a terrible blight on our fine country
To satisfy my own curiosity I took a look at the interception that Jake Rudock threw at the beginning of the 4th quarter against Oregon State. Here's what Harbaugh said about the play:
And the interception, didn't like that. He's got to have a wider vision of the area he's throwing. He locks into the receiver there. We had that intercepted in practice too, so I kick myself for calling that play.
Let's begin with the setup. Here's the initial formation, just as Grant Perry starts to come in motion (click to embiggen):
As the ball is snapped, here's the formation (Perry is lined up behind the RT):
The play seems to be a triangle concept to the boundary, with a backside post. Perry will run a horizontal route the flat; Butt will run a snag; AJ Williams will run a 12-yard out. The idea is to stretch the defense horizontally and vertically. Here is my attempt to draw it up:
As a general matter, against a Cover Two defense the quarterback will have a high/low read of the quarterback; if he sinks back he can throw it to the inside receiver in the flat; if the cornerback drops he will throw it to the corner route behind the cornerback. ...
Against a Cover Three defense, the cornerback should take away the corner route by dropping into the deep third, but the snag/mini-curl and the flat should put a horizontal stretch on the flat defender and one of the two should be open.
But Oregon State isn't playing zone: they're playing man. The safety to the field (top of the screen) blitzes, while the other safety basically stays where he is.
Here's how the play develops:
From what I can tell -- and I have no football background so any suggestions would be very welcome -- Rudock should be throwing either to the WR at the top of the screen (Drake Harris, I'm almost certain) or to AJ Williams, since Butt and Perry are covered. A perfect throw to Butt -- low and outside -- would have been successful, but only for a handful of yards. Drake Harris, on the other hand, is running a post route with no safety help over the top, whereas AJ Williams is about to break open a split second after Butt turns around. Throwing to Butt only makes sense if his man drops deeper to cover Williams, which he doesn't.
Without the all-22, it's hard to tell -- but my impression is that Rudock's mistake was that he predetermined the throw pre-snap, despite the fact that Oregon State played a defense that Butt's route wasn't designed to beat.
If want to see video, I used MGoVideo: it's at 36:38 in the video for the second half.
It is often said that the most improvement for a football team occurs between the first and second games of a season. The University of Michigan football had an extra two days to improve, and it showed on the field. However, I'm sure Ira J Harris Coach Jim Harbaugh is not too happy about all those penalties. Fifth year senior Jake Rudock had some issues in his first game, tossing three interceptions. Fifth year blogger ST3 made more than his fair share of mistakes last week as well, giving short shrift to the defense and completing forgetting to include the Burst of Impetus. That's my thing, man. That would be like Brian not posting an intangible cat photo or not posting his bolded alter-ego's comments. I will try to rectify that with the game 2 boxscore analysis.
Defense is a tough thing to cover. The go to stat is tackles, but that can be problematic. If the tackles are taking place 10 yards down the field, is that really a good thing? Sports Illustrated had an interesting article about tackles in their pro football preview issue. Things I learned from the article include:
*Late arriving players can get assists for just piling on after the initial tackle has been made
*Misidentifications happen routinely as the official scorers have to make a decision in real time
*The number of assisted tackles varies widely from team to team. Some official scorers are really stingy, only giving assists on 7% of plays, while some give assists on 44% of plays.
*When in doubt, some scorers just give tackles to the team's leading tackler, or wait for the mass of bodies to disperse so that they can give the tackle to the last man to get up.
I was motivated by that article to try my hand at recording tackles for Michigan. I figured this would be the game to try this since I expected Michigan to control the game and keep the number of plays OSU ran to a minimum. I was right about that. I gave myself an advantage of being able to rewind plays and watch them in slow motion. I was able to catch up to the game in real time during commercial breaks. Since I was watching the game by myself, I didn't annoy anyone with this, but I don't recommend trying this while other humans are present.
Since tackles are so hard to decipher, SI reports that one team records, "defeats," defined as tackles for loss, 3rd down conversion stops, and forced turnovers. I also tracked these as well as QHs, since I've never agreed with the boxscore QH numbers. Enough preamble, lets get on to the link.
Retroactive Burst of Impetus
* Obviously, the pick-six was huge, but it didn't crush Michigan's spirit or take away our momentum. It just made it that much harder to come back and win the game. Any of the 5 well talked about passing plays (3 INTs, 2 missed bombs) contributed more or less equally to the loss. Having set up Utah for the bomb and then missing a sure TD took some of the starch out of the Michigan attack. If one of those hit, we could very easily be 2-0 today.
Burst of Impetus
* It's very rare that a couple of back-to-back special teams plays swing field position by 95 yards, but that's what happened at the end of the 2nd quarter. While I felt Michigan was in control of the game at that point, the scoreboard finally caught up with my impression and OSU wilted in the second half.
* Gary Anderson gets the boneheaded coaching decision of the game for two peculiar calls he made around that sequence. First, on 4th and 3, he didn't even try to get Michigan to jump offside. He just gladly accepted the 5 yard delay penalty. Whenever your opponents are happy at your decision, you probably have made the wrong decision. Then, with 17 seconds left, he called timeout to allow his defense to get set. Belichick showed in the Super Bowl how sometimes it's better to let the offense hurry to get something called than to call timeout and let them get organized.
The Two Jakes
* For those that missed the reference last week, The Two Jakes is a Jack Nicholson movie from the early 90's that's a sequel to the more well-known movie, Chinatown. I've never seen The Two Jakes, but I did watch Chinatown this summer. Considering it's such a well-known movie, I was not impressed.
* My hope for this year is that Jake Rudock be an efficient quarterback. He doesn't need to win games by himself. My definition of efficient is 7+ YPA, 60+% completion percentage, and no more than 1 turnover per game. He was at 6.9 YPA and 69%, but he turned the ball over twice (1 INT, 1 fumble.) We're getting there.
* Jake Butt had a more quiet afternoon than last game, with 4 catches for 25 yards, a tackle, and 2 yards rushing on 0 carries. The astute reader will realize that his yards per carry is infinite, NAN, or undefinable, take your pick.
Good Things Come in Threes
* Three running backs caught passes, three tight ends caught passes, and three wide receivers caught passes.
* Darboh and Butt were again the most active pass catchers with 4 receptions apiece.
* Darboh, Bunting, Smith, and Williams each had a long reception of 20 or more yards.
* De'Veon Smith made some believers out there. He runs so hard. His long gain was only 19 yards so he earned every one of those 126 net rushing yards, 4, 5, and 6 yards at a time.
* Living out west, I get to see the Utahs, BYUs, and other teams that regulary have fullbacks like Sione Houma. I've been waiting for him to bust out ever since he arrived. Those quick hitting bursts up the middle are so much fun to watch. Houma went for 20 yards on 2 carries.
Tacos and Peppers
* I had Michigan with 6 TFLs to the boxscore's 7. I missed Delano Hill's TFL for a 1 yard loss. I actually credited Wormley with 3.5 TFLs as I shared Royce Jenkins-Stone's TFL between the two of them. I also split Ojemudia's TFL between him and Ryan Glasgow.
* The second "defeats" category is 3rd down conversion stops. I had Michigan getting 7 of those and I had two more defeats for 4th down conversion tackles. Morgan and Hill had two of those each. The other 5 were spread among 7 players. If there's a theme, it's that everyone contributed, you know, that whole, "The Team, The Team, The Team," stuff.
* The third "defeat" is forced turnovers. Taco Charlton got credit for that in the boxscore, but upon a second viewing of the play, I gave credit for the forced fumble to an OSU lineman's fat ass. Fumbles are random.
* I had Wormley with 3 QHs. I gave one to Godin and one to Morgan. My definition of a QH is when then defender hits the QB when he is trying to throw such that he can't throw in his normal motion and with his normal follow through. The boxscore gave 1 to Morgan and 1 to Henry. At least we agreed on one.
* For tackles, I had Bolden leading Michigan with 7, same as the boxscore, but I gave him 6 tackles and 1 assist to the boxscore's 4 and 3. At least I disproved the "artificially inflate the leading tackler's stats by giving him tackles when you can't figure who made the tackle" theory, for one week.
* I agreed with the boxscore on Wilson and Morgans' totals, but again disagreed on solos versus assists.
* We each credited 20 players with tackles, but I gave Willie Henry's tackle to #31, whoever that is. I gave out 57 tackles to the boxscore's 50. I must have been in a generous mood. Keeping track of tackles is tough.
* I had Jabrill Peppers with 37 tackles. I must be buying into the hype. J/K.
* Michigan ran 74 offensive plays to OSU's 53. There were 25 punts, kickoffs, FGAs, and XPs. 25/152 is roughly 1/6 of the game, so again, when someone says special teams are 1/3 of the game, politely correct them by stating that special teams are actually 1/6th of the game.
* Oregon State returned one of Michigan's 3 punts for 3 yards. I pledge my allegiance to our new punting Overlords.
* Not that it matters, but UofM had 38:01 time of possession to OSU's 21:59. Yes, I picked the right game to track defensive stats.
* Michigan had 12 rushing first downs, 4x more than last week.
* The defense held OSU to 1 of 11 on third down conversions.
* Much is being made of OSU only gaining 138 total yards in the game. To be fair, they have a "TEAM" rushing line of -51 yards due to the punting fiasco. Even taking that into account, OSU was held to under 200 yards total offense, which is pretty good.
* Kickoff time was 12:06. That's early for the Beavers. The common wisdom is that west coast teams struggle with early eastern start times. The exact opposite happened as OSU only played reasonably well in the first quarter. Once Michigan woke up, it was game over for the Beavers.
WHAT ARE THOSE?
* As I was watching the ESPN gameday show, I noticed a particular sign over Desmond Howard's left shoulder. It was a drawing of a duck's feet with arrows pointing at them, with "WHAT ARE THOSE?" written on the sign. The average viewer likely didn't give this a second thought. I, however, having spent the summer coaching my son's little league baseball team, immediately made a connection. Numerous times during every game this summer, the boys would point at someone's shoes and yell, "WHAT ARE THOSE?" and they'd all laugh and go on with their lives. I still don't know what the exact meme is - I asked my 10 year old son about this and he said something about it being a vine or something - but I found it funny that my 10 year old and a spartan student have the same maturity level.
* The young UofM fan may have found themself looking at Michigan's classic helmet during the game and asking themself, "WHAT ARE THOSE?" They are helmet stickers, and having grown up in the helmet-sticker-era, I welcome their return. Team 136 in general, and De'Veon Smith in particular, earned a whole bunch of them in Game 2.
Quite the switch temperature-wise from last week's game! Behind a cold front and sitting in a big, cold trough (think of it as a stretched out area of low pressure), Michigan is stuck with chilly temps and northerly winds - relatively breezy ones at that. It'll feel like a fall football game! Grab the extra layer for this one - and if you miss the heat just looking at the forecast, next week is warmer! We're also at the time of year when our Great Lakes are warm, so cool air coming across will give us the slight chance for a passing lake effect shower surviving its way across the thumb. Let's bring home a W for the home opener!
Brrr!! Grab the hot coffee and the crockpot for this early tailgate! You'll definitely want something warm to start the day, or at least a koozie to put the frosty beverage in! With partly cloudy skies overnight, temps have dropped to the upper 40s. We'll see a little sun to start the day, that helps warm things up a tad. By mid-morning we'll have temps in the low 50s, N winds around 10mph (leaves and small twigs blow around), and a chance for a sprinkle or two.
Cloud cover increases towards the start of the game, but at least we'll be up into the 60s walking to our seats! 62 degrees for kickoff, with lots of clouds and a chance for rain - it's a small chance, but it's there. Winds continue to pick up as well, remaining out of the N at closer to 15mph (loose papers blow around, small branches move in the breeze) so you may want to keep the hoodie with you into the stadium.
We're starting to feel more of those wind gusts now - up into the low 20s with steady N winds at 15mph (this is high enough to see white horses on a lake). Decent amount of clouds are staying with us, along with the slight chance for rain. Temps by the half are only going up by a degree or two from the start.
Low 60s walking out of the gates, and deciding where to go to celebrate the win! Clouds hang on through the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. We also don't get rid of those breezy northerly winds until around dinner, then they start to die down. We say goodbye to the rain chances and start to see the cloud count go down around then too - letting temps drop quickly. If you'll be out late, we're looking at upper 50s for the mid-evening, and 50 by late-night. If you'll be out til last call, bundle up! We drop to the upper 40s with partly cloudy skies and light winds. Let's go blue!
Christina Burkhart is a meteorologist for ABC in Flint, MI. She grew up in Ann Arbor and associates Saturdays with Michigan football. Go Blue!
(I don't know if I should post this. But I had to write it. I promise content to come that is more in line with the Jamie Mac you have come to know and love, but humor me on this one......)
I don't remember anything about last year's Maryland game. I only remember leaving.
A few times this offseason, the game's details were brought up in conversation, but every play-by-play morsel was news to me. I do recall the substitute public address announcer for Carl Grapentine being 10 times more excited for every first down than anybody else in the crowd, but nothing else. It was the final home game of one of the most miserable Michigan seasons most of us can remember, and given some of our more recent times, that's actually saying something. Despite Michigan's losing season, we trekked up to Ann Arbor from Toledo for one more tailgate. Part out of duty, part out of respect for the players, and part out of the fact that that's just what fans do. Only half of us actually attended the game. I was part of that group. We spent most of the first half wondering around the sparse crowd and sitting in different seats throughout the stadium just to stay warm and entertained. How many times can you so openly seat jump at the Big House? Wait, let's not talk about that.
As halftime approached, we had had enough. The weather was cold. The football was miserable. Most of the rest of our crew was at a bar. It was time to join them. I was fine with that until we were actually about to leave the stadium grounds. While my friends hustled out to flag a cab on Stadium Boulevard, I froze, not wanting to pass through the exit gates the way Archie Moonlight Graham didn't want to cross over the first baseline in the movie Field Of Dreams. Moonlight knew he would not be able to play ball on the Field of Dreams anymore once he crossed over that baseline. And I was afraid that once I left Michigan Stadium, I would never return.
I've always had on again, off again migraine issues throughout my life, but in 2012, the headaches began to get bigger and more frequent. Blood pressure medication soothed the issue for awhile, but by the spring of 2013 the migraines were not only back, but they had found another gear and often came accompanied by violent nausea. Here is how a typical day would play out. I'd have a slight headache. I would get on the phone with a customer, and the headache would mushroom to the point where I couldn't talk anymore. When the call ended, I'd rush to the bathroom to puke. This is not normal behavior. Of course, I'm seeing a doctor through all of this, but the medications just weren't working and causing frustrating side effects (gout, puffed up extremities, even more severe headaches). Eventually the problem was identified. My kidneys were failing, partly through high blood pressure and partly through the fact that that is sometimes what happens to the body as we age. Shit happens and you just have to deal with it. I got myself a kidney specialist and rather quickly she was able to administer a proper medicinal routine that stopped the headaches and, while it didn't fix the kidney functions, it kept them from getting worse. As 2013 ended, I had dodged the dialysis bullet.
But the good health did not last. By spring, I was getting constant stomach aches that felt like somebody was always kicking me in the belly. At first, I thought it was just a changing-of-the-seasons sort of virus and did not think anything of it. But I couldn't shake it. And it was getting worse. I could not eat anything. Most days, a single bite of food disgusted me. At the same time, I was somehow always in the bathroom with differing degrees of diarrhea. The foods I could stomach were going straight through me. It was weird, scary and confusing. It was like I had a little bit of every possible eating disorder known. By August, I was not much of a functioning human being. Since I could not nourish my body, it was tough to get very far into the day without significant rest. I was regularly going to bed before sundown because I lacked the energy to do anything else. Of course, I was also up in the middle of night for endless hours in the bathroom. Months were spent going through rounds of specialists, tests, and proddings until finally they figured out all I had was Crohn's Disease. Very treatable stuff. By the middle of September, I had new medicinal regimen to take care of this and instantly began feeling better. So much better, that I might have partied a wee bit too hard during the Miami tailgate.
But those good times lasted shorter than the good health at the beginning of the year did. By the end of September, my body began inexplicably falling apart. This was not a slow devolution either. It happened overnight. And I don't know how to fully explain the conditions I felt without doubling the size of this post. Nobody wants that. I'll try to be brief. Major breathing issues, chest pains, sweats. I struggled walking to and from our tailgate to the stadium during the Minnesota game. I couldn't walk more than a couple of blocks without having to stop. As the next week went on basic household chores and walking up the stairs in my house proved too much. Is this what dying feels like? Unbeknownst to Brian and Ace, I almost didn't make it through our podcast the morning after the Rutgers game. I was scared. I spent the rest of the day with my phone in my hands, expecting to call 911 any second.
By Monday, I could not wait any longer. I checked myself into the emergency room, assuming I was having some sort of cardiac arrest. So did all the doctors, given my condition. As it turns out, that wasn't the case. We were back to that unfamiliar place of having something major wrong with me, but having no clue what it was. I stayed in the hospital that whole week, unable to walk down their hallways without passing out, complete basic breathing tests and baffling another new team of doctors. As it turns out, my body had rejected the medication they had put me on for the Crohn's. And by rejecting it, I mean the medications gave me a serious of strokes that were increasing in number and strength. I mean, come on universe. Really? So off that medication I went, new medications were prescribed and I was released the day before the Penn State game, which I obviously did not attend.
During all that, we also did a routine kidney ultrasound that uncovered a small spots on the left kidney. To find out more, we did MRIs and a very invasive procedure (for men) to find out more. And when that procedure struggled to identify it, we did it again. Eventually, the verdict was a tumor, albeit a tiny one, at least for the time being. The decision was to monitor it over the winter and see how it progresses, but phrases like renal cancer and organ removal all of sudden were on the table. Maybe it wouldn't grow and this was a false alarm? But I knew better based on the last couple of years that whatever the worst case situation was, that we were going to at least flirt with it.
So as we left the Maryland game last year, I had doubts about everything. Health issues had been piling up and the specter of something even worse loomed. I knew if things truly did go south over the next few months, I might not make it back here. While my friends hailed a cab, I just could not leave. I needed a moment. I gathered myself by the Victors Colonnade monument and took a deep breath just to level myself. I said a prayer and a thanks to my grandparents, who have long since passed, but who first brought me to the Stadium during Anthony Carter's freshman year. And I took another deep breath and let the memories of all the good times at this place and in this town wash over me. If I were to do a top-10 personal moments of every year type of retrospective, most years it would be hard to push at least one memory from the UM home schedule off the list. I just always have such a good time at tailgates and games. It was like that as a child. It was like that as a teen. It was like that in my 20s. It was like that in my 30s. And it is like that now in my 40s. But was this this final chapter? Eventually I noticed my friends piling into the cab and I hustled to join them. As we disappeared into the Ann Arbor night, I looked back a few times until the stadium lights could no longer be seen. While I wondered if I would ever return, I tried not to let my friends see how much I had been crying.
Obviously since I am writing this, there is a happy ending. But not before clearing more hurdles. The symptoms I was told to look out for began showing themselves by the end of March. We quickly moved up follow up appointments that weren't scheduled for another six weeks. The tumor had almost tripled in size and it was clear it wasn't benign. Life moved pretty quickly at that point. After coming up to Ann Arbor for a second opinion, I decided to have the surgery in mid-June at the University of Michigan Health System's Oncology Center. Before I knew it, the day of the surgery arrived. We removed the tumor and about half my kidney in the process. I am cancer free. But I still have stomach issues. And I'm now trying to fight suboptimal kidney performance with less than 2 kidneys. Its unclear what the long-term future holds on that front, but so far everything is holding up great.
It was a hard summer of post-op recovery. Truthfully, it's been a long, hard, lonely three years. Often, the depression encountered with these ups and downs have been as difficult as anything else to overcome. And I have plenty of days where I'm still fighting that off. What pushes me forward most days is realizing that life is a ride and that there are millions of people out there whose health struggles are much worse and more challenging to overcome than mine. I honestly don't know how people with more aggressive cancers manage it. In every waiting and recovery room that I've been in these recent years, I have found people with harder struggles, higher hurdles and scarier diagnoses. Inspirations, all of them. You all know or will know somebody who has to go through these kinds of struggles. Be there for them. Rework your schedule and make them a priority. They need your support and companionship, even if it looks like they're doing alright.
As I write this today, I feel as healthy, athletic and optimistic as I have in three years. Maybe there is another shoe out there ready to drop, but I don't care. All I want now is solid run of good health so I can reconnect with old friends, make new friends and just have some fun. I've been slowly making the social rounds and even gone on a couple dates. I've dusted off an old manuscript that I going to finally figure out how to publish and I'm going to start writing again. I actually went to a concert a few weeks back, an activity that seemed unheard of for most of the last several years. I feel like I am back. And tomorrow, I'm going back to Michigan Stadium.
It's not the return that's making the headlines this week. But it's been the only return I've cared about since last November.
Go Blue. Beat Oregon State.
So Brian beat me to the punch when it came to the theme of this Thursday’s game, so I should either be happy that multiple people I respect had a similar view of UM’s performance, or bothered that another human being is inside my head. But still I’ll soldier on, with the understanding that this will be a bit shorter than normal due to the holiday weekend, the timing of the game, and my lack of scorching hot takes.
Best: Rebirth of an Optimist…
So for those loyal readers who stuck around reading these columns last year, you’ll know the Utah game was when I turned on the season and, by extension, the team. For those of you who Spotless Mind-ed the 2014 season, here’s how I started last year’s B&W for Utah:
Worst: Death of an Optimist
People who have followed this diary know I'm a pretty optimistic guy.
But I'm done. I'm done with this season, with this coaching staff, with this whole f'ing show.
The Utah game was the beginning of a 3-game losing streak that basically sunk the Brady Hoke era (Minnesota was next, then Rutgers felt like the final nail), and had come on the heels of the 31-0 loss to Notre Dame two weeks earlier. And sadly, it wasn’t just the losing that made that game some demoralizing; if you’d been a fan of UM for the past decade “bad losses” weren’t new.
No, what broke my spirit then was how predictable that performance was, how we’d seen it for years now, and for every 2006 or 2011 blip there were a half-dozen seasons where UM sharted its way further behind the rest of college football, and how the powers that be at UM didn’t seem to care or act particularly bothered by their failed stewardship. Here, I’ll let pissed-off 2014 BronxBlue say it again, this time with feelings:
And it wasn't just that the f'ing winningest team in f'ing college football history, with a 5th-year QB and a 1st-round WR and oodles of talent up and down the roster (young as it may be), couldn't score more than 3 points against f'ing Utah. No, what killed my optimism about this team and this staff, about this program as it is currently stumbling through another shitty year, is how absolutely true-to-form it is to the dreams of the men in charge.
And when the fanbase seemingly had had enough of being run off their own field by a bunch of fowl, and the administration took a shot on a guy who helped bring about the current age of the sport and won everywhere he coached, a bunch of faux sentinels of the "good days" cut off his legs at every chance and sat back as a combination of self-inflicted wounds and the rotten core of a dying program ending his run. RR's failure as a head coach at Michigan is one thing; you can be a good coach and not be a good fit at certain places. But Brandon and his cohort didn't view Rodriguez's ousting at UM simply as a bad fit, but instead as "proof" that this new-fangled version of college football, where smart guys try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the game and implement offensive and defensive systems to do so, is just a fad and the good old days of swinging your member around on the sidelines and expecting the opposition to be scared off are back.
That may well have been as disenchanted, as angry as I’ve been watching a sports team in my lifetime. When the Tigers were losing an A.L.-record 119, I understood how a team heavily reliant on Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman, Dmitri Young, and a broken Bobby Higginson could be terrible. When the Lions lost all 16 games in 2008, they still had Calvin Johnson and were close in enough in a bunch of games that it was almost fun to root for the statistical anomaly of flipping tails 16 times in a row even when coin felt a little weighted to heads every other week. And even when UM had some terrible basketball teams under Brian Ellerbe, and MSU was lobbing half-court alley-oops up 60, it wasn’t necessarily shocking given the talent on the court and the sanctions you kinda knew were on the way.
But with Michigan under Brady Hoke, you just saw this degradation in quality and performance that flew in the face of the talent and resources available.* UM wasn’t suffering massive attrition and recruiting restrictions like PSU, it wasn’t shocked by the departure of a former institution-like figure in Tressel at OSU, nor was it coming off a particularly terrible stretch, with RR’s final team having made a bowl game and Hoke’s first team winning 11 games. And the man could seemingly recruit and still had decently-stocked shelves, especially on offense, thanks to RR’s offensive focus. But from 11 wins to 9 to 7 to 5, the team looked worse every year and the leadership ever more inept, and it just felt like everybody important was either asleep at the wheel or didn’t give a shit as long as the seat licenses kept flowing in.
It wasn’t that the program was underperforming; that had been going on for some time, and I guess I was numb to it. But until that game, I always felt like the coaches and administration were actively trying to address the issues they saw and field the best team possible. I’m working through Bacon’s Endzone, and while I find parts of it gratingly congratulatory of UM’s (and in parts, the AD’s role in said) history, awash in the worst types of homerism, and littered with ground-down axes that would be Paul Bunyan proud **, it WAS illustrative of how past administrations would look at the looming issues surrounding the team or the school and work to address them immediately, stubbed toes and hurt feelings be damned. Last year’s Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota games would never have been allowed to happen because the warning signs had been seen in years past, and a competent administration would have addressed them months before.
But under Brandon and Hoke, you saw two men who rather lose doing it their way than try to introduce meaningful improvements, all the while demanding blind loyalty from the fanbase because the team still genuflected at the altar of past leaders, slapped a banner, and wore the right laundry. From the minute Hackett took over you knew that level of nonfeasance would not be tolerated, punctuated by Jim Harbaugh joining up. And as a fan, that’s all that was necessary to rekindle my optimism that UM would be a winning program again, one that would be in the upper-echelon of college football teams. Because with few exceptions, UM football has all the tools, all the advantages you need to be elite.
I’ll always be a fan of UM sports; no crappy head coach or myopic athletic director would change that. But as soon as UM ran onto that field in Utah, led by Jim Harbaugh and backed by an administration that expects and demands competency, that sense of dread and disgust faded away, replaced with the sense that while it might not always be a pretty trek, UM was back on the path to its rightful place in college football.
* It’s kind of like watching Stanford under David Shaw, a team that had some sustained success but has looked worse and worse as the remnants of Harbaugh’s tenure fade away. I know Stanford has resource that pale in comparison to those at UM, but their has absolutely been a demonstrable drop in talent and performance there.
** Man, that does read like I hated the book, which isn’t the case. I actually have enjoyed it overall and find most of Bacon’s novels to be equally fun reads. But there is clearly an agenda at work in parts of the novel, and it feels Notre Dame-level pretentiousness to claim the hiring of Harbaugh has ushered in the “return” of UM before the man has coached a down of football.
Worst: … Who Is Still Skeptical
To reiterate, I am still very much on-board with my new Harbaugh overlord. The man is a fantastic coach, great recruiter, and overall the type of guy I want leading UM’s football team. And unlike in the pros, where guys making millions of dollars don’t necessarily want a 51-year-old yelling at them, his demanding style works pretty well in college, where guys cycle through quickly and college athletes benefit a good deal from a strong authority figure.
And I also understand that getting UM “back” will take some time; I said 7-5 at the start of the season, and while BYU now looks a bit less daunting without Hill out and PSU looks kinda terrible on offense, I still see them with a ceiling of 8 wins barring significant in-season improvements at LB, the other corner spot, and running back/run blocking.
But my biggest concern (from an on-field perspective) when the idea of Harbaugh was first raised had to do with the likely “ceiling” for a Michigan team given how he’d coached at Stanford and his overall offensive and defensive philosophies. And not so much the system, which on its face is just as effective as any other: creating confusion and mismatches with multiple TEs and motion fueled by grinding backs and a semi-mobile QB works fine for me.
But there so many moving parts that have to be “right” for it to run optimally. I know people talk about the spread offense as a sports car, but to me the RR/Urban Meyer-style offense is like a souped-up Toyota Corolla. It works because of its simplicity, its reliance on replacement-level parts at most positions. It obviously runs best with premium talent at the skill positions, but I can’t imagine a world in which you could take Alex Malzone and drop him into Harbaugh’s offense and beat Indiana comfortably, let alone what OSU did against Wiscy, Alabama, and Oregon.
There are two key elements about spread-style offenses that I like, and they are intertwined; one, it lets you get away with sub-optimal talent at certain positions because the goal is all about exploiting a couple of mismatches; you’re 3rd/4th corner against my slot receiver, your defensive ends in space against my faster QB, etc. And the second, related benefit is that it gives you a larger margin of error when it comes to recruiting, of still being effective with “lesser” athletes because their weaknesses are covered up by the greater system. It broadens the available pool of “viable” players for your system, and so you don’t have to hit as often on the great player(s) in order to maintain a consistent level of success.
By comparison, Harbaugh’s offense is great when you have all the pieces but seems to stumble without them; this game was illustrative as a taste test of sorts; what happens when you secretly try to run an offense with Faygo-level players. It isn’t terrible by any means, but you can tell something is missing. And that’s what scares me, because it requires UM to basically recruit a stable of road-grating offensive linemen, stout-but-quick RBs who can catch out of the backfield, athletic TEs who can serve as viable downfield threats as well as strong blockers, and a QB who can have solid downfield accuracy while also being somewhat of a threat to run the ball. I know this is a bit generalized and most teams try to nab these types of players, but it just feels like a team has fewer options at certain spots that they must hit on pretty consistently; that the 25th-best “pro-style” QB is probably a bigger step down than, say, the 25th-best “spread” QB.
People often complained loudly that RR failed to recruit elite players to UM, and while I’d argue that characterization is a bit misleading, there is some veracity if you look at just the recruiting rankings. But the counter is that UM had some of the best offenses in its modern history under RR, and that as soon as UM started to recruit ”better” skill players but changed the system they’d occupy, the performance dropped rather precariously. I have full faith that an elite offense under Harbaugh will be spectacular; what troubles me, though, is that this success is going to hinge too much on the players brought in and not necessarily on the structure of the offense. As a fan, I want UM’s success to have the fewest constraints placed on it, and “the best version of Stanford” on offense feels like a bit of a letdown.
Worst: Rudock-ulous Bad Luck
I won’t belabor the point, as everyone reading this knows it wasn’t a great debut for Jake Rudock; throwing 60% of your INT total from the year before in one game isn’t usually a good thing. Still, his overall numbers weren’t terrible (6.5 YPA, 2 TDs, 63% completion percentage), and he wasn’t helped much by the running game (2.8 ypc from Smith with a long of 7) or his blockers. The one hit I remember most vividly was in the third quarter when Ty Isaac inexplicably tried to double the Utah DE and let one of the LBs get a free shot on Rudock, who hung in until the last second before missing on a ball to Butt. And while it didn’t give up an sacks, the offensive line didn’t seem great at picking up late blitzers, allowing him to be pelted a couple of times each quarter that seemed to contribute to the overthrown balls we saw. The first Rudock INT seemed like a bad route by Perry, and the third INT was a combination of a mediocre throw, a mediocre route, and a pretty athletic play by the Utah corner. The second INT was completely on Rudock, but those throws can open at altitude in the first game of the year.
As for the overthrows, that felt like a guy still getting accustomed to his playmakers trying to make the perfect throw in a strange environment; while not Denver, SLC is 3/4 of a mile above sea level, and with a wind the ball probably moved differently than Rudock was used to. I don’t expect that to continue. Nor do I expect he’ll continue to have trouble connecting with Perry (who clearly has earned Rudock’s trust as a “pressure release” option) or look to AJ Williams as a receiver downfield. I’m not sure if it was the playcalling or Rudock simply looking for the open man, but with all due respect Williams really shouldn’t be viewed as a viable receiving option on plays unless under extreme duress.
Overall, I thought it was the worst possible performance you could reasonably expect from Rudock, and I assume he’ll be much better back in Ann Arbor. He’s not a world-beater, but he directed the team competently and the offense seems more willing to let him challenge defenses deep with guys like Chesson and Darboh, to say nothing of the dynamics he has with Jake Butt.
Worst: Calling for a QB Change
I’ll keep this brief – there is no reason in the world to insert Shane Morris into the lineup as a replacement for Rudock after one game. Morris had weeks to beat our Rudock and he couldn’t; by all accounts, Rudock won the competition running away. To make a switch after a game would be needlessly reactionary and stymie the positive signs we did see offensively. So while I continue to believe Morris could be a starting QB at UM in the future, there is no reason to believe he would have had a better performance against Utah if he had replaced Rudock at halftime, as some fans seemed to be calling for. In particular, it was funny to see people argue that Morris wouldn’t have overthrown receivers like Rudock, which flies in the face of all evidence we have about Morris and his moderately-accurate Howitzer.
Best: Moving Forward OR
Worst: Except When it Counted
Utah recorded 3 TFLs in this game, amounting to 3 yards, and 0 sacks. Last year, Utah recorded 8 TFLs for 31 yards, including 4 sacks, and 1 forced fumble. The biggest bugaboo the last couple of years for UM’s offense has been the negative play, and against a decent Utah defense UM found a way to keep moving the ball forward, even if only incrementally, and that allowed them to sustain multiple 9+ play drives while staying out of too many 3rd-and-long situations. Based on raw numbers the offense didn’t look appreciably better than last year’s game against these same Utes, but given the fact this was the first game of the year, on the road, with a new head coach and new-ish offensive philosophy, I was pretty happy with the team’s ability to stay above the muck and self-inflicted wounds that plagued the offense under Hoke/Borges.
That said, the offensive line and backs struggled immensely to get anything going beyond the line of scrimmage. Smith made a couple of bad reads, but overall it felt like he was more often than not fighting against a wave of Utah players within 2 yards of the ball, and none of the backs seemed able to get anything going inside or outside even when it looked like the blocking was solid. It didn’t help that none of them seemed to be running particularly, um, fast, but that horse has beaten to death so many times with this group that it is just a reality one must deal with.
I’ll again chalk some of this up to first-game jitters and bugs being worked out, but it was disheartening to see one of the most experienced lines in the conference get manhandled at times by a Utah team without some of their studs from a year ago, and the bulk of available backs fail to register a run longer than 7 yards.
Best: Don’t Google Buttman
Yeah, just don’t. It might seem like a funny idea, and it’s not like you’re going to be *shocked* by what you find, but just…don’t.
Anyway, Jake Butt had himself a game. Tied for the team lead in catches with 8, caught a number of 3rd-down conversions, and had one amazing TD grab.
And unlike in the past with Devin Funchess, for example, this performance felt like one you can expect from a TE in this offense. Butt will never be a fantastic blocker, but he can get some push when necessary before slipping out on passing downs and isn’t a liability in the running game. I know it felt like hyperbole when Harbaugh said Butt was as fine a prospect at the TE position as he had coached, but after this game it sure doesn’t seem wrong to expect a great season.
As for the rest of the receiving core, it was a mixed bag. I thought Darboh had a great game despite the one unfortunate drop on the failed 3rd-down conversion. He proved capable of getting some separation from corners, flashed unexpected speed and agility after the catch, and generally looked like a guy who could be a leading receiver for a competent offense, something I wouldn’t have said coming into the season. Small sample sizes and all, but I suspect Darboh will continue to have a solid OOC run at the very least. Chesson, on the other hand, showed his speed but failed to do much with it, though he wasn’t helped by Rudock’s overthrows. He should be better going forward, but it still feels very one-dimensional with him and I’m not sure that will change much this year. Perry had some obvious route-running issues, but as a true freshman in his first game he was making blocks on screens and short passes that seniors tend to blow. It sure looks like Rudock trusts him, and that’s half the battle with young WRs. Cole made one catch that was basically a screen the Utes immediately snuffed out, and no other WR really saw the ball much. My guess is we’ll see more against Oregon St. this week, but it sure does feel like Darboh-Butt-Perry will be the significant producers in the WR crop this year.
As long as I’ve been alive, mobile QBs have been the bane of UM’s existence. If the guy under center can both run and throw the ball, UM’s defense consistently struggles in defending against it. Now, put that same athlete one position back (RB) or outside (WR) and UM seems to have better luck corralling him, so it’s not so much an athleticism issue as it is one of scheme.
So it should come as little surprise that while UM largely held Booker in check, Wilson was able to consistently pick up yardage whenever he held onto the ball. And a lot of those struggles fell on the veteran LBs, who again seemed unable to tackle guys in any type of space. Bolden in particular struggled to do so both against the run as well as keep up with receivers in the middle of the field, a weakness that has been well-documented over the years.
Perhaps most jarring what watching Jabrill Peppers struggle to keep up with true freshman Brit Covey, who seemed able to shake Peppers almost at will in that first half. He seemed to settle down in the second half and had some great TFLs by just slipping past would-be blockers, but it may be time for people to temper the “in case of emergency, just unleash Peppers” hype until he shows a consistently ability to stay in coverage. I think we all forget that Peppers hasn’t played much organized football in the past year, and even the best redshirt freshman will have struggles adjusting to the speed and talent on the field. But this team is going to struggle all year with the LBs and Peppers don’t improve their tackling and coverage dramatically.
Best: Controlled Explosions
One of the lasting memories of last year’s game was Jourdan Lewis streaking across the field to catch Bubba Poole before he could score on an extremely ill-defended screen. It was both an amazing (he literally ran across the field and caught Poole, who had a couple yards on him) and demoralizing (it took a corner running across said field to stop a 80+ yard TD that occurred because UM had one defender on that side of the field after the snap) play, one that did not portend a particularly great season by the defense against the “big” play.
Again, it’s only been a week, but this year’s secondary (and really, most of the defense) showed a much better ability at minimizing the long completions and broken plays that doomed them last year. Booker had one nice run after the catch that just skimmed the sideline, but beyond that there wasn’t any real “explosive” play. The cornerback position opposite Lewis remains in flux (on review of the game, it did seem like Stribling and Clark struggled to stay with their men at times), but you rarely saw WRs streak by anyone and, though there were some disturbingly wide-open expanses at times, the defense still forced Utah to march down the field most of the game. And the defense nearly came up with a timely turnover when they forced Wilson to fumble the ball, only to have it bounce to the one Utah player on that side of the field.
I still have no idea if Michigan’s deployment of first-class-sized cushions to each and every receiver not covered by Lewis is a one-time thing or a sad reminder of how tight coverage ain’t coming to A2, but overall I thought the defense did a good job making Utah work for every yard they got.
Best: Kicking the Ball With All the Time In The World
Michigan deployed the spread punting formation and was able to limit Utah to 1 return for 14 yards while averaging 43 yards per kick. If you remember last year, UM gave up 83 (!) yards and 1 TD, losing the field position battle without really pressuring anyone on the Utah special teams. And as far as I can tell, there were always 11 people on the field.
I know it’s a small victory, but as a football fan in 2015 being able to say “my punting team fielded the right number of people and didn’t give up a big return” is the biggest f*ing deal after the last 4 years.
As for FG kicking, Kenny Allen hit the 30-yarder you expected and missed the 44-yarder I figured was going to be tough. Utah’s all-world kicker also missed a couple of longer kicks, so I have to imagine a combination of wind and nerves were in the air. While I don’t think it really altered the outcome of this game, I do think Harbaugh will be more likely to go for short-ish conversions in FG territory as he remembers that college kickers are immensely less reliable than pro kickers, and what feels automatic in the NFL (like that 44-yarder) is far more dicey with younger legs. The announcers (who I thought were much better than the pre-game triad of goobers) noted as much, and you could tell Harbaugh mulling over his decision to not go for it basically as soon as the ball left Allen’s foot. Again, this isn’t going to be a season whose overall success hinges on the foot of a kicker, but I think it’s becoming clearer that this team can’t rely on its kickers to bail them out.
Oregon State comes to Ann Arbor, and I’d be amazed if Michigan didn’t emerge with a win. It’ll be an emotional time for the fans when Harbaugh steps back into the stadium, and you get a sense from the way the players have spoken about the game that they realize they need to perform better and are almost embarrassed they lost on Thursday; I suspect a much better effort on the ground against a suspect Beaver front 7, and Rudock should have a much better game throwing the ball. Anderson should have Oregon State ready to play, but the jump from Weber St. to UM is pretty jarring, and a true freshman QB making his first road start might lead to some of those elusive turnovers I’ve been seeing other defenses cause. It is still a work in progress, but this team feels like one with the parts slowly fitting into place, not the grab-bag of uncertainty it has been the past couple of years.