The issue unfolded the same way it did a week ago.
On No. 7 Michigan’s (2-0) first drive of its 24-21 (OT) win over Army (1-1), Shea Patterson put the ball on the turf. It sat there, seemingly spinning in slow motion, as players dove headfirst to fall on it. The Wolverines couldn’t recover, and the opposition once again marched down the field to the promised land.
Michigan was able to rebound after spotting a weak Middle Tennessee State team a touchdown off a turnover last Saturday. The Wolverines responded with 24 unanswered points. But Michigan struggled mightily against Army — which received 31 AP votes in this week’s national poll — though a lot of that harm was self-inflicted. The test of an improved opponent was telling, to say the least.
After Zach Charbonnet’s first career touchdown tied the game, the Wolverines and Black Knights both played a part in keeping then hosts off the scoreboard for the rest of the half.
For Michigan, three first-half fumbles cut off any and all momentum. Patterson lost the handle twice, one fumble coming as Army wrestled him to the ground on a sack and the other after running back Christian Turner entirely missed a pass block, while backup running back Ben VanSumeren was responsible for the third miscue on a run up the middle.
The Wolverines covered a total of 74 yards on the three drives, a sizable distance to seemingly hand right back without putting points on the board.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan didn’t do itself any favors. With a chance to get the ball back in a tie before halftime, defensive back Lavert Hill was whistled for holding on fourth down in the drive following the VanSumeren fumble. Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. took punctuated the drive with a one-yard touchdown rush, giving the Black Knights a seven-point lead with just over two minutes left in the half. Later in the game, Khaleke Hudson gave away a free five yards when he was called offsides on the first drive of overtime.
Like last week, the Wolverines surrendered a pair of first-half touchdowns off fumbles. This week’s difference-maker was how the offense responded — the unit posted 27 points in last week’s first half and flexed a barrage of downfield air strikes. Nico Collins, Tarik Black and Sean McKeon all hauled in touchdowns from more than 25 yards out, while Ronnie Bell came inches away from one of his own. Patterson posted nearly 200 yards through the air in the first half — a mark he didn’t reach until late in the fourth quarter in week two.
But against Army, Michigan failed itself time and time again. Fumbles, poor blocking and failed fourth-down conversions submerged the Wolverines in their own offensive mistakes.
For all the bells and whistles that have followed the Josh Gattis hype train to Ann Arbor thus far, his well-designed plays and strategies don’t matter in the grand scheme of things if Michigan can’t protect the football. With eight fumbles through two games (five lost), ball security — not the success of Speed in Space — has risen to prominency.
When the dust settled, the Wolverines’ turnovers were nearly too much to overcome.