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Citrus Bowl Preview: When Michigan has the Ball

Does former Tide assistant Josh Gattis have a shot at upsetting his old team?

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of 2019, the Michigan Wolverines have averaged 33 points per game, which is good for 35th in the nation, though they’ve put up some clunkers against Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, and Army. All in all, it’s been a fairly successful inaugural season for offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who was a wide receivers coach for Alabama just one season ago.

He’s maintained a fairly even split in run/pass ratio all season out of a mostly shotgun-based offense. They use 4 WR spread sets just as often as one or two tight end sets in what is effectively a modern spread multiple offense with an emphasis on vertical passing (suspiciously similar to what Alabama ran in 2018 under Mike Locksley while Gattis was there as a position coach).

They’ve been buoyed by grad transfer Shea Patterson at quarterback, another name Alabama fans will recognize. The former Ole Miss star has thrown for 2828 yards and 22 touchdowns with 6 interceptions this season. He’s averaging well over 8 yards per attempt, but only has a 57% completion rate. Again, emphasizing the more vertical nature of their offense. Patterson is a smaller QB with a lot of mobility that excels at dodging guys in the backfield and scrambling around until he can find open throws; though he doesn’t often use that athleticism to try to run for yards (Alabama fans everywhere breath a sigh of relief).

He he no qualms tossing up jump balls down the sidelines for his receivers if they’re in one on one coverage, and guys like Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones have been winning those all season. The hulking 6’4” 225 Collins has 681 yards and 7 touchdowns on the season, with ridiculously explosive 20 yards per catch.

People-Jones, once a top recruit, hasn’t had quite the career imagined, but he’s still been a consistent receiving option for three straight seasons. He hasn’t been as explosive as Collins, but has just as many catches and 6 touchdowns, and still has that same ability to go up and win contested jump balls.

Sophomore Ronnie Bell rounds out the group in the slot, and has been Patterson’s favorite target all year. He leads the team with 43 receptions and 691 yards, but only has one touchdown. The fourth man was Tarik Black, who has 25 catches for 323 yards, but Black is supposedly going to miss the game against Alabama due to personal reasons and has entered the transfer portal.

TE Nick Eubanks has 24 catches as well, but the 260-lb man is more of a blocker than a true threat in the passing game.

At running back, the Wolverines split carries almost evenly between first year men Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins. Both players are 6’1” 220, and run with a good blend of speed, power, and elusiveness. Neither have been particularly awe-inspiring, but nor have they been ineffective. Charbonnet leads with 136 carries, 642 yards, and 11 touchdowns, while Haskins has 561 yards on 5.4 yards per carry. Charbonnet is trusted more in short yardage and around the goalline, while Haskins spells him pretty evenly on standard downs. Also, neither back has been effective whatsoever in the passing game.

When it comes to explosives, this should be a fairly even match between the two teams. The Wolverines have excelled at downfield passing this season, but Alabama’s defense, though much maligned in many areas, has been even more excellent at limiting explosive passes. Trevon Diggs will likely be sitting out, but Pat Surtain II, though not perfect, has generally shown to be effective at using his 6’2” height to win jump balls. He’ll definitely be tested a few times by Collins and Peoples-Jones, but I expect Patterson to aim more towards Josh Jobe, who hasn’t played much since starting the season opener.

Not only is Jobe inexperienced, but he also doesn’t have the height of Surtain and Diggs and has a history (unfair or not) of getting pass interference calls when thrown at deep. That said, he’s also a very physical corner with a lot of talent, so a strong showing would go a long ways toward winning him a starting job in 2020.

Rushing wise, Alabama has given up an uncharacteristic number of explosive runs all season, but the Wolverines don’t really have the horses to take advantage of that. Charbonnet and Haskins have led the way to the 93rd ranked explosive rushing offense, and Shea Patterson hasn’t tried to run the ball too often either.

Talking success rates by down, Michigan gets significantly worse on 3rd downs while the Alabama defense gets a lot better on second downs (which is still just a really weird stat... Why is Alabama’s defense so good on 2nd downs but not first or 3rd? Leave your speculations in the comments, because this one has me befuddled). Which all together means that Alabama’s biggest test will be on 1st downs all game long, and we can hopefully expect drives to end if the Tide can limit the first play of each series.

As usual, Alabama’s significantly worse at getting stops in the rushing game than their opponents are at not getting stopped. So don’t expect too many negative rushing plays from the Wolverines’ two big backs. However, the Wolverines also aren’t all that impressive in rushing success rate, so don’t be surprised to see a whole lot of 3-5 yard runs all game.

Numbers-wise, the Wolverines look to be at an overall disadvantage against the Alabama defense, despite all the hand-wringing from Alabama fans, though they will absolutely tests the Tide’s corners down the sidelines— and will win that a few times.

Most fortunately for the Tide, though, is that Michigan’s not been a team to run their QB much, nor have they been very effective when running or passing to their backs to the outside, which have been the biggest Achilles’ Heels for Alabama.

I expect the Wolverines to move the chains enough times on big passes to make Alabama fans nervous, and they’ll get a few scores that way. Ultimately, though, I think Alabama’s defense keeps them from controlling the ball or moving too efficiently for most of the game, and they wind up with 28 points.