to play football, not to play trumpet
Jake Butt expects to decide his NFL future in the next week or so. Says he's 50/50. Needs to get Harbaugh's input.— Adam Schnepp (@aeschnepp) December 7, 2015
Butt says been hearing he'd be top 3 rounds which is why considering NFL. If he hears he's not he's definitely coming back— angelique (@chengelis) December 7, 2015
Okay, now that that’s out of the way.
Worst: Freaky Saturday
Usually I take this opening section to lay out a narrative for the rest of the diary, provide some holistic summation of the last game and how it fits into the context of a season, a player or coach, the program, something. Lord knows I’ve gone through my fair number of shoehorns to make some of these stories fit, but the goal is always to let the moments breath a little while also trying to make some sense out of what happened on gameday, to not over-analyze it but also connect the data points and tease out what the past my portend for the future.
But try as I might, it just wasn’t coming to me this week. Maybe it’s because the next couple games will be what defines this season. It’s always hinged on how UM performs against their two biggest rivals, and throw in a feisty, sometimes absurdly tony-deaf Nittany Lions, and there isn’t much room left in my gut to get worked up over the collective gristle that the conference otherwise produces every year. And while IU is always game for a shootout, and the results sometimes harrowing, the reality is they haven’t beaten UM since 1987 and only have 1 win in the last 36 contests.
Or maybe Harbaugh’s mere presence on the sidelines has validated all the optimism that enveloped the program as soon as his plane touched down, dulling the game-to-game fluctuations in coaching staff faith that used to fuel a decent part of these columns. After limping through almost a decade of ineptitude and mismanagement, the fact that UM is in a position to challenge for a conference title, to play in the Rose Bowl or even something more, feels like manna from the heavens. Sure, I want UM to keep winning now and forever, but I no longer worry as much about what one or two losses might mean, or if the most recent struggles are indicative of a collapse. This is year 1 of what (I assume) is a multi-decade run of glory for the Wolverines, so if it’s a bit rough go to start I’m not going to get too worked up about it.
Or maybe it’s because there are certainly more important things going on in the world* than how a bunch of college kids did playing a sport for our collective entertainment, even though I’m well aware that finding enjoyment in sport does not invalidate or minimize the emotions one can feel about what else happened this weekend. But this was just an absurdly-weird game that worked out for the good guys, even though it exposed a number of potential problems (depth issues behind Glasgow, poor LB play, continued struggles running the ball) and strengths (Rudock as a playmaker, (re) emergence of Butt, pass defense maturation). It featured Jake Rudock throwing for more TDs in a game than anyone in UM history, Jordan Howard nearly tripling the number of yards on the ground UM gives up during an entire game, 89 combined points with over 1,000 combined total yards, and an ending sequence where UM scored 3 TDs in a total of 4 plays. In short, it was a college football game in November, and we were all brought along for the ride.
* This is a no-politics blog and I am one of the more stringent “there are literally a thousand other sites where you can have those conversations” proponents of that rule, but it was a pretty rough weekend across the globe.
Worst: Owners of a [Broken] Heart
I want to take a minute to, I don’t know, empathize with the IU fans for another heart-breaking loss in a season marked by an absurd number of them. Yes, I recognize that virtually all of the losses are due to fundamental weaknesses of the Hoosiers, namely on defense; as the announcers kept pointing out, IU has one of the best scoring margins in the 3rd quarter (something like +7 points) and the worst in the 4th (a bit over –8 points). Coming into the game, IU’s defense gave up about 500 yards of total offense a game, and their advanced stats aren’t much better. But still, to lose games to UM, Rutgers, OSU, MSU, and Iowa that you were definitely in a position to win late in the 4th quarter has to be dispiriting. And at least in this game, it wasn’t some massive brain fart or self-inflicted wound that did them in, unless you consider “defense” being that injury. They ran the ball about as well as possible against an undermanned-but-still-game UM defense, threw the ball decently enough, and even picked up a punt return to start the comeback in the second half.
And hell, on the final drive of the game they stopped UM 3 straight times as they tried to run the ball down their throats. That’s right, a Jim Harbaugh-led football team struggled to get a couple of yards on the ground against a team best encapsulated in this picture.
Now, you can see the ceiling for Indiana and the type of team they field under Kevin Wilson; I know people call them a chaos team, but lots of teams can move the ball effectively in today’s football landscape like IU does, but the good ones figure out a way to at least slow down the opposition semi-consistently. It’s why Baylor and Oregon have been consistently hanging out in the top 10 nationally for years while Texas Tech and and West Virginia are scrambling for bowl eligibility more times than not. With the (apparent) recruiting limitations at IU and their placement in the B1G East, it’s hard to see them winning more than 8 games in even the best seasons.
But still, man, it was a weird feeling watching UM escape Bloomington with the win. A big part of me was obviously ecstatic, happy to win another crazy game against the Hoosiers and excited that the potential run to the division title was still in place. And it’s not like they were “screwed” out of a win; they had multiple opportunities to stop UM and seal the game but they came up short. But a part of me just wanted to grab someone on that sideline and tell them
IU isn’t a football rival like MSU, OSU, or ND; I’m fine if any of those fans never see another win against UM. But IU is trying something fun and innovative in the conference, trying to win despite their limitations and not, say, sludgefart their way through 12 Saturdays a year like Rutgers or Maryland. And on that front, they’ve succeeded; I enjoy watching IU play football, even against UM, because at least they’re trying to make it work. And that’s why I want Wilson to stick around there versus IU “changing direction” and picking up some third-tier MAC castoff like the rest of the lower half of this conference, because I think this team is good for this league. So I’ll be pulling for IU the rest of the year, and hopefully they can beat Maryland and Purdue and be bowl eligible. And hopefully next year, they get that big scalp they’ve been chasing, as long as it isn’t Maize and Blue.
Worst: Unleashed the Glasgow! (Wait, We’re Out of Glasgows?)
So about that dominating, nation-leading rush defense. That Eater of Worlds on the ground…
Now up front, Jordan Howard is probably the second best back in the conference (behind Elliott). I’ve had him on my fantasy team all year and thus caught a couple of his games (including one against Wake Forest in some really ugly conditions), and he has this great blend of patience, power, and decisiveness when using his blockers that hasn’t been seen in Ann Arbor for what feels like ages. I know it took me a bit to realize that UM wasn’t playing all these runs terribly (at least early on), only that Howard was running what the offense was designed to do about as well as possible. Howard is just that good, and while he’s not the receiver or home-run threat Coleman was last year, it probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise that a guy who put up 1,500 yards at UAB last season (including 90 yards against Arkansas and 89 against Miss. St.) would be good in IU’s offense. And Indiana has an experienced offensive line with a couple of NFL-caliber linemen in Feeney and Spriggs, and even guys that have bounced around like their center Reed is a 5th-year senior with a decent number of starts under his belt. This is a team that gashed Iowa for even more ypc (5.8) than they did the Wolverines (5.6), and only struggled to move the ball on the ground when they were down both Studfeld and Howard against PSU.
So yeah, lose an all-conference-level DT, your run defense is going to take a hit against this team, but I don’t think anyone expected this to happen when Ryan Glasgow was (apparently) lost for the season. The drop-off from Glasgow to a guy like Hurst isn’t terrible, but the drop from Hurst as your backup to guys like Godin, Pallante, and Strobel is significantly more, which is a large reason why UM got run over for what felt like the entire 2nd half (IU running almost 90 plays didn’t help either). UM has been able to weather the losses of Mone and Ojemudia reasonably well because of the depth and flexibility of players on the defensive line, but this feels like one loss too much, and sadly it’s come at the time when they probably needed it the most with PSU and (especially) OSU next up. PSU isn’t likely to stress UM’s defensive line nearly to the same degree at the Hoosiers did, but OSU is basically IU on offense but with a bigger, faster back and a QB who can run through gaps as well as most runners (to say nothing of the inevitably Braxton Miller packages that I’m sure Meyer will break out).
This is when guys like Durkin and Mattison will have to earn their paychecks, shifting around the line as best as possible and shore up the middle while hoping the LBs and Peppers can handle anything that breaks outside. My guess is that Henry and Wormley will cycle inside more often, and if there is any potential hype left to wring out of Lawrence Marshall for this year you’d have to hope UM would try to set him loose just to give the line another able body. RJS (9 tackles, 2 TFLs including UM’s lone sack) and Charlton (5 tackles, 1 TFL) had solid games, so I don’t expect the unit to fall off a cliff even with some shuffling.
I know some are quick to wonder if moving guys like Strobel and Poggi to the offensive side of the ball was smart given the current dearth of tackles, but (a) it’s hard to plan on losing both NTs in a year, and (b) you have to see if guys buried on your depth chart can help out elsewhere, while still retaining at least the faint capability of bouncing back in an emergency. Well, consider that glass broken and the sirens blaring. We’ll see how the team responds next week in PSU; I’m guessing it won’t be giving up 300 yards, but I expect PSU to have moderate success moving the ball on the ground, especially if the game is close in the latter half.
Meh: The Rest of the Defense
It’s hard to tell how much of the rushing defense implosion was due to injuries on the line and how much was due to poor LB play, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these aren’t going to be super-positive grades for anybody in the front 7. Bolden caught a couple of blocks on plays, and the fact that both Gedeon and Ross had as many combined tackles as Channing Stribling isn’t a good sign. It does seem like defenses are starting to identify holes in the LB core (Minnesota picked on Bolden and Morgan in pass coverage, while IU picked apart them on the ground) and exploiting them. And if the line isn’t there to keep them clean, I’m not sure we’ll see dramatic improvement for the rest of the year. Again, I’ll wait for the UFR to see if it was just a combination of good playcalling and a great back, but I’m not optimistic.
It bears repeating, but when your leading tacklers are your safeties, that means you probably didn’t have a fun time out there. Hill had the game-ending pass breakup on Paige, and both helped to mitigate the damage somewhat whenever Howard got into the secondary, so there is some positives to take out of their performance. And while Sudfeld was kept reasonably clean, he also struggled at times to connect with his receivers (58% on completions for 6.5 ypa) and his one big pass play to Cobbs Jr. was a comebacker where Jeremy Clark was in decent enough position to make a play had he turned around in time. The game was pretty quiet on that front, and you have to think a large part was because Lewis and co. made it inadvisable to throw the ball (of course, the rush defense made it very welcoming to keep it on the ground).
IU is a weird offense to prepare for, and despite giving up over 500 yards and being on the field for 89 plays, they basically matched IU’s average for yard per play (5.9) and conceded 34 points. They forced the Hoosiers to kick FGs on their early drives, and were never really caught off-guard in the ways they were under Hoke. With a healthy Glasgow I doubt this game is as close, and PSU definitely isn’t going to tax them in the same ways.
Worst: Like Falling Off a Horse
After rushing for over 200 yards 4 of the first 6 games of the season (and barely missing a 5th with 198 yards), UM hasn’t come close to cracking that mark since the MSU game. Against IU they finally broke 5 yards a carry after failing to break 4 as a team against Minnesota and Rutgers, but that was mostly due to Rudock scampering for a bunch of first downs. And this little stretch of games was when I expected the running backs to establish themselves on the ground, facing some less-than-stout rush defenses.
But nope, they continued to struggle to break anything long (Rudock had a long of 23; Smith led the regular backs with a long of 20), and for the umpteenth time failed to make second-level defenders miss. Now, I’ll acknowledge that a part of this output is due to Rudock’s record-setting passing night, but I doubt UM’s gameplan envisioned him throwing the ball 46 times. And despite having a couple 5* backs and the leading rusher from last year seemingly healthy again, UM’s second back is Houma, a good runner for a FB but nobody’s ideal backup rusher.
I do think a decent amount of these struggles are due to offensive line issues; the fact they couldn’t get reasonable pushes on multiple goalline rushes on UM’s last two scoring drives of regulation was shocking. And IU inexplicably thought it was a better idea to fill the box and stop the run instead of, say, staying within 10 yards of UM’s receivers for much of the game. But all the rationalizations and philosophies shouldn’t really matter; at this point, a Jim Harbaugh-led team shouldn’t be pushed around by Indiana on both sides of the ball. Maybe Rudock’s recent strides will help to loosen up teams a bit, but if IU and Rutgers didn’t see the light I don’t expect the Nittany Lions or Buckeyes to do the same.
Going forward, I guess Smith is your feature back and everyone else nibbles at the scraps. I have 0% faith that they’ll break 100 yards against PSU or OSU, and that’s not in some reverse-jinx “Rudock will never complete a pass over 5 yards” thing, but in a “I don’t see how it happens unless someone just busts terribly” sort of way. The fact guys like Green (who I know was injured this week) and Isaac aren’t sniffing the field most games despite it all speaks volumes, and puts added pressure on Davis, Enis, or someone else coming in to be an “impact” rusher next year.
Best: More Than Jake
I'll admit; I thought Jake Rudock was a lost cause all of 2 weeks ago. My completely-baseless prognosis was that he had an undisclosed injury that severely limited his downfield accuracy and arm strength while also robbing him of the velocity you need for those short and intermediate routes that you expected from him when he arrived from Iowa. He struggled to get the ball to his receivers, hadn’t hit a pass longer than 20-ish yards down field without stupendous luck/terrible defense, and at times seemed stupefied by the playcalling.
But fast forward two weeks and Rudock has thrown for 770 yards on 71 attempts, a tidy 10.8 (!) ypa, and has a sparkling 8:1 TD:INT ratio. He’s also added 68 yards and a TD on 8 carries, picking up precious first downs with his legs in this game. Yes it’s been against terrible pass defenses, but he also failed to crack 200 yards against equally-moribund Oregon State and UNLV pass defenses. And for the first time all season, he seems to be hitting his receivers with the ball in places where they can make plays; witness Chesson catching passes of 34, 41, and 64 yards, Butt snagging another 29 on a decent ball, as well as Darboh’s game-winning catch that could have gone for 100 yards had it been necessary. He’s still got a propensity to leave balls a bit short (that 41-yarder to Chesson had a bit “Mitch Leidner inside back-shoulder post” to it), and that pick was another pass where he either didn’t see or didn’t compensate for the IU defender on his loft to Williams (though the IU safety made a great play to bring it down), but it still feels like he’s turned a major corner at just the right time. My new theory is that there was an evil, goateed doppelganger called “Jakke Ruddock” who had previously occupied his locker until the Minnesota game, wherein he was knocked out by the head-hunting Gophers and Jake Rudock was able to return back from the Netherrealm.
But I will say this with absolutely certainty: there is no way UM wins this game against IU without him. And given how much dirt was on top of his grave even a couple of years ago, I’m kind of amazed his TD celebration isn’t one of these:
Best: Now in Pairs!
For the first time in decades**, UM had two receivers break 100 yards receiving, including Chesson reeling in 4 TDs and over 200 yards on 10 catches. These are obviously all season and career highs, and continue a torrid scoring binge for him (7 TDs in the last 3 games). I’ll admit to being down on Chesson for most of this year, believing at least some of Rudock’s problems throwing the ball deep were due to his main deep threat’s inability to run the proper routes and/or reel in balls, but I stand corrected. We always knew he could do great things with the ball in his hands, but he’s starting to put the rest of it together, highlighted by great concentration in pulling down that game-tying TD at the end of regulation.
Jake Butt added to his late-season renaissance with another great game, as Rudock is (finally) starting to throw balls high to his virtually-uncoverable TE. 7 catches, 82 yards, and a TD for the Booty Man, and he’ll need to continue this against PSU as the Nittany Lions haven’t really played a receiver like him at that position all year and could be susceptible (especially after Jordan Lucas got hurt against NW).
Penn State will definitely be a new level of competition for the passing game, but I’m starting to believe that they’ll be able to move the ball reasonably well regardless of competition. You might not see another 200-yard game this year, but this feels almost *gasp* sustainable for the rest of 2015.
**The last time? Oh, just that batshit 67-65 RR-special against the Illini in 2010(!!)
Best: Quick Shots
- I’m getting a bit worried about the reliance on Peppers to jump-start the offense. In this game, Indiana definitely keyed in on him to start the second half to stall the drive that led to Paige’s punt return, and even on one of his successful screens to set UM for a score in the 4th he had to make multiple IU defenders miss behind the line. And considering he was on the field for 90+ plays just on defense and special teams, I worry he might be wearing himself thin. I’m all for him being part of the offense, but his chief value on the team remains as a HSP, and just because the backs are struggling doesn’t mean he should be doing that job as well. UM’s defense needs him to be healthy for the next couple of games, and I’d hate to lose him because the other team’s defense is sending 4 guys to hit him on every obvious pass.
- 13 penalties, seemingly half of them for false starts, were infuriating. Consecutive false starts helped stymie a promising drive before Rudock threw his pick, and UM had a number of defensive offsides and false starts to give IU free yards. UM is averaging about 56 yards in penalties a game, and they simply aren’t good enough to keep giving up yards like this.
- Last week’s kick return troubles were largely due to missed calls and general incompetence by the refs; this week, it was just bad tackling. UM had 4 guys all closing in on Paige, and yet he was able to wriggle out of an off-balance high tackle and scoot into the endzone for a game-changing score. Some of this is absolutely bad luck, but at some point you hope that Baxter and co. can get back to stuffing a team’s return game.
- Finally, kudos to O’Neill for handling that bad snap on the game-tying extra point attempt. That could have gone a million ways wrong, yet he calmly righted the ball and Allen was able to sneak it in. After the MSU game, it’s nice to see him involved on the positive side of a seemingly-automatic ST play NOT ending in disaster.
Next Week: Penn State
It’s a road game at noon. The good thing is PSU fans won’t have had enough time to get thoroughly hyped/drunk enough to be out in full force, and despite being 7-3 it doesn’t seem like anyone is all that excited about this season. If Hoke vs. Franklin was like two kids playing checkers, Franklin vs. Harbaugh is like one kid playing checkers and the other kid playing Deep Blue to a standstill. Penn State is coming off a bye AND it’s senior day, so emotions will be high. But every time I think the Nittany Lions are starting to come around (e.g. dismantling IU and Illinois, for example), they stumble against anyone decent on their schedule. It’s going to be ugly, but UM survived a scare against IU and I’m guessing the staff will find a way to compensate on the ground against Barkley, and despite the massive drop in INTs thrown I’m not seeing Hackenberg making huge strides from last year. Assuming OSU beats MSU, that sets up a division championship the following weekend, and I don’t see PSU spoiling that for the Wolverines.
Eight games in to the season Michigan is getting a little banged up:
Of particular note: Rudock (ribs), D. Smith (ankle), W. Henry (undisclosed), J.Butt (undisclosed).
|11/01/15||WR||Brian Cole||Undisclosed||"?" Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|11/01/15||RB||De'Veon Smith||Ankle||injured last game, "?" Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|11/01/15||WR||Drake Harris||Ankle||"?" Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|11/01/15||WR||Freddy Canteen||Undisclosed||"?" Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|11/01/15||TE||Jake Butt||Undisclosed||injured last game, "?" Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|11/01/15||RB||Wyatt Shallman||Undisclosed||"?" Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|11/01/15||QB||Jake Rudock||Ribs||injured last game, "?" Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|11/01/15||DL||Mario Ojemudia||Achilles||"?" Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|11/01/15||LB||Mike McCray||Undisclosed||"?" Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|11/01/15||DL||Willie Henry||Undisclosed||injured last game, probable Saturday vs. Rutgers|
|10/11/15||TE||Tyrone Wheatley||Undisclosed||out indefinitely|
|09/11/15||OL||Logan Tuley-Tillman||Dismissed||dismissed from team|
|08/27/15||DT||Bryan Mone||Leg||out indefinitely|
Rutger's injury list is more extensive, including star WR Leonte Carroo.
So Brian beat me to the punch when it came to the theme of this Thursday’s game, so I should either be happy that multiple people I respect had a similar view of UM’s performance, or bothered that another human being is inside my head. But still I’ll soldier on, with the understanding that this will be a bit shorter than normal due to the holiday weekend, the timing of the game, and my lack of scorching hot takes.
Best: Rebirth of an Optimist…
So for those loyal readers who stuck around reading these columns last year, you’ll know the Utah game was when I turned on the season and, by extension, the team. For those of you who Spotless Mind-ed the 2014 season, here’s how I started last year’s B&W for Utah:
Worst: Death of an Optimist
People who have followed this diary know I'm a pretty optimistic guy.
But I'm done. I'm done with this season, with this coaching staff, with this whole f'ing show.
The Utah game was the beginning of a 3-game losing streak that basically sunk the Brady Hoke era (Minnesota was next, then Rutgers felt like the final nail), and had come on the heels of the 31-0 loss to Notre Dame two weeks earlier. And sadly, it wasn’t just the losing that made that game some demoralizing; if you’d been a fan of UM for the past decade “bad losses” weren’t new.
No, what broke my spirit then was how predictable that performance was, how we’d seen it for years now, and for every 2006 or 2011 blip there were a half-dozen seasons where UM sharted its way further behind the rest of college football, and how the powers that be at UM didn’t seem to care or act particularly bothered by their failed stewardship. Here, I’ll let pissed-off 2014 BronxBlue say it again, this time with feelings:
And it wasn't just that the f'ing winningest team in f'ing college football history, with a 5th-year QB and a 1st-round WR and oodles of talent up and down the roster (young as it may be), couldn't score more than 3 points against f'ing Utah. No, what killed my optimism about this team and this staff, about this program as it is currently stumbling through another shitty year, is how absolutely true-to-form it is to the dreams of the men in charge.
And when the fanbase seemingly had had enough of being run off their own field by a bunch of fowl, and the administration took a shot on a guy who helped bring about the current age of the sport and won everywhere he coached, a bunch of faux sentinels of the "good days" cut off his legs at every chance and sat back as a combination of self-inflicted wounds and the rotten core of a dying program ending his run. RR's failure as a head coach at Michigan is one thing; you can be a good coach and not be a good fit at certain places. But Brandon and his cohort didn't view Rodriguez's ousting at UM simply as a bad fit, but instead as "proof" that this new-fangled version of college football, where smart guys try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the game and implement offensive and defensive systems to do so, is just a fad and the good old days of swinging your member around on the sidelines and expecting the opposition to be scared off are back.
That may well have been as disenchanted, as angry as I’ve been watching a sports team in my lifetime. When the Tigers were losing an A.L.-record 119, I understood how a team heavily reliant on Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman, Dmitri Young, and a broken Bobby Higginson could be terrible. When the Lions lost all 16 games in 2008, they still had Calvin Johnson and were close in enough in a bunch of games that it was almost fun to root for the statistical anomaly of flipping tails 16 times in a row even when coin felt a little weighted to heads every other week. And even when UM had some terrible basketball teams under Brian Ellerbe, and MSU was lobbing half-court alley-oops up 60, it wasn’t necessarily shocking given the talent on the court and the sanctions you kinda knew were on the way.
But with Michigan under Brady Hoke, you just saw this degradation in quality and performance that flew in the face of the talent and resources available.* UM wasn’t suffering massive attrition and recruiting restrictions like PSU, it wasn’t shocked by the departure of a former institution-like figure in Tressel at OSU, nor was it coming off a particularly terrible stretch, with RR’s final team having made a bowl game and Hoke’s first team winning 11 games. And the man could seemingly recruit and still had decently-stocked shelves, especially on offense, thanks to RR’s offensive focus. But from 11 wins to 9 to 7 to 5, the team looked worse every year and the leadership ever more inept, and it just felt like everybody important was either asleep at the wheel or didn’t give a shit as long as the seat licenses kept flowing in.
It wasn’t that the program was underperforming; that had been going on for some time, and I guess I was numb to it. But until that game, I always felt like the coaches and administration were actively trying to address the issues they saw and field the best team possible. I’m working through Bacon’s Endzone, and while I find parts of it gratingly congratulatory of UM’s (and in parts, the AD’s role in said) history, awash in the worst types of homerism, and littered with ground-down axes that would be Paul Bunyan proud **, it WAS illustrative of how past administrations would look at the looming issues surrounding the team or the school and work to address them immediately, stubbed toes and hurt feelings be damned. Last year’s Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota games would never have been allowed to happen because the warning signs had been seen in years past, and a competent administration would have addressed them months before.
But under Brandon and Hoke, you saw two men who rather lose doing it their way than try to introduce meaningful improvements, all the while demanding blind loyalty from the fanbase because the team still genuflected at the altar of past leaders, slapped a banner, and wore the right laundry. From the minute Hackett took over you knew that level of nonfeasance would not be tolerated, punctuated by Jim Harbaugh joining up. And as a fan, that’s all that was necessary to rekindle my optimism that UM would be a winning program again, one that would be in the upper-echelon of college football teams. Because with few exceptions, UM football has all the tools, all the advantages you need to be elite.
I’ll always be a fan of UM sports; no crappy head coach or myopic athletic director would change that. But as soon as UM ran onto that field in Utah, led by Jim Harbaugh and backed by an administration that expects and demands competency, that sense of dread and disgust faded away, replaced with the sense that while it might not always be a pretty trek, UM was back on the path to its rightful place in college football.
* It’s kind of like watching Stanford under David Shaw, a team that had some sustained success but has looked worse and worse as the remnants of Harbaugh’s tenure fade away. I know Stanford has resource that pale in comparison to those at UM, but their has absolutely been a demonstrable drop in talent and performance there.
** Man, that does read like I hated the book, which isn’t the case. I actually have enjoyed it overall and find most of Bacon’s novels to be equally fun reads. But there is clearly an agenda at work in parts of the novel, and it feels Notre Dame-level pretentiousness to claim the hiring of Harbaugh has ushered in the “return” of UM before the man has coached a down of football.
Worst: … Who Is Still Skeptical
To reiterate, I am still very much on-board with my new Harbaugh overlord. The man is a fantastic coach, great recruiter, and overall the type of guy I want leading UM’s football team. And unlike in the pros, where guys making millions of dollars don’t necessarily want a 51-year-old yelling at them, his demanding style works pretty well in college, where guys cycle through quickly and college athletes benefit a good deal from a strong authority figure.
And I also understand that getting UM “back” will take some time; I said 7-5 at the start of the season, and while BYU now looks a bit less daunting without Hill out and PSU looks kinda terrible on offense, I still see them with a ceiling of 8 wins barring significant in-season improvements at LB, the other corner spot, and running back/run blocking.
But my biggest concern (from an on-field perspective) when the idea of Harbaugh was first raised had to do with the likely “ceiling” for a Michigan team given how he’d coached at Stanford and his overall offensive and defensive philosophies. And not so much the system, which on its face is just as effective as any other: creating confusion and mismatches with multiple TEs and motion fueled by grinding backs and a semi-mobile QB works fine for me.
But there so many moving parts that have to be “right” for it to run optimally. I know people talk about the spread offense as a sports car, but to me the RR/Urban Meyer-style offense is like a souped-up Toyota Corolla. It works because of its simplicity, its reliance on replacement-level parts at most positions. It obviously runs best with premium talent at the skill positions, but I can’t imagine a world in which you could take Alex Malzone and drop him into Harbaugh’s offense and beat Indiana comfortably, let alone what OSU did against Wiscy, Alabama, and Oregon.
There are two key elements about spread-style offenses that I like, and they are intertwined; one, it lets you get away with sub-optimal talent at certain positions because the goal is all about exploiting a couple of mismatches; you’re 3rd/4th corner against my slot receiver, your defensive ends in space against my faster QB, etc. And the second, related benefit is that it gives you a larger margin of error when it comes to recruiting, of still being effective with “lesser” athletes because their weaknesses are covered up by the greater system. It broadens the available pool of “viable” players for your system, and so you don’t have to hit as often on the great player(s) in order to maintain a consistent level of success.
By comparison, Harbaugh’s offense is great when you have all the pieces but seems to stumble without them; this game was illustrative as a taste test of sorts; what happens when you secretly try to run an offense with Faygo-level players. It isn’t terrible by any means, but you can tell something is missing. And that’s what scares me, because it requires UM to basically recruit a stable of road-grating offensive linemen, stout-but-quick RBs who can catch out of the backfield, athletic TEs who can serve as viable downfield threats as well as strong blockers, and a QB who can have solid downfield accuracy while also being somewhat of a threat to run the ball. I know this is a bit generalized and most teams try to nab these types of players, but it just feels like a team has fewer options at certain spots that they must hit on pretty consistently; that the 25th-best “pro-style” QB is probably a bigger step down than, say, the 25th-best “spread” QB.
People often complained loudly that RR failed to recruit elite players to UM, and while I’d argue that characterization is a bit misleading, there is some veracity if you look at just the recruiting rankings. But the counter is that UM had some of the best offenses in its modern history under RR, and that as soon as UM started to recruit ”better” skill players but changed the system they’d occupy, the performance dropped rather precariously. I have full faith that an elite offense under Harbaugh will be spectacular; what troubles me, though, is that this success is going to hinge too much on the players brought in and not necessarily on the structure of the offense. As a fan, I want UM’s success to have the fewest constraints placed on it, and “the best version of Stanford” on offense feels like a bit of a letdown.
Worst: Rudock-ulous Bad Luck
I won’t belabor the point, as everyone reading this knows it wasn’t a great debut for Jake Rudock; throwing 60% of your INT total from the year before in one game isn’t usually a good thing. Still, his overall numbers weren’t terrible (6.5 YPA, 2 TDs, 63% completion percentage), and he wasn’t helped much by the running game (2.8 ypc from Smith with a long of 7) or his blockers. The one hit I remember most vividly was in the third quarter when Ty Isaac inexplicably tried to double the Utah DE and let one of the LBs get a free shot on Rudock, who hung in until the last second before missing on a ball to Butt. And while it didn’t give up an sacks, the offensive line didn’t seem great at picking up late blitzers, allowing him to be pelted a couple of times each quarter that seemed to contribute to the overthrown balls we saw. The first Rudock INT seemed like a bad route by Perry, and the third INT was a combination of a mediocre throw, a mediocre route, and a pretty athletic play by the Utah corner. The second INT was completely on Rudock, but those throws can open at altitude in the first game of the year.
As for the overthrows, that felt like a guy still getting accustomed to his playmakers trying to make the perfect throw in a strange environment; while not Denver, SLC is 3/4 of a mile above sea level, and with a wind the ball probably moved differently than Rudock was used to. I don’t expect that to continue. Nor do I expect he’ll continue to have trouble connecting with Perry (who clearly has earned Rudock’s trust as a “pressure release” option) or look to AJ Williams as a receiver downfield. I’m not sure if it was the playcalling or Rudock simply looking for the open man, but with all due respect Williams really shouldn’t be viewed as a viable receiving option on plays unless under extreme duress.
Overall, I thought it was the worst possible performance you could reasonably expect from Rudock, and I assume he’ll be much better back in Ann Arbor. He’s not a world-beater, but he directed the team competently and the offense seems more willing to let him challenge defenses deep with guys like Chesson and Darboh, to say nothing of the dynamics he has with Jake Butt.
Worst: Calling for a QB Change
I’ll keep this brief – there is no reason in the world to insert Shane Morris into the lineup as a replacement for Rudock after one game. Morris had weeks to beat our Rudock and he couldn’t; by all accounts, Rudock won the competition running away. To make a switch after a game would be needlessly reactionary and stymie the positive signs we did see offensively. So while I continue to believe Morris could be a starting QB at UM in the future, there is no reason to believe he would have had a better performance against Utah if he had replaced Rudock at halftime, as some fans seemed to be calling for. In particular, it was funny to see people argue that Morris wouldn’t have overthrown receivers like Rudock, which flies in the face of all evidence we have about Morris and his moderately-accurate Howitzer.
Best: Moving Forward OR
Worst: Except When it Counted
Utah recorded 3 TFLs in this game, amounting to 3 yards, and 0 sacks. Last year, Utah recorded 8 TFLs for 31 yards, including 4 sacks, and 1 forced fumble. The biggest bugaboo the last couple of years for UM’s offense has been the negative play, and against a decent Utah defense UM found a way to keep moving the ball forward, even if only incrementally, and that allowed them to sustain multiple 9+ play drives while staying out of too many 3rd-and-long situations. Based on raw numbers the offense didn’t look appreciably better than last year’s game against these same Utes, but given the fact this was the first game of the year, on the road, with a new head coach and new-ish offensive philosophy, I was pretty happy with the team’s ability to stay above the muck and self-inflicted wounds that plagued the offense under Hoke/Borges.
That said, the offensive line and backs struggled immensely to get anything going beyond the line of scrimmage. Smith made a couple of bad reads, but overall it felt like he was more often than not fighting against a wave of Utah players within 2 yards of the ball, and none of the backs seemed able to get anything going inside or outside even when it looked like the blocking was solid. It didn’t help that none of them seemed to be running particularly, um, fast, but that horse has beaten to death so many times with this group that it is just a reality one must deal with.
I’ll again chalk some of this up to first-game jitters and bugs being worked out, but it was disheartening to see one of the most experienced lines in the conference get manhandled at times by a Utah team without some of their studs from a year ago, and the bulk of available backs fail to register a run longer than 7 yards.
Best: Don’t Google Buttman
Yeah, just don’t. It might seem like a funny idea, and it’s not like you’re going to be *shocked* by what you find, but just…don’t.
Anyway, Jake Butt had himself a game. Tied for the team lead in catches with 8, caught a number of 3rd-down conversions, and had one amazing TD grab.
And unlike in the past with Devin Funchess, for example, this performance felt like one you can expect from a TE in this offense. Butt will never be a fantastic blocker, but he can get some push when necessary before slipping out on passing downs and isn’t a liability in the running game. I know it felt like hyperbole when Harbaugh said Butt was as fine a prospect at the TE position as he had coached, but after this game it sure doesn’t seem wrong to expect a great season.
As for the rest of the receiving core, it was a mixed bag. I thought Darboh had a great game despite the one unfortunate drop on the failed 3rd-down conversion. He proved capable of getting some separation from corners, flashed unexpected speed and agility after the catch, and generally looked like a guy who could be a leading receiver for a competent offense, something I wouldn’t have said coming into the season. Small sample sizes and all, but I suspect Darboh will continue to have a solid OOC run at the very least. Chesson, on the other hand, showed his speed but failed to do much with it, though he wasn’t helped by Rudock’s overthrows. He should be better going forward, but it still feels very one-dimensional with him and I’m not sure that will change much this year. Perry had some obvious route-running issues, but as a true freshman in his first game he was making blocks on screens and short passes that seniors tend to blow. It sure looks like Rudock trusts him, and that’s half the battle with young WRs. Cole made one catch that was basically a screen the Utes immediately snuffed out, and no other WR really saw the ball much. My guess is we’ll see more against Oregon St. this week, but it sure does feel like Darboh-Butt-Perry will be the significant producers in the WR crop this year.
As long as I’ve been alive, mobile QBs have been the bane of UM’s existence. If the guy under center can both run and throw the ball, UM’s defense consistently struggles in defending against it. Now, put that same athlete one position back (RB) or outside (WR) and UM seems to have better luck corralling him, so it’s not so much an athleticism issue as it is one of scheme.
So it should come as little surprise that while UM largely held Booker in check, Wilson was able to consistently pick up yardage whenever he held onto the ball. And a lot of those struggles fell on the veteran LBs, who again seemed unable to tackle guys in any type of space. Bolden in particular struggled to do so both against the run as well as keep up with receivers in the middle of the field, a weakness that has been well-documented over the years.
Perhaps most jarring what watching Jabrill Peppers struggle to keep up with true freshman Brit Covey, who seemed able to shake Peppers almost at will in that first half. He seemed to settle down in the second half and had some great TFLs by just slipping past would-be blockers, but it may be time for people to temper the “in case of emergency, just unleash Peppers” hype until he shows a consistently ability to stay in coverage. I think we all forget that Peppers hasn’t played much organized football in the past year, and even the best redshirt freshman will have struggles adjusting to the speed and talent on the field. But this team is going to struggle all year with the LBs and Peppers don’t improve their tackling and coverage dramatically.
Best: Controlled Explosions
One of the lasting memories of last year’s game was Jourdan Lewis streaking across the field to catch Bubba Poole before he could score on an extremely ill-defended screen. It was both an amazing (he literally ran across the field and caught Poole, who had a couple yards on him) and demoralizing (it took a corner running across said field to stop a 80+ yard TD that occurred because UM had one defender on that side of the field after the snap) play, one that did not portend a particularly great season by the defense against the “big” play.
Again, it’s only been a week, but this year’s secondary (and really, most of the defense) showed a much better ability at minimizing the long completions and broken plays that doomed them last year. Booker had one nice run after the catch that just skimmed the sideline, but beyond that there wasn’t any real “explosive” play. The cornerback position opposite Lewis remains in flux (on review of the game, it did seem like Stribling and Clark struggled to stay with their men at times), but you rarely saw WRs streak by anyone and, though there were some disturbingly wide-open expanses at times, the defense still forced Utah to march down the field most of the game. And the defense nearly came up with a timely turnover when they forced Wilson to fumble the ball, only to have it bounce to the one Utah player on that side of the field.
I still have no idea if Michigan’s deployment of first-class-sized cushions to each and every receiver not covered by Lewis is a one-time thing or a sad reminder of how tight coverage ain’t coming to A2, but overall I thought the defense did a good job making Utah work for every yard they got.
Best: Kicking the Ball With All the Time In The World
Michigan deployed the spread punting formation and was able to limit Utah to 1 return for 14 yards while averaging 43 yards per kick. If you remember last year, UM gave up 83 (!) yards and 1 TD, losing the field position battle without really pressuring anyone on the Utah special teams. And as far as I can tell, there were always 11 people on the field.
I know it’s a small victory, but as a football fan in 2015 being able to say “my punting team fielded the right number of people and didn’t give up a big return” is the biggest f*ing deal after the last 4 years.
As for FG kicking, Kenny Allen hit the 30-yarder you expected and missed the 44-yarder I figured was going to be tough. Utah’s all-world kicker also missed a couple of longer kicks, so I have to imagine a combination of wind and nerves were in the air. While I don’t think it really altered the outcome of this game, I do think Harbaugh will be more likely to go for short-ish conversions in FG territory as he remembers that college kickers are immensely less reliable than pro kickers, and what feels automatic in the NFL (like that 44-yarder) is far more dicey with younger legs. The announcers (who I thought were much better than the pre-game triad of goobers) noted as much, and you could tell Harbaugh mulling over his decision to not go for it basically as soon as the ball left Allen’s foot. Again, this isn’t going to be a season whose overall success hinges on the foot of a kicker, but I think it’s becoming clearer that this team can’t rely on its kickers to bail them out.
Oregon State comes to Ann Arbor, and I’d be amazed if Michigan didn’t emerge with a win. It’ll be an emotional time for the fans when Harbaugh steps back into the stadium, and you get a sense from the way the players have spoken about the game that they realize they need to perform better and are almost embarrassed they lost on Thursday; I suspect a much better effort on the ground against a suspect Beaver front 7, and Rudock should have a much better game throwing the ball. Anderson should have Oregon State ready to play, but the jump from Weber St. to UM is pretty jarring, and a true freshman QB making his first road start might lead to some of those elusive turnovers I’ve been seeing other defenses cause. It is still a work in progress, but this team feels like one with the parts slowly fitting into place, not the grab-bag of uncertainty it has been the past couple of years.
Ok, so, just for fun, I'm doing a series of wallpapers based on movie posters. If you recall, last year I turned Jake Ryan into Captain America. This year I'm starting out with a remake of the Skyfall poster and featuring Jake Butt. If for no other reason than it's fun to say "Butt, Jake Butt." Anyway, I like how it turned out, but I'd love some constructive criticism and suggestions for movie posters to recreate with Michigan favorites. Enjoy!