"The University of Illinois is also in turmoil. The university sports an Interim Chancellor, an Interim Athletic Director, and an Interim Football Coach; the game will be played at Soldier Field, making this an Illini Interim Home Game."
4th and 7, Oregon State Ball with ~3:05 remaing:
Oregon State long-snapper snaps high, Nick Porebski is able to bring it in, gets the punt off and is clobbered. Incorrect roughing the kicker is called, giving Oregon State a first down and prompting Jim Harbaugh to call a timeout. 2:57 remaining.
1st and 10, Oregon State Ball
Incomplete pass to Jordan Villamin
2nd and 10, Oregon State Ball
Seth Collins 8 yard run to Michigan 38
3rd and 2, Oregon State Ball
Seth Collins -1 yard run to Michigan 39
Now, this is was some bad coaching by Oregon State. They have two options:
1) Go for the first down
There are no other possibilities here. At the very least, you want to see your team line up for the punt (or even better, like you are attempting to score), try to draw the defense offsides and take the delay of game if not. If you are going to punt anyway, the difference between punting from the 39 and punting from the 44 is going to be marginal (both have a 95% chance of being a touchback*). But we see Oregon State take the delay of game without attempting to draw Michigan offsides. Michigan then calls a timeout (I don't understand why, the clock should have been stopped here with the delay of game).
Oregon State then lines up for the punt, punts it, and gets an Illegal formation call. Another five yards.
We all know what happened next.
Anyway, I guess I don't have a major point to make here, it is just interesting to list a couple of things that could have drastically changed the end of the first half:
1) No roughing the punter call. Michigan ball, chance to score with about 3 minutes remaining, but they have to go 70 yards.
2) Oregon State attempts to convert the 4th and 3 (the obvious choice if you are playing to win, especially on the road) and fails. Michigan Ball, 60 yards to score and roughly 1:30 remaining.
3) Oregon State picks up the first down, is able to kick a field goal to end the half. Teams tied 10-10 at half.
4) No illegal formation on the 1st (2nd?) punt attempt. Michigan ball, I believe this one went out at the 2 or 3 yard line, not much chance of scoring, with only 90 seconds and at least one rushing play just to escape the goal line
*--totally made this statistic up.
EDIT: Adding a major point to squash the haters:
My major point is, if your drive could be extended by a roughing the kicker call that shouldn't have been a roughing the kicker call, you should decline the penalty and avoid football Karma
I haven’t been this happy to write a recap since, I don’t know, UTL II? Yeah, let’s go with that.
Best: Reasonably Excited!
I know, this was the JV game of the Battle for Mid-Sized States with Coastlines or whatever ESPN tried to turn this particularly random scheduling quirk into, and I know that the upper-echelon of the conference as it were (OSU, then some distance away MSU, then some farther distance away I guess Minnesota and Wisconsin) is still between outrageously and significantly better than the Wolverines, and I know that Oregon State doesn’t have a QB on the roster who played a down of college football before the season started, and I know that it’s one of the youngest teams in the country and not particularly talented youth to boot, and I know that whatever gypsy or witch Al Borges insulted back in the 90’s who subsequently cursed all of his QBs hasn’t broken her spell despite him leaving UM 2 years ago, and I know that we’ve seen the running game look this good against undersized defensive lines only to be exploited (like it was last week) against defenses who can push back, and I know that the pass rush is still really inconsistent (witness only 2 sacks, one by Morgan), and I know that the linebackers remain adventures against small guys, big guys, really any guys in space or in coverage, I know that the corners not named Lewis still have major question marks that probably won’t be answered/exposed until BYU, and I know that the offense still took about a half to get anything resembling coherency and that isn’t going to work against more competent offenses, and finally, I know that beating a pretty bad Pac-12 team isn’t going to be substantially change the outlook for the season for any reasonable fan…
I’ll take it. I’ll take it because this was the type of win you always wanted to see out of those old Hoke outfits, not the nail-bitters against UConn(!) and Akron(!!) where the offense looked like it was shot with the Devolution Gun. I’ll take it because it felt like the team embodied its offensive and defensive philosophies, not just pay them lip-service while flailing around for anything that works. I’ll take it because after that first drive, Michigan’s defense stiffened and held OSU to 84 total yards of offense, including 2 drives that went backwards (I don’t count the Tacopants punt and the kneel down to end the first half; it’s 4 if you count those). I’ll take it because Michigan had three more 10+ drives that ended in scores, and probably would have had more such drives in the second half if the field didn’t shift steeply toward the OSU side of the field and UM had great field position. I’ll take it because while Rudock threw another pick, it (a) late in a blowout, (b) a defensible throw in that he was trying to hit Butt and threw it a bit too inside after Butt seemed to settle into his spot a bit early, (c) featured a good play by the LB to jump in front of the pass, and (d) came after a 13/16 stretch in which Rudock looked much more comfortable throwing the ball. I’ll take it because Smith, Green, and Isaac, and the offensive line just ground down a P5 defense for 224 yards with a long of 19. I’ll take it because the A. J. Williams caught a long pass for the first time in what seems like forever, Ian Bunting had some nice catches, Darboh continued his ascension to #1 WR, and 9 guys caught passes for the second time this year, which happened twice all of last year and never as fluidly. I’ll take it because Chris Wormley has been a revelation on the defensive line, recording another 3 TFLs and giving the line the type of dual-prong rushers you need to generate an organic/disruptive pass rush as well as contain the running game. I’ll take it because, even with Jourdan Lewis out for the second half due to a potential concussion, the pass defense steadied itself after a rough first quarter and gave up a total of 30(!) yards the rest of the game. I’ll take it because the special teams turned the game around to end the 2nd half (though obviously the OSU long snapper did most of the work) despite getting screwed earlier in the drive by a wonky, at best, roughing the kicker penalty on the OSU punter. I’ll take it because searching for “Jim Harbaugh freak out” is WAY more fun than “Brady Hoke freak out” (which features Brady Hoke half-hugging Brian Kelly and a half-dozen pictures of him looking like he’s in various stages of passing a massive bowl movement). I’ll take it because UM won comfortably despite the referees doing their best to muck up the game (they apparently thought they were in East Lansing and the other Oregon team was playing). And, finally, I’ll take it because UM looked better than they did last week, better as the game progressed, and at the end looked like a team that bulldozed over a mediocre Pac-12 team like a Jim F*ing Harbaugh team SHOULD from now until forever!
Best: Like Novacaine
I know I use this video all the time, but it perfectly encapsulates how good offenses should work. I know you read and hear all the time about dynamic offenses that roll with a million different formations and playcalls; I've been a proponent of those types of offenses as the natural evolution of collegiate offenses and a system I'd kinda hope UM had been able to make work with previous coaches. But I’ll admit that a lot of those complaints are about window-dressing or presentation; a good offense, at its core, looks like every other “type” of good offense, whether it be spread, Air Raid, triple-option, run-and-shoot, MANBALL, etc. It’s about executing the plays you are best equipped to run with consistency and reasonable effectiveness.
And while you definitely should adapt as the game dictates, it also means running your offense sometimes in spite of individual results if you are confident that the final outcome will be a net positive. That’s what Hoke’s offenses struggled from as the years went on; he’d run plays X until the defense wised up, then switch to plays Y, but always seemed concerned about going to back to plays X if it made sense to, even if Y seemed to be working. It’s why we saw tackle over for most of the game against Minnesota instead of trotting it out periodically and using it as an occasional constraint for his “base” offense.
At some point in the 1st half, UM had 17 yards rushing. The line couldn’t sustain a push, the RBs weren’t getting much yardage beyond the line, and even little screen passes were being blown up for minimal gain because Mason Cole, for example, basically got flipped over by an OSU linebacker. But to his credit and as proof that Harbaugh is a masterful offensive technician…he didn’t really change anything. He just kept pushing forward with Smith, asked Rudock to make safe-ish throws, and trusted that an undersized OSU defensive line would start giving up ever-bigger holes for Smith to rumble through. And, ultimately, it did. A defense that had completely nullified the OSU offense helped, but the offensive performance felt organic and persistent in a way that hasn’t existed for years in A2; save for when Drake Johnson was the lead back at the end of last year, a Michigan rushing attack hasn’t looked close to this natural since 2011. And looking at the bulk of the upcoming schedule and assuming a natural improvement as the players become more comfortable with the new offensive playcalling, I don’t see too many teams that will be able to completely disrupt the general offensive flow. I know “most teams won’t be able to stop UM from running forward with the ball” is pretty faint praise, but I’ll take it after 2 games of another coaching regime.
Worst: You’ll Probably Still Want Someone to Drive You Home
Not to be a downer because I thought the running game executed really well against OSU, but this remains an offensive line with major question marks both at positions you expect (Braden) and not (Cole has been less-than-stellar thus far, at least in run blocking). Oregon State has both a young and not particularly defense, and still it took Michigan nearly a half of football to establish consistent running lanes. And even when they did execute, at times it felt more a by-product of an overmatched Beaver defense than fantastic play by the offensive line. In particular, I remember one of the longer Smith runs in the 4th quarter featuring Braden pulling across and into the second level. Instead of crushing the LB/safety waiting for him, he kinda just, I don’t know, fell on the defender and that allowed Smith to break outside a bit, but also slowed him a down enough to let other defenders tackle him.
I know that Braden is very tall and leverage becomes a major issue when trying to block guys half a foot or more shorter than you, but I saw a number of instances where the offensive linemen did “enough” right things for a positive, and that simply isn’t going to work against better defenses. I fully expect them to improve, and the improvements even since Utah, opponent quality acknowledged, were encouraging. I did think Braden handled the pass rush better, and Smith and co. ran through gaping holes not only because they saw them but also because they were sustained and, in some instances, carved out of the defensive line exactly how the play call asked for it. But I still see it being tough sledding against teams like Minnesota, MSU, OSU, and, maybe, PSU on the ground. I don’t expect there to be another 27-for-27 or what happened a couple years ago against MSU, but this remains a semi-fragile running game that isn’t going to necessarily carve up defenses the way it looks like they will the remainder of the OOC season.
Best: Getting Closer
As ST3 noted in his always-good Inside the Boxscore, Jake Rudock doesn’t need to be a world-beater for Michigan to win. Jake Rudock doesn’t have even be a gunslinger or a “playmaker” in the Denard/Gardner-before-broken-soul mold. Jake Rudock just has to be Iowa Jake Rudock, or more definitely:
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.
We are getting there. I’m more bothered by the fumble than the INT, because as I noted above the INT was late in a blowout and just felt like ongoing growing pains for the offense. But the fumble was because a LB came in unblocked on a delayed blitz and, for whatever reason, Rudock either didn’t see him, failed to throw to the hot route, or just throw it at someone’s feet. He’s a 5th-year senior, and he played for Iowa last year behind a suspect offensive line; getting rid of the ball before you get hammered by an unblocked defender shouldn’t be “new” to him the way it seems to be whenever, say, Connor Cook feels the faint breeze of a defensive end’s outstretched fingers grasp within 2 feet of his face.
Anyway…beyond the fumble I thought Rudock looked pretty good once the running game established itself and drew in the safeties a bit. Unlike last week’s game when it seemed like every downfield threat was double-covered, this week you could see Oregon State start to cheat up a bit, and that opened up throws to guys like Darboh and Bunting with room for yards after the catch. That’s what a good running game does for a QB; it opens up the field and forces defenses to guess more than they like, which almost always favors skill players on offense. The deep passing game remains a bit of an enigma, but if Rudock can be deadly accurate within 15 yards and those little bubble and WR screens stick and remain effective, that might be enough against most of the defenses they’ll see this season.
Best: I’ll Happily Admit Defeat
At the beginning of the year, I was down on Amara Darboh as a #1 receiver, likening him to a #2/#3 who plays as a #1 by default. While I’m sure he’ll have trouble against some of the better corners in the conference, I am pleasantly surprised how good he’s been thus far. He isn’t a burner, but he’s quicker than I remember from last year, and his upper body strength coupled with that speed has really helped him maximize the WR screens and crossing routes that have been big gains for the passing attack. I also suspect he’ll be a solid downfield blocker if/when the running game starts breaking off those longer runs you kind of expect will start happening any game now.
As for the rest of the receiving core, just remember that both A. J. Williams and De’Veon Smith had 20+ yard receptions a week after both dropped critical passes. If Harbaugh and co. aren’t careful, I’m going to stop clutching those pearls around my neck on every 3rd down, and I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.
Best: The Line Was Drawn Here; They Went No Farther
With the exception of that first drive (and let’s just assume I say that before everything else going forward in this diary), the defensive line played a great game. Chris Wormley is a revelation at defensive tackle/end, and really has given this defense an identity along with Glasgow and Henry on the front line. It still lacks an elite pass rusher, but except for what I assume are the elite running games (OSU, maybe MSU and Minnesota), I don’t see this line giving up much on the ground consistently and, more promisingly, giving more teams trouble in the passing games than in years past.
I remain…surprised that Lawrence Marshall hasn’t gotten really any meaningful playing time after the preseason hype, and (sadly) it’s not because Ojemudia or RJS is performing above expectations on the weak side. BYU will be a test because even if Mangum lacks Hill’s explosive running ability and seems to be balancing on that razor’s edge between competent and self-sabotaging at times, he can absolutely throw the ball if given time. My hope is that someone emerges to provide even token pressure from the position by then.
Worst: Still Not Sure About the Second Corner
This is a light Worst because, again, under 100 yards over the last three quarters, with virtually nothing in the air. Yes, OSU was starting a caravan of people who hadn’t thrown a down of college ball, but that’s still an accomplishment. I thought the TD on Lewis was just a really well-thrown ball that Jarmon was able to haul in after getting a step; it happens. That it was at the end of a bad drive probably made it sting a bit more than normal, but other than that Lewis looked great until he was knocked out with the concussion. I assume he’ll be back next week, but they might just keep him out as a precaution, as I doubt UNLV will test UM much especially if their QB Decker is out.
As for the man opposite Lewis at corner, that remains a mixed bag. After Villamin burned Stribling for a couple of early receptions, Clark came in and, I guess, did a bit better on a failed 4th down conversion. Peppers also got a bit of a run in there as well, but the 2nd corner spot remains in flux. It might behoove the defense to keep Lewis out/use him sparingly and let the other guys get some game experience and see if anyone can really stand out, as right now any offense with more than one semi-competent WR is just going to attack that second spot mercilessly. Luckily this is the B1G so half your schedule has, at best, one competent receiver, but you’d still hope someone, anyone, would have locked down that spot in the event that it becomes an issue.
Meh: The Men in the Middle
I’ll admit I never can get a good read on LB play during a game. Some games I think everyone is going great and then you look back and you see a bunch of missed tackles. Other times it seems like every tackle is happening 3 yards after the line and they grade out as above-average because the defensive tackles aren’t holding up well. And coverages are especially hard based on the camera angle, as sometimes the zones put LBs in no-man’s land where conceding 5-6 yards is how you want the play to end.
As usual, Desmond Morgan hit people and they stopped. He also did a pretty good job flowing to the ball on those jet sweeps and QB runs that OSU relied on to move the ball. Bolden got better as the game went on, and he showed a nifty set of hands picking up that fumble from Bolden. He still seemed slow to react on some plays, especially early on when OSU was finding success testing the edges, but again, he helped hold a P5 team under 150 total yards of offense. Ross and Gedeon also got some time and played well enough. I remain a bit scared about the linebackers going against BYU and that ilk, but it’s not like Maryland, UNLV, or NW are loaded offensively. Like the rest of the defense, the LBs are growing into the schemes and showing incremental improvements, so let’s assume they keep that up.
Best: That’s Why You Give Long Snappers Scholarships!
I know some people joked about Scott Sypniewski getting a scholarship as primarily a long snapper, but after watching the OSU snapper rocket two increasingly-terrible throws back to his punter, the first leading to an illogical “roughing the kicker” penalty to extend a drive, and the latter a Tacopants special that led to a late UM score on the same drive, there is value in making sure the guy setting up your punter is good at, you know, doing that with a football.
I’m assuming everyone saw that sequence toward the end of the half, but for those who didn’t here’s a brief recap. OSU was forced to punt on 4th down, and on the punt the snap was high and to the right a bit, causing the OSU punter to bobble the ball before running pretty far to one sideline and getting the ball off. He was then bumped into by Clark, leading to (a) the refs calling a “roughing the kicker” penalty that netted OSU a first down, and (b) Jim Harbaugh absolutely losing his mind on the sideline.*
So the drive continued and OSU had to punt again because they basically used up all their bag of tricks on that first drive and were running into various walls offensively after that. On the next punt, UM made sure to not even fart in the general direction of the punter, and he was able to pin UM deep in their own territory with about 1:30 left in the half. But that punt was called back after an illegal formation penalty on OSU, so on the subsequent play the OSU long snapper sailed a ball a good 10 feet over the punter and 30-ish yards deep, resulting in UM getting the ball back at the OSU 3 yard line. It was a 90+ yard swing, and let UM go into the half up 10 and really helped salt the game away.
* As a brief aside, it was nice to see a coach ride the officials a bit. Hoke never did that, and while I don’t believe that referees consciously do “make-up” calls, I do believe that they are human and hate being yelled at by a crazed man in a baseball cap. Over time, they will subconsciously want to stop that crazy man from yelling at them and, as a result, make calls that appease said crazy man. It won’t work all the time, but it never hurts.
Worst: These Refs, Though
I’ll keep this brief – OSU had nearly as many first downs due to penalty (3) as they had rushing (4) or passing(5). Their only first down in the second half came on a facemask penalty against UM, and UM recorded nearly as many penalty yards (105) as OSU recorded total yards (138). Beyond the punter penalty I spoke of above (I always thought a punter was “live” outside of the tackle box), the refs also missed a number of obvious PIs on OSU (including one in the endzone on Darboh that would have been a TD) while also calling a dubious PI on Peppers in the first half. I get that UM was sloppy at times, but how UM went from 3 penalties on the road to 10 penalties at home against a team they were killing for most of the game was just infuriating.
Best, I Guess: Snack on Danger, Dine on Death!
So yeah, I missed a wrestling reference last week, but I couldn’t help myself after the past couple of weeks. Against Utah last week, Booker tried to hurdle a UM defender and was instead depositing on his head and shoulders by Joe Bolden. Last year, Utah’s Travis Wilson tried something similar, and, well…
So in this game, Seth Collins tried to, I don’t know, fly over the UM defense. It didn’t work and he wound up being crunched mid-air by either Bolden and/or Desmond. It was nasty, dangerous, and continuing this weird tradition where opponents set themselves up for variations of the Doomsday Device popularized by the Legion of Doom
I’ll give you a brief synopsis of the Legion of Doom. They started off as the Road Warriors (Animal and Hawk) in the old territory days of professional wrestling, these hulking bodybuilders who worked super-stiff (i.e. in the world of fake fighting, it’s when guys don’t really hold back on their punches/kicks/slams etc.), were underrated athletes (in particular Hawk, who moved amazingly well for a big guy) and had a great look. Over the years they evolved into, well, Mad Max-style brutes with shoulder spikes, snarling, barely-coherent promos, and a reputation for just demolishing guys. They were known as the Legion of Doom in the WWF/E, and became some of the biggest draws of that era. Oh, also, if you were ever in an arcade in the early 90’s and walked by the Wrestlefest cabinet you heard their catch phrases. They were dumb, cheesy, and 100% in your wheelhouse if you were a young kid who loved professional wrestling.
Over the years their gimmick got a bit stale, drugs and alcohol problems took over, and they kind of fell apart. Hawk passed away at the age of 46 from a sudden heart attack, the guy the WWE tried to semi-replace Hawk with before his death (Droz) wound up breaking his neck in a freak in-ring incident a couple years later, and Animal still kicks around on the indy circuit and will pop up on Raw every once and a while. Everything in this paragraph can be said for about 80% of the wrestlers from the 80s and 90s, I know. Oh, also, Joe Laurinaitis (Animal) is the father of famed Ohio State LB James Laurinaitis.
This should also not surprise you at all.
Anyway, my point is that wrestling is fake, yet college football players still seem to think throwing themselves in the air is going to end well with 225+ lb men trying to knock them out of said air. The LOD wrecked guys for years so that you can watch them on youtube; you don’t need to try to recreate modern-day beheadings for a couple more yards.
Best: Runnin’ Rebels
I predict UM scores many points, accumulates many yards, and my entire diary is full of animated gifs of professional wrestling and raccoons on little bicycles.
The rest of the teams on State's schedule aren't ranked (and probably won't be). That's why I'm asking for your thoughts after this game in particular.
Not Good for Michigan
- State's DL is, lordy, as advertised. Oregon's OL started one senior and a bunch of sophomores, so maybe some wiggle room in there. In general, however, scary stuff. Unless Michigan's OL can improve enough to look solid against BYU, my guess is that Michigan's running game is going to be a ton of passes.
- From what Brian said, the Michigan DL might not match up well against their guys, especially with Mone out. Note that Oregon started a bunch of seniors on their line.
- Kings, State's slot guy, was really effective. I hope Peppers and others can rapidly improve enough to blanket him and other slotty dudes.
- I'm not sure Michigan can improve their special teams enough get the boost that Oregon got in their game.
Not too Bad for Michigan
- Rudock does better under duress than Adams; he gets positive/no yards where Adams lost yards in some cases. Relatedly, overall, I think Rudock makes better decisions, and he's already showing improvement.
- Michigan's corners, especially if Lewis is back, match up well with Burbridge
- So far, the Michigan OL has been better about QB protection. Brian's UFR shows it's not that awesome, but it feels better than last year, at least.
What do you folks think?
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.
On this momentous day, it just feels right. Everything. Anything. I'm sitting here eating crackers and cheese, and it feels right. It's no different than the usual lunch I eat at work, except today the cheese is creamier. The crackers are crisp and delicious. If I had milk, I'd drink it, and it too would be delicious.
This graphic probably wasn't needed, and serves no real purpose. We all know its game day. We've all known this day was coming for a long time, but it feels different. Almost surreal. For whatever reason, it feels right.
For the last few years, I've felt distanced from Michigan Football. Not for lack of trying, but probably for my own health. After a while, it just wasn't fun anymore. There was too much pain, frustration, and disappointment. I honestly haven't felt this excited for a season kickoff in almost 10 years. It feels right. We're back. We may not win tonight, and we may not be ready to compete at the highest level yet - but we're back. And it just feels right.
In my attempt to harken back to the days where I was genuinely over-the-moon excited about football season, and to capture the surreal feeling I have – and probably will continue to have until 8:30pm tonight - this graphic happened. The sun is out, and it’s shining a weird tint of Maize on us. We have our guy. He's old school and new school all at the same time, and I love it. He’s a little weird, and I love it. Maybe this graphic doesn't say that to you, but it's my way of saying it for you.
On this momentous day, I just felt like I had to contribute something of my own to this community I love so much. Thank you all so much for everything. We're back. Go Blue!
Original Photo Credit: Bryan Fuller