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Nick Baumgardner | November 13, 2018

Michigan football: Jim Harbaugh's stubbornness, creativity ignites Wolverines

Shortly after this season began, and Michigan football's offense looked cautious at best in a seven-point road loss to Notre Dame, flashbacks surfaced.

The offensive line looked shaky. The receivers didn't exactly look sure of themselves. There was a new quarterback, but he didn't have much time.

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My inbox was flooded with questions about why little had changed or looked any better than what Michigan put together offensively a year ago.

My answers were simple: Jim Harbaugh's roster was set, there were obstacles to overcome and Michigan's head coach — entering a critical fourth season — had to turn any lemons into something drinkable.

"Where are we at?" Harbaugh said shortly after the opener. "We're at the beginning."

Harbaugh's made lemonade with this offense and he has done it his way. A blend of necessary stubbornness, creativity and self-examination has allowed him to keep the foundation of everything he believes to be true about offensive football, while morphing into a more modern approach that has set up sustainability.

The stubbornness comes from his refusal to move away from the identity of establishing an offensive culture carried by a punishing ground game. Harbaugh has always received attention for his work with quarterbacks, but those who have followed his career closely know his teams start with the ground game.

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On Monday, Harbaugh declared former San Francisco 49ers tailback Frank Gore -- the current NFL grandfather of all downhill, forward-falling running backs -- his favorite player ever. This came shortly after he was asked about his refusal to shift away from power football as a coach.

During his first spring here, Harbaugh remarked the run game is "the thing that always takes the most time" to establish.

But, in his mind, it's not an option. It's necessary.

"It costs what it costs," he has said, in terms of time, effort and, ultimately, change. And for Harbaugh, this is where stubbornness met creativity.

And the transformation from an offense that looked outdated to one that has become the perfect complement to his punishing defense.

It started with the decision to move on from a two-man offensive line coaching battery of Tim Drevno and Greg Frey. Harbaugh hired Ed Warinner as an analyst this winter. And the process of inserting him as his new run game coordinator was, apart from landing the transfer of quarterback Shea Patterson, the most important thing he did all offseason.

Warinner is one of the best offensive line coaches in football based on his resume of developing NFL talent and rush game production. But he's not from the Harbaugh school of football. He's not a gap-scheme coach, which was Harbaugh's standard as a surging coach in the late 2000s. Harbaugh's offense ran power and counter over and over again, until defenses submitted.

Warinner is a zone-scheme coach. His teams have made a living attacking the edge, running zone-read with quarterbacks. His offensive lines were as fast as Harbaugh's groups were powerful.

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So, at some point along the way, creativity kicked in. And all the stuff from Harbaugh's world morphed into a modern version of itself.

"It's really come together," Harbaugh said Monday. "The obvious reason for why it would take longer than some other things is that there's five guys who are really working together. Trio blocks, double teams.

"There's fullbacks involved, tight ends involved. Getting that all orchestrated can take some time."

Michigan still runs triple tight end sets and 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends). Backs still carry the ball nearly 43 times per game. The Wolverines move at a deliberate pace and time of possession matters.

But it's different.

Michigan can run zone-read with leading rusher Karan Higdon, a Gore clone, or 254-pound fullback Ben Mason. Power and counter has given way to split-zone and outside zone. Run-pass option is in the mix. Patterson, one of the most efficient quarterbacks Harbaugh has coached, can run, too.

Two weeks ago, Michigan hit a 47-yard pass play from a formation that featured three tight ends, one of whom ran a wheel route, and a halfback. On Saturday, the Wolverines ran a jet sweep out of triple tight ends with a fullback, and rushed for a first down.

This offense is powerful and productive and versatile and, at times, weird.

It's completely Harbaugh. And it's working.

"We didn't have as much success as we wanted the first game against Notre Dame," sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones said. "After that, it sparked a couple new things."

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Michigan has flipped everything this season.

A year ago, the receivers produced two total touchdowns. Now, five different receivers have combined to catch 15 TDs. Michigan is averaging 215.4 rushing yards per game on 5.02 yards per carry, both currently the best of the Harbaugh era. The Wolverines have turned the ball over seven times, tied for third-best nationally and far less than the 21 giveaways committed a year ago. Patterson's efficiency has been critical and Warinner's impact is noted.

But there's so much more at play. Peoples-Jones looks like a different player on the outside, one of the most improved guys on the team. Nico Collins too. The tight ends have improved. The running backs are all protecting the quarterback now. Michigan has allowed the third-fewest sacks (15) of any Big Ten team, one year after finishing second-to-last in the same category.

It has been Harbaugh football with the exact right amount of modern twist. And it has opened up the playbook.

Which is why, with two games to go, Michigan is firmly in the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff picture.

Harbaugh made lemonade.

And Michigan can't get enough of it.

This article is written by Nick Baumgardner from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.