Dalvin Cook lived up to his billing. [Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog]
Sometimes you make it a game despite yourself and the human lightning bolt that is Dalvin Cook and then a freshman receiver who looks like a tight end turns a dumb play into a game-swinging kickoff return and a 5'11" guy beats Jourdan Lewis for a touchdown because sure why not and a series of improbable events occur and a laugher turns into a heartbreaker.
For most of the game, Florida State showed why Michigan is on the wrong side of the playoff bubble. Michigan's offense couldn't overcome a shaky offensive line to put any sort of consistent attack together, mustering only 83 first-half yards. Florida State's couldn't either but for the notable exception of Cook. The future Pro Bowl running back had 141 yards and a score on 16 touches. Nyqwan Murray exploited a busted coverage for a 92-yard touchdown. The rest of the FSU offense had 22 yards on 17 plays. The Seminoles held a 20-6 lead at halftime.
Neither team did much of anything in the third quarter until Kenny Allen, for seemingly the umpteenth time, backed up FSU deep in their own territory with 1:12 left in the quarter. Facing second-and-ten from his own eight-yard line, quarterback Deondre Francois rolled right to escape pressure and threw a pass directly to Mike McCray, who ended his short trip down the sideline with a dive into the end zone to make it 20-15. Michigan had pulled within a score for the first time since the opening quarter, setting up one of the wildest finishes of this college football season.
Chris Evans, flying. [Fuller]
Cook once again pulled the game almost out of reach, breaking a 71-yard run on third-and-22 to set up a three-yard touchdown run by his backup, Jacques Patrick. After the teams traded punts, Wilton Speight capitalized on great field position with a third-and-goal touchdown pass to Khalid Hill. The Wolverines returned to the end zone less than four minutes later, forcing a three-and-out before Chris Evans juke-posterized an FSU safety on a 30-yard touchdown scamper. Before you could say "Captain America," Michigan had taken a 30-27 lead.
The ensuing kickoff looked as innocuous as could be. FSU freshman Keith Gavin fielded Allen's boot a couple yards deep in the end zone, surveyed the field, and paused. In football, when you pause on a kickoff return, you kneel for a touchback. That is the only play. Except for this play. This play, Gavin belatedly took off despite the protestations of fellow return man Kermit Whitfield, burst through a tackle, and was finally dragged down 66 yards later by Jourdan Lewis.
The winning touchdown. [Fuller]
Cook got the Seminoles to the 12-yard line on a screen pass. Two plays later, Murray rose over Lewis to haul in the go-ahead touchdown. As if this game wasn't frantic enough, Michigan blocked the extra point and Josh Metullus, filling in for an injured Jabrill Peppers, brought it all the way back for two points. With 36 seconds left, down a point, Michigan had the opportunity to give this meandering game one final twist.
Instead, the Seminoles held strong, intercepting a desperation fourth-and-ten heave by Speight forced by instant—perhaps too instant—pressure by DeMarcus Walker.
It may be coachspeak cliché, but it's true: Florida State made more plays. The better team, at least tonight, won the game. Cook showed Michigan what they lack: an offensive playmaker that makes opponents sigh with relief every time the ball goes elsewhere. That, or an elite quarterback, can overcome a porous offensive line. The Wolverines had neither.
Maybe next year.
De'Veon Smith's diving touchdown put Michigan up for good. [Eric Upchurch]
For 40 minutes, Senior Day at Michigan Stadium couldn't have gone much worse. The offense had nothing going with John O'Korn, who looked hesitant and flustered in Wilton Speight's stead. Indiana led 10-6 and looked poised to upset Michigan for the first time since 1987.
O'Korn had thrown for all of 46 yards when he dropped back on third-and-eight from the Michigan 36 with five minutes left in the third quarter. Indiana got instant pressure and O'Korn broke the pocket, jetting down the sideline for 30 yards, Michigan's longest play from scrimmage to that point.
"The opportunity presented itself. I thought I was going to score," O'Korn said, cracking a smile. "Then I got tackled from behind."
De'Veon Smith would not be denied in such fashion. He broke through the line, fended off a tackler, and scraped the ball along the top of the pylon for a spectacular 34-yard diving touchdown.
Following a short Indiana punt against the wind two drives later, Smith burst untouched into the secondary, and tiptoed down the sideline past a dominating block from Kekoa Crawford for a 39-yard score.
"Grinding out first downs. Grinding meat. De'Veon," said Jim Harbaugh, succinctly describing Smith. "It felt like old-fashioned, slobber-knocker football."
Smith accounted for over half of Michigan's total yardage with a career-high 158 yards on 23 carries. As Michigan Stadium turned into a Winter Wonderland in the fourth quarter, his punishing runs salted the game away on a 15-play, 51-yard drive that took nearly nine minutes off the clock and left Indiana with no shot at a comeback.
Michigan Stadium as snow globe. [Bryan Fuller]
While Michigan's offense scuffled early, the defense and special teams kept the Wolverines close enough for the eventual comeback. The defensive front, led by seniors Taco Charlton and Ryan Glasgow, ran rampant in the Hoosier backfield; those two accounted for 5.5 of Michigan's 12 tackles for loss. Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray both had excellent games, and the secondary shut down the passing game, holding the Hoosiers to 6.4 yards per attempt.
While Jabrill Peppers couldn't get much going in his few snaps on offense, he made his presence felt in the other two phases. He repeatedly gave Michigan great field position by fielding IU's line-drive punts, and a pad-popping stop on Richard Lagow in the backfield for one of his two TFLs helped hold the Hoosiers to a field goal on what would be their only scoring drive of the second half.
Special teams played a big part in this victory beyond Peppers's returns. Kenny Allen used the elements to his advantage, pinning Indiana inside their 20-yard line on four of his six punts, and he calmly connected on both of his field-goal attempts. When Peppers wasn't fielding punts, Michigan was blocking them; Michael Jocz and Khaleke Hudson got their hands on a punt apiece to help swing the momentum in Michigan's favor.
That proved enough for Michigan to avoid an upset. A much larger test looms next week in Columbus, of course, with the stakes about as high as they could be. It's yet to be seen if Michigan will have their starting quarterback on the field for the program's most important game since 2006.
"We'll see," Harbaugh said regarding Speight's status this week. "He's day-to-day."
A Murphy's Law game.
Any number of individual plays could've changed the outcome. Most of the ones that come to mind involve Wilton Speight, who had his worst game of the year, then had injury added to insult at the end.
Speight wasn't alone in his struggles, however. Jehu Chesson missed a chance to bail his quarterback out, instead getting a third-down pass ripped from his hands by Manny Rugamba, costing the Wolverines a chance to put the game away. Khalid Hill missed an assignment that led to an early safety and lost a fumble returning the opening kickoff of the second half. Chris Evans was the only running back who could consistently get anything going. The playcalling, personnel usage, and late-game clock management will be nitpicked to death this week, and not without justification.
While the defense played well on the whole, they couldn't contain Akrum Wadley, who accounted for 167 yards on 28 touches. And, yes, there were multiple questionable calls by the notorious officiating crew led by John O'Neill.
"Not every little thing is going to go our team's way," said Jim Harbaugh. "To win, you've got to make it go your way. We didn't."
Michigan still has everything to play for, but they've lost all margin for error if they want to keep their Big Ten title and playoff dreams alive. Before they even get that far, though, they have to figure out what went wrong tonight. This game should not have been close, let alone a loss, but a number of underwhelming performances occurred in conjunction at the wrong time. There's no sugarcoating tonight.
Whether passing or running, Wilton Speight dominated the air. [Bryan Fuller]
Dominance is the new normal, and this team knows it.
"There's no feeling like the feeling we have right now, and I'm not going to take that for granted," said De'Veon Smith, who rushed for 114 yards and three scores on only 19 carries.
"The yards he got after contact were real eye-opening. He's real tough to get down," Jim Harbaugh said, in perhaps the understatement of the season thus far.
Even with that production, Smith accounted for a mere fraction of Michigan's total output. That total: 660 yards on an even ten per play and a few more entries in the program record book. Wilton Speight broke a school record with 292 passing yards in the first half; he'd surpass his career high less than five minute into the third quarter. Speight finished with 362 yards and two touchdowns through the air and added a ten-yard scramble capped with a leap into the end zone.
"Statistically and just the eyeball, that's the best half of football I've ever seen a Michigan quarterback play," said Harbaugh. "Moving and throwing and accuracy and just extending plays, all of the above. I don't know how you play better."
"There was one throw that wasn't a great throw. Other than that it was a perfect game."
"Wilton had an unbelievable game today," said Jake Butt. "He keeps coming through for us when we need him most."
Butt made some history himself. On a five-catch, 76-yard day, he surpassed Jim Mandich as Michigan's all-time receiving leader among tight ends. Butt said it was "hard to take in" that he broke Mandich's record.
"You talk about [Ron] Kramer and Mandich, [Eric] Kattus, some tremendous tight ends have come through here. I know I'm leaving some out," said Harbaugh. "Most catches, most yards for a Michigan tight end is a great accomplishment."
Jehu Chesson, meanwhile, had a bounce-back game, hauling in five catches for 112 yards and one of the easier touchdowns he'll ever have when Maryland let him slip behind the defense. That was a bit of a theme; Michigan's first score came when Amara Darboh was all alone on a post route, and when the backups took over, Kekoa Crawford found himself similarly forsaken and caught his first career touchdown for the final score of the day.
Harbaugh was "bewildered" by the call marking Chris Evans short of the end zone. That's one word for it. [Eric Upchurch]
For the offense, there was little to complain about, save a couple calls that didn't go Michigan's way. Drake Harris had a long catch negated by a ticky-tack offensive pass interference call, and Chris Evans got marked just short of the goal line after a spectacular juggling catch and weaving run through the Terrapin defense.
"It offends my football sensibility in all ways that he didn't get a touchdown," said Harbaugh, who threw his hat several yards in the air after the call. "I think that would offend the football gods, as well."
Michigan mostly didn't need offensive contributions from Jabrill Peppers, but they got an early highlight when Peppers took a pitch, then threw it back to Speight, who launched a 40-yard bomb to Chesson. Peppers had a couple carries for 19 yards and added another TFL to ever-rising tally on defense. Asked after the game if he was trying to bolster Peppers's Heisman candidacy with "flashy" plays on offense, Harbaugh said he's simply utilizing Peppers as he should be utilized.
"It's just happening organically. It happens au naturale. He just does so much," said Harbaugh. "It doesn't have to be a forced thing. Au naturale." With a chuckle, Harbaugh added that his quarterback should perhaps be under consideration for the Heisman, too.
Whether on offense or defense, Peppers's contributions are "au naturale." [Fuller]
Despite holding Maryland to 367 yards, there were some worrisome moments for the defense. The Terps had a clear gameplan to test Michigan on the edge with outside runs and tunnel screens, and those plays found success—Mike McCray and Channing Stribling, in particular, had tough games holding trying to hold those plays down. Maryland nearly had a touchdown on a tunnel to DJ Moore at the very end of the first half, but Dymonte Thomas kept the play in front of him long enough for McCray to chase him down from behind; the clock expired with the Terps on Michigan's one-yard line.
Those deficiencies will get plenty of attention over the weeks to come, and Ohio State's coaching staff surely took note. That shouldn't totally overshadow an otherwise dominant outing from the defense, though. Maryland averaged just 2.7 yards per carry; the non-screen passing game was non-existent; the Wolverines had three sacks and ten additional TFLs. As in seemingly every other contest this year, Michigan knocked the starting quarterback out of the game, and Caleb Rowe was a clear downgrade from Perry Hills—he threw two interceptions to Delano Hill that Hill deemed "gifts" after the game.
A road night game at Iowa awaits. While that looked like a huge test entering the season, it now appears to be another golden opportunity for Michigan to make a statement to not only the conference, but the entire country. They're two more dominant outings away from having everything to play for in The Game.
Don't take it for granted.
You reap what you sow.
Facing a fourth-and-goal down 20 points in the fourth quarter, Mark Dantonio went the James Franklin route and called for a field goal. The football gods did not look kindly upon this act of cowardice; Michael Geiger missed the 34-yard attempt.
Dantonio almost certainly regretted that decision when the Spartans cut it to a two-score game midway through the fourth. Instead of having a shot at a miracle, they ran out of time—a Donnie Corley touchdown catch with a second remaining on the clock only brought the deficit to seven. To keep up appearances, or something like that, Dantonio called for a two-point conversion.
This also backfired, and in spectacular fashion. Jabrill Peppers capped a game worthy of a Heisman contender by returning an MSU fumble 98 yards for two points. The subsequent onside kick that didn't matter bounced harmlessly out of bounds, and Peppers got one final opportunity to display his athleticism when, perhaps as an homage to Braylon Edwards, he backflipped following the victory-formation kneeldown.
While it wasn't the blowout most expected, it wasn't as close as the final score indicates, either. Michigan absorbed MSU's best shot on the opening drive, a 12-play, 75-yard march featuring 11 LJ Scott touches capped by a five-yard TD run. The Wolverines hit back by going 80 yards in eight plays with Eddie McDoom's 20-yard jet sweep setting up a three-yard Jabrill Peppers keeper to even the score. They gained the upper hand on the ensuing possession when Maurice Hurst slashed into the backfield to force Gerald Holmes into the unforgiving grasp of Peppers on a fourth-and-one.
From that point forward, Michigan was in command. Two De'Veon Smith touchdowns—one featuring a delighful smashing of Riley Bullough at the goal line—and a Kenny Allen field goal were the result of the next three Wolverine possessions, and MSU could only muster a field goal in the interim; Smith's second score gave M a 24-10 lead with 33 seconds left in the half, and it seemed safe to assume that would be the halftime score.
Tyler O'Connor had other plans, which quickly went awry. Instead of running out the clock, O'Connor heaved a pass towards RJ Shelton while under heavy duress from Taco Charlton, and Jourdan Lewis got his hands under it for the pick. Michigan got off four plays in 27 seconds; Amara Darboh, who had a career-high 165 yards in his best game as a Wolverine, drew a pass interference in the end zone to set up a chip shot Allen field goal as the half came to a close. Suddenly, it was a three-score game.
The 27-10 halftime margin would hold for the entire third quarter due to the goal-line heroics of the defense. In an otherwise stellar game, Wilton Speight made a significant error to open the second half, failing to see MSU corner Darian Hicks while targeting Karan Higdon on a wheel route. Hicks cut off the throw for an interception, and within two plays the Spartans had a first-and-goal.
Michigan State ran seven plays inside Michigan's ten-yard line on that possession, getting second life when Peppers was hit with a pass interference flag on third down. On play seven, Lewis crashed down on a fourth-down pitch to Scott and upended him in the backfield, ending the drive with authority.
After Kenny Allen struck a 45-yarder true to begin the fourth quarter, MSU went into desperation mode, inserting Damion Terry at quarterback on the ill-fated field goal drive, then switching to Brian Lewerke after a Michigan punt. The offense couldn't quite put the Spartans away, however, and Lewerke had a chance to make it a one-score game on fourth down with a little under two minutes on the clock.
The defensive line got serious heat on Lewerke, however, and Peppers cleaned up with a crushing sack. Michigan wore down some clock before MSU's desultory final drive while Jon Falk brought the Paul Bunyan trophy back to its rightful place in the Wolverine locker room.
Michigan State has lost six in a row. Michigan is 8-0 with one rival in the clear and three games to get through before a potential Big Ten East title game. While it took one year longer than any of us wanted, the in-state rivalry is, at long last, as it should be.
Karan Higdon rushed for 106 yards on eight carries. [Bryan Fuller]
We're running out of nitpicks.
Michigan dominated another overmatched foe, outgaining Illinois 561-172, and in the aftermath there was very little to complain about.
Even the Rutgers game featured a slow start from the offense. That did not happen today, as Jim Harbaugh utilized a dizzying array of formations, personnel, and misdirection to conduct a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Jake Butt finished it off with a screamingly open three-yard touchdown out of the now-legendary "Train" pre-snap look.
Wilton Speight had been a culprit in those previous slow starts, and generally shaky over the last few weeks. Today, he was as sharp as he's been all year, connecting on 16-of-23 passes for 253 yards. He was responsible for the first two touchdowns, the short toss to Butt and a play-action strike to Tyrone Wheatley Jr. from 21 yards out. Neither was his best throw of the day; that would be a 30-yard post route to Amara Darboh he fit between multiple defenders. His numbers could've been even better if a couple close-call deep balls had been hauled in.
"I think Wilton Speight may have had one of his best games of the year," said Jim Harbaugh. "Whether we were going into the wind, with the wind. He was throwing that intermediate, deep stuff—those 30-, 40-yard throws—just on the money."
Speight mentioned that he'd spent the bye week poring over film from the first six games in order to correct mistakes. The hard work showed in his play.
Michigan had a surprise reshuffling of the offensive line, replacing Juwann Bushell-Beatty at left tackle with Ben Braden and moving Ben Bredeson into the lineup at left guard. While Braden got beat for a sack—on a play in which Speight was partially culpable for holding onto the ball too long—the pass protection was generally good, and the run game flourished.
Even with ample garbage-time totes by walk-ons, Michigan averaged five yards per non-sack carry. Karan Higdon led the way with 106 yards on only eight carries, including a weaving 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to cap the day's scoring.
"His acceleration, his vision, everything is improving," Harbaugh said. "When he gets to the second level he's got a really good gear to him."
Michigan only had one sack but Jeff George Jr. was under siege. [Eric Upchurch]
Facing third-string walk-on Jeff George Jr., the defense was nearly as dominant as they were against Rutgers. George went 0-for-7 in the first half with an interception when Dymonte Thomas jumped a screen pass one play after Michigan's first failed offensive drive.
"It's about time," Thomas said. This was his first career interception, and apparently the rest of the defense had been rather critical of his hands.
Malik Turner accounted for 86 yards and a touchdown on two catches, both after the game was well in hand. Those two plays accounted for precisely half of the Illini yardage. Turner capitalized on a mismatch with Ben Gedeon on the first. On the touchdown, Delano Hill misplayed a hopeful heave by George to allow Turner to come down with it.
Even the game's most disappointing drives had positive outcomes. Illinois's first big play, a 45-yard run by Ke'Shawn Vaughn out of the wildcat, ended when Jabrill Peppers sprinted him down from the opposite side of the field. The drive ended with a punt four plays later. On the other side, Michigan had two drives stall in Illinois territory in the third quarter; Kenny Allen salvaged both with 23- and 27-yard field goals, a welcome sight given his recent struggles.
The most significant concerns were injury-related. Chris Evans took a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit that knocked him unconscious on his only carry. Harbaugh said after the game that Evans had recovered relatively well by the time he saw him at halftime, but that's obviously something to monitor heading into next week. Khalid Hill went to the locker room after the third quarter and did not return; there wasn't an update on him after the game. Grant Perry sat out the game with what Harbaugh admitted, after some prying, was a disciplinary issue.
Well, there was one other concern. At the end of his presser, Harbaugh asked whether anyone had seen a replay of the late review—on which Harbaugh challenged the spot on a third-down catch with two minutes left, up 41-8. He was outwardly perplexed as to how the officials could get that call wrong. Michigan, of course, managed to overcome this tragic miscarriage of justice by converting the fourth down on a Bobby Henderson dive, then kneeling out the clock.
Now they're on to Michigan State. It's time to right some more wrongs.
"No question about it," Harbaugh said, responding to a question about whether they'd move on quickly to the MSU game. "Big game. Championship game for our team. We celebrate all wins, but we'll get on pretty quickly to our next opponent."