Free Press writers react to Michigan’s debacle against Ohio State, 62-39, discussing every angle from Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 24, 2018.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
The quarterback drops back, races to his right, taking the defense to his side of the field. Meanwhile, the tight end leaks out to the left and, for a moment, he is open, with a couple of blockers set up to clear traffic ahead.
The pass comes, the tight end starts to run, the defense converges, the play gains five or six yards. A perfectly acceptable design.
Jim Harbaugh has run a version of this play for years. There is nothing wrong with it. The scheme gets a tight end into open space.
The issue Saturday against Ohio State is that while the Wolverines often were seeking out sturdy tight ends to move the chains, the Buckeyes were seeking out speedsters.
Above all else, Urban Meyer prioritizes getting his best athletes into space. Harbaugh does not.
And if he wants to compete with the best program in the Big Ten — not to mention with the best programs in the country — this must change.
And it can. But more on that in a minute. For Harbaugh isn’t the only Big Ten coach in the state who needs to rethink his offensive approach.
Michigan State’s head coach, Mark Dantonio, just oversaw the 112th-ranked offense in college football. This after finishing 76th in 2017 and 89th the year before. Obviously, this isn’t a good trend.
The Spartans’ production fell this year in part because of injuries. If quarterback Brian Lewerke, receivers Felton Davis III and Cody White, and the offensive line were all healthy this season the output would’ve been better.
How much better? That’s the question Dantonio will wrestle with this offseason. From his viewpoint, if he’d had a healthy team, he might have scored enough points to flip the outcome against Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska.
Then again, MSU had all those players and a relatively healthy line at Arizona State — a middling team — and still managed just 13 points. Now, Lewerke did throw for 314 yards that game, and moved the offense fine between the 20-yard-lines.
The Spartans struggled to score because they couldn’t finish drives and couldn’t run the ball. Perhaps that would’ve improved over the season if MSU had its full roster.
For Dantonio, that’s an argument for keeping his offensive strategy — and staff — intact. An argument he is likely to consider, as it suits his conservative and loyal nature.
And yet the output on that side of the ball should tell him otherwise. MSU was productive when it had an NFL-caliber quarterback operating behind future NFL linemen.
He has had neither the last three seasons, though Lewerke could eventually end up playing at the next level.
All of which should tell Dantonio that unless he has Connor Cook throwing behind Jack Conklin, he’ll have to change his approach and, along with it, a voice or two in his offensive meeting rooms, to figure out a way to get the most from the skill players he recruits to East Lansing.
The best offenses in the game rely on putting speed in space. That’s happening in the NFL, too.
It’s where football is headed. Even Nick Saban, who has won national titles with power football, spread his offense out three years ago to keep up.
He watched Clemson’s DeShaun Watson beat his Crimson Tide in the NCAA championship game and saw the future.
Not every school can recruit a quarterback like Watson — except for Alabama, of course, who found a souped-up version in Tua Tagovailoa. But Harbaugh can. Or at least come close.
He can also recruit top-tier athletes and has plenty of them on the team. He didn’t use them enough Saturday in Columbus.
Now, does U-M have as much speed at Ohio State?
No. But it’s not an insurmountable gap.
So while Harbaugh will have to keep adding quickness and playmakers, he’ll have to adjust the manner he uses them, too. I don’t doubt he can — and will — do this.
Last offseason, he jettisoned his long-time offensive collaborator, Tim Drevno. That wasn’t an easy decision.
He may be a traditionalist in the way he speaks about football, but he’s not a sentimentalist when it comes to his staff. Besides, he has proven he can be a forward-thinking presence at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers.
Harbaugh has to know that his strategy isn’t good enough to compete with the elite programs in the game. Pounding the ball into the teeth of the defense may work against Indiana, but it hasn’t worked against Ohio State.
His record at U-M proves it. Here’s betting he will change.
Dantonio, on the other hand, built his program and won three Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl, and made the College Football Playoff combining stellar defense with balanced, pro-style offense.
The problem is the pro-style offense has changed … at least in the pros. And each year Dantonio clings to his approach, he gets further away from the future.
The other problem is Dantonio’s success came in a place many didn’t think was possible. Which means he’s emotionally and psychologically wedded to the group that helped make that happen. He’s also 62 years old and has to wonder how much he wants to upend what put MSU football on the map.
It won’t be easy. His program is based, in part, on continuity.
Maybe he runs it back next year and hopes his returning roster stays healthy. That wouldn’t surprise anyone, and his defense should be great again.
Yet if he aims to repeat his success — he was the first coach in Big Ten history to win 11 games in five out of six seasons — he’ll have to do more than run it back.
He’ll have to change.
Something you can bet Harbaugh is already working on.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.