MnB staff roundtable solves the Michigan offense, jumps around a bit

Ahoy there. Did you know I was a sophomore in high school the last time Michigan won in Camp Randall? Do you know how that game ended? Wisconsin muffed a punt in a tie game with 24 seconds remaining and Brandon Williams fell on it. Hayden Epstein then kicked the go-ahead 31-yard field goal on the next play.

College football is a strange mistress.

Michigan is allergic to winning in Madison, and they should thank the scheduling gods it isn’t at night this time. Add in the fear factor of Wisconsin scoring so many points across week one and two (against pretty poor opponents, mind you), and this could be another forgettable road game.

Aside from a win, what’s going to prove to you that Michigan is turning the corner? Harbaugh’s road record/number of ranked opponent wins is terrible…think about how that needs to change; and anything else that has been on your mind for the past two weeks.

David: First off, Michigan fans need to throw out their memories from the first two games like in “Men In Black” and focus on the 2019 season starting Saturday. They weren’t technically “preseason” games, but the two wins didn’t necessarily get everyone fired up and think this is “the” year they win the Big Ten Conference. If they shut out their opponents like Wisconsin did or didn’t need overtime against Army, I think more fans would feel better about the status of the team. Fans want to see a “statement” win against a solid Big Ten opponent in a hostile environment. I’m not saying this could be the biggest win under Jim Harbaugh, but it would be up there, especially as the first time he’d win as an underdog at Michigan losing the last seven attempts.

I want to see an offense people’s eyes get big over, people revive their excitement for Michigan and they execute against a solid defense at Wisconsin. Well, this Badger team has shut out both opponents so far, but were not difficult matchups. I know with five turnovers already, they likely will surpass their total of 12 in 2018, which was eighth best overall in the country for turnover margin. The team could turn it around and avoid turnovers for the remainder of the season, but when that happens, you hope it’s not in a close game in a rivalry matchup. My focus is on the offense to see their tempo, if they establish a solid run game, avoid mental mistakes and elimite sloppy play. Shea and/or Dylan can find success on the ground and run the ball, but want to see them air it out more and give the receiver/tight end group more opportunities to make big plays.

Jared: David hit the nail on the head with the turnovers, so I will say offensive execution and play calling are going to be huge in this game. Against Army, there were several misreads where Shea Patterson could have kept the ball and gained positive yards but instead handed it to Charbonnet, who had a defensive end crashing down on him like Kobe Bryant when an 8 year old skips practice for a dance recital. Josh Gattis also left a lot to be desired on play calling in short yardage situations, especially down near the goal line. I would like to see some more aggressive and creative play calling against what should good be a very good defense. Tarik Black and Nico Collins need to be seeing the ball at least 5-7 times a game now that we are in the meat of the schedule, they are both too good to be relegated to blocking receivers for most of the afternoon. Aside from that, just find a way to win a big game on the road and shut the growing number of detractors up, even if only for a few days.

Kevin: I’m going to talk at length on something: Harbaugh’s shortcomings to-date when facing either top-ten opponents or ranked opponents or even just opponents away from Michigan Stadium. A lengthy piece appeared on MLive.com a couple days ago with a sinister title: “Harbaugh and Michigan football: the cash is flowing but the trophy case is empty.” A true statement, but there’s more to it than the link between increased donations, contracts, bonuses, and investments into facilities. It’s a little deceiving to only mention the financial side of program success, and make the assumption that championships only come strictly from cash flow. If that were truly the case, Michigan would lap the field with how much money has been coming into the athletic department. As I wrote last week in reviewing John Bacon’s book Overtime, the central philosophy of the Michigan program is to do things the right way, and that means a comprehensive success model: academics, development, and athletic achievement.

There was a portion of that book I refrained from drawing attention to that applies here. While Harbaugh was at Stanford, he made headlines one year by (correctly) pointing out that Michigan had fallen behind some of the other comparable schools in the Academic Progress Rate (APR). Essentially tracks the mix of declared majors, enrollees on the team, eligibility and scholarships. It’s explained in the book, so I won’t do the math here, but, before Harbaugh, it definitely dipped. After his hiring, it has steadily risen or stayed consistent. In hindsight, he had a point, but was roasted for it at the time, but it circles back to this notion that Michigan has a lot of other things the program accomplishes on top of trying to win games. That’s why it is a program, not a football franchise.

Where Harbaugh does deserve criticism, is the on-field performance, because, like the academic side, those numbers don’t lie. In year five, still no victories over top-ten teams, only a couple notable road victories, and a losing record against ranked opponents in general. Zero division/conference titles, and one lowly bowl victory in year one. Conveniently, Wisconsin sits just outside the top ten, but winning in Madison is a good way to wipe away some of that criticism.

To put it another way: 1-9 against the top ten; 0-4 against OSU; 1-5 against ranked on the road; Michigan’s road losing streak to ranked teams now sits at 17, the last coming in 2006 in South Bend. Somehow, the problem spread across four coaches is all lumped onto Harbaugh. It has to end tomorrow.

There isn’t some secret formula to winning a big road game. Gattis was hired to simplify the offense…if Shea is hurting, don’t play him. I’ve noticed a bit of a change in how Jim manages a game this year. He’s getting out of his own way more and more, but the trend in a road game is he puts together a brilliant game plan and then falls on his face late and removes any chance to actually win.

Good teams win on the road no matter what, and perhaps thinking about how that 2001 victory happened is a place to start. Stop micromanaging every minute of play calling and pay attention to what Wisconsin is giving you. The whole purpose of Gattis’s offense is supposed to be exploitation and confusion, but none of us know what that looks like because it’s not showing up on the field. If it still doesn’t materialize tomorrow, I’m going to doubt whether it ever will…

Dan P: Kevin nailed a lot of what I was going to say. This game is going to be the most important of the season. I say that because it is going to be a testament of who this Michigan team will be for the rest of the season, and will clarify if the Wolverines have taken that step that several thought they would this season.

Lots of fans and experts have been saying that this is the year that Michigan will win the Big Ten and have a legitimate chance of making the College Football Playoffs. An early loss to Wisconsin would definitely not bode well for those predictions. They won’t be out of it if they fall in Madison, but the odds are going to be heavily stacked against them with Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State still ahead of them on the schedule.

This game will affect the Wolverines and their fans attitude towards the rest of the season. With a loss and only a smidge of that confidence in a CFP left, Michigan and Harbaugh will get criticized heavily by many people for not winning yet another big game. To make it worse, the team will have less momentum heading into the deepest part of their schedule while dealing with all the hate. So this game against Wisconsin is basically as close to a must-win as you can find.

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Kevin Bunkley

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