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). There are food trucks, beer, televisions, a giant colorful bus, and it's right next to Revelli so the band will march past. Check it out.
FORMATION NOTES: Michigan's most gun-heavy game of the year with just 18 under-center snaps vs 43 from the gun or pistol. Unlike previous games Michigan was perfectly happy to run from the gun on short yardage. There wasn't a whole lot of weird stuff by formation. Michigan had a couple of quads packages, one from a bunch and the other more spread out.
Wisconsin stuck in their base 3-4 defense for virtually the whole game, with the exception of passing downs.
SUBSTITUTION NOTES: Mostly the usual. OL the starting five the whole way. At QB McCaffrey and Milton both got a a few snaps. Two of those came during the competitive portion of the contest. Evans returned and got backup snaps behind Higdon. Wilson was all but absent until about halfway through the fourth. Christian Turner used up game #2 with a few late carries.
Collins and DPJ backed by Martin and Bell at WR, as per usual. Very little Grant Perry—ten snaps and change—as Michigan played a ton of 2TE sets. McKeon and Gentry were both on the field for large chunks of the game; Eubanks got a few snaps.
The thing that stood out most was the lack of Ben Mason, who didn't have a role on those 2TE shotgun snaps but also ceded some playing time to Wangler.
10/6/2018 – Michigan 42, Maryland 21 – 5-1, 3-0 Big Ten
Take the box score. Eliminate it. Group events in a football game. Order those groups by how weird they are—how disproportionate the amount of thing X is relative to other football games. The top of our sorted list is not quite what I want to talk about because it's "walk-on running backs wiping two people and looking for more":
This is GD beautiful.
Tru Wilson is a bulldog.
He picks up the blitz to free Shea, then goes and pancakes a D Lineman, *then* gets up and looks for more.
Michigan-Maryland had way more of that than the average college football game.
The runner-up is what I want to talk about: pointing. Michigan's defense spent large swathes of this game frantically screaming at each other, and pointing. They pointed at Maryland players. They pointed at each other. They pointed back at the Maryland players because they'd exchanged positions, and sometimes helmets. Sometimes after a good play they'd point at each other again.
All of this made the partisan observer nervous. That's number three on our list of unusual football related things from Michigan-Maryland: the ratio of observer nervousness to opponent yards. Michigan's offense struggled to turn yards into points, so when one of Maryland's knife elves ripped off a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown the ensuing Terrapin drives had an unusual amount of collar-pulling for a game in which total yardage was approximately 200-20. At that point any particular shift may have induced an insufficient amount of pointing from the Michigan defense, whereupon Maryland scores a long big touchdown and Michigan's officially in one of Those Games again.
This was not one of those games. It was one of those other games where a vastly superior Michigan team clonks the opponent and everyone's like "okay but WHAT about THE RIVALS" afterward. Randomness notwithstanding, fair enough. But since there's a lack of other stuff to talk about, a lack of soaring emotional whatnots to put down for posterity, it is worth noting that Michigan didn't get got.
It is legitimately impressive that Michigan was able to adjust to all the junk Maryland threw at them. Until their desultory final drive Maryland's long was 20 yards and there didn't seem to be many, if any, opportunities that they failed to take. There were a couple of nervous moments when the various faster-than-light dwarves got in space and shook Michigan players; there were virtually no busts.
My grading doesn't do a good job with this because it gives you nothing for not screwing up and not being involved as a result of not screwing up. The safeties came in mildly negative last week and I tried to explain that while they had some bad plays individually they were part of a unit that gave up one play longer than 15 yards and that they were "meh" at worst. I've been thinking about trying to repair that for a while.
In any case: this was a second straight week of no big plays. Michigan is hyper-aggressive and is currently tied for 13th and 16th in number of 20+ and 30+ yard plays ceded. Whatever the individual faults the safeties have when their man coverage is tested, they are part of a coherent unit that has largely cut out the One Bust Per Game we've gotten used to the past few years. (Knock on wood.) The standout example this year was Brad Hawkins getting lost against SMU, and he's a sophomore non-starter.
This is all part of the Don Brown curve, where by year three when the team really has it down things take off. The pointing on Saturday was a different sort of pointing than the stuff from the last couple years. Old pointing induced nervousness in itself, because the opposing offense wasn't going Full Matt Canada and Michigan was still frantically pointing and yelling to each other, sometimes without a suitable outcome. New pointing gets Michigan through a Full Matt Canada game without an obvious touchdown-creating screwup.
The Don Brown curve is more of a line at Michigan since they were immediately stapled to the top of most statistical categories upon Brown's arrival. But they have remained steady in the face of some stiff attrition. After Mike Dwumfour went out, three of the four projected defensive line starters were absent. It didn't matter. It may well against Wisconsin, but if you want to bet against Don Brown in year three, go right ahead. Chase Winovich is going to be pointing out your teeth on the ground afterwards.
you're the man now, dog
#1 Shea Patterson. 10.5 yards an attempt, a couple of Forcier escapes, and a dime off his back foot that didn't even count. Repaired most of the issues from last week. More in the offense section.
#2 Zach Gentry. The focus of the passing game; 7 catches for 112 yards. Yes, should have been more if he'd followed his blockers on the screen. But he's pretty much the only non-Patterson player to have, like, stats.
#3 Khaleke Hudson. Hudson made a major impact early when the game was still in doubt, with a sack and a rush that would have been a second if Mike Dwumfour didn't barely edge him out.
Honorable mention: The rest of the defense. Karan Higdon. Ben Mason.
Deep in the fourth quarter, Michigan lined up from seven yards out in an offset I-form on first-and-goal. Fullback Ben Mason took his place as the deep back and Jared Wangler, the one-time linebacker, was aligned two yards behind Shea Patterson and offset to his left. Patterson took the snap, turned to his right, and faked a handoff to Mason while Wangler ran across the front, dipped inside a shuffling defensive end, and found himself all alone on the right side. Seeing Patterson rolled to his right while Wangler flattened his route and started running for the front corner of the end zone. Patterson hit him in front of the maize “N” in Michigan’s end zone scrawl, and a game that was marked by domination in all other box score metrics finally reflected that on the scoreboard.
Scoring out of a two-fullback set was extremely BIG TENNNN enough to justifiably grab the attention of Michigan twitter, but the catch was more than a novelty: it was a sign of what Michigan’s offense can be. The athleticism of Michigan’s fullbacks allowed them to play two at once without tipping run or pass, the offensive line gave the backs and quarterback time and space, Karan Higdon made smart cuts that helped keep the offense on schedule, the receivers brought in almost everything thrown their way, and the tight ends were Patterson’s go-to chain-movers. The Wolverines scored on seven of their 10 drives, including their final six.
With the exception of a flubbed kickoff that Ty Johnson took 98 yards for a touchdown, Michigan shut Maryland down, full stop. Maryland’s run game was a test for Michigan, particularly with the perfectly timed handoffs off of jet action that Maryland deployed; excising the 78 rushing yards Maryland racked up on a garbage-time drive down 28 points with four minutes left, the Terps rushed for 69 yards on 31 carries. 133 of their 220 total yards came in the fourth quarter, as did 101 of their 147 rushing yards. Maryland converted 38.5% of their third downs, which is only surprising because their average distance to go on third down was 9.3 yards and Brandon Watson's pick-six came on third down. The defensive standout today was the defense as a whole, though Tyree Kinnel, Devin Bush, Josh Ross, and Khaleke Hudson also get special mention for knowing when to fill and for holding down big gains; unsurprisingly, these four were Michigan’s leading tacklers.
hen looking at the scheme Brown chose to defend the Gophers 11/20 pers. formations, one will notice the ultra aggressiveness towards the run and the lack of “coverage” for the H-back. Brown also had several change-ups and automatics to motion and the different formations the Gophers threw at the Wolverines. Below is a diagram of how Brown blitzed the Viper anytime the H-back motioned away.
Coach Brown during his clinic talk at the 2018 Lone Star Clinic noted the absence of the TE in the passing game during the Big 10 season. Outside of Troy Fumagalli at Wisconsin and Mike Gesiki at Penn State, one will be hard-pressed to find a TE that merits an extra man in the passing game. This allowed the Wolverines to add an extra defender in the box against most Big 10 opponents without worrying about an “H-Pop” or a TE streaking down the middle of the field.
Much more at the link.
[After THE JUMP: more Zach Smith stuff, Quinn Hughes doing Quinn Hughes things.]
[Ed. A- Thank you once again to 247’s Isaiah Hole for getting me video so I can still transcribe even when doctors’ appointments keep me from being there]
“Alright, what’s up?”
Four practices in. How would you characterize the start of spring practice?
“Lot of energy. Improving on the execution from where we started to where we’re trying to get to. Every practice has been better, but I think the guys are really taking to it well and really competing with the defense at a high level.”
What have you seen from Karan [Higdon] and Chris [Evans] specifically?
“Doing a great job. Just exactly what you’d expect from them. They’re taking all the parts of their game that needed detail or polish and they’re doing that. Every day it’s one less mistake and really turning in a great spring thus far.”
Could you elaborate on some of those parts of their game?
“The rare double question. Protection-wise, they’re both improving. Route detail in terms of the top routes, details that typically running backs don’t get to just because they don’t have the time. Those guys are exceptional athletes and as we work them in empty packages and coming out of the backfield, they can handle a lot of detail in their technique like a receiver would, so continuing to hone those skills has been nice to see.”
You mentioned that they’ve gotten better at pass protection. How have they evolved since you took over the position in pass protection?
“They’re both super tough. Just getting them to play with the technique that we’re looking for and it’s really, from right now to like if you compared it to last spring it’s significantly better, and even these four practices have been incrementally better.”
[After THE JUMP: the punctilious pursuit of pass protection perfect, Ben Mason two-way murderball comin’, and an offense as a living organism]
[Ed. A- I was too sick to make the trip in yesterday, but thanks to 247’s Isaiah Hole I had video from which to transcribe.]
“I thought after the first big run that he has we did a decent job of containing there. They hit some big plays. Quarterback’s phenomenal. Hit some big plays on us in the pass game and kind of flustered us a little bit and then we couldn’t get re-settled down in terms of that. I don’t think we paid too much attention, though.”
What happened to Quinn on the missed extra point? Crowd was booing him pretty heavily but did that affect him?
“No, I mean, that’s unacceptable. That can’t happen. He knows that. He just let his emotions get carried away and kind of kicked the ground a little bit and pushed it and that’s got to be fixed immediately from a mental standpoint. Can’t have that ever happen again.”
Ambry [Thomas] seems to really be progressing in kick return. Talk about what you’ve seen from him.
“He’s explosive, fearless. He’s what you want back there. It’s a really good combination we have now. We got Ben Mason, Brad Hawkins, Ambry, three true freshmen working together, getting to know each other, feeling each other out, because all three of those guys could get the ball and two of them have to be a blocker on every kick. Really, really happy with that unit’s progression and how those guys are really coming together and feeling each other out and stuff like that. Really happy with that group.”
[After THE JUMP: Rashan don’t read this, he wants you to keep the chip on your shoulder]
The old guard had been around forever—Desmond Morgan started as a freshman and had an injury redshirt in there—and is now gone. In their stead there is… well, a guy. Michigan's linebacker recruiting in the Hoke era was a major failing, so after one guy they've mishandled and one guy who narrowly evaded a career-ending injury there's freshmen and the only non-Order-of-St.-Kovacs walk-on on the two deep.
Could get hairy if anyone can get to these guys on the ground or protect their quarterback long enough to get 'em in the air. So probably not that hairy. Still, along with the offensive line and quarterback, linebacker stands out as a position at which things could go pear-shaped.
On the other hand, Peppers. He's actually in this post!
And this year he hopes to refine his immense talent into a TFL and PBU machine.
One part of his game is already flawless and has been so from the drop. He was a bonafide hybrid space player from his first snaps against Utah. Any sort of swing, flare, or screen to the wide side of the field was going to die horribly. Peppers was truly, literally unblockable in space. He'd slow up, pick his moment, and just explode past the wide receiver who drew the short straw:
Three times in this game Peppers destroyed plays that attacked the wide open spaces he is set to patrol. If Michigan can rely on that, those passes across the middle that open up because of bubble fakes get removed along with the screens; it's kind of a big deal to be able to do that.
The utterconsistencywithwhichthishappened became a defensive bellwether. I eagerly awaited the moment when the offensive coordinator got fed up with having zero access to a big chunk of his playbook and said "screw it." One snap later the OC was reminded why he wasn't doing this:
Blocking someone with his explosiveness on the edge is a futile task. This is a screen that he turns in barely outside the hash and still gets a tackle in on, because he can wait until the proper moment and just explode past the guy who drew the short straw:
Peppers gets places fast and brings a pop when he gets there. Sometimes he makes the play himself and sometimes he allows others to rally to make it, because he's constricting space that other guys cannot.
I say "mostly" because Peppers does need to refine a few things. He has a bit of Brandon Harrison disease wherein he gets going so dang fast that he overruns his target, and his tackling form could use some work. But even when he missed a tackle last year he funneled things back to his teammates.
As Peppers moves inside more often this ability will serve him well. There was a spate of tiny linebacker articles over this offseason, and this one from The Ringer highlights that Peppers evasion thing:
The key to smaller linebackers surviving in a land of 330-pound giants isn’t taking them on in single combat; it’s anticipating movements to avoid combat altogether.
“Those guys seem to make their living not by getting off blocks, but by never getting blocked,” Snead says. “They’ve got to read things quickly so they can use their deficiency to their advantage.”
There was the occasional indicator that Peppers would be able to continue his uncanny ability to blow past blockers even as space gets constricted. Here he reads the play and simply redirects past a fullback assigned to him:
His explosion is such that he can dart around blockers to the "wrong" side so fast that he makes it right. He makes all that Joe Bolden stuff work, and that'll be key when he is faced with much larger opposition.
We have some evidence what Peppers will look like as a linebacker. He was in the box on scattered snaps. He was kept clean, for the most part, and Peppers showed an ability to read and react. This isn't hard, but we don't have much else to go on:
He was used as a blitzer very occasionally, and looked much like he did whilst erasing screen games nationwide. He's fast and brings a load and often comes in too hot to get a clean shot.
If he does get a free run at a blindside target an Oregon State receiver can tell you what the likely outcome is:
Peppers has the potential to force a ton of fumbles.
When Peppers is an actual SAM linebacker and not reprising his hybrid space player role, Plan A is keeping Peppers clean by demanding double teams for the SDE; Plan B is Peppers blowing the minds of linemen and blocky/catchy guys with his ability to do make something conventionally understood to be wrong work for him.
He was still a bit iffy in the slot but started making it difficult for guys to get in their routes, and he started making the occasional play in off man. The Penn State debacle is evidence enough that his coverage is still a work in progress, but in this case we really do mean "work in progress" instead of "permanent problem" as people so often do when they deploy that phrase. His improvement should be obvious. He won't be perfect but slot receivers aren't going to get the best of him for much longer.
Peppers can and will do a half-dozen different things on D. You'll see him as a SAM, as a nickel, as a strong safety, as a boundary corner as Michigan tries to put out fires and exploit mismatches. Boston College SAM Matt Milano is a good baseline: 60 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, and 3 PBUs a year ago. Peppers is around the same size and much more athletic. (I have no idea how athletic Matt Milano is and I'm sticking with that assertion.) I'd expect more pass defense stats and not so many TFLs since the DL will eat up their share, but as I said on the other side of the ball his omnipresence should lead to a bunch of stats both ways and a Heisman finalist slot.
This is music to a new defensive coordinator's ear: Michigan sports an all-senior linebacker corps. All have started for multiple years, give or take a hand injury or benching here and there. They've even got a high-quality backup. Senior leadership is out of control, man!
Approximately the fourth-best* thing to happen to the 2015 team's chances over the last year was DESMOND MORGAN breaking his hand after the first game of the season. That didn't have much impact on where 2014 went; it gives this year's team a three-year starter to slot in the Jake Ryan-shaped hole at middle linebacker.
By this point you're probably tired of me extolling Morgan's virtues, and since he didn't do much last year other than fall behind Joe Bolden just long enough for me to eat a lemon this is going to be a rehash.
Morgan is a heady, athletic enough, stick-em tackler who's been yelling at the rest of the front seven to get in the correct spot for a few years now. He is your proverbial quarterback of the defense. That role will probably be lessened this year since the entire front seven consists of upperclassmen, but expect him to thwack Lawrence Marshall and maybe Mo Hurst should the need arise. Mike Spath got a great quote about Morgan's ability in that department:
On U-M's linebackers: "We played them two years ago and the guy that everyone seemed to listen to was [Desmond] Morgan. Those guys are invaluable. Everyone respects them.
"Last year, you didn't hear a lot of talk from the middle linebacker. I don't think Jake Ryan was a talker. He just wanted to do his own thing. He was very good at it, but he wasn't that guy in the middle of a defense that was taking care of the other 10 guys on the field."
When called into duty to make a tackle, he brings the wood.
During the 2014 Minnesota game he uncorked this ridiculous thing where he flew in on a blitz, had to leap over a guy, kept his feet, held up two blockers, and helped stuff a third and short.
Morgan found himself in a bad stop here, taking on a free releasing lineman in a bunch of space. He popped that OL back; the RB ran into said OL, and Michigan saved some yards.
When Jake Ryan faced the exact same situation later on that drive, he tried to make a spectacular play. His attempt to teleport around that OL was an instinct that served him well as a chaos-sowing SAM linebacker; when moved to MLB that instinct meant he didn't delay the back at all. Instead of six yards, Michigan gave up 11.
That's Morgan in a nutshell. He will hit guys hard and funnel back to his help and drop into his zone. He'll make it difficult for a QB to get a completion on him; he'll make it difficult for a running back to get YAC on him; he'll make it difficult for an OL to stay attached to him. He's not going to turn in Ryan's Tarzan plays, but you don't have to do that to be a great middle linebacker.
As David Harris demonstrated, MLB is a thinking man's spot. Harris was just about flawless with his reads, and his understanding of the game extended to ways to get off blocks without even taking them—one of his trademarks was in effect juking OL by momentarily fighting to one side of a block and then cutting back once the OL took a false step. Morgan had some moments like that a year ago:
Do that consistently and you get to be David Harris too.
Morgan's coverage is good. Very rarely does he vacate big tracts of land, as both Ryan and Bolden were prone to last year. He of course saved Michigan's bacon in the 2013 UConn game (for all the good that did them in the long run) with a leaping spear of an interception. Add it up and you get a 2013 UFR in extended, trying circumstances that looks like a guy who is on the verge of stardom:
Negative coverage number should be factored in here.
Saved the game.
First real test this year passed easily.
Rough start, strong finish.
Blew one TFL big. Otherwise solid.
Drawn in by some misdirection.
Pulled early with injury.
UFR is tough on linebackers, so anything above zero is good. To consistently go over it over the course of a season, generally on heavy usage is very difficult.
The main drawback here is explosiveness. Morgan doesn't rack up TFLs and sacks; he's not great at getting to the quarterback on blitzes. (Run blitzes, on the other hand, he is excellent at, especially on short yardage.) He is not the kind of athlete that is going to make the NFL salivate.
But there are few guys I'd rather have on third and one. Morgan should reprise his 2013 with some incremental improvements. That would make him an All Big Ten level guy even if the lack of fancy stats prevents that from happening in real life.
*[Your top three are Dave Brandon late night email sessions, Harbaugh, and Jake Rudock's transfer.]