Threadworthy? Probably not but we are starved for football, it's a Tuesday night, and this is a pretty great catch.
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Worst: A Predictable Ass Kicking
Since the start of the year, what has felt so different about this season versus the last couple was the competence displayed by the coaching staff and the players on the field. Michigan didn’t always win the games they could have (witness Utah and MSU) and sometimes underperformed even in those they did (see IU and Minnesota), but in totality they never seemed out of their league against anyone on the schedule.
That all kind of changed against OSU. I’m not talking about pride or effort, questioning the heart of the coaches or the players, or anything as myopic and reductive as the crap you see posted on message boards and on talk radio. No, what happened in this game was UM’s coaches and players finally ran into an opponent that they just couldn’t hang with, one with too much talent and too much continuity to give UM a puncher’s chance. In past years when Brady Hoke had a couple of close calls, OSU would make the dumb plays, take the dumb penalties, give UM life with bad turnovers and poor coverage.
On the one hand, it is hard to be that surprised how the game played out. OSU has looked disinterested basically all season; they haven’t really been challenged by a team until MSU, and honestly never seemed to “care” about anyone they faced until UM. Last week against MSU you saw a team that figured it could roll over the competition again with minimal effort (especially with Cook out), and had they put in even 50% of the effort game planning last week as they clearly did this one, they’d have run MSU off the field. But for the first time all year, OSU found itself behind the eight ball, no longer in control of their destiny to defend their title or even win the conference, and that seemed to awaken them from their stupor, and UM felt the brunt of it. Hell, they did the same thing last year after the VT loss, obliterating almost everyone they ran into along the way to the championship.
On the other hand, it was jarring to see just how far UM was behind OSU in terms of talent at key positions and how those deficiencies limited what could be implemented. The one thing you could say about Brady Hoke is that the man can recruit; of course, in both those years OSU recruited a tad better. And when you dig into those classes, you see a lot of higher-ranked players who either aren’t on campus or simply failed to develop into the types of players UM needed. This isn’t an indictment of these players because in most cases they did the best they could at UM, but when you are trying to compete with a Goliath you can’t miss nearly as often as UM’s has with their best shots.
Still, it’s not that OSU is demonstrably better than UM across the board; the talent gap actually doesn’t seem nearly as pronounced as in seasons past even though the score would make you think otherwise. But where OSU trumps UM, they trump them definitely; disruptive pass rushing and running back jump out, as does linebacker play. Add those up, and a game that was sorta-close at halftime (ignoring the fact that OSU had already started carving UM up on the ground and UM had played keep away a bit with their 10 points by bleeding clock on drives of 14 and 11 plays) got out of hand quickly.
I read people calling for UM to change their defensive gameplan, commit more against the run and dare Barrett to beat them in the air. I agree in concept, but my counter is – where are those players going to come from? This isn’t a game where more bodies equals better results, like Plants vs. Zombies. All year the LBs have struggled against teams that spread them out and force quick, athletic decisions; if there was someone on the roster who was better than the guys at that you’d figure they would have played by now. And with Glasgow out, there is limited depth at tackle, which further limits how you can respond. Sure, the coaching staff will deservedly come under fire for some of their second-half adjustments (trying to go with a 3-man front is always ludicrous against OSU), but at some point it isn’t that you got RPS’ed moreso that you only had two fingers left and all you could throw are scissors against a couple of really angry rocks.
Depth has been an issue for this team all season, but they mostly papered it over with dominant defensive line play and very good secondary coverage. At least, that was until Glasgow went down. With him out of the lineup, IU had their way on the ground, and the blueprint was set for how to crush UM up front with zone runs and tempo. That isn’t to say the outcome would have been different with guys like Glasgow and Ojemudia in the lineup; OSU looked pissed off and out for blood, and when they play like that there isn’t a team in the country they can’t murderball.
Offensively, the lack of a rushing attack this past month has weirdly been both a blessing and a really terrible curse. On the one hand, it helped push Rudock out of the shell he was in to start the year, leading to some great numbers: 67% completion, 1,296 yards, 9.2 ypa, 11:2 TD:INT ratio over the past 4 games. Butt cemented his status as one of the best TEs in the game, and both Chesson and Darboh emerged as plus receivers with even more room to grow next year in this offense. But it also meant UM was held to 87 and 57 yards rushing against PSU and OSU respectively, and failed to crack 4.0 ypc against non-Chaos teams since early October. It got so bad that the leading rusher in this game was Peppers, running mostly gimmick plays in addition to his role as an anchor of the defense. For a team with (purported) recruiting stars in that backfield…well, I’ve said it for weeks now.
So yes, UM lost to the three teams you kind of expected they would (Utah, MSU, and OSU), and how they lost this last game leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. But there was demonstrable progress this season, and even with UM going to MSU and OSU next year it’s hard not to be optimistic about their prospects against both clubs (though obviously OSU looks to be farther away). And with a bowl game to go, I expect to see this team to learn from this loss and, with the return of a couple of injured players, end the year on a high note. But with MSU likely making a run to the CFB playoffs and OSU getting bragging rights for N-1 times in the last N games, this wasn’t a banner day for the season.
Best: Rudock to the Rescue or
Worst: Of Course THIS is How It Ends
This sounds like a bit of a broken record at this point, but Jake Rudock kept UM in this game as long as he could. With a non-existent running game and an offensive line that had a lot of trouble holding back the homogenized Ohio Brobarians at the edges, it fell on Jake Rudock to keep UM’s offense matriculating down the field, and for three quarters of the game he did. His numbers weren’t spectacular, but he completed about 60% of his passes for 263 yards, at 8.2 ypa and a TD with no interceptions. He found Chesson and Darboh in tough windows, and in the first half was largely responsible for UM’s drive-saving 8/11 rate on 3rd downs. In total, of UM’s 20 first downs, Rudock was responsible for 14 of them (13 in the air, one on the ground). This team probably wasn’t going to win this game regardless of how well the offense played, but it would have been even uglier without Rudock at the helm.
And all game, Rudock was performing under fire, especially as OSU started to stretch their lead out and it became clear that UM wasn’t even going to try to run the ball on most downs. Bosa finished with a sack, a forced fumble, and 2 more QB hits, along with numerous other pressures, and it was his hit that injured Rudock’s shoulder and may have ended his season. Even before that, Rudock was getting hit with a ferocity that felt unsustainable, including on one seemingly-designed QB run where he was sandwiched by two OSU defenders while Drake Johnson (amongst others) seemed to either be running the wrong route or missing guys to block.
I’ve never been great at identifying offensive line issues in the moment, but it was glaringly obvious both in this game and all year that UM’s offensive line is miles behind the best defensive lines in this conference, and I’m not sure how much scheming they can do to compensate for it. There were bad penalties, bad blocks (including on a screen to Smith that was blown up because of complete whiffs by both UM offensive linemen – Braden was one for sure who just dived at the legs of the defender and totally missed - on that side of the play), and an overall inability to even maintain the line of scrimmage down-to-down. It’s a “veteran” unit in terms of years and starts, but it is clearly one in need of a talent injection, and with Rudock gone next year they’ll also have to be breaking in a new QB, which will bring all of the attendant issues with cadence, timing, and playcalls.
But that’s for another day. I do hope Rudock’s shoulder isn’t injured severely enough to keep him out of the bowl game, both because that would significantly improve UM’s chances at a 10th win and, perhaps more importantly, give him an opportunity to cap off a pretty successful 1-year run at the helm of UM. I said last week that Rudock was a playmaker in that he always puts UM in a position to succeed, and against the best team he’ll see this year he didn’t disappoint. It’s a credit to both him and Harbaugh’s mentoring that I can say that after how the year started, and I genuinely hope there’s another chapter in this story.
Worst: The Ghost of Fred Jackson Lingers
I said it above, but without Peppers this team doesn’t crack 40 yards on the ground running the ball, and the non-Rudock runners who got carries in this game are a (possibly) injured De’Veon Smith, a FB, and a guy who’s (again, probably) still recovering from the second ACL surgery of his college career. Guys like Green and Isaac, expected to be contributors at the bare minimum this season, faded so far into the background that it’s hard to even make out their silhouettes. You have to imagine there will be a shakeup in the RB corp, if for no other reason that Harbaugh will be inclined to give anyone new a chance to show they are better than the incumbents. But after sorta-bludgeoning teams to start the year, the rushing offense fell off a cliff, and it hasn’t totally been due to breakdowns in the offensive line. I mean, I know the competition took a step up once the conference slate kicked off, but to go from averaging 4.8 ypc the first six games to 3.25 ypc in the last half, and even that number is goosed by playing IU, is downright stupefying.
And while they’ve faced some stout units against the run, it isn’t like any of them were the ‘86 Bears or even the ‘97 Wolverines. PSU gave up 227 yards to NW, 241 to Maryland, and 188 to MSU, while OSU coughed up 203 to MSU, 253 to Maryland, 195 to PSU, and even 104 to Rutgers. I don’t want to bang the drum on the old Hoke chestnut of “execution”, but it can’t all be a lack of talent. I mean, it’s been a meme around these parts that Fred Jackson was high on hyperbole and a bit lower on actual talent identification and development, but it continues to amaze me that UM hasn’t had a competent, consistent running back for nearly a decade (you’re mileage may vary with Brandon Minor and Fitzgerald Toussaint). Prospects seem good that Harbaugh and co. will correct for this deficiency soon, but it isn’t a stretch to say that UM’s season was largely sunk by the inability of the team to consistently get even a modicum of yards on the ground.
Best: People Can Catch the Ball
Before the season, a major concern offensively was the ability for this team to move the ball vertically through the air. Devin Funchess, the single biggest reason UM struggled in 2014 and probably also why you can’t find your keys*, was drafted by the Carolina Panthers and proceeded to ruin THEIR season as well, and he took the vast majority of last year’s passing game with him. There was buzz that Darboh would take the next step forward based on a solid 2014, but I was dubious given the fact a large amount of his production came against Miami (NTM) and IU and he lacked the type of speed and agility necessary to get separation in coverage. Similarly, Chesson had speed for days but also had 1 receiving TD to his name despite getting semi-consistent playing time for 2 years. Jake Butt looked to be a stud, but unless you are Tyler Eifert or a TE under Jim Harbaugh (oh wait…) you probably weren’t going to be a great lead option in a passing game. There was optimistic talk about guys like Moe Ways and Drake Harris maybe stepping into those lead roles, or Grant Perry emerging as a weapon given his prolific HS stats and early playing time. But I wasn’t optimistic about this team even matching last year’s pedestrian numbers.
And yet, after 12 games UM’s passing attack is the undeniable strength of the offense, and is poised to be even better next season after a summer of Harbaugh seasoning and (one hopes) an emergence of a starting QB sooner than a month before kickoff. Darboh still can’t get much separation against good DBs, but he compensates with solid hands and the type of power that makes WRs screen works. Chesson leads the team in TDs with 8, has proven his ability to not only take the top off the defense but also make tough catches in traffic, and his sometimes-maligned hands and route-running have been rectified. Jake Butt is, well, one of the best TEs in UM history, and I have to expect that he’ll only improve on a breakout season. And the playcalling, once the bane of any sane UM fan’s life, has finally put these players in positions where they can be successful, with Harbaugh and co. liberally relying on WR screens to get the ball in space and introducing the #Buttzone to the world as a way to punish any team that believes it can stop UM’s TE with a single defender.
There’s still a game to go this year, but I’m already excited about how this offense will look next year with a new QB, presumably one who’ll have some time to get in sync with these receivers before the years starts. It’s still a unit without a true #1 talent, but right now I’m not sure there is a more complete receiving corp in the league, and they should only be better in 2016.
* So I was told on this site.
Worst: Whither Glasgow, Whither Tackling?
Everyone knows when the rush defense changed from one of the best in the nation to one that would give up over 300 yards twice in 3 weeks - it was when Ryan Glasgow went down against Rutgers with a pectoral injury, and since then UM hasn’t really been able to find a suitable replacement. It doesn’t help that they’ve faced two up-tempo teams in IU and OSU that love to wear tackles down and spread defenses out to put pressure on the LBs to make tackles in space, but UM has been gashed so consistently that Glasgow’s absence is unmistakable.
At some point, you’d have hoped the defensive line and/or coaches would figure out how to compensate more effectively, especially after what felt like a steady diet of zone stretches by IU and zone reads being a staple of OSU’s offense. The team played around a bit with different alignments, even going with 3 linemen for a stretch, but nothing seemed to do much good, as OSU averaged 6.8 ypc and both Elliott and Barrett averaged over 7 ypc. I’m sure there were edges that were held in this game, but I’d be damned if it made a difference. The wheels sorta fell off once OSU got new life on that roughing-the-kicker penalty followed by the first of Elliott’s long runs of the game. In near-direct symmetry to UM’s pass-first, pass-second offense, OSU picked up 18 of their 25 first downs on the ground, and probably could have had more had they not called off the dogs a bit late in the 4th quarter.
I know people want to say that OSU’s rushing game will be more tractable when Elliott is gone, but they still have Barrett and a cavalcade of talented runners in that backfield. I mean, dropping 200+ yards on UM isn’t new for OSU. Meyer is a lot of very nasty, negative things, but he is also a damn fine offensive mind, and his rushing attack isn’t going anywhere. UM seems to be recruiting the type of tackles that can help disrupt the run, and Elliott is truly one of the best RBs in OSU’s history. So there is hope that with mere mortals, UM will have a better chance at slowing them down. Still, it behooves UM to figure this out sooner rather than later, or I’m guessing this won’t be the last time we see Buckeyes running around, over, and thru the UM defense, Glasgow or not.
Worst: The Three Amigos (In Space!!!)
So yeah, not a banner day for the linebackers. I’m sure the UFR will go into excruciating detail about exactly when, where, and how often tackles were missed, gaps were lost, and assignments misread, but everyone kind of knew that if OSU got to the second level in this game it would get ugly. Morgan is a lot of things, but athletic sideline-to-sideline isn’t one of them, and a couple of times he just couldn’t get to Barrett or Elliott before they found the hole. Based on the tackle numbers it would seem like Bolden and Gedeon were more involved in the game, but watching it live it felt like Morgan was identifying the plays quicker but typically just sacrificed himself to take on a blocker. This was a terrible matchup for him, though, and I’m guessing it’ll show under more scrutiny.
I’m not going to rant about Bolden because (a) Brian will probably do that, and (b) I don’t feel qualified to score him based on an initial view. But if history is a predictor of future outcomes, I’m guessing a lot of his team-leading tackles were because he was late to the play (witness 7 of his 9 tackles were assisted) and that a decent chunk of OSU’s success getting through gaps on the stretch were due to missed assignments. It felt like both Bolden and Gedeon struggled to flow to the point of attack, and that a lot of Barrett’s runs were due to someone not sticking with him on exchanges. But again, it wasn’t like anyone in the LB group covered himself in glory, so I’m not trying to single anyone out as the root cause for 300+ yards on the ground.
Next year UM will have to replace both starters (and sorta-starter Ross) with Gedeon and assorted unknowns, which is pretty terrifying. I do wonder if at least some of the issues with this season’s performance were due to residual gunk from the previous coaching regime, but you look at the depth chart and you only have 5 guys on campus now who were recruited for 3 spots, and, well, that ain’t a good thing. Those worries are for another day, I guess, but…
Best(?): They Didn’t Throw the Ball A Lot
In a game in which J.T. Barrett really didn’t have a reason to throw the ball, credit should go to the secondary for, I don’t know, making that slightly less appealing? Barrett had basically two long completions, both of which of the Shrug Emoticon variety. The first was his TD throw to Jalin Marshall, who had Jeremy Clark draped over him and basically caught the ball off of Clark’s body. The second long throw was to Thomas late in the game, and it was with Lewis trailing a bit but still a pretty tough catch on the run. Beyond those two balls, nothing got open downfield even when OSU tried to use play action. And Lewis helped out with a nice sack on Barrett that helped stop the Buckeyes on their first drive, and his PI was the type of “it ain’t racing without some rubbing” football that gets called every game just to keep you honest defensively.
I also thought the safeties played well. Nothing really beat them deep, and Thomas made a nice tackle in space to stop Barrett when he broke containment. Hill and Wilson also played pretty well, though by design they were usually tasked with stopping a freight-train Elliott after he bowled over a couple of defenders. The fact Hill, Wilson, and Thomas had more solo tackles than the 3 LBs is not great, Bob, but it does give me some hope that even with less boring safeties than this season it won’t be a major source of frustration next year with Thomas and Hill playing deep.
Meh: Everything Else
- Some people seemed bothered by OSU trying to score late in the game, especially when it seemed like they were going for some record (if Holly Rowe is to be believed, somebody in the OSU coaches’ box asked her how many yards Elliott had before sending him out again). Honestly, I’ve always been a proponent of “if you don’t like them scoring, make them stop” philosophy of defense, and so if Meyer and co. want to run up the score against a rival then so be it. The fact they cared about a rushing stat that will only be relevant to them always strikes me as silly (the trade-off is potentially hurting your best player during a blowout), but whatever. That’s a non-issue to me.
- In terms of UM settling for FGs on drives that went deep into OSU territory, I was more bothered with the second one than the first. When UM kicked the first one, the score was 7-3 and it felt like a game that might be close to the wire. But on the second one, UM is down 28-10 at the start of the first quarter, and while it’s a 3-score game either way, I’d MUCH rather get a TD there and figure out the FGs later than grab the somewhat-meaningless 3 points and still be down 15. Hell, had they scored a TD I’ve have gone for 2, as you basically have to score 3 TDs either way to win, and it would have galvanized the fans and players a bit to punch on in. But that’s way more feelingsball than it should be, but if you throw it all into the NFL 4th-down calculator it doesn’t demonstrably change the win probability (it is 4% if you go for it, 3% if you kick the FG), but in a rivalry game it seems weird to play for the safe option down 18.
- As for the “invasion” of OSU fans and them chanting whatever stupid things they do when see each other outdoors, so be it. Fans pay for tickets, and if season ticket holders didn’t want to come to the game and OSU fans got ahold of those seats, so be it. This is one of the most storied rivalries in college football history, hell in sports, and so if you can watch your team demolish the other at their place, spell your state loudly and proudly if it makes you happy. And this isn’t some jaded UM elitist saying it; I care way more about who wins on the field than who wins in the stands, but if your team crushed UM then I guess you have “earned” the right to chant. Just don’t hurt yourself trying to jump back on that bandwagon with the rest of the Juggalos after last week.
- I’ve heard some fans (mostly OSU and MSU ones) chirp that this season is going to be just like Hoke’s in 2011, which showed a promising era that cratered a couple years later. Well, one of the things I’ve been tracking is turnover margin, as that 2011 season featured one of the best in recent history for UM, which helped cover up some deficiencies on both sides of the ball. By comparison, this year UM has one of the worst margins, mostly due to recovering 2 opponent fumbles all years. With turnovers, especially fumble recovery, being mostly random, the progress shown this year is probably even more impressive than it looks specifically because it’s come against much “luck”. Now, if you want to see some some teams that MIGHT find next season a bit more challenging if they can’t reproduce seemingly-unsustainable TO margins, look no further than the B1G title game.
Nothing, nada, zip, zilch. I suspect UM will be playing somewhere in Florida on New Years, which is a nice coda to a first season under Harbaugh. I’ll probably do another of these diaries for that game, but just in case not I want to thank everyone who has stuck around reading these this year. It’s been a blast to follow this team for the first year, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.
Best: A Picture is Worth a New Coach
I’ve been writing these diaries in one form or another for over 3 years; if you go back for enough, you’d find me making recaps using old Bruce Willis movie titles. Those were heady times, to say the least.
But this “version” of the game recaps has been kicking along for a bit now, spanning a national championship game run by the basketball team, most of the Hoke era, and now the Harbaugh reign. And one of its hallmarks, along with promises to keep things short and then writing 5,000 words, references to professional wrestling, and dumb header titles, are images and gifs. Usually I try to pick out images that embody the point I’m trying to make, such as watching UM play UConn in 2013
and then later obliterating IU.
For a time, sorting through them was easy on my computer, and if I couldn’t find one that fit I’d just Google image search until I did. But like all pack-rats, over time I accumulated (and this is the most internet thing I think I’ve ever written) too many animated gifs and dumb images to sort them quickly. So I built a small utility on one of the sites I maintain to upload and view all the images, scaled and paginated for easy traversal. When I come across an image or gif I think is funny or interesting, I upload it to the site, even if I don’t have an immediate use for it. And before you ask, yes, I’m a software engineer.
So I’ve had this site for over a year now, and by default I sort the images by the day they were uploaded. So I went back and looked at last year around this time, to see if any images might be relevant or particularly humorous given how this weekend played out. And what I realized, beyond the fact that I’m on WAY too many message boards and reddit threads, is that it was f’ing DARK around this time last year. I mean, some of the first images that pops up is a dog literally shitting during a competition
and of a motorcyclist running into a car while an interview is going on.
It wasn’t just that UM was losing; that had unfortunately become a common occurrence years before. The losing, sadly, I could live with as a fan; it ruins your day, but rarely do teams go a whole season without blowing a game or just running into a better opponent. No, what these pictures made so clear was how much melancholy and ennui surrounded the program. It became such a chore to watch these games, to see a team with top-20 talent and bottom-20 coaching sludgefart their way through 12 games a year, that I’m honestly not sure I’d have continued writing these had that malaise carried on to this season (and yeah, I know a couple of you probably wished I had stopped). It just felt like an unnecessary strain, watching this program further devolve and looking for the fool’s gold of “progress” in crude accomplishments such as “they nearly broke 200 yards of offense”, “Devin Gardner walked off the field in one piece”, and “they almost won on the road this time”. And by its very nature, my goal is to keep these articles upbeat and rarely serious, not a dour litany of the failings everyone already watched on Saturday.
Frankly, it’s how I imagine most logical PSU fans must feel like watching the Nittany Lions these past couple of years, knowing that your ceiling is one of those mid-tier Florida bowl games against an 8-win SEC outfit. You hear about the recruiting classes, you see the all-world defensive linemen, you (apparently) believe your QB to be a future NFL signal-caller despite evidence to the contrary, and then you look up and all you have are a bunch of 7-win seasons with few signs of actual growth. That was life watching UM football under Brady Hoke, a guy who checks off a number of the boxes you want in a coach (strong connection to the program, ace recruiter, good human being) except the ones that really matter (beating rivals, winning seasons, demonstrative improvements during the season as well as between them). And once the afterglow of that 2011 season faded and it was just season after season of mediocrity (or worse), well, you welcome in a nice little otter into your heart and he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave.
But right around the time Harbaugh made it clear he’d be coming to UM, I noticed that the tone of the images I uploaded changed rather dramatically. Gone were the depressing images, the painful gifs, and the general resignation that were the hallmarks of lost seasons. It wasn’t that I suddenly started to download rainbows, unicorns, and silly cat pictures, only that I didn’t need to find ever more ludicrous pictures to display my exasperation with the direction of this program. UM did and will continue to lose games and the coaches and players will do “bad” things on and off the field, but these foibles no longer feel embedded in the DNA of the block M, in the same way that “Sparty No!” seems to have left the Spartan hemoglobin (though its devil pact replacement ain’t too fun either).
I’ve said this before, but ever since the Utah game Michigan has seemed competent in everything they do. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t weaknesses and that mistakes aren’t made, only that from the coaches on down, everyone seems, I don’t know, professional about it. They aren’t scrambling to find answers to obvious questions, there aren’t players finger-pointing when games go badly (and to his credit, Hoke never had this issue either), and there hasn’t been a moment that was truly embarrassing to the program or the players. Hell, even after the MSU game, the lowest of low moments of the season, everyone associated with the program maintained a calmness and professionalism that was refreshing given the clusterfuck of recent vintage. The worst of moments was treated like every other; a teachable instance, a chance to reaffirm the mantras of responsibility and camaraderie, of “winning with character and winning with cruelty” and doing the same in a loss, and the choice to move on. While I dislike the lazy “Michigan Man” meme, if THIS is what it means and is what I can come to expect from the program going forward, then I think Bo would find it agreeable.
Now, there will be speedbumps in the coming years; hell, there could very well be a nasty nut-shaped one next week. But this program is on the type of solid ground that lets you weather those slip-ups properly, absorbing the lessons and making sure they don’t repeat themselves. Last year’s contest was an emotional rollercoaster, with Devin Gardner and the defense clawing UM to the victory in a game where Brady Hoke called a timeout to give PSU one last hail-mary throw to end the half.*
This year, PSU threatened briefly but was roughly as inept as last year’s edition. And if you squint and look at just the box score, you could make an argument that UM wasn’t much different either – slightly better offensive numbers than last year, but more turnovers and a boatload (13 for 117) of penalties. But at no point in this game did I expect UM to lose, and from the sideline on down you could tell the team took the terrible penalties, the bad-luck TOs, the offensive miscues in stride. There are at least two more games in this season and UM has a good chance to win them both, but this season has already been a success, and the future looks even brighter. Now, if only I had an image…
* I’ll admit to defending it at the time and still thinking it wasn’t a terrible decision even now, but that’s not relevant anymore.
You hear all the time about how teams need “playmakers” on both sides of the ball. On defense, it’s usually reserved for defensive backs who pick off passes, safeties who lay bone-crunching hits, and defensive ends who obliterate QBs. On offense, playmakers are the running backs who turn 2 yards into 50, WRs who make impossible catches seem routine, and QBs who can make all the throws and pilot an offense in amazing ways. The common thread, though, is that these players are able to improvise, to “make plays” when things break down, to divine success from the chaos surrounding them. UM has had their fair share of playmakers in this mold, including some of the greatest college football players in history.
The emphasis, for lack of a better analogy, is on the “maker” part of playmaker, the sense that greatness comes out when structure breaks down. But you can’t ignore the first part, those players who are able to execute the “play” well enough to win, who can process what’s in front of them and perform their role as perfectly as possible. Tom Brady is on the short list of greatest QBs in NFL history not because of a fantastic arm, blazing speed, or snake-quick release, but because he executes about as well as anyone who has played the position. Sure, he can create magic when forced to, but he’s a “playmaker” because he makes the plays that his team needs him to make, in the offensive system he’s helped perfect. And yet, when you say a player does his job well, it’s almost taken as an insult, as if genius only counts if you are throwing paint at a wall or flicking a ball on a broken play with 300-pound men chasing you.
Jake Rudock looks like your dad’s QB, a smart guy with a clean face and a quiet confidence. He can run a little, he can throw a little more, but he doesn’t do anything that immediately jumps out at you as spectacular. Whereas Johnny Football is a whirling dervish on the field, and Denard a bolt of maize-and-blue lightning streaking down the sideline, Rudock is the steady, competent QB who is always looking downfield for his receivers, who isn’t afraid to take the ball and run but isn’t going to sacrifice the offense for it. And truth be told, he’s always seemed a bit like an anomaly in the current game, a guy who Iowa didn’t want despite putting up basically the same numbers as the guy who replaced him, who plans on being a surgeon and probably will back it up unlike some other collegians.
But over the back half of this season, he’s also become a playmaker on this offense. Whereas against teams like MSU and Maryland he looked timid and lost, he now looks confident and poised, surveying the field, making the right throws, keeping this team moving forward even while the running game evaporates and the defense takes an understandable step back from its dominance. He’s the reason this team beat IU last week and was a main cog in the grinding win this week. He’s thrown for over 1,000 yards in the past 3 games, for 10 TDs vs. 2 INTs, and has done so accurately (70% completion percentage) and aggressively (9.4 ypa). Credit should obviously go to Jim Harbaugh for never wavering in his dedication to Rudock despite early-season struggles, but this is the player UM hoped they were getting when he came on campus, and given the fact that he had only weeks to assimilate a complex playbook and get in sync with his teammates, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that it took a bit to get there.
Still, Rudock is a big reason most of the team’s goals remain in play, and why they just swept their conference road slate for the first time in decades. He’s never going to go down in Michigan lore or be honored at halftime of a future game, but he’s been the steady force at the helm for this team, and I fully expect him to perform up to this level for as long as UM season keeps going.
Worst: Just Stop Running
Another week, another dispiriting performance on the ground. At least this week it was understandable, what with PSU’s dominant defensive line (even without Carl Nassib for part of the game). Zettel and Johnson can stop a rushing attack by themselves, so I wasn’t surprised that nobody really broke out. And even if there were the occasional openings, well, as Patches O’houlihan would say about the UM rushing attack, “they’re too good and you suck something awful”.
But what was disheartening was how quickly the coaches recognized this futility and really didn’t try to come back to it until the game was salted away. On the one hand, credit to the coaches for calling plays that would have the maximum probability of success, not just fulfill some chest beating about “toughness”. Brian is fond of saying that when a game is like one from the 1950s, you call plays like its the 1950s, and that usually means caveman football with 2 yards and a cloud of dust. But Harbaugh isn’t like most coaches, and so when it was clear PSU wasn’t going to be able to do much offensively and there weren’t many yards on the ground, he aired it out and found ways to move the ball semi-effectively.
For what feels like the umpteenth time since the MSU game, De’Veon Smith recorded about 3 yards a carry with a long in the single digits, while a WR (Chesson), a mini linebacker (Peppers) a fullback (Houma), and a QB (Rudock) were the next four rushers. Heck, the only other back to get a carry was Higdon, who had one carry for 0 yards on the first drive of the game. It is my understanding that Smith is dealing with a foot/ankle injury he suffered against BYU, and if you look at his game log it’s pretty clear that something is wrong.
But this team is supposedly full of other competent performers in the backfield, at least by reputation if not actual performance. I know I harped on the same thing last week, but the fact nobody has seemingly even sniffed carries after Smith, Houma, and Johnson despite their limitations is damning for the rest of the guys on the roster, much in the same way Rudock’s early struggles didn’t even seem to remotely improve the stock of the guys behind him. MSU just beat OSU running the ball for over 200 yards and barely passing, so perhaps there is hope that UM will be able to somewhat replicate that performance. But when your head coach looks at his roster and feels it more prudent to throw against the nation’s leading sack defense than try to establish a rushing attack, that’s pretty damning.
Meh: Blocky-type guys
On the one hand, the pass blocking was pretty solid this game; outside of the strip-sack by Brandon Bell Rudock was mostly kept clean (only 2 sacks and no hits according to the stat sheet), and as noted earlier Rudock was taking shots down the field and had time to do so. On the other hand, this was another week where the running game seemed barely functional for long stretches, and while I just heaped a decent amount of blame on the backs it wasn’t like the line graded out particularly well against IU and, I’m guessing, the same will play out this week. The good news is that they are absolutely making strides and, with the exception of Glasgow’s graduation, should return with everyone next season. But at some point this unit needs to take that step forward and start imposing its will on teams the way Stanford used to, and you’d have expected that to happen as they became more comfortable with the offense. OSU will be another major test, though who the hell knows what team will show up on Saturday. But next year this line must make the next step forward for UM to have a chance at great things, and thus far it seems somewhat incomplete.
Best: The Toast of the Town
Sadly this probably isn’t a cultural milestone for a portion of the readership, but there was a time when a screensaver was one of the “coolest” things about PCs. After Dark, a collection of screensavers for Windows, featured a variety of cool, animated screens to display on your system while you were away. There was animated fish tanks, flocks of birds, and enough geometric explosions to tease out a smile from even the most jaded systems admin. And the most iconic of these screensaver was the famed “flying toasters”, featuring a seemingly random number of slices of toast and winged-toasters floating across your screen. It was mesmerizing, funny, and creative in that un-ironic way that is almost impossible to comprehend in 2015, and even today its legacy lives on.
Well, in this game Amara Darboh was the toast of screen passes. With the running game struggling, these plays were as much long runs as they were passes, and given Darboh’s stiff arm and strong running style, they consistently picked up first downs and helped to keep the offense from getting bogged down. The first TD of the game was a great pitch-and-catch by Darboh, helped by a great block by Grant Perry (he might not have had the freshman year some expected on the stat sheet, but Perry has been one of the best blockers on screens and runs this whole season), and Darboh never failed to turn these passes in nice chunk plays.
It was brilliant playcalling by Harbaugh, as it got the ball in space and let Darboh grind out those couple extra yards his strength and size afford him. It also demonstrably loosened up the PSU front 7, which served them well later on in the game when the offense started to take shots farther downfield. With Butt and Chesson also having solid games, it was another promising performance from a receiving core that should hopefully be back next year. I’m particularly interested in how Butt’s senior year plays out, as the coaching staff is clearly starting to take advantage of his “uncoverability” with more deep routes against coverage. And perhaps unsurprisingly, as Rudock came into his own so has Chesson, who seems to finally be the deep threat/stretch offense that always seemed to be bubbling just beneath the surface of his game.
Best: A Return to Form
I always thought the IU game would be an aberration in terms of the defense’s performance this year, so it was nice to see the team bounce back and hold PSU to about 200 yards of total offense. They gave up that first big run to Barkley but otherwise bottled him up (12 yards on 14 carries after that 56-yard run), and Hackenberg looked absolutely lost out there for most of the contest (41% completion for 4.3 ypa) . PSU wasn’t helped by playcalling that was beyond passive for long stretches The tone was set when, after getting inside the 10 on their opening drive, PSU ran the ball 3 times and then kicked a FG; if a team can throw in the towel on their first offensive series, that red zone series was it.
Charlton was in the backfield seemingly all game, picking up two sacks and helping to compress the pocket whenever the Nittany Lions weren’t grabbing jerseys. I expect both Wormley and Henry to grade out really well in addition, especially on the pressure metrics, as they were consistently getting in Hackenberg’s face even if they didn’t record a sack. There were a couple of times when he just turfed balls because hands were in his face, and that type of disruption won’t show up on the official scorecard but is just as important as a TFL or a sack.
I’m honestly not sure about the LBs anymore. Bolden was absolutely manhandled on that first long run, but otherwise it seemed like him, Morgan, and Ross made the plays they needed to. They were very good at stringing along PSU outside run plays, and rarely did you see gaps open up for Barkley (a really talented guy) to slip through, unlike last week. I think Morgan’s departure will be felt next season, but beyond that it’s hard to tell what the drop-off will be with Gedeon and the collection of young guys beyond them. My guess is that a couple of “athletes” in search of a position will be getting reps there in the offseason, and so it’ll be interesting to say the least.
And the secondary was its typical lockdown self. Lewis was challenged a couple of times but without much success, though his trip in the first half was nearly disastrous except the Wilson or Thomas came over to break up the pass in the endzone. Beyond that, the corners were mostly in the receiver’s pockets all game, and you could see Hackenberg become increasingly despondent as he surveyed the field. Thomas had a solid outing, though he dropped another near-INT on an overthrown ball near the sideline. Wilson had a great open-field tackle on Barkley that kept a second-down run from breaking big, and was his usual steady self.
It was clear that PSU thought they could pick on Peppers, and he responded pretty well. Yes, he did give up the TD pass to Blacknall that briefly gave PSU the lead in the 2nd quarter, but he also had three PBUs and had some nice tackles in space. And on that TD, had he turned his head around quicker he’d have had a good chance at picking the ball off, as it was a bit underthrown and he was between it and the receiver. He remains, as always, a terrifying weapon designed to destroy any offense he sees.
Again, game balls to everyone for keeping PSU bottled up. Even when the Nittany Lions did get close to scoring, the defense typically stiffened and either held them to FG tries or, as in the 2nd quarter, drove PSU out of FG range with timely sacks. I’m fully expecting OSU to pull out every play possible next week, but based on the performance I saw this Saturday by both teams I’m feeling a bit more confident about how this team will cope with the Buckeye attack.
Best: James Franklin is Terrible
Seriously, I don’t even have anything funny or witty to say. I DO wonder if he was replaced on the sideline with Bernie Lomax for stretches of this game, though, as some of these playcalls felt like he just flopped down on the playsheet and didn’t care a lick for down and distance. As I noted above, that first drive featured 3 consecutive runs in the redzone, and for the game PSU kicked FGs of 23, 24, and 18 yards, while also averaging 32 yards a punt, including punting when he was on UM’s side of the field late in the 2nd quarter. Woof.
Hackenberg isn’t close to the QB he flashed during his freshman year, which is probably due to a combination of coaching and the fact he was throwing to Allen Robinson all year, and about midway through the first half he looked like the Undertaker given how far his eyes rolled back into his head as he listened to the coaches on the sideline.
I’m not one to read too much into body language, especially during a game, but Hackenberg looked like a guy who was absolutely sick of this coaching staff and this team, and its hard not to put a lot of that blame on Franklin. Franklin’s rep as an offensive “innovator” always struck me as odd, as PSU has rarely looked overly competent on that side of the ball, and even his Vandy teams, while explosive against the dregs of the schedule, never looked particularly dangerous against the better teams on the schedule. Vanderbilt caveats and all, it seems like Franklin is a good recruiter and a competent offensive thinker, but it still feels like he is playing checkers on the sideline while guys like Harbaugh are playing battle chess.
Meh: Special Teams
On the one hand, UM had a punt partially blocked that set up PSU’s only TD, which continues a disturbing trend of special teams issues. At the same time, O’Neill was able to drop a punt deep deep into PSU territory that UM recovered on the fair-catch fumble in part because the PSU receiver was surrounded by 4 Wolverines. Also, Lewis had a couple nice returns, including a 55-yarder to set up the final points of the game after PSU had pulled within 5 at 21-16. I know the shiny advanced stats are going to go down again, but the performance of this unit remains light-years better than last season’s, and helped keep this game from possibly going in PSU’s favor.
Worst: These F***ing Refs
PSU had a total of 14 first downs in this game, 6(!!!!) of which due to penalty. For long stretches of this game, PSU only moved forward because of penalties. While UM was definitely undisciplined with the offsides and false starts, it just got silly when you looked up at the scoreboard and saw UM had 13 penalties for 117 yards. I get that UM does interfere with passes and holds players like everyone else, but when Peppers is getting dinged with a PI because the PSU receiver punched him in the face, or Henry is being called for defensive holding, it gets hard to keep watching.
And as is usual with B1G refs, we had another semi-clear targeting situation that went against UM. I’m not sure if Anthony Zettel was targeting Rudock with his hit, but I am 100% certain that if we live in a world where James Ross and Joe Bolden can be sent off for their transgressions, old tree-thumper thereshould have been sent off for cracking Rudock on the chin with his helmet.
Toward the end of the game Harbaugh just seemed beyond perplexed, and for good reason. UM needs to fix the procedural penalties that kept PSU drives going or stalled out UM’s, but at some point you have to wonder if they’ll get a better shake when bowl season comes around and another conference’s crew gets ahold of them.
Next Week: The Game
You had one job, OSU, and you couldn’t do it. That was a comically bad game, a war crime to college football fans covered by the Geneva Convention, and beyond the fact it gave MSU an undeserved inside track for the division title, it sucked so much juice out of what was probably one of the more important final games in this rivalry’s recent history. One can always hold out hope PSU plays inspired football to spoil MSU’s bid, but I’m not holding my breath. The Spartans remain perhaps the luckiest team in college football (beyond the fact that they didn’t lead against UM OR OSU until the last second, they still have an absurd turnover margin), but at this point I expect them to win the entire damn conference and then get destroyed by Clemson or Alabama.
I’d like to say that OSU’s hangover will carry over to this game, but I doubt it. Even with all the turmoil, OSU will play inspired against UM, and I expect all of the wrinkles and nuances that come with rivalry game. It felt like OSU just overlooked MSU a bit once it was clear Cook wasn’t playing, and by the time they woke up they were in a rock fight with the rockiest of teams.
Right now, I think UM has the advantage even if the game wasn’t at home. OSU doesn’t have a particularly competent QB on the roster, might still be limited in the running game, and has never been very consistent in the air. As for the defense, it looks good on paper but was also gashed by a mediocre MSU run game, and it sure seems like a couple of those guys are looking toward playing on Sunday. I don’t expect UM to run the ball particularly well, but it’s clear that Harbaugh has a number of tricks up his sleeve, and OSU is in enough disarray that I could see them win going away. Regardless, it’s going to be a fun week and, I hope, and even more fun Thanksgiving weekend.
Viva Dad Rock!
This game in a single image:
That’s Wilford Brimley (as “Uncle Douvee”), on a horse, with a bow and arrow, escaping a fireball created by the dynamite he placed around his cabin deep in Bayou, which he detonated to kill a phalanx of guns-for-hire trying to kill him and his “nephew”, Jean Claude Van Damme’s “Chance Boudreaux”, is the movie Hard Target. It is an incredibly dumb movie that may be the best 97 minutes you can spend in a day.
Tanner Mangum and the BYU offense was that cabin on Saturday, except UM wasn’t a bunch of goons circling in for the kill, but instead a bunch of grizzled warriors streaking away on their trusted steeds, swatting away passes, grinding up linemen, and warning all those who listen about the dangers of high blood sugar.
Michigan gave up exactly 3 offensive plays over 10 yards, and one was the Stribling near-INT that became a tip-drill reception on the second drive of the game for the Cougars. BYU’s average yards per play was 2.1, and it was nicely split between 2.3 yards per rush and 2.0 yards per attempt in the air. BYU punted 11 of the 12 times they had the ball, with the 12th possession ending the game. On those other 11 drives, they didn’t have a drive longer than 8 plays or for more than 41 yards, and went 3-and-out 7 times and had two 6-play drives that netted them…0 and 8 yards, respectively. Hell, it took BYU playing out the string on the last drive of the game to crack 100 yards of total offense.
On the other side of the ball, UM’s offense did what you kind of expected. After the first drive of the game resulted in a quick 3-and-out and a couple of “yeesh” collar pulls from the faithful as Rudock looked out of sorts with ill-timed passes, the offense proceeded to march down the field on it’s next 5 possessions and score 4 TDs and a FG. All those drives were for at least 47 yards, including drives of 80, 90, and 68 yards, the first two being of the bludgeoning 10-play variety and the other featuring Smith Beast Moding through BYU.
— Michigan on BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) September 26, 2015
Smith finished with 125 yards and the above-noted TD on 16 carries, the team recorded 254 on 51 with two more rushing TDs from 2015’s Dual Threet Memorial Award Recipient Jake Rudock, and that was with UM definitely letting up on the gas a bit in the 2nd half. And a week after his worse passing performance as a Wolverine (and, in all fairness, probably as a starter anywhere), Rudock had the quintessential Rudock-ian performance, completing 56% of his throws for 7.76 ypa and a TD, got rid of the ball when that was the right call and, for the first time this year, finished without a turnover. As per usual, he spread the ball around (9 different players caught at least one pass, with Darboh leading the way with 4), and (usually) ran the ball effectively when necessary.
Last week I described the game against UNLV as the most vanilla game possible, with Michigan going full Milton Berle* after the half. Some people criticized that playcalling because of the passing game’s struggles, but I thought it was appropriate given how overmatched UNLV looked. And that’s why I think Harbaugh is different than a lot of college coaches – he does what he needs to win a game and improve his team, but outside of perhaps a rivalry game he doesn’t seem particularly wired to improve the “optics” of a win by running up the score. If this was Mortal Kombat, he wouldn’t go for the fatality; he’d just let your player stumble around and fall over while he’s taking another sip from his can of Crystal Pepsi.
So in this game, UM basically did the same thing after the half, being content to run the ball (25 times in that second half vs. 10 passes) and getting off the field with minimal injuries (it doesn’t sound like Smith’s ankle is all that bad). It was just that the first half wasn’t so much vanilla as Superman ice cream covered with Viagra and cocaine.
It’s been three weeks now of UM dismantling their opponents to a degree we haven’t seen around these parts in nearly a decade. Since Utah, UM has outscored their opponents 94-14, and you could argue that’s a bit misleading given how often UM has let up on the gas in the second half. It’s still a long season ahead, but at this point it’s hard not to be excited about the heights this team could hit this year and beyond.
* Milton Berle was known for having a rather large member, and was (in)famous for winning, um, measuring contests handily, with Jackie Gleason once advising him to “go ahead, Milton, just take out enough to win.” And no, Google image searching isn’t a good idea on your work computer.
It’s getting more and more difficult to come up with superlatives to describe the defensive effort we’ve seen every week by this team. Oregon State just put up 24 points and 386 yards against Stanford on Friday, or 17 more points and 248 more yards than they did against UM, and 79 of those yards came on their one scoring drive to open the game. That same Utah outfit that dropped 62 on Oregon on the road could barely muster 17 against UM, and UNLV just put up 72 points against Idaho St.
As Brian noted last week, UNLV was so scared of Peppers and co. wreaking them on screens that they didn’t even consider throwing one to the one NFL-quality guy on their offense until well into the blowout. They basically pitched a shutout until Decker hit Boyd on a couple of nice passes late in the game.
And in this game, BYU barely scraped by 100 yards total of offense after coming into the game averaging about 430 yards/gm before the day started. Tanner Mangum, he of the 12.3 ypc and numerous long-range bombings, averaged 4.6 ypc in this game, and if you throw out his tip-drill completion of 14 yards you get 3.7 ypc.
I’m not sure that any team in the country has been playing better defense than UM thus far this season (given how their opponents have looked against other squads), and that’s with breaking in a new corner, the loss of Mone before the season, and the various transition costs associated with the coaching change even with the Mattison-aided continuity.
Best: No More Mr. Nice Guy
The defensive dominance thus far begins with this defensive line. You know you absolutely dominated a team’s offensive line when your leading tackler is a cornerback (Stribling with 4), followed by your NT and DE with 3 a piece (Glasgow and Ojemudia). Your top tackler in the LB core was Ben Gedeon, with 2 of his 3 tackles on kick returns, and it wasn’t for a lack of effort by Desmond, Gedeon, Ross and Bolden. It was just that when an opposing team runs 50 plays, 16 of which end in incompletions, there aren’t that many opportunities for your second level to get to the ball carrier. The defensive line recorded 3 sacks on Mangum, 5 more QB hits, and held BYU’s leading RB Adam Hine to 33 yards on 8 carries, or 4 yards on 7 carries if you throw out a 29-yard scamper in the first quarter. And I’d like to single out Ryan Glasgow, who had 2 TFLs and just demolished BYU’s offensive line for long stretches of this game.
Best: Blinded by the Light
During the telecast, McDonough and Spielman talked about how UM’s defense has been, both by ranking and in actuality, very good these past couple of years, and how they were put in bad positions by the offense. And while that is absolutely true, I also think the insinuation that UM could have “relied” on those defenses to win games, as they seem capable to do with the 2015 outfit, is not. The defense under Hoke was quintessential Carr-ian – great when you “put on your big-boy pants” and smash into each other like wildebeests or when UM had a clear physical superiority, but increasingly anachronistic when tasked with stopping the more “modern” offenses you see across college football. The talent was there, but as soon as the QB started to move around the pocket and little slot receivers were introduced, the schemes seemed to fall apart or, at the very least, seemed unable to adapt quickly. They looked great on paper until they were punched in the mouth, and then all bets were off.
This team is different – when you punch this defense in the mouth, it goes all T-1000/Borg on you, assimilating your tendencies and exploiting your weaknesses, and that’s when the fun stops. I know it’s early in his tenure, but I think this flexibility, this adaptability, will be the greatest benefit D. J. Durkin brings to this team. This is going to sound incredibly cliche (as is most of this post), but the players are being put in positions to succeed, and you see that not only in the box score and the RPS scores, but in the scary calm you feel when the ball leaves the QB’s hand and you are reasonably confident that a cornerback will be in the right position on the receiver, with safety help on the way. It’s when you see a jet sweep or a short WR screen and know that a linebacker and Peppers is about to hold it to minimal gain. When you see Mangum spin away from the pressure (and there was always pressure), survey downfield with that cannon ready to go off for a 65-yard field-flipping dart, and have to dump it off behind or over his nearest receiver because there isn’t anyone breaking in the secondary and a couple of maize and blue jerseys are bearing down with cruel intentions.
I’m sure those around these parts with more football knowledge will point out areas where the defense still struggles, and I recognize that teams with solid offensive lines (MSU) or dynamic playmakers (OSU) will probably still give them headaches, but as we stand here on the last weekend of September, I don’t see a single offense on the schedule that UM can’t adapt to rather effectively.
Best: Born to Run
Another weak, another dominant performance on the ground. This week it was De’Veon Smith rumbling for 125 yards, including a 60-yard score that was basically the physical manifestation of De’Veon Smith if Smith wasn’t a human being already.
It’s a video game play, but not like a football video game play, but instead like Dig Dug where Smith just burrowed underneath everyone and popped out on the other end with nobody the wiser. Brian keeps saying Smith is the closest runner he’s seen to Mike Hart, and this play is the type Hart pulled out for 4 years. Just seeing a hole and deciding he won’t get tackled until he’s in the endzone or the entire defense lassos him down.
Credit should again be given to the offensive line. TFLs were minimal, and while BYU doesn’t have a dominant run defense UM’s backs were rarely being hit in that first half until they were 3-4 yards pass the line of scrimmage. Even when Rudock was sacked, it didn’t feel so much like the line broke down in protection as much as BYU just brought the right number of people and Rudock either held onto the ball a bit too long or just ate the sack because the game was so out of reach. I’ll be interested to see how they grade out this weekend, especially Braden and Glasgow, who seemed to just be manhandling guys at times.
And Jake Rudock showed the type of mobility that Harbaugh expects in his QBs, which brought a new dimension to the offense that absolutely helped loosen up those defensive fronts. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to run for quite that freely against the better lines in this conference, but even the threat of Rudock on passing downs should add a needed dimension to the offense going forward.
Best: Carry on Wayward Son
I mentioned it earlier, but Jake Rudock had the best game of his short UM career but being, well, Jake Rudock. His completion percentage was a bit lower than you kind of thought watching the game (though 56% on 25 throws with a number of out-of-bound throws in the second half to save downs attributed to that number), but after the first-drive jitters he looked really solid out. Ace linked to it in his recap, but this catch by Darboh felt like the turning point for Rudock’s day, even though it was early in the first quarter.
All year I’ve been noticing that while Rudock clearly had issues with downfield accuracy and vision, he was also not being bailed out by his receivers the way all QBs tend to. And it’s when you get one or two of those “my bad” balls on the positive side of the ledger that not only do you look better in the box score but you also play better.
Rudock is a 5th-year senior and he has his limitations, including a desire to make the “perfect” throw instead of the “let my guy be better than the other guy”, but I always thought had he connected on one of those long throws to Chesson or Darboh against Utah, or those clear PIs against Darboh by OSU, or that twisty-turning bomb to Darboh against UNLV, he’d have looked better on the scoresheet and, I think, fans would have been less bothered by fears of his limited arm strength or ability to stretch the field. As soon as UM’s new American Hero did his best Odell Beckham, you could see the offense open up and Rudock become more comfortable. It is incredibly feelingsball, but trust in your receivers is essential for any QB, and today you saw what a competent, comfortable Rudock brings to this offense.
Now, Rudock still needs to improve his timing and reading of the play (he missed a BYU corner slipping on his first pass that would have been for huge yards, he threw a ball to Canteen before he even turned around, was quick on a short pass to I believe Darboh on that first scoring drive, and nearly threw a pick on a blown-up WR screen), but he looked light-years better than he did even a month ago. And he seemed comfortable throwing to everyone, which explains why 9 Wolverines caught balls and Khalid Hill caught twice as many as Jake Butt without it looking remotely out of place. My hope is that he looks good against Will Likely next week before taking on NW and MSU.
Sorta-Worst: Down Under
Because I have to be cautionary about something, I guess, I was a little bothered by O’Neill seemingly unilaterally deciding to run on 4th-and-16 in the 3rd quarter. Love the Aussie spirit, but in games that aren’t quite such a blowout it probably isn’t a great idea to try to run for a first on your own half of the field with that make acreage ahead of you. I like that the punter has the ability to make that call in Baxter’s special teams because of its unpredictability, but that was the wrong one to make given the circumstances.
Oh, also, my heart breaks a little seeing Jake Rudock run this offense and remembering that Devin Gardner was stuck playing in Hoke’s dinosaur offense for years. Nevermind…I’m moving on.
Best: Don’t Stop Believing
Last week I talked about how I thought UM had a real chance to upset both MSU and OSU this season, and there was a contingent of readers who thought I was a bafflingly-myopic homer. And I’ll totally cop to that somewhat. But right now, OSU has some questions at the QB position and has struggled against pretty mediocre competition despite the final score. The NIU game was probably closer on the scoreboard than in reality, but Cardale Jones remains a guy who completes a bit over 55% of his passes and looks less and less like a major running threat as teams start to prey on his accuracy. Obviously, having Barrett off the bench to step in if necessary is a great luxury, but this remains a boom-or-bust offense that relies heavily on its defense to cover up their mistakes, and that might not hold true for the rest of the season. It sucks that UM won’t play them until the end of the year because I assume they’ll have some of these issues ironed out by then, but it remains a very vulnerable #1 team.
As for MSU, they were outgained for the 3rd straight game, this time by Central, and may have lost Conklin for some time. That Oregon win is looking less and less impressive and the Ducks play well below expectations, most recently getting waxed by Utah at home. This year they are also suffering some sustained injuries to key players (Davis, Conklin, Copeland, Kieler) for the first time in this current renaissance, and depth is becoming a major issue. Playing Purdue and Rutgers should give them some time to at least try out replacements and heal up, but after what UM has done to teams like Utah and BYU defensively, I’m not sure Connor Cook is going to look like the first-round QB some are touting him as. And that defense isn’t getting any better in the secondary, so if UM can establish a running game the screens and play-action throws might be there for the first time in years.
I know there are games to be played and UM still has to face tough defenses like PSU and Minny along the way, but at this point I’d be disappointed if UM didn’t at least split with MSU and OSU and be in it for the division title at the end of the year.
Best: Already Gone
Looks at schedule
Outside of one player, maybe two, Michigan's wide receiving corps is almost a complete unknown heading into fall camp -- which begins Aug. 7 in Ann Arbor.
Did you know?
Amara Darboh has an "extra muscle" in his forearms.
Here is an article about it. Why? MOAR to read about as you wait for the season.