"Jim's a tough guy and you can see his personality is all over this football team," Fitzgerald said.
This went up late because family visits + small child + overwhelmed spouse = limited times to rewatch a bloodbath. Also, thanks BTN for telling me the complete opposite channel to record the game, so I got to watch the first quarter of the rock fight between Minny and NW.
Best: Old-school Complaining
John Bacon mentioned in his latest book the old adage that a certain percentage of UM fans couldn’t be happy unless they were unhappy. While I take umbrage with that statement on two fronts; namely, (a) because it feels akin to the “you can’t be critical about sports unless you played it” spouted off whenever basement-dwelling bloggers point out that maybe, just maybe, your offense/defense is terrible for very justifiable reasons, and (b) because you could literally say “some people aren’t happy about X because they are overly critical of it” about virtually everything in modern society, it is undoubtedly true that the UM fanbase has been home to a fair bit of self-flagellation even during the good times. Now, obviously the “good times” haven’t been around these parts for about a decade, and much of the melancholy has been earned in A2 through the various transitions.
But now, for what feels incredibly authentic and organic, UM seems to be “back” to what it was during most fans’ lives. This isn’t Brady Hoke riding a bunch of turnovers and great short-yardage defense into a BCS bowl. Now, UM now beats up on bad teams, sticks around against good teams, and generally doesn’t mess around too much either way. Yes, Carr had this tendency to lose a couple of games a year he probably shouldn’t have, but he still averaged over 9 wins a season over 13 years, and only had 1 year with less than 8. Moeller was a bit more up-and-down, but you could pencil those teams in for 8+ wins a year, and, well, Bo was Bo. Sure, we have a couple Bump Elliott and Bennie Oosterbaan diehards in the group, but the point largely stands. Fans can once again expect competency from their football team, and like those fateful words you absolutely will hear blare from Michigan Stadium speakers this season, you don’t know what you got, till it’s gonnnnnnnnneeeeeee.
And that’s what was lost since The Horror and the subsequent fallout. UM fans talk about expecting Big Ten titles and expecting national championships, but you just have to look at the history books to see that the latter has been more wistful thinking and reality for half a century. For a litany of reasons I won’t get into, UM football felt like the treasury bonds or CDs of college football; you weren’t going to get amazing returns year in and year out like some of the meteoric programs (e.g. Miami, FSU, Oregon, basically the whole SEC at some point or another), but you also weren’t going to suffer through any sustained downswings when that volatility inevitably went bad (e.g. Miami and FSU when the NCAA started paying attention). You just kept chugging along at your sensible winning percentage, letting basic math carry you on to the most wins (and best winning percentage) in college football history.
Even that last Carr year was mostly by-the-book after the first two games of the year (and yes, I know that’s the “how was the play otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln” of college football), but the rest of 2007 wasn’t particularly eventful save for the offensive explosion against Florida in the Citrus Bowl. But once RR took the helm, that competency was thrown out the window. Losing to a terrible Toledo at home? Sure. Getting blown out in the second halves against turd-tastic Purdue and Illinois squads? You betcha. Win a game 67-65 because the other team finally fails on a 2-pt conversion? Somebody check Carr’s blood pressure. Squeaking by Akron and UConn by a combined 7 points in consecutive weeks? Mmm hmmm. Having the ignominy of losing to BOTH offspring of Jim Delaney’s fever-dream expansion onslaught? Rock on Kennedy.
What was taken from UM fans this past decade wasn’t an unrealistic sense of superiority over every opponent on the schedule; that ain’t ever going away. But what WAS taken was a sense that UM would field competent units that could comfortably beat the vast majority of inferior teams every year; that they could take care of business against the teams that shouldn’t stand a chance. That’s how UM has looked thus far this season, even with the loss to Utah – a team that treats each week as business as usual, doesn’t get flustered when a couple of breaks go against them, and just grinds your Oregon State’s and Maryland’s of the world into a fine dust with minimal consternation.
So now fans can get back to the usual complaints and concerns, about not winning a game by enough points, of pollsters not respecting UM enough to bump them up into the teens, and about momentary lapses of efficiency and performance and not whole months of incompetency. I’m not sure Harbaugh has UM anywhere close to the top of the college football hierarchy (though when you look around, it’s getting harder and harder to find truly elite squads beyond a handful), but he absolutely has them back to back to the point where fans worry about the how of a victory, not the if.
Best: Making It Look Hard
Piggybacking a bit on this point, the biggest change between this year’s defense and the past couple is how hard it seems for other offenses to do anything against them. While previous teams haven’t quite reached these heights in past seasons (#3 in S&P+ defensive rankings), they have always comfortably been a good-to-very-good defensive squad since Hoke took over. But they always had hiccups, always had these weak spots where their deficiencies were exposed rather spectacularly. Whether it was Gary Nova throwing for 400 yards, or Carlos Hyde running for 226 yards on 27 carries, or numerous punt returners flying down the field for big gains, it always seemed like teams could move the ball against UM if they were even a bit creative.
And what made it worse is that, especially early on in a season, you deluded yourself into believing that maybe, just maybe, Akron is better than you though under Terry Bowden (he coached at Auburn!), or maybe Gary Nova was a fringe NFL QB, or Tyler Lockett was an amazing player (okay, that last one turned out to be largely true). Then you’d watch them play other teams and realize that, no, they just looked good against UM, and that seemed to happen far too often.
But not this season. Even though Utah had some success moving the ball, it still looked like far more of a slog for them than against anyone else on their schedule. And since that first game, UM has just been muderballdeathing offenses to a degree that hasn’t been seen around these parts since, I don’t know, 1997? I know Brian and Ace debated about 2006 on one of their numerous audio discussions, but that was a veteran-laden unit that existed just before the vast majority of offenses really incorporated spread elements. Ball State gave them trouble when the second unit allowed 2 straight scoring drives late in the game, and both OSU (led by spread-y Troy Smith) and USC exploited weaknesses in the secondary as well as in space. They were elite when playing right-handed, but if the opposition had a little Dread Pirate Roberts in them things went pear-shaped.
But not anymore. This defense probably doesn’t have the pure star power of that 2006 unit, but it seems to be more complete, more adaptable, than any we’ve seen in years in Ann Arbor. For the second week in a row, the offense held a Power-5 offense to about 100 yards of total offense. Yes, Maryland is all kinds of terrible on offense, but they threw for about 60 yards less (76 yards) than their next lowest total (138 yards against Richmond, which was offset by 341 yards on the ground) and their rushing total of 29 was 85 less than they put up against South Florida. Hell, they put up 173 yards on the ground against WVU last week, and that was a game they trailed 38-0 at halftime.
To put it another way, Maryland had as many first downs by penalty as they did by rushing, which was accomplished by Ross on his first carry of the game. At no point could Maryland hope to muster anything resembling an offensive flow after that first drive, and only sniffed the UM redzone when UM turned the ball over. Like Doomsday in the DC universe, the defense seems to take your best punch then react, adapt, and destroy from that point on. I’m sure there will be a Superman who’ll come along and vanquish/expose some holes in the unit, but right now it just looks like even competent offenses are trapped as soon as they step onto the field.
Best: The Old Guy
It’s weird to call anyone who’s about a decade younger than me the “old guy”, but Desmond Morgan (along with Ryan Glasgow and Jourdan Lewis) feels like the heart and soul of this defense, and so it was great to see him have another nice game. The interception was the highlight, but he also had two pass breakups and led the team with 9 tackles. Bolden, another senior, played pretty well next to him, and Lewis was his usual dominant self in coverage. And while the loss of Ojemudia is going to be felt by the line, especially when it comes to holding the edge, the increased production by guys like Hurst and Godin makes me believe that they’ll be able to compensate reasonably well.
Worst: HOLD ONTO THE DAMN BALL
Depending on how you look at it, the fact UM has a negative turnover margin and yet is still dominating teams is either amazingly impressive and showcases this team’s elitism or portends some heart-breaking future losses if it continues. I’m leaning toward the prior, but Rudock threw another pick that wasn’t really his fault (Sione had the ball in his hands and just popped it up) and fumbled on a bad play, while Isaac put the ball on the ground twice, nearly losing it deep in UM territory, and found himself stapled to the bench shortly thereafter. While there don’t appear to be a large number of teams left on the schedule who could make UM pay dearly for their continued struggles in the TO department, they still won’t be beating MSU, OSU, or PSU if they cough the ball up as many times as they have this season.
This is particularly true against MSU and PSU, which have two of the best margins in the country mostly because they don’t turn the ball over themselves at all (2 TOs thus far by MSU, 3 by PSU). This stat probably helps to explain how MSU has been able to stay undefeated despite some mediocre defensive numbers, and how PSU keeps pulling off wins despite a janky offense.
Worst: Running Game Shotgun
At first blush, you’d look at about 200 yards at 5.0 ypc with 2 TDs on the ground and say that UM had a pretty good performance against Maryland. And, yeah, it certainly wasn’t a terrible, 27-for-27 performance, but much like last year it was a meh day on the ground with a massive run skewing the numbers. Last year it was Joe Kerridge on a fake punt for 52 yards, while this year it was Chesson taking another sweep to the house for 66 yards.* Throw that carry out and you have about 160 yards at 4.4 ypc, with Johnson and Ruddock doing most of the damage. Isaac definitely seemed off all day, and I’m wondering if perhaps that UNLV run was more the aberration than the standard as he works his way back into football speed; he’ll bust a play or two, but he doesn’t seem quite in the groove as an every-down back right now. And Derrick Green, despite getting a decent number of carries, never seemed able to get anything beyond what his line could generate, repeatedly getting stopped on short yardage because he either couldn’t hit the right hole or seemed unable/unwilling to lower his shoulder and run over people.
I suspect that Smith will be back next week against Northwestern, but I fear that his ankle might not be 100%. While he certainly has had his rough moments, he remains by far the best running back in the backfield, and UM is going to struggle to move the ball against the Wildcats if he struggles.
* Brian has been saying that in order for TEs like Poggi and Williams to be out on the field, the offense needs to throw the ball to them a couple of times just to make the defenses treat them as viable options. But right now, it seems like UM just needs to throw to Chesson a couple of times a game to make people not cheat too heavily on all of these WR runs he is scoring on.
Meh: Blame it on the Rain
Quick, guess which four QBs have the following stats:
|Name||ComP %||Passing Yards||YPA||TDs||INTs||Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs|
Player A is Jake Rudock, Player B is Cardale Jones, Player C is Christian Hackenberg, and Player D is C.J. Beathard.**
My point isn’t to say that Rudock has been a revelation at QB, but that compared to everyone in the conference not named Connor Cook, he’s been remarkably solid, especially after that first week. On paper the passing game wasn’t particularly impressive again (50% completion, 180 yards, around 5.6 ypa, 1 TD:INT), but given the conditions it felt like a managed performance, the type that you expect when your defense is stupefyingly dominant and the only way the other team is going to pose a threat is if you gift wrap it for them. And his numbers in the first half were very Rudock-ian (12/18 for 121 yards and 20 yards on the ground).
About the only number that is particularly distressing is the low YPA, but that should tick up as his comfort level with the receivers (and the overall offense) improves and the running game continues to pull defenses in and open up those easy YAC throws to guys like Butt and Darboh. Again, Rudock isn’t going to be a gunslinger, but he seems to be taking what the defenses give him, and at this point in the season you can’t really ask for more.
** And yes, Beathard has put up good numbers, but in his first game against a good defense (Wisconsin is still a top-20 outfit), he went 9-for-21 for 77 yards, 1 TD to 1 INT, and 12 yards on 9 rushes. Yes Iowa won, but that wasn’t a particularly inspiring performance.
Best: Didn’t (Really) Kick to Will Likely
Will Likely is The Danger for Maryland this season. Everyone knew not to kick to Will Likely in any situation where he could likely hurt you. Michigan played a bit with fire, giving him a couple of returnable punts, but nothing seemed particularly dangerous, and he never got close to really breaking anything even on kickoffs. Given the wonky weather, I’d call that mission accomplished.
On the other side of the ball, Peppers had another great punt return and generally looks like he’ll bust one soon enough. He just makes guys miss in that first guy miss more times than not , which is something Dennis Norfleet always seemed to struggle with. If I’m Rutgers, MSU, or Indiana, I would be exceedingly careful where I punted in those games.
Worst: The /b/ Announcing Team
Glad it was noticed by others, but after last week’s Spielman/McDonough crew had some great insights in the game against BYU, Matt Millen and the guy who drew the short straw to be stuck in the booth with him.
Millen has never been particularly insightful, and today was no different with his proclamations that if Maryland followed UM’s blockers, they’d be able to tackle UM runners, and that if you bring pressure as a defense you can disrupt and offense. I mean, I know this guy was a super-successful GM of the Lions, but I actually felt dumber listening to him ramble on for 3 hours.
But that’s kind of standard-issue for college football outside of the marquee games; there’s a reason you get sent to cover UM-Maryland at noon, and it isn’t because somebody upstairs likes you. What did get me was the vitriol he directed at players, usually for Maryland, throughout the game. He called efforts pathetic, questioned the intelligence/decision making of Caleb Rowe rather bluntly when he threw the Lewis INT, and various other quips and degradations. I’m certainly not advocating a ban on any critical analysis during football games, but for a guy who had a terrible draft record and who helped, I don’t know, “build” the first 0-16 team in NFL history, questioning the decision-making of a college kid being chased by 300-pound linemen intent on crushing parts of innards while trying to throw a ball in heavy winds is a pot calling a kettle black AND to see if Mike Williams is still available.
Best: Bring on the NERDS!
So yeah, apparently the ogres at UM are going to be playing some smarty-pants next week. Both teams have great defenses and wonky offenses; I’d argue NW’s is wonky because of talent, while UM’s is more about execution. If Smith is healthy, I’d give the edge to UM at home. Hell, if he isn’t I’d still give it to UM just because I’m fairly certain Michigan can still scratch out 100 yards of offense, while the jury is still out about the Wildcats against UM. Regardless, this could very well be the first of many marquee matchups featuring UM this year, so let’s keep the good times going.
Viva Dad Rock!
This game in a single image:
That’s Wilford Brimley (as “Uncle Douvee”), on a horse, with a bow and arrow, escaping a fireball created by the dynamite he placed around his cabin deep in Bayou, which he detonated to kill a phalanx of guns-for-hire trying to kill him and his “nephew”, Jean Claude Van Damme’s “Chance Boudreaux”, is the movie Hard Target. It is an incredibly dumb movie that may be the best 97 minutes you can spend in a day.
Tanner Mangum and the BYU offense was that cabin on Saturday, except UM wasn’t a bunch of goons circling in for the kill, but instead a bunch of grizzled warriors streaking away on their trusted steeds, swatting away passes, grinding up linemen, and warning all those who listen about the dangers of high blood sugar.
Michigan gave up exactly 3 offensive plays over 10 yards, and one was the Stribling near-INT that became a tip-drill reception on the second drive of the game for the Cougars. BYU’s average yards per play was 2.1, and it was nicely split between 2.3 yards per rush and 2.0 yards per attempt in the air. BYU punted 11 of the 12 times they had the ball, with the 12th possession ending the game. On those other 11 drives, they didn’t have a drive longer than 8 plays or for more than 41 yards, and went 3-and-out 7 times and had two 6-play drives that netted them…0 and 8 yards, respectively. Hell, it took BYU playing out the string on the last drive of the game to crack 100 yards of total offense.
On the other side of the ball, UM’s offense did what you kind of expected. After the first drive of the game resulted in a quick 3-and-out and a couple of “yeesh” collar pulls from the faithful as Rudock looked out of sorts with ill-timed passes, the offense proceeded to march down the field on it’s next 5 possessions and score 4 TDs and a FG. All those drives were for at least 47 yards, including drives of 80, 90, and 68 yards, the first two being of the bludgeoning 10-play variety and the other featuring Smith Beast Moding through BYU.
— Michigan on BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) September 26, 2015
Smith finished with 125 yards and the above-noted TD on 16 carries, the team recorded 254 on 51 with two more rushing TDs from 2015’s Dual Threet Memorial Award Recipient Jake Rudock, and that was with UM definitely letting up on the gas a bit in the 2nd half. And a week after his worse passing performance as a Wolverine (and, in all fairness, probably as a starter anywhere), Rudock had the quintessential Rudock-ian performance, completing 56% of his throws for 7.76 ypa and a TD, got rid of the ball when that was the right call and, for the first time this year, finished without a turnover. As per usual, he spread the ball around (9 different players caught at least one pass, with Darboh leading the way with 4), and (usually) ran the ball effectively when necessary.
Last week I described the game against UNLV as the most vanilla game possible, with Michigan going full Milton Berle* after the half. Some people criticized that playcalling because of the passing game’s struggles, but I thought it was appropriate given how overmatched UNLV looked. And that’s why I think Harbaugh is different than a lot of college coaches – he does what he needs to win a game and improve his team, but outside of perhaps a rivalry game he doesn’t seem particularly wired to improve the “optics” of a win by running up the score. If this was Mortal Kombat, he wouldn’t go for the fatality; he’d just let your player stumble around and fall over while he’s taking another sip from his can of Crystal Pepsi.
So in this game, UM basically did the same thing after the half, being content to run the ball (25 times in that second half vs. 10 passes) and getting off the field with minimal injuries (it doesn’t sound like Smith’s ankle is all that bad). It was just that the first half wasn’t so much vanilla as Superman ice cream covered with Viagra and cocaine.
It’s been three weeks now of UM dismantling their opponents to a degree we haven’t seen around these parts in nearly a decade. Since Utah, UM has outscored their opponents 94-14, and you could argue that’s a bit misleading given how often UM has let up on the gas in the second half. It’s still a long season ahead, but at this point it’s hard not to be excited about the heights this team could hit this year and beyond.
* Milton Berle was known for having a rather large member, and was (in)famous for winning, um, measuring contests handily, with Jackie Gleason once advising him to “go ahead, Milton, just take out enough to win.” And no, Google image searching isn’t a good idea on your work computer.
It’s getting more and more difficult to come up with superlatives to describe the defensive effort we’ve seen every week by this team. Oregon State just put up 24 points and 386 yards against Stanford on Friday, or 17 more points and 248 more yards than they did against UM, and 79 of those yards came on their one scoring drive to open the game. That same Utah outfit that dropped 62 on Oregon on the road could barely muster 17 against UM, and UNLV just put up 72 points against Idaho St.
As Brian noted last week, UNLV was so scared of Peppers and co. wreaking them on screens that they didn’t even consider throwing one to the one NFL-quality guy on their offense until well into the blowout. They basically pitched a shutout until Decker hit Boyd on a couple of nice passes late in the game.
And in this game, BYU barely scraped by 100 yards total of offense after coming into the game averaging about 430 yards/gm before the day started. Tanner Mangum, he of the 12.3 ypc and numerous long-range bombings, averaged 4.6 ypc in this game, and if you throw out his tip-drill completion of 14 yards you get 3.7 ypc.
I’m not sure that any team in the country has been playing better defense than UM thus far this season (given how their opponents have looked against other squads), and that’s with breaking in a new corner, the loss of Mone before the season, and the various transition costs associated with the coaching change even with the Mattison-aided continuity.
Best: No More Mr. Nice Guy
The defensive dominance thus far begins with this defensive line. You know you absolutely dominated a team’s offensive line when your leading tackler is a cornerback (Stribling with 4), followed by your NT and DE with 3 a piece (Glasgow and Ojemudia). Your top tackler in the LB core was Ben Gedeon, with 2 of his 3 tackles on kick returns, and it wasn’t for a lack of effort by Desmond, Gedeon, Ross and Bolden. It was just that when an opposing team runs 50 plays, 16 of which end in incompletions, there aren’t that many opportunities for your second level to get to the ball carrier. The defensive line recorded 3 sacks on Mangum, 5 more QB hits, and held BYU’s leading RB Adam Hine to 33 yards on 8 carries, or 4 yards on 7 carries if you throw out a 29-yard scamper in the first quarter. And I’d like to single out Ryan Glasgow, who had 2 TFLs and just demolished BYU’s offensive line for long stretches of this game.
Best: Blinded by the Light
During the telecast, McDonough and Spielman talked about how UM’s defense has been, both by ranking and in actuality, very good these past couple of years, and how they were put in bad positions by the offense. And while that is absolutely true, I also think the insinuation that UM could have “relied” on those defenses to win games, as they seem capable to do with the 2015 outfit, is not. The defense under Hoke was quintessential Carr-ian – great when you “put on your big-boy pants” and smash into each other like wildebeests or when UM had a clear physical superiority, but increasingly anachronistic when tasked with stopping the more “modern” offenses you see across college football. The talent was there, but as soon as the QB started to move around the pocket and little slot receivers were introduced, the schemes seemed to fall apart or, at the very least, seemed unable to adapt quickly. They looked great on paper until they were punched in the mouth, and then all bets were off.
This team is different – when you punch this defense in the mouth, it goes all T-1000/Borg on you, assimilating your tendencies and exploiting your weaknesses, and that’s when the fun stops. I know it’s early in his tenure, but I think this flexibility, this adaptability, will be the greatest benefit D. J. Durkin brings to this team. This is going to sound incredibly cliche (as is most of this post), but the players are being put in positions to succeed, and you see that not only in the box score and the RPS scores, but in the scary calm you feel when the ball leaves the QB’s hand and you are reasonably confident that a cornerback will be in the right position on the receiver, with safety help on the way. It’s when you see a jet sweep or a short WR screen and know that a linebacker and Peppers is about to hold it to minimal gain. When you see Mangum spin away from the pressure (and there was always pressure), survey downfield with that cannon ready to go off for a 65-yard field-flipping dart, and have to dump it off behind or over his nearest receiver because there isn’t anyone breaking in the secondary and a couple of maize and blue jerseys are bearing down with cruel intentions.
I’m sure those around these parts with more football knowledge will point out areas where the defense still struggles, and I recognize that teams with solid offensive lines (MSU) or dynamic playmakers (OSU) will probably still give them headaches, but as we stand here on the last weekend of September, I don’t see a single offense on the schedule that UM can’t adapt to rather effectively.
Best: Born to Run
Another weak, another dominant performance on the ground. This week it was De’Veon Smith rumbling for 125 yards, including a 60-yard score that was basically the physical manifestation of De’Veon Smith if Smith wasn’t a human being already.
It’s a video game play, but not like a football video game play, but instead like Dig Dug where Smith just burrowed underneath everyone and popped out on the other end with nobody the wiser. Brian keeps saying Smith is the closest runner he’s seen to Mike Hart, and this play is the type Hart pulled out for 4 years. Just seeing a hole and deciding he won’t get tackled until he’s in the endzone or the entire defense lassos him down.
Credit should again be given to the offensive line. TFLs were minimal, and while BYU doesn’t have a dominant run defense UM’s backs were rarely being hit in that first half until they were 3-4 yards pass the line of scrimmage. Even when Rudock was sacked, it didn’t feel so much like the line broke down in protection as much as BYU just brought the right number of people and Rudock either held onto the ball a bit too long or just ate the sack because the game was so out of reach. I’ll be interested to see how they grade out this weekend, especially Braden and Glasgow, who seemed to just be manhandling guys at times.
And Jake Rudock showed the type of mobility that Harbaugh expects in his QBs, which brought a new dimension to the offense that absolutely helped loosen up those defensive fronts. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to run for quite that freely against the better lines in this conference, but even the threat of Rudock on passing downs should add a needed dimension to the offense going forward.
Best: Carry on Wayward Son
I mentioned it earlier, but Jake Rudock had the best game of his short UM career but being, well, Jake Rudock. His completion percentage was a bit lower than you kind of thought watching the game (though 56% on 25 throws with a number of out-of-bound throws in the second half to save downs attributed to that number), but after the first-drive jitters he looked really solid out. Ace linked to it in his recap, but this catch by Darboh felt like the turning point for Rudock’s day, even though it was early in the first quarter.
All year I’ve been noticing that while Rudock clearly had issues with downfield accuracy and vision, he was also not being bailed out by his receivers the way all QBs tend to. And it’s when you get one or two of those “my bad” balls on the positive side of the ledger that not only do you look better in the box score but you also play better.
Rudock is a 5th-year senior and he has his limitations, including a desire to make the “perfect” throw instead of the “let my guy be better than the other guy”, but I always thought had he connected on one of those long throws to Chesson or Darboh against Utah, or those clear PIs against Darboh by OSU, or that twisty-turning bomb to Darboh against UNLV, he’d have looked better on the scoresheet and, I think, fans would have been less bothered by fears of his limited arm strength or ability to stretch the field. As soon as UM’s new American Hero did his best Odell Beckham, you could see the offense open up and Rudock become more comfortable. It is incredibly feelingsball, but trust in your receivers is essential for any QB, and today you saw what a competent, comfortable Rudock brings to this offense.
Now, Rudock still needs to improve his timing and reading of the play (he missed a BYU corner slipping on his first pass that would have been for huge yards, he threw a ball to Canteen before he even turned around, was quick on a short pass to I believe Darboh on that first scoring drive, and nearly threw a pick on a blown-up WR screen), but he looked light-years better than he did even a month ago. And he seemed comfortable throwing to everyone, which explains why 9 Wolverines caught balls and Khalid Hill caught twice as many as Jake Butt without it looking remotely out of place. My hope is that he looks good against Will Likely next week before taking on NW and MSU.
Sorta-Worst: Down Under
Because I have to be cautionary about something, I guess, I was a little bothered by O’Neill seemingly unilaterally deciding to run on 4th-and-16 in the 3rd quarter. Love the Aussie spirit, but in games that aren’t quite such a blowout it probably isn’t a great idea to try to run for a first on your own half of the field with that make acreage ahead of you. I like that the punter has the ability to make that call in Baxter’s special teams because of its unpredictability, but that was the wrong one to make given the circumstances.
Oh, also, my heart breaks a little seeing Jake Rudock run this offense and remembering that Devin Gardner was stuck playing in Hoke’s dinosaur offense for years. Nevermind…I’m moving on.
Best: Don’t Stop Believing
Last week I talked about how I thought UM had a real chance to upset both MSU and OSU this season, and there was a contingent of readers who thought I was a bafflingly-myopic homer. And I’ll totally cop to that somewhat. But right now, OSU has some questions at the QB position and has struggled against pretty mediocre competition despite the final score. The NIU game was probably closer on the scoreboard than in reality, but Cardale Jones remains a guy who completes a bit over 55% of his passes and looks less and less like a major running threat as teams start to prey on his accuracy. Obviously, having Barrett off the bench to step in if necessary is a great luxury, but this remains a boom-or-bust offense that relies heavily on its defense to cover up their mistakes, and that might not hold true for the rest of the season. It sucks that UM won’t play them until the end of the year because I assume they’ll have some of these issues ironed out by then, but it remains a very vulnerable #1 team.
As for MSU, they were outgained for the 3rd straight game, this time by Central, and may have lost Conklin for some time. That Oregon win is looking less and less impressive and the Ducks play well below expectations, most recently getting waxed by Utah at home. This year they are also suffering some sustained injuries to key players (Davis, Conklin, Copeland, Kieler) for the first time in this current renaissance, and depth is becoming a major issue. Playing Purdue and Rutgers should give them some time to at least try out replacements and heal up, but after what UM has done to teams like Utah and BYU defensively, I’m not sure Connor Cook is going to look like the first-round QB some are touting him as. And that defense isn’t getting any better in the secondary, so if UM can establish a running game the screens and play-action throws might be there for the first time in years.
I know there are games to be played and UM still has to face tough defenses like PSU and Minny along the way, but at this point I’d be disappointed if UM didn’t at least split with MSU and OSU and be in it for the division title at the end of the year.
Best: Already Gone
Looks at schedule
I say this every time, but I’m going to keep this brief. It’s a game UM was supposed to win comfortably; they did so. Next week will tell quite a bit more about how this team stacks up going into the conference slate.
Best: Neapolitan Without Chocolate and You Hate Strawberry or
Worst: Vanilla Ice Cream topped with Vanilla Extract Mixed with Vanilla Sorbet
One of the most derisive terms you hear on the internet (coined by legendary champion/male stripper Kevin Nash) to describe a professional wrestler is that he’s a “vanilla midget”. The term has a number of meanings and, in certain contexts, can almost be a backhanded compliment, but in general it refers to a wrestler who is good at “wrestling” but not so good at the “sports entertainment” part of it; it typically means he’s short, bad on the mic, a bit weird/generic looking, etc. Despite its evocative nature of a particular type of guy, it’s been applied to wrestlers of all stripes, usually in a way to trivialize their real accomplishments and reduce them to a trite tableau of unmet cosmetic expectations.
I noticed during this game how many people became discouraged that UM’s utter dominance of UNLV wasn’t “more” than it was. Outside of the one Isaac run, this was basically UM spending a half methodically walking up and down the field with minimal resistance from the Rebels, running the same basic plays effectively but without much flair. Yes, part of that was due to Jake Rudock’s continued inability to consistently throw the ball farther than 10 yards downfield, but UM was going to play this game as close to the vest as possible. If this was an NES game, UM just went full Tecmo on the playbook.
And yeah, I know how annoying these games can be when you see teams like Tennessee, Arizona, and Ole Miss drop 50+ points on hapless clubs, when you’d just wish UM would blow the doors off someone effortlessly as opposed to with stoic determination. Sometimes you want to say your prayers and eat your vitamins, you want to recite your favorite Bible verse as your stomping a mud hole in someone, and you do smell what is cooking.
But in the end, this was a thorough win by a team that is trying to get the “good at football” part down as much as anything. There will be other games this year (hell, there’s one next week) that will require more fireworks, more explosiveness from UM to pull out the victory. But for now, savor that UM can just go out and “take care of business” as it were, regardless of how it may look to the Uutsiders.
Best: Ground and Pound
I’m sure I’ll use this reference a number of times this season (and, hopefully, many more seasons under Harbaugh), but this was a prototypical “ground and pound” performance by the offense. It had a bit of nuance and subterfuge (witness Chesson’s jet sweep TD run following the end-around to Darboh), but otherwise it was mostly Power football with all the counters, leads, fullback dives, and sweeps you could ask for.
Isaac’s 76 yard run was the highlight, but that first half UM was able to do basically whatever they wanted on offense, and that turned out to be “hit guys in white repeatedly.” You look at the stat sheet and figure Isaac had the much better day compared to Smith, but you watch those carries and Smith was getting through the holes and picking up nice yardage the way you expect with him – by pounding human beings backwards. He’s not going to break those outside runs for huge yardage given his pedestrian speed, but had he carried the ball the 20-25 times you figure he’ll do during the season he’d have likely wound up with similar numbers he put up last week.
It was nice to see Isaac break out a bit, as his combination of size and speed are going to be essential to this offense continuing to be semi-effective against the better teams on the schedule, especially if (as it appears) Green isn’t earning a lot of carries and Johnson remains a bit of a question mark following his recovery. That long run showed off his combination of speed and physicality as he bounced off a couple of tacklers, though he was helped immensely by UNLV running into each other and/or getting lost in the wash on that play. Still, that was the first time this year when it felt like the offense was “explosive” and not just consistently grinding down a team.
The second half was a bit more discouraging in that the running game struggled to maintain its earlier dominance while the passing game continued to struggle, but when your lead never dips below 21 points I wouldn’t expect Harbaugh to do much else than run the same base plays and just work the kinks out. And UNLV obviously felt the same way, as they were selling out on the run pretty heavily. I remain troubled by the inability of this team to get a yard on 3rd/4th and short because it always seems like the Braden, Kalis, and Glasgow struggle to get a significant push, but it also feels a bit like UM is just losing to the percentages right now and, with a larger sample size, they’ll start converting those opportunities. Still, 200+ yards on the ground for the second straight week is a good showing, and gives me hope that UM will be able to keep it going against a suddenly-porous BYU defensive line.
Worst: Still With the Kinks
Nobody but the most maize-tinted glass wearers expected the passing game to be gangbusters to start the year, especially with a new QB and the lack of established options at WR save for Butt and Darboh. Even with Brian’s proclamations that Rudock was a low risk, moderate-reward QB who wouldn’t expand your passing game immensely but who would make the right throws with limited turnover, there were just too many uncertainties to expect there wouldn’t be hiccups along the way. Now, after three weeks, the passing game remains in flux, and what were once thought of as minor kinks to be ironed out are starting to look like functional deficiencies.
I’ll be frank – this was the worst performance Rudock has had this year, by a healthy margin. Utah had the INTs but it was the first game of the year and he was victimized by a couple of poor routes by his WRs. Oregon St. was better even with the pick, but it was still a disjointed game with missed deep balls (though at least the ball to Darboh was interfered with). Against UNLV, though, Rudock was missing seemingly at random, whether it be the terribly thrown ball to Butt in the endzone on that first drive that would have been a TD to the two mistimed shots down the field to Harris (a solid 2 feet out of bounds) and Darboh (though Darboh turned himself around a bit, it was still a bad ball). And even on a number of his completions, the ball was low and behind, limiting YAC and resulting in a depressingly-low 5.6 ypa, especially given the opponent. I know Harbaugh alluded to some swirling winds and the like, but this is a sport that has been played outdoors for centuries and, as a 5th-year senior who played for years at Iowa, Rudock should be used to throwing in such conditions. And on a number of errant passes, they weren’t off by a step or a foot, but either yards behind, ahead, and above his receivers. I remain cautiously optimistic that Rudock will improve somewhat because, again, this is still a small sample size, but whereas competency felt like the floor with him at the beginning of the season, it is starting to feel like the ceiling.
As for the receivers, it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, this was an opponent that UM didn’t need to throw against much, so they didn’t, especially after they were up 21. At the same time, issues linger that portend worse results when the competition level increases.
Jake Butt has been neutralized a bit, or at least the focus has been shifted some, as teams have clearly identified him as Rudock’s preferred target. Outside of that long TD against Utah, he hasn’t been targeted much downfield, which is doubly weird both because of the matchup problems he provides for you and because of the paucity of other threats. Part of it is absolutely playcalling against limited opponents and Harbaugh’s desire to use Butt as a viable blocking threat, but for a team lacking identifiable playmakers on offense it’s weird not seeing Butt being used more as a threat.
Darboh continues to be a nice surprise, though it’s becoming more clear that his strength is in the screens and mid-yardage game, not as a deep threat. That was a poor throw by Rudock in the 4th, but Darboh had both hands on it and could have bailed his QB out a bit. He also struggles to get separation without the ball, though that stiff-arm is FANTASTIC to watch in space.
For the rest of the receivers, it was a mixed bag. Chesson had a nice TD on that jet sweep but only caught 1 ball, and with that run you saw why he’s so dangerous (that speed to the corner) but also why he might just be a “speed” guy since he continues to struggle to catch the ball consistently. Mo Ways had a nice run and catch, and it was nice to see Harris get a deep target even if it was poorly thrown. He still looks like a guy who hasn’t played organized football in a couple of years, but he seems like the only legitimate downfield threat in the receiving corp, so hopefully his comfort level will increase and so will production.
Again, I’m not prone to read too much into the passing struggles because of the opponent, but this defense and running game aren’t good enough to carry this squad past some of the teams coming up, so it would be great to see marked improvement in that aspect of the offense sooner rather than later.
Worst: The Replacement
I've said this before but I think it bears repeating - replacing Jake Rudock with someone else (Morris, Speight, or a true freshman) only works if (a) you believe that he is hurting the offense (a debatable point) and/or (b) there is someone on the roster, right now, who would be a marked improvement. And that's the rub with any change at the lead position. Rudock has been inconsistent, but he's still the guy who (by most accounts) soundly won the position battle over Morris et al. And yes, UM will have to go through this again next year with a new QB, but you hope by then that the coaching staff is more comfortable with the pieces available and, perhaps, a guy like Morris, Gentry or O’Korn can take the reins with some seasoning and (in the case of O’Korn) eligibility. But change for the sake of change isn’t going to make the offense demonstrably better and, most likely, will stymie whatever progress the unit is making with Rudock at the helm.
I hate to drag up last year, but everyone remembers Morris replacing Gardner against Minnesota. I railed against the decision when it happened because it wasn’t based in logic or strategic advantage; it was just a beleaguered offense hoping they had a magic bullet in their backfield. Well, we all know how that played out. While I doubt the severity of a change at QB would occur under Harbaugh, it still isn’t the right decision unless Rudock absolutely flames out, which at this point doesn’t seem likely. This was never a year for championship dreams, and I’d much rather have an extra year for one of the young QBs on the roster in 2018-2019 than a win against, I don’t know, PSU in 2015.
Best: The Front 11
Another week, another solid performance by the entire defense. They held UNLV to under 250 total yards of offense, with about half of those yards coming in the 4th quarter when UM was liberally substituting players and generally just trying to bleed the clock out. Yes, the shutout was spoiled by a couple of nice throws and broken coverages, but people focusing on those last two drives are ignoring the fact that UM didn’t give up a drive over 25 yards until that point and held the Rebels to negative rushing in the 3rd quarter. For the game they had 9 TFLs, 2 INTs, and outside of late in the game, virtually no “busts” or bad plays. Yes, that first drive with that crazy 3rd-down run after the hard Godin tackle showed a lack of awareness, but it’s the type of play that happens periodically and you just kinda do one of these and move on.
The cornerbacks weren’t challenged much but largely responded as expected. I thought Stribling looked better than in previous games, and Clark played like a tall guy with decent athleticism. I’m sure that side will be picked on this year, but outside of BYU, MSU, and OSU I’m not sure who else has legitimate threats to really make them suffer.
The LBs played well, and I’m very excited that Ross seems to be fighting his way onto the field. This game was a good showcase for Bolden, as UNLV wasn’t able to really tax his problem areas (misdirection, coverage) and instead allowed him to flow to the ball decisively. I’m not great at reading defensive assignments so take all this praise with a massive grain of salt, but it looked like a defense that severely outclassed its competition and made sure of it early and often.
BYU will be a much tougher test, though UM has the athletes to minimize the age/height advantages typically enjoyed Kurtz, Houk, and Mathews. My guess is that the the run defense will hold up decently enough but that the secondary will break a bit, though Mangum does seem to be a bit careless with the ball and, on the road against UM’s solid pass rush, could lead to short fields for the Wolverines.
Best(?): So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance?
I’ll get into this in greater detail after next week’s game, but right now I’m trending upwards in my expectations for the conference slate. Rutgers is a tire fire, PSU is a slightly less smoldering tire fire, Minnesota doesn’t have anything approaching a consistent offense, and IU and Maryland seem like teams that can kinda do stuff right but a stiff breeze can send that card house tumbling. I know NW is 3-0 and beat the Stanford team that beat USC, but I didn’t go to those schools so my understanding of the transitive property is weak. All I know is that it’s a team that hasn’t scored more than 19 points against an FBS team and has gotten at least 2 TOs in every game they’ve played. I’m not calling for a clean sweep or anything of that slate, but 5-1 over those 6 games isn’t particularly unbelievable as we stand in mid September.
So that just leaves the #1 and #2 teams in the country (shudder). OSU had a scare against NIU and hasn’t looked nearly as dominant as most expected thus far. Cardale Jones always struck me as a bit of a flash in the pan, and thus it should come as no surprise that a guy who can barely complete 55% of his passes in an Urban Meyer offense with a 2:3 TD:INT ratio is on the outs, replaced by (sigh) last year’s Heisman trophy candidate J.T. Barrett. Still, OSU seems to be hurting without the deep ball threat of Devin Smith, as Jalin Marshall and Michael Thomas haven’t been able to fill in that void. Even Eliiott seems a bit limited, as defenses have clearly triggered in on him with Jones scuttling. My guess is that Barrett will help somewhat, but it does feel like OSU will rely on that defense more than you’d expect this year. They’re probably still the #1 team in the country, but that run they had to the championship is feeling more and more like a crest than a sustained level.
As for MSU, they are very good at winning football games without seeming all that great at doing so thus far in 2015. That Oregon win is going to look better because the Ducks belatedly decided to not play a QB with a broken finger in other games, but it was still a solid win. The rest of their schedule outside of dates at UM and OSU look really easy, almost comically so. They do seem to be suffering real sustained injuries for the first time in years (Davis is out, Kieler is nursing a leg injury, they just lost a corner) and the running game remains a sore spot as nobody has really established himself. And that defense remains extremely vulnerable to passing teams with speed, which means OSU and maybe Nebraska can give them a bit of trouble.
So yeah, I just spent two paragraphs talking up OSU and MSU, but here’s the thing: I kinda think UM is gonna split those games this year. MSU is going to be hugely up for this game, but for the first time since Carr was at UM I don’t think the coaches legitimately care if they piss of Dantonio and his toad heart. And at some point, that over-sensitivity blows up in your face. Also, I don’t see MSU being able to run the ball successfully against UM’s front 7, meaning Cook is going to be under pressure to carry the offense in a way that he has only intermittently been able to do. And OSU will be coming off a game against MSU that could well be for their season, so a focused UM could absolutely shock the Buckeyes if the QB position remains in flux. It’s still some ways out, but I think UM wins against the Buckeyes and keeps it annoyingly close against MSU before Mark Dantonio sacrifices a freshman on the sideline so that Jake Rudock’s arm pops off as he throws a ball late. And yeah, I know I’m talking like a homer and UM could come crashing back to earth against BYU next week. But both of these squads aren’t as good as prior editions, and I refuse to believe that the gremlins that have been wreaking havoc in football thus far won’t turn their attentions toward the B1G leaders.
Next Week: Book on Mormons
The magic has dissipated a bit after losing to UCLA, and I expect UM to further rain on BYU’s parade at home. Mangum will make some nice throws and it’ll be higher scoring than the last couple of games, but UCLA ran for 200+ yards against the Cougars and I don’t see how UM can’t duplicate that performance. This BYU team could just as easily be 0-3 as 3-0/2-1, and with a couple more potential injuries after their last game it feels like the season might get away from them on the road. Also, UM is making demonstrable steps every game (except at QB), and this feels like a good continuation of a nice run.
I haven’t been this happy to write a recap since, I don’t know, UTL II? Yeah, let’s go with that.
Best: Reasonably Excited!
I know, this was the JV game of the Battle for Mid-Sized States with Coastlines or whatever ESPN tried to turn this particularly random scheduling quirk into, and I know that the upper-echelon of the conference as it were (OSU, then some distance away MSU, then some farther distance away I guess Minnesota and Wisconsin) is still between outrageously and significantly better than the Wolverines, and I know that Oregon State doesn’t have a QB on the roster who played a down of college football before the season started, and I know that it’s one of the youngest teams in the country and not particularly talented youth to boot, and I know that whatever gypsy or witch Al Borges insulted back in the 90’s who subsequently cursed all of his QBs hasn’t broken her spell despite him leaving UM 2 years ago, and I know that we’ve seen the running game look this good against undersized defensive lines only to be exploited (like it was last week) against defenses who can push back, and I know that the pass rush is still really inconsistent (witness only 2 sacks, one by Morgan), and I know that the linebackers remain adventures against small guys, big guys, really any guys in space or in coverage, I know that the corners not named Lewis still have major question marks that probably won’t be answered/exposed until BYU, and I know that the offense still took about a half to get anything resembling coherency and that isn’t going to work against more competent offenses, and finally, I know that beating a pretty bad Pac-12 team isn’t going to be substantially change the outlook for the season for any reasonable fan…
I’ll take it. I’ll take it because this was the type of win you always wanted to see out of those old Hoke outfits, not the nail-bitters against UConn(!) and Akron(!!) where the offense looked like it was shot with the Devolution Gun. I’ll take it because it felt like the team embodied its offensive and defensive philosophies, not just pay them lip-service while flailing around for anything that works. I’ll take it because after that first drive, Michigan’s defense stiffened and held OSU to 84 total yards of offense, including 2 drives that went backwards (I don’t count the Tacopants punt and the kneel down to end the first half; it’s 4 if you count those). I’ll take it because Michigan had three more 10+ drives that ended in scores, and probably would have had more such drives in the second half if the field didn’t shift steeply toward the OSU side of the field and UM had great field position. I’ll take it because while Rudock threw another pick, it (a) late in a blowout, (b) a defensible throw in that he was trying to hit Butt and threw it a bit too inside after Butt seemed to settle into his spot a bit early, (c) featured a good play by the LB to jump in front of the pass, and (d) came after a 13/16 stretch in which Rudock looked much more comfortable throwing the ball. I’ll take it because Smith, Green, and Isaac, and the offensive line just ground down a P5 defense for 224 yards with a long of 19. I’ll take it because the A. J. Williams caught a long pass for the first time in what seems like forever, Ian Bunting had some nice catches, Darboh continued his ascension to #1 WR, and 9 guys caught passes for the second time this year, which happened twice all of last year and never as fluidly. I’ll take it because Chris Wormley has been a revelation on the defensive line, recording another 3 TFLs and giving the line the type of dual-prong rushers you need to generate an organic/disruptive pass rush as well as contain the running game. I’ll take it because, even with Jourdan Lewis out for the second half due to a potential concussion, the pass defense steadied itself after a rough first quarter and gave up a total of 30(!) yards the rest of the game. I’ll take it because the special teams turned the game around to end the 2nd half (though obviously the OSU long snapper did most of the work) despite getting screwed earlier in the drive by a wonky, at best, roughing the kicker penalty on the OSU punter. I’ll take it because searching for “Jim Harbaugh freak out” is WAY more fun than “Brady Hoke freak out” (which features Brady Hoke half-hugging Brian Kelly and a half-dozen pictures of him looking like he’s in various stages of passing a massive bowl movement). I’ll take it because UM won comfortably despite the referees doing their best to muck up the game (they apparently thought they were in East Lansing and the other Oregon team was playing). And, finally, I’ll take it because UM looked better than they did last week, better as the game progressed, and at the end looked like a team that bulldozed over a mediocre Pac-12 team like a Jim F*ing Harbaugh team SHOULD from now until forever!
Best: Like Novacaine
I know I use this video all the time, but it perfectly encapsulates how good offenses should work. I know you read and hear all the time about dynamic offenses that roll with a million different formations and playcalls; I've been a proponent of those types of offenses as the natural evolution of collegiate offenses and a system I'd kinda hope UM had been able to make work with previous coaches. But I’ll admit that a lot of those complaints are about window-dressing or presentation; a good offense, at its core, looks like every other “type” of good offense, whether it be spread, Air Raid, triple-option, run-and-shoot, MANBALL, etc. It’s about executing the plays you are best equipped to run with consistency and reasonable effectiveness.
And while you definitely should adapt as the game dictates, it also means running your offense sometimes in spite of individual results if you are confident that the final outcome will be a net positive. That’s what Hoke’s offenses struggled from as the years went on; he’d run plays X until the defense wised up, then switch to plays Y, but always seemed concerned about going to back to plays X if it made sense to, even if Y seemed to be working. It’s why we saw tackle over for most of the game against Minnesota instead of trotting it out periodically and using it as an occasional constraint for his “base” offense.
At some point in the 1st half, UM had 17 yards rushing. The line couldn’t sustain a push, the RBs weren’t getting much yardage beyond the line, and even little screen passes were being blown up for minimal gain because Mason Cole, for example, basically got flipped over by an OSU linebacker. But to his credit and as proof that Harbaugh is a masterful offensive technician…he didn’t really change anything. He just kept pushing forward with Smith, asked Rudock to make safe-ish throws, and trusted that an undersized OSU defensive line would start giving up ever-bigger holes for Smith to rumble through. And, ultimately, it did. A defense that had completely nullified the OSU offense helped, but the offensive performance felt organic and persistent in a way that hasn’t existed for years in A2; save for when Drake Johnson was the lead back at the end of last year, a Michigan rushing attack hasn’t looked close to this natural since 2011. And looking at the bulk of the upcoming schedule and assuming a natural improvement as the players become more comfortable with the new offensive playcalling, I don’t see too many teams that will be able to completely disrupt the general offensive flow. I know “most teams won’t be able to stop UM from running forward with the ball” is pretty faint praise, but I’ll take it after 2 games of another coaching regime.
Worst: You’ll Probably Still Want Someone to Drive You Home
Not to be a downer because I thought the running game executed really well against OSU, but this remains an offensive line with major question marks both at positions you expect (Braden) and not (Cole has been less-than-stellar thus far, at least in run blocking). Oregon State has both a young and not particularly defense, and still it took Michigan nearly a half of football to establish consistent running lanes. And even when they did execute, at times it felt more a by-product of an overmatched Beaver defense than fantastic play by the offensive line. In particular, I remember one of the longer Smith runs in the 4th quarter featuring Braden pulling across and into the second level. Instead of crushing the LB/safety waiting for him, he kinda just, I don’t know, fell on the defender and that allowed Smith to break outside a bit, but also slowed him a down enough to let other defenders tackle him.
I know that Braden is very tall and leverage becomes a major issue when trying to block guys half a foot or more shorter than you, but I saw a number of instances where the offensive linemen did “enough” right things for a positive, and that simply isn’t going to work against better defenses. I fully expect them to improve, and the improvements even since Utah, opponent quality acknowledged, were encouraging. I did think Braden handled the pass rush better, and Smith and co. ran through gaping holes not only because they saw them but also because they were sustained and, in some instances, carved out of the defensive line exactly how the play call asked for it. But I still see it being tough sledding against teams like Minnesota, MSU, OSU, and, maybe, PSU on the ground. I don’t expect there to be another 27-for-27 or what happened a couple years ago against MSU, but this remains a semi-fragile running game that isn’t going to necessarily carve up defenses the way it looks like they will the remainder of the OOC season.
Best: Getting Closer
As ST3 noted in his always-good Inside the Boxscore, Jake Rudock doesn’t need to be a world-beater for Michigan to win. Jake Rudock doesn’t have even be a gunslinger or a “playmaker” in the Denard/Gardner-before-broken-soul mold. Jake Rudock just has to be Iowa Jake Rudock, or more definitely:
My definition of efficient is 7+ YPA, 60+% completion percentage, and no more than 1 turnover per game. He was at 6.9 YPA and 69%, but he turned the ball over twice (1 INT, 1 fumble.) We're getting there.
We are getting there. I’m more bothered by the fumble than the INT, because as I noted above the INT was late in a blowout and just felt like ongoing growing pains for the offense. But the fumble was because a LB came in unblocked on a delayed blitz and, for whatever reason, Rudock either didn’t see him, failed to throw to the hot route, or just throw it at someone’s feet. He’s a 5th-year senior, and he played for Iowa last year behind a suspect offensive line; getting rid of the ball before you get hammered by an unblocked defender shouldn’t be “new” to him the way it seems to be whenever, say, Connor Cook feels the faint breeze of a defensive end’s outstretched fingers grasp within 2 feet of his face.
Anyway…beyond the fumble I thought Rudock looked pretty good once the running game established itself and drew in the safeties a bit. Unlike last week’s game when it seemed like every downfield threat was double-covered, this week you could see Oregon State start to cheat up a bit, and that opened up throws to guys like Darboh and Bunting with room for yards after the catch. That’s what a good running game does for a QB; it opens up the field and forces defenses to guess more than they like, which almost always favors skill players on offense. The deep passing game remains a bit of an enigma, but if Rudock can be deadly accurate within 15 yards and those little bubble and WR screens stick and remain effective, that might be enough against most of the defenses they’ll see this season.
Best: I’ll Happily Admit Defeat
At the beginning of the year, I was down on Amara Darboh as a #1 receiver, likening him to a #2/#3 who plays as a #1 by default. While I’m sure he’ll have trouble against some of the better corners in the conference, I am pleasantly surprised how good he’s been thus far. He isn’t a burner, but he’s quicker than I remember from last year, and his upper body strength coupled with that speed has really helped him maximize the WR screens and crossing routes that have been big gains for the passing attack. I also suspect he’ll be a solid downfield blocker if/when the running game starts breaking off those longer runs you kind of expect will start happening any game now.
As for the rest of the receiving core, just remember that both A. J. Williams and De’Veon Smith had 20+ yard receptions a week after both dropped critical passes. If Harbaugh and co. aren’t careful, I’m going to stop clutching those pearls around my neck on every 3rd down, and I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.
Best: The Line Was Drawn Here; They Went No Farther
With the exception of that first drive (and let’s just assume I say that before everything else going forward in this diary), the defensive line played a great game. Chris Wormley is a revelation at defensive tackle/end, and really has given this defense an identity along with Glasgow and Henry on the front line. It still lacks an elite pass rusher, but except for what I assume are the elite running games (OSU, maybe MSU and Minnesota), I don’t see this line giving up much on the ground consistently and, more promisingly, giving more teams trouble in the passing games than in years past.
I remain…surprised that Lawrence Marshall hasn’t gotten really any meaningful playing time after the preseason hype, and (sadly) it’s not because Ojemudia or RJS is performing above expectations on the weak side. BYU will be a test because even if Mangum lacks Hill’s explosive running ability and seems to be balancing on that razor’s edge between competent and self-sabotaging at times, he can absolutely throw the ball if given time. My hope is that someone emerges to provide even token pressure from the position by then.
Worst: Still Not Sure About the Second Corner
This is a light Worst because, again, under 100 yards over the last three quarters, with virtually nothing in the air. Yes, OSU was starting a caravan of people who hadn’t thrown a down of college ball, but that’s still an accomplishment. I thought the TD on Lewis was just a really well-thrown ball that Jarmon was able to haul in after getting a step; it happens. That it was at the end of a bad drive probably made it sting a bit more than normal, but other than that Lewis looked great until he was knocked out with the concussion. I assume he’ll be back next week, but they might just keep him out as a precaution, as I doubt UNLV will test UM much especially if their QB Decker is out.
As for the man opposite Lewis at corner, that remains a mixed bag. After Villamin burned Stribling for a couple of early receptions, Clark came in and, I guess, did a bit better on a failed 4th down conversion. Peppers also got a bit of a run in there as well, but the 2nd corner spot remains in flux. It might behoove the defense to keep Lewis out/use him sparingly and let the other guys get some game experience and see if anyone can really stand out, as right now any offense with more than one semi-competent WR is just going to attack that second spot mercilessly. Luckily this is the B1G so half your schedule has, at best, one competent receiver, but you’d still hope someone, anyone, would have locked down that spot in the event that it becomes an issue.
Meh: The Men in the Middle
I’ll admit I never can get a good read on LB play during a game. Some games I think everyone is going great and then you look back and you see a bunch of missed tackles. Other times it seems like every tackle is happening 3 yards after the line and they grade out as above-average because the defensive tackles aren’t holding up well. And coverages are especially hard based on the camera angle, as sometimes the zones put LBs in no-man’s land where conceding 5-6 yards is how you want the play to end.
As usual, Desmond Morgan hit people and they stopped. He also did a pretty good job flowing to the ball on those jet sweeps and QB runs that OSU relied on to move the ball. Bolden got better as the game went on, and he showed a nifty set of hands picking up that fumble from Bolden. He still seemed slow to react on some plays, especially early on when OSU was finding success testing the edges, but again, he helped hold a P5 team under 150 total yards of offense. Ross and Gedeon also got some time and played well enough. I remain a bit scared about the linebackers going against BYU and that ilk, but it’s not like Maryland, UNLV, or NW are loaded offensively. Like the rest of the defense, the LBs are growing into the schemes and showing incremental improvements, so let’s assume they keep that up.
Best: That’s Why You Give Long Snappers Scholarships!
I know some people joked about Scott Sypniewski getting a scholarship as primarily a long snapper, but after watching the OSU snapper rocket two increasingly-terrible throws back to his punter, the first leading to an illogical “roughing the kicker” penalty to extend a drive, and the latter a Tacopants special that led to a late UM score on the same drive, there is value in making sure the guy setting up your punter is good at, you know, doing that with a football.
I’m assuming everyone saw that sequence toward the end of the half, but for those who didn’t here’s a brief recap. OSU was forced to punt on 4th down, and on the punt the snap was high and to the right a bit, causing the OSU punter to bobble the ball before running pretty far to one sideline and getting the ball off. He was then bumped into by Clark, leading to (a) the refs calling a “roughing the kicker” penalty that netted OSU a first down, and (b) Jim Harbaugh absolutely losing his mind on the sideline.*
So the drive continued and OSU had to punt again because they basically used up all their bag of tricks on that first drive and were running into various walls offensively after that. On the next punt, UM made sure to not even fart in the general direction of the punter, and he was able to pin UM deep in their own territory with about 1:30 left in the half. But that punt was called back after an illegal formation penalty on OSU, so on the subsequent play the OSU long snapper sailed a ball a good 10 feet over the punter and 30-ish yards deep, resulting in UM getting the ball back at the OSU 3 yard line. It was a 90+ yard swing, and let UM go into the half up 10 and really helped salt the game away.
* As a brief aside, it was nice to see a coach ride the officials a bit. Hoke never did that, and while I don’t believe that referees consciously do “make-up” calls, I do believe that they are human and hate being yelled at by a crazed man in a baseball cap. Over time, they will subconsciously want to stop that crazy man from yelling at them and, as a result, make calls that appease said crazy man. It won’t work all the time, but it never hurts.
Worst: These Refs, Though
I’ll keep this brief – OSU had nearly as many first downs due to penalty (3) as they had rushing (4) or passing(5). Their only first down in the second half came on a facemask penalty against UM, and UM recorded nearly as many penalty yards (105) as OSU recorded total yards (138). Beyond the punter penalty I spoke of above (I always thought a punter was “live” outside of the tackle box), the refs also missed a number of obvious PIs on OSU (including one in the endzone on Darboh that would have been a TD) while also calling a dubious PI on Peppers in the first half. I get that UM was sloppy at times, but how UM went from 3 penalties on the road to 10 penalties at home against a team they were killing for most of the game was just infuriating.
Best, I Guess: Snack on Danger, Dine on Death!
So yeah, I missed a wrestling reference last week, but I couldn’t help myself after the past couple of weeks. Against Utah last week, Booker tried to hurdle a UM defender and was instead depositing on his head and shoulders by Joe Bolden. Last year, Utah’s Travis Wilson tried something similar, and, well…
So in this game, Seth Collins tried to, I don’t know, fly over the UM defense. It didn’t work and he wound up being crunched mid-air by either Bolden and/or Desmond. It was nasty, dangerous, and continuing this weird tradition where opponents set themselves up for variations of the Doomsday Device popularized by the Legion of Doom
I’ll give you a brief synopsis of the Legion of Doom. They started off as the Road Warriors (Animal and Hawk) in the old territory days of professional wrestling, these hulking bodybuilders who worked super-stiff (i.e. in the world of fake fighting, it’s when guys don’t really hold back on their punches/kicks/slams etc.), were underrated athletes (in particular Hawk, who moved amazingly well for a big guy) and had a great look. Over the years they evolved into, well, Mad Max-style brutes with shoulder spikes, snarling, barely-coherent promos, and a reputation for just demolishing guys. They were known as the Legion of Doom in the WWF/E, and became some of the biggest draws of that era. Oh, also, if you were ever in an arcade in the early 90’s and walked by the Wrestlefest cabinet you heard their catch phrases. They were dumb, cheesy, and 100% in your wheelhouse if you were a young kid who loved professional wrestling.
Over the years their gimmick got a bit stale, drugs and alcohol problems took over, and they kind of fell apart. Hawk passed away at the age of 46 from a sudden heart attack, the guy the WWE tried to semi-replace Hawk with before his death (Droz) wound up breaking his neck in a freak in-ring incident a couple years later, and Animal still kicks around on the indy circuit and will pop up on Raw every once and a while. Everything in this paragraph can be said for about 80% of the wrestlers from the 80s and 90s, I know. Oh, also, Joe Laurinaitis (Animal) is the father of famed Ohio State LB James Laurinaitis.
This should also not surprise you at all.
Anyway, my point is that wrestling is fake, yet college football players still seem to think throwing themselves in the air is going to end well with 225+ lb men trying to knock them out of said air. The LOD wrecked guys for years so that you can watch them on youtube; you don’t need to try to recreate modern-day beheadings for a couple more yards.
Best: Runnin’ Rebels
I predict UM scores many points, accumulates many yards, and my entire diary is full of animated gifs of professional wrestling and raccoons on little bicycles.
So Brian beat me to the punch when it came to the theme of this Thursday’s game, so I should either be happy that multiple people I respect had a similar view of UM’s performance, or bothered that another human being is inside my head. But still I’ll soldier on, with the understanding that this will be a bit shorter than normal due to the holiday weekend, the timing of the game, and my lack of scorching hot takes.
Best: Rebirth of an Optimist…
So for those loyal readers who stuck around reading these columns last year, you’ll know the Utah game was when I turned on the season and, by extension, the team. For those of you who Spotless Mind-ed the 2014 season, here’s how I started last year’s B&W for Utah:
Worst: Death of an Optimist
People who have followed this diary know I'm a pretty optimistic guy.
But I'm done. I'm done with this season, with this coaching staff, with this whole f'ing show.
The Utah game was the beginning of a 3-game losing streak that basically sunk the Brady Hoke era (Minnesota was next, then Rutgers felt like the final nail), and had come on the heels of the 31-0 loss to Notre Dame two weeks earlier. And sadly, it wasn’t just the losing that made that game some demoralizing; if you’d been a fan of UM for the past decade “bad losses” weren’t new.
No, what broke my spirit then was how predictable that performance was, how we’d seen it for years now, and for every 2006 or 2011 blip there were a half-dozen seasons where UM sharted its way further behind the rest of college football, and how the powers that be at UM didn’t seem to care or act particularly bothered by their failed stewardship. Here, I’ll let pissed-off 2014 BronxBlue say it again, this time with feelings:
And it wasn't just that the f'ing winningest team in f'ing college football history, with a 5th-year QB and a 1st-round WR and oodles of talent up and down the roster (young as it may be), couldn't score more than 3 points against f'ing Utah. No, what killed my optimism about this team and this staff, about this program as it is currently stumbling through another shitty year, is how absolutely true-to-form it is to the dreams of the men in charge.
And when the fanbase seemingly had had enough of being run off their own field by a bunch of fowl, and the administration took a shot on a guy who helped bring about the current age of the sport and won everywhere he coached, a bunch of faux sentinels of the "good days" cut off his legs at every chance and sat back as a combination of self-inflicted wounds and the rotten core of a dying program ending his run. RR's failure as a head coach at Michigan is one thing; you can be a good coach and not be a good fit at certain places. But Brandon and his cohort didn't view Rodriguez's ousting at UM simply as a bad fit, but instead as "proof" that this new-fangled version of college football, where smart guys try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the game and implement offensive and defensive systems to do so, is just a fad and the good old days of swinging your member around on the sidelines and expecting the opposition to be scared off are back.
That may well have been as disenchanted, as angry as I’ve been watching a sports team in my lifetime. When the Tigers were losing an A.L.-record 119, I understood how a team heavily reliant on Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman, Dmitri Young, and a broken Bobby Higginson could be terrible. When the Lions lost all 16 games in 2008, they still had Calvin Johnson and were close in enough in a bunch of games that it was almost fun to root for the statistical anomaly of flipping tails 16 times in a row even when coin felt a little weighted to heads every other week. And even when UM had some terrible basketball teams under Brian Ellerbe, and MSU was lobbing half-court alley-oops up 60, it wasn’t necessarily shocking given the talent on the court and the sanctions you kinda knew were on the way.
But with Michigan under Brady Hoke, you just saw this degradation in quality and performance that flew in the face of the talent and resources available.* UM wasn’t suffering massive attrition and recruiting restrictions like PSU, it wasn’t shocked by the departure of a former institution-like figure in Tressel at OSU, nor was it coming off a particularly terrible stretch, with RR’s final team having made a bowl game and Hoke’s first team winning 11 games. And the man could seemingly recruit and still had decently-stocked shelves, especially on offense, thanks to RR’s offensive focus. But from 11 wins to 9 to 7 to 5, the team looked worse every year and the leadership ever more inept, and it just felt like everybody important was either asleep at the wheel or didn’t give a shit as long as the seat licenses kept flowing in.
It wasn’t that the program was underperforming; that had been going on for some time, and I guess I was numb to it. But until that game, I always felt like the coaches and administration were actively trying to address the issues they saw and field the best team possible. I’m working through Bacon’s Endzone, and while I find parts of it gratingly congratulatory of UM’s (and in parts, the AD’s role in said) history, awash in the worst types of homerism, and littered with ground-down axes that would be Paul Bunyan proud **, it WAS illustrative of how past administrations would look at the looming issues surrounding the team or the school and work to address them immediately, stubbed toes and hurt feelings be damned. Last year’s Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota games would never have been allowed to happen because the warning signs had been seen in years past, and a competent administration would have addressed them months before.
But under Brandon and Hoke, you saw two men who rather lose doing it their way than try to introduce meaningful improvements, all the while demanding blind loyalty from the fanbase because the team still genuflected at the altar of past leaders, slapped a banner, and wore the right laundry. From the minute Hackett took over you knew that level of nonfeasance would not be tolerated, punctuated by Jim Harbaugh joining up. And as a fan, that’s all that was necessary to rekindle my optimism that UM would be a winning program again, one that would be in the upper-echelon of college football teams. Because with few exceptions, UM football has all the tools, all the advantages you need to be elite.
I’ll always be a fan of UM sports; no crappy head coach or myopic athletic director would change that. But as soon as UM ran onto that field in Utah, led by Jim Harbaugh and backed by an administration that expects and demands competency, that sense of dread and disgust faded away, replaced with the sense that while it might not always be a pretty trek, UM was back on the path to its rightful place in college football.
* It’s kind of like watching Stanford under David Shaw, a team that had some sustained success but has looked worse and worse as the remnants of Harbaugh’s tenure fade away. I know Stanford has resource that pale in comparison to those at UM, but their has absolutely been a demonstrable drop in talent and performance there.
** Man, that does read like I hated the book, which isn’t the case. I actually have enjoyed it overall and find most of Bacon’s novels to be equally fun reads. But there is clearly an agenda at work in parts of the novel, and it feels Notre Dame-level pretentiousness to claim the hiring of Harbaugh has ushered in the “return” of UM before the man has coached a down of football.
Worst: … Who Is Still Skeptical
To reiterate, I am still very much on-board with my new Harbaugh overlord. The man is a fantastic coach, great recruiter, and overall the type of guy I want leading UM’s football team. And unlike in the pros, where guys making millions of dollars don’t necessarily want a 51-year-old yelling at them, his demanding style works pretty well in college, where guys cycle through quickly and college athletes benefit a good deal from a strong authority figure.
And I also understand that getting UM “back” will take some time; I said 7-5 at the start of the season, and while BYU now looks a bit less daunting without Hill out and PSU looks kinda terrible on offense, I still see them with a ceiling of 8 wins barring significant in-season improvements at LB, the other corner spot, and running back/run blocking.
But my biggest concern (from an on-field perspective) when the idea of Harbaugh was first raised had to do with the likely “ceiling” for a Michigan team given how he’d coached at Stanford and his overall offensive and defensive philosophies. And not so much the system, which on its face is just as effective as any other: creating confusion and mismatches with multiple TEs and motion fueled by grinding backs and a semi-mobile QB works fine for me.
But there so many moving parts that have to be “right” for it to run optimally. I know people talk about the spread offense as a sports car, but to me the RR/Urban Meyer-style offense is like a souped-up Toyota Corolla. It works because of its simplicity, its reliance on replacement-level parts at most positions. It obviously runs best with premium talent at the skill positions, but I can’t imagine a world in which you could take Alex Malzone and drop him into Harbaugh’s offense and beat Indiana comfortably, let alone what OSU did against Wiscy, Alabama, and Oregon.
There are two key elements about spread-style offenses that I like, and they are intertwined; one, it lets you get away with sub-optimal talent at certain positions because the goal is all about exploiting a couple of mismatches; you’re 3rd/4th corner against my slot receiver, your defensive ends in space against my faster QB, etc. And the second, related benefit is that it gives you a larger margin of error when it comes to recruiting, of still being effective with “lesser” athletes because their weaknesses are covered up by the greater system. It broadens the available pool of “viable” players for your system, and so you don’t have to hit as often on the great player(s) in order to maintain a consistent level of success.
By comparison, Harbaugh’s offense is great when you have all the pieces but seems to stumble without them; this game was illustrative as a taste test of sorts; what happens when you secretly try to run an offense with Faygo-level players. It isn’t terrible by any means, but you can tell something is missing. And that’s what scares me, because it requires UM to basically recruit a stable of road-grating offensive linemen, stout-but-quick RBs who can catch out of the backfield, athletic TEs who can serve as viable downfield threats as well as strong blockers, and a QB who can have solid downfield accuracy while also being somewhat of a threat to run the ball. I know this is a bit generalized and most teams try to nab these types of players, but it just feels like a team has fewer options at certain spots that they must hit on pretty consistently; that the 25th-best “pro-style” QB is probably a bigger step down than, say, the 25th-best “spread” QB.
People often complained loudly that RR failed to recruit elite players to UM, and while I’d argue that characterization is a bit misleading, there is some veracity if you look at just the recruiting rankings. But the counter is that UM had some of the best offenses in its modern history under RR, and that as soon as UM started to recruit ”better” skill players but changed the system they’d occupy, the performance dropped rather precariously. I have full faith that an elite offense under Harbaugh will be spectacular; what troubles me, though, is that this success is going to hinge too much on the players brought in and not necessarily on the structure of the offense. As a fan, I want UM’s success to have the fewest constraints placed on it, and “the best version of Stanford” on offense feels like a bit of a letdown.
Worst: Rudock-ulous Bad Luck
I won’t belabor the point, as everyone reading this knows it wasn’t a great debut for Jake Rudock; throwing 60% of your INT total from the year before in one game isn’t usually a good thing. Still, his overall numbers weren’t terrible (6.5 YPA, 2 TDs, 63% completion percentage), and he wasn’t helped much by the running game (2.8 ypc from Smith with a long of 7) or his blockers. The one hit I remember most vividly was in the third quarter when Ty Isaac inexplicably tried to double the Utah DE and let one of the LBs get a free shot on Rudock, who hung in until the last second before missing on a ball to Butt. And while it didn’t give up an sacks, the offensive line didn’t seem great at picking up late blitzers, allowing him to be pelted a couple of times each quarter that seemed to contribute to the overthrown balls we saw. The first Rudock INT seemed like a bad route by Perry, and the third INT was a combination of a mediocre throw, a mediocre route, and a pretty athletic play by the Utah corner. The second INT was completely on Rudock, but those throws can open at altitude in the first game of the year.
As for the overthrows, that felt like a guy still getting accustomed to his playmakers trying to make the perfect throw in a strange environment; while not Denver, SLC is 3/4 of a mile above sea level, and with a wind the ball probably moved differently than Rudock was used to. I don’t expect that to continue. Nor do I expect he’ll continue to have trouble connecting with Perry (who clearly has earned Rudock’s trust as a “pressure release” option) or look to AJ Williams as a receiver downfield. I’m not sure if it was the playcalling or Rudock simply looking for the open man, but with all due respect Williams really shouldn’t be viewed as a viable receiving option on plays unless under extreme duress.
Overall, I thought it was the worst possible performance you could reasonably expect from Rudock, and I assume he’ll be much better back in Ann Arbor. He’s not a world-beater, but he directed the team competently and the offense seems more willing to let him challenge defenses deep with guys like Chesson and Darboh, to say nothing of the dynamics he has with Jake Butt.
Worst: Calling for a QB Change
I’ll keep this brief – there is no reason in the world to insert Shane Morris into the lineup as a replacement for Rudock after one game. Morris had weeks to beat our Rudock and he couldn’t; by all accounts, Rudock won the competition running away. To make a switch after a game would be needlessly reactionary and stymie the positive signs we did see offensively. So while I continue to believe Morris could be a starting QB at UM in the future, there is no reason to believe he would have had a better performance against Utah if he had replaced Rudock at halftime, as some fans seemed to be calling for. In particular, it was funny to see people argue that Morris wouldn’t have overthrown receivers like Rudock, which flies in the face of all evidence we have about Morris and his moderately-accurate Howitzer.
Best: Moving Forward OR
Worst: Except When it Counted
Utah recorded 3 TFLs in this game, amounting to 3 yards, and 0 sacks. Last year, Utah recorded 8 TFLs for 31 yards, including 4 sacks, and 1 forced fumble. The biggest bugaboo the last couple of years for UM’s offense has been the negative play, and against a decent Utah defense UM found a way to keep moving the ball forward, even if only incrementally, and that allowed them to sustain multiple 9+ play drives while staying out of too many 3rd-and-long situations. Based on raw numbers the offense didn’t look appreciably better than last year’s game against these same Utes, but given the fact this was the first game of the year, on the road, with a new head coach and new-ish offensive philosophy, I was pretty happy with the team’s ability to stay above the muck and self-inflicted wounds that plagued the offense under Hoke/Borges.
That said, the offensive line and backs struggled immensely to get anything going beyond the line of scrimmage. Smith made a couple of bad reads, but overall it felt like he was more often than not fighting against a wave of Utah players within 2 yards of the ball, and none of the backs seemed able to get anything going inside or outside even when it looked like the blocking was solid. It didn’t help that none of them seemed to be running particularly, um, fast, but that horse has beaten to death so many times with this group that it is just a reality one must deal with.
I’ll again chalk some of this up to first-game jitters and bugs being worked out, but it was disheartening to see one of the most experienced lines in the conference get manhandled at times by a Utah team without some of their studs from a year ago, and the bulk of available backs fail to register a run longer than 7 yards.
Best: Don’t Google Buttman
Yeah, just don’t. It might seem like a funny idea, and it’s not like you’re going to be *shocked* by what you find, but just…don’t.
Anyway, Jake Butt had himself a game. Tied for the team lead in catches with 8, caught a number of 3rd-down conversions, and had one amazing TD grab.
And unlike in the past with Devin Funchess, for example, this performance felt like one you can expect from a TE in this offense. Butt will never be a fantastic blocker, but he can get some push when necessary before slipping out on passing downs and isn’t a liability in the running game. I know it felt like hyperbole when Harbaugh said Butt was as fine a prospect at the TE position as he had coached, but after this game it sure doesn’t seem wrong to expect a great season.
As for the rest of the receiving core, it was a mixed bag. I thought Darboh had a great game despite the one unfortunate drop on the failed 3rd-down conversion. He proved capable of getting some separation from corners, flashed unexpected speed and agility after the catch, and generally looked like a guy who could be a leading receiver for a competent offense, something I wouldn’t have said coming into the season. Small sample sizes and all, but I suspect Darboh will continue to have a solid OOC run at the very least. Chesson, on the other hand, showed his speed but failed to do much with it, though he wasn’t helped by Rudock’s overthrows. He should be better going forward, but it still feels very one-dimensional with him and I’m not sure that will change much this year. Perry had some obvious route-running issues, but as a true freshman in his first game he was making blocks on screens and short passes that seniors tend to blow. It sure looks like Rudock trusts him, and that’s half the battle with young WRs. Cole made one catch that was basically a screen the Utes immediately snuffed out, and no other WR really saw the ball much. My guess is we’ll see more against Oregon St. this week, but it sure does feel like Darboh-Butt-Perry will be the significant producers in the WR crop this year.
As long as I’ve been alive, mobile QBs have been the bane of UM’s existence. If the guy under center can both run and throw the ball, UM’s defense consistently struggles in defending against it. Now, put that same athlete one position back (RB) or outside (WR) and UM seems to have better luck corralling him, so it’s not so much an athleticism issue as it is one of scheme.
So it should come as little surprise that while UM largely held Booker in check, Wilson was able to consistently pick up yardage whenever he held onto the ball. And a lot of those struggles fell on the veteran LBs, who again seemed unable to tackle guys in any type of space. Bolden in particular struggled to do so both against the run as well as keep up with receivers in the middle of the field, a weakness that has been well-documented over the years.
Perhaps most jarring what watching Jabrill Peppers struggle to keep up with true freshman Brit Covey, who seemed able to shake Peppers almost at will in that first half. He seemed to settle down in the second half and had some great TFLs by just slipping past would-be blockers, but it may be time for people to temper the “in case of emergency, just unleash Peppers” hype until he shows a consistently ability to stay in coverage. I think we all forget that Peppers hasn’t played much organized football in the past year, and even the best redshirt freshman will have struggles adjusting to the speed and talent on the field. But this team is going to struggle all year with the LBs and Peppers don’t improve their tackling and coverage dramatically.
Best: Controlled Explosions
One of the lasting memories of last year’s game was Jourdan Lewis streaking across the field to catch Bubba Poole before he could score on an extremely ill-defended screen. It was both an amazing (he literally ran across the field and caught Poole, who had a couple yards on him) and demoralizing (it took a corner running across said field to stop a 80+ yard TD that occurred because UM had one defender on that side of the field after the snap) play, one that did not portend a particularly great season by the defense against the “big” play.
Again, it’s only been a week, but this year’s secondary (and really, most of the defense) showed a much better ability at minimizing the long completions and broken plays that doomed them last year. Booker had one nice run after the catch that just skimmed the sideline, but beyond that there wasn’t any real “explosive” play. The cornerback position opposite Lewis remains in flux (on review of the game, it did seem like Stribling and Clark struggled to stay with their men at times), but you rarely saw WRs streak by anyone and, though there were some disturbingly wide-open expanses at times, the defense still forced Utah to march down the field most of the game. And the defense nearly came up with a timely turnover when they forced Wilson to fumble the ball, only to have it bounce to the one Utah player on that side of the field.
I still have no idea if Michigan’s deployment of first-class-sized cushions to each and every receiver not covered by Lewis is a one-time thing or a sad reminder of how tight coverage ain’t coming to A2, but overall I thought the defense did a good job making Utah work for every yard they got.
Best: Kicking the Ball With All the Time In The World
Michigan deployed the spread punting formation and was able to limit Utah to 1 return for 14 yards while averaging 43 yards per kick. If you remember last year, UM gave up 83 (!) yards and 1 TD, losing the field position battle without really pressuring anyone on the Utah special teams. And as far as I can tell, there were always 11 people on the field.
I know it’s a small victory, but as a football fan in 2015 being able to say “my punting team fielded the right number of people and didn’t give up a big return” is the biggest f*ing deal after the last 4 years.
As for FG kicking, Kenny Allen hit the 30-yarder you expected and missed the 44-yarder I figured was going to be tough. Utah’s all-world kicker also missed a couple of longer kicks, so I have to imagine a combination of wind and nerves were in the air. While I don’t think it really altered the outcome of this game, I do think Harbaugh will be more likely to go for short-ish conversions in FG territory as he remembers that college kickers are immensely less reliable than pro kickers, and what feels automatic in the NFL (like that 44-yarder) is far more dicey with younger legs. The announcers (who I thought were much better than the pre-game triad of goobers) noted as much, and you could tell Harbaugh mulling over his decision to not go for it basically as soon as the ball left Allen’s foot. Again, this isn’t going to be a season whose overall success hinges on the foot of a kicker, but I think it’s becoming clearer that this team can’t rely on its kickers to bail them out.
Oregon State comes to Ann Arbor, and I’d be amazed if Michigan didn’t emerge with a win. It’ll be an emotional time for the fans when Harbaugh steps back into the stadium, and you get a sense from the way the players have spoken about the game that they realize they need to perform better and are almost embarrassed they lost on Thursday; I suspect a much better effort on the ground against a suspect Beaver front 7, and Rudock should have a much better game throwing the ball. Anderson should have Oregon State ready to play, but the jump from Weber St. to UM is pretty jarring, and a true freshman QB making his first road start might lead to some of those elusive turnovers I’ve been seeing other defenses cause. It is still a work in progress, but this team feels like one with the parts slowly fitting into place, not the grab-bag of uncertainty it has been the past couple of years.
So here we go again, the 2015 Michigan football season is nearly upon us, and I am trotting out the same column format in the hope that denizens of this blog will want to read 10,000 word recaps of games laced with references to 90’s cartoons, professional wrestling, and random animated gifs.
If you want to read last year’s pre-season column, and boy you should if you want to have one of those cry-laughs that are all the rage, check it out. Spoiler alert – I spend a LOT of time being semi-optimistic about Brady Hoke and actually defend Dave Brandon.
Best(?): New Beginnings
When Michigan takes the field against Utah on September 3rd, Jim Harbaugh will be the third different head coach to lead the charge for the Wolverines in the past 8 seasons. The previous three coaching changes at Michigan spanned a combined 39 largely drama-free seasons.*
But no, really, this time it feels right. With Rich Rodriguez, you had an outsider, an innovative offensive coach trying to change the culture of a program that had always been wary of these “gimmicky offenses” (it was like the town elders describing dancing in Footloose whenever Joe Tiller’s Purdue Boilermakers came to town), his tenure beginning on rocky footing and never recovering after a disastrous first season, as the losses mounted and the media-stoked torches and pitchforks came out. People forget, especially the younger fans, just how strange it was in 2008 to see Michigan be decidedly below-average, even awful. Sure, Michigan had suffered through some bumpy seasons, a 4- or 5-loss season here or there, but it hadn’t posted a losing season since 1967. For perspective, the people alive today who even faintly remember that season are nearing retirement age. But as soon as Carr walked off the field with his Capital One Bowl, I don’t know, commemorative Alec Baldwin coffee mug, whatever lingering braces to the gates holding back football’s Father Time gave way, and Michigan finally suffered through a perhaps long-overdue run of on-the-field disappointment and off-the-field tumultuousness. If you want the gory details, you can delve deep into the archives of this site or pick up a book.
When I say Michigan was “due” a downturn, it doesn’t mean I wanted that to be the case; obviously as a fan, I expect the teams I root for to win every game at all times, rationality be damned. But the signs had been there for some time that UM was falling behind the rest of college football even if the wins were still somewhat-consistent. It wasn’t just App St. and Oregon blitzing them in 2007; OSU had taken 6 of the last 7 meetings between the teams, they had lost 4 straight bowl games, and seemed unwilling to adopt more explosive offensive systems despite having top-notch NFL talent on that side of the ball for the bulk of Carr’s tenure. The defenses never handled mobile QBs particularly well, and as teams moved toward more wide-open, spread-infused offensive systems it never felt like UM learned to compensate.
As a testament to Carr and his recruiting, this reticence didn’t always matter; despite what is said about the utilization of mobile QBs to level out talent discrepancies by forcing defenders to account for all 11 players on the field, you can win a whole lotta games by being way more talented than those other offenses, scheme be damned. That’s why Indiana and Antwaan Randle El, who was a great college QB, never won more than 5 games while he was there and, save for barely-ranked Minnesota and MSU, never collected any prominent scalps. And so, Michigan could afford to stay largely pat as long as the talent keep flowing into Ann Arbor consistently, which is why those last couple of Carr years, with the (comparatively) mediocre classes coming to the head, probably shouldn’t have seemed so strange. They were top-heavy teams with shallow two-deeps that led to Johnny Sears being entrusted as a #1 cornerback for about 1/2 of a game before everyone looked at the scoreboard. Decided talent advantages and consistent coaching netted you 6-9 wins a year, then good fortune and fate decided the rest; it’s why UM seemed to ping-pong between 8 and 11 wins depending on the strength of its upperclassmen. Some years they looked like fringe national contenders; others they couldn’t get out of their own way.
But I digress; RR didn’t work out in large part because his defenses were historically terrible, he suffered through a miserable string of bad luck (TO margin, injuries, media), had some issues recruiting and retaining players, and just never connected with a large component of the UM fanbase. Plus, when Bill Martin was succeeded by noted pizza delivery man Dave Brandon and UM slogged through an uninspiring 3rd season and a shellacking at the hands of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, the writing was on the wall.
I’m REALLY not going to relive the coaching search following RR’s departure, but again, why did we think Dave Brandon was any good at his job? Because he acted like a smug asshole when responding to the Free Press and Stretchgate? By displaying the same temperament as a 12-year-old Vlogger , Vine-Star, Snap-chattress, or whatever Vanity Fair keeps telling me is the new wave in “cross-platform media stars”?
So in came Brady Hoke, a former UM defensive line coach who grew up under Lloyd Carr and represented the sole viable branch of his coaching tree. He had two semi-successful stints at other programs, winning 12 games in his last year at Ball St. and another 9 at San Diego St. two years later. He preached defense and “toughness” above everything else, seemed to embody the derisive term “manball” while still fielding semi-explosive pro-style offenses, and, well, said this at his first press conference.
That sound you heard was a decent number of middle-aged UM fans letting loose a sigh of relief that FINALLY UM had a coach who understood why winning was important and how special a program it was, feelings that were completely different than at any other program in the country. At Michigan you were expected to win with class and dignity, not like UM’s rivals who were, I guess, known to either win while pillaging college towns in the Midwest or losing while flinging their poop at the TV cameras?
I honestly don’t know anymore, but at the time it was super-important that Michigan be run by a “Michigan Man”, a phrase that I’m sure my 21-month-old daughter will start repeating ad nauseam once she realizes repeating the word “f*ck” is pretty played out.
Anyway, feel free to, again, read this blog’s archives or pick up another book if you want the gory details of the Hoke/Brandon era. It started off fantastic, with UM winning 11 games and the Sugar Bowl, besting ND and OSU in exciting contests, and generally looking like a competent program again. And yeah, it felt like a bit of an aberration even while it was happening, with a fantastic turnover margin, unsustainable 4th-down stoppage rate, and a healthy dose of luck sprinkled in.
Brady Hoke, though, recruited like a madman, and even when the wheels started to come off as remnants of RR’s offensive playmakers weren’t replaced and UM burned through offensive coordinators with little progress, it still felt like UM could just talent their way through the potholes of the “bare cupboards” left behind by the previous regime.
But if anything, every successive season under Hoke showed just how far behind Michigan had fallen compared to both its rivals (MSU, OSU, even ND) and college football in general. The team wasn’t showing progress, and that sense of malaise, of indifference by the fans, went from simmering to scalding, driving down attendance and further eroding an already-fragile relationships between those in the stands and the athletic department. It all came to a head against Minnesota, when Shane Morris was out on his feet and a bunch of grown-ass men were either too scared, too dumb, or too weak to protect him. And this is coming from a guy who initially defended Hoke and his handling of the situation. I still believe that Hoke honestly felt that Morris hadn’t suffered a concussion, and there appeared to be significant amount of confusion on the sidelines at the time, but regardless it was yet another example of the terrible leadership you saw under Hoke, wrapped up in lame explanations and an inability to adequately respond to complex issues. Brandon was out shortly thereafter, and Hoke followed after the season, but both of their fates were sealed long before.
So in came Jim Hackett, who has (thus far) turned out to be everything Brandon wasn’t as an AD – thoughtful, humble, proactive, and aware that the fans cared more about UM fielding a competent team they could be proud of than whether or not Beyonce recorded a 30-second video at halftime. He set his eyes on the biggest unicorn in Michigan maize and blue, Jim Harbaugh. The guy who delivered on a promise to beat OSU, who turned Stanford into a top-10 program, took the San Francisco 49ers from middling franchise to the cusp of hoisting the Lombardi trophy, and who was really UM’s last, best hope at unifying the fractured fanbase. And unlike in coaching searches past, Hackett never lost focus, never made an errant comment to the media, or forgot to bring his phone on a boating trip; he just snagged one of the best 10 football coaches in the world to come to his alma mater and win games, a man who tweets about attacking days with enthusiasm previously unknown to mankind and signs his letters “Sincerely yours in football”.
So yeah, UM is entering yet another season with a different man at the helm, but for once it feels like the stars are aligned. And, yeah, it might still not work out the way everyone hopes, but at least this feels like the right beginning with the right coach leading, and after the last decade of UM football, it feels like a damn miracle.
Worst: Wasting Time
I was skimming the old depth chart and realized, much to my dismay, how many guys were entering their third and fourth years in the program because they wasted a redshirt on a one-game “tryout” as a freshman or, worse, some meaningless special teams play. I mean, I loved Dymonte Thomas’s punt block in the moment, but I’d love it even more if it had come as a RS Freshman and Harbaugh would have another 3 years to mold him into a competent safety. Same with Shane Morris, who played spot duty as a freshman because Hoke failed to watch any game tape, ever, of his QBs behind Gardner. I know that not every coach is crazy about grad transfers, and perhaps the administration was more strict about it, but Shane Morris is now entering his true junior year with years of bad habits and technique to rehabilitate and little incentive by the coaching staff to do so, as he’s apparently behind Rudock this year and has a mountain of competition in 2016. This is all speculation, I’ll admit, but if Morris still had 3 years of eligibility instead of 2, I’m guessing the coaches and fans would be much more optimistic about him leading the team either this year or in the future.
Now, obviously there are going to be guys who will earn early playing time; Peppers didn’t come to UM to sit behind Blake Countess for a season. But there was more competent depth than I think Hoke wanted to admit those first couple of years, and so by wasting whole years on a couple of downs, the vicious cycle of playing younger players early could very well hamper Harbaugh in his first year or two at UM.
I trust that Harbaugh will be able to maximize the players he has on the roster regardless of years left, but it’s just annoying to see Ben Gedeon entering his third year of playing time with a total of 36 total tackles to his name.
Best: Coaching Competence
There’s a meme around here that refers to former UM kicker KC Lopata as the platonic ideal of “Kicking Competency”, a replacement-level college kicker who mostly hit the kicks he was supposed to and missed the others. Coming on the heels of Garrett Rivas, one of the best kickers in UM’s history, it was a letdown, but he at least provided fans a baseline expectation for special teams; get the ball inside the 30 and you were probably good.
Now, I’m not going to say anyone on the last coaching staff was outright incompetent at his job; you don’t get to coaching at a major college program, even one as semi-dysfunctional as UM was for large stretches of the 00’s and 10’s, without being very good at your job, at least abstractly. Brady Hoke didn’t seem to know how to run a team, but he did a solid job building up the defensive line and his recruiting was top-notch. I thought Al Borges didn’t know how to call a game or mold an offense with the pieces provided, but he absolutely knows a great deal about football and, in a vacuum, could devise a slew of offensive plays that would be successful. Doug Nussmeier played in the NFL for a couple of years, was an offensive coordinator at a number of prominent college programs (UW, Alabama, UM, now Florida), and will probably be a HC at some point in the near future. The oft-criticized Darrell Funk showed demonstrable improvements across the offensive line despite limited depth and injuries, Roy Manning tried his best to coach cornerbacks despite not having any experience at that job heading into 2014, and while I’m of the camp that guys like Fred Jackson and Dan Ferrigno (as a special-teams coach) shouldn’t have been holding those positions last year, it’s not like either is devoid of talent or knowledge of the game. It’s telling that most of them struggled to find comparable jobs after Hoke was let go, and a couple (Borges and Ferrigno jump out) were seemingly dragged along by Hoke at his various stops without much additional vetting.
Regardless, it was clear pretty early on last year (and really, the last couple of seasons) that the coaches weren’t “coaching up” to their level just as much as players seemed to underperform compared to ability. Older players seemed as lost as freshmen at times, the offense was consistently bogged down due to poor execution at every major group, the defense struggled to deploy press coverage despite preparing it during the offseason, largely abandoning it once Blake Countess got repeatedly burned against ND and Rutgers, and special teams found ever more impressive ways to not field the right number of players. Last year’s team didn’t have nearly enough talent or experience to overcome these coaching issues, and it showed in the season’s results.
Which is why fans should be as excited about the rest of the coaching staff changes as they are about Harbaugh taking the lead. Everyone knows Harbaugh is a great coach, but with additions of guys like Drevno, Durkin, and Baxter, while also retaining Mattison to help with the defensive line, the team will have a staff that can at least get the players to perform at their expected levels consistently and, you hope, provide the type of guidance and in-the-moment leadership that great teams are built on. Hell, having guys like Wheatley and Zordich at positions they have coached previously and capable of doing more than drown listeners in hyperbole will be a breath of fresh air. The talent is there for UM to be at least competent on offense and very good on defense; I expect the coaches will make sure they are given every opportunity to at least meet this level, if not exceed it.
Best: Actual QB Competition
This should come as no surprise to those who watched Russell Bellomy take snaps against Nebraska, or Shane Morris get trotted out against Minnesota, that Brady Hoke and his offensive coordinators never seemed able or willing to introduce real competition at the QB position except in extreme circumstances. He never recruited more than 1 QB in a class, completely skipping the position in 2012, and made it known to each recruit that he wasn’t going to bring in anyone else to compete for the position in a given year. There are assorted rumors that Messiah deWeaver decommitted from Michigan specifically because Harbaugh planned on bringing in other QB prospects in the class, an about-face to what he heard from Hoke. And I’m not going to slag the quality of the kids brought in each year, but no QB brought in by Hoke has looked capable of starting except for maybe Morris, and even that is tinged with the expectation for massive improvement under Harbaugh’s tutelage. That’s why soul-crushed Devin Gardner was the starter the past two years despite a clear degradation in performance.
Now, that’s all changed since Harbaugh showed up. With Gardner’s graduation, the QB position is one of the real question marks on the team, and Harbaugh addressed it early and often by snagging Iowa’s Jake Rudock’s graduate transfer, John O’Korn’s “regular” transfer from Houston, and recruiting two QBs in the 2014 class (Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry) and potentially 2015 (Brandon Peters and Victor Viramontes). In addition, he inherited Shane Morris as well as Russell Bellomy (EDIT: Bellomy packed up and transfered to UTSA) and Wilton Speight. If you are counting at home, that’s 6 (EDIT: 5) possible QBs this year and 8 (I believe) next year, assuming nobody leaves, decommits, etc. And there’s variety there, from more finesse throwers like Rudock and Malzone to rocket-armed bombers like Morris and Gentry, and a range of athleticism that would work well with Harbaugh’s penchant for dualish-threat QBs.
Now, having eight possible QBs next year when you only have about that many at for all three LBs isn’t optimal, but it is a marked (and necessary) departure from the last couple of years. It’s a bit cliche, but a good QB can spackle over a whole bunch of other issues, and I have to think that had there been better options these past couple years under center, or at least the program drive to promote healthy competition, the offensive sputtering might have been mitigated somewhat. I’m the biggest Gardner homer in the world, but there were games he clearly didn’t have it, and being able to trot out someone, anyone who could settle the team down would have been a godsend, similar to when Tate Forcier would step in for Denard due to injury or inconsistency for a series or two.
All signals point to Rudock and Morris being the only viable starters this year, with Rudock getting the nod right now due to ball security and experience. We’ve all heard the positive buzz around Morris, and I suspect we’ll see him play some this year especially if Rudock struggles (I know Brian has been quick to dismiss his benching at Iowa as just another indictment of Ferentz’s rapidly-loosening grip on his sanity, and his stats looked fine given the offense he was stuck in, but I’ll have to see him on the field before I’m completely comfortable), but when you can get a fifth-year senior with starting experience, you don’t put him on the bench unless Morris just absolutely outplays him. Besides, this year isn’t one where UM is competing for a conference title BUT they need to get back to winning football games they should – that means beating your Rutgers and Marylands of the world. Rudock gives them the best chance out of the gate.
Best: The Gang’s (Mostly) Back
In what feels like forever, Michigan won’t be breaking anyone new into the starting lineup this year, with the only major addition being OC/OL coach Tim Drevno, one of the better offensive line coaches in the country. It’s been said a million times before, but offensive lines do best when they have continuity and experience (talent helps, and UM has a good amount of that as well), and this year’s team should have 4 upperclassmen starters and a true sophomore (Cole) who ably filled in from “go” at left tackle last year. Depth behind the starters remains a bit scary (LTT, JBB, and Dawson still seem like projects to varying degrees, and Kugler isn’t really an option outside of center unless you like small guards), so the loss of Jack Miller and Glasgow assuming those snaps, isn’t optimal. My guess is that Kugler will get every chance to take over at center if either of the guards struggle, but right now it looks like one of the better units in the conference both as run-blockers as well as in pass protection.
Worst: Blocky-Catchy-Runny Guys?
To say that Michigan’s offense struggled over the past couple of years would be selling the tire-fire short a bit, but what was so unnerving wasn’t so much that the team failed to execute consistently as much as they never seemed to have a consistent plan or identity except in the broadest of strokes. The nadir of narrow-minded planning was UM trotting out tackle over to out cro-Magnon fellow Neanderthal Minnesota in 2013, but the offensive philosophy under Brady Hoke could best be described as
¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Passing plays often appeared to be 1-man routes, and Devin Gardner was often called on to “improvise” first downs, sacrificing ribs and sternum because the sidelines couldn’t think of something more productive. It led to a whole lotta this:
Now, there won’t be any such questions under Harbaugh, who has shown the ability to meld his general offensive philosophies (power running football, multiple tight ends with frequent pre-snap motion) with the talent available. He turned Toby Gerhart into a dominant college back and a 2nd-round draft pick, Tyler Gaffney into an All American, and a bunch of guys who should probably be working as associates at hedge funds into NFL TEs. And oh yeah, he might have had something to do with Andrew Luck being the #1 overall draft pick. As for the NFL, he fixed Urban Meyer protégé Alex Smith enough to nearly get to the Super Bowl, then nearly won it all with Colin Kaepernick. And he showed he could establish a great running game with players lacking elite speed, as Frank Gore enjoyed a bit of a resurgence under Harbaugh.
So the question isn’t whether Harbaugh is capable of producing efficient, sometimes spectacular offenses, but whether the team he inherited has the players to do so this season.
With the departure of the much-maligned Devin Funchess, the receiving core is basically two semi-known commodities (Darboh and Chesson) who probably both top out at competent #2/#3 receivers, a track guy in Chesson who might just be fast and a great special teams blocker, and a bunch of potential that is either freshmen (Cole and Perry), coming off injuries (Harris), or Moe Ways, who will probably get the reputation for being great catching contested balls because he can’t get away from anyone. I know there’s been some buzz about Darboh stepping up, but he collected nearly half of his yards and 40% of his receptions against IU and Miami (NTM), struggling to get separation against anyone else even when Devin Funchess was healthy and, theoretically, drawing more attention from the defense. I’m holding out hope that Canteen takes that next step, but he’s still a guy who looks great on tape but never had more than 1 catch or record more than 8 yards in a single game last year. It also sounds like he might be moving permanently to corner, so what the hell do I know. And while there are those who never thought Norfleet would work at UM as a receiver, I still think he’d be a solid slot option on a team that needs someone to step up. I mean, Perry might have burned his own redshirt given his play in fall camp, but trusting a freshman at that position is always dicey, and I’d rather have an extra year of a senior than a meh freshman season when UM isn’t competing for titles.
There’s definitely some talent here, but unless Harris shows he’s recovered from yet another hamstring injury and can stretch the defense vertically, nobody in the receiving core looks like they’ll put the fear of God in opposing secondaries. That’s a big reason I’m banking on Rudock getting the nod at least to the start the year; this team is going to rely on shorter passes with minimal mistakes to move the ball vertically, and Morris’s arm strength isn’t as helpful when nobody is farther than 20 yards downfield.
Now, if this team is going to have a true downfield threat, it will probably come from the TE position. Jake Butt is the obvious headliner at the position, and I expect him to put up great numbers both as a safety valve for the QBs as well as a key downfield threat. Since Harbaugh likes to roll out multiple TE sets, I also expect Khalid Hill to be involved heavily in the running game as a blocker as well as an extra set of hands. Ian Bunting could be a monster in the right offense if his catching radius is as advertised, but it’s all potential with him thus far and he still needs to show he can transition from WR to the flex TE position Devin Funchess occupied before everyone realized he couldn’t block. A Jim Harbaugh-led offense with Butt as the lead TE should terrify the rest of the conference, but he’s only going to be able to reach his potential if someone else, anyone else can stretch the field or at least keep the secondary from closing in on him on obvious passing downs.
As for the running backs, I don’t know man. I want to believe that someone out of the Smith/Green/Isaac/Johnson parallelogram of runners will emerge as a leader for the position, but right now it sure seems like the pack remains pretty jumbled. With the three guys who actually played last year, you kind of wish you could Voltron them into a single back because THAT guy would be downright unstoppable. Smith feels like the closest analog to what Harbaugh had in Frank Gore, a guy who can work his way through traffic for a couple more yards but isn’t going to run past anyone. Green has all the size and ability in the world but never seemed able to put it all together, and I’ve heard enough questions about his vision and finding holes that he might fall out of favor quickly with Harbaugh. Johnson is coming off another ACL injury, and while he isn’t going to make most guys miss, what we did see last year was a guy who could take what the line got him and bruise past a couple more defenders if he got a step on them. Of the lot, Johnson looked like the most average runner, which sadly probably also made him the best. But he’s still recovering from surgery and (I assume) will have an uphill battle to get playing time this year unless everyone in front of him falls apart.
Ty Isaac has both the pedigree and the look of a #1 back, but struggled at times in USC’s offense and seemed buried on the depth chart at the end of the year. He remains a tantalizing option as a runner and receiver but without the college-level production to quite quiet the nagging doubt you may have.
I suspect that Smith, Green, and Isaac will share playing time to start the year, but for Smith to get a plurality of carries if he can consistently find the hole and get positive yards. This is the prototypical Smith run, and it’s the type Harbaugh loves to see.
Smith will never wow you with his speed, but the guy at the top of UM’s record book wasn’t a burner either. Isaac has that rare mix of size and speed you dream of as a coach, but it sounds like he’s had limited practice reps and hasn’t played a down of “actual” football for over a year. I’ve never been super-high on Green because it did seem like he missed rushing routes more often than the other backs (not to say Smith and Johnson always followed the right path), and unless that’s been addressed in the offseason I don’t see him bringing enough other skills to the table to compensate.
Best: Hoke's Thick Blue Line
You can throw literally any type of rock and hit an issue with Brady Hoke's tenure at UM, but the one thing that he did very consistently was recruit defensive linemen. Of course, this should come as no shock because that was his favored position throughout his coaching career, basically serving in some capacity as a defensive line coach until he took over at Ball St. He inherited some nice linemen in Martin and RVB and turned them loose, creating one of the more dominant short-yardage units in the country during 2011. The next couple of years were less impressive, but the defense always held up reasonably well on the front line and consistently improved against the run. So it should come as no surprise that the defensive line looks to be perhaps the strongest unti on the team even with the loss of Bryan Mone. Maurice Hurst has been getting rave reviews this offseason, while both Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow should build on solid seasons last year. I know other people have said as much, but if Henry figures out how to actually play the position effectively, he'll be a damn All-American candidate given his natural size and strength.
Now, the one knock against Hoke's defensive line production is that it never figured out how to generate an organic pass rush - every year you'd hear about the team wanting to "Earn the Right to Rush 4", then you'd see Frank Clark chasing a QB into open space and nothing much coming of it. Barring a huge jump by
Taco Charlton or Lawrence Marshall, though, I'm not sure this team will be much better at getting to the QB from the edges. I've been a big fan of Mario Ojemudia because he had a great motor in high school and always seemed faster than he probably was, but it's 2015 and in three years has 6 sacks and remains somewhat undersized. Mattison has always shown a penchant for bringing pressure via the LBs and safeties, so the hope is that him and Durkin will be able to generate pressure that way if it doesn't come from up front, but it's still a bit depressing that both OSU and MSU seem overloaded with rushers while UM is trying to get by with smoke and mirrors.
Best(?): About those Linebackers
You know how I mentioned earlier UM has about as many QBs on the roster as LBs for 2016? Yeah, let’s forget about that for a minute and remember that in 2015, UM should be fielding an all-senior LB core for what feels like eons. Ross, Morgan, and Bolden have all been starters in the past, fending off competent replacements and generally playing at an acceptable level whenever they’ve seen the field. After years of seeing underclassmen thrust into ill-fitting positions, it is refreshing to know that the LBs are deep and experienced, and with the improved defensive line should be a formidable front 7.
And yet, I can’t shake a lingering sense that something is missing. While all three players have been objectively “good” during their time at UM, they have also all been singled out as the weak links before. For all the talk about Morgan’s ability to stop a ball carrier dead in his tracks, he’s still not a great athlete and is coming off an injury that knocked him out all of last year. Bolden led the team in tackles last season but has struggled at times in coverage, and seemed to bust far more often than the other LBs last year when forced to play in space. He also enraged the walking hemorrhoid that is Mark Dantonio by plunging a tent spike into MSU’s field last year, so there’s that. Ross was always touted as a cerebral player but has struggled to keep his spot on the field, losing out to RJS last year (before reclaiming the spot) even though Stone didn’t necessarily drape himself in glory with playing time. Ross is also a bit undersized for the strong side LB, though his ability in coverage should help against spread teams.
I’m suspecting that Ben Gedeon sees a decent amount of playing time, especially given his reputed athleticism and the lack of playmakers along the defensive line; if there is someone who you’d bring on a delayed blitz, you could do worse than a 6-3, 241 lb bowling ball who a rocket strapped to his ass. Despite my reservations, this does feel like a position of strength for the team this year, and since I’m trying to stay optimistic I’ll leave concerns for the coming seasons for next year’s preview, wherein I’ll be too drunk off a Big 10 title to care!
Worst: Covering with 3
Off the bat, I am ecstatic with 3/4 of the defensive backfield. Jourdan Lewis was a revelation last year, and should be one of the best corners in the conference this year. He’s physically aggressive to a degree that belies his size, and his recovery speed led to some spectacular plays last year. He also had 2 INTs and 6 PD to go along with 39 tackles, which is more than a couple of LBs last year (ugh).
We all know about Jabrill Peppers and his exploits; beyond being the Hybrid Space Player on defense, he can move over to corner or safety in a pinch and probably be on the top 3-4 in the conference at those spots. A freak athlete that should have a nice, long NFL career, the only concern I have is that he missed parts of last year due to injury and might take a bit to get his feet under him. Retaining Mattison and not substantially altering the defensive schemes for the secondary should help, though. My only other concern is that there is a lot of pressure put on the kid to be the “next” Woodson by a portion of this fanbase, and so fans may be disappointed if he’s only really, really good this year. I know, a minor concern, and I fully expect him to be a highlight player each game.
As the mantra goes, boring safeties are great, and Jarrod Wilson is like watching freshly-painted walls dry while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is projected on said wall in a loop. So Jarrod Wilson is going to be so much fun to not hear about this year, and Brad Pitt should probably stick to movies in which he ages chronologically.
The problem with the secondary is that you have to have a second cornerback, or a third safety, or some human being with enough speed to keep up with receivers flying down the field, trying to catch an oblong ball. And that’s where it gets a bit dicey for UM. Blake Countess leaving was a surprise, but at the time people figured he’d been passed by other players on the roster and that with Michigan’s focus on press coverage, Countess’s notorious troubles keeping up with receivers made him the odd man out. Then Wayne Lyons transferred from Stanford’s elite pass defense, and everyone though Michigan was set.
Yet, here we sit a couple of weeks before Utah and Michigan is apparently giving serious looks at converted safety Jeremy Clark and converted WR Canteen, to say nothing of Dennis Norfleet getting a shot at the position in the spring game. I know that Harbaugh loves to tinker with guys and see if any can make position switches for added depth, but I’m not loving the lack of clarity across from Lewis. Again, having Peppers means there’s no need to panic, and Delano Hill sounds like he could slide into a safety slot if necessary to free up Peppers and/or the team can play more nickel coverage with Lyons playing a bit more off the receiver. But these are all sub-optimal solutions, and the expectation seemed to always be that Lyons would take over for Countess. The fact that isn’t the case gives me pause even with the positive buzz you’ve been hearing about Clark and his athleticism.
I still think the secondary will be solid, but if that second corner spot remains in limbo, or Lewis goes down for any sustained period of time, it could derail much of the improvements expected by the front 7.
Best: Fielding 11
John Baxter believes in spread punting. He also believes in fielding 11 men virtually all the time on special teams. Those two factors make him a massive upgrade over the last regime, and that doesn’t get into the massive number of blocked kicks his teams have accrued over the years. It kind of sucks that Dennis Norfleet left right when he might actually have guys in front of him to block on returns, but whoever winds up returning kicks and punts should find it a marked improvement over the Hoke era.
I almost didn’t feel it needed to be said, but it wouldn’t be a Michigan season without the fans irrationally directing all their ire at a certain player for when the team struggles. In years past it was Stevie Brown, Obi Ezeh, Taylor Lewan, Devin Gardner, and Devin Funchess. Funchess, in particular, apparently kicked the puppies and stole the girlfriends/boyfriends of a large percentage of UM fans, as that guy couldn’t buy a break. It didn’t help that he clearly wasn’t 100% all season, but sometimes fans are carrying around flaming hammers and you best not look like a nail.
Part of me wants to believe that the Harbaugh enthusiasm will shield this team from that level of vitriol, but who the heck knows anymore. It isn’t worth speculating, but I am formally asking the readers of this column (and more generally this site) to remember that these are human beings playing a sport largely for your entertainment; they are also in their late teens/early 20’s. Cut them a bit of slack if they miss an assignment or drop a pass. They absolutely do give a shit about this team, and treating them like people with feelings would be fantastic!
Last year I predicted 8-4, 9-3 if MSU or OSU took a step back. Yeah…that didn’t really happen. MSU took a step “back” from the best defense in the country to just one of the best, and OSU won a bunch of games, I guess. I don’t know, I stopped watching after the Pizza Pizza Bowl.
MSU will obviously continue to be one of the better teams in the conference, but last year you saw the cracks in the armor, and though it is true that they were mostly abused by some of the best offenses in the country while shutting down the rest of the conference, that kind of papers over just how abused they were by OSU, Oregon, and Baylor. They gave up 49, 46, and 41 points in those three games, and this year they’ll have to deal with the loss of Ed Davis, a competent starter and maybe the first “major” player MSU has lost to injury during their run. Their offense is still quite good and so I don’t expect a huge dropoff in the win total, but it feels like a team that might be coming back to the pack a bit.
PSU survived their sanctions about as well as you could have expected, somehow discovering a dominating defense while fielding an offense that isn’t terrible. Hackenburg still doesn’t feel like the sure-fire NFL QB he’s touted as, and he does have a bit of Devin Gardner 2014 look behind that shaky line. Still, Franklin has been recruiting like mad, and it looks like they’ll be even more competitive in the near future.
OSU is the defending national champions, and 2014 was supposed to be the rebuilding year. They seem to have an all-conference player at every position, and Draftageddon was basically a Pokemon exercise of collecting as many OSU starters as you could. They’ll win a bunch of games and, barring losing all three QBs, should be in contention for a playoff spot.
The rest of the conference looks mediocre; there’s talent in pockets, but teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska have to replace large parts of their offenses and have question marks at key spots.
As for Michigan, it’s going to be a bit rough this first year, even with MSU and OSU coming to town. On the road against a solid Utah team to start the year may not be that bad simply because of Harbaugh’s manic focus, and Oregon St. and UNLV shouldn’t be too tough. BYU seems like it’s reeling, but Taysom Hill looked like a Heisman contender last year before going down with injury, and like seemingly all BYU players is way older than you think (he’s 25). In 5 games last year he had almost 500 yards rushing and 8 TDs to go along with 975 yards passing and 7 TDs, completing almost 67% of his passes. He’s big, he’s fast, and until proven otherwise I’m not sure UM is built to stop that type of dual-threat option. Unless Harbaugh works some magic, UM is going to lose at least one of those games. Next up are Maryland and NW, which seem like winnable games against teams that are scuttling a bit. MSU follows that, and that feels like a competitive loss with the hope of Harbaugh trolling Dantonio into a catatonic state. Two weeks later it’s off to Minnesota for a rock contest, and you figure UM is due for a letdown against them, Rutgers, or IU. Going to Happy Valley, against that defense, is going to be a tough task, though by that point Hackenburg may be sitting on the sidelines in a full body cast. The showdown against OSU follows to end the season, and UM has played OSU about as tough as anyone these past couple of years. OSU will have come off playing MSU as well, so even if Meyer’s team is deep in the playoff hunt they might not be 100% going into that game.
So it’ll sound a bit of a downer, but this feels like an 7-5 team with the potential to go 6-6 and 10-2 with a 2011-type run of luck. If they look solid against Utah to open the season, I could absolutely see them winning 9 games this year, but I’ve been burned too often recently with optimism and there remain real questions at the skill positions and in the defensive backfield, to say nothing of the QB battle.
So thanks for reading this far. I hope to make these more specific and less of a general overview for specific games, and please feel free to leave comments below with suggestions. And yes, I forgot to put in a reference to professional wrestling. Oh wait…