I watched the game, incredulous as Washington State was somehow putting up a fight against my beloved Wolverines. I was nervous, fidgety, and screaming at the television. But the overwhelming feeling was one of expectation, almost entitlement. We WERE the better team. We SHOULD be the national champion (GTFO, Nebraska). I wasn't watching the game to just to see if we'd win, I was watching the game to confirm what I already knew: Michigan was the best team in the country.
Fast forward 19 years. When I watch Michigan, for the first time since 1997, I am watching not just to see the result, but to validate my belief that this is a transcendent team--one of the truly great Maize & Blue squads of all time.
The comparisons are natural. While some are manufactured, many are remarkably similar. Sure, modernity (more plays per game) changes the numbers and feel, but there are loads of apples to line up against apples here.
- QB - Brian Griese vs. Wilton Speight. While many fans remember Griese as the steady leader of our National Championship team, few recall that he was almost universally viewed as the weakpoint of the team. In fact, there was a QB controversy during fall camp--Griese barely beat out Tom Brady. Griese was a game manager (sound familiar?) not a game breaker, and fans wondered if he could be counted on to deliver if the defense ever faltered. His passing stats: 175/277 (63.2%), 2042 yds (7.4 YPA), 14 TDs, 5 INTs, 138.2 Rtg. Wilton Speight is viewed in a very similar light: many fans weren't sure he should be the starting QB, and he hasn't been a consistently great enough performer to inspire complete confidence in the offense. His stats so far: 114/182 (62.6%), 1447 yds (8.0 YPA), 13 TDs, 2 INTs, 150.80 Rtg.
- RBs - 1997 was definitely a "rush by committee" team. Chris Howard led the team with 180 carries, but freshman Anthony Thomas had 130 rushes. Two more Wolverines--Chris Floyd and Clarence Williams--each added nearly 60 carries and over 260 rushing yards. The 2016 version is even more balanced: Smith has 79 carries, Issac 63, Evans 49, Higdon 43. The big difference is that Howard mustered 868 yards at 4.8 YPC--the clear leader of the rushing attack--while no one else had 530 yards. This season, I'm not certain Smith will finish as our leading rusher (though he will be #1 in carries, barring injury) and we already have four players with over 330 rushing yards. The '97 squad also lacked game-breakers, with no RB averaging more than Howard's 4.8 YPC, while the '16 version has four players averaging over 5.2 YPC, and two players over 8.3 YPC.
- WRs/TEs - Wow. My memories of Tai Streets and Jeremy Tuman were way off. While the game was played differently and felt much different in 1997, I was shocked to see that our leading receiver was Chris Howard (35 catches). Streets had just 24, and Tuman and 27. Woodson added 11 more, but three RBs had over 20 receptions while only one WR (Streets) grabbed more than 20. In fact, the #2 WR--Russell Shaw--had just 19 catches. Streets had just 349 receiving yards and four TDs. Contrast that with Darboh, who has already caught 30 passes for 499 yards and 5 TDs. Chesson has 18 grabs for 275 yards and a score, and Butt has 26 receptions (310 yds, 4 TDs) to Tuman's 27 (404 yds, 4 TDs). Other than Woodson, Tuman was the big play threat in our passing game.
- OL - The 1997 Offensive Line was excellent. From left-to-right: Jeff Backus, Steve Hutchinson, Zach Adami, Chris Ziemann, and Jon Jansen. Only Adami would not play in the NFL, and he was All-Big Ten in '97. Of course, Hutchinson and Jansen would go on to become All Americans, and Backus would be a first round draft choice.
Verdict: I think QB is a push. While Speight's numbers are better, Griese seemed to have the "it" factor as a leader. While I am shocked to say this, I would take this year's group of RBs over the '97 squad. Howard was an underrated player and is better than Smith, but the supporting cast in '16 is way ahead of the '97 group. WR/TE is the easiest call on the team: the 2016 tandem is excellent in all phases of the game, and Butt is probably the best TE in school history. The 1997 OL gets my vote, but lets remember that Hutchinson and Backus were still freshmen. That said, Adami, Ziemann, and Jansen were excellent, and I just don't see the same talent level on our current line.
So who's better? I would pick the 2016 offense. The 1997 offense was 44th in YPG and PPG. The 2016 offense is currently 28th in YPG and third in PPG. Long way to go and our rankings may drop a bit, but it's hard to see Michigan falling out of the top 15 scoring and the top 40 in YPG.
Some other amazing offensive stats for the 2016 team:
- Our scoring average of 48.7 PPG is more than 15 points better than the 2011 team, which had the best numbers since 2006.
- Has a college team ever had four RBs with over 500 yards rushing? Can someone find this out? Barring injury, this team will do that easily.
- Including McDoom and Peppers, this team has four players (with at least 10 carries) averaging over 8.3 YPC.
- Khalid Hill (Hammering Panda) has 8 rushing TDs on just 15 carries. #2 in rushing TDs was a surprise to me--Karan Higdon has 6 TDs on just 43 carries.
- Just four players have double-digit receptions this year: Darboh, Butt, Chesson, and De'Veon Smith.
- If Speight can keep his QBR where it is (150.80), it will be the highest rating for a Michigan starter since Drew Henson posted a 152.7 in 2000. In 1991, Elvis Grbac had 161.7 rating, largely on the back of Desmond Howard's 19 TD catches.
Jim Harbaugh: The original rational fanatic
Jim Harbaugh appears crazy to a lot of people. He seems borderline homicidal on the sidelines after a bad call, even stripping in anger. He can look at reporters with the burning hatred of 1,000 suns after they ask (or worse, repeat) a stupid question.
But there is no denying his genius. While he is, through and through, a football fanatic, he is also a brilliant schemer, motivator, and leader.
This column probably won't be weekly, but it's an ode to Jim's brand of simplicity: quick-hitting facts rooted in more data than opinion...because I'm trying to learn to be a rational fanatic myself. This is coming from a guy who thought Brady Hoke was the next great Michigan coach.
- Actually Aggressive. If you've ever seen an introductory press conference for a Defensive Coordinator, then you have heard a man claim his defense is "aggressive." Don Brown actually means it. Through four games, Michigan has recorded 44 TFLs, 17 of which are sacks. Last year's defense recorded 88 TFLs for the season with 32 sacks. So in four games, we are already at 50% of last year's totals. We never had more than 10 TFLs in a game last year; that is the fewest we have recorded in a game this year (and that was against Hawaii!). Michigan is #1 in the country in TFLs, and #2 in TFLs/game (Miami (YTM)), and we are tied for #1 in sacks and sacks/game. Eleven teams had over 100 TFLs last year; Michigan is a pretty sure bet to join that club this season. Only 7 teams recorded 40 or more sacks, another number I expect us to attain.
- Late Bloomer. Through four games last year, Jehu Chesson had recorded seven receptions and zero TDs. Through four games this year, he's got eight catches (and no TDs). There is still time for him to find that All-American form that puncuated last season.
- The Quest for 1,000. De'Veon Smith recorded 331 rushing yards through four games last season, cresting 125 yards twice. He would only break 100 yards once more (bowl game) and totaled 753 yards for the year. This year he only has 259 yards, but he has done that on 30 fewer attempts, averaging nearly two yards more per carry. But as a team, Michigan has 110 more rushing yards than we had last season at this time, averaging over half-a-yard more per carry. While it doesn't look good to have a 1,000 yard rusher this season, expect the team's rushing attack to outpace last year's. Also, no back (other than Smith) broke 275 yards rushing last year; I expect FOUR to do it this year.
- Buckets of Good. Speaking of our rushing attack, I have been impressed with all four RBs and their progress under second-year coach and Michigan legend Ty Wheatley. While there is no superstar this season, both Higdon and Evans look like potential 1,000 yard guys in the future. And, actually, I am really high on Karan Higdon and was pleased to see him get carries early in last week's game. While Isaac is physically gifted, he seems to lack some of the instincts that make RBs great. But all four are good-to-very good, and greatness might show-up next season. My own assessment of the backs (purely as rushers) thus far ranks them like this:
- Better than Best. Last year's national leader in TFLs was Clemson's Shaq Lawson. He finished the season with 25.5, an average of 1.7/game. Jabrill Peppers has already recorded 9.5 TFLs for a 2.4/game average. And this is without recording a TFL against Penn State. FWIW, Michigan has four players in the top 100 nationally in TFLS (Gedeon, McCray, Gary). Going back to 2007 (as far as cfbstats.com goes), no player has recorded over 30 TFLs in a season, which works out to an average of 2.3/game.
- Right and Wrong. Who would have thought Wisconsin would be coming to the Big House with wins over LSU and MSU? Not me. That said, I think Vegas has this line about right: Michigan by 10 is my prediction. I was right about Hawaii, wrong about UCF (thought we'd have an easier time and a shutout there), right about Colorado (expected a tougher-than-expected game), and right about Penn State (thought we'd win easily). While Michigan State will give us a brutally tough game in E.L., I feel confident we head to Columbus undefeated and don't think Iowa will be too much of a challenge.
If They Could Say It is my attempt to give the real answers people would give if it wouldn't cause a media sh;tstorm. Typically, I'll have the Head Coach and Coordinators answer questions, and may also include other coaches, players, or personnel.
How did you feel about the team's performance tonight?
I hate losing. We should have won this game. We're far from perfect, but we had our opportunities, and we blew it.
What opportunities did you miss?
Did you watch? It's real obvious. We missed wide open TD passes. We can't do that. We dropped a couple easy catches. We threw a pick-6 in a key moment. We missed a couple of holes in the running game. We didn't even keep our onside kick in play.
Talk about the interception for a TD.
Just a bad, bad read. The play is a fade-out combo where the outside receivers run fades and the slots run quick outs. Butt runs a hitch. Grant Perry was the least open of the five options. Now, the thing that will take some time, is that we should have recognized pre-snap that Ty Isaac had a 15-yard cushion and just thrown a screen to him. But that takes time and practice...we're not there yet.
What were the good things?
There were actually a lot of good things. In the second half, even with some obvious short yardage runs that we blew, we improved our yard per carry by 1.5. The receivers were getting some separation and we were hitting some passes. Jake Butt was always open and had an amazing game. Peppers annihilated a few plays. And, while his screw-ups probably cost us the game, Rudock made several plays that also kept us in it.
How did you feel about the run-blocking?
How do you feel when some one punches you in the groin? It sucked. The first half was terrible. We played soft and tentative. Came out in the second half and played better, but we have a long way to go.
What about the fourth-and-short play?
Lots of people are piling on Kalis for missing a block on his pull, but Braden's execution was just as bad or worse. He allowed himself to give up almost two yards and gave an easy angle for the pursuit. Actually, he was our worst lineman today, and probably our worst offensive player.
Are there any plays you'd call differently?
First, Jim calls the plays. Here's the thing: we had more than our fair share of chances to make big plays, and we blew it. Two wide open TDs, a few running lanes that could have been huge gains, and a few dropped passes that could have changed things. We could easily have had over 400 yards and 30 points in this game. Have to make those plays to be a great team.
What were the positives you saw?
Jake Butt is probably the best TE in the nation. That TD catch is one of the best plays I've ever seen. I mean, the defender has his had on the ball, Jake is at the peak of his jump, and he still manages to pull it in, no question. That's even a catch by the weird NFL standards. And the pass pro. If we can protect that well all season, we'll be in good shape and we'll hit some of those bombs.
What does the OL have to do to improve?
Simple: not play softer than a pair of Twin City socks. We had the right mentality in the second half. We'll get better, or you'll see new guys on the field.
What happened on the Utah TD drives?
What happened? We had a couple bad series. Missed some reads, played out of our gaps, and let their QB walk into the endzone. But you know what? College kids are often going to have a couple bad series in a game. We'll get better. This was our first action with live bullets in our defense.
Who looked good?
The DL was pretty strong. There was no space for one of the best RBs in the country to run between the tackles. Wormley and Henry really did their jobs.
Who didn't look as good?
Brian obviously jinxed the LBs. Morgan didn't have his best day, and Bolden couldn't make tackles even though he was in the right spots. Ross might see more PT, especially against spread teams. Stribling was meh. Peppers woke up in the second half.
The most exciting part of the game was having Harbaugh home
As spring games go, that was the most exciting one we've seen in years...but only because we haven't actually seen a spring game in years. The 7-0 win for the Blue team featured lots of good defensive plays and some pretty disconcerting offense. It seems the rich (defense) has gotten richer while the poor (offense) has only received a modest raise. But there is still time...
"If They Could Say It" is my attempt to give the honest answers coaches (and others) won't/can't give during their press conferences. The idea is to answer the way I believe the individual would if s/he could answer honestly without any repercussions or media frenzy. This is my attempt at the Spring Game edition, and I'll answer some questions for the HC and the coordinators. When appropriate, I'll use actual questions asked at press conferences (those will be in bold italics; my made-up questions are in standard italics).
Your general takeaways from today? What did you like, what maybe obviously needs work still?
My general takeaway is that our offense is bad and our defense is good. Sure, the defense should be ahead at this point, but I did not see enough guys willing to do whatever it takes to win on offense. We have a long way to go.
I liked the inside pressure from the defensive line, the linebacker play, the safeties, and the cornerbacks who are actually listed as CBs on the roster. Dennis Norfleet may have just lost his job as a CB.
And finally, your phrasing really sucked there. "What maybe obviously needs work?" That's a stupid fucking question. And I think I've pretty much answered it anyway--there are probably only four positions on offense that are set in stone, and that's not a good thing.
What did you see out of your quarterbacks today? What did you like from them?
I saw two guys prove that they are who we thought they were. Shane has an amazing arm and is finally developing some touch, but he doesn't go through his reads and always trusts his arm to make the primary throw. He's got a pretty good deep ball--his fades get there pretty quickly and in the right spot--and some good chemistry with Darboh. Some of those slants he threw were Brett Favre speed throws...not sure if that's a good thing. Physically, he's ready to go be our starting QB, and we can win with him. Mentally, I'm not sure he's ready to go through progressions and know how to throw the ball so our guys can catch it.
Malzone has "it," but hasn't developed enough to be physically ready to start. He reads the game, goes through progressions, and knows how to win. His throws are still just a little bit off and he didn't challenge the defense deep. But he was hurried quite a bit and he is still in the thick of the race. We'll just have to see if he can make the throws this fall.
I wish Speight had been healthy. This QB race is wide open. Rudock will definitely challenge. By next year, we'll have lots of good options.
You yourself noted that you played with mixed offensive lines today. How much would you say the running game has come along since maybe day one of spring practice to now?
Not enough. Were you watching? It's not good enough. The blocking is still inconsistent and the RBs aren't always finding the holes. De'Veon Smith has demonstrated that he's the best back we've got that's healthy right now. His vision, balance, and power really showed today. We mostly limited Derrick Green to outside runs where he doesn't have to work as hard find the crease. Ty's been looking good, but wasn't able to go today. Shallman is an H-back playing RB. But the bottom line is that if we don't get better blocking from our first team OL, it's going to be a long season. I'm disappointed that only Cole and Glasgow have locked down starting roles. The other three spots are up for grabs, though Kalis is probably close.
Are you guys trying to come up with, even within the coaches, some kind of two-deep so that you go into the summer with some idea and then they can fight again in the fall, or are you just not even going to look at that again until the fall? You talked about the starting five on the line. Do you have an idea who those are? Can you share?
Did you see a published depth chart? We obviously have one. If I wanted you to know that information, don't you think I would have given it to you? Stop asking the same fucking question different ways as if that's going to get me to answer it.
The only guys that have locked-down starting spots on offense are Mason Cole, Graham Glasgow (assuming he's not in jail), Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt. Kalis and Smith are close, and Chesson is right there too. But it's disappointing that so few players have separated themselves, and that showed on the field today.
Your team lost today. What positives do you take away from this game?
That I'm a better football coach than I am a general manager. Yeah, the Maize team lost, but the defense sure kicked the offense's ass today.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of your defense?
Our DTs kick ass. We have several good players there, and not enough good players on the outside at DE. Glasgow, Hurst, Mone, Henry, and Wormley are all making plays. Injuries aren't helping, but we need more production from our DEs.
The LBs are pretty damn good. Bolden is everywhere, and Morgan isn't far behind. Gedeon will make an impact. Ross and McCray will add even more once they're back.
The starting CBs look pretty good--Lewis is a future NFL player and Countess has improved. We need more depth there--Norfleet isn't going to cut it. At safety, we are surprinsingly loaded. Wilson and Peppers are the clear starters, but Hill, Clark, and Thomas are impact players. We may have to find ways to get more of them on the field.
Coach, how di-
WOOOOOOOO!!!! FUCK YEAH!!! BLUE TEAM, BABY!!! SUCK IT, DURKY-DURK!!!
Coach Durkin mentioned that the defense is way ahead of the offense....
Well, duh. Did you see what I inherited? Do you have any idea how poorly coached this offense has been? We are un-learning bad habits and trying to replace them with good ones. That takes time, especially on the offensive line.
Who are the guys that stand out right now on offense?
Coach Harbaugh already answered this, but I'll add to it. Darboh is a very good WR, and he'll start for us. Chesson will likely start too, because he knows how to play the game and is a good blocker. We need Canteen, Cole, Norfleet, and Ways to step-up. Jake Butt's going to have a big year in this offense. De'Veon Smith showed why recruting rankings aren't always right--he's way ahead of Green. We still need more production, and hopefully Isaac can help us there. On the O-Line, only Cole and Glasgow have really grabbed the job by the balls. Kalis is close. We need Magnuson, Braden, LTT, Dawson, and JBB to step up. Kerridge is clearly our best FB. There are five or six starting jobs wide open, and that's not a good thing right now. On defense, they've got the opposite problem at DT, LB, and S--too many good players to start them all.
What are you going to do to improve between now and the fall?
The most important thing is that we're going to smash each other on the O-Line until we play like fucking men. But we really need time to develop--the offensive side of the ball on this team has not been well-taught, and we are obviously behind the defense.
Does that mean you think Coach Durkin is a better coach?
Shut the fuck up. Did you see who won today? BLUE TEEEEAAAAMMMM BABY!!!
The look of a man who knows something you don't
One of the worst things about freedom of speech is spin. The media is so focused on a game of "gotcha" that anyone with a remotely public profile has to be careful about how honest they are. It has created a world where back-door dealings are the ONLY way to conduct any business that is even remotely interesting to the public. You can say anything in the world, and get in trouble.
So I have decided to start a regular feature here on MGoBlog called "If They Could Say It." The idea is that I will say what I believe the public figures would say--through their voices--if they could be honest without penalty. It will be irregular during the off-season, but closer to weekly during the season.
I am not a reporter. I don't have sources. I will base these statement purely off of what happens and my interpretation of personalities and events. I will use supporting information, statistics, and quotes, but the ultimate result is just my guess at what these people would say, if they could say it.
The first episode is a belated look back at the CC...
Seems like a good place to start
During a coaching search, nobody tells the whole truth. Nick Saban repeatedly denied he was interested in the Alabama job just days before he took it. But what's clear in this case is that Michigan never seemed to get serious about a Plan B, because they knew they didn't need one. I believe Hackett was working with Harbaugh's back channel by the time he took the podium to give his now famous "swim lanes" speech.
Furthermore, Harbaugh did NOT take the contract he certainly could have gotten. While his pay is high, he could have gotten Nick Saban money. He turned that down, and I think he would say, "Because I don't want to be the highest paid coach in college football until I've proven I'm the best coach in college football." But this is more evidence that Harbaugh wasn't spending December trying to get himself a deal, but rather negotiating the details of the deal.
"Although we never really needed a back-up, we had several candidates in line, including Doug Marrone. But we also had a guy whom we knew would accept the job if it was offered to him: Dan Mullen."
Jim Hackett is intelligent, organized, and methodical. Even though he knew before he even started the search that he was likely to get Harbaugh, he was working on back-up plans. The Cutcliffe call controversy is some evidence that Michigan was, in fact, asking who might be interested in being a candidate. But having a short list would not have been good enough for Hackett, who knew there was a chance, however small, that he might not get Harbaugh when December 30th finally arrived. With a search lasting that long, he would have needed a surefire candidate ready to take the job if offered, and I believe that was Dan Mullen. Why? While Marrone and likely several other NFL types might have been called first, they would have had to accept the job immediately--a sticky situation if you're in the playoffs or if you just want some time to kick the tires at Michigan. Mullen has a proven track record, knows the area, and would have created some immediate buzz as the Bo to Urban's Woody. Brian agrees.
2011 was magical, but the delay in instituting "his" offense likely hurt Brady Hoke
Sometimes a good coach doesn’t work out because the pieces don’t fit. There is little doubt that the transition to a spread offense was tougher than even Rich Rod himself could have predicted. And while bringing power offense to Michigan in 2011 would have meant sacrificing the talents of Denard Robinson (who likely would have transferred if asked to play RB) and our only bowl win since 2007, I wonder if it would have been better for Hoke (not for us as fans)? If Brady Hoke had gone 5-7 in his first year with a new offense, is it plausible that the 2014 version would have looked much better?
I am NOT making the case that Brady Hoke should have been retained. I am pointing out a fact in college football: Change is hard.
Brian wrote an impassioned case for Dan Mullen yesterday, whom I believe would be a very good hire for Michigan. There is, however, a big risk: the transition to Mullen’s offense takes too long and the impatient fanbase forces another coaching change.
What I wanted to do was to breakdown every player on our offense’s two-deep and to what system/style I believe they are best suited. Keep mind that every program mixes elements of different systems, but the most successful outfits have an established identity with corresponding constraints that can maximize their personnel. Part I is a brief breakdown of the systems, part II will explore which players fit each style.
Power football says, "I am going to punch you in the face," then does it
Power Running: The hallmark of any “power” running team is using an extra blocker at the point of attack to open lanes for the ball-carrier. In today’s college football, that almost always means using pulling offensive linemen, since fullbacks are less and less common. Motioning TEs and H-Backs are also used. Power can favor both power and speed backs, and makes the reads for the ball-carrier simpler. Increasingly, however, these schemes are mixed with zone blocking. Examples: Stanford and Wisconsin
Zone concepts threaten multiple gaps on every play
Zone Running: Simple to explain, hard to master. Just the block the guy in your zone, and, if that defender is secured, move to the next one. The zone system is popular because of its versatility: nearly every play gives the ball-carrier at least two choices (and a cut-back) and forces defenses to play very controlled, or risk giving-up a big play. The drawback is that a good guess by a defensive coordinator or player can blow-up a play, since the O-Line is moving laterally off the snap. Many offenses focus on either inside zone or outside zone. Examples: Alabama and Iowa
Spread-to-Run can be smashmouth and fullbackian
Spread-to-Run: Spread offenses all have one thing in common: their intent to force the defense to “declare” itself pre-snap. A spread-to-run team utilizes a mobile QB to add an extra blocker for the defense to deal with, and then tilts the math further in its favor by optioning off defenders. While the O-Line predominantly uses zone blocking in most schemes, there are lots of programs (Auburn, Miss. State) that incorporate power and lead concepts as well. The passing game is set-up by the run, and usually involves simple plays and patterns that allow the QB to make his decision pre-snap, or set-up the defense with play action. Examples: Auburn and Ohio State
160 feet never looked so wide
Spread-to-Pass: Bias alert! This is my favorite college offense. The wide hash marks of the college field force a defense to show its hand pre-snap. A QB in the shotgun can see the whole field, and, by using receivers spread to the sidelines (or close) can determine with a high rate of success what type of defense (man, zone, help over the top) he is looking at. Of course, having a mobile QB certainly helps add another element to this offense, but its primary function is to open the field for easy yards and chunk plays with those pre-snap reads that often come from the sidelines. Examples: Baylor and Notre Dame
Most "pro-style" college offenses are actually hybrids
Pro-style: This scheme mimics the multiple formations and concepts used in the NFL. There is a lot of under center work for the QB, and route combinations (triangle, high-low, smash, levels, etc.) set-up challenging scenarios for the defense to read-and-react to quickly by threatening multiple layers of the defense and forcing uncomfortable match-ups. When run correctly, I believe these are the most difficult offenses to defend. The trouble is, they’re awfully hard to run correctly. QBs are required to make multiple reads on each pass play and routes must be run with extreme precision. Pro style offenses can use the pass to set-up the run, or vice versa. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find a pure pro-style offense in the college game. Examples: LSU and Michigan State
The truth is that all offenses use some combination of these concepts, but, again, most build off of a single style and related constraint plays. Establishing that identity early in a coach’s tenure is vital, because repetition is a player’s best friend. Next week I'll match each player on our offensive two-deep with a system that I believe fits him best.