You’ve got to be pretty pleased through three games with the way your guys are playing.
“Three really unique challenges. Obviously Florida with their ability, and despite them having two top-notch players out they still have a lot of firepower and I thought we did a good job going into that environment for our first trip on the road. That was kind of the piece that I was most concerned about was young guys on the road for the first time, how were we gonna respond? Obviously things didn’t quite go our way in the beginning but stayed really even-keeled. Just kind of kept playing the game, stayed in the moment, and kept executing at what I thought was a very, very high level. We really kept the pressure on the quarterback, so that was week one.
“Cincinnati really did a good job with their rub routes. I don’t know if that’s the legal term but I think that’s what the offensive guys call it, rub routes. They did a good job with the screen game. I was unhappy with a couple of the blocks but the reality is those tunnel screens are tough and I gotta do a better job in making sure we’re ready to play those.
“And then flip your hat, and I really tip my hat to my guys: Tuesday and Wednesday we took 230 snaps of option football. The gameplan was called on the line of scrimmage because they’re a team that has certain formations where they’re going to run the triple and other formations where they’re not gonna run option football, so everything’s all on the line of scrimmage getting called and I think we had one error. That was pretty good.
“But three different, unique challenges. The piece that’s really stuck out to me through the first three games is we can run, now. We’re pretty fast, and we get off blocks and run to the football as well as any group I’ve been around. That’s kind of a good thing. Forget the scheme and all that nonsense. It’s when guys can get off blocks, run to the football, and one of the things that doesn’t go unnoticed, at least from my perspective, is I think we’ve tackled really, really well. Sometimes early in the year that’s not always the case, but it has been the case for us for the first three weeks.”
[There’s so much good stuff after THE JUMP, just click already]
SPONSOR NOTES. Oh man yes I am still on that kick about advertising, which we try to do respectfully. HomeSure Lending supports our content and keeps us from going behind a paywall like the rest of sports media, at least that section of it dedicated to something other than clickbait. No autoplay videos, an advertising ratio of about 1:10 compared to TV, and Matt regularly buys people beer and food. So, yeah, man. A mortgage is basically one number, and Matt will get you that number super fast. It's either him or Larry Culpepper. CHOOSE YOUR FATE.
FORMATION NOTES. Michigan spent virtually the entire game in the stack. Most of the time they had Hudson aligned as the "pup" linebacker, as discussed in the game column.
Hudson on the hash farthest back.
Michigan had been using their DEs in a five tech (IE, lined up outside the tackles) in their first two games. Here they moved them into "4i," which is shaded just inside the tackles. The wing players are Metellus and Kinnel, with the corners flanking Hudson.
Air Force is of course in the flexbone. I called the above look "flexbone tight" and this one "flexbone twin TE":
Michigan did not slide in response and a lot of Air Force's successful runs came by hammering doubles down on both Furbush and Gary, but more about that later.
When Air Force went three-wide Michigan responded with a more conventional-looking press with two high safeties—for a given definition of "high."
Michigan had a four man front with Bryan Mone on two snaps. Oddly these were both first and tens; Air Force gained 1 and –3 yards.
SUBSTITUTION NOTES. The back eight was nearly immutable. J'Marick Woods got one snap when Metellus was dinged up and Michigan rotated Watson, Hill, and Long through their two CB spots. The LBs, Kinnel, and Hudson did not depart for any reason aside the two Mone snaps on which Hudson left.
The line was mostly Winovich, Hurst, and Gary. Kemp got maybe a half-dozen snaps; Solomon spotted Hurst for a similar amount of time. I think there was one Reuben Jones snap, maybe a few. Mone got the aforementioned two snaps.
I have ceased being a person who gets seriously exercised about the shortcomings, real or imagined, of Michigan's coaching staff. I will get my grouse on when it's fourth and a half yard and Michigan punts, because if I tried to hold that in I would literally die. There's some stuff later in this post about giving the ball to the Hammering Panda on short yardage and how it's dumb and stupid not to. There will always be niggling details that grate.
But I'm not going to freak out because Michigan's offense is struggling. If my mentions, or Ace's, or poor damn Nick Baumgardner's are any indication the Air Force game was HONEYMOON OVER for a healthy section of Michigan's fanbase. No doubt Sam and Ira have just completed four hours of radio where 75% of the callers were spittle-flecked, nude, and beet-red, proclaiming manifestoes about the personal embarrassment they were caused when Michigan could not score an offensive touchdown in the first 59 minutes of a game against a Mountain West team.
And... eh. I mean, nobody sane could disagree with propositions up to and including "this offense is butt and probably going to cost Michigan any chance of silverware." I wish the offense was not butt, too. In previous years I might be nude and beet-red, writing a manifesto about how I suffered personal embarrassment when Fitz Toussaint ran 27 times for 27 yards.
I am not. I'm going to see how this works out.
I'd like to think this is because I am so good at looking at football that I know that Michigan's problems under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke were clear, severe, and systemic coaching issues while Harbaugh's are not. To some extent this is probably true: Harbaugh has not switched his base defense midseason in a panic (twice!), or decided that "tackle over" was an offense instead of a gimmick, or continued inserting a quarterback without an ulnar nerve in the second half of an Ohio State game. The worst tactical issue he's had so far was the increasingly disappointing Pepcat package last year, which is a speeding ticket compared to the grand felonies perpetrated by Michigan's last two coaching staffs. Check that: three coaching staffs.
But I'm also extrapolating based on track record. There is an element of faith that Harbaugh engenders, because... uh... I mean, obviously? If you need numbers, here's Stanford, with Harbaugh in bold:
Harbaugh embarked on a similar project at San Francisco. The 49ers were 25th in Football Outsider's DVOA fancystat the year before his arrival. They improved to 18th in year one and then had consecutive top ten years (fifth and eighth) before a dropoff in Harbaugh's final season under Jed York. That last season is the only one in Harbaugh's pre-Michigan coaching career where the offense isn't either taking a significant step forward or an elite or near-elite unit, and it's saddled with a bunch of confounding factors. (SF got hit with a blizzard of injuries that year, oh and the owner was trying to force out a guy who'd gone to three consecutive NFC Championship games because reasons.)
At Michigan he immediately took the dead thing that was the Brady Hoke offense and made it okay, leaping from 89th to 38th in S&P+. Last year plateaued largely because the starting QB inexplicably went in the tank in Iowa and then did something nasty to his shoulder.
If the late slide a year ago and early sputters from a team that lost seven starters is enough to overthrow Harbaugh's long career of mostly great offenses in your mind, please go away. Yes, there are problems. No, this isn't Lloyd Carr turning Tom Brady, David Terrell, Anthony Thomas, and four long-term NFL starters into the 60th-best offense in the country. Bitching about Harbaugh's offense makes no sense after two years of inventive game plans, plays I have to invent terms for after a decade of doing this, and mostly solid results despite Brady Hoke's abominable late offensive recruiting*.
This feels bad man. But put your damn clothes on and stick to not sports.
*[Deep breaths. Ready?
The only offensive recruit to even make it to year five from the 2013 class are Patrick Kugler and the fullbacks. De'Veon Smith and Jake Butt were productive and graduated. Da'Mario Jones, Csont'e York, Jaron Dukes, Dan Samuelson, Wyatt Shallman, Chris Fox, David Dawson, Kyle Bosch, Shane Morris, and Derrick Green all burned out without making any impact.
Hoke's miserable 2014 class has Speight, the starting QB, Mason Cole, Ian Bunting, and nobody else even contributing. Moe Ways, Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Freddy Canteen, Drake Harris are all gone or benched.
And literally the only offensive recruits Hoke left Harbaugh in the transition class were Alex Malzone, John Runyan Jr, and Grant Newsome. That is three recruiting years producing four starters.]
Quinn Nordin got his second school record in three games. [Eric Upchurch]
Michigan had their J. Walter Weatherman game today.
You could practically hear "...and that's why you don't schedule Air Force" echoing through the stadium as early as the first quarter, when the Falcons somehow used 6:13 of game clock to drive 24 yards in 12 plays for a field goal to knot the game at three apiece.
While Michigan's defense played up to their lofty standard, Air Force lingered in a contracted game that featured only 11 full drives from each team. The Wolverines could only move the ball in fits and spurts, generally going in the right direction until they hit the red zone, where all-too-familiar problems from the season's first two games cropped up again. Whether it was blown blocks, conservative playcalling, or missed opportunities, those problems forced Michigan to settle for field goals on all four of their trips to the red zone.
"They were doing a really good of disguising coverages, disguising blitzes," quarterback Wilton Speight said, noting Air Force did a particularly good job in the red zone.
"They had a better call than we had most of the time down there in the red zone," said Jim Harbaugh. "We'd like to score more touchdowns in the red zone. I think that'll come. We're moving the ball."
Speight finished an underwhelming 14-of-23 for 169 yards in what's become a typically uneven performance. He had a few excellent throws and lost some yardage to drops—most notably on a third-down pass that clanged off Kekoa Crawford's hands in the fourth quarter—but also missed a couple open receivers and couldn't lead the offense to a touchdown until the game's waning minutes.
DPJ couldn't be stopped once he got his eyes on the end zone. [Upchurch]
Fortunately for Michigan, while the offense found their footing, the other two units were rock solid. Quinn Nordin tied a program record with five field goals in five attempts, including a 49-yarder with room to spare to give Michigan a 9-6 halftime lead.
After the defense forced a three-and-out on the opening possession of the second half, it looked like Michigan would finally break the game open. Donovan Peoples-Jones fielded a Charlie Scott punt that outdistanced the coverage, sprinted past the first wave, reversed field, and then tightroped the sideline for a 79-yard touchdown, the first of his Michigan career.
"My punt return team did a great job of blocking," Peoples-Jones said. "It made my job very easy. It just opened up like the Red Sea."
"I feel like great things are going to happen for Donovan Peoples-Jones," said Harbaugh.
Air Force countered with a rare explosive play, however, as receiver Ronald Cleveland got a step on Tyree Kinnel and took at third-down slant 64 yards to the house only four plays later.
That proved to be Air Force's only completion of the afternoon.
Somewhere in there is Air Force's quarterback. [Upchurch]
The defense, and the defensive line in particular, controlled this game. Against an offense that avoids negative plays at all costs, Michigan recorded nine tackles for loss and had three sacks on just 12 Air Force dropbacks. The three-man line of Rashan Gary, Mo Hurst, and Chase Winovich controlled the A- and B-gaps, allowing the back seven—led by Devin Bush and Mike McCray, who both finished with a team-high 11 tackles—to flow to the ball unencumbered.
By the second half, they were kicking the Falcons off the field with ruthless efficiency. Gary damn near beheaded quarterback Arion Worthman while forcing a third-quarter fumble the Falcons were fortunate to recover, inducing a roar of bloodlust from a previously stagnant crowd.
Their dominance meant two more field goal drives, plus a miss from Air Force's kicker, were enough to all but put the game away. Michigan was in clock-killing mode when Karan Higdon broke down the left sideline for a 36-yard touchdown with 1:02 to play.
"They play a brand of football that I really like, which is keep jabbing away," Harbaugh said. "They make you go beat them. They don't beat themselves."
That held true in this game. Frustratingly, it took the offense far too long to put the game away and still have fans feel comfortable heading into Big Ten play. Next week's trip to Purdue, a reinvigorated program under first-year coach Jeff Brohm, is looking far more perilous than it did a few weeks ago.
"We'll keep forging ahead, keep making improvements," said Harbaugh. "I like where this team is at right now."
SPONSOR NOTE: I would like to focus on that Larry Culpepper thing. Again. I mean, you've got HomeSure Lending. He's Pitbull here. He has parties. Sometimes underneath overpasses, and he just wants you to have a real good time. He's a Michigan fan, and he loves sharing the Michigan with you.
Other companies, when not putting kittens into their hummus, are running around blaring about rockets or how they invented mortgages and are very annoying and aren't offering you free food or #content. This is not a hard decision, especially when Matt gets you lightning fast quotes.
FORMATION NOTES: More four man fronts in this one. Excluding the final backup-laden drive, I had Michigan down for
45 3-3-5 snaps,
1 3-2-6 dime snap,
11 4-2-5 snaps, and
11 4-3-4 snaps.
They did this weird thing some, which I called "3-3 line slide":
Winovich is your "nose tackle" and the other DL are to his left.
They'd also do this thing where they had a huge split between "NT" Hurst and Gary:
These were both pass rush exotics.
Here is a good old 4-3 even. Funny old thing.
SUBSTITUTION NOTES: It was always Mone as the fourth DL, so Mone got 22 snaps, about a third of the total. Other starting DL went almost the whole way. Winovich/Hurst/Gary each briefly gave way to Jones/Marshall/Kemp but their snaps were probably under 5 each.
Linebackers were McCray, Bush, and Furbush throughout save the last half of the first UC touchdown drive, when Bush was sidelined with a minor injury and Wroblewski came in. Wroblewski will henceforth be called Robo. Furbush of course missed out on the 4-2-5 snaps.
In the secondary, Kinnel and Metellus were omnipresent; Hill, Watson, and Long rotated through the corner snaps with a scattered few claimed by Ambry Thomas. Glasgow did get one snap on which he defended a slant like a vengeful Kenny G. I think it was just one—he rather sticks out.
Depth chart mavens might be interested in the final drive, which saw Kemp-Dwumfour-Solomon-Paye across the front and a linebacker corps of Uche-Robo-Gil; secondary remained the same.
There is always a tipping point when something that probably won't happen becomes something that probably will happen. Sometimes this is nice, like when the entire NFL swears up and down that Jim Harbaugh wouldn't go back to Ann Arbor for love or money. Sometimes it is not nice.
If we aren't already at the tipping point where "Wilton Speight makes a lot of critical mistakes" is a reasonable, seemingly immutable theory, surely we are approaching it.
The weird thing is the way these critical mistakes are loosed into the world. Anybody can throw several passes into defenders' facemasks. Killing your team with a blizzard of boggling interceptions is almost common in college football, where injuries and the vagaries of rostering regularly see peach-fuzzed high schoolers thrown into a tank of piranhas. Sometimes people transfer from Tulane and are expected to stop throwing interceptions, for reasons unknown. Also apparently the NFL has this issue. Twitter informs me Scott Tolzien—yes, that guy—started a game this weekend. Twitter hastens to note that things did not go well. The hopelessly overmatched panic machine quarterback is so common it's a football trope.
Speight, on the other hand, has an air of cool control up until the moment he wings a pass so high that Donovan Peoples-Jones correctly decides his best bet is to spike it, or he turns around to hand air to his running back, or he does that again for the second time in one dang game. He does not seem overwhelmed. He hasn't thrown into coverage except on rare, understandable occasions*. He's yelling at his peach-fuzzed skill player crew about where to line up regularly. He makes a bunch of checks at the line. He is a man in command.
The very bad events are adding up. Everyone misses guys or makes bad reads or eats a sack on occasion. Speight's bad has been explosively bad, and maximally punished. Thus this column, which is lot like 2015's Jake Rudock is going to kill us column.
Rudock, of course, did not kill Michigan. He turned into a fine college player and Matt Stafford caddy, and even now it's not too hard to see Speight getting it together. His issues are fairly simple to correct; they jumped out at me, a layman, on a re-watch and Speight confirmed it in the postgame press conference:
“What it comes down to is, when there's something going on in my face – when I avoid the pressure – I've got to keep my base. Coach Pep is big on keeping my base. Staying loaded. And sometimes when I move around in the pocket, I get a little sloppy with my feet and it causes the ball to sail or go a little low."
Speight was leaning back a bunch in this game and the resulting throws were high. Nick Baumgardner with a preview of what UFR is going to say:
Also he's dorfing handoffs because he's not listening to Harbaugh. Two seemingly simple fixes yet to make it to the field in year four. This cuts both ways: if Speight can fix his lingering issues Michigan has that commanding guy when he throws straight and does not fumble exchanges, and that seems pretty good.
deep shot hit rate: muchly [Bryan Fuller]
There are very good reasons that Speight is keeping his competition stapled to the bench, and it's that upside. Nobody else on the roster is going to walk on the field and know where everyone else has to be, a critical skill given the average age of Michigan's offense. Nobody else is going to have all the checks in his head, or the pocket presence.
The things Wilton Speight needs to fix are fixable in a timespan of weeks. John O'Korn and Brandon Peters do not have flaws (presence and youth, respectively) nearly as tractable, and so Michigan is going to ride with Speight and hope like hell these blips are just that, and not a pattern that will clobber a promising season like it did in Iowa City last year.
Until further notice, all dropbacks will be evaluated with a jaundiced eye and glance towards Columbus. Welcome to the John Navarre zone.
*[In this game he tried a deep shot to a bracketed Peoples-Jones because there were only two guys in the route and both were covered and what else was he going to do, which is fine.]
Inside Michigan Football:
mobile man mauls Mouhon [Fuller]
Known Friends And Trusted Agents Of The Week
you're the man now, dog
#1 Mason Cole. This is a bit of a guess but OL never get the proper amount of respect in this section because I haven't gone over things with a fine-toothed comb yet. Cole helped Michigan bust a lot of crack sweeps, and while Isaac got the yardage on the long one it was Cole's ability to ID the force defender, declare him harmless, and go wreck a safety that sprung the play. He gave up nothing in pass protection, as well.
#2(t) Khaleke Hudson, Devin Bush, and Tyree Kinnel. Michigan's bushel of short fast dudes on defense terrorized the Cincinnati backfield, collecting all of Michigan's sacks on the day. Each also had their moments in the ground game as well; Kinnel in particular had a couple of critical tackles. Oh, and a pick six. (That was a bit of a gift, yes.) I'm rounding up and giving each gent a point. The points are made up and don't matter, people!
#3 Ty Isaac. Isaac was Michigan's best back again, slaloming through waves of opponent players. He alternated bounces with interior runs that kept UC off guard and used his size and speed combination to excellent effect.
Honorable mention: Winovich, Hurst, and Gary were all effective in bursts. Brandon Watson was in the back pocket of many a wide receiver. Grant Perry was efficient, explosive, and dangit that third down was a catch. Zach Gentry had a couple of key receptions.
Honorable mention: This week the good section gets to talk about Pick Six #1 and Pick Six #2. You will like them better here, I imagine. Also: Ty Isaac rips a long one off down the sideline, Speight hits Kekoa Crawford with a bomb; Rashan Gary hulks up after nearly getting ejected and gets the crowd hyped.
MARCUS HALL EPIC DOUBLE BIRD OF THE WEEK.
Speight's second dorfed exchange ends a promising drive for Michigan and causes even the aggressively reasonable to think this guy has a long term issue.
Honorable mention: Cincinnati rips off a long touchdown drive to start the third quarter and create a period of squeaky bum time; Donovan Peoples-Jones turns out to be Not Jabrill Peppers on punt returns; various Speight overthrows; that one play where both guards pulled in opposite directions.
SPONSOR NOTE: Matt also bought a very silly Michigan bus this offseason. For no reason, really. Just to have a giant bus with a winged helmet painted on it. And other stuff, sure. An engine, probably. Twitter handle painted on the side because that's how we do.
So you can get a mortgage from a guy with a giant Michigan bus or a guy without a giant Michigan bus. Homesure Lending is the guy with the bus. This is an easy choice even if you don't need a term sheet in 15 minutes because you're a bigshot lawyer who is very bad at promoting your own books.
FORMATION NOTES: Hoo boy.
Michigan played almost the entire game in a 3-3-5 stack. Copious discussion below.
PERSONNEL NOTES: Exact snap counts are not available right now but the general picture was clear. On the DL, Michigan started Gary, Hurst, and Winovich. Those guys got the lion's share of snaps. Marshall and later Solomon rotated in at NT. Kemp got a few snaps when Gary needed to get told something. Winovich went the distance until garbage time, when Reuben Jones and Kwity Paye got in.
At linebacker Furbush and McCray were the OLBs with Bush at ILB. Gil got a couple early series as Michigan rehydrated McCray; that was the only rotation until late. On the last drive the LBs were Gil again, Mbem-Bosse, and Uche.
Secondary was Metellus, Kinnel, and Hudson the whole way at safety with Hill and Long generally first choice at corner. Long's injuries and solid play from Watson got him a healthy number of snaps. Thomas got in a little bit in the third and fourth quarters. There was no dime package. Also yes I'm lumping Hudson in with the safeties since he will split over the slot and occasionally play FS.
Coach, could you talk about how Patrick Kugler did in his first start?
“Yeah, he did outstanding. He graded out the highest of all offensive linemen. Just very effective. Really, really happy with the way the offensive line played. Pat played his best game.”
In addition to the offensive line, what were the things on the offensive side of the ball that jumped out on video that you liked?
“The run game. Liked our pass protections. Liked in the passing game we hit big plays. We executed at times very well. The play action was extremely good. And we moved the ball. We were able to move and score points. Feel like we turned some of those red-zone field goals into touchdowns and you score 40, 45+ points.”
Obviously every game plays out differently but with the way Isaac succeeded, do you try to get the ball in his hands more going forward?
“Well, we were. I mean, that was the plan going into the game as well. He had a terrific game. He’s going to be our offensive player of the week. Really got us going on some off-schedule third-down runs. He played brilliantly and really happy for him.
“Chris [Evans] as well had good runs and so did Karan Higdon. We really felt good about those three backs in the ball game and we continue to feel good about them coming out of the ball game and going forward.”
Chase said on Saturday that forced fumble for him was a culmination of a lifetime of work. What’s impressed you most about him and his progression there after bouncing around from position to position earlier in his career?
“The motor. His energy, his effort…fast. It’s the speed at which he does it and he’s a strong player. Speed and strength, those are huge in football, as a team and as an individual player. Combine that with his get-up-and-go, his motor, his gung-ho attitude: all is a great combination for a football player.”
[After THE JUMP: running off-schedule, the starting QB, and offensive line…hype?]