Midterms: How Michigan’s offense grades out after first half of season

By Brandon Justice ,

Football

Photo by Andy Shippy

It’s hard to believe that we’re halfway through college football season. It’s a feeling you love and hate to have — you love that we’ve got so much football left, but you hate that the offseason isn’t too far out.

Through six games, Michigan sits at 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten. Following the Week 1 loss to Notre Dame, this was a gloomy and lifeless fan base, eager for its team to win a big game — “just once,” a tweet read.

Since that loss, the coaching staff and fan base couldn’t have asked for much more out of a team anxious to prove themselves as much as you fans at home want them to. The Wolverines stomped their two other non-conference foes, obliterated Nebraska at home, had a comeback win on the road over Northwestern, and proved how dominant the defense is against Maryland.

One thing remains the same: none of these teams are ranked opponents, nor have these wins attributed much of anything to Michigan’s College Football Playoff resume.

The second-half has always been the most important and difficult part of the 2018 schedule. Joel Klatt of FOX Sports pointed out before Week 1 on The Herd with Colin Cowherd that Michigan could lose its opener to Notre Dame and still end up in the CFP.


Michigan ‘ready’ to enter season’s gauntlet


U-M has done what it could since that loss to prove itself a worthy Playoff candidate.

Let’s take a look back at the first half and grade out each position before the second half’s all-out gauntlet begins this Saturday.


Shea Patterson’s had the start to the season Michigan needed to bolster its confidence on offense. (Photo by Andy Shippy)

Quarterbacks

No doubt about it, Shea Patterson has lived up to the hype.

Sure, he hasn’t racked up an abundance of yards and touchdowns like he did at Ole Miss last season, but there’s grounds for that. He’s not in the same offense, Karan Higdon has been a workhorse and Patterson has yet to be “unleashed,” for lack of better terms. Though, I guess the best way to put it is, he’s “an ascending player.”

Patterson has made the right choices, and, the more he’s used, the better he’s going to get. That was evident last week, as he passed for over 280 yards and three touchdowns against Maryland in his best game as a Wolverine.

Shea Patterson, the star Michigan’s been waiting on

No matter how you look at it, Patterson is the offense’s best, and most important, weapon.

We haven’t seen much of any other quarterback besides Patterson, yet sophomore Dylan McCaffrey has become a fan-favorite thanks to his performances against Notre Dame and Nebraska. Patterson was hurt for most of the second half against the Irish, and McCaffrey was more than serviceable in replacing him. On top of that, McCaffrey has passed for a pair of touchdowns, including a deep ball to true freshman Ronnie Bell against Nebraska.

Stats: 95/138 (68.8%), 1,187 yards, 10 TDs, 3 INTs, QBR 160.7

Grade: Patterson didn’t lose the Notre Dame game, but he also didn’t win it. When let loose, he’s a star, as displayed in the Northwestern comeback. The depth in the QB room is good. A-.

Michigan running back Karan Higdon is second in the Big Ten in total rushing yards. (Photo by Andy Shippy)

Running backs

Again, the offense has surpassed expectations following last season’s abysmal production. The running back success from 2017 has carried over this year — and then some.

Senior Karan Higdon has been the star of the show as his 582 yards rank him second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin’s Johnathan Taylor. The senior captain missed a game due to injury and had his carries counted two weeks after that injury, games that Michigan won handily. He’s ran for over 100 yards in all but one game (Notre Dame).

He’s shown off his ability to break the big play with breakaway speed and good vision. His pass blocking has improved thanks to a considerable amount of added muscle in the offseason.

Karan Higdon completes journey to 2000

There’s not much to say about junior Chris Evans yet as he’s been out since Week 3, and didn’t get too many opportunities in the two weeks prior. Though his 8.6 yards per carry against Western Michigan was impressive. He’s expected to return from injury this week as he was dressed but didn’t participate against Maryland.

Perhaps the national media might not know of him but Tru Wilson has become a household name and stadium favorite during his breakout season. He’s made a case in his time filling in for Evans to be the No. 2. He’s got an elite knowledge of how to pass protect and he’s a bulldog in executing it.

Still, this position needs a big game against a top-notch opponent before it’s considered elite.

Grade: Didn’t get a lot going against Notre Dame. Dominated the rest of the schedule, sans Maryland and Northwestern. Running backs have a game to prove they’re elite against Wisconsin. B+.

Fullbacks

Do we really need to talk about the fullbacks when you can just watch everything below?

Moving on.

Grade: Fullbacks that hurdle dudes? A+.

Sophomore wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones has been one a few breakout stars for this offense. (Photo by Andy Shippy)

Wide receivers

Before the offensive line’s recent progression, the receivers were my pick as Michigan’s most improved unit.

A lot of that you can attribute to the night-and-day improvements from last season’s group. Heck, sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones has more touchdowns (5) in six games than the entire unit had combined in 2017. He’s also got the fourth-most in the conference.

Nico Collins has come on strong as the unit’s best deep threat … Grant Perry remains a good safety valve (and quarterback) … Oliver Martin has shown potential … True freshman Ronnie Bell is the biggest surprise of all, already grabbing two touchdowns … the list goes on.

It’s been a really good start for the receivers, though you’d like to see some more separation created against better opponents before buying all the way in, ala Notre Dame and Northwestern. Regardless, what an impressive first half for this unit.

Grade: Didn’t create much separation against Notre Dame or Northwestern. Lethal against Maryland, Nebraska and Western Michigan. Like the running backs, wide receivers need to shine on the big stage before earning a higher grade. B.

Junior tight end Zach Gentry continues to evolve in his transformation from quarterback. (Photo by Andy Shippy)

Tight ends

Zach Gentry’s drop in the end zone at Notre Dame is a distant memory now that he’s second in the Big Ten in receiving yards among tight ends and 12th overall.

Returning receiving leader, Sean McKeon, hasn’t been what he was last season with only 84 yards receiving and a touchdown. That’s mostly due to Gentry’s emergence. McKeon continues to be a good blocker — something that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet but is vital to have as a tight end.

Gentry quietly excels amid DPJ outburst

Coming off an injury in 2017, Nick Eubanks had a bit of a welcome back party against Northwestern in Week 5.

Tight ends are very important to Jim Harbaugh — almost as important as the fullback — and it’s been a productive one following the Notre Dame game.

Grade: A unit that struggled against Notre Dame. Drink. Yeah, that’s true, but Gentry is starting to look like an All-Conference tight end with the hot streak he’s been on since Week 2. B.

Sophomore center Cesar Ruiz has become a trusted centerpiece of Michigan’s improved offensive line. (Photo by Andy Shippy)

Offensive line

Well, well, well … we keep going back to Week 1, and, if I had pre-written this it’d be stamped like my 9th grade report card.

F.

Instead of a slippery-sloping collapse into what’s been a consistently bad unit for years in Ann Arbor, the offensive line has been borderline good.

The o-line still had its mishaps going into Week 4 against Nebraska, but from that point on it’s been a really dependable unit.

Warinner talks offensive line philosophy

Maryland and Nebraska’s d-lines aren’t slouches, either; The Terps came in with the 9th-best rush defense and the Huskers had a top-five pass rush.

Michigan put up 42 points on Maryland and 56 on Nebraska. In large part due to the amount of space running backs had and time Patterson was gifted in the pocket.

The offensive line ranks 29th nationally in sacks allowed per game – averaging just 1.3. In 2017, Michigan ranked 106th, allowing 2.7 sacks per game.

Grade: The offensive line is starting to get it. Its performance against Maryland (zero sacks, two TFLs) might be a sign of things to come. For now, we await their performance over these next three games to reward a higher letter. B-.

Check back later this week when we grade out the defense’s play.


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