alternate headline: man does job
The week leading up to The Game saw Michigan fans unite around the tragedy of a family losing their 5 year old son to DIPG, an inoperable brain cancer. When I saw the picture of Chad's father holding his son's lifeless body, I cried. I am emotional just thinking about it now. When I hear about parents suffering the death of a child, two memories from my childhood return.
When I was in sixth grade, a girl in my gym class collapsed in the parking lot and died. She had a condition that we later started referring to as, "that Hank Gathers thing." It was so sudden. One day, she was pretending to be a horse, running around at recess, and the next day, her parents were dealing with the thought of burying their daughter. We dedicated our yearbook to her, tried to heal, and move on with the knowledge that life is fragile so you should treasure every day, every moment. I didn't know her very well, but even now, 33 years later, I can picture her galloping around the parking lot, full of life and energy.
The next year, I found out that a girl in my class had leukemia. I knew her better as we were the two best math students in our class and were selected to participate in an accelerated math program. As such, we spent time together studying in the hallway, separated from the rest of the class. She was tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed, with long tan legs. I was smitten, but I don't think she noticed me or knew me as anything more than the geek she had to learn math with. Her illness dragged on for several months. She was hospitalized for a time, and then during the spring of our 7th grade year, she too, passed away. Given time to prepare for the eventuality of the situation didn't make things any easier. For the second year in a row, we dedicated our yearbook to another fallen classmate, tried to heal, and move on. Today, when I think of her, I think that she could have been the world's first Fields Medal winning supermodel.
In 1989, the movie, "Dead Poets Society" was released in theatres. In the movie, Robin Williams played an eccentric English teacher who exhorts his students to seize the day, "CARPE DIEM!" in Latin. It was rather fashionable at the time for people to exclaim, "carpe diem," as a reminder to make the most out of life. Williams' character quoted Thoreau, saying,
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life
"Suck out the marrow," that was such a powerful image at the time. Williams, who outwardly gave the impression of a person full of life, later took his own life after losing a battle with depression.
What does all this have to do with a football game, a rather lousy one at that? Not a whole lot, admittedly, but this was the last game of the regular season, so it does seem like an appropriate time to take a step back and reflect upon our lives and our choices. This season will be remembered as Harbaugh's first as Michigan's head coach. But it will also be remembered for #ChadTough, and hopefully for all those good moments we shared as a community, from Chesson's back-breaking kick return against Northwestern to the defense's rallying together to stop Minnesota and Indiana at the goal line. For Jake Rudock going from the team's weak spot to it's strength, for Tacos and Peppers and an Aussie punter showing us how it's supposed to be done. I don't regret all the time I spent watching and writing about this team. What has made this season better than others of recent vintage is not the record. It's that my son has started to share my enthusiasm for Michigan football. Shared moments are so much more fulfilling, meaningful, and memorable, and so I say to Team 136, thank you. Your yearbook photo will be one that I remember for a long time.
(Thoreau's quote continues, "to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life." Frankly, I think Thoreau was a bit overrated. Who would want to live like a Spartan?)
Burst of Impetus
* It's hard to remember that this was a 4 point game going into halftime. Michigan started off the game playing well with two decents drive that combined for 17 plays and 71 yards. Neither ended up in points, but we were winning the field position battle. After Michigan stopped Ohio State on 3rd and 10, their two drives had combined to gain 27 yards on 9 plays. And then we ran into the punter, but the official called a "roughing the kicker" penalty that gave Ohio State a first down. They capitalized. Instead of grabbing the momentum, we gave OSU new life and they took advantage.
* I don't give burst of impetus awards for halftime adjustments because I don't know what happened at halftime, but something sure did. Ohio State scored quickly on their first drive and controlled the rest of the game as if RichRod, Hoke, and Gerg had combined to coach the second half. Perhaps, a team that had been running on fumes for the past few weeks finally hit empty on the old gas meter, and that was that.
The Two Jakes
* The Jake Hardock mind meld came to a conclusion on Saturday. Or would that be Jim Rubaugh? When I was mentoring under a soon to be retired engineer at work, we held monthly, "brain dump" meetings where my mentor would attempt to pass on his knowledge to me and another engineer one experience at a time. These were the types of things you don't learn about in text books. As I wrote above the link, Jake Rudock went from being the team's weak spot to it's strength after one season under Harbaugh's tutelage. Imagine what a QB can do with 4 or 5 years learning from Harbaugh. The future is bright.
* Jake Rudock was extra talented in his accuracy, going 19 for 32 (59.4%) for 263 yards (8.2 YPA). He completed one TD pass to Jehu Chesson.
* Jake Buttttt caught 5 passes for 54 yards.
NFL Route Tree Runners
* Jehu Chesson led the receivers with 8 catches and 111 yards. His blocked punt shows up in the boxscore as a 14 yard punt for Ohio State's "TEAM."
* Darboh finished with 4 catches for 68 yards. The refs let Ohio's DBs play very aggressively against him and that hampered our first half drives. By the second half, he figured out how to get open but by then it was too late.
* Jabrill Peppers led Michigan with 29 yards on 7 carries. It's not a good sign when a starting defensive player leads the team in rushing. I trust Harbaugh and his assistants to correct this situation going into next season.
* I will drink a lemonade if De'Veon Smith is not the starting fullback next year.
* Sione Houma ran 3 times for 12 yards.
Tacos and Peppers
* Ohio State's top three tacklers were it's three linebackers. This is even more impressive considering Michigan was spending most of the day passing the ball. Their linebackers were making plays against the run and the pass. Ours were not.
* Each one of our four main linebackers (Bolden, Gedeon, Ross and Morgan) should have had an extra tackle, as I saw each one of those guys miss a tackle on an Ohio State running TD. If we had held them to FG attempts instead of TDs, the final score would not have looked so bad.
* In the dot, dot, dot categories (the ones that show up as dots instead of zeros) Ohio State had 3 TFLs, 2 FFs, 1 INTC, 4 BrUps, 2 Sacks, and 5 QHs. Michigan had 3 TFLs, one 2 yard sack, and 1 QH. That's it. After filling up the boxscore all year with dot, dot, dot stuff, especially BrUps, Michigan had almost nothing to show. It's as if we implemented a brand new defense the week before the biggest game of the season and expected the players to perform as if they had been playing it the whole year long. It's as if we watched MSU throttle Ohio State's offense the week before and said, let's do the exact opposite of that. The second half meltdown of the defense was Gergian in it's inexplicability. Someone put the ooga-booga on the defense.
* We actually ran more total plays than Ohio State did, 72-69. There were 26 assorted special teams plays comprising 15.6% of the total.
* The only ST plays of consequence were the punt we downed at the 6, the punt we just barely failed to down at the 1 inch line, the roughing the punter penalty, and a nice Lewis kick return that was negated by a Michigan holding penalty.
* First downs were much closer than the final score would indicate, 25-20 for Ohio State. Yes, after being held to 5 first downs by MSU, they accumulated 5 times that many against us. Three OSU first downs came via penalty.
* I thought OSU's weakness was their passing game. We had a defensive game plan that allowed them to get by only throwing 15 times. Inexplicable.
* Third down conversions were 7 of 13 for them and 9 for 18 for us. Again, these stats don't jibe with a 29 point drubbing.
WHAT ARE THOOOSE?
* Before the game, my brother told me he had a ticket in row 2. I spent some time looking for him during the sideline shots but never saw him. After the game, I found out why as he texted me a photo from his seat. Turns out he was sitting behind Big Nut. I saw Big Nut at the game, but he blocks out the sun (or brother, as the case may be) and everything else behind him. My brother, Michael Thomas (NTMT) who had two less receptions than OSU's Michael Thomas, reports that Big Nut was quiet and polite, but it wasn't great sitting behind him because he never sat down and he had that stupid doll on his helmet for the whole game. No one will ever accuse Big Nut of not sucking the marrow out of life, but who wants to go through life as a Big Nut?
[Photo Courtesy Michael Thomas (NTMT)]
Worst: A Predictable Ass Kicking
Since the start of the year, what has felt so different about this season versus the last couple was the competence displayed by the coaching staff and the players on the field. Michigan didn’t always win the games they could have (witness Utah and MSU) and sometimes underperformed even in those they did (see IU and Minnesota), but in totality they never seemed out of their league against anyone on the schedule.
That all kind of changed against OSU. I’m not talking about pride or effort, questioning the heart of the coaches or the players, or anything as myopic and reductive as the crap you see posted on message boards and on talk radio. No, what happened in this game was UM’s coaches and players finally ran into an opponent that they just couldn’t hang with, one with too much talent and too much continuity to give UM a puncher’s chance. In past years when Brady Hoke had a couple of close calls, OSU would make the dumb plays, take the dumb penalties, give UM life with bad turnovers and poor coverage.
On the one hand, it is hard to be that surprised how the game played out. OSU has looked disinterested basically all season; they haven’t really been challenged by a team until MSU, and honestly never seemed to “care” about anyone they faced until UM. Last week against MSU you saw a team that figured it could roll over the competition again with minimal effort (especially with Cook out), and had they put in even 50% of the effort game planning last week as they clearly did this one, they’d have run MSU off the field. But for the first time all year, OSU found itself behind the eight ball, no longer in control of their destiny to defend their title or even win the conference, and that seemed to awaken them from their stupor, and UM felt the brunt of it. Hell, they did the same thing last year after the VT loss, obliterating almost everyone they ran into along the way to the championship.
On the other hand, it was jarring to see just how far UM was behind OSU in terms of talent at key positions and how those deficiencies limited what could be implemented. The one thing you could say about Brady Hoke is that the man can recruit; of course, in both those years OSU recruited a tad better. And when you dig into those classes, you see a lot of higher-ranked players who either aren’t on campus or simply failed to develop into the types of players UM needed. This isn’t an indictment of these players because in most cases they did the best they could at UM, but when you are trying to compete with a Goliath you can’t miss nearly as often as UM’s has with their best shots.
Still, it’s not that OSU is demonstrably better than UM across the board; the talent gap actually doesn’t seem nearly as pronounced as in seasons past even though the score would make you think otherwise. But where OSU trumps UM, they trump them definitely; disruptive pass rushing and running back jump out, as does linebacker play. Add those up, and a game that was sorta-close at halftime (ignoring the fact that OSU had already started carving UM up on the ground and UM had played keep away a bit with their 10 points by bleeding clock on drives of 14 and 11 plays) got out of hand quickly.
I read people calling for UM to change their defensive gameplan, commit more against the run and dare Barrett to beat them in the air. I agree in concept, but my counter is – where are those players going to come from? This isn’t a game where more bodies equals better results, like Plants vs. Zombies. All year the LBs have struggled against teams that spread them out and force quick, athletic decisions; if there was someone on the roster who was better than the guys at that you’d figure they would have played by now. And with Glasgow out, there is limited depth at tackle, which further limits how you can respond. Sure, the coaching staff will deservedly come under fire for some of their second-half adjustments (trying to go with a 3-man front is always ludicrous against OSU), but at some point it isn’t that you got RPS’ed moreso that you only had two fingers left and all you could throw are scissors against a couple of really angry rocks.
Depth has been an issue for this team all season, but they mostly papered it over with dominant defensive line play and very good secondary coverage. At least, that was until Glasgow went down. With him out of the lineup, IU had their way on the ground, and the blueprint was set for how to crush UM up front with zone runs and tempo. That isn’t to say the outcome would have been different with guys like Glasgow and Ojemudia in the lineup; OSU looked pissed off and out for blood, and when they play like that there isn’t a team in the country they can’t murderball.
Offensively, the lack of a rushing attack this past month has weirdly been both a blessing and a really terrible curse. On the one hand, it helped push Rudock out of the shell he was in to start the year, leading to some great numbers: 67% completion, 1,296 yards, 9.2 ypa, 11:2 TD:INT ratio over the past 4 games. Butt cemented his status as one of the best TEs in the game, and both Chesson and Darboh emerged as plus receivers with even more room to grow next year in this offense. But it also meant UM was held to 87 and 57 yards rushing against PSU and OSU respectively, and failed to crack 4.0 ypc against non-Chaos teams since early October. It got so bad that the leading rusher in this game was Peppers, running mostly gimmick plays in addition to his role as an anchor of the defense. For a team with (purported) recruiting stars in that backfield…well, I’ve said it for weeks now.
So yes, UM lost to the three teams you kind of expected they would (Utah, MSU, and OSU), and how they lost this last game leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. But there was demonstrable progress this season, and even with UM going to MSU and OSU next year it’s hard not to be optimistic about their prospects against both clubs (though obviously OSU looks to be farther away). And with a bowl game to go, I expect to see this team to learn from this loss and, with the return of a couple of injured players, end the year on a high note. But with MSU likely making a run to the CFB playoffs and OSU getting bragging rights for N-1 times in the last N games, this wasn’t a banner day for the season.
Best: Rudock to the Rescue or
Worst: Of Course THIS is How It Ends
This sounds like a bit of a broken record at this point, but Jake Rudock kept UM in this game as long as he could. With a non-existent running game and an offensive line that had a lot of trouble holding back the homogenized Ohio Brobarians at the edges, it fell on Jake Rudock to keep UM’s offense matriculating down the field, and for three quarters of the game he did. His numbers weren’t spectacular, but he completed about 60% of his passes for 263 yards, at 8.2 ypa and a TD with no interceptions. He found Chesson and Darboh in tough windows, and in the first half was largely responsible for UM’s drive-saving 8/11 rate on 3rd downs. In total, of UM’s 20 first downs, Rudock was responsible for 14 of them (13 in the air, one on the ground). This team probably wasn’t going to win this game regardless of how well the offense played, but it would have been even uglier without Rudock at the helm.
And all game, Rudock was performing under fire, especially as OSU started to stretch their lead out and it became clear that UM wasn’t even going to try to run the ball on most downs. Bosa finished with a sack, a forced fumble, and 2 more QB hits, along with numerous other pressures, and it was his hit that injured Rudock’s shoulder and may have ended his season. Even before that, Rudock was getting hit with a ferocity that felt unsustainable, including on one seemingly-designed QB run where he was sandwiched by two OSU defenders while Drake Johnson (amongst others) seemed to either be running the wrong route or missing guys to block.
I’ve never been great at identifying offensive line issues in the moment, but it was glaringly obvious both in this game and all year that UM’s offensive line is miles behind the best defensive lines in this conference, and I’m not sure how much scheming they can do to compensate for it. There were bad penalties, bad blocks (including on a screen to Smith that was blown up because of complete whiffs by both UM offensive linemen – Braden was one for sure who just dived at the legs of the defender and totally missed - on that side of the play), and an overall inability to even maintain the line of scrimmage down-to-down. It’s a “veteran” unit in terms of years and starts, but it is clearly one in need of a talent injection, and with Rudock gone next year they’ll also have to be breaking in a new QB, which will bring all of the attendant issues with cadence, timing, and playcalls.
But that’s for another day. I do hope Rudock’s shoulder isn’t injured severely enough to keep him out of the bowl game, both because that would significantly improve UM’s chances at a 10th win and, perhaps more importantly, give him an opportunity to cap off a pretty successful 1-year run at the helm of UM. I said last week that Rudock was a playmaker in that he always puts UM in a position to succeed, and against the best team he’ll see this year he didn’t disappoint. It’s a credit to both him and Harbaugh’s mentoring that I can say that after how the year started, and I genuinely hope there’s another chapter in this story.
Worst: The Ghost of Fred Jackson Lingers
I said it above, but without Peppers this team doesn’t crack 40 yards on the ground running the ball, and the non-Rudock runners who got carries in this game are a (possibly) injured De’Veon Smith, a FB, and a guy who’s (again, probably) still recovering from the second ACL surgery of his college career. Guys like Green and Isaac, expected to be contributors at the bare minimum this season, faded so far into the background that it’s hard to even make out their silhouettes. You have to imagine there will be a shakeup in the RB corp, if for no other reason that Harbaugh will be inclined to give anyone new a chance to show they are better than the incumbents. But after sorta-bludgeoning teams to start the year, the rushing offense fell off a cliff, and it hasn’t totally been due to breakdowns in the offensive line. I mean, I know the competition took a step up once the conference slate kicked off, but to go from averaging 4.8 ypc the first six games to 3.25 ypc in the last half, and even that number is goosed by playing IU, is downright stupefying.
And while they’ve faced some stout units against the run, it isn’t like any of them were the ‘86 Bears or even the ‘97 Wolverines. PSU gave up 227 yards to NW, 241 to Maryland, and 188 to MSU, while OSU coughed up 203 to MSU, 253 to Maryland, 195 to PSU, and even 104 to Rutgers. I don’t want to bang the drum on the old Hoke chestnut of “execution”, but it can’t all be a lack of talent. I mean, it’s been a meme around these parts that Fred Jackson was high on hyperbole and a bit lower on actual talent identification and development, but it continues to amaze me that UM hasn’t had a competent, consistent running back for nearly a decade (you’re mileage may vary with Brandon Minor and Fitzgerald Toussaint). Prospects seem good that Harbaugh and co. will correct for this deficiency soon, but it isn’t a stretch to say that UM’s season was largely sunk by the inability of the team to consistently get even a modicum of yards on the ground.
Best: People Can Catch the Ball
Before the season, a major concern offensively was the ability for this team to move the ball vertically through the air. Devin Funchess, the single biggest reason UM struggled in 2014 and probably also why you can’t find your keys*, was drafted by the Carolina Panthers and proceeded to ruin THEIR season as well, and he took the vast majority of last year’s passing game with him. There was buzz that Darboh would take the next step forward based on a solid 2014, but I was dubious given the fact a large amount of his production came against Miami (NTM) and IU and he lacked the type of speed and agility necessary to get separation in coverage. Similarly, Chesson had speed for days but also had 1 receiving TD to his name despite getting semi-consistent playing time for 2 years. Jake Butt looked to be a stud, but unless you are Tyler Eifert or a TE under Jim Harbaugh (oh wait…) you probably weren’t going to be a great lead option in a passing game. There was optimistic talk about guys like Moe Ways and Drake Harris maybe stepping into those lead roles, or Grant Perry emerging as a weapon given his prolific HS stats and early playing time. But I wasn’t optimistic about this team even matching last year’s pedestrian numbers.
And yet, after 12 games UM’s passing attack is the undeniable strength of the offense, and is poised to be even better next season after a summer of Harbaugh seasoning and (one hopes) an emergence of a starting QB sooner than a month before kickoff. Darboh still can’t get much separation against good DBs, but he compensates with solid hands and the type of power that makes WRs screen works. Chesson leads the team in TDs with 8, has proven his ability to not only take the top off the defense but also make tough catches in traffic, and his sometimes-maligned hands and route-running have been rectified. Jake Butt is, well, one of the best TEs in UM history, and I have to expect that he’ll only improve on a breakout season. And the playcalling, once the bane of any sane UM fan’s life, has finally put these players in positions where they can be successful, with Harbaugh and co. liberally relying on WR screens to get the ball in space and introducing the #Buttzone to the world as a way to punish any team that believes it can stop UM’s TE with a single defender.
There’s still a game to go this year, but I’m already excited about how this offense will look next year with a new QB, presumably one who’ll have some time to get in sync with these receivers before the years starts. It’s still a unit without a true #1 talent, but right now I’m not sure there is a more complete receiving corp in the league, and they should only be better in 2016.
* So I was told on this site.
Worst: Whither Glasgow, Whither Tackling?
Everyone knows when the rush defense changed from one of the best in the nation to one that would give up over 300 yards twice in 3 weeks - it was when Ryan Glasgow went down against Rutgers with a pectoral injury, and since then UM hasn’t really been able to find a suitable replacement. It doesn’t help that they’ve faced two up-tempo teams in IU and OSU that love to wear tackles down and spread defenses out to put pressure on the LBs to make tackles in space, but UM has been gashed so consistently that Glasgow’s absence is unmistakable.
At some point, you’d have hoped the defensive line and/or coaches would figure out how to compensate more effectively, especially after what felt like a steady diet of zone stretches by IU and zone reads being a staple of OSU’s offense. The team played around a bit with different alignments, even going with 3 linemen for a stretch, but nothing seemed to do much good, as OSU averaged 6.8 ypc and both Elliott and Barrett averaged over 7 ypc. I’m sure there were edges that were held in this game, but I’d be damned if it made a difference. The wheels sorta fell off once OSU got new life on that roughing-the-kicker penalty followed by the first of Elliott’s long runs of the game. In near-direct symmetry to UM’s pass-first, pass-second offense, OSU picked up 18 of their 25 first downs on the ground, and probably could have had more had they not called off the dogs a bit late in the 4th quarter.
I know people want to say that OSU’s rushing game will be more tractable when Elliott is gone, but they still have Barrett and a cavalcade of talented runners in that backfield. I mean, dropping 200+ yards on UM isn’t new for OSU. Meyer is a lot of very nasty, negative things, but he is also a damn fine offensive mind, and his rushing attack isn’t going anywhere. UM seems to be recruiting the type of tackles that can help disrupt the run, and Elliott is truly one of the best RBs in OSU’s history. So there is hope that with mere mortals, UM will have a better chance at slowing them down. Still, it behooves UM to figure this out sooner rather than later, or I’m guessing this won’t be the last time we see Buckeyes running around, over, and thru the UM defense, Glasgow or not.
Worst: The Three Amigos (In Space!!!)
So yeah, not a banner day for the linebackers. I’m sure the UFR will go into excruciating detail about exactly when, where, and how often tackles were missed, gaps were lost, and assignments misread, but everyone kind of knew that if OSU got to the second level in this game it would get ugly. Morgan is a lot of things, but athletic sideline-to-sideline isn’t one of them, and a couple of times he just couldn’t get to Barrett or Elliott before they found the hole. Based on the tackle numbers it would seem like Bolden and Gedeon were more involved in the game, but watching it live it felt like Morgan was identifying the plays quicker but typically just sacrificed himself to take on a blocker. This was a terrible matchup for him, though, and I’m guessing it’ll show under more scrutiny.
I’m not going to rant about Bolden because (a) Brian will probably do that, and (b) I don’t feel qualified to score him based on an initial view. But if history is a predictor of future outcomes, I’m guessing a lot of his team-leading tackles were because he was late to the play (witness 7 of his 9 tackles were assisted) and that a decent chunk of OSU’s success getting through gaps on the stretch were due to missed assignments. It felt like both Bolden and Gedeon struggled to flow to the point of attack, and that a lot of Barrett’s runs were due to someone not sticking with him on exchanges. But again, it wasn’t like anyone in the LB group covered himself in glory, so I’m not trying to single anyone out as the root cause for 300+ yards on the ground.
Next year UM will have to replace both starters (and sorta-starter Ross) with Gedeon and assorted unknowns, which is pretty terrifying. I do wonder if at least some of the issues with this season’s performance were due to residual gunk from the previous coaching regime, but you look at the depth chart and you only have 5 guys on campus now who were recruited for 3 spots, and, well, that ain’t a good thing. Those worries are for another day, I guess, but…
Best(?): They Didn’t Throw the Ball A Lot
In a game in which J.T. Barrett really didn’t have a reason to throw the ball, credit should go to the secondary for, I don’t know, making that slightly less appealing? Barrett had basically two long completions, both of which of the Shrug Emoticon variety. The first was his TD throw to Jalin Marshall, who had Jeremy Clark draped over him and basically caught the ball off of Clark’s body. The second long throw was to Thomas late in the game, and it was with Lewis trailing a bit but still a pretty tough catch on the run. Beyond those two balls, nothing got open downfield even when OSU tried to use play action. And Lewis helped out with a nice sack on Barrett that helped stop the Buckeyes on their first drive, and his PI was the type of “it ain’t racing without some rubbing” football that gets called every game just to keep you honest defensively.
I also thought the safeties played well. Nothing really beat them deep, and Thomas made a nice tackle in space to stop Barrett when he broke containment. Hill and Wilson also played pretty well, though by design they were usually tasked with stopping a freight-train Elliott after he bowled over a couple of defenders. The fact Hill, Wilson, and Thomas had more solo tackles than the 3 LBs is not great, Bob, but it does give me some hope that even with less boring safeties than this season it won’t be a major source of frustration next year with Thomas and Hill playing deep.
Meh: Everything Else
- Some people seemed bothered by OSU trying to score late in the game, especially when it seemed like they were going for some record (if Holly Rowe is to be believed, somebody in the OSU coaches’ box asked her how many yards Elliott had before sending him out again). Honestly, I’ve always been a proponent of “if you don’t like them scoring, make them stop” philosophy of defense, and so if Meyer and co. want to run up the score against a rival then so be it. The fact they cared about a rushing stat that will only be relevant to them always strikes me as silly (the trade-off is potentially hurting your best player during a blowout), but whatever. That’s a non-issue to me.
- In terms of UM settling for FGs on drives that went deep into OSU territory, I was more bothered with the second one than the first. When UM kicked the first one, the score was 7-3 and it felt like a game that might be close to the wire. But on the second one, UM is down 28-10 at the start of the first quarter, and while it’s a 3-score game either way, I’d MUCH rather get a TD there and figure out the FGs later than grab the somewhat-meaningless 3 points and still be down 15. Hell, had they scored a TD I’ve have gone for 2, as you basically have to score 3 TDs either way to win, and it would have galvanized the fans and players a bit to punch on in. But that’s way more feelingsball than it should be, but if you throw it all into the NFL 4th-down calculator it doesn’t demonstrably change the win probability (it is 4% if you go for it, 3% if you kick the FG), but in a rivalry game it seems weird to play for the safe option down 18.
- As for the “invasion” of OSU fans and them chanting whatever stupid things they do when see each other outdoors, so be it. Fans pay for tickets, and if season ticket holders didn’t want to come to the game and OSU fans got ahold of those seats, so be it. This is one of the most storied rivalries in college football history, hell in sports, and so if you can watch your team demolish the other at their place, spell your state loudly and proudly if it makes you happy. And this isn’t some jaded UM elitist saying it; I care way more about who wins on the field than who wins in the stands, but if your team crushed UM then I guess you have “earned” the right to chant. Just don’t hurt yourself trying to jump back on that bandwagon with the rest of the Juggalos after last week.
- I’ve heard some fans (mostly OSU and MSU ones) chirp that this season is going to be just like Hoke’s in 2011, which showed a promising era that cratered a couple years later. Well, one of the things I’ve been tracking is turnover margin, as that 2011 season featured one of the best in recent history for UM, which helped cover up some deficiencies on both sides of the ball. By comparison, this year UM has one of the worst margins, mostly due to recovering 2 opponent fumbles all years. With turnovers, especially fumble recovery, being mostly random, the progress shown this year is probably even more impressive than it looks specifically because it’s come against much “luck”. Now, if you want to see some some teams that MIGHT find next season a bit more challenging if they can’t reproduce seemingly-unsustainable TO margins, look no further than the B1G title game.
Nothing, nada, zip, zilch. I suspect UM will be playing somewhere in Florida on New Years, which is a nice coda to a first season under Harbaugh. I’ll probably do another of these diaries for that game, but just in case not I want to thank everyone who has stuck around reading these this year. It’s been a blast to follow this team for the first year, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.
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.
I went back to the clip I used as part of the utterly one-sided parkinggod highlight reel. Chesson catches the ball and starts moving forward at 0:01.15 (my clip is at 30fps, so that's the one-and-a-half second mark). He crosses the goal line at 0:14.00 (this is probably not how video editing professionals indicate time, but I only learned enough video editing to mix utterly one-sided highlight reels. But I digress), so his total time is 12 seconds and 15 frames, or 12 1/2 seconds.
Obviously, to determine how fast he is, we need to know how far he went. Fortunately, we can make a pretty good approximation by assuming that he ran a straight line from where he caught the ball at the 4 to where he turned the corner at the 35 (he didn't, really; he moved more forward at first to set up his blocks), then a straight line from there to the goal line.
The numbers are two yards tall, and the top of the number is three yards in from the sideline (according to http://www.trumarkathletics.com/football-field-layout-dimensions.aspx). Chesson caught the ball almost exactly in the middle of the number, so he's 8 yards in from the sideline. When he turns the corner at the 35, he is also around the middle of the number, so he's 8 yards in from the sideline there as well. The field is 53 1/3 yards wide, so his lateral distance travelled is (53 1/3 - 8 - 8) 37 1/3 yards. His downfield distance travelled is (35 - 4) 31 yards, so we can solve for the distance he ran, which is just the hypotenuse of that right triangle: sqrt((31 * 31) + (37 1/3 * 37 1/3)) ~= 48.5yd.
Add the 65 yards from there to the goal line (he drifts another couple of yards towards the sideline as he went, but that's probably lost in the noise of all the other assumptions I made) and his total distance is 113.5 yards in 12.5 seconds, or an 'equivalent' 100m time of 12.05 seconds. Caveats about wearing pads/helmet/cleats and carrying a football all apply.
The opening kickoff return has a pretty interesting structure. By the alignment, you can see that Michigan is very slightly shifted to the right, maybe anticipating this play.
Side note - lots of starters out there on special teams, Is playing your starting left tackle on kickoffs a common thing? Also, I think that's Wormley out there, but I'm not 100% sure.
1) As soon as Chesson secures the kick, Butt starts running across the field, towards the M sideline, giving up about 10 yards as he does so (Dark blue circle is his starting spot, blue dashed lines are the path he's taken thus far, and big maize arrows are where players are heading).
This shot gives us a good view of the play design. Five players (Wilson, Kinnel, Gedeon, Houma and Wormley) are forming a wall, while three lead blockers (Peppers, Butt and M. Cole) pull around to the right. Meanwhile, Bolden and Poggi double-team Northwestern's Terrance Brown (circled at bottom of image). Two Northwestern players are left completely unblocked on the left (circled at top of image). Chesson runs his first 10 yards straight upfield, which helps to pull the Northwestern coverage to his side.
2) Moments later, Chesson has just started his cut behind the wall and away from the unblocked guys in front of him. Butt (circled) is about to hit the unblocked guy in front of him. The fact that he came all of the way across the field to block this guy in particular indicates that this is by design. Peppers and Cole pull through to get the next blocks.
3) Cole latches on and Peppers is getting ready to hit Northwestern's safety who escaped the double (circled). Chesson arcs away from one unblocked player who picked his way across the field behind the wall...
4) ... and leaves him on the ground.
Is Jehu Chesson the #1 WR on the depth chart, and we are just haven't noticed?
Seems to me everyone has shoehorned Darboh as the number one guy on the outside, while noting he is better suited as a compliment. Number 82 looks a lot more like Avant than Edwards. Maizenbrew.com just did their position preview for WR's and ranked Darboh/Chesson 1a/1b. And I'm sure everyone has read the position previews in HTTV, in which Jehu is the probable #2, due to experience over the others.
Not to be a DISCUSS guy, but I do want to open a discussion about Chesson, Harbaugh, favorites, team leaders, and how that affects a depth chart. With Chesson going to B1G Media Days, and staring in various UMichAthletics video shorts, is Harbaugh telling us in plain sight that Chesson is the #1 guy?
Here is a picture of Chesson in the Virtual Reality highlight video from a Freep Article.
And the link to the Summer Training Video, which was basically Chesson running a forty.
So what are your thoughts? Does the recent exposure mean that Harbaugh looks to Chesson as a leader on this offense? And if so, does that translate to a possible shake up of what we have in our minds as the WR depth chart? IMO, having Chesson leap Darboh would be a great sign. He has the ability to stretch the field, which could open up the passing game for not only Darboh, but the slot receivers and the TEs too.
[Edit:] Whoops, forgot a gif...