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Former Lions’ coach leads Michigan offense

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State has a good idea what it will be getting Saturday from Michigan’s offense, which is led by former Nittany Lion assistant coach Josh Gattis.

The Wolverines have had their share of struggles in Gattis’ first season as offensive coordinator, bringing criticism for both him and coach Jim Harbaugh. Gattis was hired away from Alabama to rejuvenate Michigan’s offense, but the unit has largely been a disappointment so far.

The Wolverines scored just 14 points in regulation against Army and needed two overtimes to win, 24-21. The next week, the offense looked abysmal in a 35-14 loss at Wisconsin, in a game Michigan fell behind, 35-0. Two weeks ago, the Wolverines scored just 10 points in a 10-3 win over Iowa.

Harbaugh, though, has remained confident in Gattis.

“His track record of success was in developing players and offensive innovation, and the kind of coach and teacher that he is, is what I’ve always been impressed with,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Now, getting to work with him, all those things have been validated, and he’s a tremendous coach at the highest level.”

James Franklin on Tuesday spoke very highly of Gattis, who worked for Franklin at Vanderbilt beginning in 2012 and then on the Penn State staff from 2014-17 before leaving for Alabama. Gattis was the receivers coach for Penn State and was known as an excellent recruiter.

“We’ve got a lot of history with Josh Gattis,” Franklin said. “Very happy for him professionally, very happy for him personally. Obviously a great opportunity to go be the offensive coordinator at the University of Michigan. … I want to thank Josh for the job that he did when we were together, and again, very, very happy for him and his family.”

Franklin was asked if Michigan’s offense looks different from what it has run in the past now that Gattis is in charge.

“There’s some Penn State in there, there’s some Alabama in there, there’s some Michigan in there,” Franklin said.

“(Gattis) didn’t leave right from Penn State and go there,” Franklin later added. “He’s had other experiences. He’s had other influences.”

Michigan fans expected an explosive offense under Gattis, similar to what Penn State had under Joe Moorhead and what Alabama did when he was there. Instead, the Wolverines have remained a run-first program, as they’ve always been under Harbaugh, and quarterback Shea Patterson has not been efficient, completing just 57.1 percent of his passes.

Harbaugh, however, likes the way his senior quarterback has played.

“I felt like he’s been the best quarterback on the field in each and every game,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a winner. He’s tough. He makes great decisions, again accented this past game knowing when to run, when to throw, giving ourselves the best chance to win. He’s so competitive and good.”

The Wolverines made an adjustment a couple of weeks ago with Gattis coming down from the press box to the sideline to calls plays during the game. Gattis said he felt “disconnected” from the players in the booth.

Despite the highly publicized issues, Harbaugh seems to like where the offense is right now. He said the line has been gelling of late, while the receivers and running backs also have picked things up.

Things won’t come easy for Michigan against Penn State, which ranks second in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 8.2 points per game.

Run, Clifford, run

Penn State is playing four tailbacks, and Noah Cain leads the team in rushing with 310 yards. But if you would have said at the beginning of the season that quarterback Sean Clifford would be the team’s second-leading rusher after six games, many people would not have believed it.

Clifford, though, has been impressive on keepers and scrambles, piling up 252 yards rushing.

“I had mentioned to you guys this offseason that Sean probably doesn’t get enough credit for the type of athlete he is and how he came in with certain numbers in terms of running, jumping and change of direction and has worked really hard at attacking that,” Franklin said. “I remember specifically a time two years ago where he did something really good at practice, and I pulled him to the side and I said, ‘Look, you’re doing some great things, but you have got to get faster. You have got to get more explosive for us to be able to run our offense the way we want to run it and for you to have the type of impact we want you to have.'”

Clifford has put in the work and, while he’s not quite Trace McSorley running the ball, he has been effective at it, when some thought he could be a liability there.

“Now, the thing that he can’t do that we’ve got to spend time working on, which he’s not good at, is sliding,” Franklin said. “It’s like literally Little League baseball slide. It’s like, it doesn’t look natural. It’s awkward. So literally we’re going to spend time at practice like sliding, getting down. I think some of it’s indecision. It’s like he wants to get as much yards as possible and then he kind of changes his mind.”

NOTES: Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos was named second-team All-American on The Associated Press midseason team. He has 5 1/2 sacks, 8 1/2 tackles for loss and four QB hurries.

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