After eight months of offseason speculation on what Michigan football would look like in Year 4 under coach Jim Harbaugh, we finally got a good long look at the Wolverines in a 24-17 loss at Notre Dame, and the on-field performance was alarming in many ways.
What We Learned: Michigan still has major deficiencies at offensive tackle. According to one of my producers for "Inside The Huddle" , Zach Shaw, redshirt junior left tackle Jon Runyan (eight) and fifth-year senior right tackle Juwan Bushell-Beatty (seven) allowed 15 combined QB pressures, putting junior quarterback Shea Patterson (and redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey) under duress much of the night: the Wolverines allowed a pressure on 34.1 percent of non-running snaps.
It is almost impossible for a quarterback and an offense to be effective under such circumstances, and U-M suffered the most when it mattered, coming up with just 10 points on four trips inside the ND 25-yard line. Two of those four drives were done in by sacks -- the first, admittedly, compounded by Patterson running backwards from pending contact that knocked Michigan out of field--goal range, and the second, an eight-yard sack on 2nd-and-2 at the Irish two-yard line that forced an eventual field goal.
What We're Asking: Is this really the best Michigan could muster at tackle after a full spring practice and four weeks of fall camp? Will there be any changes to the offensive line before Saturday's home matchup against Western Michigan? Reports out of fall camp said that true freshman Jaylen Mayfield (left tackle), redshirt freshman James Hudson (right tackle) and redshirt freshman Andrew Steuber (both tackles) all showed glimpses, but not the consistency of Runyan and Bushell-Beatty. But barring dramatic improvements from the two veterans -- and four and five years, respectively, into a career, they are what they are -- U-M probably can't beat the best teams on its schedule with turnstile tackles.
With two games before the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, there should be a concerted effort from the coaching staff to see what some of the younger tackles are capable of. Perhaps they didn't outshine Runyan or Bushell-Beatty in practice, but some guys flourish on Saturdays and some don't. The Maize and Blue have to figure out their tackle situation in the next two weeks or risk exposing a major weakness to defenses that could prove their undoing in conference matchups.
What We Learned: Though the Wolverines only finished with 307 yards of total offense and one offensive touchdown, the unit has some potential playmakers, beginning with Patterson, whose 123.6 pass efficiency rating was the best by a starting QB at Michigan since Brandon Peters in week 10 against Maryland (154.5). Patterson demonstrated an ability to throw on the run and create something out of nothing (traits he might need more of if the offensive tackles remain an issue). He wasn't without fault, but overall, it was the most competent quarterback play Michigan fans have seen since October 2016.
Senior tailback Karan Higdon didn't have great blocking in front of him, but showed the same burst and ability to hit a hole that brought him to the edge of 1,000 yards a year ago (994 yards). Higdon was dropped for a loss on just two of his 21 carries (an underrated element with such a 'meh' OL) while he picked up eight or more yards on four touches. Higdon finished with 72 yards and a touchdown.
At receiver, sophomore Nico Collins had a strong first start, with three catches for 66 yards. His 52-yard haul early in the third quarter was the longest reception by a Michigan wide receiver since Grant Perry's 54-yard catch against Colorado in week 3 of the 2016 campaign. Classmate (though by designation, redshirt freshman) Oliver Martin had three catches for 29 yards, setting up U-M's only offensive TD with a 21-yard catch-and-run late in the fourth quarter.
What We're Asking: Where was Chris Evans? Named by coaches to, essentially, be a co-No. 1 back with Higdon, Evans is a big-play threat, with nine career 20-yard rushes and four 20-yard receptions, yet he didn't touch the ball until the 10:17 mark of the third quarter, after 34+ minutes had passed. He wasn't targeted in the passing game until the second-to-last series of the game. The coaches have been mum on Evans' absence, but in a game ultimately decided by seven points, to not get a versatile weapon the ball 12-15 times is a coaching failure.
Conversely, the preseason talk built up expectations for Michigan's tight ends, particularly redshirt junior Zach Gentry. He was targeted six times but finished with only two receptions for 11 yards. Gentry had the chance for a game-changing play, U-M trailing 14-0 and at the Notre Dame 10-yard line in the second quarter, when Gentry allowed safety Alohi Gillman, nine inches shorter and 60 pounds less, to outplay him for the football in the end zone.
What We Learned: The defense's aggressiveness is both a strength and a weakness. Fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich was named to the ProFootballFocus.com All-Big Ten Team of the Week, and by my count, had 7.5 QB pressures while junior linebacker Devin Bush was responsible for 1.5 sacks. In total, I allotted Michigan 14 total QB pressures, including two sacks. U-M would add an additional five tackles for loss, meaning the Maize and Blue caused disruption on 19 of 69 plays (27.5 percent).
Their aggressiveness led to the nation's best third-down conversion rate in 2017 (opponents averaged a mere 26.11 percent on third down) but Notre Dame exploited Michigan's aggressiveness to the tune of 46.7 percent and was 5 of 9 in the first half (7 of 11 if you include two penalties called on U-M that resulted in first downs). Bush was guilty on multiple occasions of prematurely attacking the offensive backfield only to see Irish signal-caller Brandon Wimbush leak out of the pocket to the opposite side and pick up a big gain. Bush got better as the game went along, but a 21-3 first-half deficit was due in large part to Notre Dame recognizing Michigan's aggressiveness and using it against the Wolverines.
What We're Asking: It's unlikely Michigan will continue to struggle as immensely on third downs going forward. A program doesn't lead the country in conversion rate and with the same philosophy and more mature athletes suddenly nosedive, but we are left to wonder how the Maize and Blue will handle the mobile QBs on their schedule in matchups with Nebraska, Maryland, Michigan State (to some degree with Brian Lewerke), Penn State and Ohio State after Wimbush rushed for 59 yards and was responsible for four of ND's 10 rushing first downs, including back-breakers on 3rd-and-6 and 3rd-and-18.
In matchups with those teams last year (Nebraska excluded, which U-M did not play), the Wolverines surrendered 259 yards and five touchdowns on 49 carries (5.3 yards per rush) to quarterbacks. They have already flunked their first test against a dual-threat and if they don't fare better against MSU, PSU and OSU's mobile QBs, those three games will likely result in three more losses.