Michigan offense saw what worked, and saved it for later

Football

Saturday night kicked off Michigan’s new season, along with its highly-anticipated revamped offense captained by offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.

After some early hiccups, the first half saw the Wolverines pile on 27 points under the lights against Middle Tennessee State. Led by senior quarterback Shea Patterson, the new RPO-based system showcased what it’s all about: attacking quickly.

Each touchdown-scoring drive in the first half took under 90 seconds. One thanks to an Ambry Thomas interception that gifted its offense a short field, while the two others covered 106 yards in one minute and 55 seconds.

In those drives, Patterson tossed three touchdown passes, all from over 25 yards out, including a 37-yard bomb to junior wideout Tarik Black. 

Black, who’s as healthy as ever, notched four catches for 80 yards and a touchdown before the 10-minute mark of the second quarter.

Senior tight end Sean McKeon (2 REC, 37 yards) and junior wideout Nico Collins (3 REC, 49 yards) added touchdowns on deep balls as well.

Patterson attempted 25 passes in the first half Saturday night. For reference, that’s the same amount of attempts he averaged per game in 2018. Despite starting the night with a fumble on the first play, it was a distant memory following an efficient first half that included 197 yards and three passing touchdowns.

Junior wideout leaps to catch a touchdown in Michigan’s home opener. (Eric Upchurch/The Wolverine Lounge)

However, following halftime, that electric start fans clamored for would come to a halting stop. Collins, Black, and McKeon didn’t register a catch following monstrous first-half performances. The trio combined for just four targets in the second half.

Patterson — along with backup quarterbacks Dylan McCaffrey & Joe Milton — attempted seven passes total in the second half, completing three of them. 

This led to many heads being scratched in the stands, at home, and in the press box. Michigan was up two possessions, the game was far from over.

However, that didn’t seem to be U-M’s thinking.

Comfortable with its position in the game against last year’s Conference USA champions, the Wolverines would field multiple formations with Patterson in the pocket and McCaffrey at wideout, and vice versa.

Rarely did Collins or Black, U-M’s top two targets with junior Donovan Peoples-Jones sidelined, see the field in the second half. Black had cramps at halftime and received an IV, but was game-ready. That left most of the playtime to youngsters Ronnie Bell (sophomore) and Mike Sainristil & Cornelius Johnson (true freshmen).

Rather than pass the ball 25 times, the offense elected to work on its zone run scheme, handing the ball off 45 times total. This opened the door for true freshman Zach Charbonnet, who totaled 90 yards, averaging a gaudy 11 yards per carry. 

Michigan would finish with 233 rushing yards thanks to eight different rushers. Of the 233, 153 of the yards came in the run-heavy second half. Meaning, 65-percent of its run production was in the second half. While 89-percent of its passing yards came in the first.

In the first half, Gattis & Jim Harbaugh saw what worked, and saved it for later. This is still a Harbaugh team doing Harbaugh things when it has sizeable leads.

Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up for interpretation. No team is attempting 25 passes in the first half, then seven in the second without it being by design.

While there’s no doubt the offense was sloppy (three offensive fumbles, one lost) and seems to still have its training wheels on in some aspects. To say it was aiming to be in full force with seven passing attempts in the second half is questionable.

It seemed Gattis’ unit had a plan in the second half: stay in control, pound the run game, and try out some new stuff in the process.

Is there a method to the madness? That remains an unknown.

What we do know, though, is that what worked best was displayed early and often, then placed in layaway.

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