It’s decision time for Jim Harbaugh.
That’s right. Now, after his team barely squeaked out a double overtime victory as a 22-point favorite at home against Army, it’s decision time.
It won’t be a decision like Harbaugh had to make in the middle of the fourth quarter when he elected to go for it on fourth down when a field goal would’ve taken the lead late. It won’t be a decision like deciding which one of his kickers he’ll call on from long distance and which one he’ll take in short yardage. It won’t even be a decision like whether he should call heads or tails to start overtime.
Michigan survived by the skin of its sloppy, crooked teeth on Saturday. Thanks to some impressive late stands from the Wolverine defense and the standout play of Josh Uche, they improved to 2-0 and avoided what would’ve been a crushing blow to their playoff chances.
The decision now is simple — does Harbaugh trust the process or does he call an audible?
As you recall, Harbaugh’s offseason move was the most drastic one he made since arriving at Ann Arbor. He hired Josh Gattis to bring the offense into the 21st century, and to be entirely in charge of play-calling.
After two weeks, Harbaugh’s great Gattis experiment isn’t yielding the result he hoped for. At all.
Sure, Michigan is 2-0, but calling the Wolverines an offensive juggernaut right now would be like saying Nathan Peterman has some Tom Brady in him.
The Wolverines were held to a whopping 14 points in regulation. They fumbled and lost 3 fumbles in the first half. In just 5 quarters in Gattis’ offense, the Wolverines surpassed their entire 2018 total for lost fumbles.
Michigan’s offense lacks bark. It lacks identity. It lacks originality.
The Wolverines might line up differently, but the predictable play-calling had all the feeling of pre-2019 Michigan. That is, running on first and second down and then trying to convert a pass play on third down. The offensive line didn’t exactly help the cause.
Army won the rushing battle 203-107. Whether it was a reported oblique injury bothering Shea Patterson or simply a more disciplined Army defense, Zach Charbonnet seemed like the only player Gattis trusted down the stretch.
Michigan answers! 👌 pic.twitter.com/I3c1HuYJhU
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 7, 2019
Gattis, clearly, is learning the ropes as a play-caller. It probably didn’t help Gattis’ national perception that while he was struggling to hit 20 points against Army, Mike Locksley was busy putting up 63 points to fuel Maryland’s blowout win against No. 21 Syracuse. It was Locksley, of course, who was involved in that back and forth with Gattis about how involved each of them were in leading Alabama to a historic offensive season.
Right now, it’s advantage Locksley in that discussion.
Granted, it’s early. That’s certainly one side of the “give Gattis more time” argument. Michigan played 120 minutes of football with an entirely new system and is 2-0. And as many pointed out, Army’s last loss was actually to Oklahoma when it forced overtime last year in Norman. The Wolverines barely beat a service academy as a 22-point favorite, yes, but it was also the team with the second-longest active FBS win streak. That performance was also without Michigan’s top receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
There’s the other side that surely plenty of Michigan fans had cross their minds on Saturday — is this offense really going to be what gets us over the hump?
That’s ultimately Harbaugh’s decision to make. He and Gattis both repeated throughout the offseason that the latter had complete control. Will Harbaugh stay true to that and trust the process? Or is he about to get more involved to try and get the offense off the ground?
This is something that Harbaugh has never had to experience. He’s always been in total control. Control was the thing that appealed to him about being at Michigan and ditching the NFL.
For Harbaugh, I imagine this is something like when you let his kids make you dinner for the first time. He’s sitting in the other room, glancing over his shoulder. It looks like a bomb went off. Maybe there’s a dish towel sitting on a burner that’s still hot. Perhaps his toddler is about to put tinfoil in the microwave. A piece of raw chicken that was sitting out all afternoon is now making its way onto his plate.
Does Harbaugh step in and avoid letting his kids give him food poisoning?
Well, I suppose this situation is different. Unlike watching his kids make every classic kitchen mistake, Harbaugh doesn’t have all the answers to remedy the situation. After all, he hired Gattis for a reason. He hired Gattis because his offense was outdated. And while it’s been executed in a more modern fashion, it’s still some of the same old results that prevented Michigan from reaching new heights the last 4 years.
Whatever Harbaugh decides, it’s evident that adjustments need to be made. I’m not particularly in favor of the adjustment that includes more snaps for Dylan McCaffrey, despite some of the odd decisions made by Patterson. As Joel Klatt said on the broadcast, I’d rather Patterson got a chance to get in rhythm and not be subbed in and out.
The mistake would be to consider Saturday a throwaway game. To simply chalk up Michigan’s offensive struggles to Army’s atypical triple option offense throwing everything out of whack would be a miscalculation.
Michigan has 2 weeks to figure things out before making a trip to Wisconsin. If the Wolverines take Saturday’s offense up to Madison, they’ll start off in the hole in B1G play and they’ll be in an uphill battle to finally reach Indianapolis.
It’s decision time for Harbaugh, and it feels like this could be what decides Michigan’s 2019 destiny.