Michigan is 3-0, the No. 8 team in the nation, and they have yet to give up more than 14 offensive points in a single game. From a birds-eye perspective Michigan appears to have it all together, but upon closer inspection there are multiple alarming issues within the offense, the majority of which rest upon quarterback Wilton Speight. He has averaged 190.3 passing yards per game, thrown three touchdowns, and two pick-six interceptions. He has failed to replicate the kind of production we saw out of him in 2016, leading to the first three games of the 2017 campaign that were far closer than they needed to be. Without their leader, the Michigan offense will remain stagnant and fail to deliver victories as they enter conference play.
If 2016 Speight was the embodiment of a classic Harbaugh quarterback; decisive, (mostly) mistake free, and confident. 2017 Speight is, for lack of a more eloquent description, the opposite of that. Make no mistake, there has been marked improvement since his first weekend against the Gators; he hasn’t thrown any interceptions, and he’s completed 60.8 percent of his passes. The first half of September has revealed a version of Speight that has relied heavily on his rushing attack to carry him to victory, while he filled in the gaps in the offense with short slants, posts, and screen passes. Against Air Force he did have a nice completion to Grant Perry on a post-route in the third quarter, while also connected with Tarik Black for 24 yards on a later drive that ended with Michigan’s only offensive touchdown of the afternoon. However, the quarterback of an upper echelon program like Michigan should not have performances defined or highlighted by two passes under 30 yards. He simply has to get better or Michigan may struggle reaching eight wins. I still trust in Harbaugh, but as the weeks continue to slide by the expectations for an elite quarterback become less and less realistic.
Wide Receiver Woes
I wish this section would be less depressing than its predecessor, but the stats tell a bleak story. Almost half of Michigan’s 169 receiving yards came on three plays; a 30 yard reception to Zach Gentry, a 37 yard screen play to Donovan Peoples-Jones, and a 24 yard throw that was hauled in by Tarik Black late in the game. This lack of aerial explosiveness cannot all be blamed on Speight, as a portion rests upon the wide receivers who dropped multiple passes that should have easily been caught. Unfortunately, Speight’s job will not be getting any easier, as earlier today in his weekly press conference Jim Harbaugh confirmed that Black will miss significant time due to a broken foot.
“Tarik is going to be out. He’s going to need surgery, he’s got a crack on the outside of his foot. I don’t know if he will be back this season.”
Black was beginning to emerge as Michigan’s leading player out of the stacked 2017 wide receiver class, and it will be a blow to a position that already has a painfully low amount of experience. He accounted for almost a quarter of Michigan’s receiving yards, and he will be sorely missed. However, if any position group on this Michigan team is deep enough to withstand a potentially season ending injury it is the wide receivers. In addition to the depth that the position provides, Black’s injury does have a silver lining, as he is still eligible for a medical redshirt after only playing in three games this season.
Run, Run, Run
The offensive line has been a pleasant surprise in pass coverage and they have done an adequate job of protecting Wilton Speight, which unfortunately has not lead to a higher number of completed passes. Air Force only had one quarterback hurry the whole afternoon, and if the line can they continue to protect Speight in a similar fashion throughout Big Ten play, the chances are good that he gradually improves.
The running game is a different story, with the offensive line ceding eight tackles for loss while failing to create viable running lanes for the running backs, effectively stymieing the offense inside the red zone. As a coach, Jim Harbaugh has, is, and always will be committed to the run, as he has proven that time and time again. He needs Ty Isaac, Karan Higdon, and Chris Evans to be able to enter the secondary with downhill momentum, without having to dance around at the line of scrimmage as they try to avoid the stunts and twist blitzes that Michigan will deal with every single week. The running and passing game are intrinsically linked, neutralize either of those two, and Michigan becomes one dimensional, predicable, and mortal.
The success or failure of the Michigan offense, and by extension team, can be traced back to two main factors. Speight must become more confident in himself, Pep Hamilton’s scheme, and his young receiving corps. The running and passing game are intrinsically linked, neutralize either of those two, and Michigan becomes one dimensional, predicable, and mortal. If he can spread defenses horizontally and vertically with his arm, the running game will continue to become the elite element of Team 138 that championship squads possess.
The offensive line is currently playing reasonably close to their ceiling, so drastic improvement in the running game solely resulting from better blocking is unlikely. If last year is any indicator of Speight’s ceiling, he has the ability to perform at a much higher level than he is now. That makes Speight the most viable quick fix option for this struggling Michigan offense. The problem is, his head is his own worst enemy. He has all the physical tools to succeed and become an All-Big Ten quarterback, he didn’t forget how to throw the football over the summer and if he can regain his composure the running game, red zone offense, and turnovers will all improve. So before Michigan fans call for Speight’s head on a spike, remember that this team will go as far as Speight can take them, which is a far better situation than 90% of other collegiate programs. The ball is in your court Mr. Speight, good luck.
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