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.
SPONSOR NOTES: Sauce Castillo may just be off the hook since Iowa lost to NDSU and does not look like a psycho killer this year. But if Michigan does lose to Iowa, hoo boy you're going to be a pariah! A persona non-grata! That'll show you to skip the ads.
In addition to being a gentleman replete with Michigan tickets, he 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: Michigan was very heavy in this game, with only a quarter of their snaps featuring 3 or more wideouts. 27 of them had 0 or 1. CU was very consistent with their formations, running a pure 3-4 on all non-passing downs:
They ran a standard nickel on passing downs.
SUBSTITUTION NOTES: OL the expected starting five with the exception of one drive for Bredeson in the first half. Smith got about half the snaps at RB with Evans and Isaac getting the rest; FB once again split just about down the middle between Hill and Poggi.
Butt and Darboh were just about omnipresent; Chesson only got slightly more than half the snaps since Darboh was preferred in one-WR formations. Bunting got about half the snaps; Perry and Asiasi both got about a dozen. Various other guys got 1-5 snaps.
[After THE JUMP: I'm fretting.]
NOPE [Bryan Fuller]
[New bolded player rules: not necessarily returning starter, but someone we've seen enough of that I'm no longer talking about their recruiting profile. Extant contributor.]
|FEATURE BACK||Yr.||SHORT YARDAGE||Yr.||3RD DOWN||YR.||SPREAD H||YR.|
|De'Veon Smith||Sr.||De'Veon Smith||Sr.||De'Veon Smith||Sr.||Jabrill Peppers||So.*|
|Ty Isaac||Jr.*||Kingston Davis||Fr.||Drake Johnson||Sr.*||Chris Evans||Fr.|
|Drake Johnson||Sr.*||Ty Isaac||Jr.*||Karan Higdon||So.||Drake Johnson||Sr.*|
|Jabrill Peppers||So.*||Kareem Walker||Fr.||Ty Isaac||Jr.*||Ty Isaac||Jr.*|
Last year was more of the same from a Michigan running back corps that had slowly devolved since the moment Mike Hart left. Upticks from Brandon Minor and Fitz Toussaint were more than offset by yards eschewed, random running, that year Toussaint couldn't pass block a soul, and a steady stream of Michigan discards who blew up as soon as they landed on another team.
Large sections of your author's time were spent fighting with people about how bad it was or was not, so here's Dane Brugler on De'Veon Smith:
His vision and run instincts tend to run hot/cold, leading to questionable decisions, and with his lack of explosive traits, Smith needs to be more decisive and trust what he sees. He tends to leave you wanting more due to his marginal burst and instincts, but there is a place at the next level for Smith due to his power, ball skills and upside as a blocker.
It was pretty bad… and then it got better. Smith's outstanding Citrus Bowl was the exclamation point on a mid-season turnaround that looks a lot like those Chesson and Rudock experienced. It wasn't as dramatic, but it was there. I'm going to whisper the next sentence: it almost kind of looked like someone had figured something out.
Running back coaching matters? I want to believe.
THE MAN THE MAN THE MAN
After consecutive years where this preview listed options at all three roles above in an almost but not quite entirely arbitrary fashion, Michigan enters the season knowing who their first-choice back is: DE'VEON SMITH. They know who their short-yardage back is: De'Veon Smith. They know who their third-down back is: De'Veon Smith. They think he's good enough to put him in the bin with Amara Darboh and Jourdan Lewis and all the other veterans who don't need spring contact.
Survey says... eh, maybe. Smith's bravura Citrus Bowl against some tough, if potentially disinterested, customers was the exclamation point to a rollercoaster season. If you don't want to read the rest of this section here it is in 15 seconds:
Smith abandoned his pulling guard, disappeared into a pile of bodies, was still upright seven yards later, got caught from behind, shook off a defensive back, got caught by the same guy again, and shrugged him off once more like so much lint on his varsity jacket. Few sixty yard touchdowns in the history of Michigan football have been as likely to cause the coaching box to exclaim "what are you DOING?" the instant before the breakthrough.
That was Smith's 2015. For every shattered defensive back left trembling in a puddle of his own making...
...there was a truck lane ignored.
Last year's UFRs invariably contained a book-length subsection on the running backs and the yards they made or, more often, set on fire. As the lead back Smith came in for the plurality of the discussion. Depending on the week this discussion was either generally positive and hopeful...
/spittle shields at 70% and dropping
Actually… I got nothing this week. I thought the backs did well. I complained about a lead zone run last week. Michigan didn't block it well; Smith mechanically ran into the gap he should go in if they in fact did block it well. He ate a DT for minimal yardage. I didn't care if Smith actually got anything on the play, I just wanted to see him see what was going on in front of him and put a foot in the ground to give himself a chance.
He did that on this one:
That cutback doesn't look like it'll amount to much when he makes it but Michigan gets on some blocks and Smith runs through some guys and it's a nice gain. If he'd gotten swallowed by an unblocked LB back there it's still the right cut.
...or blackly grim:
I feel like this is going to lead into another running back diatribe.
Are they really diatribes?
Large portions of last year's preview focused on Smith's tendency to run at random, which outlets other than the Michigan obsessive bits of the internet picked up on:
The hope was Harbaugh and Wheatley could get Smith moving in the right direction more often, and for most of the season that was dashed.
But the frustration I experienced was not limited to Smith. Everyone who took more than a dozen or so carries made at least one mindbogglingly bad cut, from Drake Johnson to Ty Isaac to Derrick Green to Sione Houma. That's widespread enough to seem like a coaching issue, and Smith's trajectory confirms:
[UFR charting for ballcarriers is another spot where zero is bad. Zero means you got what was blocked and nothing else.]
|1||Utah||5.5||7||-1.5||0||Cuts late let M down.|
|2||Oregon State||15.5||4||11.5||0||4||Brutal Legend|
|3||UNLV||2||8||-6||0||Two very bad plays and not much to make up for it.|
|6||Northwestern||7.5||1.5||6||0||On just 8 carries.|
|7||MSU||5||5||0||0||2||Grinder; a bit frustrating with the cuts again.|
|10||Indiana||4.5||2||2.5||2||2||Frustratingly slow sometimes but made up for it with power.|
|11||PSU||9.5||4||5.5||3||+2 blocking, +2 on catches, and then +3 late, which fits a pattern discussed below.|
|12||OSU||7.5||7.5||0||1||Made a significant number of yards himself. Zero pass pro minuses.|
|13||Florida||15||2||13||0||1||I be like dang|
That is a veritable late-season surge. Smith came in for some clucking after the PSU game since I didn't care for three of his 13 carries, but in the context of the last five games that's the outlier and being good at running is the trend.
This was clearest in the bowl game. Smith probed for holes, showed off a Mike Hart-level backfield stutter, and fired off a decisive backside cut on his first three carries. The stutter's probably the most impressive but the cut is the most important:
That's vision, and I was floored as it continued for an entire game against the #5 S&P run defense:
And this continued! Presented with a DL penetrating almost to the handoff point Smith cut off his OL's back and blew through an arm tackle. On the three, Smith turned negative two yards into two by juking two dudes and running through a couple tackles. Even on certain runs where it looked like he'd screwed up, the tape revealed he was trying to make the best of a bad situation only to find that there was no relief elsewhere. It took me a couple takes to realize that this was Smith avoiding a wholly unblocked LB in the hole:
As I said in the table above, he's probably better off running right at the guy for a few yards but I prefer Smith seeing trouble and adjusting even if it doesn't work out. Early in the second half Smith cut to the backside of the line and got hewed down early because a safety blitz prevented Darboh from getting to the guy. That's an RPS minus; without the playcall Smith is ripping off another backside cut. Even with it if Cole had cut off penetration a little better Smith can attack the S head-on, and that usually ends badly for the DB.
At that point I hadn't done the OSU game and wondered if that was a one-off; now that the entire picture is in view it's obviously not. I mean… it's kind of a Rudock trajectory. It wasn't quite as obvious since Michigan tried its hardest to avoid the defensive lines of PSU and OSU, but it's there. That's why Smith was placed amongst the revered elders during spring.
So. The dude remains a nuclear-powered icebreaker. The number of tackles he blew through was truly impressive, and even when he was in fact being tackled piles had a tendency to lurch two or three yards towards the endzone:
I have literally dozens of these clipped:
Smith grinds out yards after contact better than any back I've seen at Michigan. Yeah, he's slow. Yeah, he's not going to juke a guy in the open field. But in the right situation he can be a killer. That situation is surrounded by very good blocking that delivers him three yards downfield on a consistent basis. Smith will turn that into five or eight or eleven yards better than anyone not named Fournette. Is he going to have that this year? Maybe, maybe not. Michigan should get closer to it.
Smith's peripherals are unambiguously positive. He fumbled just once last year. He was also a strangely effective third-down back, to the point where I called him "King Hippo Vincent Smith." This is mostly because of his consistently excellent pass blocking:
Smith has the oomph to stand up linebackers like nobody since Mike Hart. This was a point of discussion after Penn State, a game in which Smith only got eight carries and still managed to stick out as an asset:
Smith has power and agility and can pick guys up. Even big guys. … Then in this game he added a couple of dumpoffs on which he displayed that fun Smith-vs-defensive backs stuff. On back to back plays at the end of the first half he turned nothing into something, first getting a few when Rudock got nailed, and then plastering a DB across his windshield for a first down:
This is something you can work with.
His eight protection minuses on the season are only twice what Ty Isaac managed to acquire in scattered snaps against Oregon State, and there was a distinct lack of the "team" minuses I hand out when I'm not sure who screwed up. 13 over the course of the season is a really low number and off the top of my head I'd guess that two-thirds could not be on Smith.
As a bonus, Smith is a solid outlet option because of this SAT analogy:
De'Veon Smith : defensive back :: windshield : insect
In limited opportunities he's shown that he's also an asset as a run blocker:
After that game I described him as a "low-to-the-ground 230-pound brick"; after the pass block above I broke my longstanding commitment to pooh-pooh all motivation/effort talk:
I usually assume everyone's going all out all the time and dismiss motivation stuff, but this week I got frustrated with a couple players for a lack of want-to. Smith never lacks that. Smith wants to end you. Even if he's slow and his vision is lacking, that's something.
He's the kind of guy willing to play through just about anything, and that's something Harbaugh has noticed.
Smith is a good bet to be Michigan's first 1,000 yard back since Fitz Toussaint. He's got a half-season of being pretty good and has more upside than you'd expect because so many of his issues stemmed from an unfamiliarity with the offense and running back basics. Wheatley:
"(Now we're trying to) get guys like De'Veon and Ty Isaac (and Drake Johnson) to what I call a mastery level. Progressing past the things we did last year."
It says here that Smith's 2015 is a better version of his second half. Michigan will rotate him a bunch to keep him as healthy as possible—his pounding style is tough on him and caused him to miss chunks of multiple games—and this will keep his counting numbers from attracting national attention, but his YPC should take a big step forward along with his reputation amongst Michigan fans.
[After THE JUMP: Jabrill Peppers! And other guys, but also Peppers!]
It's submarine time. Yea, the beat writers will rend their garments and republish articles about Clayton Richard from ten years ago. Insider rumblings of wildly varying utility will leak out in drips and drabs. Half of them will be outright falsehoods. A quarter will be somewhat true. A quarter will be very true.
As per usual, I enter this month of the season frantically assembling data for the season preview; fall camp chatter will factor in as it always does. Here are the things I'm hoping to hear, the things that I'm hoping are never said, and ridiculous things I'll dismiss out of hand.
STATUS: Wilton Speight exited spring with a slight lead on John O'Korn, at least per spring draft and practice snap order. Even if that means more than "we want to motivate a guy" it's a 51/49 situation. It's all up for grabs.
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: Someone is taking the job forcefully. Which guy doesn't matter so much. One of them grabbing the job by the throat, whoever that happens to be, is preferable. I'd prefer that gent is O'Korn since I think his mobility and arm strength gives him greater upside but if Speight is going to defy the Curse of Borges with authority, fine. Authority. This is the goal.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: "Brandon Peters really has a shot!" No offense intended, but the two leaders coming back to the pack would not be a good sign. Meanwhile true freshman anything is never great. I am open to hearing further encouraging things about Peters's future. Present not so much.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: "Shane Morris really has a shot!" Morris was at best equal to Speight going into last season when Michigan agreed to redshirt him; Speight now has an extra slice of on-field experience and should improve more since he's younger. Also they put him at WR in the spring game.
STATUS: It's De'Veon Smith's job. Not his job to lose, his job. Smith's injury history—he was banged up all last year—and Harbaugh's tendency to play multiple tailbacks at once mean that the #2 and #3 guys will still be important.
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: Ty Isaac remains on a rampage. With Smith getting he's-the-man rest, the story of spring practice was the emergence of a "rougher, tougher" Ty Isaac. His outside burst picked up piles of yards in the spring game, culminating in a run where he tacked on an extra 15 by outrunning Jabrill Peppers in the open field. That's something nobody managed all of last year, off balance or not. There's still a five star in there somewhere. The best possible news from camp would be Isaac looking like it.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: Smith is banged up and not practicing. It's not a coincidence that Smith's killer Citrus Bowl came after a month off. He missed the Maryland game and was limited in a few others because his pounding style racks up nagging injuries. His absence in the spring was as much precaution as triumph.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: Someone insisting that Drake Johnson did not have a) a house land on him, 2) a gang of radioactive bikers abduct his dog, c) a mouth that spews nothing but sass grow on his finger, or d) all of the above.
STATUS: Darboh, Chesson, and Perry are your dudes, with a side of Peppers no one will talk about.
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: "Gotdang, Moe Ways can play." The two outside starters are established so nothing we hear about them will mean much relative to all the stuff we've seen on an actual field. Ways is coming off a lot of spring hype we didn't get to see ourselves thanks to a foot injury late in spring practice. He's the best bet for a solid #3 this year and a smooth transition to the next generation in 2017.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: There are lingering Chesson PCL issues. Chances of this are low since the injury happened eight months ago, but WR is one of a couple positions where an injured starter is a big big deal.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: Freshman X is going to have a big role. He ain't. Darboh, Chesson, Perry, and Butt are back. Michigan had no slot receiver a year ago and Grant Perry caught 105 passes as a high school senior and it still took him until the bowl game to be a major contributor. Freshman wide receivers suck.
I will accept "Eddie McDoom looks like a guy who can play a lot in 2017."
STATUS: lol all the dudes
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: "Ian Bunting's Citrus Bowl was no fluke." Bunting flashed a surprising ability to whack dudes in the bowl game, and if he can continue that he'll be on the field with Jake Butt a lot. That is a tent-your-fingers situation there.
I have a runner up here, and that is "Ty Wheatley Jr has re-emerged from the sea after destroying Tokyo."
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: "Henry Poggi is still missing blocks." To clarify, I expect to hear almost literally nothing about Poggi during fall camp because he is a fullback/H-back. I expect to hear even less about his specific ability to ID the man he should go hit in the chaos of camp. But if we were to hear that I would not be having a good time. Poggi has high upside as a blocker; the main thing that prevented him from hitting that a year ago was finding the right guy.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: Further chatter about Sean McKeon playing this year. There was a consistent drumbeat that this was a possibility during spring; one glance at the depth chart should dispel all such notions.
STATUS: Harbaugh announced Grant Newsome as a sure starter at media day. Oddly, he still maintained that the rest of the line—three fifth year seniors and Mason Cole—wasn't set. But, I mean, it's basically set.
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: Year two in the same system with the same coaches is a revelation. Michigan had a lot of problems executing their assignments in front of the ever-shifting fronts defenses will throw at them. Some of this is expected. They've had three offensive coordinators over the last three years. This is the first time in their playing careers that they have an opportunity to build on something they already know.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: "Rueben Jones is tearing Grant Newsome up." Newsome got worked this spring. Getting worked by Taco Charlton is one thing. Getting worked by a Chase Winovich freshly moved from offense is another. Both happened. Newsome has the frame and mental ability to get there at left tackle; there are going to be hairy moments. Newsome getting negative reviews would be alarming since it appears there are few or no alternatives.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: One of the three seniors is going to get benched. I know that possibility is the direct implication of Harbaugh's media day press conference, but I'd be flabbergasted if Dawson, Kugler or Bredeson managed to slide past any of them. Dawson and Kugler have had their shots the last few camps, and true freshmen are true freshmen. You can point to Mason Cole if you like but as a reminder, Mason Cole's main job as a freshman was to survive by the skin of his teeth. He did that; his performance wasn't any better than Kyle Kalis's projects to be this fall.
There is a version of this that wouldn't be dismissed and would be another thing you want to hear: a couple guys are pushing the seniors and are at least some threat to unseat a guy. Michigan's OL depth right now is questionable and it's more questionable going into next year. Being able to pencil someone in at a couple of the vacancies would be reassuring.
That Time Wheatley Donkey’d Peppers
I’ve been so enamored with Brown’s defense lately that we haven’t discussed Harbaugh’s run games, which is a shame because they’re brilliant. He kept the fancy stuff in the barn of course but the Spring Game did show a neat thing and got a big chunk out of it.
For completion’s sake here’s who’s on the field. Those likely to see extensive action in 2016 are in bold, and non-Kovacsian walk-ons have hashtags:
Only a few of those matchups can be at all enlightening, but I’d count the highlighted one among them.
1. THE PLAY: POWER WITHOUT THE PULLING
The defense is in a 71 (base over with the NT covering the center) front with the SAM (Peppers) up on the line to counteract that extra TE. The offense starts by motioning that TE.
The defense shows it’s in man, with the boundary CB (Washington) rolling with the motioning H-back (Butt). When Butt stops between the LT and LG, the WLB (Bush) comes up like he’s going to blitz that gap. That’s a good thing too because the called run goes right over his ass:
Absent Harbaugh’s playbook I don’t know how to name it, but we saw a fancier version last year against BYU, and Space Coyote drew it up as “Power Lead.” That time it was run to the C gap, with the receiver coming in to crack a linebacker. This is the more vanilla version.
If you can picture it, the same blocks are happening as if it’s Power, but the fullback is doing the kickout block, and the H-back is the “puller” leading through the intended hole. The running back then picks a hole through the carnage, typically to whichever side of the H-back’s block that a defender isn’t in.
[After the jump: The defense solves this the Don Brown way, then breaks down]
First, a little feelingsball
Spring games are notorious for being a little data amidst an ocean of noise, so as always take everything here with a grain of salt. And this section isn't even a concrete observation about a player, so doubly so here. But… my favorite thing that happened on Friday wasn't a play.
It was the aftermath of the two-point conversion, when the white team poured onto the field like they'd just won the Super Bowl and blue team coach Chris Partridge roared off the sideline to have a Harbaugh-level conniption fit at the ref.
A couple other coaches reacted similarly, if not as dramatically, as Partridge; the white team organized at midfield for a photo. Wyatt Shallman headbanged like there was no tomorrow. Drake Johnson collapsed in a heap.
Drake Johnson collapses on the field after his team gets stopped on a potential game-winning 2-pt. conversion. pic.twitter.com/Beyur1LaIW
— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) April 4, 2016
I tweeted to Ace that he should title the recap "Controversial finish mars Spring Game ending,"* because that was funny. It's only funny because it's kind of true.
This is a different thing now. Last year's team was good but it was still caught between being a program that apologizes for a tent stake and a program whose DGAF levels are off the charts. Judging from the reactions of everyone involved on both sides, the all-competition-all-the-time ethos has sunk in. That more than anything else makes me anticipate the upcoming season.
This concludes your feelingsball portion of the program.
*[He did not, and I was all like ಠ_ಠ.]
[After THE JUMP: position by position breakdowns of what we learned on offense]