2019 Review: Michigan's Slow Start Vs. Middle Tennessee Forecast Future Struggles
Pre-Game Expectations: After months of Michigan's coaches, particularly offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, teasing "speed in space" fans were eager to see an explosive offense immediately on display. With, arguably, the most talented receiving corps in the Big Ten - and the program's most talented since Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston shared a field together in 2003-04 - the Wolverines were set to unleash a potent passing attack under the leadership of senior quarterback Shea Patterson and junior WRs Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black.
On the other hand, U-M had no idea what to expect from its running backs, true freshman Zach Charbonnet and redshirt freshman Christian Turner poised to get the most carries. In an interesting wrinkle, the offense was preparing to play two quarterbacks - redshirt sophomore Dylan McCaffrey carving out a niche as both a substitute to Patterson but also working in conjunction together.
The defense had plenty of new faces, starters at both defensive end spots (sophomore Aidan Hutchinson and junior Kwity Paye), MIKE (junior Josh Ross) and WILL linebacker (senior Jordan Glasgow), cornerback (junior Ambry Thomas) and safety (redshirt sophomore Brad Hawkins) while junior Ben Mason (fullback to defensive tackle) and senior Josh Uche (part-time to full-time starter) were taking over bigger roles.
The defense was expected to struggle some, and no one knew how high the ceiling would be, though there was considerable preseason hype for Hawkins, Ross and Hutchinson, expected to solidify three areas of potential weakness.
What Went Right: Charbonnet had a good debut, rushing for 90 yards on just eight carries (11.2 yards per rush) with a long of 41 yards … Patterson went downfield for touchdown completions of 36 (Black), 28 (Collins) and 28 yards (senior tight end Sean McKeon) … The defense limited the Blue Raiders to 67 yards rushing and 2.4 yards per carry, and just 4.4 yards per play overall … McCaffrey continued to prove himself a capable No. 2, leading U-M on a drive of 84 yards and a touchdown drive of 44 yards … Thomas shocked everyone with his recovery from a summer illness (that had caused him to lose 20+ pounds) to start and play well at cornerback, recording the team's first interception of the season … Redshirt freshman Vincent Gray looked good in his debut as Michigan's No. 3 corner … Freshman Giles Jackson wowed with a 34-yard kickoff return … Sophomore placekicker Jake Moody picked up right where he left off in 2018, making both of his field-goal tries… In place of injured senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr., redshirt freshman Ryan Hayes looked capable of stepping into a starting role in 2020.
What Went Wrong: The offense stalled out consistently, going 20 minutes without a touchdown in the second and third quarters as McCaffrey was summoned to jumpstart the offense (he led Michigan on its first touchdown drive in five possessions) … Peoples-Jones didn't play while nursing a reported groin injury and the overall "speed in space" fizzled, Patterson and McCaffrey connecting on just 11 completions to wide receivers … Patterson fumbled on the game's first offensive play, one of four fumbles (two lost) by the Wolverines on the day … He also took a nasty hit on the play, and would reportedly deal with an oblique injury for most of the rest of the season … The defense surrendered touchdown drives (albeit on shortened fields) both times the Michigan offense turned the ball over, a sudden-change issue that had plagued U-M in prior seasons.
What We Thought Then: While there was disappointment the Michigan offense looked sluggish and Patterson needed a bailout from McCaffrey to get things going, most chalked it up to missing a few key pieces (Peoples-Jones and Runyan) and acknowledged a transition to a new offense often has a few stumbles.
There was optimism about the play of Charbonnet and Turner, and everyone lauded the blocking prowess of Charbonnet. The Patterson-McCaffrey package underwhelmed but there was future-contest potential, and McCaffrey put forth yet another display that he was competent as a backup and could challenge Patterson.
The defense had a few hiccups but the vibe was largely positive, especially with the emergence of potential playmakers in Hutchinson, Thomas and Uche.
It wasn't a dominant effort but Michigan fans had seen first-game jitters before. The relatively underwhelming 40-21 win did little to diminish the overall excitement for the season to come, and the belief that 2019 would be a championship year.
What It Meant Big Picture: No one knew what awaited Michigan in just three weeks time (a 35-14 loss at Wisconsin that wasn't as close as the final score), but what we know now is that U-M's opening game was a preview of a two-month battle to find a groove in Gattis' new offense. The frustration then of wasting the Wolverines' mismatches at the skill positions would be a lingering frustration, only resolved in November's three contests.
Michigan caught a few glimpses of what Charbonnet could do and he would have some more nice moments throughout the season but the running back pecking order of Charbonnet, Turner, senior Tru Wilson, redshirt freshman Ben VanSumeren and redshirt freshman Hassan Haskins would get turned on its head with the rise of Haskins (and the subsequent fall of Turner) in mid-October.
The turnover problem would continue and proved critical in losses at Wisconsin (four cough-ups, including Mason's fumble at the Badger seven-yard line early in the first quarter) and Penn State (PSU turned Patterson's screen-pass interception into a touchdown five plays later and a 21-0 lead).
On the flip side, redshirt freshman right tackle Jalen Mayfield developed into a stalwart on the line, the defense cleaned up much of its sudden-change lapses and Hutchinson would only get better.
There were certainly positives that would blossom further as the season unfolded, but the offensive struggles weren't just "jitters" and would play a key role in U-M's two defeats to UW and PSU, losses that knocked Michigan out of the Big Ten race by Oct. 19.