SOUTH BEND — No. 14 Michigan looked a lot like the team that went 8-5 last season, struggling to make plays on offense while the defense tries to keep the Wolverines in the game.
In the end, against a rival, they came up short. It all seemed so familiar.
Defensive end Chase Winovich insists Saturday night’s loss to No. 12 Notre Dame did not feel the same to him — and this season won’t be the same for Michigan.
“I think the trajectory is we’re coming together in the locker room … I did note is there wasn’t a lot of blaming. It wasn’t like pointing fingers,” Winovich said. “The defense still feels like maybe going into the game we had some different expectations. But at the end of the day you give up 24 points or whatever we gave up, 24, right? Just puts a lot of pressure on your offense.”
Credit the star defensive end for accountability, and Michigan’s defense did make key mistakes that aided Notre Dame’s offense, but the other side of the ball remains the biggest concern after a 24-17 loss that included one offensive touchdown for the Wolverines.
The Wolverines averaged 4.4 yards per play. Top running back Karan Higdon carried 21 times at 3.4 yards per carry. Michigan’s longest run was 10 yards. The Wolverines allowed three sacks, all game changers. One knocked them out of field goal range. Another turned a second-and-goal from the 2 into third-and-goal from the 10. The last caused Shea Patterson’s fumble with less than a minute left that sealed the game for Notre Dame.
The offensive line was a problem last year and it did not distinguish itself against the Irish, but those sacks were not all on them.
Patterson, a transfer from Mississippi, made some poor decisions in the face of pressure. Leading up to the opener, Patterson said Michigan’s offense is capable of attacking in multiple ways.
“I’m very comfortable. Very comfortable with this offense,” he said. “Diverse and going under center and shotgun and different formations, get the ball in open space. Run the ball and pass the ball downfield. I’m really comfortable with it.”
There were moments when Patterson’s five-star skillset flashed. He hit Nico Collins for 52 yards early in the third on the type of deep throw that has been rare for Michigan in recent years. He showed mobility. There is no doubt he is a different level of talent than Michigan has had at that position under Harbaugh.
Still, it is hard to pinpoint Michigan’s offensive identity. Not being able to run the ball consistently will do that to a team. Losing talented receiver Tarik Black to a foot injury a week before the game hurt.
Michigan’s defense mostly lived up to its billing after a shaky start. The Irish averaged 4.4 yards per play, and in the second half managed just 69 yards and five first downs. On all three of Notre Dame’s first-half touchdown drives, Michigan defenders committed personal fouls. Two came on third down after Michigan had gotten a stop, including a roughing the passer on Winovich.
There was not much margin for error for Michigan’s defense last season — and that was the case against Notre Dame.
“I definitely feel that pressure. That’s just the way it’s kind of been when you look at it from a factual standpoint,” Winovich said. “It’s kind of been a defensive-led group for the past couple of years.
“And the offense is going to come along. Offense is, you know I’m sure you guys can agree on this: Defense, you can get a bunch of good athletes and fast people and you can have a coach and you can blitz and things work out. But for offense, like everything needs to be in sync and we’ve had to overcome some adversity with Tarik, and we’re still figuring some stuff out on the offensive line. And you can point to a lot of stuff, but they’re going to come along and be just fine. You saw glimpses of it today, I think.”
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