I’ve heard people say that the best way to find a good place to eat on vacation is to strike up a conversation with a local. Judging by the above photo, the locals know their Rutgers football. Rutgers put their best into this game for a certain definition of “best,” even digging a trick play out of the back of the book and deploying it late in the third quarter for a 19-yard gain on a QB-RB-QB connection. Had they scored, Rutgers would have pulled within 14. On the next play, they tried to give Michigan’s defense whiplash with a Wildcat look; Raheem Blackshear’s handoff went off the side of Isaih Pacheco, Michigan recovered the fumble, and the game was essentially over.
It took Michigan five plays to score after the fumble recovery, a touchdown that took the game from essentially to emphatically over. Four straight handoffs to Tru Wilson moved Michigan from the Rutgers 42- to their 10-yard line, at which point a beautiful backshoulder throw to Nico Collins put Michigan up 35-7. This was just one of Shea Patterson’s many inch-perfect throws on the night, which ended for him (and most of the other starters) at the conclusion of the third quarter. The offensive line should get credit for some of Patterson’s on-the-money deep shots, as they gave Patterson as much time to throw as he’s had at any point in his Michigan career and were a significant factor in Patterson finishing 18-of-27 for 260 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The run game had a quizzical outing, especially when considering how well Michigan’s line held up in pass protection and the trajectory the running backs had been on. Michigan ran the ball 40 times for a sack-adjusted 199 yards, or 4.98 yards per carry. Chris Evans, however, was responsible for 61 yards on a single carry, taking the first handoff of the fourth quarter and the first snap of Brandon Peters’ night through the middle of the line and past Rutgers’ secondary to the end zone. Removing Evans’ carry, Michigan rushed for just 3.54 yards per carry.
[After THE JUMP: how Michigan avoided the Golden Idol of trap games]
SPONSOR NOTE: Reminder that Matt is hanging out at the Charity Tailgate at 327 East Hoover (if you were at the preseason MGoEvents this year and last it's the same place). Food trucks, beer, TVs, and also those things. When not tailgating Matt is also a person who will get you a mortgage right quick from the comfort of your own home. If you need one, he's the man, man.
FORMATION NOTES: A bit more balanced, with Michigan going shotgun (or pistol) on about 40 snaps and under center on the other 30. All murderback snaps were three TE ace sets:
Nebraska stuck in a 3-4 with their line shaded to the run strength for most of the day, frequently adding their strong safety into the box after starting him from the gray area.
SUBSTITUTION NOTES: Patterson, then McCaffrey and Peters at QB. No Milton, boo. At RB Higdon a clear #1, Wilson a clear #2, and Samuels sprinkled in on a couple carries before garbage time. By the middle of the third it was Samuels and a debuting Christian Turner. Mason got some run at RB, obviously. Jared Wangler got some backup FB snaps.
Collins and DPJ your primary outside WRs with a healthy dose of Oliver Martin, who stayed out there deep into the game. Ronnie Bell got a bunch of second-half snaps; Ambry Thomas got three total. TE the usual with maybe a little more Eubanks because of the 3TE sets and garbage time. Redshirt freshman walk-on Carter Selzer got snaps in the fourth quarter, which is a definitive statement that Schoonmaker and Muhammad are redshirting.
OL was the usual on both first and second units, except that Michigan brought in Andrew Vastardis at C after one drive and bumped Stephen Spanellis out to RG. Stueber and Paea got the last drive.
Last year, Mike Zordich stepped in front of the assembled media and more or less pulled the Incensed Ralphie on his charges. Michigan's cornerbacks were dortin' no good dang nipple crisps who didn't practice, pronounced "gif" like it was peanut butter, and supported exclusionary zoning. Your author bought it and spent last year's preview worrying that the two second-year mega-recruits were going to flame out and leave Michigan in the lurch.
Fast forward a year:
A year ago in August Mike Zordich implored us to write his critiques so his corners would read them and learn.
If Zordich didn't also help the very much non-touted Brandon Watson become the third good-to-superb cornerback in Michigan's deepest secondary in living memory, one might be cross about the headfake. Since he did, huzzahs all around and someone call Ambry Thomas a nipple crisp. Sounds like a job for Ace!
CORNERBACK: WE ARE LEGION
If you haven't seen this graphic from PFF you have been industriously avoiding football content all offseason:
Some caveats do apply. Michigan's ravenous front seven forced a great variety of bad-idea throws and another great variety of passes technically targeting one of Michigan's CBs that were wild, unanswered prayers. There are stats, which can lie, and grades, which are less likely to. The above is a stat. PFF doesn't actually think Michigan had the two best corners in the country. The only think the next guy is the best returning CB in college football.
Junior LAVERT HILL was hyped up as the second coming of Jourdan Lewis. This was a precisely correct take, perhaps the most accurate in the history of offseason Michigan hype. Hill, like Lewis, is the variety of 5'11"-ish corner who's so agile that he's in the hip pocket of his man on almost literally every snap. Like Lewis, Hill is comfortable getting his head around and making a play on the ball. Like Lewis, Hill will be of great interest to the NFL when he decides it's time to be of interest.
Hill's stats are great and get better when you drill down. He played almost 90% of Michigan snaps and was only targeted 29 times. Michigan's other corners were targeted about 50% more frequently on a per-snap basis. On those 29 targets Hill gave up 12 catches, had 7 PBUs, and 2 interceptions. His havoc rate (PBUs + INTs / targets) of 26% is second-best amongst returning CBs. The passer rating stat above doesn't quite cover it; Hill was also studiously avoided by the opposition. And no wonder:
Hill was not just a man-to-man maestro. In addition to the coverage events above he also flashed his talent in zone coverage. Here he demonstrates a Countess-like ability to read what is coming and productively fall off the guy he was nominally in coverage on:
That's an interception if it's accurate. I didn't clip any other zone positives or negatives; a glance through the archives suggests that's because Michigan barely ran any.
... Hill [was] particularly excellent. He's got a blocker here and doesn't just force it back but makes a critical zero-yard tackle that is a first step towards an Air Force FGA:
#24 CB to top of screen
He'd add to that resume a bit later in the year by chopping down a flare screen. The nature of Michigan's defense—all press all the time—limited the number of run-support events the corners endured by shutting off perimeter screens; in the limited opportunities provided Hill excelled. PFF graded him as "exceptional against the run." The cherry on top.
UFRs contained occasional mentions of an open guy here and a double move that got a little air there, but only as the "BUT!" section that I find mandatory since I am a person who writes on the internet who has to intercept many criticisms. Serious complaints were nonexistent.
In 2018 the main question about Hill is about his deployment. He was outstanding as a nickel corner, and it seems likely that Michigan will drift towards deploying him there when possible. When Michigan added a defensive back it was Watson (or Long, same difference) and Hill would kick down with predictably Lewis-like results.
His general coverage chops allowed him to stick with WRs when he went from slot to outside:
And the one time he faced the Dreaded Slot Fade he dominated:
If I was Michigan I'd give serious thought to expanding the definition of a passing down and expand the nickel package accordingly. Second and ten? Sure. Second and seven? Sure. Any down that seems likely to produce a third down of any variety even if the opposition runs against a nickel should be fair game. I believe the slot fade stuff will be better defended this year since it had to be a major offseason priority; I believe it will be better defended still if those poor saps are trying to get one over on Hill.
The deployment issues are the only thing worth speculating on. Hill will be an All-American, or close enough. He was already playing at that level a year ago. Michigan would be extraordinarily fortunate to get him back for a final year.
[Ed. A- So my wife and I had a baby a week ago and since then I think of sleep like I used to think of vacations, like, “Oh, that would be nice to do someday.” Last night I caffeinated just in time for the baby to actually fall asleep, so I had a chance to transcribe this. Huge thanks to Orion Sang for passing along the audio.]
How’s your group look?
“Our group looks good. The guys that are out there are working their tails off and pleased with the progress.”
So you’re not going to come here and do what you did last camp?
[laughs] “We’re just gonna talk about the guys that are out there practicing, getting better, how about that? That fair enough to say?
“Yeah, but Ambry Thomas, B. Watson, David Long, then you got a young guy in Myles Sims who still should be in high school, he’s our here working his tail off getting better, so it’s been promising. Then Hunter Reynolds, a walk-on, really getting better, so it’s been good for ‘em.”
You mentioned Ambry Thomas. What’s the biggest difference in him from year one to year two?
“He is very comfortable now. We were just talking about it over there about maturity level. You know, last year we were so young and now all the sudden these guys have had some playing experience and it has helped them, and so that’s last year and now you’re walking into a new year and just much more confident. And things are slower for them, and he’s been really improved. [Inaudible] with the ones quite a bit, so he’s been showing up a bunch.”
If he’s been working with the ones does that mean maybe that Vert moves into the inside? Are you guys messing around with those combinations there?
“Well, yeah, you know, Vert hasn’t practiced, so he’s losing valuable time, unfortunately for him. But it allows Brandon Watson to continue to get better, Ambry THomas to get better, David Long to get better, and as I mentioned Hunter and Myles. So, it’s great for those guys. They’re just growing by leaps and bounds.”
Why hasn’t Hill practiced?
“He’s got an issue with his hips or his groin. Trying to figure that out.”
[After THE JUMP: who’s rising, who’s out, and where guys might end up]
someday I hope to be as happy as Robert Landers (far left) [Fuller]
Ohio State’s punt coverage team is pretty good. Drue Chrisman, Ohio State’s punter, is really good. As a unit, they’ve allowed four returned punts for a total of 55 yards this season. Forty-two of those yards came on this play.
[After THE JUMP: more on both returners, parsing the punting, appreciating James Foug]
Talk about David’s [Long] play. He’s really seemed to pick it up.
“Yeah, David, from week to week, really from day to day, is just getting better. Really he’s working at his craft. It means something to him. It’s really good to see. I’m really happy for him.”
Any update on Lavert [Hill] or is that just a wait-and-see kind of thing?
“I think that’s a wait-and-see kind of thing. Know he’s in the protocol right now, so we’ll wait and see.”
What does that mean, ‘the protocol’?
“That means that he has to see a doctor every day, and certain symptoms have to go away or if they stay then certain things happen.”
How are you preparing to go without him if he can’t go?
“Oh, we’re fine. We’ll be fine. I have all the confidence in B-Wat and certainly David. Those guys are true starters anyway, and then Ben St. Juste behind them and Ambry [Thomas], he’s been playing, so we’re good. Then Jaylen Kelly-Powell, he’s been kind of working the nickel corner mode too, so we’ve got enough. We’re in good shape.”
Speaking of Jaylen, we saw him against Maryland actually on the defense and not just on special teams. What has he shown you?
“Well, he’s shown that he can cover. He’s pretty—he’s like a little magnet. He’s able to get in the slot and cover very well, and that’s why we had confidence to put him in there. He’s been doing well. Really well. What’s great about Jaylen is he can do a lot of different things. He’s a freshman; we’ve asked him to play safety, we’ve asked him to play corner, and now nickel. So those are—it’s not an easy thing to do and he’s done it and he’s done it well.”
[After THE JUMP: Kelly-Powell’s long-term fit, Ben St. Juste’s progress, when they need a decision on Hill, and intercepting the China concept]