impact lessens the longer he goes without a title of some sort.
Harbaugh has sounded confident and positive in the past, but not quite like this. When writers picked Michigan to win the Big Ten, he happily agreed. Vegas lines list Michigan with the fourth- or fifth-best odds to win the national championship, behind the standard group of Clemson, Alabama and Georgia, alongside Ohio State.
More hype, no surprise. So what could be different this time?
Brown’s defense, despite losing a lot, still has the pass-rushing talent to be very good. The offense is expected to be the difference, but it’s also the great unknown. The experienced line, led by two-time captain Ben Bredeson, is a huge part of it. So is Patterson, and if he wasn’t here, do you think Michigan would have dramatically altered its philosophy? McCaffrey also is mobile, and should fit as well.
Patterson completed 64.6 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, but managed games more then he controlled them. In an RPO-heavy system, much more will be demanded of him.
“Shea’s playing lights out right now,” Gattis said. “His playmaking ability, ball placement, his footwork within the pocket, he’s playing at a really big-time level.”
In big-game, close-game situations the past few years, the Wolverines have run into some bad luck, sure, from the occasional one-inch measurement to the stray punt-snap trouble. To avoid those losses, it’s best to avoid those narrow-margin situations. And when it does take one play to win a big game, someone has to be confident enough — and in the right position — to make it.