This weekend both BronxBlue Wife and BronxBlue Daughter had birthdays, which included a 3-year-old birthday extravaganza, two sets of grandparents, multiple trips to places like Party City and Stew Leonard’s (which is like if half a Meijer was pushed through a Cracker Barrel and named after a guy who looks like an older, less Camaro-obsessed Papa John), and a sinking realization this will be my life for the next 10-12 years as BronxBlue Son joins the fray. So that’s a long way of saying that if this diary cracks 3,000 words, it’ll be a minor miracle. Or I started rambling.
Best: The Best Cable Providers in America!
When the Big 10+2 decided it wanted to become the B1G4, fans discussed the possible new additions with a fervency usually reserved for new apparel deals. There were the usual suspects like Notre Dame, the proximal options like Pittsburgh, Missouri, and Cincinnati, the stretches of varying lengths like Oklahoma, Colorado, and Georgia Tech, and then the fun-sized options like Texas. Rutgers was never the answer unless the question was “What is closer to New York City than Syracuse or UConn?” There was no sports rationale for bringing on the Scarlet Knights in 2012 (I mean, they have a Wikipedia entry about their Quidditch team, FFS), and they’ve probably become even less palpable in the proceeding years. Plus, as a middling academic institution in the conference, it wasn’t like they raised the prestige of the conference scholastically. This was always a naked cash grab, and no more was Delany’s lust for revenue dangling limply in the breeze like it was when he announced the New York cable market would be joining as a member.
As these stories tend to go, all bad decisions must come in pairs, so the addition of Maryland was met with similar derision. Even though lots of alumni from current conference teams live in the Mid-Atlantic, adding Maryland “opened up” access to the Washington Metro area (and its cable boxes). And in return for letting the Big 10 get a tiny sliver more from a couple million cable bills, Maryland would be able to actually pay its bills and keep fielding D1 programs. Plus, the Terrapins were just embarking on the Randy Edsall Era, proving that “coach who took a team to a BCS bowl” isn’t always a positive on the resume. So the general consensus was that Maryland and Rutgers wouldn’t add any real substance to the conference beyond the bottom line, and even though that has largely borne out to be true, hasn’t helped quell the anger.
But I never thought Maryland was a bad addition. Sure they weren’t some juggernaut, but from 2000 to the present they finished the season ranked 4 times, were ranked at some point in the year 4 more times, and won 9+ games 5 times. Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue would kill for that level of recent “success”, and it wasn’t like MSU was any great shakes before Dantonio’s last 7-8 year run of success elevated that program. Plus, they won an NCAA basketball title more recently than anyone else in the conference, and have enjoyed a bit of a resurgence on the basketball court these past couple of years.
My point isn’t to say expansion was a good idea, because it wasn’t. You already call yourself the Big 10 but have first 11 teams, then 12. The footprint of your conference spans almost 1,100 miles, and already seems to cover most of the major television markets you could ever care about (I was getting the B1G network as part of a sports package in NYC by 2010). You had already strained conference rivalries by scheduling large gaps between teams matching up, and adding even more teams to the mix would strain the organic faux elitism and tribalism that drives fan bases to show up to your noon kickoffs in late November that much more. And by the way, you’d be further proving the point that the only “amateurs” taking part in college sports are the people trying to run it, since none of these newfound riches would find their way into the hands of the players who generated it, only the pasty, outstretched hands of old men (and they’re always old men) in jackets standing on sidelines and failed pizza barons looking for ways to blow wads of cash.
But despite all that, adding Maryland was defensible. Adding Rutgers should have gotten someone fired, not (what I assume was) a nice bonus check and a nicer more corner-er office.
This game was never in doubt. While Durkin is a good, young coach and Maryland was a surprising 5-3 entering the game, the chasm between these two teams was immense. Durkin’s Testudinals picked up their 5 wins against a bunch of stiffs (Howard, FIU, Purdue, and MSU) and one semi-competent (and common) opponent in UCF, which unsurprisingly was a 6-point game that ended in double overtime. They had their pants pulled down to varying degrees by PSU and Minnesota, and their 6-point win against IU had a distinctive MSU stank to it, considering their scored the final TD as time expired. That underwhelming slate produced an unsurprising statistical profile; this is a decent offensive unit (39th in success rate, 27th in scoring points inside their opponents 40) anchored to a terrible defense (127th against the rush, 100th in getting off the field). Put another way, Michigan is #1 in S&P after this week, while Maryland is one spot below EMU.
Michigan dominated all 3 facets of the game. I know there’s some hand-wringing about missed tackles, edge containment, tunnel screens and giving up almost 400 yards of total offense, but this was still a game where UM recorded 13 TFLs, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 6 pass break ups. Maryland scored 3 points on the day, and had 3 drives out of 11 go for more than 40 yards; hell, only 6 broke 30 yards. The Terrapins were limited to 2/11 on 3rd and 4th down before the 4th quarter, and even facing the backups for long stretches of that second half still struggled to get above 300 total yards of offense before their final 3 drives.
On the other side of the ball, UM averaged an even 10 yards per play on the day, spearheaded by Wilton Speight’s arm (79% passing, 362 yards, 15.1 (!) ypa, 2 TDs plus a rushing score) and a mashing by the backs (7.0 ypc, 5 TDs). For the game they finished with 660 yards of total offense, gave up only 1 sack and 3 TFLs, never punted, and scored on every drive save 1, which ended on downs deep in the Maryland redzone.
In years past, this could have been a bit of a trap game, one where UM let an inferior team hang around and make it interesting. But not this year, not this team, not under this coach. Michigan did what they’ve done basically all year, which is blow out their opponents efficiently. Whatever real or perceived missteps by the defense recently have been thoroughly covered up by an offense that has scored a touchdown on half of their drives the last 3 games (16-for-32).
Best: Great Speight Marty!
Okay, I’ll admit it: Jim Harbaugh might have made the right decision at QB this offseason. Or he’s a hell of a coach. It’s probably both. Wilton Speight has gone from a guy who nobody expected to be better than “another Al Borges recruit who never started at QB” to maybe the best QB in the Big 10. Following up a really solid outing against MSU last week, Speight didn’t miss a beat. He set a team record with 292 yards in the first half, systematically walking his team down the field for TDs on all 5 drives. He reads the field like a seasoned pro, even if he still holds onto the ball a step too much, and you can tell Harbaugh is comfortable with his command of the offense because the playbook continues to expand. Now, that 2nd-and-34 pass for 56 yards to Evans was a bit of luck, but he also fired a couple of bullets to Darboh and Butt in coverage, including on a cross-field pass from Peppers, that required a high degree of concentration and arm strength.
I know the refrain is always “Speight needs to play like X to beat OSU” this year, but I’m fairly confident that the Wilton Speight we’ve seen since the bye week shows up at a game, UM would be favored to win against anyone in the country save Alabama. And even that might be even money.
Best: Everybody Brought Their Mitts to This Game
The best offense I saw at Michigan was either 2003 or 2004, featuring either a senior Navarre or a freshman Henne, Doak Walker-winning Chris Perry or first-year phenom Mike Hart (both solid receivers as well), and guys like Braylon, Breaston, Avant, and Massaquoi reeling in balls all over the field. This was the 2-year span where even Carr’s distaste for passing was superseded by the talent on the field; Edwards caught 182 passes for almost 2,500 yards and 29 TDs over those two seasons, and both Avant and Breaston had their moments both in those seasons and beyond.
This group of receivers doesn’t have the same star power, and it’s weird to say that in 2016 they won’t have the same prolific passing numbers (Darboh leads the team with 42 receptions) as teams over a decade before, but this is probably the 2nd-best collection of receivers I’ve seen at Michigan. And it might sound cliche, but it’s definitely a group that is greater than the sum of their parts. Butt is the best receiving tight end in the country, but coming into the year I don’t think most college football fans considered Darboh or Chesson (outsized preseason draft hype aside) as top-flight receivers. And yet, Michigan has a top-5 passing offense in the country, and that’s weighed down a bit by “mediocre” performances to start the year.
Darboh has clearly taken a step forward in his play this year, showing some unexpected burst to complement his physical style, and the number of highlight reel catches is growing every game. He’s more than a possession receiver at this point, and has helped pick up the slack a bit from Chesson, who until this game was scuttling a bit. But against Maryland, Jehu had 5 catches for 112 yards and a TD, and repeatedly found himself blitheringly wide open. One hopes this is a bit like the end of last year, when Chesson took flight and brought a gamebreaker element to the offense. And has been the case for a couple of years now, Jake Butt is the best receiving TE in the country and continues to break records at the position.
And to add a little bit of fun to the blowout, the backs had some great, juggling receptions. Smith, Hill, and (in particular) Evans all showed they spent some time with the Juggs machine, particularly Evans, who bobbled a (slightly) underthrown ball before turning it into a 56-yard screen.
The scary thing is you can tell there are elements to this offense that are still works-in-progress. Peppers, for one, will probably be used even more dynamically when the opponent requires it. The running game, despite having consistently dominated teams on the ground and already surpassing 2015’s totals, still lacks that breakthrough threat that could turn the plethora of 20-yard gains UM has to 50 yarders. But these are minor complaints; this is an historically good offense for UM wed to one of the best defenses in the country.
Worst, I guess: Stop Getting Parts of my Yards
I want to get annoyed with the missed tackles. I know both Stribling and Lewis have struggled a small bit in coverage recently. Gedeon and McGray have shown some limitations in coverage (a number of those screens were fired at Gedeon) and going sideline-to-sideline; in this game, Maryland attacked the edge a lot specifically because they wanted to see if the LBs would flake. And some of these same issues showed up last week against MSU, at least in spurts, so it’s becoming more of a trend than a one-off data point created by a team that spent a non-insignificant part of their 2-7 season getting ready for a couple of drives. I want to be concerned.
And yet, I just can’t. UM held Maryland scoreless until midway through the 3rd quarter. They won the game by 56 points. They collected 2 interceptions, held the Terrapins to under 100 yards rushing, and were living in Maryland’s backfield even when they didn’t get a sack.
Durkin did what I think most smart coaches do; they figure out the side of the ball they know the best (in this case defense), focus more on that during gameday, and hire a guy to run a scheme that works with the talent available to you on the other side. Walt Bell’s Arkansas State teams ran up and down the field on almost everyone, and he was part of successful offensive staffs at UNC before that. Maryland runs a hyper aggressive, if somewhat inefficient, spread offense that can take advantage of the shifty athletes they have at RB. And he knew that throwing downfield was going to be tough sledding, but screens and little crossing routes allow his athletes to be in space and rely on the reality that college football players aren’t always going to tackle properly. It was a really good game pan, executed well in sections…that resulted in UM holding them to one of their lowest offensive outputs of the year (and their lowest when Hills is the starter).
In this game, UM was caught flat-footed a bit, especially early on, as Maryland just kept running them sideline to sideline. It was clear Maryland didn’t expect to get much push inside, and they ran away from the pressure as best they could. I’d say about half of Maryland’s came on 2-3 tunnel screens, and so you hope Brown and co. figure out how to compensate for teams going to that well. But that 56-yard catch-and-run to end the half was just a good playcall in a game UM was leading by 35 points with no time on the clock, and in most cases Maryland couldn’t really build on any chunk plays.
Maryland is going to be a pain in the ass in years to come, especially as Durkin continues to recruit well. He’ll probably never beat UM or OSU out for most recruits, but a decent collection of 4* and high 3* athletes can absolutely wreak havoc on most of the conference. Next year, I could see them exploit some of UM’s inexperience and make this a game. But I’m going to need more to get worried about this team, and saying “Indiana 2015” ignores so many injuries and context that simply doesn’t apply to this season.
Plus, UM gets to play Puntasaurus Rex next week, so I expect most complaints to be about Iowa going for it on 4th down and cracking 100 yards of total offense.
Kenny Allen hit another decent FG in this game. Whatever was wrong a couple weeks ago seems to have been fixed. Again, none of this should matter until OSU at the earliest, but having a competent kicker certainly doesn’t hurt.
It’s becoming blase to say, but Peppers had another great game. He was a spark plug on offense, picked up another TFL as part of a 5-tackle day, and absolutely rattled Caleb Rowe(?) on an unblocked rush in the 2nd quarter. Plus, he threw an…okay, it wasn’t that great of a pass back to Speight on that trick play, but the end result was still a big completion. It does feel like there are a bunch of plays that Harbaugh isn’t going to roll out quite yet for Peppers, and if I’m OSU I’m getting really nervous.
Other than Kalis getting a dumb penalty (and a good berating by Harbaugh that ESPN picked up), the offensive line played really well. Speight had time to throw, the backs basically got deposited 4 yards downfield before they had much contact, and they 3 TFLs for 6 total yards is impressive regardless of the opposition. It seems like the unit has solidified after Newsome went down.
MSU found a way to lose to Illinois and assure themselves of a losing season. Mark Dantonio has earned himself some leeway for a down year, but people can say “they could be in for a dogfight against Rutgers” with a straight face. In 2016!
OSU beating up on Nebraska didn’t really shock me. Nebraska shot to 7-0 on the back of close wins against Indiana and Oregon, meh wins against Purdue, NW, and Illinois, and Wyoming (that game was 24-17 heading into the 4th) and a blowout of Fresno St. They are an okay team, but put them in the eastern division and they’re probably a shade better than Maryland, if that. This is still a tractable team, and if you think J.T. Barrett is suddenly “back” throwing the ball, good luck with that.
Next Week: Iowa
This looked like one of the toughest road contests even a month ago. Now, my guess is Iowa keeps it close for a quarter and then UM opens up the flood gates. I don’t see this team getting flustered on the road, and thanks to realignment UM hasn’t played at Kinnick Stadium since 2013. It was a house of horrors for UM under RR and Hoke; methinks that won’t continue with Harbaugh.