Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski and beat writer Angelique Chengelis break down Michigan's season opener. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Oh, there were moments, from the promising to the perplexing, from the electric to the erratic. There were options, lots and lots of options, at times too many options.
Michigan unveiled its new offense, and for stretches, it was more experimentation than sharp execution. Jim Harbaugh wanted an amped-up attack, and in the opener against Middle Tennessee State Saturday night, it looked like first-time coordinator Josh Gattis threw the whole playbook on the field to see what worked.
It worked well enough, and Shea Patterson was effective enough, and the speed was evident enough. The Wolverines handled the Blue Raiders, 40-21, and left one overriding impression: They’re going to try lots of things on offense, just as they vowed, which means everything isn’t going to work.
That’s OK — for now, but not for long. Harbaugh said he planned to play his top two quarterbacks at the same time, and he sure did. That doesn’t mean there’s a controversy, although Dylan McCaffrey entered in the third quarter and immediately sparked a touchdown drive, capped by his 6-yard run. It does mean Michigan is serious about using all its options, no matter how confusing it might sometimes appear.
For instance, we probably don’t need to see Patterson and McCaffrey shuttling in and out and taking turns at receiver, as they did on one drive. Harbaugh doesn’t want to see what happened on the first play of the game, when Patterson ran 15 yards and fumbled, giving MTSU a chance to grab a 7-0 lead.
Too many fumbles overall — Michigan had four and lost two — and too many bobbles from both quarterbacks, as they tried to operate the no-huddle pro-spread offense, figuring out when to run and when to throw. A year ago, the key question on most snaps was whether Karan Higdon would run left or right, and when Patterson would spring the occasional read-option run.
Because of the dramatic shift to Gattis’ scheme, Harbaugh didn’t seem concerned about the miscues. Michigan finished with 453 yards and Patterson was 17-for-29 passing for 203 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Even without Donovan Peoples-Jones, who’s nursing a foot injury, the targets were plentiful, with touchdown passes to Tarik Black, Nico Collins and tight end Sean McKeon. And if you wondered whether touted freshman tailback Zach Charbonnet could live up to his billing, he’s off to a stirring start, with 90 yards on eight carries.
All those signs put Harbaugh in a good mood, despite the unsteady nature of the game.
“This is a new offense, and I thought for a first time out, it was good,” Harbaugh said. “Can it be better? Yeah, sure, that’s what we’ll be striving for. Quarterbacks in this offense handle the ball a lot, the snap, the ride, the decision, the pull and throw. Actually it was quite good. We’re not taking a deep long bow, we know we can play better.”
It will have to get cleaned up quickly, with dangerous Army coming to Ann Arbor next Saturday. After a bye, the Wolverines then open Big Ten play at Wisconsin.
Again, Patterson is the guy at quarterback, and Harbaugh made it clear, without making it overly clear. McCaffrey does a lot of the things Patterson does well, especially running, and while he’s younger, he’s also bigger at 6-foot-5.
Patterson never drops his competitive demeanor, and he beat himself up fairly well afterward, lamenting the fumbles. The offense was hampered by some pre-snap disarray and a few dropped passes, but Patterson put it on himself.
“Obviously I didn’t get off to a great start, and I’ve gotta take care of the football,” Patterson said. “A win’s a win, but I think everybody in that locker room knows we didn’t live up to our standards.”
At the time McCaffrey came in, Patterson had thrown four straight incompletions, been sacked once and recovered his own fumble on another loss. Asked if he thought that’s what prompted the switch, he wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Patterson said. “I got the ball in my hand every single play and I gotta take care of it.”
Opening it up
Harbaugh dampened any debate by saying Patterson was dealing with a physical problem at halftime. It was a plausible explanation, but by even offering it, Harbaugh made it clear he wanted nothing to do with a quarterback issue.
Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson said several times he needs to take better care of the football after fumbling twice in the season opener. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
“As we said, we wanted to play both quarterbacks, together at times, separately at times,” Harbaugh said. “I thought Shea played extremely well. He was working through a little something, getting evaluated at halftime, so I was keeping a close eye on him. We had some quarterback runs designed there in the third quarter that I preferred to see Dylan running, because I didn’t want to make Shea’s issue worse.”
It’s obvious Michigan will take it shots with this offense, and that means the quarterbacks will take some shots, physically and otherwise. In the up-tempo attack, it’s logical that more players will be used, and the Wolverines have plenty of receivers and intriguing options at running back, with Charbonnet and Christian Turner.
It’s also clear they’ll have to open it up, because while the defense has potential, it still must prove it can replace NFL-caliber talent from a year ago. The Blue Raiders dinged them with their quick passing, but the Wolverines matched the pace, until their lead got comfortable enough to back off.
In the first half, Patterson threw 25 passes; he averaged 27 for an entire game last season. He threw only four more, and then Gattis and Harbaugh tossed in the McCaffrey wrinkle and Black was in and out with leg cramps. As much as the Wolverines tried to show, you wonder how much more they have, and how quickly they can refine it.
“A lot of the offense that we’ve been practicing, we ran,” Harbaugh said. “All facets of it, play-action, dropbacks, RPOs, inside zones, outside zones. I’m pleased the way it was executed for the most part.”
At times, it was enough to make your head spin. The idea is to make opposing heads spin. The offense certainly isn’t there yet, but in compelling spurts, you could see where it’s trying to go.