ANN ARBOR, Mich. - For the first time since he arrived in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh has all the pieces in place to run the offense he wants to instill at Michigan.
Shea Patterson has stabilized the quarterback position, Ed Warinner has the offensive line improving and Michigan's running backs are averaging well over 5 yards per carry.
As a result, the Wolverines have scored more than 40 points in four of their last five games, albeit against lesser opponents. Michigan topped out at 35 points last season -- against Rutgers and Maryland -- so the improvement is obvious, regardless of competition.
No single player could account for this type of leap. It's been a group effort from the linemen to the skill players to the play-calling.
But if there had to be a midseason MVP on offense, who would it be? It can be narrowed down to four choices.
QB Shea Patterson
With the exception of extreme run-heavy offenses, such as the one Michigan's next opponent, Wisconsin, will bring to Ann Arbor, most strong offenses can trace their success back to the quarterback position.
It's no different for Michigan, which is still a run-first team -- 236 runs compared to 155 pass attempts through six games -- but has relied on Patterson to upgrade the passing attack.
Patterson is completing 68.8 percent of his passes, good for 16th in the country and second in the Big Ten. It's not an empty completion percentage, either. Patterson ranks 24th in the nation at 8.6 yards per pass attempt, nearly identical to his 2017 mark at the helm of Ole Miss' potent passing attack.
More importantly, Patterson is taking care of the ball, throwing just three picks in six games. He had 12 interceptions in 10 games at Ole Miss, so he's improved dramatically in that aspect.
Patterson has also made a few critical plays with his legs, moving the chains three times to save Michigan at Northwestern. He typically scrambles to extend plays and find receivers downfield, but when he has to pick up yards on his own, Patterson is capable of doing so.
Michigan's leading passer completed 84 passes for 973 yards last season. The team totaled nine passing touchdowns. Patterson has already eclipsed all of those numbers.
RB Karan Higdon
Harbaugh's offense needs a reliable running back to set the tone, and for the second straight season, Higdon is that guy.
After falling just short of 1,000 rushing yards last season, Higdon has his sights set higher in 2018. Through six games, he's rushed for 582 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Higdon has carried the ball 101 times this season as Harbaugh has asked him to shoulder more of the load with Chris Evans sidelined by injury. The senior has answered the call, matching his 2017 numbers despite a higher usage rate.
Higdon ranks 13th in the country and second in the Big Ten with 116.4 rushing yards per game. Nobody talks about his ball security, but Higdon hasn't fumbled all season.
He might not be flashy, but Higdon has earned Harbaugh's complete trust by becoming a reliable all-around running back.
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones
Michigan receivers combined for three touchdown catches last season without a single one of them recording multiple scores. This season, Peoples-Jones has hauled in five touchdown passes in six games.
The former No. 1 overall wide receiver recruit had a quiet freshman year, but he's burst onto the scene with Patterson under center.
Most of his damage came against SMU when he caught three touchdown passes, but Peoples-Jones has been a versatile weapon for Michigan. He's caught passes for 41 and 34 yards, but he can also get open in the short passing game when the Wolverines need a first down.
Peoples-Jones ranks second on the team with 18 catches and third with 217 receiving yards. In addition to his five touchdown passes, Peoples-Jones has also returned 15 punts for 128 yards and a touchdown and carried the ball twice for 32 yards.
Peoples-Jones is the most talented player in the receiving corps, and it's starting to show.
TE Zach Gentry
Patterson and Higdon were expected to be staples of the offense, and Peoples-Jones was recruited to be a star, but Gentry is the surprise candidate in the offensive MVP race.
The 6-foot-8 tight end has already surpassed his career totals in catches and receiving yards, leading the team with 20 grabs for 306 yards.
Despite his size, Gentry hasn't been a consistent red zone target -- he only has one touchdown -- but he's been immensely valuable in terms of moving the change and getting open deep down the middle.
Gentry has become Patterson's favorite target downfield, as he has 10 catches of at least 15 yards. Of Gentry's 20 catches, 14 have gone for first downs.
Gentry has moved the chains on third down five times this season, including four times on third and medium (4-6 yards to go).
It's clear Patterson trusts Gentry in big situations. Half of his catches have come with Michigan tied or trailing, which is significant considering how rare it's been for Michigan not to have a lead.
The redshirt junior is coming off the best performance of his career: a seven-catch, 112-yard game against Maryland. As the opponents get tougher, it'll be important for Gentry to continue to thrive in big moments.
Who's the midseason MVP?
All four players can make a case for the title, but I would rank them this way:
- Shea Patterson
- Karan Higdon
- Zach Gentry
- Donovan Peoples-Jones
Patterson has an advantage being the starting quarterback, but it's difficult to understate how important he's been to Michigan, especially after last season's disastrous passing efforts.
He willed the Wolverines to victory at Northwestern, which was the only true adversity they've faced since the opener. Patterson is the leader of an offense that's clicking through the air on the ground, and he's done everything Harbaugh's asked of him.
Higdon is the model of consistency and has no trouble carrying the biggest burden on the offense.
Gentry gets a slight edge over Peoples-Jones because he leads the team in catches and receiving yards, and he's come up clutch in critical moments. If Peoples-Jones can put together more performances like his breakout against SMU, he'll rapidly climb this list.
Nico Collins, with 265 receiving yards, and Ben Mason, with five rushing touchdowns, also deserve to be mentioned, though they aren't quite on the same level as the top four.
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