SIAP - Some analysis from Inside the Pylon on the Senior Bowl, Michigan player snippets below:
Chris Wormley and Isaac Rochell both had strong weeks as long, powerful defenders who could play 5 technique in a 3-4 front or make the move inside to 3 tech and hold their own. Wormley is extremely heavy-handed and plays with excellent leverage and technique, consistently winning first contact with a strong first step. He’s not a top-tier athlete, but Wormley has a few go-to moves as a pass rusher and knows how to counter.
Ryan Glasgow and Eddie Vanderdoes aren’t too different as prospects, both wide-set interior defensive lineman who play physical and aggressive despite being mediocre athletes. Vanderdoes has more pass rush juice than Glasgow, displaying a nice spin and swim to recover when his first move was stymied. Glasgow might be stronger, but he’s just 297 pounds to Vanderdoes’s 320, and I don’t know that the Michigan product can be an interchangeable nose and 3 tech at the NFL level. Vanderdoes is a better fit as a true nose, but he’s not going to be a long/late downs presence, which likely means a two-down role for him as a pro.
Jourdan Lewis and Desmond King came in as two of the bigger name corners at the event, but both left with mixed reviews...Lewis seemed to struggle to identify routes and flip his hips in a timely fashion, but he competes at the catch point and had more highs than King did throughout the week.
Darboh had arguably the most consistent week of practice from a receiver on the North team. ITP’s own Shane Alexander said that Darboh really impressed him during the weigh-ins with his physique. He measured in at 6’1 ¾”, 215 lbs with 9 ⅞” hands. He showed some good straight-line speed, giving cornerbacks issues when running deeper routes in one-on-ones as well as seven-on-sevens. Darboh also impressed with his smooth route-running ability. One catch that comes to mind was when he won on a fade route to the back corner of the end zone.
Everyone is enjoying the sigh of relief upon the news that Bryan Mone wont be out for the season, but it does sound like he will be out for a few weeks (see here).
My question to the board is (and Mods feel free to delete this if you think this topic should have been under the Injury Timlines post... just thought this was a slightly different conversation):
What is Michigan's best option for NT depth for week 2? How I see it:
1. Move Mo Hurst over to play NT. We know how that went last year but the difference would be he's not on an island at that position, so to speak. Glasgow still takes the majority of snaps and the drop off is relatively minimal.
2. Make Onwenu a NT for the time being due to depth needs. This option captializes on Hurst being better utilized as a 3 tech and allows for those times when we want to bounce Wormley out to SDE. Downside is playing a true freshman at NT where some seasoning is the best case scenario.
3. Get creative with some different packages that maybe don't leverage a 0-1 Tech quite as much. (MOAR RASHAN GARY!!!)
4. Something else?
What does the board think?
Didn't see this on the board yet, but Chris is coming back for his 5th year.
So we've got that going for us. Which is nice.
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.
If you are coming here looking for rants, I might have a couple but I’m remarkably, I don’t know, accepting of yesterday’s insanity. Probably one of those grief stages. So fair warning (unless you are a referee in this game – for you, I’ll make an exception).
Best: A Broken Heart Mended
I was 13 when Kordell Stewart ripped UM’s heart out. For some reason I thought I was younger, but maybe that was just because I was a late convert to UM football in that respect. I cheered on UM because they crossed the family TV screen most Saturdays, but I was a Pistons (and, honestly, an NBA) fan at my core. I went to a couple games a year, voraciously read box scores each morning during the season, and consumed as much content as possible about the NBA. If I had any football fandom in my body, it was for Barry Sanders, tragically dragging the Lions along with his brilliance under a baggy dome.
College football was just a thing that was on, the white noise machine of fall Saturdays. I cheered UM because of their ubiquity and prominence locally. I cheered because of the uniforms, the pageantry during the Tournament of Roses before the Rose Bowl, and the fact that they always seemed to win. My dad had gone to UM but never wore that connection on his sleeve, and I was still a bit too young to care about academics and job prospects, the objective metrics that led me to attend UM. Hell, I’m not even sure when we got ESPN on cable (and chances are had I stumbled upon it, it wouldn’t have been football). No, my relationship with UM football was one of convenience and detachment, where I would cheer because UM was usually winning or losing in conventional manners, and I knew enough about the sport to accept that at face value.
Until that play. I still remember sitting with my dad on the coach in the living room, just watching it unfold. My Dad assumed the game was over; it was 70+ yards to the lip of the endzone, and while Stewart had a cannon this was an era before the internet, before on-the-field Statz and talking heads, before constant replays and trips to the video archives between timeouts, so there wasn’t much in the way of foreshadowing. You knew about the Flutie Miracle, The Miracle in the Meadowlands, and The Band on the Field between Cal and Stanford, but it always felt distant and unimaginable, moments of affliction that deeply wound the participants but are mostly macabre blips in everyone else’s memory. Those plays happened to them, not us.
So it felt almost like a fait accompli that UM would win the game after Colorado’s last-gasp attempt, with (I’m guessing) most in the stands wondering if Stewart would even be able to get the ball to the endzone. It seemed impossible to contemplate anything more. And then the ball sailed from his arm like a rocket, and you could tell even the camera man was caught a bit off guard. He just kept panning, panning, panning into the endzone, and then a bunch of limbs reached out like a preacher’s chorus praising the gods of football, and the ball caromed into the waiting arms of Michael F’ing Westbrook, and then it was over.
And at that moment, even though it took a couple of more years for me to fully realize it, I became a UM football fan. You can’t have your heart broken like that, to see your guys lose a game because of celestial forces and cold physics, and not have that feeling wiggle its way into your rib cage and never leave. From that day forward, I always made sure to check the box scores every Sunday morning, to track the AP polls, to know how the Wolverines did. I started to get annoyed with the 8-4 seasons, the seemingly annual underperformance, and then the ascendant ‘97 season hooked me forever. I was in the stands when Notre Dame nearly drove the field with no timeouts in 1999, unable to catch my breath. I watched them lose to Purdue and Northwestern in heartbreaking fashion in 2000, and then 2001 with the damn Clockgate against MSU. And when I graduated and moved away, I still followed the team, yelping uncontrollably after Braylonfest, losing my mind after the New Math game, and giggling myself silly when ND left Gallon all alone in 2011. The 2006 game against OSU, Horror, everything that transpired under RR and Hoke (including the heartbreaking 2009 loss to MSU), and now this game all fell on the other side of the ledger.
I know people want to frame this as a curse, some lingering bad juju from the clusterfuck hanging over the program since Bo died, but I don’t think that’s it. Every game, both in the micro level and in the macro sense, creates fans and keeps them there. And this element of fandom is a zero-sum game; for every breathtaking win there must be a heartbreaking loss, only the names and faces change. They come about organically, and sometimes the most fertile soil is littered with shitty outcomes. But you can’t root for something and be surprised when they don’t come out on top all the time, and while I’m going to try to frame this as a sign of good things to come, of a team that is growing into something special and a future that is brighter today than it was 2 months ago, that’s not going to take the sting away, and it shouldn’t. But you don’t win all those games without a couple of tough losses, and sometimes you’ve got to wade through some foul stuff in order to come out better on the other side.
Worst: Leave Blake Alone!
Objectively, that last play was terrible. It was a series of small disasters that snowballed into an improbably loss. It was a low-ish snap that O’Neill couldn’t get ahold of, resulting in the ball being bobbled. UM, knowing his tendency to run to the right before booting the ball, shifted the shield in that direction but left nobody on the back side to handle the 4 MSU rushers from that direction. Had there even been one blocker extra on that side, I wonder if MSU is able to get to Blake quite that quickly. Once the ball was snapped, the offensive line started running down the field to cover the punt even though it didn’t appear MSU had anyone returning it, leaving even fewer players back to hold up the rush. Then, in his attempt to at least get the ball off, O’Neill kicked the ball right into the arms of the MSU defender, who then stumbled his way to the endzone. As others have noted, O’Neill probably should have fallen on the ball and just given up the field position, since MSU still would have had time for maybe 1 or 2 more plays with about half the field to go. But in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to fault a kid for trying to make a play.
Ultimately, it was the play that cost UM the win, but it wasn’t because of any single player. It was just a bit if bad luck at the worst possible time. And while the vast majority of the fanbase responded positively toward O’Neill, it must be stated again that if you think calling for a kid to be deported or kicked off the team, or sending him Twitter-muscle shade, or anything else that prompted Jim Hackett to send a formal letter to the fans and students to lay off of O’Neill, well…
Best: Rationalize away Merrill
ST3’s always-excellent column touched on some of these points, but this was a game far closer than the yardage would lead you to believe. You skim the narrative being put forth by the MSU faithful today, the argument for why MSU won wasn’t because they got the flukiest f*ing play in recent memory but because UM got incredibly lucky because the MSU offense was unstoppable and MSU’s defense was demolishing UM’s attack.
Now, MSU’s passing game was pretty solid (328 yards, 8.4 ypa, 1:0 TD:INT) in aggregate, but Cook still completed less than 50% of his passes, and 74 of those yards came on a busted play to FB Trevon Pendleton. Yes that play happened, but it was also an extreme outlier that goosed the numbers a bit. Throw that out and you have far more pedestrian numbers (254 yards, 6.9 ypa), furthered buoyed by some questionable penalties that kept MSU drives going (the 12 men on the field penalty was correct; the extremely questionable Lewis holding call where the receiver fell into the official that wiped out a pick, the targeting atrocity on Bolden, and the personal foul on Henry for tackling a player before the whistle was blown all felt like missteps) and some great catches by Burbridge. Some fans will argue that Cook was let down by his other receivers (most notably Kings) due to some drops, but that’s the equivalent of arguing “the computer is cheating” whenever your game of Madden mirrors reality a bit and mediocre WRs drop balls. To Cook’s credit, though, he made some great throws in tight windows, and while I still wouldn’t trust him to run my NFL franchise, he played well enough against UM.
By comparison, I thought Rudock had a fine game. He played the game like a QB whose team had the lead for virtually the entire game and knew that the worst thing he could do was give MSU a short field with a bad throw. He completed 60% of his throws for around 6.7 ypa and kept the sheet clean, while lofting a couple of nice balls to both Darboh and Chesson to come back to for completions. In fact, 7 of his 15 completions were for 1st downs (to Cook’s credit, he had 13 for first downs as well, but he also threw the ball 14 more times than Rudock). He continues to struggle throwing the ball deep, jarring in this game due to MSU’s poor corner play, though at some point you have to wonder if there’s a bit Luis Mendoza in his main deep threat, Chesson, who has amazing speed but just has never seemed able to harness it properly as a receiver (obviously he’s had a bit more success on returns and designed runs). But as Brian and others have said, if this is the Rudock UM gets this season, they should win every game except OSU, and until the last 10 seconds, he did more than enough to get this team the win.
MSU never established the running game (yes they had injuries to the offensive line and Jack Allen was out, but MSU has struggled all year on the ground), with the top 3 backs averaged about 2.7 ypc, which was less than the 3.5 ypc picked up by Smith and Houma, the two leading rushers for UM. For the game, UM had more and better rushes than MSU, and that includes knocking off 15 yards for O’Neill’s final punt play. Michigan scored in all 5 of their red zone trips while MSU only scored on 2 of them, missing two FGs and turning the ball over on downs. In fact, MSU failed to convert 4th downs 4 times in this game, only one of which would be considered required (the seemingly last drive on 4th and 19). Hell, dad they lost this game, people would have questioned Dantonio’s decision to call a pretty obvious fake punt that was stopped and UM turned into a TD.
As for defensive dominance by MSU, that doesn’t ring all that true either. MSU scored on 3 of their 12 drives (I’m excluding the end of the half and the last blocked return), while UM scored on 5 of their 13. UM had 3 sacks for 29 yards, matching MSU, and while UM had two less TFLs, theirs resulted in more lost yardage than those by MSU (7 to 9 TFLs, but 37 yards compared to MSU’s 23). MSU had one more QB hit, but UM had 10 (!!) pass breakups, including 6 by Lewis. The teams had basically the same 3rd-down conversion rate (MSU was 3/12, UM 4/15), and UM converted more in the 2nd half (3/10) than MSU (1/6).
The reason MSU had so many more yards compared to UM had largely to do with special teams decidedly going in UM’s favor (along with MSU’s poor conversion rate), with O’Neill averaging 44.6 yards on 7 punts, highlighted by the field-shifting 80 yarder in the first quarter, and pining MSU inside their own 20 two more times. By comparison, MSU averaged 37 yards on 5 punts, including one touchback. And as for returning said kicks, UM pantsed MSU mercilessly, with Peppers and Chesson picking up 154 yards on 7 returns while MSU snagged 54 yards on 4 returns. It all added up to UM starting on it’s own 38 while MSU had an average starting drive on their own 22 yard line. So yeah, that’s where your 150-ish difference in yardage mostly came from; UM didn’t need to go as far to score, so they didn’t.
MSU played well enough to win; UM suffered by not converting a couple more of those redzone trips into touchdowns, and that ultimately cost them at the end. But don’t for a second believe that MSU “deserved” to win this game because the people making the arguments fear basic math. It was a close game that went against UM due to the most freakish of plays possible, nothing more and nothing less.
Meh: Offensive Line Expectations Ticked Down
Yes this is MSU, and yes they again appeared to have a jump on a number of snaps (the 3 goal line runs capped off by Houma’s TD in the 3rd quarter all featured MSU players jumping the snap successfully), but I thought the offensive line did struggle at the point of attack, especially in the running game. MSU’s defensive line is the obvious strength of their unit, and it played well, consistently getting pressure and clogging up the running lanes. Thomas, who I still think is more a uniform stuffer than an elite talent, was second on the team with 7 tackles and held the edge well when UM (illogically) attacked it. I’m sure there were bad cuts by Smith that led to some stops, but like in the Utah game, you can see the deficiencies that submarine the rushing attack against elite defensive lines. Luckily, there aren’t a huge number of those lines left on the schedule, with OSU seemingly being the only sure bet to reproduce this level of disruption.
As for passing downs, it’s harder to tell because Rudock seemed willing to take a couple of sacks instead of throwing the ball downfield. Calhoun was consistently getting pressure and MSU got a couple free runs from their LBs, but it wasn’t the demolition we’ve seen in years past. Rudock appears to have all of his ribs and soul intact, which is a marked improvement for UM signal callers in this rivalry. And as noted above, the passing game was reasonably efficient even though the screen game, which might have loosened up the pressure a bit, was lacking. Overall, it felt like a decent performance by an average line but perhaps not the step forward fans had hoped for coming into the game. At the same time, it wasn’t a huge setback, it was just a reality check that this year’s rushing attack won’t approach the best units under Harbaugh’s various regimes.
Best: Jourdan MF Lewis
Nothing was more entertaining than seeing MSU fans complain about Lewis “mugging” Burbridge throughout the game on his way to 6 pass breakups and a pretty decent effort against MSU’s sole real passing threat. Lewis, of course, is just playing the same type of physical, grabby defense MSU introduced to the conference some years back, just perhaps at a better level than either Waynes or Dennard every did. Being a shutdown corner doesn’t necessarily mean that the guy you cover never catches a ball, especially when the opponent doggedly targets him because they literally had no other competent options (Burbridge was targeted 19 times in this game).
Instead, it means making it as difficult as possible for the offense to consistently complete passes to your side and limiting the damage when they do, and Lewis did that in spades. Even though Burbirdge finished with 9 catches for 132 yards, he only had 3 catches after halftime, and at least two of them were just great plays by him despite great coverage by Lewis. Lewis was also the victim of a pick play in the 2nd quarter (I believe) that Brandstatter called out immediately when it happened. Overall, he played like the All-American he’s being touted as and performed well in a tough matchup against a good receiver.
Best: Defensive Line Expectations Ticked Up
I know MSU had some injuries on the line, but I thought the defensive line, in particular Wormley and Henry, were great in this game. The front 4 recorded 3 sacks, held MSU’s rushing attack in check, got consistent pressure on Cook even when the Spartans left extra blockers in, and generally played like the dominating unit they’ve seen this whole year. They were also active in the passing lanes, with both Wormley and Henry recording pass breakups as well. I await Glasgow’s score in the UFR, but he seemed to hold up decently against a solid MSU interior, and both Jenkins-Stone and Hurst had some nice TFLs in there as well.
Will OSU give them problems? Probably, but even then I’m not sure we’re going to see Elliott plowing past them like he has against most other units. This remains a terrifyingly-good unit, and one that you hope will largely return next year to go along with the return of Mone and (fingers crossed) some high-end defensive tackle recruits. I’m certainly intrigued about next year under this coaching staff.
Best: Peppers Army Knife
Peppers was deployed everywhere possible in this game, and he excelled at all of them. He flipped the field with some great punt returns, had a great 28-yard pass/run play to set up a TD, and did well the couple of times MSU challenged him. He’s obviously still not a finished product, but the strides he’s made in these six games definitely give some credence to the “Woodson” comparisons that seemed a little far-fetched at the start of the year.
Worstest: These F*ing Guys
By the time they went to the review booth for the third time on UM’s goal line run, you could hear the announcers lose their patience (and for the record, I could understand the argument that Houma’s momentum was stopped, but he played to the whistle, which allowed him to score). And even at that point, the refs had a handful more dubious calls to make (Henry’s drive-extending PF, Jake Butt’s probably-a-catch that would have kept a late UM drive alive, Shelton’s “two guys are saying he’s out, but let’s trust the idiots in the booth” catch along the sidelines). The Bolden ejection was terrible in real-time and looked even worse on the numerous replays, as the refs initially tried to frame it as Morgan head-hunting when in fact Cook baseball slid in, then compounded the error by ignoring Conklin clearly throwing Bolden down on top of him. It was a terrible call, an inexcusable call, and yet not all that surprising given how the season has gone in terms of referee miscues.
I understand that being a referee is a thankless job; jagoffs like me freak out every time you screw up and don’t recognize when you get it right. But at the same time, you can’t make a series of illogical calls throughout a game and just chalk it up to “human error” and whatnot when you ALSO try to correct every possible call using video replay. In a game like this between two evenly-matched teams, one team losing its leading tackler due to a dubious call while the other received a fifth of their first downs by penalties is insane, especially when neither team is particularly known for being penalty-prone. And the thing is, this isn’t a Kings-Lakers situation where there might have been actual bias involved; it was just a series of terrible calls without reprieve. And as grown-ass adults who are tasked with calling a game as well as possible, this officiating crew failed, and it failed hard. It didn’t cost UM the game; that’s a fool’s argument to make, especially given how the final play turned out. But it doesn’t make the clown show we all watched any more palpable.
Best: A Week Off
On the one hand it sucks that UM is going to have to wait 2 weeks to wash the taste of this loss from their mouths, but on the other hand it should mitigate any hangover that could linger against the Gophers. UM played like the top-15 team they have shown thus far, and while they certainly shouldn’t have been in any national title talk, they looked a hell of a lot closer to MSU than they had coming into the year. That’s progress I’ll take.
I’m not sure about next week. I might do a mid-season recap, take a break, or something in between. But in a blink of an eye, there are only 5 more games left on the schedule, with the bowl game being the 6th. And I’m going to try to enjoy the last couple weeks as best as possible.