As dusk descended upon Ann Arbor, the crowd roared.
"DE-FENSE. DE-FENSE. DE-FENSE."
Michigan fans weren't urging the defense to make a critical stop in the fourth quarter. They were urging them to finish the shutout. For the third straight game, the defense finished.
Michigan is the first FBS team since 1995 to shut out three consecutive opponents.
— Colleen Thomas (@colleenthomas_) October 10, 2015
"I wouldn't say any emotion," said Jabrill Peppers, asked if the defense fed off the chant. "This is what we expect to do."
"When we're out there, we don't want to give them anything."
The Wolverines allowed 168 yards; only 38 of those came on the ground against a Northwestern team that relied on its run game and its strong defense to win its first five games. One could easily argue the pass defense was even better than the rush defense. Jim Harbaugh said DJ Durkin called a "near-flawless game," adding "A-plus-plus." It would be much harder to argue that point.
One of the stars of the defense helped Michigan to the game-winning points—on the first play of the game. Peppers had an inkling Northwestern would kick the ball away from him, electing instead to boot it towards Jehu Chesson.
"If they kick it to you, just follow me, follow my block," Peppers said he told Chesson.
A lane opened up, Peppers walled off two Wildcats, and Chesson streaked down the west sideline for Michigan's first kickoff return touchdown since Darryl Stonum against Notre Dame in 2009.
The defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, one of three they'd record in the first half. The offense held up their end of the bargain, with big plays by a healthy looking De'Veon Smith and Jake Butt setting up a touchdown plunge by Drake Johnson. Michigan led 14-0 just 4:40 into the game, which was effectively over, save for the extended beating.
Jake Rudock, who had his best game at Michigan, threw for 179 yards on 23 attempts and extended the lead to 21 on a two-yard quarterback keeper late in the first quarter. His favorite target on the day was AJ Williams, whose four receptions all went for first downs. Hail all the Harbaughs.
Jourdan Lewis had the play of the afternoon in the second quarter, stealing the ball from receiver Austin Carr, who looked for all the world like he'd made a first-down catch, and streaking 37 yards the other way in front of a befuddled Northwestern sideline and a delighted Michigan Stadium crowd. The Wolverines wouldn't need any more points, but they got some anyway on a 47-yard Kenny Allen field goal and a late four-yard touchdown run by Derrick Green. The latter score meant Michigan and Northwestern hit the over. The Wolverines required no contribution from the Wildcats.
"Pretty much every phase you look at, it was humming today," said Jim Harbaugh. "Congratulations, it was impressive. Next. Onward."
Next is Michigan State. Onward, indeed.
Maryland thought they were getting a primetime showdown on national TV; what they got instead was a lesson in what being a member of the Big Ten is really about. Michigan is going to walk into your building, change the start time to just after breakfast, eat you for lunch, and be home in time for supper.
Facing a slate sky whipped up by the tendrils of Hurricane Joaquin, the Harbaugh 1.4 Wolverines left De’Veon Smith warm in his Ann Arbor stable, content to use the same strategy that got the Harbaugh 1.2s past UNLV: probe the inside, pop a thing or two when it’s time to get some points, and wait for your defense to throttle the will to football out of a vastly inferior opponent.
Growing up we called this a “Schembechler win,” and we got one, but not before a first half and change that conjured memories of a far more recent former Michigan coaching tenure. From Maryland receiving the kickoff, the drives went punt, punt, interception, fumble, punt, fumble, interception, missed FG, punt, field goal, punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, kneel out half, interception, punt, punt, interception.
At this point I asked Twitter if they preferred a recap of these proceedings or a 10-minute pasta recipe. Votes for the game did outscore Maryland, but only barely:
Retweet if you want the game recap to be about this game. Fav if you want it to be about this gnocchi in creamy tomato sauce I just made.
— Seth M. Fisher (@Misopogon) October 3, 2015
How to Make Seth’s Creamy Gnocchi
Start by pre-heating the oven to 400 and shove the meatballs in (if you want to hurry this up just nuke ‘em for 4 minutes), then put the water on to boil. In another pan I pour some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sriracha, and—here’s the trick—a tablespoon of peanut butter. You melt down the peanut butter on medium until you have a nice brownish sauce. Add garlic too if you’re into that. When the water boils put the gnocchi in and turn down the heat.
They’ll cook pretty fast then pop to the surface, whence you’ll remove them with a slotted spoon to your saucepan. Once all the gnocchi is moved over, pour in a half a cup of 2% milk and your tomato sauce, turn the heat up to medium-plus, and cook it down until it’s getting thick-ish. Turn off the heat and let it cool until your meatballs are ready. Plop those on top, followed by your preferred level of parmesan, and you’re in business.
At this point you may relocate back to the living room to find that Michigan has scored on a screen to Drake Johnson and a jet sweep to Jehu Chesson, Maryland’s starting quarterback is on the bench, and Willie Henry is getting free hits on Daxx Garmin. Salt away with Drake Johnson runs and serve cold.
The one really bad thing for Michigan is Mario Ojemudia left the game with an apparent Achilles injury. I thought he had his best day as a Wolverine today; if it was indeed his last that is a huge loss.
The rest of your takeaways: Maryland is bad at football and should feel bad. Michigan is excellent at defense and should feel excellent. Rudock is turning out to be fine in a Krenzel sort of way. De’Veon Smith probably really is Michigan’s best back. And while there’s still plenty of 2014 left to Harbaugh out of this team, you can start believing that both Mr. Smith and MICHIGAN will be back for Homecoming.
Great coaches instill an unequivocal belief in their team that they can & will no matter the circumstance! These boys believe! #GoBlue
— Devin Gardner (@devingardnerXCI) October 3, 2015
Over the last eight years, Michigan fans have been trained to expect the worst.
Let it be noted that at 2:04 this afternoon, with a half of football left to play, Brian told me to post muppets when the game ended.
To call this a dominant outing undersells Michigan's performance. The Wolverines outgained BYU 448-105. The Cougars eked past the century mark only on their last drive of the game; that represented their only drive that didn't end in a punt.
While the defense shut down BYU, the offense found their footing, scoring all 31 points in the first half on five consecutive drives. Amara Darboh did a spectacular Odell Beckham Jr. impression, then Jim Harbaugh dialed up a double fake screen to free up Khalid Hill up the seam to set up a three-yard touchdown scramble by Jake Rudock. Michigan went up 14-0 on a methodical 10-play, 90-yard drive capped by a short touchdown pass to Darboh.
The next scoring drive went a little quicker thanks to De'Veon Smith, who burrowed into a pile, popped out the other side, then threw a BYU defensive back to the ground in the open field for a 60-yard touchdown.
"I don't know what he did," said Rudock of Smith's run. "But whatever he did, I was hype and happy for him."
Smith finished with 125 yards on 16 carries before exiting early with an ankle injury. He said after the game he expects to play next week. Rudock had his best game as a Wolverine, going 14-for-25 for 194 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers.
Another Rudock touchdown scramble, this one from 17 yards out, and a 40-yard Kenny Allen field goal capped off the scoring.
Meanwhile, the defense made BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum's life miserable. Mangum threw for only 55 yards on 28 attempts; his longest completion came on BYU's first drive when a should-be pick took a fortuitous bounce off Channing Stribling's hands. The cornerbacks played lockdown coverage when Mangum had time to throw, which was rare—Michigan recorded three sacks and had Mangum on the run all day. By the end of the game, he was bailing out of perfectly clean pockets.
BYU's top running back, Adam Hine, broke one carry outside for 29 yards and managed only four on his seven other carries. The Cougars finished with 2.1 yards per play. This may stand as Michigan's most impressive defensive performance since the vaunted 2006 unit, even when accounting for the freshman at quarterback.
It's okay to be encouraged. While BYU had more than their fair share of luck through three games, nobody—not even ninth-ranked UCLA—made them look remotely this inept. The same team that put up 405 yards on the Bruins last week only managed a hundred today because Michigan's backups couldn't run out the clock.
"I had a couple occasions to look up and go 'this is good,'" said Harbaugh.
He was far from alone in that regard.
That's pretty much how that should go.
The biggest drama of the afternoon was whether Michigan would give Sione Houma the ball again after his first career touchdown was overturned on review. They did, and Houma plunged one yard to give Michigan a 28-0 lead.
The second-biggest drama was whether the defense would hold onto the shutout. After allowing only 111 yards on 42 plays through three quarters, they relented in the fourth, ceding a touchdown pass to Devonte Boyd after a slip-up in coverage set up UNLV deep in M territory.
Channing Stribling remained in phase and nabbed an early pick. De'Veon Smith started off the scoring with a walk-in receiving touchdown in the flat. Jabrill Peppers had a tantalizing, twisting 24-yard punt return. Jehu Chesson took a sweep and ran untouched for a 36-yard touchdown as Amara Darboh nearly blocked his man into the end zone. Ty Isaac burst 76 yards down the same sideline for another.
That about covers the important stuff.
Also important, of course, is Jake Rudock's performance at quarterback. He underwhelmed again this week, throwing his fifth interception of the season—as many as he had in all of 2014—and finishing with 123 yards on 22 attempts. When asked to assess his quarterback's performance, however, Jim Harbaugh seemed unconcerned.
"His job is to win football games. It wasn't an ideal day to throw, there was a swirling wind the whole day. I thought he did a good job. He managed the game well," Harbaugh said. "There's things to get better at, to improve from, and coach, so it'll be another week of doing that."
"Satisfied is a word I'm never going to use. I don't associate it with football," Harbaugh added later. "I've never been satisfied. But yeah, I'm happy."
After a routine 21-point win that could've easily been by a much bigger margin, it's probably best to follow the head man's example here. Michigan has issues to work on, that much is apparent; they're also taking care of business, and that too must be acknowledged.
The English language often comes up short in describing certain difficult-to-describe feelings. To capture the collective sentiment of Michigan fans after this game, I need to reference a story about bat flips in Korea:
You probably didn't know the term shiwonhada, but you knew the feeling this afternoon, whether it came over you after the wild sequence to end the first half or when Michigan imposed their will on Oregon State in the second. Every successful De'Veon Smith power run went down easy; every three-and-out met with a content "ahhhhhh."
Early on, another adopted word came to mind: schadenfreude, as rival fans watched with glee while Oregon State ripped off 136 first-quarter yards and Michigan couldn't get much going.
Then the offensive line started ripping open holes the likes of which Michigan hasn't seen against a Power 5 opponent in years. De'Veon Smith hit those holes and then hit the back seven even harder, finishing with a punishing 126 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries while establishing himself as this team's lead back. The passing game barely needed to exist.
Asked about his thoughts during the game, Smith said, "I want the ball more. Give me the ball more." He got stronger as the game went on, as did the offensive line. While Oregon State's defensive front isn't as good as Utah's, there's no question the team got better this week, and it was most apparent in the run game.
Or, possibly, the defense, which ceded two—two!—yards in the final three quarters.
"The mindset is score points on offense, stop them on defense," said Chris Wormley, who looked unblockable on his way to three TFLs and a sack. Wormley and Co. held up their end of that simple bargain. After having trouble with dual-threat freshman Seth Collins in the first quarter, they adjusted and dominated, generating constant pressure and eventually forcing an ill-fated switch to backup QB Marcus McMaryion, who could do no better.
To add to the good feelings, the game turned on a special teams play—in favor of Michigan. The Wolverines looked all set to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room when the Beavers appeared to pin them on their own two-yard line with 1:29 left in the half; Michigan was down to a lone timeout after burning one before the play to prevent an illegal substition penalty. The officials flagged OSU for an illegal formation, however, and on the re-kick the snap cleared the punter's head and bounced all the way down to OSU's three—a 95-yard flip in field position.
Three plays later, Smith rumbled off tackle to the right, and Michigan went into the locker room up 17-7. OSU's second-half drives went for four, three, three, three, and three plays, all ending in punts. Michigan's final drive of consequence nearly matched OSU's entire second-half play count, covering 73 yards in 14 plays—all but one of them runs, culminating in a two-yard score for Derrick Green.
The concerns after this game are minor. Jake Rudock didn't have a great outing, losing a fumble when the line didn't adjust to an overload blitz and a rusher came free and throwing a pick when he stared down Jake Butt, but he was otherwise steady and had a couple potential big plays taken away by either missed calls or poor adjustments by the receivers. Jourdan Lewis left the game with an apparent head injury following a hard fall after a great pass breakup and spent the second half in street clothes. While any long-term absence for him would be hard to handle, Michigan should be able to deal if he can't go against UNLV next weekend.
"I'm glad we won the football game. The happiest thing would be that," said Jim Harbaugh after his triumphant debut coaching at Michigan Stadium.
With Harbaugh stalking the sideline in front of a packed Big House, the maize on the home jerseys back to maize, running backs powering through downfield tackles, and the defense ruthlessly battering their opponent into submission, it was impossible to take in this game and not feel that—for the moment, at least—all is well, and the future is bright.
Shiwonhada. I can get used to this.
A coaching change can only do so much.
Michigan flashed their potential to turn the corner. De'Veon Smith had some punishing runs. Jake Butt couldn't be covered. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson consistently got open. The alignment of Chris Wormley and Willie Henry looked like a stroke of genius at times. Jourdan Lewis locked down one side of the field. After an up-and-down first half, Jabrill Peppers looked like a five-star talent in the second. Blake O'Neill had that punt.
But the mistakes were numerous. Jake Rudock's first interception looked to be the fault of freshman slot receiver Grant Perry, who hitched when Rudock expected him to cut outside. The next two Rudock picks, both thrown in Perry's direction, looked to be the fault of the quarterback; the third proved especially costly when Utah's Justin Thomas jumped a throw to the flat and took it back 55 yards for a score, giving the Utes a late 24-10 lead. Rudock also missed a few open deep throws that could've changed the outcome of the game; he finished with an underwhelming 279 yards on 43 attempts and didn't tally his second touchdown until desperation time.
The errors weren't limited to Rudock. Michigan's second cornerback spot is far from settled; neither Channing Stribling nor Jeremy Clark stood out there. Joe Bolden missed a handful of tackles on slippery Utah running back Devontae Booker. The offensive line got manhandled in the run game, losing leverage and missing assignments. Smith offset many of his broken tackles by failing to hit the correct hole. Kenny Allen pushed a 44-yard field goal wide right, after which Jim Harbaugh could clearly be seen muttering "I should've gone for that."
There were flashes, chief among them Peppers' second-half TFLs and Jake Butt's spectacular third-quarter touchdown catch to briefly pull Michigan within seven.
But on the road against a decent team, Michigan simply made too many mistakes, big and small, to expect to come away with a victory. They'll be better than they looked tonight, there's little doubt of that. There'll also be rough patches. Home games against lesser teams lie ahead until BYU comes to the Big House, by which time the Wolverines should look more impressive.
At least there was Harbaugh, a sensible gameplan, and a solid outing from the defense. That's something to build on. If this turns out to be an anomalous performance from Rudock, this squad still could be very good. After all the offseason excitement, it's painful to wait through the development process, but even tonight it wasn't hard to see that the process is underway. It just might take a little longer than we had hoped.