Jim Harbaugh's Michigan offense could do something unseen in decades
Jim Harbaugh is going full mad scientist with Michigan’s offense in 2021.
Through their 3 nonconference games, the Wolverines are averaging 16.3 pass attempts and 49 rushing attempts per game. Only 4 teams in the country are throwing the ball less frequently, and 3 are the service academies, all of which run the triple-option.
By percentage, Michigan is throwing the ball just 24.9% of the time. Kansas State, which is the only non-option team with fewer passes than Michigan, also runs fewer overall plays. The Wildcats throw the ball at a slightly higher clip of 27.7%.
Stone Age relic though it may be, Michigan’s offense is actually working wonders. The Wolverines are No. 3 in the nation in scoring, averaging 47 points a game.
Of course, it is one thing to maul the likes of Western Michigan and Northern Illinois. It’s quite another to make that translate to Big Ten play.
So the question with 9 B1G games remaining, starting with this Saturday’s conference opener against Rutgers, is whether the Wolverines can sustain it.
If Michigan manages to win its first Big Ten title since 2003 by continuing to operate its offense in this manner, it will be unlike anything we’ve seen in decades.
3 yards and a cloud of rubber pellets
The Big Ten has earned its reputation as a run-first league. Traditionally, the league champion favors the run by something close to a 2-to-1 margin.
There have been exceptions.
2018 Ohio State achieved a near-perfect balance, averaging 40 throws and 40.7 runs per game in its souped-up attack. But Drew Brees and the 2000 Purdue Boilermakers remain the most recent Big Ten champions to throw the ball more than they ran it.
Even among that company, it will be extraordinary if Michigan maintains its current pace.
The last Big Ten champ to average fewer than 21 passes per game was Wisconsin in 2012 (20.8). But the Badgers played at a more deliberate tempo, so those passes accounted for 31.4% of their playbook.
To find the last time a team won the Big Ten throwing the ball fewer than 20 times per game, you have to go back to the 20th century. Once again it was the Badgers, who averaged 19.9 pass attempts per game in Ron Dayne’s 1999 Heisman Trophy season. At 25.6% of the playbook, it’s at least in the neighborhood of what Michigan is doing. But it’s not quite on the same block.
The 75% run club
There have been coaches who have won Big Ten titles calling an offense as conservative as 2021 Michigan seems intent to do. And you don’t even need to leave the state to find one. You just have to travel back to 1987.
George Perles’ ’87 Michigan State squad is the most recent Big Ten champion as dedicated to running the ball as this year’s Wolverines are attempting to be. The Spartans averaged just 12(!) pass attempts per game, a measly 17% of their playbook compared to 83% runs.
As for Michigan, 1978 is the most recent year the Wolverines won the Big Ten with such lopsided play-calling. Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines averaged 14.8 pass attempts and 60.9 rushing attempts — a run ratio of 80.5%.
All in the family
Harbaugh did not have to look far to draw inspiration for his throwback offense.
Brother John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens look well on their way to leading the NFL in rushing attempts for the fourth consecutive season. However, the schematic difference is dramatic. The Ravens’ rushing attack is led by a dynamic running quarterback in Lamar Jackson.
Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara is a traditional pocket passer who brings nothing to the running game. And, as it turns out, not too much to the passing game, either. But he is really good at handoffs.
Can this really be done in 2021?
Is it realistic to expect a modern football team to compete for a conference title on the strength of running backs, blocking and defense alone?
It certainly doesn’t feel that way. But maybe it only feels that way because you would have to be at least 40 years old to remember seeing anything like it.
With Ohio State’s run defense clearly an Achilles’ heel, it’s pretty clear what Harbaugh thinks he can accomplish here. Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock can attest to that after his Huskies were smashed 63-10 last Saturday.
“They built their team to beat Ohio State,” Hammock said in his postgame press conference. “You’re not going to out-athlete Ohio State and so they said, ‘We’re going to get dirty.’ And you know what? Credit to them because they stay committed to that. They have a good team.”
Now we will see whether Michigan can mash its way through the 8 games before meeting the Buckeyes for a trip to the Big Ten title game to be on the line when they meet in Ann Arbor Nov. 27.