[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.
The difference. [Eric Upchurch/MGoBlog]
There were shades of the dark, recent past. A non-existent running game. An ugly interception. Catching seemingly all the bad breaks.
One particularly bad aspect of that past was missing, however. While James Franklin cost Penn State a chance to win by kicking a field goal from the one and mismanaging their timeouts, Jim Harbaugh stood opposite him, competent and then some.
Michigan won this game due to coaching and finishing drives, and the two were inextricably linked. Both teams had one touchdown from outside the red zone, Michigan's a 26-yard pass from Jake Rudock to Jake Butt before PSU responded with a 25-yard fade to Saeed Blacknail. The Wolverines converted all three* of their red zone chances into touchdowns. Penn State also had three, but ultimately settled for three field goals, stymied by a stout Wolverine defense and their own conservative playcalling.
James Ross laid some licks. He wasn't alone. [Upchurch]
While the game remained close throughout, Michigan controlled most of the action, outgaining PSU 343-207. Outside of a bad pick, Jake Rudock continued his pinpoint ways of the last couple games, throwing for 256 yards and a pair of scores on 36 attempts. Amara Darboh moved the chains and earned a hard-fought touchdown on a steady diet of wide receiver screens and added a remarkable sideline snag; Butt found open spaces for 66 yards; Chesson stretched the field and chipped in M's best run of the day on a 20-yard end-around. While it was a frustrating day on the ground, the weapons in the passing game again proved their steadily increasing worth.
On the other side, Michigan allowed an early 56-yard run to standout freshman back Saquon Barkley and otherwise limited him to 12 yards on 14 carries. The defensive front beat up quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who managed just 131 yards on 37 attempts and took four sacks among many, many hits. By PSU's last-gasp drive, Hackenberg seemed out of it—quite possibly injured—and even started trotting off the field before barely getting the play off on fourth down; his final throw sailed harmlessly out of bounds.
If you're looking for the moment that turned around the game, the muffed punt that Chesson recovered inside the ten, setting up a one-yard Sione Houma plunge for a 21-10 lead, is the simplest answer. But if you'd like to say it's the moment Michigan hired Harbaugh, whose timely aggressiveness got the Wolverines a critical score late in the first half for the second straight game, it'd be hard to argue.
Ultimately, that's why this game will be fondly remembered—if quickly lost in the excitement of the week to come—instead of another nightmare in Happy Valley. Be gone, ever-fuzzier recollections of McGloin and Floyd and 27-for-27 and missed overtime field goals. Michigan is one Ohio State victory away from playing for the Big Ten East.
*Not including the game's final drive, when Michigan kneeled out the clock while inside the PSU five.
Chaos reigned. Michigan survived.
Indiana did as Indiana does, combining terrible defense with terrifying offense to push the Wolverines to the brink. Jordan Howard ran over, around, and through a shorthanded Michigan defense, gaining 238 yards on 35 carries. With the game in the balance and the ball at the two, however, Kevin Wilson called for a quick pass to Mitchell Paige; Delano Hill swatted the ball away to seal the win.
With Ryan Glasgow's absence disturbingly noticable, the offense and defense switched roles. Michigan couldn't rely on their front seven to slow Howard, while Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld played an efficient, turnover-free game; that was enough to produce 527 yards on 5.7 yards per play.
For the first time this season, however, Michigan could rely on their deep passing game. Jake Rudock and Jehu Chesson were brilliant. Rudock set a school record with six passing touchdowns—the previous record was four—and surpassed the career high he set last week with 440 yards on 46 attempts. He also led the way on the ground with 64 yards on seven carries, picking up timely first downs by breaking free of the pocket. Chesson tied the program record by hauling in four of Rudock's touchdowns, including a leaping grab in traffic to knot the score with two seconds left in regulation, and he set personal bests with ten catches for 207 yards.
It appared Michigan might coast to a comfortable, if not particularly convincing, victory as the Hoosiers traded field goals for Wolverine touchdowns in the first half. Rudock hit Chesson over the top for a 34-yard score on a free play to open the scoring; Michigan would hold leads of 14-6 and 21-9 after Chesson's subsequent first-half TDs before Howard finally broke through for a seven-yard touchdown in the final minute of the half. Even then, Michigan responded, marching 71 yards to the Indiana four before settling for a Kenny Allen field goal as time expired.
Perhaps there was some comfort in a 24-16 lead, but any such feelings were gone almost as soon as the second half began; after knocking Michigan back 15 yards, Indiana closed to within a point on a 51-yard punt return touchdown by Paige, who strung his return out to the right before knifing through a tackle and finding the sideline. After Scott Sypniewski's snap hit the turf, causing a Kenny Allen field goal attempt to fall well short, IU closed the quarter with a Griffin Oakes field goal and an interception of Rudock on one of his few wayward throws.
The tables fully turned in the fourth quarter, when Michigan could muster only a field goal after a 15-play drive and the Hoosiers hit back with a 24-yard Howard TD and subsequent two-point conversion. With 2:52 left, Michigan had to drive 66 yards to avoid an upset that would all but eliminate them from division title contention.
Rudock didn't shy away from the moment, moving the offense down the field in a hurry with two completions to Jake Butt and a 41-yard bomb that Chesson came back for and caught at the two. After some harrowing moments as the Wolverines moved backwards, Chesson high-pointed Rudock's toss to bring Michigan within a point, and Blake O'Neill handled another sketchy snap just well enough for Allen to slip the tying extra point inside the left upright.
Howard continued his dominance in the first overtime, gaining 18 of Indiana's 25 yards and punching in the go-ahead touchdown. It took Michigan all of three plays to not only tie the game, but take the lead; first Rudock hit Butt on a post on the second play of M's first overtime possession, then found Amara Darboh uncovered on the first snap of the second overtime for an easy touchdown.
Three Howard runs quickly set IU up with a third-and-goal from the five, and it seemed certain they would bash ahead once or twice more and extend the game. Instead, Hill stopped Sudfeld short on a zone read keeper, and after Indiana showed pass prior to the next snap, Harbaugh called timeout to set up the final play. Paige motioned across the formation and Sudfeld hit him in rhythm, but Hill's blanket coverage won out.
Michigan survived the chaos and remains alive in the Big Ten race; they can control their own destiny if they beat Penn State and Ohio State takes cares of Michigan State next weekend. After an up-and-down first half of the year, the offense is hitting its stride, albeit with help from the generous Rutgers and Indiana defenses they've faced the last two weeks.
Glasgow's injury looms large, however. Jim Harbaugh announced after the game that the pectoral injury suffered last week will keep Michigan's D-line linchpin out for the season. Michigan faces a pair of top-notch running backs the next to close the regular season in Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott, to say nothing of the other weapons on Ohio State's offense. The line, the unquestioned strength of the team until this week, now has to stiffen up if the Wolverines want a shot at that ever-elusive Big Ten title.
For the second straight game, Wilton Speight came on in relief of Jake Rudock at quarterback in the second half.
This time around, though, Rudock wasn't injured as Michigan went toe-to-toe with Minnesota; instead, he took a well-deserved rest after his career day headlined a blowout of Rutgers. Rudock completed 18 of 25 attempts for a career-high 337 yards and two touchdowns, adding a third score with an unlikely scramble to the pylon. Jim Harbaugh called him "tough as a two-dollar steak" for his performance coming off last week's injury.
Rudock looked better than he has at any other point this season, to the benefit of many—ten different Wolverines logged a reception. Michigan exploited a bad Rutgers secondary in a variety of ways. A Sione Houma wheel route set up a post route touchdown to Jehu Chesson; Michigan's second huge gain on a screen led to Rudock's dive to the pylon; a motion swing pass to Jabrill Peppers accounted for the third score; Jake Butt spent much of the day running free up the seam on his way to a career-high 102 receiving yards.
Butt would've had even more if not for a penalty of substituting with an "intent to deceive," a rule that seems to go against the core tenets of football, and it may have been misapplied anyway, as Rutgers simply didn't bother to account for Butt after he left the huddle. In the postgame presser, Jim Harbaugh said he was "offended" by the call.
Creative officiating was about the only way Michigan's offense could be slowed. The Wolverines finished with 487 yards. While the running game took a while to come around, the multiple successful screens were fine in its place until De'Veon Smith got it going in the second half, finishing with 73 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
The defense bounced back from an iffy performance against Minnesota with a stifling one against Rutgers, ceding 225 yards and only six points that weren't set up by long returns. Janarion Grant accounted for the other ten, breaking a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and setting up an end-of-half field goal with a punt return inside the ten. My only additional comment is both those returns also involved some creative officiating.
The defensive line, led by Chris Wormley (two sacks), dominated like usual, even after Ryan Glasgow exited with a shoulder injury—his status wasn't updated after the game. Royce Jenkins-Stone returned to his normal spot as the starting BUCK and aquitted himself well with a sack and two QB hurries.
Jarrod Wilson, long lauded here for being comfortingly boring, made an exceptionally un-boring play when he got over the top of a pass to Grant and dove for an interception. Jourdan Lewis, whom Chris Laviano inexplicably targeted with frequency, matched and surpassed the school single-season record for pass breakups previously held by Leon Hall and Marlin Jackson; his record-breaking 19th PBU killed a late Rutgers drive.
By that time, little was in doubt except when Harbaugh would call off the dogs. He didn't do so until midway through the fourth quarter with all the scoring—including a rather inexplicable two-point conversion after Smith's touchdown to give M a 43-16 lead—already in the books.
The rote blowout had enough moments of excitement to stay interesting, especially the Peppers touchdown, which looked destined for a TFL until he found an extra gear or three to blow past multiple defenders.
"I knew he was good, but man, he's really good," Harbaugh said of Peppers.
Rutgers is probably saying similar about Michigan after getting hit with arguably their best offensive performance of the year.
Michigan had their hands on it all game, and it kept slipping through their fingers. Peppers dropped a pick-six after jumping a WR screen. Dymonte Thomas and Jarrod Wilson both dropped interceptions they had two hands on (Dymonte’s was then caught by a Gopher). Jourdan Lewis and Jeremy Clark probably could have grabbed a pair of Leidner ducks they played with Connor Cook-level respect. Thomas also let a perfect Blake O’Neill punt bounce through his hands for a touchback. Each time the Gophers capitalized.
For its part, Minnesota held on like men who don’t know what they’d do with their lives if they couldn’t run around in goofy armor for a chance to win some painted old pottery. On 4th and 5 on Minnesota’s last drive, K.J. Maye had one inch to catch a slant against perhaps the best cornerback in the country, and didn’t drop it. Neither did his receiver mate Drew Wolitarsky, who on the ensuing 2nd down beat Channing Stribling with a double move and hauled in a pass at the 1 inch line.
With the clock running Mitch Leidner moved his pieces around to set up a winning TD, but the Michigan defense chased him out of his pocket. That left 2 seconds for either a field goal attempt to force overtime, or a play to win. An average team against an average defense should get that QB sneak 9 times out of 10. But Minnesota was no average offense; they had a true freshman at center and other replacements all around him. And Michigan was no average defense. For one, Ryan Glasgow was the guy right over the ball. For two, D.J. Durkin was making the calls.
Harbaugh says Durking called the QB sneak, team rolled the dice and built a wall.
— Zach Shaw (@_ZachShaw) November 1, 2015
While the Minnesotasphere will spend the next week replaying final scenarios (and the choice to play for a field goal at the end of the first half), Michigan fans will try to unpack all of the misfortunes and misplays that almost made the Little Brown Jug miss the flight home from its year abroad.
So much about Michigan has changed since then that it’s hard to remember this is still a team put together by Brady Hoke and held together by Harbaugh’s ingenuity. You can’t blame the old coach for everything, but Michigan’s recent history was all over this game.
Those weren’t all bad things. The interior defensive line was its magnificent self. Jourdan Lewis was. Chesson dropped one earlier but held onto his horizontal touchdown, and Darboh’s hands made sure it was 3 points, not 1, that Minnesota needed from our 1.
Hoke also left Jabrill Peppers, who, finally, was the answer one too many of Michigan’s questions. Need an athletic nickel to neutralize the spread? Peppers. Need a strong safety? Peppers. Cornerback. Kick returner. Punt returner. Running back. Slot receiver. Quarterback?
So yeah, this week we’re going to talk about the Morris-or-bust plan, because early in the third quarter Jake Rudock went to slide, and a defender tried to separate his head from his shoulders. It was the third time (the second was earlier in this game) this season he was clearly targeted with no call.
With Michigan down 23-21 at this point Harbaugh inserted Wilton Speight, whose play was about what you expect out of Wilton Speight. He did finally get his feet under him on the final drive, with his last two passes of the game the touchdown to Chesson and the two-point conversion to Darboh. Let that be the final word on wither Shane Morris.
(Rudock was on the sideline trying to throw after being examined and just about everyone noted Michigan informed the press it was a shoulder injury rather than, you know, making it a thing.)
Desmond Morgan did not have a good game, giving up a long run when he got out of his lane, getting caught too far inside on a long wheel route, letting Brandon Lingen sneak behind him for a long pass at the beginning of the 4th quarter, and letting Rodney Smith shuck him to give up a crucial 3rd and 17.
That and the dodgy score and the Halloween candy had Michigan perilously close to vomiting up a Hoke game in 2015. But they ultimately held it down, and the feeling will pass with time.