Following his team’s gutsy 10-3 win over No. 14 Iowa, Jim Harbaugh offered two overhanging thoughts about Michigan’s performance.
He began by praising his defense’s second consecutive Herculean effort. A consensus. He referred to it as a “masterpiece,” particularly singling out the quarterback pressure. The 19th-ranked Wolverines (4-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) recorded eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss, tying the program record for most sacks in a game over the last 15 seasons. For the Hawkeyes’ (4-1 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) traditionally highly-touted offensive linemen, it was the most they’ve allowed since 2007.
Michigan’s defense was just as impressive in the run game, allowing a mere one yard on 30 attempts. U-M’s defensive line seemed to live in Iowa’s backfield for the majority of the game, overwhelming an offensive line with multiple legitimate NFL prospects.
Two weeks after being dominated by Wisconsin’s front five, pass rushers and run stuffers alike broke through. Even coming off a shutout against Rutgers, Saturday’s showing was among the defense’s most memorable performances in the Don Brown era given the stakes. U-M needed a convincing win against a top-15 team to recalibrate its season trajectory, and the defense certainly did its part.
But when Harbaugh evaluated his offense’s underwhelming performance, the fifth-year head coach raised some eyebrows from behind the podium. The Wolverines scored all of their points in the game’s first six-and-a-half minutes, largely aided by a Hawkeye fumble and a 51-yard strike from quarterback Shea Patterson to receiver Nico Collins. They came up empty-handed on their next 10 drives, which yielded seven punts, two missed field goals and an interception.
Despite a brutally ineffective final 53 minutes of the game, Harbaugh claimed the offense is “hitting their stride.” Puzzling, especially in light of last Saturday’s 52-point effort. Only a week later, the Wolverines mustered 267 total yards, converted three of 13 third downs and scored just three points off Iowa’s four turnovers. To most, that’s the word “regression” fits the bill.
The Hawkeyes’ secondary was banged up coming into Saturday’s game, and it wasn’t a secret. Even so, Patterson was held to a 54-percent completion rate for 147 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception, while U-M averaged a mediocre 3.6 yards per rush. Mind you, this came on the same field where Michigan tallied 476 total yards of offense a week ago even after pulling the starters after three quarters.
During the Wolverines’ visit to Penn State and home matchups against the likes of Notre Dame and Ohio State, an offensive performance like Saturday’s won’t be enough.
When a reporter asked Harbaugh how, exactly, his offense is hitting its stride, he looked confused.
“In every way,” he replied. “That’s what I see.”
Had Michigan built off its strong showing against the Scarlet Knights, Harbaugh wouldn’t be wrong. Had Patterson continued to throw the ball downfield to his talented receivers in single coverage, like he did on Collins’ 51-yard reception in the first quarter, Harbaugh wouldn’t be wrong. Had U-M’s ball carriers consistently broken free for long runs, Harbaugh wouldn’t be wrong.
But that wasn’t the case on Saturday.
In no way did the offense hit its stride after the first few minutes. 10 of the team’s 13 drives were held to less than 25 yards, of which seven resulted in single-digit yardage outputs. And on the two rare drives that looked promising, Michigan missed a pair of field goals.
The offense looked like an off-brand version of last week’s dominant unit. Keeping the fact that Iowa is a significantly more talented team than Rutgers in mind, it’s still perplexing that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis didn’t even try the bulk of what succeeded. Outside of Collins’ 51-yard reception, which accounted for nearly all of his 61 total yards, the elite trio of receivers was hardly involved. Donovan Peoples-Jones wasn’t even targeted until the two-minute drill at the end of the first half, while Tarik Black recorded only one catch on the afternoon.
Tight end Nick Eubanks talked about a lack of identity before Michigan left Madison, and his teammates answered the call against Rutgers. But in a telling game against a top-15 opponent, U-M’s offense took a stride — in the wrong direction.
With a daunting schedule looming, Harbaugh’s definition of a “stride” amounts to nothing more than a limp.