fair point that
Best: A Picture is Worth a New Coach
I’ve been writing these diaries in one form or another for over 3 years; if you go back for enough, you’d find me making recaps using old Bruce Willis movie titles. Those were heady times, to say the least.
But this “version” of the game recaps has been kicking along for a bit now, spanning a national championship game run by the basketball team, most of the Hoke era, and now the Harbaugh reign. And one of its hallmarks, along with promises to keep things short and then writing 5,000 words, references to professional wrestling, and dumb header titles, are images and gifs. Usually I try to pick out images that embody the point I’m trying to make, such as watching UM play UConn in 2013
and then later obliterating IU.
For a time, sorting through them was easy on my computer, and if I couldn’t find one that fit I’d just Google image search until I did. But like all pack-rats, over time I accumulated (and this is the most internet thing I think I’ve ever written) too many animated gifs and dumb images to sort them quickly. So I built a small utility on one of the sites I maintain to upload and view all the images, scaled and paginated for easy traversal. When I come across an image or gif I think is funny or interesting, I upload it to the site, even if I don’t have an immediate use for it. And before you ask, yes, I’m a software engineer.
So I’ve had this site for over a year now, and by default I sort the images by the day they were uploaded. So I went back and looked at last year around this time, to see if any images might be relevant or particularly humorous given how this weekend played out. And what I realized, beyond the fact that I’m on WAY too many message boards and reddit threads, is that it was f’ing DARK around this time last year. I mean, some of the first images that pops up is a dog literally shitting during a competition
and of a motorcyclist running into a car while an interview is going on.
It wasn’t just that UM was losing; that had unfortunately become a common occurrence years before. The losing, sadly, I could live with as a fan; it ruins your day, but rarely do teams go a whole season without blowing a game or just running into a better opponent. No, what these pictures made so clear was how much melancholy and ennui surrounded the program. It became such a chore to watch these games, to see a team with top-20 talent and bottom-20 coaching sludgefart their way through 12 games a year, that I’m honestly not sure I’d have continued writing these had that malaise carried on to this season (and yeah, I know a couple of you probably wished I had stopped). It just felt like an unnecessary strain, watching this program further devolve and looking for the fool’s gold of “progress” in crude accomplishments such as “they nearly broke 200 yards of offense”, “Devin Gardner walked off the field in one piece”, and “they almost won on the road this time”. And by its very nature, my goal is to keep these articles upbeat and rarely serious, not a dour litany of the failings everyone already watched on Saturday.
Frankly, it’s how I imagine most logical PSU fans must feel like watching the Nittany Lions these past couple of years, knowing that your ceiling is one of those mid-tier Florida bowl games against an 8-win SEC outfit. You hear about the recruiting classes, you see the all-world defensive linemen, you (apparently) believe your QB to be a future NFL signal-caller despite evidence to the contrary, and then you look up and all you have are a bunch of 7-win seasons with few signs of actual growth. That was life watching UM football under Brady Hoke, a guy who checks off a number of the boxes you want in a coach (strong connection to the program, ace recruiter, good human being) except the ones that really matter (beating rivals, winning seasons, demonstrative improvements during the season as well as between them). And once the afterglow of that 2011 season faded and it was just season after season of mediocrity (or worse), well, you welcome in a nice little otter into your heart and he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave.
But right around the time Harbaugh made it clear he’d be coming to UM, I noticed that the tone of the images I uploaded changed rather dramatically. Gone were the depressing images, the painful gifs, and the general resignation that were the hallmarks of lost seasons. It wasn’t that I suddenly started to download rainbows, unicorns, and silly cat pictures, only that I didn’t need to find ever more ludicrous pictures to display my exasperation with the direction of this program. UM did and will continue to lose games and the coaches and players will do “bad” things on and off the field, but these foibles no longer feel embedded in the DNA of the block M, in the same way that “Sparty No!” seems to have left the Spartan hemoglobin (though its devil pact replacement ain’t too fun either).
I’ve said this before, but ever since the Utah game Michigan has seemed competent in everything they do. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t weaknesses and that mistakes aren’t made, only that from the coaches on down, everyone seems, I don’t know, professional about it. They aren’t scrambling to find answers to obvious questions, there aren’t players finger-pointing when games go badly (and to his credit, Hoke never had this issue either), and there hasn’t been a moment that was truly embarrassing to the program or the players. Hell, even after the MSU game, the lowest of low moments of the season, everyone associated with the program maintained a calmness and professionalism that was refreshing given the clusterfuck of recent vintage. The worst of moments was treated like every other; a teachable instance, a chance to reaffirm the mantras of responsibility and camaraderie, of “winning with character and winning with cruelty” and doing the same in a loss, and the choice to move on. While I dislike the lazy “Michigan Man” meme, if THIS is what it means and is what I can come to expect from the program going forward, then I think Bo would find it agreeable.
Now, there will be speedbumps in the coming years; hell, there could very well be a nasty nut-shaped one next week. But this program is on the type of solid ground that lets you weather those slip-ups properly, absorbing the lessons and making sure they don’t repeat themselves. Last year’s contest was an emotional rollercoaster, with Devin Gardner and the defense clawing UM to the victory in a game where Brady Hoke called a timeout to give PSU one last hail-mary throw to end the half.*
This year, PSU threatened briefly but was roughly as inept as last year’s edition. And if you squint and look at just the box score, you could make an argument that UM wasn’t much different either – slightly better offensive numbers than last year, but more turnovers and a boatload (13 for 117) of penalties. But at no point in this game did I expect UM to lose, and from the sideline on down you could tell the team took the terrible penalties, the bad-luck TOs, the offensive miscues in stride. There are at least two more games in this season and UM has a good chance to win them both, but this season has already been a success, and the future looks even brighter. Now, if only I had an image…
* I’ll admit to defending it at the time and still thinking it wasn’t a terrible decision even now, but that’s not relevant anymore.
You hear all the time about how teams need “playmakers” on both sides of the ball. On defense, it’s usually reserved for defensive backs who pick off passes, safeties who lay bone-crunching hits, and defensive ends who obliterate QBs. On offense, playmakers are the running backs who turn 2 yards into 50, WRs who make impossible catches seem routine, and QBs who can make all the throws and pilot an offense in amazing ways. The common thread, though, is that these players are able to improvise, to “make plays” when things break down, to divine success from the chaos surrounding them. UM has had their fair share of playmakers in this mold, including some of the greatest college football players in history.
The emphasis, for lack of a better analogy, is on the “maker” part of playmaker, the sense that greatness comes out when structure breaks down. But you can’t ignore the first part, those players who are able to execute the “play” well enough to win, who can process what’s in front of them and perform their role as perfectly as possible. Tom Brady is on the short list of greatest QBs in NFL history not because of a fantastic arm, blazing speed, or snake-quick release, but because he executes about as well as anyone who has played the position. Sure, he can create magic when forced to, but he’s a “playmaker” because he makes the plays that his team needs him to make, in the offensive system he’s helped perfect. And yet, when you say a player does his job well, it’s almost taken as an insult, as if genius only counts if you are throwing paint at a wall or flicking a ball on a broken play with 300-pound men chasing you.
Jake Rudock looks like your dad’s QB, a smart guy with a clean face and a quiet confidence. He can run a little, he can throw a little more, but he doesn’t do anything that immediately jumps out at you as spectacular. Whereas Johnny Football is a whirling dervish on the field, and Denard a bolt of maize-and-blue lightning streaking down the sideline, Rudock is the steady, competent QB who is always looking downfield for his receivers, who isn’t afraid to take the ball and run but isn’t going to sacrifice the offense for it. And truth be told, he’s always seemed a bit like an anomaly in the current game, a guy who Iowa didn’t want despite putting up basically the same numbers as the guy who replaced him, who plans on being a surgeon and probably will back it up unlike some other collegians.
But over the back half of this season, he’s also become a playmaker on this offense. Whereas against teams like MSU and Maryland he looked timid and lost, he now looks confident and poised, surveying the field, making the right throws, keeping this team moving forward even while the running game evaporates and the defense takes an understandable step back from its dominance. He’s the reason this team beat IU last week and was a main cog in the grinding win this week. He’s thrown for over 1,000 yards in the past 3 games, for 10 TDs vs. 2 INTs, and has done so accurately (70% completion percentage) and aggressively (9.4 ypa). Credit should obviously go to Jim Harbaugh for never wavering in his dedication to Rudock despite early-season struggles, but this is the player UM hoped they were getting when he came on campus, and given the fact that he had only weeks to assimilate a complex playbook and get in sync with his teammates, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that it took a bit to get there.
Still, Rudock is a big reason most of the team’s goals remain in play, and why they just swept their conference road slate for the first time in decades. He’s never going to go down in Michigan lore or be honored at halftime of a future game, but he’s been the steady force at the helm for this team, and I fully expect him to perform up to this level for as long as UM season keeps going.
Worst: Just Stop Running
Another week, another dispiriting performance on the ground. At least this week it was understandable, what with PSU’s dominant defensive line (even without Carl Nassib for part of the game). Zettel and Johnson can stop a rushing attack by themselves, so I wasn’t surprised that nobody really broke out. And even if there were the occasional openings, well, as Patches O’houlihan would say about the UM rushing attack, “they’re too good and you suck something awful”.
But what was disheartening was how quickly the coaches recognized this futility and really didn’t try to come back to it until the game was salted away. On the one hand, credit to the coaches for calling plays that would have the maximum probability of success, not just fulfill some chest beating about “toughness”. Brian is fond of saying that when a game is like one from the 1950s, you call plays like its the 1950s, and that usually means caveman football with 2 yards and a cloud of dust. But Harbaugh isn’t like most coaches, and so when it was clear PSU wasn’t going to be able to do much offensively and there weren’t many yards on the ground, he aired it out and found ways to move the ball semi-effectively.
For what feels like the umpteenth time since the MSU game, De’Veon Smith recorded about 3 yards a carry with a long in the single digits, while a WR (Chesson), a mini linebacker (Peppers) a fullback (Houma), and a QB (Rudock) were the next four rushers. Heck, the only other back to get a carry was Higdon, who had one carry for 0 yards on the first drive of the game. It is my understanding that Smith is dealing with a foot/ankle injury he suffered against BYU, and if you look at his game log it’s pretty clear that something is wrong.
But this team is supposedly full of other competent performers in the backfield, at least by reputation if not actual performance. I know I harped on the same thing last week, but the fact nobody has seemingly even sniffed carries after Smith, Houma, and Johnson despite their limitations is damning for the rest of the guys on the roster, much in the same way Rudock’s early struggles didn’t even seem to remotely improve the stock of the guys behind him. MSU just beat OSU running the ball for over 200 yards and barely passing, so perhaps there is hope that UM will be able to somewhat replicate that performance. But when your head coach looks at his roster and feels it more prudent to throw against the nation’s leading sack defense than try to establish a rushing attack, that’s pretty damning.
Meh: Blocky-type guys
On the one hand, the pass blocking was pretty solid this game; outside of the strip-sack by Brandon Bell Rudock was mostly kept clean (only 2 sacks and no hits according to the stat sheet), and as noted earlier Rudock was taking shots down the field and had time to do so. On the other hand, this was another week where the running game seemed barely functional for long stretches, and while I just heaped a decent amount of blame on the backs it wasn’t like the line graded out particularly well against IU and, I’m guessing, the same will play out this week. The good news is that they are absolutely making strides and, with the exception of Glasgow’s graduation, should return with everyone next season. But at some point this unit needs to take that step forward and start imposing its will on teams the way Stanford used to, and you’d have expected that to happen as they became more comfortable with the offense. OSU will be another major test, though who the hell knows what team will show up on Saturday. But next year this line must make the next step forward for UM to have a chance at great things, and thus far it seems somewhat incomplete.
Best: The Toast of the Town
Sadly this probably isn’t a cultural milestone for a portion of the readership, but there was a time when a screensaver was one of the “coolest” things about PCs. After Dark, a collection of screensavers for Windows, featured a variety of cool, animated screens to display on your system while you were away. There was animated fish tanks, flocks of birds, and enough geometric explosions to tease out a smile from even the most jaded systems admin. And the most iconic of these screensaver was the famed “flying toasters”, featuring a seemingly random number of slices of toast and winged-toasters floating across your screen. It was mesmerizing, funny, and creative in that un-ironic way that is almost impossible to comprehend in 2015, and even today its legacy lives on.
Well, in this game Amara Darboh was the toast of screen passes. With the running game struggling, these plays were as much long runs as they were passes, and given Darboh’s stiff arm and strong running style, they consistently picked up first downs and helped to keep the offense from getting bogged down. The first TD of the game was a great pitch-and-catch by Darboh, helped by a great block by Grant Perry (he might not have had the freshman year some expected on the stat sheet, but Perry has been one of the best blockers on screens and runs this whole season), and Darboh never failed to turn these passes in nice chunk plays.
It was brilliant playcalling by Harbaugh, as it got the ball in space and let Darboh grind out those couple extra yards his strength and size afford him. It also demonstrably loosened up the PSU front 7, which served them well later on in the game when the offense started to take shots farther downfield. With Butt and Chesson also having solid games, it was another promising performance from a receiving core that should hopefully be back next year. I’m particularly interested in how Butt’s senior year plays out, as the coaching staff is clearly starting to take advantage of his “uncoverability” with more deep routes against coverage. And perhaps unsurprisingly, as Rudock came into his own so has Chesson, who seems to finally be the deep threat/stretch offense that always seemed to be bubbling just beneath the surface of his game.
Best: A Return to Form
I always thought the IU game would be an aberration in terms of the defense’s performance this year, so it was nice to see the team bounce back and hold PSU to about 200 yards of total offense. They gave up that first big run to Barkley but otherwise bottled him up (12 yards on 14 carries after that 56-yard run), and Hackenberg looked absolutely lost out there for most of the contest (41% completion for 4.3 ypa) . PSU wasn’t helped by playcalling that was beyond passive for long stretches The tone was set when, after getting inside the 10 on their opening drive, PSU ran the ball 3 times and then kicked a FG; if a team can throw in the towel on their first offensive series, that red zone series was it.
Charlton was in the backfield seemingly all game, picking up two sacks and helping to compress the pocket whenever the Nittany Lions weren’t grabbing jerseys. I expect both Wormley and Henry to grade out really well in addition, especially on the pressure metrics, as they were consistently getting in Hackenberg’s face even if they didn’t record a sack. There were a couple of times when he just turfed balls because hands were in his face, and that type of disruption won’t show up on the official scorecard but is just as important as a TFL or a sack.
I’m honestly not sure about the LBs anymore. Bolden was absolutely manhandled on that first long run, but otherwise it seemed like him, Morgan, and Ross made the plays they needed to. They were very good at stringing along PSU outside run plays, and rarely did you see gaps open up for Barkley (a really talented guy) to slip through, unlike last week. I think Morgan’s departure will be felt next season, but beyond that it’s hard to tell what the drop-off will be with Gedeon and the collection of young guys beyond them. My guess is that a couple of “athletes” in search of a position will be getting reps there in the offseason, and so it’ll be interesting to say the least.
And the secondary was its typical lockdown self. Lewis was challenged a couple of times but without much success, though his trip in the first half was nearly disastrous except the Wilson or Thomas came over to break up the pass in the endzone. Beyond that, the corners were mostly in the receiver’s pockets all game, and you could see Hackenberg become increasingly despondent as he surveyed the field. Thomas had a solid outing, though he dropped another near-INT on an overthrown ball near the sideline. Wilson had a great open-field tackle on Barkley that kept a second-down run from breaking big, and was his usual steady self.
It was clear that PSU thought they could pick on Peppers, and he responded pretty well. Yes, he did give up the TD pass to Blacknall that briefly gave PSU the lead in the 2nd quarter, but he also had three PBUs and had some nice tackles in space. And on that TD, had he turned his head around quicker he’d have had a good chance at picking the ball off, as it was a bit underthrown and he was between it and the receiver. He remains, as always, a terrifying weapon designed to destroy any offense he sees.
Again, game balls to everyone for keeping PSU bottled up. Even when the Nittany Lions did get close to scoring, the defense typically stiffened and either held them to FG tries or, as in the 2nd quarter, drove PSU out of FG range with timely sacks. I’m fully expecting OSU to pull out every play possible next week, but based on the performance I saw this Saturday by both teams I’m feeling a bit more confident about how this team will cope with the Buckeye attack.
Best: James Franklin is Terrible
Seriously, I don’t even have anything funny or witty to say. I DO wonder if he was replaced on the sideline with Bernie Lomax for stretches of this game, though, as some of these playcalls felt like he just flopped down on the playsheet and didn’t care a lick for down and distance. As I noted above, that first drive featured 3 consecutive runs in the redzone, and for the game PSU kicked FGs of 23, 24, and 18 yards, while also averaging 32 yards a punt, including punting when he was on UM’s side of the field late in the 2nd quarter. Woof.
Hackenberg isn’t close to the QB he flashed during his freshman year, which is probably due to a combination of coaching and the fact he was throwing to Allen Robinson all year, and about midway through the first half he looked like the Undertaker given how far his eyes rolled back into his head as he listened to the coaches on the sideline.
I’m not one to read too much into body language, especially during a game, but Hackenberg looked like a guy who was absolutely sick of this coaching staff and this team, and its hard not to put a lot of that blame on Franklin. Franklin’s rep as an offensive “innovator” always struck me as odd, as PSU has rarely looked overly competent on that side of the ball, and even his Vandy teams, while explosive against the dregs of the schedule, never looked particularly dangerous against the better teams on the schedule. Vanderbilt caveats and all, it seems like Franklin is a good recruiter and a competent offensive thinker, but it still feels like he is playing checkers on the sideline while guys like Harbaugh are playing battle chess.
Meh: Special Teams
On the one hand, UM had a punt partially blocked that set up PSU’s only TD, which continues a disturbing trend of special teams issues. At the same time, O’Neill was able to drop a punt deep deep into PSU territory that UM recovered on the fair-catch fumble in part because the PSU receiver was surrounded by 4 Wolverines. Also, Lewis had a couple nice returns, including a 55-yarder to set up the final points of the game after PSU had pulled within 5 at 21-16. I know the shiny advanced stats are going to go down again, but the performance of this unit remains light-years better than last season’s, and helped keep this game from possibly going in PSU’s favor.
Worst: These F***ing Refs
PSU had a total of 14 first downs in this game, 6(!!!!) of which due to penalty. For long stretches of this game, PSU only moved forward because of penalties. While UM was definitely undisciplined with the offsides and false starts, it just got silly when you looked up at the scoreboard and saw UM had 13 penalties for 117 yards. I get that UM does interfere with passes and holds players like everyone else, but when Peppers is getting dinged with a PI because the PSU receiver punched him in the face, or Henry is being called for defensive holding, it gets hard to keep watching.
And as is usual with B1G refs, we had another semi-clear targeting situation that went against UM. I’m not sure if Anthony Zettel was targeting Rudock with his hit, but I am 100% certain that if we live in a world where James Ross and Joe Bolden can be sent off for their transgressions, old tree-thumper thereshould have been sent off for cracking Rudock on the chin with his helmet.
Toward the end of the game Harbaugh just seemed beyond perplexed, and for good reason. UM needs to fix the procedural penalties that kept PSU drives going or stalled out UM’s, but at some point you have to wonder if they’ll get a better shake when bowl season comes around and another conference’s crew gets ahold of them.
Next Week: The Game
You had one job, OSU, and you couldn’t do it. That was a comically bad game, a war crime to college football fans covered by the Geneva Convention, and beyond the fact it gave MSU an undeserved inside track for the division title, it sucked so much juice out of what was probably one of the more important final games in this rivalry’s recent history. One can always hold out hope PSU plays inspired football to spoil MSU’s bid, but I’m not holding my breath. The Spartans remain perhaps the luckiest team in college football (beyond the fact that they didn’t lead against UM OR OSU until the last second, they still have an absurd turnover margin), but at this point I expect them to win the entire damn conference and then get destroyed by Clemson or Alabama.
I’d like to say that OSU’s hangover will carry over to this game, but I doubt it. Even with all the turmoil, OSU will play inspired against UM, and I expect all of the wrinkles and nuances that come with rivalry game. It felt like OSU just overlooked MSU a bit once it was clear Cook wasn’t playing, and by the time they woke up they were in a rock fight with the rockiest of teams.
Right now, I think UM has the advantage even if the game wasn’t at home. OSU doesn’t have a particularly competent QB on the roster, might still be limited in the running game, and has never been very consistent in the air. As for the defense, it looks good on paper but was also gashed by a mediocre MSU run game, and it sure seems like a couple of those guys are looking toward playing on Sunday. I don’t expect UM to run the ball particularly well, but it’s clear that Harbaugh has a number of tricks up his sleeve, and OSU is in enough disarray that I could see them win going away. Regardless, it’s going to be a fun week and, I hope, and even more fun Thanksgiving weekend.
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.
So I didn’t get to see most of this game until Sunday night on DVR. I say this every time, but given the outcome and the timeline, don’t expect this to be particularly long. I’ll try to compensate with more gifs.
Best: The New Jersey Jobbers
Professional wrestling has a nomenclature all its own: every planned storyline is a "work", an unscripted, "real" moment is known as a "shoot" (which can include actual fighting), guys can blur the line a bit and hit each other either safely ("snug") or borderline unsafely ("stiff"), and characters can move between working as "babyfaces" or "heels". As in the world of illicit underground fighting/anarchy-promotion, one did not talk about the business to non-wrestlers, as that destroyed kayfabe (doing so has created a cottage industry of "shoot interviews" by retired/angry former performers), the thin suspension of disbelief that allows fans to believe grown men and women actually do stuff like this within the course of a fight:
And for those of us who grew up watching wrestling in the 80s and 90s, one of the most common sights Saturday morning was Jake "The Snake" Roberts or Bret "The Hitman" Hart dismantling a "jobber" in short order. These performers, with names such as Barry Horowitz and the Brooklyn Brawler, would be referred to today as "enhancement talent", sparring partners of sorts who were supposed to make the other's stuff "look good" by flopping around and taking "bumps" in such a way to maximize the ferocity of their opponent's offense and sell that to those watching the match. In other words, they were the FCS/Sun Belt/MAC-rifices of the world, just with (slightly) better outfits/uniforms.
Well, I hope the NY basic cable sports package subscribers were worth it Jim Delaney, because Rutgers just got squashed about as authoritatively as possible this side of Brock Lesnar fighting a one-legged guy.
Now to be fair, as in squash matches, the jobber sometimes does get a little offense in. Maybe a punch here, a dropkick there, just enough to make it seem like they aren’t completely overmatched. Rutgers finished with 225 yards of total offense, 128 on the ground and another 97 through the air. Of that 128 yards, one was a 54-yard run on Rutger’s first scoring drive that sure seemed like a hold on Glasgow, who otherwise had the play dead to rights, and 42 of those 97 passing yards coming on two long completions by Laviano with Michigan up 46 to 16. The vast majority of Rutgers offense came from two sources; (1) Janarion Grant returns (his 98-yard KO return for a TD plus his 67-yard punt return that set up a FG to end the half) and (2) absolutely, positively incompetent refereeing. In a game, a weekend, a month, a year of terrible officiating across America, it’s getting harder to pick out specific examples of when the officiating gets its most wrong, but the end of the first half was just comically bad. I mean, I’m starting to lose track of which exasperated gif of Jim Harbaugh to link to anymore, as they all display the same “you have to f*ing kidding me” vibe of the same dumb decisions made the different, faceless goobers in polyester uniforms roaming the sidelines of college football games.
But despite this idiocy, Michigan just ran through Rutgers in this game, scoring on 8 of their first 10 drives before calling off the dogs a bit. About the only things fans were left rooting for entering the 4th quarter was whether UM would break 50 points and/or 500 yards of total offense, two marks they easily could have exceeded had they wanted. But after going for 2 up 25 because of math on a card, Rutgers was left looking up at the lights and UM was ready to cut a promo on the Hoosiers.
Best: Mr. Booty
So Jake Butt had himself a game. 4 catches, 102 yards, and though he’s generally a peaceful man, he apparently had bad intentions late in the 2nd quarter to the extent that nobody on the Rutgers defense thought it beneficial to keep an eye on him. I couldn’t tell watching the game if this was deliberate misdirection or if, you know, the 106th-ranked defense in the country gone messed up, but this unsportsmanlike penalty robbed Butt of an even more impressive game. Still, if you are a top TE recruit, yesterday’s game should hopefully be a reminder that a Harbaugh-designed offense is the platonic ideal for a player in that position, as Butt was able to line up across the field and wreak havoc with mismatches even when he wasn’t targeted. While Peppers often drew a fair share of panicked double teams whenever he stepped onto the field, there were a number of instances as the game progressed where Rutgers shifted their coverages to account to Butt, especially after he split the defenders on his long completion to start the second half scoring.
With MSU losing and OSU looking tractable, UM still has a chance to make a run at a conference title this year, and they’ll need Butt to have more games like this in order to keep the offense humming.
Best: Jake <Funny Dual-Threat Pun> Rudock
Yeah, finding a name for Jake Rudock that encapsulates his running ability is still a work in progress. When Steven Threet was manning the helm of RR’s janky 2008 offense, I loved referring to him as “Dual Threet” because I am apparently Carrot Top or a British variety show panelist. And with Robinson, well, it kind of wrote itself. But with Rudock, I’m not sure what name to give his particular brand of elusiveness. I was tempted to call him Jake “The Snake” Rudock, but then I remember people used to call Jake Plummer that, who in turn liked the nickname because it referred to his favorite professional wrestler Jake Roberts, and then a totem started spinning and all of a sudden I was floating through an elevator shaft with Tom Hardy.
But anyway, Jake Rudock had his best game by far as a Michigan Wolverine in this game. He was efficient (70% completion rate) and aggressive (337 yards on 13.5 ypa) while still cognizant of keeping the offense moving (no interceptions, 4/6 on 3rd down, 10 different receivers caught at least 1 ball). He accounted for 3 TDs (2 in the air, 1 on the ground) as well as the 2-point conversion, and generally got the ball to his receivers quickly and with some room to run. He was helped by an offensive line that held Rutgers with 0 sacks and only a handful of rushes you could even consider “pressures”, and I still think he threw a couple of balls such that his receivers didn’t catch them in stride, but these are minor complaints. Rutgers being a tire-fire defensively also can’t be ignored, but we’ve seen Rudock struggle against equally-mediocre secondaries, so this game can’t be solely chalked up to opponent derpitude.
It’s been said all along that UM can win most of their games with an efficient Jake Rudock; if this game turns out to be a turning point for him and he finishes the year strong, then this team is a real threat to run the table and make it real uncomfortable for the playoff committee. In addition to Butt, both Darboh and Chesson have looked much more comfortable these past couple of weeks, stir in a bit of Peppers here and there, and this team takes on a whole other, much scarier dimension if they can consistently move the ball in the air.
Meh: Running Backs – Outlook Hazy
Another week, another okay performance by the running backs. After there was reasonable clamoring for Drake Johnson to get more carries, he responded with 27 yards and a TD on 7 carries plus a nice 28-yard run on a screen, but also bumbled a simple pitch on UM’s first drive that nearly was a TO deep in their own territory. De’Veon Smith received the lion’s share of the carries (15 for 73 and a TD), and also added 2 catches for 45 yards. It’s not a perfect analogy, but with Johnson what you get is a player who can maximize the yards your offense is designed to get you; with Smith, you get a guy who will maximize the yards he can get given the offense. In other words, Johnson will make quicker cuts and get to the hole faster, but with few exception he tends to go down when he’s “supposed” to. With Smith, he might be slow to the spot, but he’ll drag 1-2 guys forward for an extra yard or two if the play breaks down. I’m not sure which is better, but it seems like UM is going to roll with both for the next couple of games.
Throwing out the last couple of drives when UM was just trying to run the clock out with guys like Green and Douglass, you’re looking at about 140 yards on 33 carries, or about 4 yards a pop. It was an adequate performance, but one you’d hope would have been a bigger win by the UM offense given how turrible Rutgers is against the rush. I don’t assume UM will find much more resistance next week against Indiana, so perhaps next week will be a more spectacular performance before they run into the stone walls that are PSU and OSU.
Best: Multiple Screen Experience
I know I ragged on the running backs a bit above, but kudos to the entire offensive side of the ball for some of the best screens I’ve seen UM run in years. There was a big 2-and-20 conversion where Smith rumbled for 31 yards on a delayed screen that was facilitated by a double fake, and another nice pickup by Johnson on UM’s first drive. You obviously can’t call too many screens before teams get wise to them, but as long as defenses continue to cheat up to stop the run, I love how Harbaugh and co. keep teams off-balance without forsaking the running backs in the open field. This type of playcalling felt nonexistent under Hoke, and I’m hoping it will become even more prevalent going forward.
Best: Defensive Bounceback
After getting gashed a bit last week by Minnesota and, apparently, a herd of football spirits who bet on the over AND the Gophers to cover, UM’s defense was back to largely strangling offenses. Yes, Rutgers busted a nice run early on (though it sure looked like holding), and had a couple of long-ish completions on them, but they also limited the Knights to 3.8 yards per play, 41% completion percentage, and about as many first downs by penalty (4) as by rushing (7) or passing (6). Most of Rutger’s more successful drives were helped by multiple questionable calls by referees (when Matt Millen, yes, THAT Matt Millen, thinks you might be making mistakes on the job, you ain’t doing great) or good field position due to a kick return with a couple of uncalled block-in-the-backs/targeting penalties.
After perhaps his worst game as a Wolverine, Desmond Morgan bounced back nicely. He led the team in tackles, didn’t seem to struggle too much in coverage, and generally looked the part of solid linebacker. I’m not sure how responsible he was during that 54-yard run, but he seemed to be where he needed to be to minimize gains all day. Bolden also played well, as did Ross at his more natural position after a 1-week trial at Buck. I was surprised not to see Gedeon on the field; I might have missed an injury report, though, so I don’t know why he didn’t see any time. Otherwise, I thought the unit responded well after they were run over a bit by the Gophers.
The defensive line played great again; it’s probably more worth my time to point out the rare instances when they don’t dominate a team. In this game, Chris Wormley took his umpteenth place in the spotlight with 2 sacks and multiple QB pressures; he nearly caught Laviano dashing across the field in the 3rd quarter, and along with RJS and Henry helped to compress that pocket all game. I noticed early on that Millen commented how Rutgers rarely had anyone open downfield, and while a healthy bit of that credit should absolutely go to the secondary, it was also clear that Rutgers had to maximize protection on a lot of passing downs to even have a chance of getting the ball out, and credit for that should go to the front line.
As for the secondary, they did catch a bit of a break with Carroo out for this game, but at this point I’m not sure it would have mattered all that much. Maybe Rutgers breaks one long pass and cracks 150 yards in the air, but this defensive backfield is playing really well even with the occasional breakdowns. As noted elsewhere, super-boring safety Jarrod Wilson had a very not-boring INT on a pass that should never have been thrown (or if you are Mitch Leidner, wide open gimme yards), Jourdan Lewis added his name to the record books for most pass breakups in a season with 19, and Peppers was his do-everything self. I also thought Thomas took a nice step forward after last week’s struggles, and one of these days he’s going to get into the open field on a pick and he’ll be gone.
Worst: No Turnover Luck
This was something I‘ve been passively watching all season, but UM has had some of the worst luck this year in recovering opponent fumbles. Over the first 9 games, UM has recovered 1 fumble by their opponent while coughing up the ball 5 times of their own. On the season UM has a –3 TO margin, but if they even had average luck with fumbles they’d be on the positive side of the ledger in that department. In 2011 UM had one of the best turnover margins in the country, helped immensely by their nation-leading 20 fumble recoveries. That helped to paper over some inefficiencies in the unit that caught up to them in subsequent seasons. But this year, UM is dominating other teams without getting quick outs or much luck on fifty-fifty balls like this, making their accomplishments even more impressive and, you hope, more indicative of real, sustainable progress.
Worst: Don’t Kick to Anyone
Again, it’s hard to find a lot of negatives when you beat a conference opponent by 33, but UM’s decision to kick multiple times to Grant was just dumb, especially the low, line-drive KO that he scored on. The punt return bothered me less because it shouldn’t have counted one iota (as a general rule, when a player is taken to the locker room because he’s suffering from head/shoulder injuries that you JUST flagged him for doing, you really shouldn’t pick that one up and tell everyone to move along), but like Will Likely and Maryland, Grant was one of the few offensive weapons the Scarlet Knights had in this game, and giving him the ball with a full head of steam was profoundly unnecessary. I’d get it if he took the ball 9 yards deep in his endzone, but whatever incremental advantages you get when you tackle a guy short of the 25 are far outweighed by the time the super-fast, hard-to-tackle guy houses a return. Again, 33 points and it could have been more, but I just don’t see the cost-benefit analysis in kicking to guys like this.
One positive, though, was Lewis nearly catching Grant on his TD return, which was reminiscent of him catching Utah’s running back last year to save a TD. But NFL scouts, he’s still super-small and not at all fast. No reason to waste his time thinking about the draft. None at all.
Worst: These F*ing Refs
I just…I don’t get it anymore. Matt Millen thinks you messed up a bunch of times in this game. Matt Millen. The guy who kinda, sorta defended Joe Paterno on ESPN. The guy who somehow turned the Detroit Lions from a very bad football team to a historically terrible one.
Anyway, I don’t know if the call on Butt’s long completion was right; I definitely think the decision to pick up the targeting flag at the end of the half and give Rutgers their last FG shot was terrible because they also missed at least one block in the back, maybe more. They also seemed to missed a couple of rather blatant holds on both sides, especially early on, and continue to not understand that a defensive player being run into by a WR doesn’t immediately count as “pass interference”, especially when the ball is 5 yards behind him. For once, at least, it didn’t really matter how incompetent they were to the final outcome, but it’s getting just silly watching these grown-ass men mess up week in, week out.
I normally don’t care all that much about other teams, even past opponents and current rivals, once UM plays them. I pay attention to the games, but I’m usually more rooting for a good game than a particular outcome. But I made an exception for Nebraska-MSU and that last couple of minutes because, well…
You make a dumb shirt commemorating the time you got one of the flukiest finishes in recent college football history to escape a game you deserved to lose? Yep, ain’t going to feel bad when you can’t stop Tommie Armstrong and 3-6 Nebraska from moving 91 yards in 4 plays to score a TD on you, crappy officiating and all. And yes, I think it’s dumb that calls like that still happen and it has to suck to lose a game in such a fashion, but when you’ve played with fire all season with late-game wins and crappy secondary play, you have to expect at some point it would bite you in the ass. On replay I couldn’t tell if the receiver was forced out of bounds, but the corner definitely made contact with him when he tried to come back in, and it was close enough on that sideline to be the type of judgment calls we apparently are happy to give 50-ish year-old men who seemed kinda gassed by the end of the game to make in the moment.
Regardless, I caught the last minute of that game with my FIL, and we both chuckled when Nebraska just started blowing down the field almost as if MSU wasn’t even there. I’m sure we’ll get an announcement this week from the B1G office regarding the officiating, but for now UM stands to gain immensely from this loss, especially if OSU does what is should and blows out MSU at home.
Indiana is scuttling, but that offense is very good. Jordan Howard is one of the best backs in the country (he’s averaging 6.1 ypc for the season, and an even healthier 6.3 at home), and Nate Sudfeld is very dangerous if given time. That said, IU also blew a 25-point lead to lose to this same Rutgers team at home, so I expect the defense to give up a couple of long gains but only after UM is comfortably ahead.
[Ed(Seth): Standard bump]
Best: Falling Back
In addition to Saturday’s game being on Halloween, it also fell on the last day of summer daylight savings time, when we set the clocks back an hour. Colloquially, people call that “falling back” an hour, so you get another hour of sleep (well, for those of us without little children who apparently rise and fall based 100% on sunlight and morning cartoons) in exchange for earlier nights.
For so much of this game, it felt like UM was falling back into the old rut that had formed around the program for nearly a decade. For years now, UM has shown an uncanny ability to fall apart as the season progressed, playing down to competition and letting one loss mushroom into more as the leaves and clocks changed. Last year it was letting understandable losses to Utah and Minnesota submarine a game against Rutgers and, later, Maryland. The year before it was blowing a winnable game against Nebraska following a demolition at MSU, which followed extremely close calls to UConn(!) and Akron(!!). I won’t dredge up the RR years, but you can look up those late-season horror shows if you want. And after the gut-punch that was MSU, UM fans probably shouldn’t have been as confident in a smooth bounce back by the Wolverines.
Certainly, Minnesota looked the part of a pushover. The Gophers, down Jerry Kill at the top and a bunch of skill players from last year’s team, had stumbled into the game, losers of 2 of their last 3, including blowout losses at Northwestern (27-0) and to Nebraska (48-25). They couldn’t really run the ball or pass it (take it away, Jim), had a defense that was scuttling a bit after being the bedrock for the team last year, and generally looked like a team that was playing out the string. But it was also a night game, deep in the heart of Jerrysota, and it was being officiated by B1G refs, which meant that absolutely nothing should be expected to go the way it looked on paper.
On UM’s first drive, Jake Rudock threw an ill-advised shovel pass to Peppers that was picked off, giving Minnesota solid field position that they used (with the help of another recurring element of this game, bat-sh!t crazy passing plays by Minnesota, this one a falling-down 31-yard catch by the receiver between three defenders) to score a FG. Even though UM scored TDs on their next two drives, Minnesota just kept hanging around, scoring another FG and began to stymie the UM offense, forcing a punt and a fumble on consecutive drives. And they continued to have amazing luck in the passing game, with Mitch Leidner completing a 52-yard TD that was both behind and inside his receiver in tight coverage, who then made Jarrod Wilson miss and scored. Minny took a lead into halftime thanks to another nutters long reception, a sure interception that Dymonte Thomas instead volleyballed into the air, for a late FG, and UM was struggling to run the ball (45 yards at HT) or really get anything going in the air (after starting off reasonably accurate, Rudock was completing a bit over 50% of his passes for about 6 ypa).
[Hit THE JUMP to see how many straws we can grasp (hint: one)]
If you are coming here looking for rants, I might have a couple but I’m remarkably, I don’t know, accepting of yesterday’s insanity. Probably one of those grief stages. So fair warning (unless you are a referee in this game – for you, I’ll make an exception).
Best: A Broken Heart Mended
I was 13 when Kordell Stewart ripped UM’s heart out. For some reason I thought I was younger, but maybe that was just because I was a late convert to UM football in that respect. I cheered on UM because they crossed the family TV screen most Saturdays, but I was a Pistons (and, honestly, an NBA) fan at my core. I went to a couple games a year, voraciously read box scores each morning during the season, and consumed as much content as possible about the NBA. If I had any football fandom in my body, it was for Barry Sanders, tragically dragging the Lions along with his brilliance under a baggy dome.
College football was just a thing that was on, the white noise machine of fall Saturdays. I cheered UM because of their ubiquity and prominence locally. I cheered because of the uniforms, the pageantry during the Tournament of Roses before the Rose Bowl, and the fact that they always seemed to win. My dad had gone to UM but never wore that connection on his sleeve, and I was still a bit too young to care about academics and job prospects, the objective metrics that led me to attend UM. Hell, I’m not even sure when we got ESPN on cable (and chances are had I stumbled upon it, it wouldn’t have been football). No, my relationship with UM football was one of convenience and detachment, where I would cheer because UM was usually winning or losing in conventional manners, and I knew enough about the sport to accept that at face value.
Until that play. I still remember sitting with my dad on the coach in the living room, just watching it unfold. My Dad assumed the game was over; it was 70+ yards to the lip of the endzone, and while Stewart had a cannon this was an era before the internet, before on-the-field Statz and talking heads, before constant replays and trips to the video archives between timeouts, so there wasn’t much in the way of foreshadowing. You knew about the Flutie Miracle, The Miracle in the Meadowlands, and The Band on the Field between Cal and Stanford, but it always felt distant and unimaginable, moments of affliction that deeply wound the participants but are mostly macabre blips in everyone else’s memory. Those plays happened to them, not us.
So it felt almost like a fait accompli that UM would win the game after Colorado’s last-gasp attempt, with (I’m guessing) most in the stands wondering if Stewart would even be able to get the ball to the endzone. It seemed impossible to contemplate anything more. And then the ball sailed from his arm like a rocket, and you could tell even the camera man was caught a bit off guard. He just kept panning, panning, panning into the endzone, and then a bunch of limbs reached out like a preacher’s chorus praising the gods of football, and the ball caromed into the waiting arms of Michael F’ing Westbrook, and then it was over.
And at that moment, even though it took a couple of more years for me to fully realize it, I became a UM football fan. You can’t have your heart broken like that, to see your guys lose a game because of celestial forces and cold physics, and not have that feeling wiggle its way into your rib cage and never leave. From that day forward, I always made sure to check the box scores every Sunday morning, to track the AP polls, to know how the Wolverines did. I started to get annoyed with the 8-4 seasons, the seemingly annual underperformance, and then the ascendant ‘97 season hooked me forever. I was in the stands when Notre Dame nearly drove the field with no timeouts in 1999, unable to catch my breath. I watched them lose to Purdue and Northwestern in heartbreaking fashion in 2000, and then 2001 with the damn Clockgate against MSU. And when I graduated and moved away, I still followed the team, yelping uncontrollably after Braylonfest, losing my mind after the New Math game, and giggling myself silly when ND left Gallon all alone in 2011. The 2006 game against OSU, Horror, everything that transpired under RR and Hoke (including the heartbreaking 2009 loss to MSU), and now this game all fell on the other side of the ledger.
I know people want to frame this as a curse, some lingering bad juju from the clusterfuck hanging over the program since Bo died, but I don’t think that’s it. Every game, both in the micro level and in the macro sense, creates fans and keeps them there. And this element of fandom is a zero-sum game; for every breathtaking win there must be a heartbreaking loss, only the names and faces change. They come about organically, and sometimes the most fertile soil is littered with shitty outcomes. But you can’t root for something and be surprised when they don’t come out on top all the time, and while I’m going to try to frame this as a sign of good things to come, of a team that is growing into something special and a future that is brighter today than it was 2 months ago, that’s not going to take the sting away, and it shouldn’t. But you don’t win all those games without a couple of tough losses, and sometimes you’ve got to wade through some foul stuff in order to come out better on the other side.
Worst: Leave Blake Alone!
Objectively, that last play was terrible. It was a series of small disasters that snowballed into an improbably loss. It was a low-ish snap that O’Neill couldn’t get ahold of, resulting in the ball being bobbled. UM, knowing his tendency to run to the right before booting the ball, shifted the shield in that direction but left nobody on the back side to handle the 4 MSU rushers from that direction. Had there even been one blocker extra on that side, I wonder if MSU is able to get to Blake quite that quickly. Once the ball was snapped, the offensive line started running down the field to cover the punt even though it didn’t appear MSU had anyone returning it, leaving even fewer players back to hold up the rush. Then, in his attempt to at least get the ball off, O’Neill kicked the ball right into the arms of the MSU defender, who then stumbled his way to the endzone. As others have noted, O’Neill probably should have fallen on the ball and just given up the field position, since MSU still would have had time for maybe 1 or 2 more plays with about half the field to go. But in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to fault a kid for trying to make a play.
Ultimately, it was the play that cost UM the win, but it wasn’t because of any single player. It was just a bit if bad luck at the worst possible time. And while the vast majority of the fanbase responded positively toward O’Neill, it must be stated again that if you think calling for a kid to be deported or kicked off the team, or sending him Twitter-muscle shade, or anything else that prompted Jim Hackett to send a formal letter to the fans and students to lay off of O’Neill, well…
Best: Rationalize away Merrill
ST3’s always-excellent column touched on some of these points, but this was a game far closer than the yardage would lead you to believe. You skim the narrative being put forth by the MSU faithful today, the argument for why MSU won wasn’t because they got the flukiest f*ing play in recent memory but because UM got incredibly lucky because the MSU offense was unstoppable and MSU’s defense was demolishing UM’s attack.
Now, MSU’s passing game was pretty solid (328 yards, 8.4 ypa, 1:0 TD:INT) in aggregate, but Cook still completed less than 50% of his passes, and 74 of those yards came on a busted play to FB Trevon Pendleton. Yes that play happened, but it was also an extreme outlier that goosed the numbers a bit. Throw that out and you have far more pedestrian numbers (254 yards, 6.9 ypa), furthered buoyed by some questionable penalties that kept MSU drives going (the 12 men on the field penalty was correct; the extremely questionable Lewis holding call where the receiver fell into the official that wiped out a pick, the targeting atrocity on Bolden, and the personal foul on Henry for tackling a player before the whistle was blown all felt like missteps) and some great catches by Burbridge. Some fans will argue that Cook was let down by his other receivers (most notably Kings) due to some drops, but that’s the equivalent of arguing “the computer is cheating” whenever your game of Madden mirrors reality a bit and mediocre WRs drop balls. To Cook’s credit, though, he made some great throws in tight windows, and while I still wouldn’t trust him to run my NFL franchise, he played well enough against UM.
By comparison, I thought Rudock had a fine game. He played the game like a QB whose team had the lead for virtually the entire game and knew that the worst thing he could do was give MSU a short field with a bad throw. He completed 60% of his throws for around 6.7 ypa and kept the sheet clean, while lofting a couple of nice balls to both Darboh and Chesson to come back to for completions. In fact, 7 of his 15 completions were for 1st downs (to Cook’s credit, he had 13 for first downs as well, but he also threw the ball 14 more times than Rudock). He continues to struggle throwing the ball deep, jarring in this game due to MSU’s poor corner play, though at some point you have to wonder if there’s a bit Luis Mendoza in his main deep threat, Chesson, who has amazing speed but just has never seemed able to harness it properly as a receiver (obviously he’s had a bit more success on returns and designed runs). But as Brian and others have said, if this is the Rudock UM gets this season, they should win every game except OSU, and until the last 10 seconds, he did more than enough to get this team the win.
MSU never established the running game (yes they had injuries to the offensive line and Jack Allen was out, but MSU has struggled all year on the ground), with the top 3 backs averaged about 2.7 ypc, which was less than the 3.5 ypc picked up by Smith and Houma, the two leading rushers for UM. For the game, UM had more and better rushes than MSU, and that includes knocking off 15 yards for O’Neill’s final punt play. Michigan scored in all 5 of their red zone trips while MSU only scored on 2 of them, missing two FGs and turning the ball over on downs. In fact, MSU failed to convert 4th downs 4 times in this game, only one of which would be considered required (the seemingly last drive on 4th and 19). Hell, dad they lost this game, people would have questioned Dantonio’s decision to call a pretty obvious fake punt that was stopped and UM turned into a TD.
As for defensive dominance by MSU, that doesn’t ring all that true either. MSU scored on 3 of their 12 drives (I’m excluding the end of the half and the last blocked return), while UM scored on 5 of their 13. UM had 3 sacks for 29 yards, matching MSU, and while UM had two less TFLs, theirs resulted in more lost yardage than those by MSU (7 to 9 TFLs, but 37 yards compared to MSU’s 23). MSU had one more QB hit, but UM had 10 (!!) pass breakups, including 6 by Lewis. The teams had basically the same 3rd-down conversion rate (MSU was 3/12, UM 4/15), and UM converted more in the 2nd half (3/10) than MSU (1/6).
The reason MSU had so many more yards compared to UM had largely to do with special teams decidedly going in UM’s favor (along with MSU’s poor conversion rate), with O’Neill averaging 44.6 yards on 7 punts, highlighted by the field-shifting 80 yarder in the first quarter, and pining MSU inside their own 20 two more times. By comparison, MSU averaged 37 yards on 5 punts, including one touchback. And as for returning said kicks, UM pantsed MSU mercilessly, with Peppers and Chesson picking up 154 yards on 7 returns while MSU snagged 54 yards on 4 returns. It all added up to UM starting on it’s own 38 while MSU had an average starting drive on their own 22 yard line. So yeah, that’s where your 150-ish difference in yardage mostly came from; UM didn’t need to go as far to score, so they didn’t.
MSU played well enough to win; UM suffered by not converting a couple more of those redzone trips into touchdowns, and that ultimately cost them at the end. But don’t for a second believe that MSU “deserved” to win this game because the people making the arguments fear basic math. It was a close game that went against UM due to the most freakish of plays possible, nothing more and nothing less.
Meh: Offensive Line Expectations Ticked Down
Yes this is MSU, and yes they again appeared to have a jump on a number of snaps (the 3 goal line runs capped off by Houma’s TD in the 3rd quarter all featured MSU players jumping the snap successfully), but I thought the offensive line did struggle at the point of attack, especially in the running game. MSU’s defensive line is the obvious strength of their unit, and it played well, consistently getting pressure and clogging up the running lanes. Thomas, who I still think is more a uniform stuffer than an elite talent, was second on the team with 7 tackles and held the edge well when UM (illogically) attacked it. I’m sure there were bad cuts by Smith that led to some stops, but like in the Utah game, you can see the deficiencies that submarine the rushing attack against elite defensive lines. Luckily, there aren’t a huge number of those lines left on the schedule, with OSU seemingly being the only sure bet to reproduce this level of disruption.
As for passing downs, it’s harder to tell because Rudock seemed willing to take a couple of sacks instead of throwing the ball downfield. Calhoun was consistently getting pressure and MSU got a couple free runs from their LBs, but it wasn’t the demolition we’ve seen in years past. Rudock appears to have all of his ribs and soul intact, which is a marked improvement for UM signal callers in this rivalry. And as noted above, the passing game was reasonably efficient even though the screen game, which might have loosened up the pressure a bit, was lacking. Overall, it felt like a decent performance by an average line but perhaps not the step forward fans had hoped for coming into the game. At the same time, it wasn’t a huge setback, it was just a reality check that this year’s rushing attack won’t approach the best units under Harbaugh’s various regimes.
Best: Jourdan MF Lewis
Nothing was more entertaining than seeing MSU fans complain about Lewis “mugging” Burbridge throughout the game on his way to 6 pass breakups and a pretty decent effort against MSU’s sole real passing threat. Lewis, of course, is just playing the same type of physical, grabby defense MSU introduced to the conference some years back, just perhaps at a better level than either Waynes or Dennard every did. Being a shutdown corner doesn’t necessarily mean that the guy you cover never catches a ball, especially when the opponent doggedly targets him because they literally had no other competent options (Burbridge was targeted 19 times in this game).
Instead, it means making it as difficult as possible for the offense to consistently complete passes to your side and limiting the damage when they do, and Lewis did that in spades. Even though Burbirdge finished with 9 catches for 132 yards, he only had 3 catches after halftime, and at least two of them were just great plays by him despite great coverage by Lewis. Lewis was also the victim of a pick play in the 2nd quarter (I believe) that Brandstatter called out immediately when it happened. Overall, he played like the All-American he’s being touted as and performed well in a tough matchup against a good receiver.
Best: Defensive Line Expectations Ticked Up
I know MSU had some injuries on the line, but I thought the defensive line, in particular Wormley and Henry, were great in this game. The front 4 recorded 3 sacks, held MSU’s rushing attack in check, got consistent pressure on Cook even when the Spartans left extra blockers in, and generally played like the dominating unit they’ve seen this whole year. They were also active in the passing lanes, with both Wormley and Henry recording pass breakups as well. I await Glasgow’s score in the UFR, but he seemed to hold up decently against a solid MSU interior, and both Jenkins-Stone and Hurst had some nice TFLs in there as well.
Will OSU give them problems? Probably, but even then I’m not sure we’re going to see Elliott plowing past them like he has against most other units. This remains a terrifyingly-good unit, and one that you hope will largely return next year to go along with the return of Mone and (fingers crossed) some high-end defensive tackle recruits. I’m certainly intrigued about next year under this coaching staff.
Best: Peppers Army Knife
Peppers was deployed everywhere possible in this game, and he excelled at all of them. He flipped the field with some great punt returns, had a great 28-yard pass/run play to set up a TD, and did well the couple of times MSU challenged him. He’s obviously still not a finished product, but the strides he’s made in these six games definitely give some credence to the “Woodson” comparisons that seemed a little far-fetched at the start of the year.
Worstest: These F*ing Guys
By the time they went to the review booth for the third time on UM’s goal line run, you could hear the announcers lose their patience (and for the record, I could understand the argument that Houma’s momentum was stopped, but he played to the whistle, which allowed him to score). And even at that point, the refs had a handful more dubious calls to make (Henry’s drive-extending PF, Jake Butt’s probably-a-catch that would have kept a late UM drive alive, Shelton’s “two guys are saying he’s out, but let’s trust the idiots in the booth” catch along the sidelines). The Bolden ejection was terrible in real-time and looked even worse on the numerous replays, as the refs initially tried to frame it as Morgan head-hunting when in fact Cook baseball slid in, then compounded the error by ignoring Conklin clearly throwing Bolden down on top of him. It was a terrible call, an inexcusable call, and yet not all that surprising given how the season has gone in terms of referee miscues.
I understand that being a referee is a thankless job; jagoffs like me freak out every time you screw up and don’t recognize when you get it right. But at the same time, you can’t make a series of illogical calls throughout a game and just chalk it up to “human error” and whatnot when you ALSO try to correct every possible call using video replay. In a game like this between two evenly-matched teams, one team losing its leading tackler due to a dubious call while the other received a fifth of their first downs by penalties is insane, especially when neither team is particularly known for being penalty-prone. And the thing is, this isn’t a Kings-Lakers situation where there might have been actual bias involved; it was just a series of terrible calls without reprieve. And as grown-ass adults who are tasked with calling a game as well as possible, this officiating crew failed, and it failed hard. It didn’t cost UM the game; that’s a fool’s argument to make, especially given how the final play turned out. But it doesn’t make the clown show we all watched any more palpable.
Best: A Week Off
On the one hand it sucks that UM is going to have to wait 2 weeks to wash the taste of this loss from their mouths, but on the other hand it should mitigate any hangover that could linger against the Gophers. UM played like the top-15 team they have shown thus far, and while they certainly shouldn’t have been in any national title talk, they looked a hell of a lot closer to MSU than they had coming into the year. That’s progress I’ll take.
I’m not sure about next week. I might do a mid-season recap, take a break, or something in between. But in a blink of an eye, there are only 5 more games left on the schedule, with the bowl game being the 6th. And I’m going to try to enjoy the last couple weeks as best as possible.
[Ed-Seth- I may start bumping this every week]
Best: The Never-Ending Serene Story
Depending on your metric, I’ve either been writing these game recaps in 2010 against Iowa (with a heavy reliance on a cliched movie poster gimmick) or 2012 (which featured a picture of former Fig Things QB/Men’s Health cover model Brady Quinn and Poison lead singer/searcher-of-love Bret Michaels).
Needless to say, it’s been quite a long time. Over that span, I’ve seen UM attempt to transition to a run-first spread offense populated by mighty mite slot receivers and uber-mobile QBs, then back to whatever Al Borges thought he was running, to the Wreck of the Devin Gardner, to to current Stanfordization happening under Harbaugh. I’ve also seen UM field some of the worst defenses in their history, then a succession of good-to-competent ones, and then to the raging hellbeast that is the current incarnation under Durkin and Mattison. I’ve been writing about the highs and the lows, trying to make sense of the inherently unreasonable nature of college football, to determine if there is some unified theory, some midi-chlorian (ugh) connection that binds these games, these seasons together.
What makes it hard to thread these years together isn’t just that the authors keep changing, but also the readers and their expectations. While UM’s history pre-RR was marked by stability and consistency at the top, the year-to-year fluctuations still existed and made every season feel fresh and new. As I mentioned last week, the main difference under Harbaugh is that fans can safely return to the heightened, sometimes-unrealistic expectations of the past. But the more I’ve thought about it, I’m not sure “expectations” is the right word. Every fanbase has outsized expectations for their team because of how intimately they are attached to that squad; you always figure your middling LB or questionable RG is going to be better than anyone else’s question marks, that the breaks will go your way in the turnover battle, that every toss-up goes for the good guys. It’s human nature, this illusory superiority that manifests along the banks of Lake Wobegon, and it’s why college football has such an illogical hold over large swaths of the population.
[After the jump: Serenity; when is too soon?]