Mount St. Mary's hired a private equity CEO to be their president. You'll never guess what happened next.
Best: The Force Awakened
As the father of a 2-year-old and with another one on the way, the era of seeing first-run movies has seemingly come to an end for the foreseeable future; in fact, over the past 3 years I think I’ve seen 4 movies in their initial run in the theatres. Over that time, many a super-hero flick, dinosaur-island romps, car-based heists, and zany comedies have been relegated to on-demand viewing. But I made a point over the holidays to see The Force Awakens, even though it meant going to a mid-week, mid-day showing on a “standard” screen with an ever-expanding-and-extremely-patient loved one in Waltham, MA.
I was born late in the “original” trilogy’s run, entering the scene a couple of years before the Return of the Jedi. And yet, one of my earliest movie memories was wearing the tape out of my parents’ copy of A New Hope, which included behind-the-scene vignettes about the artwork, animatronics, and practical effects used to breathe life into what could have been a pretty esoteric space drama. And boy did I love those movies. Yes, I’m sure part of that affection came from expert marketing, as few things appeal more to 6-year-old bronxblue than X-wings and Tie-fighters doing mock combat around AT-AT’s with light-up guns and hand-controlled head.
But another, deeper reason why I loved those movies was because it flooded the classic “good versus evil” narrative with far more color than sepia-toned bromides typically employed with movies such as this. The “good guys” were good but not wholly altruistic (Han shooting first), while the “bad guys” were evil without being over-the-tope monsters (Vader being Luke’s father and the torture that seemed to put him through). And let it be said that independent contractors are people too.
It felt “real”, human in way that you wouldn’t expect in a world populated by rock-throwing muppets, robotic trash cans, and 7-foot-tall shaggy beasts. Like most fans, it was the whitewashing of this nuance, the digitization of it all (and some gawd-awful writing*), that made the prequels so disappointing and, ultimately, disheartening. They were movies with all the shine and no soul, designed to move toys and commemorative McDonald’s meals but not add any real substance to the legacy of the Star Wars universe. So when I heard Disney had purchased the rights to the franchise from George Lucas, I was both cautiously optimistic and warily pessimistic of the new films. Optimistic because it would at least allow for the possibility of fresh ideas and voices into the universe, while pessimistic because, well, the word “Disneyfication” exists for a reason.
And so, when the reviews started to come in for the newest movie, what caught my eye was the consistent claim that this movie was a return to what people loved about those first three movies, the sense of wonder and possibility, of authenticity and stakes you need to make a space ballad about mystical forces, unrealistic technology, and Shakespearean tales work. And while I’ll agree that the movie isn’t perfect by any means, it embodies the values and character of the past while filling you with optimism about the future.
If you are reading this, you remember the last decade or so of Michigan football. The product on the field was decidedly mediocre while the experience in the stadium and in the media was downright depressing, chiefly led by Dave Brandon. To say Dave Brandon is reminiscent of George Lucas is not fair to either man, but the worst characteristics of both mirror each other quite well; both Lucas and Brandon truly loved the worlds they held dominion over, but were so tone-deaf, so blind to the realities of how those worlds were perceived under their stewardships that they threatened to irreparably sully their images. Lucas was always tinkering, seemingly never content to leave the imperfections of the past, the parts we all “liked”, alone, instead “rerendering” the originals and gameifying the new ones. Brandon always viewed Michigan as a well to continuously mine, to “improve” the lives of the few (in this case, the athletes and his staff) at the expense of the many (the fans) by treating a uniquely storied institution as just another t-shirt and hat factory. And it took rather eerily-similar events (vocally disheartened fans turning their back on what the men were selling) to lead to change.
What saved Michigan, though, wasn’t necessarily as shiny and new as Disney swooping in. Jim Hackett was nobody’s first choice as interim AD, and to read John Bacon’s account it was basically a favor to some old friends with a definite expiration date. Yet he came in and identified what UM had been lacking for years now wasn’t better seat licenses or more high-profile drubbings in NFL stadiums, but a recognition that you don’t have to completely expel the past to effect change, and that keeping that connection to what made people fall in love with you in the first place should be viewed as a goal, not a hindrance. And while Brady Hoke definitely loved what made UM great during an earlier era, he failed to implement the framework required for that success to manifest itself.
And so the calls were made, the planes flown, and the terms met to bring back Jim Harbaugh to Michigan, to bring back a torchbearer of past glories who was simultaneously able to see a different, brighter future. And over the past year, well…
In a single season, Harbaugh created a confidence surrounding the program that we haven’t seen since Carr was at the helm. In 2011, astute fans noted that UM was winning with a decent amount of smoke and mirrors; a fantastic turnover margin and a veteran defensive line helped cover up for a limited offense, and that’s how you go 11-2 and win a BCS bowl game despite gaining under 200 yards of total offense. Obviously spirits were high after that season, but you could see the cracks forming and the subsequent fall, while no less painful, at least felt somewhat predictable.
But this season had few of those hallmarks; if anything, UM suffered from a rash of bad luck and stagnation early on offensively, rounding into form midway through the year as Harbaugh’s QB whispering unleashed a Jake Rudock who set passing records and carried UM when the rest of the team faltered for times down the stretch. They never really figured out who could run the ball consistently, though Smith’s 109 yards against Florida felt like a revelation and portends a bit of hope in 2016. The receivers went from adequate to possibly the best in the conference next year, with Chesson in particular emerging as one of the best deep threats in the country. The defensive line, even short Ryan Glasgow, thoroughly dominated Florida up front after a couple of poor performances against IU and OSU, while the secondary snuffed out any semblance of a passing game by the Gators and continued their renaissance. Florida had one sustained scoring drive all game, and even that felt like one too many, helped by a couple of breakdowns and a dubious non-call for intent to deceive on the scoring pass.
Still, this is a team that should only be better next year provided the QB position doesn’t fall off a cliff, and it’s hard to imagine that will happen as long as Harbaugh is at the helm. The defense replaced a hot, young DC in Durkin with a coordinator coming off one of the more impressive performances you’ll see from a coach. Recruiting is going like gangbusters, with some of the best players in the country (hopefully) joining a rebirth of the Michigan way. And while there will undoubtedly be bumps in the road, it’s hard to see a repeat of the Hoke era in the future. Watching this game, you saw what “Michigan” used to mean, but also with a taste of what it can be in the future.
* And yes, writing prequels is inherently harder because you are trying to create drama and suspense for outcomes people already know. But come on people.
Best: Dad Rocks
Before going any further, I highly suggest you check out Jake Rudock’s post at the Player’s Tribune. It’s all a good read, but one of the highlights is that Rudock’s teammates started calling him “Dad”, I guess in part because he doesn’t use social media such as Instagram and because he’s a bit older than the average player. Now, on on hand that’s sorta adorable that a soon-to-be 23-year-old is deemed an “old man”, and on the other hand really depressing because 23 was a LONG time ago for me. Anyway…
One of the things you so often hear fans throw about when discussing sport is the relative “classiness” of players and teams. If it’s your team, you usually view your players as “classy” guys who do it right, while your rivals tend to be degenerates or hypocrites, guys who don’t do it “the right way”, whatever that phrase means. And in most cases, it’s just BS, concocted to mask the personal validation fans place on the jerseys they root for, to bolster the divinity of wins and soothe the sting of losses.
But Michigan has been blessed recently with “good guys” at the QB position. Denard was always the smiling, gregarious flash, the bright spot during the dying RR years and the best of Hoke’s tenure. Devin Gardner will always have a place in my heart for weathering gawd-awful beatings with positivity and heart, while also being the type of guy who would put rivalries aside to console a fallen foe. And then you have Jake Rudock, a guy basically forced out of Iowa who turned to Michigan for a second chance and, after weathering a tough adjustment period, led them to a fantastic season. You see him in interviews and read about him, and you can’t help but take away that he’s a thoughtful, conscientious guy who earned his teammates’ respect early on with his effort and later on with his performance on the field.
In this game, Rudock marched through one of the best defenses in the country with ruthless efficiency, completing 65% of his passes for 9 ypa and 3 TDs against no INTs. Michigan scored on all but 1 of their “real” drives in the game, with all but one scoring drive being 8 plays or longer. He kept drives going with pinpoint passes on third down, handled pressure with aplomb, picked apart a vaunted Florida secondary, and looked like a completely different player from the one we saw struggling against UNLV and Maryland to start the season. Hell, he even threw a nice block on a late Drake Johnson run that sprung him for the first. Yes, it was clear about halfway through the third quarter that some of the Florida Gators were perhaps thinking about their futures outside of Gainesville, but Rudock still helped UM dominate a team that consistently fields mountains of talent. And in the end, he finished his only year in a Wolverine uniform by joining elite passing company, being only the second QB in UM history to throw for 3,000 yards and having one of the most impressive seasons in the school’s history.
Toward the end of the game, the announcers were commenting (or rambling, if you are so inclined) about how the new “one-and-done’s” in college sports are QB grad transfers. And while it certainly isn’t as endemic and, arguably, as detrimental to the overall game as college basketball’s requirement of a year in college before going pro, it does remind you how fleeting guys like Rudock are in a team’s existence. Just when Jake started to come into his own, he’s out the door, to the NFL or medical school or wherever he sets his heart and mind. And as a fanbase, the best you can do is enjoy them while they are on campus and wish them the best. Maybe I’m waxing a bit too poetic, but in the first year of the Harbaugh experience, seeing a “good guy” like Rudock rise from the ashes and succeed was a perfect avatar for fans to latch onto. I just hope that whoever steps into his shoes next season embodies these same qualities.
Best: The Offense Should be Good in 2016
Again, I know it’s just one game, but this game was yet another example of the innovation and possibility of a Harbaugh-led offense. When I first heard Harbaugh was a possibility at UM, I worried about two things: (1), that his Stanford defenses never really figured out how to handle hyper-spread offenses like you saw at Oregon, and (2) that his offenses were a bit too demanding/reliant on the signal-caller such that they could be get bogged down with sub-elite talent. While the jury is still out on the first concern (though I’m of the belief that Brown seems aggressive and creative enough to slow most down), it’s becoming clear that the second concern should be minimal precisely because Harbaugh is such a dynamic QB coach.
Jake Rudock spoke about coming to UM precisely because of Harbaugh’s tutelage, and as the season progressed you could see Rudock become more confident and comfortable in the offense, highlighted by multiple deep throws to both Chesson and Darboh before the receivers even broke their routes. It was a player who understood the intricacies of UM’s offense as well as his coach, and that happened basically with a month of training before the season and a couple of semi-easy OOC games. Yes, Rudock is an extremely intelligent QB, but we’ve seen Harbaugh turn guys like Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick into Pro Bowl-level QBs where few others saw that potential. And given the number of viable contenders for the starting spot available next season, it’s hard not to imagine that the offense won’t pick up rather close to the way it ended.
And for whoever replaced Rudock at the helm, he’ll be inheriting an healthy collection of playmakers. Jehu Chesson has gone from a guy I compared to Luis Mendoza of the Mighty Ducks franchise to one of the best receivers in the conference, and in this game snagged another 100 yards and repeatedly beat Florida’s all-everything Hargreaves for long completions. And probably his most impressive catch was one that didn’t count, as he skied for a high Rudock throw out of bounds, coming down about 6 inches off the field. Both him and Rudock turned their seasons around after that Minnesota game, and I expect that emergence to continue in 2016.
The Rudock-Perry connection finished the season much better than how it started, with 5 catches and a TD as well as a couple FD completions. Darboh had a solid game and should be an extremely dangerous #2 receiver, especially on screens where he can simply out-muscle corners. Jake Butt wasn’t asked to do much but made a couple nice catches and generally looked like the uncoverable All-American he is. In just one year, Harbaugh has turned one of the biggest areas of concern for this team (the receivers) into the undoubted strength of the offense. And unlike the last time UM housed Florida, all of those guys are coming back.
As for the running game, well, somebody took De’Veon Smith to D.O.C. because he was showing vision and patience we haven’t seen all year.
This is probably his best game as a Wolverine given the opponent, the preceding, I don’t know, month and a half, and the fact that he was still recovering from an apparent turf-toe injury that lingered for most of the second half of the season. I still think Smith will wind up in the B.J. Askew-type role as an all-purpose FB/H-Back/RB next season, but he was instrumental in Michigan just beating the life out of a very talented Florida front 7, to the point that they were seemingly just going through the motions late in the game. Both Drake Johnson and Sione Houma also scored TDs (Johnson on a short pass), and as a team UM averaged a shade under 4.9 ypc, which is the third-most Florida gave up all year and maybe the most impressive considering the two teams ahead of them broke one big QB run (UT) or had maybe the most dominant RB in the country (LSU) leading the charge. No, Michigan did this with a bunch of guys fans charitably would describe as “meh” for most of the year.
And huge credit should go to the offensive line for keeping Rudock clean and (usually) opening up holes for the backs. Florida was held without a sack for only the second time all year, and only 3 TFLs for the definitional minimum number of yards possible (3 yards). After getting woodshedded to varying degrees by a number of the better defenses on their schedule, it was great to see the staff and players end the season on a dominant note.
Best: The Defense is Gonna Be Hella Good Next Year*
Worst: *Provided They Can Find Some LBs and Henry Comes Back
Watching Florida’s offense just get consumed by Michigan’s defense as the game progressed reminded me of 2008 Michigan-Penn State. In that game, Rich Rod unleashed MINOR RAGE in the first half and actually led at halftime against PSU thanks to some creative playcalling. But UM was throwing the kitchen sink at PSU, and at halftime PSU adjusted and UM couldn’t move the ball again. They had a puncher’s chance, but unlike in boxing football games keep going regardless of how hard a team tries, and that’s why teams like Florida and 2008 UM repeatedly got spanked. Florida accumulated about half their yards on the first two drives of the game, but after that Mattison and co. locked into stopping Taylor and that was about it for Florida, which occasionally moved the ball thanks for Harris scrambles and not much else. Their one TD came on a drive that sorta sputtered along, and at no point did they really expose any major flaws in UM’s defense. They got the yards UM was willing to give, and as the game progressed that allowance shrank and shrank to nothingness. And you could see the exasperation on the Gator sidelines as that reality became ever clearer.
Oh wait…wrong sense of overwhelming despair.
The defensive line looked as good as they have all year, repeatedly blasting into the UF backfield and disrupting the flow of the offense. They ended the game with 6 TFLs for 31 yards and 2 sacks for 24 yards along with 7 QB hits, and that didn’t include (a) an intentional grounding penalty on Harris as he was flushed from the pocket, and (b) the endzone INT he threw as a couple Wolverines bore down on him. If Willie Henry comes back, you can expect this line to be one of the 3-4 best in the country, and if recruiting goes the way it’s trending…well, you know.
The secondary wasn’t asked to do much but they played well in limited duty. Lewis matched up well against Callaway (who I think did most of his damage on the first two drives and was otherwise held in check), and boring Jarrod Wilson finished with another pick in the endzone. Stribling and Clark kept everything short, and both Thomas and Hill continued their strong play to the end the season. Losing Wilson will be tough, but it looks like safety won’t be a bag of cats next year either.
As for the LBs, Florida is the type of team this corp eats up. Joe Bolden can tackle guys when they commit, and he thumped his way to 7 tackles in his last game. Bolden did have a nice play where he attacked a linemen rolling out with Harris, forcing Harris into a bad throw before he was set. That’s the type of play you expect a senior to make, and it was a nice end to an up-and-down career at UM. Morgan looked solid, even though he again struggled a bit in space on passing downs, but generally played like a guy who should find his place on an NFL practice squad at the very least. Gedeon got the bulk of the other snaps and looks to be very good, though again this team will need to find at least 2 other players who can plausibly rotate in next year. Devin Bush should get all the chances in the world to be one of those guys, and LB remains the one concerning spot for 2016.
Still, with Brown taking over as DC and having more talent available than he’s ever had, you have to hope that he continues, if not improves, on the great year in 2015. This line is the type of game-changer you see on playoff contenders, and with Glasgow and Mone returning it’s hard not to see them absolutely dominating basically everyone in the conference save OSU up front.
Best: On to 2016
It’s hyperbolic to say 2016 is lining up for a playoff run, but if Harbaugh was able to turn a 5-7 team into a 10-3 outfit with precious few months to recruit and develop the players he inherited, one can only imagine how solid this club will be coming into next year. Brady Hoke did a lot of things wrong during his tenure, but he recruited a hell of a defense, one that should play into many of the strengths of the new DC. I’m not sure about the status of Mattison, but if he sticks around for another season to help the transition (again), that would be a plus. Yes, they need to replace 2/3rds of the starting LBs and depth is always a concern, but you can scheme around that somewhat and with guys like Peppers and Hill you have some flexibility if you need to bring a guy down into the run defense. And let’s be honest; there aren’t a lot of teams on the schedule who are going to be able to handle this defensive line.
On offense, I assume the QB competition will produce a player capable of leading this offense with the same general efficiency we saw out of Rudock toward the end of the year. And whoever that guy is, he’ll have a cavalcade of playmakers in the passing game at his disposal and behind a veteran line. I’m not reading too much into Smith’s performance against Florida, but I assume he’ll still be a solid back along with Johnson, Isaac, Walker, and Higdon, and sheer probability makes me believe one of these guys will emerge as a 1,000-yard back. I do think losing O’Neill will be felt if they can’t replicate his field-shifting punts, but this staff should be able to unearth a competent replacement and, well, the team should be better overall to offset any dropoff on special teams.
And boy does the rest of the B1G look sorta bad going into 2016. OSU obviously will be reloading with another crop of 5* studs, but losing Bosa and Elliott, two dominant players, will certainly hurt, as will the turnover on defense with Lee and Powell declaring early and the loss of Chris Ash. It’s still OSU and Meyer is a master offensive mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they “stumbled” to 2 losses if the defense regresses a bit.
First off, I couldn’t help watching the MSU-Alabama game and not think of the Shutdown Fullcast preview for the Miami Bowl in which the story of Spencer Hall yelling into the phone (referring to the halftime of the Alabama-ND MNC game) “Bury ‘em deep and pat the dirt, Nick!” Anyway, MSU loses a good amount of talent on both sides of the ball, and while I acknowledge the “wait, they’ll suck THIS year” call is pure homerism and probably never going to be true while Dantonio is there, this was still a team that probably should have lost 3-4 games this year and doesn’t seem to have the depth to wholly absorb the losses they’ll sustain. Terry has always been a touted backup, but he’s a different QB than Cook, and this is an offense that will have to find receivers after both Burbridge and Kings depart. The schedule is kind with OSU and UM going to EL, but they also have to go to ND and play BYU against that suspect secondary. They’ll probably still win 9-10 games, but this might be the beginning of a (slight) downturn for the Spartans.
The other half of the B1G Title game, Iowa…woof! This team, a bit like MSU, lived on a high turnover margin and a decent amount of luck/ugliness, and watching them look completely outclassed by Stanford in all three phases should officially burst whatever optimistic bubble fans had that Ferentz had really turned this team around. They’ll probably win 8+ games next year because the West is turrible, but this is the type of team Harbaugh teams just steamrolls. Wiscy was maybe the least impressive 10-win team in the country this season (sorry Georgia), and they just lost their DC to LSU. Durkin and Maryland might be competitive in 2-3 years, but his “homecoming” to Michigan Stadium will not be pretty. IU is breaking in an entire new offense it seems, and as we’ve seen Team #CHAOS is as likely to self-destruct as direct that energy toward an opponent with good players. And I’m still waiting on “offensive guru” James Franklin to stop spray-tanning his skin to Hulk Hogan-level and field something possibly resembling an FBS offense. And hell, that defense isn’t going to be able to keep bailing him out.
So yeah, 2016 isn’t nearly as daunting as perhaps it looks on paper. My assumption is that if UM can get past MSU, The Game will resemble the 2006 affair as a de-facto pre-playoff game. Fall 2016 is still a LONG ways away, but I’m pretty excited about what the next 8 months hold for this team and program.
Worst: A Predictable Ass Kicking
Since the start of the year, what has felt so different about this season versus the last couple was the competence displayed by the coaching staff and the players on the field. Michigan didn’t always win the games they could have (witness Utah and MSU) and sometimes underperformed even in those they did (see IU and Minnesota), but in totality they never seemed out of their league against anyone on the schedule.
That all kind of changed against OSU. I’m not talking about pride or effort, questioning the heart of the coaches or the players, or anything as myopic and reductive as the crap you see posted on message boards and on talk radio. No, what happened in this game was UM’s coaches and players finally ran into an opponent that they just couldn’t hang with, one with too much talent and too much continuity to give UM a puncher’s chance. In past years when Brady Hoke had a couple of close calls, OSU would make the dumb plays, take the dumb penalties, give UM life with bad turnovers and poor coverage.
On the one hand, it is hard to be that surprised how the game played out. OSU has looked disinterested basically all season; they haven’t really been challenged by a team until MSU, and honestly never seemed to “care” about anyone they faced until UM. Last week against MSU you saw a team that figured it could roll over the competition again with minimal effort (especially with Cook out), and had they put in even 50% of the effort game planning last week as they clearly did this one, they’d have run MSU off the field. But for the first time all year, OSU found itself behind the eight ball, no longer in control of their destiny to defend their title or even win the conference, and that seemed to awaken them from their stupor, and UM felt the brunt of it. Hell, they did the same thing last year after the VT loss, obliterating almost everyone they ran into along the way to the championship.
On the other hand, it was jarring to see just how far UM was behind OSU in terms of talent at key positions and how those deficiencies limited what could be implemented. The one thing you could say about Brady Hoke is that the man can recruit; of course, in both those years OSU recruited a tad better. And when you dig into those classes, you see a lot of higher-ranked players who either aren’t on campus or simply failed to develop into the types of players UM needed. This isn’t an indictment of these players because in most cases they did the best they could at UM, but when you are trying to compete with a Goliath you can’t miss nearly as often as UM’s has with their best shots.
Still, it’s not that OSU is demonstrably better than UM across the board; the talent gap actually doesn’t seem nearly as pronounced as in seasons past even though the score would make you think otherwise. But where OSU trumps UM, they trump them definitely; disruptive pass rushing and running back jump out, as does linebacker play. Add those up, and a game that was sorta-close at halftime (ignoring the fact that OSU had already started carving UM up on the ground and UM had played keep away a bit with their 10 points by bleeding clock on drives of 14 and 11 plays) got out of hand quickly.
I read people calling for UM to change their defensive gameplan, commit more against the run and dare Barrett to beat them in the air. I agree in concept, but my counter is – where are those players going to come from? This isn’t a game where more bodies equals better results, like Plants vs. Zombies. All year the LBs have struggled against teams that spread them out and force quick, athletic decisions; if there was someone on the roster who was better than the guys at that you’d figure they would have played by now. And with Glasgow out, there is limited depth at tackle, which further limits how you can respond. Sure, the coaching staff will deservedly come under fire for some of their second-half adjustments (trying to go with a 3-man front is always ludicrous against OSU), but at some point it isn’t that you got RPS’ed moreso that you only had two fingers left and all you could throw are scissors against a couple of really angry rocks.
Depth has been an issue for this team all season, but they mostly papered it over with dominant defensive line play and very good secondary coverage. At least, that was until Glasgow went down. With him out of the lineup, IU had their way on the ground, and the blueprint was set for how to crush UM up front with zone runs and tempo. That isn’t to say the outcome would have been different with guys like Glasgow and Ojemudia in the lineup; OSU looked pissed off and out for blood, and when they play like that there isn’t a team in the country they can’t murderball.
Offensively, the lack of a rushing attack this past month has weirdly been both a blessing and a really terrible curse. On the one hand, it helped push Rudock out of the shell he was in to start the year, leading to some great numbers: 67% completion, 1,296 yards, 9.2 ypa, 11:2 TD:INT ratio over the past 4 games. Butt cemented his status as one of the best TEs in the game, and both Chesson and Darboh emerged as plus receivers with even more room to grow next year in this offense. But it also meant UM was held to 87 and 57 yards rushing against PSU and OSU respectively, and failed to crack 4.0 ypc against non-Chaos teams since early October. It got so bad that the leading rusher in this game was Peppers, running mostly gimmick plays in addition to his role as an anchor of the defense. For a team with (purported) recruiting stars in that backfield…well, I’ve said it for weeks now.
So yes, UM lost to the three teams you kind of expected they would (Utah, MSU, and OSU), and how they lost this last game leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. But there was demonstrable progress this season, and even with UM going to MSU and OSU next year it’s hard not to be optimistic about their prospects against both clubs (though obviously OSU looks to be farther away). And with a bowl game to go, I expect to see this team to learn from this loss and, with the return of a couple of injured players, end the year on a high note. But with MSU likely making a run to the CFB playoffs and OSU getting bragging rights for N-1 times in the last N games, this wasn’t a banner day for the season.
Best: Rudock to the Rescue or
Worst: Of Course THIS is How It Ends
This sounds like a bit of a broken record at this point, but Jake Rudock kept UM in this game as long as he could. With a non-existent running game and an offensive line that had a lot of trouble holding back the homogenized Ohio Brobarians at the edges, it fell on Jake Rudock to keep UM’s offense matriculating down the field, and for three quarters of the game he did. His numbers weren’t spectacular, but he completed about 60% of his passes for 263 yards, at 8.2 ypa and a TD with no interceptions. He found Chesson and Darboh in tough windows, and in the first half was largely responsible for UM’s drive-saving 8/11 rate on 3rd downs. In total, of UM’s 20 first downs, Rudock was responsible for 14 of them (13 in the air, one on the ground). This team probably wasn’t going to win this game regardless of how well the offense played, but it would have been even uglier without Rudock at the helm.
And all game, Rudock was performing under fire, especially as OSU started to stretch their lead out and it became clear that UM wasn’t even going to try to run the ball on most downs. Bosa finished with a sack, a forced fumble, and 2 more QB hits, along with numerous other pressures, and it was his hit that injured Rudock’s shoulder and may have ended his season. Even before that, Rudock was getting hit with a ferocity that felt unsustainable, including on one seemingly-designed QB run where he was sandwiched by two OSU defenders while Drake Johnson (amongst others) seemed to either be running the wrong route or missing guys to block.
I’ve never been great at identifying offensive line issues in the moment, but it was glaringly obvious both in this game and all year that UM’s offensive line is miles behind the best defensive lines in this conference, and I’m not sure how much scheming they can do to compensate for it. There were bad penalties, bad blocks (including on a screen to Smith that was blown up because of complete whiffs by both UM offensive linemen – Braden was one for sure who just dived at the legs of the defender and totally missed - on that side of the play), and an overall inability to even maintain the line of scrimmage down-to-down. It’s a “veteran” unit in terms of years and starts, but it is clearly one in need of a talent injection, and with Rudock gone next year they’ll also have to be breaking in a new QB, which will bring all of the attendant issues with cadence, timing, and playcalls.
But that’s for another day. I do hope Rudock’s shoulder isn’t injured severely enough to keep him out of the bowl game, both because that would significantly improve UM’s chances at a 10th win and, perhaps more importantly, give him an opportunity to cap off a pretty successful 1-year run at the helm of UM. I said last week that Rudock was a playmaker in that he always puts UM in a position to succeed, and against the best team he’ll see this year he didn’t disappoint. It’s a credit to both him and Harbaugh’s mentoring that I can say that after how the year started, and I genuinely hope there’s another chapter in this story.
Worst: The Ghost of Fred Jackson Lingers
I said it above, but without Peppers this team doesn’t crack 40 yards on the ground running the ball, and the non-Rudock runners who got carries in this game are a (possibly) injured De’Veon Smith, a FB, and a guy who’s (again, probably) still recovering from the second ACL surgery of his college career. Guys like Green and Isaac, expected to be contributors at the bare minimum this season, faded so far into the background that it’s hard to even make out their silhouettes. You have to imagine there will be a shakeup in the RB corp, if for no other reason that Harbaugh will be inclined to give anyone new a chance to show they are better than the incumbents. But after sorta-bludgeoning teams to start the year, the rushing offense fell off a cliff, and it hasn’t totally been due to breakdowns in the offensive line. I mean, I know the competition took a step up once the conference slate kicked off, but to go from averaging 4.8 ypc the first six games to 3.25 ypc in the last half, and even that number is goosed by playing IU, is downright stupefying.
And while they’ve faced some stout units against the run, it isn’t like any of them were the ‘86 Bears or even the ‘97 Wolverines. PSU gave up 227 yards to NW, 241 to Maryland, and 188 to MSU, while OSU coughed up 203 to MSU, 253 to Maryland, 195 to PSU, and even 104 to Rutgers. I don’t want to bang the drum on the old Hoke chestnut of “execution”, but it can’t all be a lack of talent. I mean, it’s been a meme around these parts that Fred Jackson was high on hyperbole and a bit lower on actual talent identification and development, but it continues to amaze me that UM hasn’t had a competent, consistent running back for nearly a decade (you’re mileage may vary with Brandon Minor and Fitzgerald Toussaint). Prospects seem good that Harbaugh and co. will correct for this deficiency soon, but it isn’t a stretch to say that UM’s season was largely sunk by the inability of the team to consistently get even a modicum of yards on the ground.
Best: People Can Catch the Ball
Before the season, a major concern offensively was the ability for this team to move the ball vertically through the air. Devin Funchess, the single biggest reason UM struggled in 2014 and probably also why you can’t find your keys*, was drafted by the Carolina Panthers and proceeded to ruin THEIR season as well, and he took the vast majority of last year’s passing game with him. There was buzz that Darboh would take the next step forward based on a solid 2014, but I was dubious given the fact a large amount of his production came against Miami (NTM) and IU and he lacked the type of speed and agility necessary to get separation in coverage. Similarly, Chesson had speed for days but also had 1 receiving TD to his name despite getting semi-consistent playing time for 2 years. Jake Butt looked to be a stud, but unless you are Tyler Eifert or a TE under Jim Harbaugh (oh wait…) you probably weren’t going to be a great lead option in a passing game. There was optimistic talk about guys like Moe Ways and Drake Harris maybe stepping into those lead roles, or Grant Perry emerging as a weapon given his prolific HS stats and early playing time. But I wasn’t optimistic about this team even matching last year’s pedestrian numbers.
And yet, after 12 games UM’s passing attack is the undeniable strength of the offense, and is poised to be even better next season after a summer of Harbaugh seasoning and (one hopes) an emergence of a starting QB sooner than a month before kickoff. Darboh still can’t get much separation against good DBs, but he compensates with solid hands and the type of power that makes WRs screen works. Chesson leads the team in TDs with 8, has proven his ability to not only take the top off the defense but also make tough catches in traffic, and his sometimes-maligned hands and route-running have been rectified. Jake Butt is, well, one of the best TEs in UM history, and I have to expect that he’ll only improve on a breakout season. And the playcalling, once the bane of any sane UM fan’s life, has finally put these players in positions where they can be successful, with Harbaugh and co. liberally relying on WR screens to get the ball in space and introducing the #Buttzone to the world as a way to punish any team that believes it can stop UM’s TE with a single defender.
There’s still a game to go this year, but I’m already excited about how this offense will look next year with a new QB, presumably one who’ll have some time to get in sync with these receivers before the years starts. It’s still a unit without a true #1 talent, but right now I’m not sure there is a more complete receiving corp in the league, and they should only be better in 2016.
* So I was told on this site.
Worst: Whither Glasgow, Whither Tackling?
Everyone knows when the rush defense changed from one of the best in the nation to one that would give up over 300 yards twice in 3 weeks - it was when Ryan Glasgow went down against Rutgers with a pectoral injury, and since then UM hasn’t really been able to find a suitable replacement. It doesn’t help that they’ve faced two up-tempo teams in IU and OSU that love to wear tackles down and spread defenses out to put pressure on the LBs to make tackles in space, but UM has been gashed so consistently that Glasgow’s absence is unmistakable.
At some point, you’d have hoped the defensive line and/or coaches would figure out how to compensate more effectively, especially after what felt like a steady diet of zone stretches by IU and zone reads being a staple of OSU’s offense. The team played around a bit with different alignments, even going with 3 linemen for a stretch, but nothing seemed to do much good, as OSU averaged 6.8 ypc and both Elliott and Barrett averaged over 7 ypc. I’m sure there were edges that were held in this game, but I’d be damned if it made a difference. The wheels sorta fell off once OSU got new life on that roughing-the-kicker penalty followed by the first of Elliott’s long runs of the game. In near-direct symmetry to UM’s pass-first, pass-second offense, OSU picked up 18 of their 25 first downs on the ground, and probably could have had more had they not called off the dogs a bit late in the 4th quarter.
I know people want to say that OSU’s rushing game will be more tractable when Elliott is gone, but they still have Barrett and a cavalcade of talented runners in that backfield. I mean, dropping 200+ yards on UM isn’t new for OSU. Meyer is a lot of very nasty, negative things, but he is also a damn fine offensive mind, and his rushing attack isn’t going anywhere. UM seems to be recruiting the type of tackles that can help disrupt the run, and Elliott is truly one of the best RBs in OSU’s history. So there is hope that with mere mortals, UM will have a better chance at slowing them down. Still, it behooves UM to figure this out sooner rather than later, or I’m guessing this won’t be the last time we see Buckeyes running around, over, and thru the UM defense, Glasgow or not.
Worst: The Three Amigos (In Space!!!)
So yeah, not a banner day for the linebackers. I’m sure the UFR will go into excruciating detail about exactly when, where, and how often tackles were missed, gaps were lost, and assignments misread, but everyone kind of knew that if OSU got to the second level in this game it would get ugly. Morgan is a lot of things, but athletic sideline-to-sideline isn’t one of them, and a couple of times he just couldn’t get to Barrett or Elliott before they found the hole. Based on the tackle numbers it would seem like Bolden and Gedeon were more involved in the game, but watching it live it felt like Morgan was identifying the plays quicker but typically just sacrificed himself to take on a blocker. This was a terrible matchup for him, though, and I’m guessing it’ll show under more scrutiny.
I’m not going to rant about Bolden because (a) Brian will probably do that, and (b) I don’t feel qualified to score him based on an initial view. But if history is a predictor of future outcomes, I’m guessing a lot of his team-leading tackles were because he was late to the play (witness 7 of his 9 tackles were assisted) and that a decent chunk of OSU’s success getting through gaps on the stretch were due to missed assignments. It felt like both Bolden and Gedeon struggled to flow to the point of attack, and that a lot of Barrett’s runs were due to someone not sticking with him on exchanges. But again, it wasn’t like anyone in the LB group covered himself in glory, so I’m not trying to single anyone out as the root cause for 300+ yards on the ground.
Next year UM will have to replace both starters (and sorta-starter Ross) with Gedeon and assorted unknowns, which is pretty terrifying. I do wonder if at least some of the issues with this season’s performance were due to residual gunk from the previous coaching regime, but you look at the depth chart and you only have 5 guys on campus now who were recruited for 3 spots, and, well, that ain’t a good thing. Those worries are for another day, I guess, but…
Best(?): They Didn’t Throw the Ball A Lot
In a game in which J.T. Barrett really didn’t have a reason to throw the ball, credit should go to the secondary for, I don’t know, making that slightly less appealing? Barrett had basically two long completions, both of which of the Shrug Emoticon variety. The first was his TD throw to Jalin Marshall, who had Jeremy Clark draped over him and basically caught the ball off of Clark’s body. The second long throw was to Thomas late in the game, and it was with Lewis trailing a bit but still a pretty tough catch on the run. Beyond those two balls, nothing got open downfield even when OSU tried to use play action. And Lewis helped out with a nice sack on Barrett that helped stop the Buckeyes on their first drive, and his PI was the type of “it ain’t racing without some rubbing” football that gets called every game just to keep you honest defensively.
I also thought the safeties played well. Nothing really beat them deep, and Thomas made a nice tackle in space to stop Barrett when he broke containment. Hill and Wilson also played pretty well, though by design they were usually tasked with stopping a freight-train Elliott after he bowled over a couple of defenders. The fact Hill, Wilson, and Thomas had more solo tackles than the 3 LBs is not great, Bob, but it does give me some hope that even with less boring safeties than this season it won’t be a major source of frustration next year with Thomas and Hill playing deep.
Meh: Everything Else
- Some people seemed bothered by OSU trying to score late in the game, especially when it seemed like they were going for some record (if Holly Rowe is to be believed, somebody in the OSU coaches’ box asked her how many yards Elliott had before sending him out again). Honestly, I’ve always been a proponent of “if you don’t like them scoring, make them stop” philosophy of defense, and so if Meyer and co. want to run up the score against a rival then so be it. The fact they cared about a rushing stat that will only be relevant to them always strikes me as silly (the trade-off is potentially hurting your best player during a blowout), but whatever. That’s a non-issue to me.
- In terms of UM settling for FGs on drives that went deep into OSU territory, I was more bothered with the second one than the first. When UM kicked the first one, the score was 7-3 and it felt like a game that might be close to the wire. But on the second one, UM is down 28-10 at the start of the first quarter, and while it’s a 3-score game either way, I’d MUCH rather get a TD there and figure out the FGs later than grab the somewhat-meaningless 3 points and still be down 15. Hell, had they scored a TD I’ve have gone for 2, as you basically have to score 3 TDs either way to win, and it would have galvanized the fans and players a bit to punch on in. But that’s way more feelingsball than it should be, but if you throw it all into the NFL 4th-down calculator it doesn’t demonstrably change the win probability (it is 4% if you go for it, 3% if you kick the FG), but in a rivalry game it seems weird to play for the safe option down 18.
- As for the “invasion” of OSU fans and them chanting whatever stupid things they do when see each other outdoors, so be it. Fans pay for tickets, and if season ticket holders didn’t want to come to the game and OSU fans got ahold of those seats, so be it. This is one of the most storied rivalries in college football history, hell in sports, and so if you can watch your team demolish the other at their place, spell your state loudly and proudly if it makes you happy. And this isn’t some jaded UM elitist saying it; I care way more about who wins on the field than who wins in the stands, but if your team crushed UM then I guess you have “earned” the right to chant. Just don’t hurt yourself trying to jump back on that bandwagon with the rest of the Juggalos after last week.
- I’ve heard some fans (mostly OSU and MSU ones) chirp that this season is going to be just like Hoke’s in 2011, which showed a promising era that cratered a couple years later. Well, one of the things I’ve been tracking is turnover margin, as that 2011 season featured one of the best in recent history for UM, which helped cover up some deficiencies on both sides of the ball. By comparison, this year UM has one of the worst margins, mostly due to recovering 2 opponent fumbles all years. With turnovers, especially fumble recovery, being mostly random, the progress shown this year is probably even more impressive than it looks specifically because it’s come against much “luck”. Now, if you want to see some some teams that MIGHT find next season a bit more challenging if they can’t reproduce seemingly-unsustainable TO margins, look no further than the B1G title game.
Nothing, nada, zip, zilch. I suspect UM will be playing somewhere in Florida on New Years, which is a nice coda to a first season under Harbaugh. I’ll probably do another of these diaries for that game, but just in case not I want to thank everyone who has stuck around reading these this year. It’s been a blast to follow this team for the first year, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.
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)]