Change was needed for the University of Michigan football team’s offense.
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s power-run style was good enough to get the Wolverines back into Big Ten Conference East title contention, but not enough to reach the conference championship or sniff the College Football Playoff.
After spending the 2018 season without an official offensive coordinator and finishing 10-3, Harbaugh brought in offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to revamp Michigan’s look and establish a downfield passing game.
Gattis’ influence on the offense will be a key Saturday when the No. 11 Wolverines (2-0) open the conference season against the No. 13 University of Wisconsin (2-0) at Camp Randall Stadium. UW’s secondary hasn’t been tested in back-to-back blowout wins to start the season.
Gattis, 35, came to Michigan from Alabama, where he was the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. The Crimson Tide were explosive under his direction last season, scoring 45.6 points per game. Alabama lost to Clemson in the national title game.
Gattis was the wide receivers coach at Penn State for four seasons before his year under Nick Saban at Alabama.
This marks the third week in a row the Badgers will face a team installing a new offensive scheme.
“It’s definitely a little challenging, because you don’t have a full season on him,” UW senior linebacker Chris Orr said.
“We have a little bit from Alabama and the first couple of weeks. Early on in the season, when there’s a coaching change, it’s always hard to know exactly what to expect, especially if they haven’t gone against a bigger opponent like us or our scheme.”
The Wolverines struggled with turnovers early in their season opener against Middle Tennessee State before pulling away for a 40-21 win, and then had to survive a 24-21 double-overtime win over Army before their bye week.
Gattis — a two-time All-ACC safety for Wake Forest who played for the Chicago Bears in 2007 — has preached a mantra of “speed in space” since taking over in January. The Wolverines have had more success passing between the 20-yard lines, racking up 13 passes of more than 20 yards, before relying on freshman running back Zach Charbonnet to finish drives in the red zone.
“They’re a talented group. Wide receiver-wise, they have great size, they can run, they can track the football, and they love 50-50 balls,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “You add the tight ends into that group and what they can do in the pass game, they have a lot of dynamic weapons.”
Thus far, Michigan has eight runs of 10 or more yards compared to 40 rushes for less than 4. But the Wolverines have rushing options beyond Charbonnet, including quarterbacks Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey. Patterson is the primary quarterback and McCaffrey is a change-of-pace option. Both hurt UW with touchdown runs last year.
“It’s definitely tough when you have to account for that,” junior defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk said of the zone-read runs. “We’re definitely scheming up for any kinds of reads and stuff like that.”
Tasked with making the offense more explosive after inconsistent production in big games under Harbaugh, Gattis has yet to employ all of his key players.
Left tackle Jon Runyan, a graduate student, has missed the first two games with an undisclosed injury, as has junior wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Peoples-Jones, who led the Wolverines with eight touchdown catches last season, was listed as questionable Monday, while Runyan is expected to make his first start. Runyan participated in warmups before Michigan’s win over Army but didn’t suit up for the game.
Both players’ absences have been felt early.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Hayes started in Runyan’s place and the converted tight end was serviceable, but the Wolverines have allowed four sacks, two of which resulted in lost fumbles. Peoples-Jones would add a dynamic playmaker on the outside for Gattis and Patterson, who has spread the ball around in the opening games to receivers Tarik Black (seven catches, 104 yards, one TD), Ronnie Bell (9-99-0) and Nico Collins (5-81-1).
“I think they’ve found a way to utilize everybody, which is definitely harder to prepare for,” Orr said.
One issue that has vexed Michigan thus far is fumbling. The Wolverines have five lost fumbles and eight total, up from just three lost fumbles all of last season. Patterson has put the ball on the ground four times, losing three.
Harbaugh said at his Monday news conference that practices over the bye week and this week have focused on ball security.
“We just keep working on it. In the team drills, made a high emphasis of our scout team ripping the ball out,” he said.
Leonhard said UW knows Michigan has coughed up the ball, but he’s not adding extra attention to causing fumbles this week.
“That’s something that you have to stay on top of as a defense anyway,” Leonhard said. “You’ve got to work on attacking the football, you have to have that mindset that you’re going to do that whether the team has put the ball on the ground or not.”
Saturday’s games won’t be the slugfest with multiple tight ends and heavy sets to which the Wisconsin-Michigan series has been accustomed. But UW coach Paul Chryst said he’s sure the Wolverines will come with something new up their sleeves.
“You know you’re going to see things you’re not seeing on film. That’s part of it,” Chryst said, “And you’ve got to be able to adjust within the flow a game or on a play. I think that’s a challenge that everyone faces at this point in the year.”