Unfortunately, some of my earliest memories of Michigan football are watching the biggest upset in college football history and Michigan’s only loss to a MAC program. I started to understand football around the time that Rich Rodriguez came to Ann Arbor. As a result, I’ve experienced the worst that Michigan football has had to offer. And yet, the worst I’ve seen from this fanbase has been during the last three years: a time that has included multiple ten-win seasons.
This reaction is due to unrealistic expectations, poor performances in marquee games, a certifiable football genius coaching in Columbus, and, frankly, one bad spot in 2016. And now, after less than a quarter of the season and two poor performances, I am seeing this fanbase at an all time low. Most Michigan fans are somewhere between depressed, enraged and hopeless. That is why I am writing this article, to try to instill some hope and positivity into the Michigan fans who are either giving up on the season or calling for Harbaugh to be fired.
To start my optimistic take on the current football team, I’m going to look big picture. If we look at the season as a whole, the most recent embarrassment against Wisconsin doesn’t affect anything. Future losses would put the Wolverines out of the playoff picture, but that would have been true regardless of this loss. (Now I’m sure you’re thinking that I’m crazy to be thinking about the playoffs after such a terrible game, but the onfield performance will be addressed later). A loss to another B1G east team, such as Ohio State or Penn State, would be much more detrimental to the season because those losses would make it much more difficult to get to Indianapolis. A cross division loss, however, is almost irrelevant in making the championship game in the East. So, if a one-loss Michigan team wins the Big Ten, they will be all but guaranteed to earn a spot in the playoffs.
Now to the more difficult part of the article, convincing the average fan that the team is going to improve dramatically over the next few weeks. I’ll start on the offensive side of the ball. The offensive line play has been nowhere near where we expected coming into the season, particularly in pass protection. I chalk a lot of that up to left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. being limited/unable to practice and missing the first two games. Most fans underestimate the value of chemistry on the offensive line and the importance of in-game reps against opposing defenses. Additionally, the amount of communication that happens on the offensive line frequently goes unnoticed. This makes it incredibly difficult to pick up stunts and elaborate blitzes amidst crowd noise. So, I expect pass protection to improve dramatically now that Runyan is healthy and Michigan’s next three games will be without crowd noise.
I also think that protection will improve if running back Tru Wilson can get back on the field and healthy, because currently Christian Turner is struggling mightily in pass protection and is the reason for two of Shea Patterson’s fumbles on the season. I’ve actually been encouraged by the run game so far this season and was baffled by the refusal to run against Wisconsin, but I doubt there will be any more games where Michigan only hands the ball off 10 times all game.
The part of this team that has received the most criticism is the quarterback play. Some complaints have been justifiable, but Shea Patterson is a good college quarterback. His greatest weakness, his inability to dissect a zone, was put on display against Wisconsin, a team that runs exclusively cover 2 and cover 3. His play over the last year and a half, however, has proven that he is a quarterback with good arm strength, accuracy and mobility. I believe that the team’s offensive approach moving forward will be more suited to Shea’s strengths. He throws a great deep ball and good jump balls which every fan hopes to and should expect to see more of. I think that the fourth quarter against Wisconsin is a harbinger of the play calling going forward: more quick hitters and downfield shots. This team has elite talent at all the skill positions on offense and the coaching staff seems to have figured that out.
In terms of the defense, I’ve gotten exactly what I expected coming into the season. This team simply doesn’t have the personnel to stop the Wisconsin offense. The Wolverine defensive line has zero players above 300 pounds and their linebacking corp includes a former safety in Jordan Glasgow and another safety sized player at viper in Khaleke Hudson. This year’s defense is built to stop spread offenses and was never going to be able to stop Wisconsin. I predicted that Wisconsin would be the team’s only loss before the season because of this fact. The rest of the schedule employs spread attacks besides Iowa and Michigan State, and neither of those teams try to mash your face in like Wisconsin .
In the first three games I’ve actually been impressed by a lot of new faces that are starting on the defense. Brad Hawkins has covered well and made a few nice tackles around the line of scrimmage. Ambry Thomas seems to be the same athlete we all knew he was last year and seems to be more focused after his bout with colitis. Jordan Glasgow made some surprisingly good plays, especially against Army, despite being a natural safety playing weakside linebacker. The biggest bright spot on the defense, in my opinion, has been Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson has been using his hands really well to fight off blocks, which was on full display in OT against Army. Another positive moving forward is that Josh Uche seems to be at a point in his development where he is deployable on more than just obvious passing downs. Uche is no doubt a weapon as a pass rusher, and being able to rush him on standard downs as well will be huge.
I’m not delusional. The first three weeks have been very bad. The Wisconsin game was one of the worst games that I’ve ever seen a Michigan team put together, but teams almost never finish the season playing how they start. If you go back just to last year, the Notre Dame game was a terrible performance, especially from the offensive line. Then, by the end of the year, the O-Line was playing like the best unit in the conference. Many teams start the season terribly and then finish it on fire. Just look at Penn State in 2016. They started the season 2-2 with a loss to Pitt, a 7-point win against Temple and a 39-point loss at Michigan. Then, by the end of the year, they were a top ten, arguably top five, team in the nation. That team is very similar to this year’s Michigan team: incredible talent all over the offense, including a QB who is great at throwing deep balls and an elite prospect at running back (and no I am not saying that Zach Charbonnet is or will be Saquon Barkley), along with a defense that is weak upfront which isn’t going to be able to shut people out. They were also employing a new offensive coordinator whose unit improved monumentally over the course of the year.
It is far too early to be giving up on this team and the 2019 season. Everything is still ahead of them and their potential is still sky-high. The schedule also allows for a few weeks before the next big test at Penn State (Iowa while playing on the road is not very concerning). Football is only around for three months out of the year, and it is silly to waste that time being angry and depressed. I think that every Michigan fan should heed the words of Michigan’s godfather Bo Schembechler: ““When your team is winning, be ready to be tough, because winning can make you soft. On the other hand, when your team is losing, stick by them. Keep believing.” Well, the team is losing, so I choose to keep believing, and I hope that you will do the same.