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Is it time to throw in the towel in Ann Arbor?

Jim Harbaugh and the state of Michigan football in 2018.

The reality of the state of Michigan football

Saturday night was not the start Jim Harbaugh and Michigan football had in mind for the 2018 season. The highly anticipated preseason Heisman trophy candidate, Shea Patterson, and Coach Don Brown’s defense received a reality check in their 24-17 loss in South Bend. Statistics speak for themselves. Since 2006, Michigan is now 0-17 against Associated Press (AP) top 25 teams on the road. Harbaugh is yet to be able to bring his team over the hump of winning important games on the road since his arrival in 2014. National Championship contender teams win key games no matter where they play.

Though the week one loss hurt, The Wolverines are still in control of their destiny if they fix their issues on both sides of the football. By no means will it be easy sledding with potentially the hardest schedule in all of football ahead of them as they will be heading on the road against Michigan State and Ohio State as well as play home games against Wisconsin and Penn State all in the same season. The only silver lining coming out of this week is Michigan played a poor game offensively, started really slow on defense in the first half, but still managed to have an opportunity late in the game to win the football game against a team that will finish in the AP top 15 by the end of the year.

Strengths on offense

Jim Harbaugh and the state of Michigan football in 2018.
Photo courtesy of gettyimages

Shea Patterson, though he did not light it up in his debut and made a few pocket awareness mistakes, was not the sole reason why the Michigan offense was stagnant. Patterson went 20 for 30, for 227 yards and one interception. When he had time, he was very accurate with the football for most of the night. When the Wolverines moved the pocket and he was able to throw on the run, he looked comfortable. Michigan has the quarterback they have been looking for.

Losing Tarik Black to a foot injury put a dent in the Wolverines’ receiving core. However, the rest of the rotation of receivers stepped up and snagged most of the balls thrown their way that were catchable. They also did an excellent job blocking on the perimeter for any quick screens that Patterson decided to throw; an under-appreciated trait of WR’s these days.

It was tough climbing for most of the night in the run game, but that did not stop senior, Karan Higdon, from running hard all night with his 21 rushing attempts, for 72 yards and one touchdown. Under Coach Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan, his one-two punch of Karan Higdon and Chris Evans has been the most consistent group on offense.

A team can never have too many quarterbacks at their disposal. When Patterson went down with leg cramps in the second half, sophomore Dylan McCaffery stepped up and looked confident to run the offense. It’s an ideal situation for an offensive coordinator to not have to change his game plan because his starting quarterback goes down in the middle of the game.

Though McCaffery was only 4 for 6 for 22 yards, he gave his team, coaches and fans a sense of relief that he is not scared of any moment and will keep the Michigan offense on track if Patterson goes down. McCaffery will be the QB of the future at Michigan.

Areas that must be fixed on offense

The offensive line was simply terrible all game long. The tackles had issues with Notre Dame’s defensive ends and could not keep them from getting around the corner on pass plays. Run lanes were scarce. Michigan’s best run plays all night were power and inside zone, which are two of their staple run plays.

The interior line, though not great either, was more consistent than Michigan’s tackles last night. Regardless, Patterson was running for his life most drives. The interception he threw was an example of that. The only time where pressure was limited was when Michigan moved the pocket on design sprint-out pass play concepts. But to be a contender for a championship, that can’t be the only way to be successful throwing the football.

If Michigan does not immensely improve up front by conference play, it does not matter who is at quarterback, running back or wide receiver, it will be another long, frustrating year offensively in Ann Arbor.

Play calling, at times, was extremely vanilla and questionable, especially in the red zone. It was surprising to see a lack of play calls near the goal-line that allowed Patterson to use his legs if he needed to. Coaches are supposed to put players in spots to be successful. Michigan offensive coordinators did not do that enough on Saturday night.

Strengths on defense

Jim Harbaugh and the state of Michigan football in 2018.
Photo courtesy of sportzreport.com

There is no denying that Michigan came out and got gashed during the first half on defense in the passing game. Two out of three of Notre Dame’s first-half touchdowns came in the air. Michigan’s Defensive Coordinator, Don Brown, did what he does, though: he adjusts. The Wolverines did just that and, in the second half, they came out and shut down Notre Dame and gave Michigan’s offense a chance to win the game late. The intense pass rush from Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich were seen on Saturday Night as well as their front seven speed and physicality in the run game.

Areas to improve upon on defense

Jim Harbaugh and the state of Michigan football in 2018.
photo coutresy of onefootdown.com

Coach Brown is arguably the most aggressive defensive coordinator in all of college football. His press the line of scrimmage, blitz-heavy, man based coverage scheme is a very high-risk high reward defense.

With man coverage being the primary look Don Brown runs, if the defensive line does not get home or stay in their rush lanes, there is absolutely nobody that is going to save them in the second and third levels of the defense. Michigan struggled with containing ND’s quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, all game. The defensive ends either went too much upfield to allow him to step up and slide out of the pocket, or went too much inside and gave Wimbush the angle to get outside of containment. It is crucial to keep the QB inside and collapse the pocket in Don Brown’s scheme in order to see success.

Penalties also killed the Maize and Blue. The 3rd and goal with 4:07 left in the first half is a prime example of that. If Winovich does not hit the quarterback late, Michigan gets the stop and forces Notre Dame to settle for three instead of giving them the first and goal and ability to score a touchdown on the very next play. 17 to 10 at half feels a lot better than 21 to 10.

Michigan should win their next two games against Western Michigan and Southern Methodist University at home with ease. For Michigan fans, the reality of the situation is: no matter how good Michigan looks in their next few games and even into conference play against Nebraska and Northwestern, until Michigan wins a significant game like week  7 against Wisconsin, the team won’t be taken seriously. Arguably not even until the following week when they play MSU on the road in East Lansing for the Paul Bunyan trophy.

It’s not over in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines have a lot to prove to be considered a favorite to win the Big Ten East and play for a conference title.

Featured Image Courtesy of ESPN

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