Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Analyzing Michigan's 2018 Passing Attack

Submitted by Ron Utah on November 28th, 2018 at 1:08 PM


Losing to your archrival sucks.  Getting blown out by them in a year when you were favored to win in their stadium?  That causes some fans to lose their shit.  Unfortunately, with their shit often goes their perspective, and heated debates about WHAT WENT WRONG?!?!?!?!! ensue.

But did something go wrong?  Didn't we get annihilated by OSU?  What needs to be better for Michigan to get from "Top-10" to Juggernaut?

While Don Brown's defense absolutely failed against OSU, there is an element of this team that has had more pervasive issues and seems to be preventing Michigan from joining the truly elite class of CFB programs: the passing offense.  

While Michigan's offense made dramatic improvements in 2018--and that is a fact--it lacks the pop of the nation's best.  What is missing?  What needs to be tweaked, changed, or eliminated?  Why didn't Michigan's offense achieve its potential in 2018?  TL; DR:

  • Both traditional and fancystats demonstrate improvement in all aspects of the offense, including the passing game
  • Fancystats have some weaknesses, and situational as well as individual statistics help explain some of those deficiencies
  • One of the biggest problems with the passing attack is one of the easiest to fix: lack of use (and quickness of use)
  • It seems the staff is aware of at least some of this and attempting to evolve, but either stubbornness or pure habit is holding that progress back a bit
  • Michigan could vastly benefit from adding a creative passing game mind to its staff
  • It's completely reasonable to recognize that the offense was NOT the core problem against OSU and still recognize that it needs adjustment to help Michigan reach elite status

Let's start with the good news--and there is lots of it.  On its face, the 2018 passing offense (and offense in general) took a moon-sized leap from the 2017 version.  Consider:

  • Michigan's offense finished the 2018 regular season as the #24 S&P+ unit in the country, including the #32 rushing and #10 (!!!) passing ranking
  • Shea Patterson's passer rating of 154.28 is the best for a Michigan QB in over a decade and is a whopping 43.96 points better than last year's combined QB rating.  To put that in perspective, Shea's rating is good for 21st in the country and last year's rating is far outside the top 100 passers of 2018.
  • The TD to INT ratio improved from 9:10 in 2017 to 23:7 in 2018.

In short, the passing game is clearly a vast improvement over 2017.  So why does the #10 S&P+ passing offense need examination?  Because fancystats don't tell the whole story.

For one thing, Michigan's offense ranked 49th in passing down efficiency.  So, when opponents knew Michigan was going to pass, the offense was middling at best.  Furthermore, the passing offense had significant deficiencies in other situations:

  • 1st Quarter passer rating of 126.98
  • 3rd Down passer rating of 130.39
  • 3rd Down and 10+ rating of 80.84
  • Field Position: Own 1 to 20 Yd Ln rating of 118.15; Own 21 to 38 Yd Ln rating of 122.67
  • Red Zone completion percentage of 51.2%

These situational statistics tell a story: early in games and early in drives, the passing attack is not nearly as effective as its average.  Obvious passing situations aren't very good to Michigan.  And the red zone is essentially a 50/50 area for completions.

By contrast, 'Bama's 1st and 2nd quarter passer rating are higher than their average (which is a ridiculous 208.53).  Their 3rd down rating--which you would expect to be lower than their average since defenses are playing pass--is just six points (3.1%) lower than their average, vs. Michigan's difference of 23 points and 15.2% less efficiency.  Clemson's passer rating on 3rd down beats their average (which is less than a point better than Michigan's, FWIW) and OSU's is only fractionally worse.

Elite passing offenses don't have a hard time moving the ball on 3rd down.  Michigan's #10 S&P+ rating is masked by excellent 1st down efficiency, as well as being far more effective after the 1st quarter and further down the field.  The problem with this is that if Michigan is going to be a juggernaut, it needs to start faster and have a passing attack that can succeed when it's most needed (early in drives and on third down).  The 2018 version falls far short of elite in these critical areas. 

But wait, there's more...

Michigan's WR talent is on par with the best teams in the country.  The 2017 recruiting class included four top-200 overall recruits at the WR position, including the #12 overall player, and all four WRs were among the top 30 at their position.  Here are their individual stats from 2018:

  • Donovan Peoples-Jones - 39 REC / 541 YDS / 13.87 AVG / 7 TDS
  • Nico Collins - 33 / 552 / 16.73 / 6
  • Oliver Martin - 11 / 125 / 11.36 / 1
  • Tarik Black (injured) - 2 / 20 / 10 / 0

None of those stat lines are bad.  Black's performance should probably be ignored after yet another foot fracture kept him out most of the season (but there's good reason to include him in this overall conversation).  For the second straight season, no Michigan player caught 40 passes or broke 600 yards.  'Bama's Jerry Jeudy--ranked #21 overall in DPJ's class and the #3 WR--has 56 catches for 1,079 yds (19.27 avg) and 11 TDs.  Three other players have over 600 yds (including a TE) and their top five pass-catchers average over 17.3 yds/catch.  Clemson has three WRs with over 40 catches and two with over 600 yards, OSU has three players with more yards than our best WR's numbers and a predictably absurd pair of players with at least 64 catches.

All year long, Nico Collins has caught deep, contested passes thrown his way.  DPJ had single coverage more than just that one time vs. MSU.  Tarik Black has proven talent with deep ball and contested catches.  Heck, Dylan McCaffrey came into a game and immediately tossed a couple of arm punts to Ronnie Bell for big gains and a TD.

This leads to one of the glaring problems: usage.  Michigan's inflated S&P+ rating reflects the passing offense's effectiveness when a pass was simply unexpected.  And who could blame opponents for not expecting a pass when Michigan ran the ball on 519 of its 829 plays?  Almost two-thirds (62.6%) of our plays were hand-offs this season.  Again, contrast that with Alabama running 57.7% of the time, despite being in blowout win mode more often.  In fact, 'Bama averaged just 30:13 of possession because they were scoring so fast.   Michigan averaged almost 35 minutes of possession each game.  We just didn't throw the ball much.

One of the reasons offered for this is QB health.  But the rest of college football has figured out how to keep running QBs as healthy as Michigan's passers and still take deep shots: arm punts.  It's completely false that a deep pass play requires great protection in college football.  Trace McSorely has made a living with a far weaker arm than Shea Patterson by throwing the deep ball quickly.  And if you have tall, athletic pass-catchers (and we have a shit ton of those) than even if the play is well-covered you have a good chance at a completion and a good chance at getting a pass interference call on an incompletion.  For years, Michigan fans (myself included) mocked the arm punts thrown by B1G QBs and ignored a ruthless truth: they work pretty damn well in college football.  Michigan State's entire passing offense is centered around their guys making contested catches on back-shoulder deep routes, and their QB is often throwing the ball before the WR turns to look.

Michigan needs to embrace this aspect of college football and design plays that use deep passes that get out of the QB's hands more quickly.  Collins, DPJ, and Black are ideally-suited to this type of play.  So is Gentry, for that matter.

But, given that Michigan won 10 games and housed some quality opponents, why does this matter?  Isn't improving the offense by 61 spots in S&P+ enough?

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The answer was in the OSU game.  Harbaugh plays to win.  If he can beat you by just running the ball, why risk the pass?  Why subject your QB to hits or put plays on tape you may need to win games down the road?  Because if you don't run your offense at peak efficiency all of the time, it won't be ready to operate at peak efficiency when you need it.  OSU prepares for Michigan everyday, and it's pretty clear at this point that comes at the expense of preparing for lesser opponents.  Their base play is one of the best possible plays to run against Michigan's base defense.  Michigan needs to start thinking the same way: how can we build a machine that can beat the elite competition in college football?  Yes, that means passing more against Rutgers, WMU, SMU, Maryland, etc.  It means refining a gameplan that can beat our archrival needs to start long before Hate Week commences.  Because body shots just won't be good enough against an opponent that can throw a haymaker on every play.

What's most interesting about all of this is that Michigan seems to be at least faintly aware.  The 2018 class had just three blocky-catchy types after zero in 2017.  The 2018 class also added Michael Barrett and Ronnie Bell--two players whose build don't match the traditional prototype of Michigan's WR recruits, and that trend has become even more pronounced this cycle: Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil, and George Johnson III are all under six feet tall and expected to contribute as slot/weapon types on offense.  Actions speak louder than words, and Michigan is using valuable scholarships on the types of players that haven't been considered part of the plan since Rich Rod left.  That speaks to a continued evolution on offense.

And yet...we ran more often this year than we have since 2011, when we had one of the best running QBs in CFB history on our team.  It feels like the staff knows it needs to advance, but just can't quite keep themselves from the old-style of lining up and out-executing their opponent.

Stuck in outdated habits and stubborn adherence to failing principles, it's time to seek professional help.  A bright, creative passing mind from an Oklahoma, Clemson, or even second-tier schools like WaSU, WVA--hell, even Purdue.  The NFL has great models as well: Kansas City, the Rams, New Orleans, and even Tampa Bay.  We don't necessarily need a new OC, but we need a passing game coordinator with the creativity and proclivity to increase our passing output.

Michigan's passing offense was ranked #10 in S&P+ this year.  It has an embarrassment of riches at WR, TE, and even RB and QB.  Yet it posted just 2,555 yards this season, good for the #84 passing offense in yards/game and 11 spots below Michigan State.  We can't expect our offense to reach peak efficiency if we keep the best part of it locked in the garage most of the season, hoping it will be ready when are forced to use it.  Our rushing S&P+ ranking was 32.  Our explosiveness (ISOPPP+) was 57.  And, as discussed, our passing down ranking was 49.  Those numbers won't improve without a commitment to a more frequent, creative, and modern deployment of a college football passing attack.

It's a gross exaggeration to blame our two losses this year on our passing game.  But it's just as clear that we won't reach elite status if we don't improve that component of our offense.  It's time to take another step forward as a program, and the passing offense should be the top priority.


Maize N' Ute

November 28th, 2018 at 1:37 PM ^

I wish I could give you a standing ovation GIF.

Absolutely fantastic work, Ron.  I think most of the posters here agree with your assessment of this offense.  It's too conservative and stubborn.  Instead of body blowing our lesser opponents every week, the offense should look to execute on all fronts of it's game.  There's running plays in practice and then there's running plays in an actual game.

Excellent point on Harbaugh noticing this need to expand the offense (even though we didn't see it on the field) by recruiting Slot Ninja's to assist in making this offense dynamic.  This offensive staff would be wise to evolve their offensive philosophy, because as you stated, while we body blow, the opposing team throws a haymaker.  


November 28th, 2018 at 2:02 PM ^

Or.......they return 9 starters and finally have a Qb returning and this will evolve naturally.

The offense is going to be great next year. They have depth and talent at every position.  No adjustments are needed.   They got the experience they needed this year.   

Patterson missed several open plays in the OSU game and they still scored 39.  The only concern is if Patterson shows no improvement from this year to next.  My assumption is that Patterson will get better at recognizing his 3rd and 4th options and it will be great.  

We finally have the experienced talent at all positions that people want and now we want to switch things again.    No thanks.

We have Ruiz, Owenu, Bredeson as upper classmen with experience and we want to scrap running the ball?   No thanks.  

People forget so fast.  




Ron Utah

November 28th, 2018 at 2:09 PM ^

That's a nice straw man.  No one said we should scrap running the ball.  If we run the ball 5% less--we're talking about 3 or 4 more pass attempts per game--I think that could help quite a bit.

Continuing to evolve (as much as we did this year) makes a lot of sense.  Our running game made some dramatic improvements.  It's time our passing game did the same--our WCO is out-dated and too slow to develop, and our QB does not get the ball out quickly enough (which needs to be fixed with coaching and design).

We also lack creativity and deception.  Watch an NFL game.  Our passing attack has fallen behind virtually every successful modern offense.  That doesn't mean we blow the whole thing up and hire Kingsbury.  It means we need to get better and more efficient. 

You Only Live Twice

November 28th, 2018 at 2:35 PM ^

My son was watching NFL the other night and remarked that whoever the team was trotted out a Harbaugh offensive pass play from 2 seasons ago.

:-)  Really enjoyed reading this diary, and the way you explained everything with intelligence, completely avoiding the hot take.  You're one hell of a writer.

In terms of the OSU-M prep, this has been getting literally a lot of airplay today.  How the heck does that work?  Their LBs don't know how to play when facing lesser opponents but know exactly what to do when it's us?  And if that's the strategy, isn't that risky as hell?  Losing to Purdue and within a hair of losing to MD, we would have had the conference outright.

The Mad Hatter

November 28th, 2018 at 2:52 PM ^

The theory is prepare for the best team in the conference (us) and the rest will take care of itself.  Yes, you will sometimes drop a random game (Purdue), but as long as you win the others (even if the wins are ugly) and beat the rival, the season was a success.

Back when we used to beat OSU regularly, we would always drop a random game (or 2, 3, 4...) during the rest of the season because we were spending A LOT of time preparing for OSU.

The conference is better now, so the other teams require more attention, but most years we're not getting to the championship game or the playoff without beating OSU.


November 29th, 2018 at 1:14 PM ^

That largely tracks with my understanding as well.  It was the same with MSU and PSU last year; PSU in particular pulled out everything new against UM and then got progressively more owned the next couple of games because they put everything on film and teams adapted (as witnessed by the fact they had an 88% offensive performance against UM and then were 45% and 53% against OSU and MSU).

It sucks.  I do think Michigan game-planned for OSU as well, but just got caught a couple of times early before it snowballed.  But Michigan also steam-rolled everyone else this year save ND while OSU farted their way through the year and nearly stumbled a couple more times.  If I was an OSU fan, I'd be pissed that this has been 2 years now where OSU doesn't play up to their full potential and will probably miss a playoff spot because of it.  


November 29th, 2018 at 4:00 PM ^

Dead on. I also don't believe we truly have the dept that OSU has. Their Receiver group is far deeper than ours. The 1 and 2 are probably comparable, but then when OSU goes to 4-wide sets, their 4 are "superior" to our 4. On top of that, I think their O-Line has better "talent", not neccesarily are they a better unit on scheme, more so on the raw talent vs what we have being lesser (?) Talent and rely more on the scheme and execution to level that off. On the other hand, I could be entirely incorrect on that. 


November 28th, 2018 at 2:50 PM ^

The plays are there.  Patterson has to get the ball out quicker.   He is small and likes to get out of the pocket to see better.  He also hasn't had the best protection so his quick clock in the pocket is justified.   

Review the film and look for TE and RB leaking out of the backfield or backside routes popping wide open.  The plays are there.  I don't know who is to blame for them being missed, but they are.  I think it's on Patterson and it's justified as he's learning a new offense and has had limited reads his whole life.  I have full confidence he will make that improvement next year.

I apologize if I misunderstood your post.  If your talking about 4 to 5 more passes a game I would agree.  I think the RPO game will be a bigger part of the offense next year.  I don't care if we run it 90 times or pass it 90 times I just want to be efficient taking advantage of teams having to overload to stop us because with our talent and scheme they won't be able to stop us straight up next year.  If they load the box we need to punish them.




Ron Utah

November 28th, 2018 at 2:57 PM ^

Thank you for this follow-up.  We're on the same page.  I do think we'd benefit from more creativity and deception, and more willingness to throw contested passes.  I think our WRs have earned that.  Here's hoping the passing game improves a notch.  If we throw for 3,000 yards in 2019, we are probably a playoff team.  The running game will be good to great with Warinner and the talent at OL and RB.  We just need that extra pop the passing game can/should provide.

While I hope Shea returns, I think McCaffrey and Milton are both capable of leading this offense to a brighter future.  Neither is as accurate as Shea, but Milton's arm and Dylan's intangibles offer enough value to compensate.  2019 should be great!  Go Blue!


November 28th, 2018 at 3:00 PM ^

I will disagree that our passing game lacks imagination and deception.  I always ask people to think about things logically when things go haywire.

People on this board are super passionate about this team, but does anyone think they are more competitive or passionate than our coach and former QB?   The guy is a legendary lunatic.

If we can all agree he is an overly competitive lunatic.   I ask you this.   With ties to coaches at all levels, a guy that loves football like nobody else and can call guys like Bellichick up and have them take his call do you really believe he's operating an archaic system that the other coaches are laughing at?

If you disagree with this statement, I'd like to hear your theory.

For example we ran the exact magic play that OSU beat us with on a critical 3rd down in the 3rd qtr when we were down 1 score.   Shea misread the coverage and almost got Higdon killed.  We punted and things spiraled from there.   Pull up that play and look at the middle of the field.   DPJ and Black are the only 2 guys in it.  If he leads DPJ he has a sure 1st down and he has a 10yd running head start on the safety.





November 28th, 2018 at 3:19 PM ^

Isn't that sort of the point though, part of the problem with the way the offense is designed is that there is no margin for error. They have to execute at a much higher level than teams that are occasionally trying to score quickly. OSU failed to pick up 3rd downs a couple times as well, the next drive they had one play TDs so no one remembers or cares.

Look at the winning scores of the playoff games and tell me if you really think the TOP offense is going to get it done at that level.

Ron Utah

November 28th, 2018 at 3:23 PM ^

I don't think coaches are laughing and I don't think Harbaugh's system is terrible.  It is outdated and in need of refreshment.

While I can't speak to how open players were on that Higdon play (but I do remember the play), I will say that's likely an example of our problem, not our solution.  The play took too long to develop and made it too hard for Shea to find the right read.

Harbaugh and Pep's creativity seems to hinge on route trees and play action.  Do you watch the Chiefs and Eagles and feel like our offense does a similar job in confusing opposition?  

I'm not calling for Harbaugh's head (or even Pep's, necessarily) but we don't get guys as hand-wavingly open as the elite teams do and we don't take as many chances with our superior talent.  I'd like to see those things improved.


November 29th, 2018 at 9:47 AM ^

We are probably closer to being on the same page and talking about a small percntage, but yes I do see guys wide open at LA and KC.   It's not just that easy though and the more we talk you get into arguments that become circular.

Why are KC and LA so effective and wide open?   

1.  They have elite talent.  

2.  They have run games.  LA uses play action on almost every pass.  KC uses all sorts of run action.  They don't work without Gurley, Hunt etc.

3.  Those routes take a long time to develop.  You need great protection.

4. They are professionals and have much more time together to perfect the timing and option routes and reads necessary to execute it.

Ron, let's say for argument you were the coach last year.   You have a new QB who is short but mobile, a pretty good run blocking oline and a poor pass block oline.  Solid RB and explosive but young WR.   Good TE group.   Knowing you only have limited practice time.   Would you have dedicated more of your practice time to perfecting a deep complex downfield passing game?

All I'm saying is wait until next year.   The run game will be devastating with this line, TE and FB.   Teams will have to stack the box to stop it and the RPO game should flourish with another offseason to perfect it.






November 29th, 2018 at 9:08 PM ^

"The play took too long to develop and made it too hard for Shea to find the right read."

How do you know it was too hard? Because he made a mistake. This is just circular reasoning. You keep calling about creativity and it seems your only real suggestion has been more arm punts. Or look at the Rams and see how I " feel" about the passing game. I just find it laughable how everyone is diagnosing the offense but then shows no knowledge of football Xs and Os beyond what I know, which isn't much.

The WRs are still young and it looks like Patterson played in an incredibly simple pass offense last year so he probably can't make a lot of reads. Plus the OL struggled in this game. None of those starters were seniors. I don't think they need to bring in anyone new. They'll be much improved with another year of practice.


November 28th, 2018 at 9:03 PM ^

I promise I'm not being intentionally sarcastic here, but if Michigan passed the ball to the middle of the field more often -- or just passed more in the games -- this play may have gone better. You can't get great at something if you don't run it consistently, and in so many games this year, we only passed when we felt we had to. It's like, "oh, all right, fine, we'll pass".


November 29th, 2018 at 3:03 PM ^

Basically Harbaugh is overestimating the cost of an interception.  I believe he told Shea to avoid interceptions.  Period.  And Shea did what he was told to do.

The problem is obvious.  The offense takes so little risk that they have NO chance to score a lot of points against a very good to elite defenses.

Clemson, OK, and OSU think differently.  And win.

Hail to the Vi…

December 3rd, 2018 at 8:58 PM ^

i don’t think anyone is laughing at Harbaughs offense. Statistically it is very good if you look across the college football landscape. I think what we are talking about is what takes this offense from good to playoff contender. I do think it’s possible that given the success Harbaugh has had throughout his entire coaching career it is possible he has some blindspots. Not uncommon for anyone with a level of expertise in their profession to stick with what got you your success. One of them I think is passing scheme within the structures of the offense he likes to run. From a philosophy perspective, I think his offense is totally fine. He just needs some new passing game perspective from a forward thinking coach in that discipline of the game. Just a refresh of scheme and approach to the passing attack, I think, would make our offense much more potent.

Maize N' Ute

November 28th, 2018 at 2:22 PM ^

I don't believe Ron, or myself, were expressing a desire to abandon the running game.  The concern is this offense isn't built to convert on passing downs when it needs to be.  Additionally, this red zone offense under Pep has been abysmal, especially converting drives into TD's rather than FG's.

How can Pep and Harbaugh improve this implementing some creative and aggressive passing schemes.  We all agonize over constant fly routes with no check down options.  Routes being called short of the first downs. We clearly have the talent, but we're underutilizing them.  So instead of being kind of "Blah" through the air, why not be a little more dynamic.  Do we need to be a 63% running team?  I don't think so.  Why can't we be a 60-40 or 57-43?  I don't think it's that crazy.  Is Harbaugh that stubborn?  I hope not.

I think Ron was dead on in saying Michigan should look to implement those passing plays against the lesser teams, rather than just running the ball to protect the QB.  What does this team have to gain by not growing?  It's a fact, OSU prepares for us every week.  I don't know if Michigan does.  We should look to change that.


November 28th, 2018 at 3:16 PM ^

If you have the games taped or go on youtube I implore you to go over the plays.   Play action...Shea turns and looks downfield....he wants the big play...and he waits and waits and then bugs out and starts scrambling.

1. I agree he has to let more of them fly and let the WR make a play.

2. Freeze it.   The backs and TE are wide open 3-5 yds downfield.  


November 28th, 2018 at 2:32 PM ^

I have another qualitative theory to throw out there.   We've discussed the idea that the coaches wanted to protect Shea for the end of the season by limiting his runs - which is both logical and justified looking back on the season as a whole.  

I think the lack of passes is also part of that.  My theory is that the coaches were skeptical that the OL would be able to protect Shea consistently and thus wanted to limit that exposure.  Rudock, Speight, and Peters were not hurt running RPO or Zone Read plays - they were hurt getting destroyed by pass rush.  

The entire off-season discussion on this website was about how the OL has been bad and whatever optimism the Drevno/Warriner change brought was balanced by the knowledge that four of the projected starters were part of the problem last year and the fifth was a guard-sized 3-star left tackle.  So I suspect the coaches wanted to limit the hits Shea took with drop backs and even though the OL did better throughout the season, the ND and OSU games do support there being some validity to this idea.  

I don't disagree with your recommendation or conclusions, however.  I think 3-5 more passes, especially on unexpected down & distance, would be a great upgrade.  I would also suggest that throwing more of those passes to Black/DPJ/Collins/Martin instead of McKeon/Gentry/Eubanks may help as well.  I love our TEs.....but even the best TE is not at the level of an above average WR.  


The Mad Hatter

November 28th, 2018 at 2:57 PM ^

First, thanks for taking the time to write this up.  I'm in almost complete agreement.  Even passing 5% more will make a world of difference over the course of 12 games.

Personally, I think Pep may be the weak link.  Our passing plays seem to take a long time to develop, and that doesn't work unless you're playing behind a great OL.

So we need a new pass game coordinator, or a way better OL, or Haskins as our QB.


November 29th, 2018 at 3:08 PM ^

Agreed!  Haskins would not look much better than Shea.

It's is less the players (though OSU has much better recruiting rankings) than it is the style of offense.

The word I keep hearing is efficient, efficient, efficient.  But never explosive.

We need a more aggressive, explosive, attacking offense.

Until that happens, we will continue to lose against elite teams.


November 28th, 2018 at 2:43 PM ^

2019 is that year.  With Higdon gone and no power-back heir apparent, we will be forced to pass more to win ball games.  And as you point out we will have veteran targets in DPJ, Nico, Black, Martin, Gentry.  We just need Shea to return and I think he will. Harbaugh has probably already showed him the season plan for 2019 and it should showcase Shea really well. 

Does Harbaugh really need to replace Pep to pass more often?  I don't think so, they just need to put more pass into the game plan. Pep's play-calling was pretty good this year and he had a QB that could execute.  If Shea returns and the pass volume is just turned up a notch, he could have a monster year that would really improve his draft position ... maybe all the way to 1st round.  That is why I think he is going to return for his senior year.  Harbaugh plans to pass way more in 2019.


November 28th, 2018 at 2:51 PM ^

Very well-written, Ron.   One of the biggest problems I had with our play-calling this year was it was too predictable.   I completely agree that we have weapons on offense that are under-utilized.  I count only a handful of times when a pass was thrown to Chris Evans in space.   Yet, when it was it was usually successful.    Our stud receivers should be getting more targets than they've gotten.  

Here's where I have some hope - last year's offense was abysmal.   Critical changes were made in the off-season and the improvement was dramatic.   We keep hearing about Harbaugh's stubbornness, but he DID make the changes necessary to fix our offense.   He just needs to do it again and if he does, considering how many returning starters we'll have, this offense could potentially be lethal next year. 

In addition to throwing a bit more I'd like to see the offense go up-tempo once in a while, just to mess with the opposing D.  I know that they were looking to grind teams down, rely on their D and control time of possession.   That's all fine and it mostly worked.   However, there is nothing wrong with scoring quickly.   

One final thought - I am not convinced Patterson will be starting next year.   I would not be shocked if McCaffrey passes him up and that's not a knock on Shea.  

Watching From Afar

November 28th, 2018 at 3:01 PM ^

The biggest annoyances over the last couple of years has been the deployment of personnel and big picture general strategy/play calling.

To start, the offense this year was the best it has been under Harbaugh. IIRC, according to S&P, 2015 was around 33rd and 2016 was around 35th (but was actually better and more efficient, there were just 2 other teams that had better offenses that particular year). So we're headed in the right direction. Last year was the aberration due to the youth at WR, OL, and lacking a competent QB for more than 2 games at a time.

However, what we saw Saturday was both promising and nauseating.

The promising:

Throwing passes to their 6'5" WR who is there to win jump balls. They threw 3 or 4 high pointed passes to Collins and those weren't reads so much as he was the only route to throw, eliminating any potential tomfoolery. Find the mismatch and exploit it.

Almost force feeding DPJ at times. He is the best athlete on Michigan's offense and should be the Edwards/Terrell WR who Michigan finds ways to get the ball because he has the ability to win routes and move chains.

They actually used Chris Evans as a WR and no OSU LB or Safety was withing 2 feet of him every time he caught a pass. He is not a between the OTs runner and should be used as a Sproles like RB like he was Saturday.

Spreading the field out with all the WR recruits that were so highly sought after and allowing the offense to operate in space rather than a phone booth.

Using Gentry down the seams (even though he had 2 horrible drops and 3rd pretty bad one). Even the dropped TD wasn't just a route, it was a clever wrinkle to the read option stuff Michigan had been running recently. Patterson looked like it was an arc keeper and ran towards the LOS with Eubanks there to block for him, but then he pulled up and dropped a dime. It was a great play call.

The nauseating:

Flip side of the above Evans point. Michigan should have been using him that way for the last 2 years, full stop. There is no argument for trying to use him like Higdon. He is not a battering ram that is going to grind through 15 carries to break 1 or 2 long ones. He's there to change pace, maybe pop a big 30+ yarder on the ground, but mostly be a match-up nightmare like we saw against MSU last year on that flash pass and on those wheel routes/slants.

The second they motioned McKeon out on that one 3rd down to be a single WR I knew they were throwing a back shoulder fade/curl to him and it was pathetic. They did that twice last season and it failed each time. He is not your 6'8" TE and has proven to be an average receiving TE at best up to this point. Gentry and Eubanks are better than him catching the ball and the coaches have tried to make him a receiving threat his isn't right now.

We know the identity of Michigan football. Harbaugh wants to run right at you and impose their will on defenses. OSU, up to last Saturday, was a tire fire on defense. Especially against teams that spread them out and got their LBs and Safeties in space. Michigan did some of that, but also refused to stick with it for more than a few plays at a time or when they needed something big. That hamstrung them.

Overall, Michigan is at a weird crossroads where they are athletically capable of competing with everyone in the Big Ten, but the same issues dog them this year that have since 2015. I'm not saying they need to go full spread, 5 WRs and throw 50 times a game. But Harbaugh has done a great job recruiting top flight athletes who (with a little coaching) can win games like the OL can against inferior competition. When the playing field becomes level, operating under the idea that Michigan's 4-star OL will convincingly win versus OSU's 4 and 5-star DL, and the RBs will find lanes has been proven at least not right. 2017 against OSU was a great coaching job on offense. They had a massive handicap and went with interesting formations and broke tendencies to get OSU out of position and allow their athletes room to work all while mitigating their biggest weakness which happened to be the most important position on the field. 2018 (and 2016 - though Speight was broken at the time) was a decent coaching job that had far too many head scratching moments that, had the defense not broke, might not have submarined their chances of winning but definitely can cost you the W in close games.

Michigan operated this season at a level much higher than 90% of the defenses they faced. But when met with equal talent on the other side of the ball it seemed like Michigan relied too heavily on their normal operations and were unwilling to fully throw the bookshelf at defenses. All is not lost, the offense returns a ton next year and should be as good or better than it was over the course of this season. They just need to continue to develop multiple levels of their offense and be willing to let their 3 or 4 best athletes take over instead of relying on perfection from 11 guys each play.

EDIT: Something I hadn't thought about until just now, one of the reasons why RichRod didn't work at Michigan (there were many) was because he took a spread, read option offense (and absolutely ZERO defense) into the Big Ten and got crushed by teams with decent defenses the likes of which the old Big East didn't have. Harbaugh's success at Stanford was mostly predicated on an offense full of TEs, brick wall OLs, and consistently good QB play (obviously Luck was Luck). The Pac 12 during his time at Stanford was basically a more athletic Big East in that outside of USC and maybe 1 other school, there were no big boy defenses out there. Oregon was a track team on offense that was emerging as the premier program of the conference (Carroll left USC in 2009 and even then Oregon was catching them) and every school tried to keep up with them/get smaller and faster to compete. Stanford would then waltz into town and crush those defenses because they were different than the offenses at Oregon, Washington, and Arizona.

Coming back to the Big Ten, Harbaugh has had to run into defenses like MSU, who stoned Stanford in that Rose Bowl because they can go against 2 or 3 TEs and not crumble. Similar with OSU, Iowa, and Wisconsin (when they're not replacing every starter and their mother). The defenses in the Big Ten are generally better than those of the Pac 12, especially against more pro-style offenses because a lot of schools here go with 2 or 3 traditional LBs and safeties down in the box.

While RichRod was wholly unwilling to adjust to his new conference and the defenses he was seeing, Harbaugh clearly is. He will always have sets with multiple TEs, FBs, and big OLs trying to run right at opposing defenses, but he's always willing to go get DPJ and Collins on the outside. Continue to adjust to the landscape and use the athletes you have.

Watching From Afar

November 28th, 2018 at 3:31 PM ^

Well, yeah kind of.

You commented before my edit so I'll reiterate. Harbaugh clearly understands how things are going not only across CFB, but in the Big Ten. He went from multiple TE sets with FBs and only really using 2 WRs in 2015 to sending out Black, DPJ, Collins, and Evans more frequently this year. He is stubborn and wants to operate in a phone booth and have Onwenu sit on some dude's head for 5 yards a pop, but he's not so stubborn that he will do that till the cows come home.

2017 he put JOK in a position to hit throws I'm pretty sure an average QB in the Big Ten could hit 7/10 times. It was a legit A-/A coaching job. This year was more like a B-

Of course we have to "hope" because we don't call the plays, but next year they will have 3 legit WRs, a very good receiving RB, and at least 1 good TE, probably 3. Even his QBs will be more athletic than normal with Patterson (assuming he comes back) McCaffrey, and Milton all being more mobile than 3/4 of other Big Ten QBs.

He has clearly been working on it and just hasn't gotten all the way there yet. He falls back on what's comfortable too often, but it's not like he's Les Miles stuck in the 1990s.


November 28th, 2018 at 4:45 PM ^

I try not to be be tooooo pessimistic, in fact I'm pretty much over Saturday - onward and upward right?  But I can't help but feel we've wasted the WR talent we've had over the last two years.  I get them not being ready as Freshman but there are plenty of wr's who make an impact their first year, especially when they are as athletically gifted as ours appear to be.  If we had a strength on offense this past year shouldn't it have been the passing game?  2017 the excuse was we didn't have a quarterback to throw them the ball.  This past year the excuse will be Patterson needed time to gel with them.  If DPJ leaves after next year I'm really hoping we don't see his career as being a failure due to the system and players around him.

Watching From Afar

November 28th, 2018 at 5:22 PM ^

I mean, 2017 wasn't really an "excuse" so much as it was just factual. Even when Peters was playing he was around 50% completions and he could at least give DPJ a shot at catching a post unlike the other QBs.

Chesson and Darboh were both 750-800 yard receivers but had to be because Michigan could barely churn out 3.2 YPC against competent defenses. Stanford had guys like Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen get to 900+ yards under Harbaugh and neither of those 2 were even close to the talent that Black, DPJ, and Collins are.

This year Michigan operated how Harbaugh did at Stanford before Luck with a much better defense. Use those 315+ lb OL and roll over inferior opponents and win by limiting possessions and scoring 30 points (which they usually blew past). When it was necessary Michigan showed that they could get going through the air but with 3/4 of the schedule being malleable, they could just roll. And we also saw Patterson struggle with zone defenses to a point where running for 8, 9, 10 yards was more alluring than going 3/7 for 34 yards or something.

It was annoying because we saw DPJ just flat out-athlete entire defenses and Collins go over OSU 5-star CBs routinely. When it comes to those boat race games, Michigan will need to break it open and let the athletes do what they do best, out run and out jump their opponents. To this point, Michigan hasn't done that. Hell, back when they had guys like Edwards and Terrell they basically had to be forced to do it.

Teams like Oklahoma put up a ton of yards not only because that's their offense, but because their defense gives up a ton of yards and points and they have to get the ball to their best players who aren't usually their linemen.

All that being said, I say "you recruited these guys for a reason."


November 29th, 2018 at 2:33 AM ^

In 2017 the WRs were not very good at running routes, getting open, or fighting for the ball. The QB play was often poor, but receivers weren't helping them out much. If they didn't beat their counterpart immediately, they'd give up on the play. I see a lot of improvement (in DPJ  especially) this year which I hope will continue to develop).

There is still something not quite right (the routes that get run/stopped short of the line to gain are irksome), but it's a lot better than it was.


November 28th, 2018 at 9:11 PM ^

I love the analogy. To me, it seems like they are running their Ferrari in first gear, because they are totally uncomfortable with going over 35 mph. 

The pain of this team is that, for some reason, they will not (a) use the weapons on offense to their full potential and (b) exploit another team's deficiencies, rather being content to "do what Michigan has always done".

Reggie Dunlop

November 28th, 2018 at 3:04 PM ^

Awesome job. Couldn't agree more. Random stuff that popped into my head while reading:

The huge jump in passing efficiency last year to this year is mostly due (in my opinion, of course) to Patterson replacing Peters/O'Korn. Not really breaking any news here, but it never seemed like you literally got to that point. I believe Patterson is that good.

I think the staff operates with a fear/belief that they are playing 5 guards on the offensive line. When they need to pass, they usually are keeping a TE or RB (or both) in to help chip ends and keep the QB upright. I know you mention we don't need elite protection to throw more, and I don't think you're wrong, but we need competent pass blocking tackles to intentionally make a pass offense a priority.

I've never been a fan of Pep Hamilton. Not directly related to any of the issues that I can tell, but I desperately want to give somebody else a crack at this thing. 

Finally, I defend this staff a lot. I see what they're trying to do and they're mostly successful at it. But nothing drives me more insane than when they have a body-bag game and they opt to run it a billion times. Music to my ears to read your take on - however you put it - you have to run this offense at top speed all year long, not just when you need that 5th gear.

Great diary. Critical, but rational and fair. Five stars.

Ron Utah

November 28th, 2018 at 3:13 PM ^

Thank you.  Yes, Patterson is a huge reason for the jump.

As for the protection issues, I think you're right.  But OSU had a sub-par OL this year and still threw the ball a bajillion times.  We have to find a way.  And while the OL wasn't great this year, it wasn't a tire fire either, but it never seemed that we adjusted to that.  And we'll be better next year.


November 28th, 2018 at 3:31 PM ^

The quick pass game where the ball comes out in 3 or less seconds mitigates the need for an awesome OL. OSU show-cased that last Saturday. And when OSU did need more time for longer play development, they left in the RB and/or TE to chip and pickup UM's blitz game. That element of our pass pro needs further development but I thought both Higdon and Evans made huge progress and Wilson was a stud at protection.  Pass pro progress was a huge contributing factor to pass efficiency improvements, but the other was Shea's ability to pass on the run.  Much better at that than Haskins.

But you are right, if we add more quick passes looking for YAC from our elite WRs pass production will take another leg up for 2019.  The deep balls I think we do well at so adding a few more a game is worth the risk.

Durham Blue

November 28th, 2018 at 3:19 PM ^

I was a little surprised why the offense was what it was this season being the 84th best passing offense.  The defense played lights out in 11 of 12 games which should breed confidence to go with a larger volume of higher risk (pass) plays.  In other words, if Patterson averaged 1 to 2 INT's per game it probably wouldn't result in that many more points for the opposition because our D is so good.  This season seemed like a great opportunity to go bananas with the passing attack, running up tempo, etc, especially against the weaker teams on the schedule.  The extra practice playing in that manner may have helped us against OSU when the D was losing its end of the bargain and the O needed to match OSU's points.


November 28th, 2018 at 4:20 PM ^

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

I see our 2018 offense as a compromise between competing factors:

- how much can we install with a new QB, young WR plus linemen who were bad last year?

- how can we get our QB healthy to the Game?

- what do our players do best?

We settled on the creative power-run game built for our senior RB, road-grading line, and our vast array of catchy-blocky types, which we knew could be upgraded in season by adding RPO and QB runs once we had the basics.

Even knowing what I know now, that still seems like a sensible choice.

The flip side is that if we had installed an RPO short passing offense at the start, we might have done better against OSU ... or it might not have mattered because we would have dropped a B1G game, or Shea got hurt, etc.

Overall, I think the staff went for vast improvement, rather than elite passing game, and got exactly that.

Now next year is a different set of tradeoffs, and I suspect that the results will incorporate the points you make above.