It felt as though the Michigan football team was standing on the precipice of a big play all game long. But when the Wolverines needed it most, they couldn’t break through.
In Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl, that much was apparent from the start. After setting up shop at midfield, senior quarterback Shea Patterson couldn’t connect with an open Nico Collins on a pair of opening-drive throws. Collins beat his cornerback down the sideline on third down, but Patterson left the ball short.
When the Crimson Tide took possession of the ball at their own 15-yard line, they faced nothing of the sort. On their first play from scrimmage, backup quarterback Mac Jones hit 2018 Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy in stride for an 85-yard score — the first of Jones’ three touchdowns in Alabama’s 35-16 victory.
Even in light of Jeudy’s long touchdown, Michigan outplayed Alabama for much of the game’s early stages. The Wolverines scored on their final four drives of the first half, though only one resulted in a touchdown.
As running backs Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins combined for numerous explosive plays in the ground game, Patterson struggled to recalibrate with his receivers. Moving the ball wasn’t the problem — Michigan’s offensive line was opening gaps at will, which resulted in 135 first-half rushing yards.
First-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis had his group operating in a good rhythm, but 3-for-8 mark on third down forced the Wolverines to settle for a trio of field goals. And for that, the Wolverines tallied just 16 points despite crossing midfield on five of their six first-half possessions.
There were multiple times when Michigan appeared to have Alabama’s defense on the ropes. With an up-tempo pace that kept the Crimson Tide on their heels, all it would’ve taken was one big play to give U-M much-needed breathing room.
But with the score tied at seven and the Wolverines marching into the red zone, Patterson slightly overthrew tight end Nick Eubanks as he broke to the sideline on third down.
With Michigan driving on its next possession, receiver Ronnie Bell was flagged for inadvertently stepping out of bounds on a broken play before hauling in a would-be first down in the red zone. Unable to produce a big play once again, the Wolverines settled for three.
When halftime came around, Michigan’s biggest play of the first half came on a field goal itself, ironically enough. Quinn Nordin’s 57-yard kick barely cleared the crossbar as time expired in the second quarter, tying the record for the longest field goal in program history and giving the senior his fourth conversion from 50-plus yards — a mark that tied another program record.
But coming out of the locker room, the offensive momentum the Wolverines had established was nowhere to be found.
Only one of Michigan’s second-half drives racked up more than 15 yards, and even that one ended with a punt. The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, amassed 275 yards to U-M’s mere 109. Patterson completed eight of his 19 second-half passes for just 82 yards, repeatedly failing to connect with receivers downfield, throwing two interceptions and nearly losing a fumble in the process.
An ill-timed regression when Michigan needed anything but.
As one offense made adjustments in the halftime locker room, the other hit a wall. As a result, Alabama tallied three touchdowns and the Wolverines failed to score a point.
For awhile, though, Michigan hung around. Against one of the sport’s most dominant programs, the Wolverines gave themselves a chance in the fourth quarter. And when Michigan’s defense, facing a 12-point deficit, forced a punt with six minutes remaining, Gattis’ group had a chance to will itself back into the game.
Alabama might’ve left the door open, but the Wolverines shut it on themselves quickly. On the first play of a drive that Michigan desperately needed to produce points, Patterson’s first pass was intercepted.
And even when it came time to play for pride on the next possession, Patterson’s final pass as a Wolverine was picked off in the end zone — a fitting end to Michigan’s lifeless second-half offensive performance, culminating in the team’s fourth loss of a season that it began as the conference title favorite.
With Patterson and much of the offensive line set to graduate, the Wolverines’ offense will look a lot different in 2020. As NFL decisions loom for Collins, wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones and center Cesar Ruiz, the uncertainty runs even deeper.
But if one thing is clear going forward, it’s that Michigan needs to make the plays it couldn’t on Wednesday. Until then, the double-digit gap between the Wolverines and their final two opponents of the season won’t vanish.