ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Welcome to the “Michigan played poorly but still managed to win” portion of the college football season. Glad you could make it!
Rutgers gave the Wolverines another scare over the weekend, dominating the second half but missing several opportunities to tie or take the lead down the stretch. Michigan found a way to survive, and now, we’ve reached another post-scare Monday, when everyone tries to calibrate their panic meters.
So let’s give this a shot. Here are six legitimate concerns I have after the game:
Cade in crunch time
Michigan has been very competitive during the Jim Harbaugh era, but the biggest difference separating the Wolverines from the top teams in the sport is quarterback play. Alabama and Ohio State always have elite quarterbacks. Clemson’s incredible run coincided with the tenures of Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence. Even LSU emerged from the middle of the pack to win a national title behind Joe Burrow.
After the Rutgers game, it appears, once again, Michigan is just average at the most important position in the sport.
There’s a lot to like about Cade McNamara. He protects the ball. He runs the offense. He seems to generally know what it takes to win football games.
But can he elevate Michigan to compete with the likes of Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State?
When the game was on the line Saturday and Michigan badly needed to put together a scoring drive (or at least pick up a first down), McNamara looked rattled. Rutgers cut Michigan’s lead to 20-13 early in the fourth quarter, and McNamara didn’t complete a pass the rest of the game (a drop by Erick All didn’t help). His last completion came with six minutes left in the third quarter.
McNamara missed a wide open target across the middle to begin the first drive of the fourth quarter, then underthrew an out route on third down and five the following series. Both ensuing three-and-outs put the defense in tough positions.
On Michigan’s best drive of the second half, Josh Gattis took the ball out of McNamara’s hands completely, running with Blake Corum on six straight plays before McNamara lost two yards on a read option.
Last season, when Michigan needed McNamara to make key plays against Rutgers, he came through repeatedly. But there’s less pressure on a backup coming in for a struggling starter. Now, McNamara is the bona fide starting quarterback, and he didn’t handle that well in the second half Saturday.
Some of the decision making during Saturday’s game felt like a complete 180 from what we witnessed the first three weeks.
It began just before halftime, when Harbaugh elected to kick a field goal instead of taking one more shot at the end zone with five seconds remaining. Michigan’s first- and second-down plays took four seconds apiece, and kicking on third down felt like coaching scared.
In a way, that seemed to set the tone for the entire second half. Michigan looked like it was trying to run the clock out from the very first drive, and that conservative approach nearly handed Rutgers the game.
We’ve seen Harbaugh and his staff get ultra conservative in the past, and it almost never works in Michigan’s favor.
(Lack of) offensive creativity
Speaking of being too conservative, who created that second-half game plan?
The first drive: three-yard run, false start, incomplete pass, two-yard run up the middle on third and 12. How inspiring.
Then, Rutgers scored its first touchdown to pull within 10 points. Michigan’s response: seven-yard completion, two-yard run, zero-yard run, delay of game, false start, punt on fourth and 11.
For fans keeping score, those two drives yielded a total of minus-1 yard. After scoring on four of five possessions in the first half, Michigan’s halftime adjustments sure didn’t seem to pay off.
Michigan’s next two drives went three-and-out for a total of 12 yards. The team didn’t move the chains in the second half until the five-minute mark. The second first down came via a Rutgers face mask penalty. From there, Michigan got ultra conservative again with three read options, and settled for a 47-yard field goal attempt.
At this point, why would we expect Gattis to change his philosophy, even when the situation clearly calls for it?
What happened to the plays designed to get A.J. Henning some running room? Why couldn’t Michigan get Corum outside? If the response is, “Well, Rutgers took that away,” then shouldn’t we be concerned that Michigan’s offense can so easily be bullied out of what works?
The onus doesn’t fall on fans to blindly trust this offense. Gattis needs to earn the benefit of the doubt.
As much as McNamara struggled in the second half, his receivers did him no favors.
In the first three games, a handful of catchable balls to Daylen Baldwin, Mike Sainristil and the tight ends hit the turf, but nobody complained because Michigan won comfortably.
But on Saturday, when Michigan and McNamara badly needed just one positive play, a dropped pass by All completely changed the complexion of one drive. Another drop by Sainristil erased what should have been a big play.
Without Ronnie Bell, the team’s most reliable receiver, who can McNamara turn to? Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson have been solid, but they don’t get many targets.
What once figured to be a strength of this offense has turned into a bit of a question mark.
Responding to adversity
Michigan didn’t face any adversity in the first three games, and that showed in the second half against Rutgers.
When Rutgers put together a 12-play, 91-yard touchdown drive in the middle of the third quarter, Michigan looked rattled. The offense went three-and-out three times in a row, the defense let Rutgers march right down inside the 10-yard line on the two ensuing drives and Jake Moody missed a potential game-clinching field goal.
Everything fell apart. Luckily for Michigan, Rutgers couldn’t capitalize.
If not for a false start penalty, Rutgers might have tied the game early in the fourth quarter. Two plays later, a botched 29-yard field goal preserved Michigan’s touchdown lead. A botched snap on a trick play foiled another Rutgers drive that had entered Michigan territory. A facemask penalty accounted for 50% of Michigan’s second-half first downs.
The Wolverines didn’t respond well to adversity, and that’s a bad omen for the rest of the season.
When you mix together all the factors above, the result is Rutgers outgaining Michigan by 77 yards.
That shouldn’t happen, especially at home -- and a better team would have made Michigan pay.
Gattis’ offense ran for 2.9 yards per carry, while Rutgers averaged 4.7. Michigan ran the ball 38 times compared to 16 passes and still lost the time of possession battle by a full five minutes. Looking at the end-of-game stats, it’s a miracle Michigan held onto the lead.
Rutgers had more first downs, fewer penalty yards and much more success on third down. Overall, it feels like Michigan was outplayed, and that’s discouraging.
Reasons for optimism
Now, there’s something to be said for playing as poorly as Michigan did and still finding a way to win the game. At the end of the day, Michigan is happy to be 4-0 -- think about how much worse it feels to be Minnesota (lost to Bowling Green) or Clemson (suffered second loss of the season) this morning.
Defensive response: If there’s one positive takeaway from the weekend, it’s affirmation that Michigan’s defense is vastly improved from a year ago. Mike MacDonald’s crew made two stops inside the 10-yard line to preserve the lead, stopped Rutgers on a fourth down attempt and then forced a fumble to seal the victory. That all came on tired legs as the offense failed to possess the ball for more than a few minutes.
Turnovers: With the tide turning heavily in Rutgers’ favor, a second-half turnover could have delivered a fatal blow to Michigan’s psyche. Ball security might have come at the expense of creativity, but McNamara avoided the disastrous mistake and gave his defense an opportunity to save the day.
Blake Corum: Michigan’s star running back played by far his worst game of the season: 68 yards on 21 carries (3.2 average) and two catches for 11 yards. But it certainly felt like Corum’s struggles were more a product of the game plan than any regression on his part. He’s still a special player -- Gattis simply has to cater to his strengths.
Wakeup call: The college football universe has been showering the Wolverines with praise this month, and the Rutgers game might have given them a much-needed wakeup call as the schedule gets much tougher. If Michigan had dominated Rutgers, it might have taken this same mentality into Wisconsin -- a recipe for disaster. Instead, Harbaugh has plenty of teaching points.