As I was attempting to work myself out of my depression about another ugly Michigan loss and sort through the emotional reactions from other fans, I landed on what really has struck me about Michigan this year. The lack of playmakers. When the game is on the line and you have to make a play, there is no one that comes to mind. Someone who can singlehandedly change the game, make the play, or spark the team. There is not a go-to play or player that you can count on with the game on the line.
I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. And the obvious example this year from the Steelers is Antonio Brown. Both early in the season when they were trying to get a talented offense in a rhythm and on the same page, and in October and November when they went on an 8-game winning streak, Brown made critical play after critical play to help them win games. Many times, this came during ugly games against inferior opponents. The Steelers found a way to win close games late; in large part due to AB.
Now, I know what you are thinking. How can you compare a talent laden team like the Steelers to a young Michigan team? Well, the point isn't to compare rosters but to point out that winning teams have players that they turn to with the game on the line and who make plays even when the team is struggling. The Steelers easily could have lost 3-4 games if not for Brown’s clutch play. When they absolutely had to have a first down or a big play you knew who they were going to turn to and he made the play.
When I look around at the Big Ten and beyond I see the same thing. Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, even Michigan State have playmakers they rely on when the game is on the line. Obviously QB is critical. And all those teams have QBs who have handled pressure better than any on the roster at Michigan. And those teams also have quality playmaking ability at RB. Frustratingly, OSU and UW have freshman RBs who have been game changers.
This was never clearer than in all our losses this year (and in years past as well). When Michigan had to have a play, no one stepped up. The QBs weren't good enough. The RBs or WRs couldn't make a play (think critical drop against MSU). In key situations, instead of making plays we had turnovers (five against SC!).
You could, however, argue that it isn't so much the playmakers but the lack of a consistent offensive line on which to build. It is hard for QBs to make plays when pressure is constantly in their face or when they are getting knocked out of games. It is hard to make plays when there is no room to run, or openings for the RBs, etc.
And I definitely think if Michigan is going to play at the highest level, particularly with Harbaugh's offense, they will have to develop a quality offensive line. I don't think it has to be dominant, but it must be competent; it can't be a glaring weakness.
Others might point to scheme as the culprit. Harbaugh's offense is too complicated or too old fashioned (requires pro style QB etc. when spread is dominant at HS). Or maybe play calling is to blame. Why throw in a monsoon? Why handoff to TE on 3rd and 1 in critical point in the game? Why throw deep on 4th and 1?
I am not an Xs and Os guy but am open to criticisms of the play calling. And there is a sense that Michigan's offense lacks an identity; something they can hang their hat on.
But if I had to pick an explanation, I would still go with the lack of playmakers. Michigan has come up small in big games this year repeatedly. Whether it is the QB, the RBs or the WRs, when they had to have a play no one stepped up and made it.
At critical junctures yesterday, far too many players made critical mistakes when the game was on the line. Karan Higdon fumbled in the Red Zone. Brandon Peters threw an interception in the end zone. Donovan Peoples-Jones muffed a punt deep in our own territory. Given chance after chance to put the game away, Michigan instead gave the game away.
The one element not discussed yet is experience. As noted above, and by many on the board across the site, youth has not prevented other teams from making plays. Note the fantastic years of J.K. Dobbins (OSU) and Jonathan Taylor (UW). Heck, for the second year in a row the National Championship Game will feature a freshman QB! So hard to say experience alone is to blame.
I think it is likely a combination of talent, experience, and situation (scheme, play calling, etc.) that has resulted in the misery of Michigan football in the Harbaugh era. The question is whether the current roster, or as it will look in 2018, has the playmakers to win big games. As has been noted ad nauseum, the schedule will offer a great many opportunities to find out with road games against ND, MSU and OSU.
If I had to rank the concerns I would list them as QB, OL, WR, RB. We don't have the QB who has the athletic ability or mental discipline to win games. Does She Patterson change that? Our OL, both in terms of talent, injuries and experience, has contributed to the poor QB play and limited the running game. A young and depleted WR corps has also turned the passing game into a joke. I think the RBs played quite well at times despite the mess around them. Hard to find holes when the OL is poor and the downfield threat is non-existent.
To me the QB and OL or the unknowns. I can see the line improving some just through experience but how much better? I can see the WRs improving quite a bit as that is often the case with that position (learning the offense, running better routes, etc.). I don't think we have a game changing RB but I can see them being reliable components of an effective offense if there is a passing game to speak of. But having a true leader at QB who can make the plays with the game on the line looms large.
What say you? Is the primary problem talent, the OL or the play calling? And how confident are you that things can come together next season?