Karan Higdon ran in for a touchdown from two yards out. The Michigan Stadium crowd responded with a polite golf clap.
The first half wasn't over.
The same couldn't be said for the competitive portion of the game. Higdon's run gave the Wolverines a 28-0 lead heading into halftime. At that point, they'd outgained Penn State by 209 yards; star running back Saquon Barkley had 66 of PSU's 50 total yards. That is not a typo.
The two teams didn't look like they belonged on the same field, and apparently James Franklin agreed. PSU opened the second half by forcing a three-and-out, then mounting their only sustained drive of the game thus far, getting deep into Michigan territory before facing a fourth-and-goal from the two. Franklin sent out the field goal unit to turn a four-score game into a four-score game. He sent them back out after calling a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. The kick was good; it was also a white flag.
Jim Harbaugh did not share that mindset. Michigan's opening touchdown came on a fourth-and-goal plunge by Khalid Hill, and a nine-yard Wilton Speight scramble(!) on a fourth-and-seven set up Higdon's half-ending score; Michigan would go for two more and come up short, but they didn't take the foot off the gas until the game's final minutes.
"It's just cool that he knows we'll pick it up," said Speight. "We know that his mindset is to smash it in for a touchdown, too. It's cool that we're all on the same page."
"Especially the one way where we were going into the wind, we thought the odds were better going for fourth downs," said Harbaugh.
One team played to win. The other played to survive.
Michigan dominated from the outset. They sacked PSU QB Trace McSorley twice on the first drive. Jabrill Peppers nearly housed the ensuing punt; after a sideline infraction moved the offense back to the Penn State 24-yard line, Wilton Speight completed three straight passes to get the team in a goal-to-go situation before Hill ultimately squeezed his way into the end zone. Michigan would finish with six rushing touchdown by five backs; five came from three yards out or fewer, with the only exception a 40-yard sprint draw to Higdon in the fourth quarter.
"I was really impressed with the running backs. All of them contributed in big ways," said Harbaugh, before naming all five backs—Higdon, Hill, De'Veon Smith, Ty Isaac, and Chris Evans—who crossed the goal line. "Moving the chains and breaking some big runs—it was a good way to move the ball."
It was indeed. Michigan bounced back from a couple sub-par rushing performances between the tackles and made Penn State's banged-up front look completely outmatched. The Wolverines covered 326 yards at 6.7 per carry, and in a big change from the first three games, only five of those yards came from a receiver. Smith led the way with 107 yards on only 12 carries; Higdon, Isaac, and Evans each had over 50 yards, and all the backs looked sharp.
It was no coincidence the offensive line had their best performance of the year, opening big holes up front and not allowing a sack. Speight mentioned in the postgame presser that Michigan ran the same run play eight or nine times in a row, with the only variation being whether they ran left or right. That third-quarter drive culminated in a three-yard TD by Evans to put Michigan up 35-3 and remove any shred of doubt about the outcome.
"I started laughing," Speight said of seeing the same call signaled in from the sideline so many times in a row.
"I thought our team was prepared and confident. There was some communication out there, especially from the offensive linemen, of what they thought they could do well," said Harbaugh. "We listened to them and repeated the call a few times. It was simply that."
Speight wasn't asked to do much through the air, but he was capable when called upon, going 21-for-34 for 189 yards and a short TD pass to freshman TE Devin Asiasi. He didn't look worse for wear after a rough outing against Colorado.
On the other side of the ball, the defense was unrelenting after welcoming Jourdan Lewis and Taco Charlton back to the lineup. Barkley had a couple moments, but he had little in the way of help.
"That's a good back. Saquon Barkley is really good." said Harbaugh. "But our guys were there and they were swarming."
Nine defenders combined for 13 tackles for loss; five were responsible for the six sacks. Mo Hurst, looking quite healthy, led the way with three TFLs and a sack.
The only downer came when Jeremy Clark suffered an apparent non-contact knee injury on a fourth-quarter kickoff. He required a cart to get to the locker room, and Harbaugh didn't mince words after the game, saying "we think it's a season-ender."
That will be something to overcome next week, when Michigan will host a top-ten matchup with Wisconsin, which is coming off a blowout of Michigan State. The Wolverines will enter that game as the winningest program in the country after today's win coupled with a Notre Dame loss to Duke—I'll pause here for laughter—gave the good guys the edge in win percentage again.
The Badgers will provide a stiffer contest. It would be difficult for them not to do so.
Jabrill Peppers left the Buffaloes (and his coach) in awe. [Patrick Barron/MGoBlog]
After one quarter, Colorado had a 21-7 lead, outgained Michigan 195 yards to 66, and flat-out looked like the better team.
"We knew it wouldn't be a fairy tale all year," said Jake Butt. "We knew we'd get punched in the face."
Michigan punched back, hard. The Buffaloes gained 130 yards for the rest of the game. Michigan had 331. If Kenny Allen hadn't missed a pair of field goals, the Wolverines even would've covered the 20-point spread.
Early on, Colorado's up-tempo offense and athletic defense caught the Wolverines by surprise. Jabrill Peppers was caught out of position on a deep post for Colorado's first touchdown, then the Buffs went up by 14 less than a minute later when Chidobe Awuzie forced a Wilton Speight fumble that Derek McCartney took back 18 yards for a score. Speight, either shaken or hurt on the hit, had a tough time dialing in after that. If not for a blocked punt by Michael Jocz that Grant Perry took in for a touchdown, Colorado would've exited the first quarter up by 21 after another Sefo Liufao touchdown pass.
Then Michigan adjusted. The defensive front got to Liufau time and again, eventually forcing him out of the game with an apparent ankle injury, though not before Liufau somehow bombed a 70-yard touchdown off one leg to Shay Fields to open the second-half scoring. They shut down the Colorado running game entirely, and the Fields touchdown was the only big play after a first quarter full of them. Don Brown is paid good money for a reason.
The offense slowly but surely picked it up, too. With Khalid Hill leading the way in authoritative fashion, Jehu Chesson got the corner for a 17-yard jet sweep touchdown. Amara Darboh gave Michigan the proverbial momentum swing they needed on a 45-yard screen, stiff-arming a defender to the ground on his way to the end zone with only 33 seconds left in the half. Despite a disastrous start, Michigan led 24-21 at the break.
Colorado landed another big shot with the Fields touchdown. Michigan responded in kind with a pitch to De'Veon Smith on the second play of the ensuing drive; Smith hardly had to do anything on a 42-yard jaunt down the sideline on perhaps the best-blocked run play of this young season. The Wolverines finally grabbed control of the game when a long catch-and-run by Grant Perry set up a one-yard touchdown for Ty Isaac to give M a 38-28 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Then Jabrill Peppers, having a remarkable all-around game, launched his Heisman campaign. Peppers already had three punt returns and a kickoff return that were a block or two away from reaching the end zone when Colorado lined up to punt from deep in their own territory; a line-drive kick went right to Peppers's chest, and he exploded up the middle, overcoming a cramp at the five-yard line to at long last tally his first return touchdown in a Michigan uniform.
"It was definitely a sense of relief," said Peppers. "If I don't score there, then they needed to put someone else back there."
Peppers's overall stat line boggles the mind: two rushes for 24 yards, four punt returns for 99 yards and a TD, two kickoff returns for 81 yards, nine tackles (six solo), 3.5 TFLs, and a thunderous sack.
"Above all, Jabrill Peppers proved that he was the best player in today's game," said Jim Harbaugh, who praised the talent level on both teams. "We don't win that game without Jabrill Peppers."
"That's a team effort, but... wow," Harbaugh added.
Peppers wasn't the only Paramus Catholic graduate to provide some honest-to-god wow experiences. Rashan Gary recorded 1.5 TFLs and a pair of QB hurries; even better, he eliminated the mental errors that allowed UCF to pick up big gains on the ground last week.
Michigan leaves this game with plenty to work on. Dymonte Thomas, Delano Hill, and Peppers all had coverage busts that led to big plays. Speight's performance didn't equal those he had in the season's first two weeks. Allen, who looked either injured or overwhelmed by his workload, struggled in all phases of the kicking game.
"To be honest I think we did [need a game like this]," said Butt. "We can look back and learn from this."
With Penn State and Wisconsin up next on the schedule, it won't take long to find out how well they've learned those lessons.
Tyree Kinnel got his hand on not one, but two punts. [Eric Upchurch/MGoBlog]
I can't sum it up any better than this guy did:
Me: "that was a throw"
— Mike Wint (@gbMWint) September 10, 2016
Tyree Kinnel deflected two UCF punts, Chris Wormley blocked two field goals, and Khaleke Hudson demolished a kick returner who appeared to be going out for a light jog. The Knights took an illegal block penalty on a kickoff touchback, sent out 12 players for a punt return, and muffed a short kickoff for a Jordan Glasgow recovery.
So that covers the special teams.
Wilton Speight took advantage of a UCF defense intent on loading the box against the run with several pinpoint throws downfield, finishing 25-for-37 for 312 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. The usual suspects led the way among the receivers; Jake Butt had two touchdowns among his seven catches, Amara Darboh cross the goal line twice and broke the hundred-yard mark, and Jehu Chesson needed only four receptions to tally 84 yards. That more than made up for the running game, which couldn't get much going agianst eight- and nine-man boxes; even with sacks and a punt gone wrong removed, Michigan averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. Fullback Khalid Hill plunged in for two touchdowns, at least, so it wasn't all bad on the ground.
The defense, meanwhile, limited quarterbacks Justin Holman—who exited the game in the first half with an apparent injury—and Nick Patti to a combined 6-for-22, 56-yard performance. A few errors—one of which may have been on the officials—led to an 87-yard touchdown run for Adrian Killins, and the Knights were able to rack up 275 yards on the ground, with a healthy chunk of that coming when the QBs broke contain.
While many fans were concerned about the line play, one Jim Harbaugh didn't share that worry.
"I thought the lines really took care of business today," said Harbaugh. "Both the offensive and defensive lines did a very good job."
Quarterback contain, he admitted, was an issue, but one that he believed Don Brown made the proper adjustments for in the second half.
Rashan Gary had his first big game as a Wolverine, tearing off the edge for his first career half-sack (Ben Gedeon arrived simultaneously) and had two more tackles for loss. Seven different Michigan defenders tallied tackles in the backfield, and Jabrill Peppers was everywhere—he led the team with eight tackles (two for loss), had two QB hurries, and returned a line-drive punt 35 yards deep into UCF territory to set up Butt's second score.
If there's any indication that Michigan has returned to form, it's that the crowd didn't seem satisfied with a 37-point win. Against an overmatched opponent that couldn't even reliably get a kick in the air untouched, the coaches had no need to utilize much of the playbook, which led to some ugly plays but won't reveal anything to Colorado, next week's opponent and Michigan's first that appears to have a pulse.
Chris Evans broke the hundred-yard mark in his debut. [Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog]
It's hard to exceed expectations when facing a 41-point underdog.
Michigan exceeded expectations.
The defense was as salty as advertised, holding Hawaii without a first down until under five minutes remained in the first half; it took until the beginning of that drive for the Rainbow Warriors to get positive yardage. Even with the absence of Jourdan Lewis and Maurice Hurst, who sat out the game due to minor injuries, losing Taco Charlton to an apparent ankle injury early, and rotating in seemingly every warm body on the bench, the defense held Hawaii to 232 total yards and a 55-yard field goal that barely cleared the crossbar. That same Hawaii offense put up 482 yards on Cal last week. Cal's defense is bad, yes. Michigan's did nothing to dispel the notion they'll be elite today.
The offense began the game in ominous fashion when Wilton Speight tossed a pick on his first play as the starting quarterback. To say he bounced back is an understatement; he finished 10-for-13 for 145 yards and three touchdowns to three different receivers (Grant Perry, Jake Butt, and Amara Darboh).
"[Jim Harbaugh] just grabbed me, hugged me, and was kinda laughing," Speight said about the aftermath of his ill-fated opening throw. "[He] was like, 'don't worry, we'll get it next drive, don't even sweat about that,' and I was able to do that."
"He responded in tremendous fashion," said Harbaugh, who added the touchdown throw to Perry on the next drive "could not have been thrown any better."
Four quarterbacks played. Eleven players recorded rush attempts. Eleven caught at least one pass.
Of all of them, a true freshman stood out above the rest. Running back Chris Evans rushed for 112 yards and two scores, including a 43-yard burst right up the gut, on only eight carries. He's very much a running back, and he looks at the very least to have locked up the #3 spot on the depth chart behind DeVeon Smith and Ty Isaac.
"I knew Chris Evans is special. What you saw today is what we've been seeing all month," said Harbaugh. "He's a special player and I expect big things going forward."
Delano Hill had one of M's two pick-sixes. [Fuller]
Delano Hill and Channing Stribling weren't content to let the offense do all the scoring. Both recorded pick-sixes, Hill's on a 27-yard return, Stribling's covering 51 yards mere moments after his would-be interception was negated by a late hit on the quarterback. Ball don't lie.
Stribling's score gave Michigan a 49-0 lead with 10:51 left in the third quarter. The rest of the game was essentially an exhibition for the recruiting class of 2016. Receiver Eddie McDoom elicited a few wonderful "McDOOOOOOM" chants from the crowd, taking two end-arounds for 34 yards and gaining another first down with a nifty eight-yard catch over the middle. Michigan's run offense perked up when Ben Bredeson entered the game at left guard. Michael Onwenu played on both the offensive and defensive line; he made his biggest mark at guard, looking every bit as strong as you'd expect from a human neutron star. The list of freshmen to see the field is too long for this recap.
Harbaugh said that the injury that held Lewis out today is "healed," and it was his decision to hold Lewis out today; same goes for Hurst and guard Ben Braden, who was replaced in the starting lineup by Patrick Kugler. All three would've played if the opponent had warranted it. DeVeon Smith's rib injury is apparently minor. We'll have to wait and see on Charlton and Bryan Mone; Harbaugh said Mone will undergo an MRI tonight, though he didn't specify where.
If Michigan managed to escape without significant injury—we'll have to wait and see—then it's hard to imagine the opener going much better. The offense averaged 8.7 yards per play with great balance (10.3 yards per pass, 7.8 per rush), hardly slowing down after the starters took a seat. The defense almost literally didn't cede anything until backups were a major part of the rotation, and they scored two more touchdowns than Hawaii.
No sweat, as they say.
[File photo: Patrick Barron/MGoBlog]
Through the first half of the season Jake Rudock looked more like a liability than a solution at quarterback.
That felt like a distant memory as Rudock picked apart the vaunted Florida secondary, becoming the second Michigan quarterback (John Navarre) to surpass 3,000 single-season passing yards in the process. Rudock connected on 20/31 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns and looked like a completley different player from the one that threw three picks at Utah to open the season.
Even with Jabrill Peppers sidelined due to a hand injury, Michigan looked like a team peaking in bowl season and ready to carry that momentum into 2016. De'Veon Smith, perhaps unencumbered by the turf toe he'd dealt with all season, had some extra pep in his step; more importantly, he knew where to take that step, showing much-improved vision on his way to a 109-yard afternoon.
The O-line stymied a Florida pass rush that ranked among the best in the country. Jehu Chesson repeatedly won one-on-one battles with balleyhooed cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, a projected top-ten NFL draft pick, including a hitch-and-go touchdown that broke the game open. Grant Perry emerged with a couple big grabs and his first career score. If Rudock can be satisfactorily replaced, all the pieces are there for the offense to break out in 2016.
The defense, meanwhile, limited an overmatched Gators offense to 262 yards. Florida couldn't hit a big play—their longest gain went for 27 yards—and didn't have a means to stay ahead of the chains outside of a few scattered scrambles by quarterback Treon Harris, who had to deal with plenty of pressure from Michigan's front four. When Harris lost his composure, the Wolverines took advantage, most notably on a Jarrod Wilson interception in the end zone with the Gators threatening to answer Chesson's long TD.
The special teams battle hardly came into play, but Michigan won that, too. Channing Stribling intercepted the holder's pitch when Florida faked a field goal on their opening drive; long after the game had been decided, a cavalcade stuffed a fake punt in the backfield.
Rudock teared up in the televised interview following his final collegiate game. Jim Harbaugh is done working his magic with Rudock, who guided a limited team to ten wins in their first year in a new system. When this team reconvenes in the spring, most of the talent from today's blowout will be back, and if Harbaugh has coaxed similar improvement from the other quarterbacks on the roster, they'll be poised for a run at the playoff.
One team came prepared.
Ohio State's coaches prepared for Michigan's soft edges with an attack heavy on the power read. The Buckeye defense prepared for every wrinkle the Wolverines could conceive to utilize Jabrill Peppers and stopped them.
Michigan looked unprepared to deal with the Buckeye running game. The scheme was too passive and the adjustments ineffective, especially a move to a 3-man line. The linebackers weren't prepared to tackle Ezekiel Elliott in the gap or track JT Barrett in space. Nobody was prepared to block Joey Bosa.
For the tenth time in eleven years, Ohio State won The Game. The Buckeyes ran at will; Michigan couldn't trust its run game enough to even use it without ample trickery. While Michigan's 9-3 record and obvious team-wide improvement stand as a testament to the remarkable work of Jim Harbaugh, today's game showed just how much ground the program must make up on their chief rival.
Unlike last year, Michigan will get a full slate of bowl practices to work on their issues, and they'll face a quality opponent in a decent bowl game. Much like two years ago, there's a good chance they'll have to play that game with their backup quarterback, as Jake Rudock exited the game with an apparent shoulder or collarbone injury after taking a huge hit from Bosa.
Ohio State looked like a playoff team today. Michigan looked a long way off. That's exactly what we expected heading into the season; it's still hard not to be disappointed after seeing how the last few months have played out.