Thoughts on how your group’s played so far through four games?
“They’ve played well. They for the most part have done what they’ve been asked to do. More importantly than the games, I think, they’ve shown four weeks of improvement each in their own individual way in terms of what they needed to work on. I think we’re really in position to be playing our best football as a group getting into Big Ten play and then, as you’d like to, in October and November, so I’m excited about that.”
What was the point where you saw Devin Asiasi emerge? He’s obviously right there as one of your top guys so far.
“Uh, last January when I watched his junior high school tape, probably.”
What is it about him, is it that he’s physical?
“He’s a guy who plays fast, he’s physical, he’s capable of playing very nasty. He weighs somewhere around 270 pounds and still moves very well, so it’s a rare physical combination. Then he has a good football awareness about him and he learns well. Once I got a sense of the fact that he’d be able to pick things up fast enough to contribute it was kind of a no-brainer that he’d be part of the group.”
Speaking of playing nasty, it seemed like Tyrone [Wheatley Jr.] had that kind of week last week blocking. Is he becoming that kind of a mauler out there at that position?
“Yeah, certainly He’s definitely improving. Every week has been better than the previous, and looking for that to continue.”
Devin said that you had a big role in his recruitment and getting him here. I know for him it was a lot of last minute stuff and getting hot late in his recruitment. Can you touch a little on what it was like to build that relationship with him?
“Shoot, it was just kind of steady. He’s the kind of guy who could have gone wherever he wanted to go and it was just kind of always being there and building that relationship over a long period of time. I think he might have been the first guy I offered when I got the job here last January or February or whatever it was. Always loved him and it was just a long time, and luckily it paid off at the end.”
[After THE JUMP: pick your punt-return poison]
SPONSOR NOTES: Getting a mortgage with Matt is a matter of collecting your documents, getting them uploaded to the secure server, and then checking out a set of rates while wearing whatever you want, like pants. Or... not pants.
In addition to being a gentleman replete with Michigan tickets, Matt is also a good man to know if you need a mortgage. It's striking that we actually get non-astroturfed comments about positive experiences with Matt not infrequently.
If you're buying a home or refinancing, he's the right guy to call.
FORMATION NOTES: Okay. Breaking things into front and cover look seems to be mostly functional. By "press" I mean that the two outside corners are in press. Usually the slots are still a number of yards off. This was a 4-2-5 package. The front is nickel over—Peppers is playing S and the line slides towards the run strength—and the cover look was press two high:
Goal line package was called 4-4 press zero:
When Michigan went to a dime package they had a couple of different approaches. This is a 3-man front like you'd see in a 3-4 with OLBs flanking it and just one ILB:
I called this front 3-3 split. They also did some wacky stuff, like putting all three DL to one side of the line:
"Heavy slide 3-3-5." Taco Charlton, the nominal nose tackle, will help tackle an outside run to the top of the field.
And as a reminder I'm lumping all fronts with a bunch of dudes at the LOS under "okie":
BTW, "half press" or "off" looks are usually zone so far.
PERSONNEL NOTES: Just 57 defensive snaps and a ton of rotation on the DL. Charlton seems all the way back and in fact took the most of any DL(39); Godin, Glasgow, Hurst, Wormley, and Gary all had around 30. Winovich got 22.
The two ILBs got every snap until the final drive; McCray was lifted a few times when Michigan went to passing down packages. Furbush debuted for the final two drives. Stribling, Hill, Peppers, Thomas, and Lewis were near-omnipresent. Clark got just 15 snaps before his exit; Kinnel got 23.
[After THE JUMP: this is turning into the usual Penn State game.]
"I've been thinking a lot about this over the last four, five, six weeks," Harbaugh said after No. 4 Michigan's win. "Because I am the football coach doesn't mean I can dictate to people what they believe. I support our guys. I think this is something, it's not going away, it's gonna keep happening."
Jim Harbaugh didn't know ahead of time about the pregame display of unity and strength by members of the football team, but hearing his postgame comments, it's clear his players have his full support. That became even more important yesterday, when racist propaganda was posted around campus, prompting a denouncement of the fliers from the University and a protest at the Fishbowl.
I know how our readers feel about getting politics mixed with their sports, so I'll keep this brief, though as Harbaugh said, this isn't something that's going away. As a human being, I was horrified to see what appeared on campus yesterday; as a Michigan grad, I could not be more proud of the actions and statements from the players, the support and response from the program, and the swift action taken by many on campus. I hope we can all agree that hate has no home at U-M. For far more nuanced thoughts on this, I strongly encourage you to read these pieces by MTV News's Jane Coaston, a Michigan grad, and SBNation's Spencer Hall.
And now, let's see that ref take a football to the face again.
[Hit THE JUMP for the Penn State game in GIFs.]
News bullets and other items:
Jeremy Clark is out for the season. They’ll attempt to get him a sixth year. Watson, Long, and Hill will get most of his playing time.
Jabrill Peppers is really good at football.
Mone might play this week. Have to wait and see if he can practice today.
Having multiple backs that deserve playing time is a good thing if, like Harbaugh, you subscribe to the more-is-more philosophy of life.
Harbaugh said Newsome was the best O-lineman against Penn State. He also liked the offensive line’s pursuit in this game as backs got downfield.
Harbaugh hasn’t contacted Les Miles or Cam Cameron about analyst positions or Les being an honorary captain, but he said he looks forward to talking to them soon.
Jabrill has the most helmet stickers. They might release a sticker chart every week since no depth chart has been published this season. (Harbaugh thinks depth charts are irrelevant in an age where tape is readily available, as it can be teased out from watching film, which, like, I get that.)
Your thoughts on Wisconsin, what they’ve done so far, and the challenge they present?
“Big team. I’m wondering if the field’s gonna be wide enough. They play extremely hard. Run effort--I had the pleasure of coaching Chris Borland a few years back, and it’s a team of Chris Borlands. High, high energy, tough, guys that can run, and a big, physical, team. Very impressed.”
Looking at Hornibrook, that was his first start against a very good team defensively. You guys [are] strong defensively. What do you think of that dynamic between the two defenses and two young quarterbacks as well?
“Yeah, that’s very, very interesting from all those perspectives. Alex had a heck of a good ballgame. Really acquitted himself well. Made a name for himself. Very impressed with how he played, the accuracy of his throws, the poise with which he played; it was impressive. Wilton has also been impressive in that regard as well. He’s played with great preparation and confidence and poise. It’s unusual to be that new to playing, really, in big games.
“I think back, you know, when I was the same age as they were, the same kind of experience of playing in your first couple ball games. Both of those guys are doing better in my mind than I did and some other guys did when we were young. Playing with more poise and awareness and preparation and confidence, all those things. Both those guys have been impressive in that regard.”
[After THE JUMP: I mean, sometimes I didn’t get [it out]. It’s, ‘Jabr—’ and he’s, ‘I’m here, Coach! Right here!’ It’s exciting. He’s good at football.”]
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.
The linebackers on Saturday said they were getting sucked up sometimes in play action. On some of those slants, is that one of those cases where they were just a little too aggressive?
“Yeah, I mean, I think so. The bottom line is we want to stop the run first and foremost. That’s just kind of a learning thing, a seeing thing. I think we’re going to get better at that. But yeah, they did, they got sucked up a little bit in trying to stop the run. We’ve got to work on it and get a better feel.”
Talk about the impact of special teams and how it helped turn that thing around Saturday.
“Yeah, special teams is a huge facet of every game and we want to always make an impact. Our team, we talk about attacking and putting the opponent on their heels in all special teams categories. I think we were able to have an impact. It’s funny, because to everyone else it’s like ‘Oh, what tremendous game’ and then to me it’s like we left so much out there. We can get a lot better and make more impact plays on teams, and we’re working at that and working to build off of the game to do some more stuff. Yeah, we felt good and felt that we were able to contribute. That’s all we want to do is get out there and if the team needs a big-time special teams play, we want to be able to make it and switch the momentum.”
With the punt game and the amount of kicks you guys are effecting, are you doing something different schematically or is that just having the right guys in the right places?
“You know, it’s a lot of different things right. What I’m going to say is that the kids have bought in, they’re going hard, they’re understanding it, they love it, they take pride in it, and we’re doing whatever we see to try to effect it. We got a weapon back there, so it’s kind of fun calling that game because you kind of can do some different things and try to figure out what they’re trying to do. And then these guys have really bought into it. It’s cool.”
Jabrill being in the back gives you more options with the other ten guys on the field?
“Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean, it’s a matter of are they coming with a block, are they coming with a hold up, are they coming with a block and a hold up, are they setting a wall—it’s just different things in different areas of the field what we’re able to do. He makes us more dynamic, I think, as any returner does.”
[After THE JUMP: why teams might still kick to Jabrill, more on the linebackers, fixing field goal issues, and how many plays Jabrill would play if he had his way]