So that felt...routine-ish? Like, not demonstrably different than against Maryland except that Michigan wasted a couple more scoring opportunities? I'm not sure how I'm going to keep writing these diaries without fresh content. It also doesn't help when the game ended well into Saturday night...
This will be short, mostly because this feels like yet another version of the last couple of games and because I'd rather not be up until 2 a.m. again. Maryland isn't worth the hangover.
This is a crazy update from Maizen's thread (here) now that we're at the end of the season.
The latest version of the report (linked here) is from a 247 article, with original info coming from Toronto Sun columnist John Kyrk.
I mean, yikes. This should at least raise some eyebrows.
Edit: Title was worded improperly. Please see the comments below for more information.
This is not going to be a typical recap-ish diary. It's been a long regular season, draining in ways I didn't expect and refreshing in others. While perhaps not the king, I certainly am on the royal court for clichés, and trotting out a couple dozen more to fill out a diary-length entry is just a waste of time. I've been writing some form of this diary for about 7 years; I just passed my 9 year anniversary as a member of this version of MGoBlog. In other words
And yeah, that says something about my stupid obsession with watching college sports and probably the oblong-shaped hole missing in my soul, but that's a discussion for another day. Needless to say, though, I've been around enough of these games, enough of these gut punches, that I try to keep some perspective about the proceedings, to remember that in the end we're talking about sports and college athletes to boot. These are young men, tasked with performing on grand stages before millions for our entertainment, and sometimes they fail to meet our expectations. And that's the thing; we take it so personally when they don't succeed because, as a fan, you are so powerless in the narrative you willfully take part in. You wear the clothing, you buy the tickets, you strain every fiber in your body to scream from the stands, because that's as much as you can do to affect the outcome on the field. Your avatars, the young men in those jerseys bearing your team's colors, don't need you to be there to do their job, but you need them for this whole exercise, this pageantry, this obsession to mean anything.
I get it; this reads like some scrambled freshman literature or sociology essay, something you throw together because you forgot it was due in 12 hours. And maybe it is; there are much better writers around here than me, and there's a reason I stopped being a lawyer years ago, where being pithy and concise is a mandate. But what I want to stress, what I think needs to be stressed in the wake of this game and what I can only imagine was a deluge of stupidity that followed, is that these are human beings out there, and they wanted this win to a degree that us in the peanut gallery probably can never quite grasp.
— Justin Rose (@JRoseWXYZ) November 25, 2017
Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that every person who's ever put on a school's uniform does so with unbridled passion in his heart and single-minded focus to win; I can say with 100% certainty that players have won and lost these games without giving a shit either way. But John O'Korn, the much derided last guy standing of Michigan QBs, he cared. He cared deeply about this game, deeply about what this meant for his class and the legacy they'll have at Michigan. He's the one who got sacked 5 times and hit a half-dozen more. He's the guy who couldn't quite connect on plays when he needed to, who will probably relive that missed conversion to Evans, that pick to effectively end the game, for the rest of his life.
Just because he cared doesn’t shield him from fair criticism, and even Jim Harbaugh made it clear that his QB missed plays that needed to be made. So I was going to rag on him a bit, point out that if he had played even 10% better this team probably wins, maybe even comfortably. That all 4 Michigan losses this year occurred when the offense couldn't consistently move the ball with him at the helm. But that's reductive and inflammatory without context; he didn't play those games in a vacuum. He played against Purdue because Wilton Speight got crushed by one in a series of unblocked rushers; he regained his job from Brandon Peters in much the same way. And it’s not like I’ve got any new insights into what went wrong; we long ago distilled his failings down to see throw/make throw trivialities. He's got one more game in his college career, likely his football-playing career, and then that's it. He and the few seniors on this team will officially enter the history books at Michigan, reference points to the year (I hope) when Michigan pulled out of the nose dive that started with Carr and basically proceeded with little correction until Jim Harbaugh arrived on campus.
Because this team showed improvement, noticeable improvement, this season. Now, whenever Brain re-enables comments feel free to run to them and call my an idiot, a lackey, a homer who stares at the world through maize-colored glasses. Go for it. I don't blame you. But this isn't the team I saw get beaten to a bloody pulp by Penn State, or the disjointed, self-combusting unit that got water-logged against MSU. These past two weeks, Michigan has faced at least one team that will be in the college football playoffs this season*, and for the most part looked downright competitive against them despite being, at various times: on the road, down to their 3rd QB, and short any number of key players. And this isn't one of those "they kept it close on the scoreboard" types of performances like PSU, where the Nittany Lions were much better and Michigan was holding on by the skin of their teeth. Against Wisconsin, Michigan had over a 100 yard advantage, and the lead, midway through the 3rd quarter, and probably should have been ahead even more had they been able to capitalize on good field position (and not gotten a bad review on a TD pass to DPJ). Against OSU, Michigan finished the first quarter up 7 and with 105 yards of total offense to -6; at halftime Michigan was tied with OSU despite dropping a sure-fire interception and still receiving an erratic performance from their QB. Unlike in years past, they could run the ball reasonably effectively; Evans and a banged-up Higdon averaged over 5 ypc and Evans added 34 yards in the air, a fair cry from their past couple of years on the ground. Hell, it was a 4-point game with about 2 and a half minutes to spare in the 4th quarter. I'm not one for moral victories, but if you had told me this Michigan would be on their 3rd QB, without an established wide receiver and a running game that moved in fits and spurts behind an inconsistent (and yeah, that's charitable) offensive line and STILL be in either of these past two games late into the 4th quarter, I'd have been rather pleased.
That’s not because I accept defeat and mediocrity, or am a “bad” fan or don't know how to spell "unacceptable" without 45 exclamation points. No, it's because this is what a young team should look like at the end of the year. People have complained around here for years that Michigan fades as the leaves fall, that they never show improvements and instead simply regress. And for as wrong as that take is objectively, I'll concede it for now. Michigan just went toe-to-toe with the best in the conference and were in fights to the end. The youngest team in P5, a team cycling through QBs, with running backs who can't stay healthy and an offensive line that can't really block anyone, didn't luck their way into competitive contests; if anything, they had bad luck to not pull one of them out. And I know people want to look at 2018 and scream about trap games and loses to rivals and all that, and there will be time to discuss how 2018 looks when we aren't about 9 months out, but this is a team returning a hell of a lot of talent and potential across the roster. And while a win or two this year would have been nice, you can see the foundation for the type of team Michigan will be under Jim Harbaugh. And I'm sure some jackass will run to the comments and say "3rd in the division", but I don't care.
I've said all along that Ohio State is not going to come back to Michigan; they are not obliged to stub their toes for nearly a decade like their rivals to the north. It has always been on Michigan to catch them, to get themselves back to that competitive balance. And for the past 2 seasons, Michigan has looked the part sooner than I expected. They should have won last year in Columbus; they could have won today. "Shoulda, woulda, coulda" and all that, but I'll take this ending over Hoke's and RR's games against OSU any day. And my guess is that Michigan will look even better in their bowl game, and they'll surprise some people next year. We've seen what Michigan looks like with talent returning; 5 points from a perfect season, road trips and all. I'm not saying that Michigan will be an elite team in 2018; they've got enough questions to tamp down that talk, and regardless we're months away from that being a relevant discussion. But I've seen this team make strides toward making that a reality, and that means something to those of us who remember this rivalry's history.
*Even though I think both teams are worse than Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Oklahoma, Clemson, and would be in dogfights with Miami, ND, USC, TCU, and maybe even UCF)
Worst: Just a Bit More
John O'Korn played basically to his season numbers. He threw for 195 yards, 53%, 6.1 ypa, with a TD and a pick. In his 7 appearances this year prior to OSU: 53%, 6.1 ypa, 1 TD, 5 picks. He got sacked 5 times in the game and hit even more, a couple of the "so we're just not blocking guys this play?" variety. He missed open receivers, threw a bit too high to others, and never seemed to get into much sustained rhythm. You've heard this before, and barring a setback with Speight's and Peters's recovery from various injuries, it'll probably be the last time. It's going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but he was who everyone thought he was, and expecting more at this point AND being disappointed when he doesn't reach that level shouldn't be a surprise. He clearly had a larger grasp of the complete playbook compared to Peters, or at least did coming into the year. His ability to execute on it, though, was always the limiting factor.
That said, he helped Michigan put up nearly 300 yards of total offense against a top-20 defense, basically equaling the combined output of their last two opponents (MSU and Illinois) combined. Unlike in past games, he posed a believable threat as a passer despite his inconsistencies; whether by play design, individual performance, or most likely a combination of the two, Michigan was able to break receivers open somewhat consistently all day. Even on the late interception, the problem wasn't the play but the execution; the throw shouldn't have been the Crawford, as both Gentry (I think) and DPJ where better options in single-ish coverage. OSU's corners and safeties aren't as talented (at least yet) as the slew of first-rounders they had last year, but they aren't slouches. The playcalling sprung receivers for open looks, and when given the opportunity they took advantage, even if the ball didn't quite get there. Hell, in the first quarter Michigan should have had a TD on an overthrown ball to McKeon in the endzone; that was a great call and route that has been missing at times this year. It's going to sound like a broken record so feel free to read something else if it's annoying to you, but flip a couple of plays and Michigan maybe pulls this out. It gives me hope that we'll see an improved passing game in the bowl, and with (I assume) every receiver returning next season plus Black and others coming off the injured list, a far more dynamic unit than this year.
Best: Running the Ball
Michigan's top 2 backs (Evans and Higdon) finished with 122 yards on 22 carries on the day, a nice 5.5 ypc and, most impressively, only 1 TFL for a paltry 1 yard. Last year, Smith and Evans averaged under 3 ypc on 27 carries for 78 yards; the year before that, Smith and Peppers barely broke 3 ypc on 17 carries for 52. Other than a blip in 2014 when Drake Johnson flitted his way to 74 yards before getting hurt, Michigan hasn't consistently moved the ball on the ground against OSU since 2011 when both Denard and Fitz went over 100 in the win.
With Michigan within striking distance in the 4th quarter, I saw people complain that Michigan went away from the running game. But if you look at the playcalls, that wasn't the case. After O'Korn got sacked and then completed a nice little screen to McDoom for the first, Michigan ran the ball for 9, 3, and 9 yards again. On the next play, O'Korn was trying to hand the ball off when he was stepped on by one of his linemen; that probably would have been for another first. On the next two downs Michigan threw the ball, but they still tried to engage the backs. Evans was wide open on that 4th down, and could have easily busted it for a big gain had the ball gotten to him. For the game, Evans led all receivers with 5 catches (3 if you ignore the last two on the final, meaningless drive), including a great catch-and-run in the redzone that set up Michigan's first score. Going forward, I hope the recent uptick in Evans's receptions (11 receptions in the last 6 games after having 3 previously) is a sign he'll provide that element to the offense going forward. And Higdon, despite some clear limitations due to lingering injuries, ran the ball aggressively and effectively. He should probably be the feature back next year, with Evans providing some change-of-pace plus good hands out of the backfield, and guys like Samuels and Walker grabbing carries as needed.
And credit should go to the offensive line's run-blocking efforts. That Wisconsin game looks more like an outlier than a harbinger of doom, as Michigan was able to get a consistent push against a talented OSU front. Like the rest of the team, they've made strides being legitimately good at opening holes for these backs, and while losing Cole will hurt that effort next year, we've seen enough from Ruiz, Onwenu, and JBB to have some confidence the interior of this line will be able to move bodies effectively going forward.
Worst: Still Can't Stop the Rush
I've said it before and I'll repeat - I don't know who (or if) anyone should be fired on this staff, but when changes are made, it needs to start on those involved with the offensive line's pass blocking. It can be Frey, Drevno, I don't care, but the one area where this team really hasn't shown any noticeable improvement all season is handling what feels like somewhat-rudimentary pass blocking concepts. I get that teams will try to disguise their rush lanes, disrupt timing and communication by the linemen, stunt teams to death, etc. But Michigan has allowed 34 sacks this year; they allowed 22 all of last year, and that was an underwhelming unit as pass blockers. On top of that, they lost 2 QBs due to poor protection; Speight's still recovering from a broken back and Peters was never going to see the field after getting a concussion last week. With even competent pass blocking this year Michigan is probably looking at 10+ wins already; at the bare minimum, they wouldn't have had to entertain the legitimate discussion of who's the 5th QB on the roster.
Best: Slowing Down OSU
This isn't your classic OSU offense; they struggle to throw the ball downfield and neither Weber nor Dobbins strike me as the multi-purpose, dominant backs that this offense thrives with. Still, it came into the game #4 in the national per S&P+, because when it gets going downhill it's hard to stop. And so it should be noted that until OSU's back-breaking final TD, Michigan's front 7 had held Barrett, Weber, and Dobbins to 160 yards on 42 carries, a 3.8 ypc clip. They also picked up 7.5 TFLs and consistently disrupted OSU drives. I know Barrett was hurt at some point before the game by a mysterious camera man, but he never looked comfortable out there and was taking some rough hits both in the backfield and on the run. Gary in particular was a monster with 2 sacks and 10 tackles, continuing his dominance from the past couple of weeks. If he takes the expected evolutionary step as a true junior next season, he'll be one of the best linemen in the country and should mute the loss of Hurst somewhat. Plus, Winovich seemed to have broken out of the mini-slump he was in during the middle of the year, picking up a sack and 9 tackles on the day.
Speaking of Hurst, when not being tackled by overmatched OSU linemen he was slowing down the OSU backs and making life uncomfortable for Barrett. Bryan Mone saw a lot of time as well, as Aubrey Solomon didn't chart for the game and, I'll be honest, I don't remember seeing him much out there. It could be that teams ran away from him, but this felt like a game where Michigan was able to deploy Mone to eat up blockers and he did so effectively.
And McCray, Bush, and Hudson all had their moments, with both Bush and Hudson running down plays before they could get dangerous and McCray limiting runs past the line and tying for the team lead in tackles. OSU tried a couple of times to exploit him in space and other than one long Barrett run and (maybe) one of the crossing routes by Haskins I don't remember him getting into trouble. OSU had a bit more success once Haskins took over, but that fell more on the secondary than the front 7 in my opinion. Overall, an encouraging day from the unit that should be one of the best in the country again next season.
Meh: The Secondary
Metellus will draw most of the ire for his dropped pick in the first half, but it was an up-and-down day for the secondary. Barrett struggled to find his receivers all day, and I thought the coverage was pretty good in that first half. But there were a couple of missed tackles, especially in that second half when Haskins came in and OSU seemed to always spring a guy loose on these short pitch-and-catches that turned the game. In particular, Hill got beat on OSU's first FG drive when K.J. Hill just sprinted past him, and OSU nearly scored again the next drive when K.J. Hill again was able to slip past his defender. And to make matters worse, both Kinnel and Long left the game at various points, with Kinnel's backup Woods also getting dinged on a run stuff, necessitating Jordan Glasgow coming on. And no matter how deep you are as a team, having your 4th safety out there late in a game isn't a good sign.
I don't believe for a second that the defensive backfield cost Michigan the game or anything, but there were a couple of plays in this game where a turnover, a PBU, a tackle short of the sticks, maybe gives Michigan another chance. And for an OSU team that struggles in the air, being able to string together drives with run-and-catches for big gains were back-breakers. It's part of the reason I wasn't sure what to make of Haskins as the backup; he finished 6/7 for 94 yards, but about 80 of those yards were YAC from simply crossing routes and screens, plus the now-expected inch-perfect downfield throw into coverage. He played a lot like Peters did when he filled in for O'Korn that first game; he was tasked with simple reads and his receivers did the bulk of the work. And while credit should go to OSU for calling the right plays and for executing, there's probably going to be plays in the UFR (if Brian does indeed do one) where the defense could have booted OSU.
This is apparently not a hold
Looks clean to me ðŸ™ˆ pic.twitter.com/MZDrrsqZN8
— Charles Power (@CharlesAPower) November 25, 2017
Brandon Watson got called for a defensive hold in this game and it was 100% the right call; it kept OSU's game-winning drive going. But how you can call one and not the other, and do so for years straight, is astounding. Michigan also got screwed on a spot following an O'Korn scramble; he was over the line, and had he gotten that spot Michigan would have had a fresh set of downs and a promising drive moving through OSU's defense. I am not one to cry conspiracy because that is idiotic; there no reason to believe a bunch of grown-ass men sat around and decided to punish Michigan with terrible calls because (pick your conspiracy claim) they don't like Jim Harbaugh, they want "X" to win because it looks better for the conference, they hold a grudge against Michigan for some undisclosed reason, etc. No, it's much simpler: the league employs incompetent refs who never get punished or removed, so you have the same 50-year-old lawyers and accountants trying to keep up with college athletes and deal with hostile crowds and that’s going about as well as you expected.
I'll be quick - Michigan doesn't stay within 4 points of OSU with the current state of the roster without some inspired playcalls. Don Brown stymied OSU for much of this game; the defense gave up the ghost a bit at the end, but he had counters for a lot of OSU's favored tendencies and generally forced OSU to win with J.T. Barrett's legs. With a bit more scoring, that would have been a winning strategy. As for the offense, Harbaugh and co. were able to get guys open in the passing game and was able to cobble together a rushing game that, again, was one of the better performances we've seen against OSU both this year and in recent Game history. People will complain about particular playcalls and accountability and all that horseshit, but in a game where Michigan's staff had to manufacture points with play calls, they did so.
Next: The Bowl and 2018
If projections hold up and Michigan is going to the Holiday Bowl for a date with Stanford, that would be a fun (if somewhat boring) game to watch, more for the narratives than the game itself. Still, it would be a decent matchup and a game where Michigan wouldn't be tasked with playing a vastly underseeded team; Stanford is better but not demonstrably so compared to Michigan.
And while I know I said discussing 2018 isn't really relevant, I would like to point out that perceptions of opponents can change a lot in a couple of weeks. Less than a month ago, ND was looking like a playoff contender; today, they're 9-3 with big losses to Miami and Stanford and a close win over Navy. They'll also be replacing the bulk of their offensive line, and it's not remotely crazy to wonder if the 8-1 team we saw for most of the year was a bit of a mirage, that ND wasn't quite 4-8 bad last year but also wasn't quite so good this season. Penn State replaces much of their offense and has looked far more mortal after playing Michigan, perhaps confirming the "James Franklin saved up his whole playbook for Michigan" narrative that popped up after OSU and MSU slowed his team down dramatically as they saw most of the wrinkles on tape. MSU finished 9-3 as well, and they've looked better than expected. Still, it's an offense that relies heavily on Lewerke to keep it going, and he's been all over the map. He had 400 yards against PSU and 445 against NW; he also failed to break 200 yards passing 5 times this year, "highlighted" by throwing for 20 yards on 2/14 passing against Maryland. Wisconsin should still be Wisconsin, but it remains a team with 3-loss potential beating up on probably the worst division in college football. And OSU looms, but they'll be replacing Barrett as well as a decent senior class, and while people are going to overreact about Haskins at some point every team gets a bad beat at QB, and I'm not sold that Dobbins or Weber are going to bring much dynamic playmaking to that backfield.
I'm not going to promise that 2018 will be some magical re-awakening of Michigan on the national stage, but I've been a fan long enough to realize that things move in ebbs and flows. Michigan is on the way up, record be damned. It's a talented team with stockpiles of talent waiting in the wings. Michigan's got 3 cracks at resetting some rivalries next year, 4 if you count PSU. I don't see them going 0-4 in those contests, and I like their chances in all of them.
But fall 2018 is far away, and there's still one game to go. I'm looking forward to it, even if that puts me in the minority, and it'll be nice to see this place quiet down a bit.
Holy smokes. Apparently, reporters figured this out on Thursday (RELINK) (full URL: https://www.landof10.com/wisconsin/wisconsin-football-george-rushing-ja…).
Those were some quiet dismissals.
HT to Magnus:
Peavy had 5 catches for 50-some yards this year.
Danny Davis - the true freshman - is averaging like 20 yards/catch.
The blog has discussed at great length Michigan's improvement in the run game and the basic blocking that comes with it. However, I'm wondering how Michigan goes about its pass protection. Until a recent googling, I wasn't even aware of different approaches, but this blog post, for example, points out some different protection schemes.
I think the ultimate question I'm hoping to answer is whether Michigan has any chance of pass protection improvement it's seeing in the running game. I guess that I should also keep in mind that it's maybe less a matter of strategy and more of talent.
Best, I Hope: The Peters Principle
I assume most people have heard of the Peter Principle, a theory that most commonly is applied to management, which states a person's advancement with an employer is based more on their current job qualifications than those required for the job they are being placed in. In other words, you don't stop moving up until you show you can't do the job you have, resulting in you "rising" to the level of your incompetence. Both the US and UK iterations of The Office have this as their underlying principle, embodied by Michael Scott/David Brent and their various follies as middle-managers. So on it's surface, this principle (along with it's spiritual brother principle Murphy's Law) dwells on the negative, the times when square pegs meet round holes, and everyone looks like a fool.
But the Peter Principle is, at its core, far more benign. It's not about finding failures as much as seeing how far something can go, about applying what works to new and demanding problems until the solution stops working, and only then trying something new, gaining knowledge of your limitations in the process. As a society, we lionize this process of trial-and-error, of using what you know and then growing and responding when that stops working. Whole industries are based on this approach. And in sports, particularly football, you see it most prominently when announcers say a team is "imposing it's will" on its opponent, running plays it knows will work and the opponent being unable to do anything to stop it. And as fans, when you see that happen, you are usually overtaken with awe/dread (depending on what side of the equation you're rooting for), but also surprise it didn't happen earlier, that they wasted plays/quarters/games doing something inferior. And in hindsight, the fact the team clung to something that wasn't working almost always seems a bit foolish, a waste of finite resources that now seems even more egregious compared to what is working now.
The thing about hindsight, though, is that it's lazy; it only shows up when it's too late for it to matter. People have been arguing for weeks that Brandon Peters should have replaced John O'Korn at QB, and after every ineffective, demoralizing, and emotionally-draining performance, this decision to stick with O'Korn seemed less and less logical. It wasn't that John O'Korn had played particularly well in any of those contests, but if the guy who couldn't be out this guy wasn't particularly good, what are the chances the guy who couldn't beat out him would be any better? And this wasn't an indictment of Peters's abilities as a football player, only the reality that a RS freshman might struggle behind a porous offensive line and (until recently) supported by an ineffective rushing attack, leaving him the crosshairs of a world of hurt with minimal payoff.
But after 4 offensive drives that featured two fumbles, a pick by O'Korn in which he significantly underthrew Gentry, and 13(!) yards on 3/6(!!) passing, any lingering notion that maybe, sorta it worked with O'Korn at QB was eradicated, and the Brandon Peters era commenced.
When a change at QB happens, you hear people talk about how a team's complexion and "attitude" changes with it, how when it goes well, the offense gets a new life and starts executing at a level previously unseen. Personally, I don't buy that as being a real phenomenon, since it presupposes that players give up on the starter and cover their diaries with odes to the boy on the bench. It applies a mens rea to what usually is just an atomic process; either the ball is there or it isn't, a pass gets completed or it doesn't. Petty grievances aside, most players just want the spot on the field to perform well, to keep this human Rube Goldberg machine moving along, and they'll do whatever it takes to make that happen regardless of the number on the jersey.
But when that spot on the field isn't performing, for whatever reason, and you replace it with a person who does, Brandon Peters's game against Rutgers is what you hope happens. Peters was both efficient (71% completion rate) and effective (8.9 ypa, 1 TD). He was a perfect 4/4 passing on third down, converting 3 and the other one leading to a missed Nordin FG. He played within himself, supplementing the dominant running game with easy passes to open receivers and, in what is sadly a notable achievement in the art of quarterbacking this year at Michigan, going through his progressions and finding the right receiver a couple of times. Basically, he didn't screw anything up. And yes, he got a little lucky his "I'm going to stare at the receiver the whole way near the goal line and then rocket the ball like Henry Rowengartner" was batted down instead of picked off, and against non-Rutgers defensive lines he probably won't be able to outrun tacklers until his receivers can break open to consistently, and his throws were consistently a bit behind his receivers, most notably the ball to Evans for the TD that could just have easily been batted down or even intercepted, but like we said when Speight was scuttling and O'Korn looked awesome against Purdue, the other guy couldn't even do this much, so stop complaining!
Now, if you can sense a "but" coming, then you read my column when O'Korn came in against Purdue and somehow overlooked my terrible Korn-based pun in the title. I'll get into it a bit more below, but we've seen this story play out before, and no matter how awesome your new square peg is, there are some round-ass holes here that you aren't going to fill in a year, holes left by poor recruiting, poorer player development, and poorest (?) bad luck. Brandon Peters looks like a upgrade over John O'Korn and Wilton Speight; the fact he's the third option, and the coaches were pretty reticent to bring him out until literally they had no other option, is as telling as however good he looked against Rutgers. So I want to hope that the coaches looked at what did and didn't work with Speight and O'Korn, recognize that this offense is only going to survive with a focus on running the ball and opportunistic passing that doesn't ask the QB to do more than make 2-3 reads, and continue that with Peters. He is now the present and future for this team at QB, and my hope is that the competence he showed at the position on Saturday translates going forward. Because while a conference title and a 10-win season are longshots this year, having some clarity about the guy who will be leading the charge the next couple of years is priceless.
Worst: Pumping the Brakes...Again
I'm going to crib a lot of my earlier comments when it came to O'Korn's great performance against Purdue and how, well, everybody should maybe take a step back before proclaiming it a repeatable performance. Against Purdue I noted:
And let it be noted that Purdue had, by far, the worst defense Michigan has played this year. Coming into the game, they had a defensive efficiency of 60th; Florida was 42nd, Cincy 29th, and Air Force at 21, and in the case of Florida, that number is a bit depressed because they had only played 2 teams (Michigan and Tennessee). Last year, Purdue's defense was ranked well into the 100's in both fancy stats and raw defensive numbers. It is not a good defense, even if they are more aggressive and (I'm assuming) getting coached up by whatever screaming ball of blood vessels and sunburn that was tromping along that sideline...This is a long-winded way of saying that some of Michigan's improvements offensively are opponent-dependent.
Well, Rutgers and Purdue are ranked 33rd and 34th, respectively, in defensive S&P ratings at the time I wrote this diary. Both are inexplicably decent at stopping the pass despite having sack rates in the 100s, and both are middling in terms of creating turnovers. But, and this is so weird to say when talking about either of these clubs, they are both competent enough against the pass that you can't totally discount both O'Korn's and Peters's performances against them out of hand. Given the context, both of them played very well against defenses that weren't the 2016 vintage we all expected. At the same time, I'd argue that neither opponent probably spent much time preparing for either guy at QB, and at least Minnesota has a frisky enough defense that Peters will be tested by a unit capable of game planning for him. Still, this is slightly more encouraging than I expected.
But this is the part that still scratches away at the back of my brain:
O'Korn still made some ill-advised decisions...Yes, Speight makes terrible decisions as well at times, but the line between a "gunslinger" and "reckless" is fine and unforgiving. The fact it worked out today makes no promises of similar results in the future; Speight looked like a world-beater at times last year and is now, to a vocal minority, a candidate to get a firm handshake at the end of the year or shot behind the barn, depending on your level of vitriol...But to me, barring additional information, this performance is exactly what you hope for out of your backup, but expecting it week-in/week-out, especially as teams have a chance to gameplan for a change at QB, seems optimistic.
Peters is probably a better all-around QB than O'Korn, and at least anecdotally one consistent theme throughout his recruitment and his time at Michigan has been a calmness, a consistency in his approach that you didn't hear as often about O'Korn. Peters absolutely can "explode spectacularly" on certain plays when he tries to do too much, but even in this game you saw a guy who tried to make the best throws available, not the best throws possible. It's probably cliche, but Peters took what was available, and if it meant balls toward the sidelines down and away, so be it. Other than one deep ball to DPJ he didn't try to really stretch the field vertically, and other than the aforementioned throw near the goal line he seemed to throw away from traffic whenever possible.
Still, this is a RS freshman who couldn't beat out Speight (understandable) and O'Korn (understandable if a bit less believable now), and even if he's the best version of a RS freshman he is still the third-best option the coaches felt they had this year; he's the "in case of emergency, break glass" option in 2017, and that means something significant and shouldn't be brushed aside with "he just needed a chance" or "maybe the coaches were wrong". Because (a) we heard the same types of things about O'Korn, and (b) it introduces a conundrum about the coaches. It either means these coaches were wrong about either 1 or both QBs before Peters, which brings into question their ability to accurately analyze QB play, OR it means they are right about the quality of QBs on the roster and Peters was sufficiently worse than both Speight and O'Korn that he was only given a chance at QB after their hands were pushed by some terrible games. Now, that doesn't mean Peters is doomed to weeks of terrible performances; a player can be slotted behind others for reasons well beyond talent, and it is certainly believable that after the loss to Penn State effectively eliminated Michigan from the conference race, the argument that "you can't ask a freshman to lead a championship contender" disappeared and with it, the last major hurdle to keeping Peters off the field.
Still, barring a change of events that would defy most rational analysis, Brandon Peters is not going to complete 70% of his passes and lead an offense on 5 straight scoring drives (I'm crediting Peters for getting Michigan into very makeable FG range for Nordin). That's totally fine, and if he's reasonably as efficient as he was in this game this team can beat anyone left on the schedule. But I just want to set expectations that the dude who replaced the dude who only replaced the other dude when that dude got hurt might have some (totally understandable) rocky outings in his future.
Best: The Best Nearly-300 Yard Drop Ever
Last year, Michigan went to Rutgers and dropped the equivalent of a Yokozuna on them rushing the ball; 605 yards at 8.8 ypc. In this game, Michigan took a massive step back from that performance, recording a mere...334 yards on the ground at 6.5 ypc. in 2016, they had 2 guys rush for over 100 yards and Isaac missed being the third by a single yard; this weekend, Evans didn't even crack 30 yards on the ground, though Khalid Hill did keep up his 1 carry-per-TD pace he showed last year's game with, now, 3 TDs on 3 carries for a total of 3 yards. If you went into this game hoping to see Michigan somehow put up a Patrick-Mahomes-vs-Oklahoma passing-type numbers on the ground, then you were severely disappointed.
Still, despite this bitter disappointment, Michigan had a pretty good day on the ground. Higdon and Isaac were dynamite running the ball, with Higdon having his second 150+ yard rushing game of the season and Isaac looking the part of the every-down back he was to start the year. Evans didn't run the ball much, but was effective when asked, and he also flashed the pass-catching component he brings to the offense with a great catch on an underthrown wheel route for Peters's first TD. That's a play that should have been in the playbook all year, and either it never worked or the coaches didn't feel like dialing it up, but after being on the receiving end of a LB chasing after a super-fast RB out of the backfield, it's nice to be on the right side of the ledger for once.
I know there was some discussion after last week's game that Michigan was bad at zone blocking, but I didn't see anything in the UFR that was all that definitive either way. They picked up one or two longer runs with either a pin-and-pull or Power O, but with so few meaningful carries and PSU not even considering paying lip service to the pass, but with enough One Guy Messing Up I'm not sure how much you can take from that game. This contest will be much more illustrative because Michigan was consistently able to gash Rutgers on a variety of runs, and with so many different backs, that we should get a better sense of which playcalls worked best and with which players. Unless game situations demand otherwise, these next couple of weeks should play out a lot like this game, with Michigan being content to bash their opponents backwards at 6 yards a pop and throw only when necessary or to take advantage of defenses cheating up.
Best: This Team Can Run Block; Ask Again Later About Pass Blocking
The good news is that Rutgers, a team that was one of the worst in the country at TFLs and sacks coming into the game, left largely at the same place; Michigan gave up only 5 TFLs (and really only the O'Korn fumble was more than a yard or two) and 0 sacks. For those of you scoffing at the tiny white flag I'm waving over such an accomplishment, remember that Purdue recorded 4 sacks and 8 TFLs against Michigan despite coming into the game with only 1 sack and 8 TFLs in the previous 3 games.
Michael Onwenu in particular looked great in run blocking; Matt Millen is an atrocious voice to hear for 3+ hours, but one of his view solid observations was how good Onwenu was executing his assignment and sticking with his blocks. He's been the best run blocker on this team for over a month, and I'd be amazed if he didn't grade out at that level again after this game. It's not coincidence that Michigan's current identity as Jerry Kill's Minnesota++ coincided with his his emergence as a road grater, and I don't see that changing much regardless of opponent.
The pass blocking remains a mystery. Yes, some of those sacks last week were on O'Korn not throwing the ball away despite there being reasonable options downfield. At the same time, Rutgers is not a team that is going to get after you, and there were times in this game where Peters was able to escape pressure that probably won't be as easily duplicated against better defensive ends. As I noted earlier, pass blocking remains the biggest hole on the team, and unless Michigan has a Khalil Tate hanging out in the locker room, you can only paper over that limitation so much with the current roster. And watching OSU completely man-handle PSU's line a week after Michigan struggled to do so, I'm not optimistic that we'll see massive improvement against better competition.
Worst: People Being Worried About Points
Rutgers scored on what felt like a near carbon-copy play of Barkley's first TD last game, a direct snap to Grant who cut against Michigan's aggressive slanting for a 65-yard TD. Bad angles were taken, LBers ran themselves out of the play, and there was probably a safety who took a bad angle. And they also scored on one of those drives where Rescigno suddenly couldn't miss (and his receivers pulled off 1-handed grabs under heavy duress), and Gus Edwards Sr. just smashed his way through the chest of Devin Bush for annoyingly-incremental gains all the way to the endzone. Those two drives amounted to virtually all of the yards Rutgers accumulated on the day; two 75-yard TD drives and 10 other drives that totaled 45 yards. Along the way Michigan picked up 5 sacks and 11 TFLs, consistently smothering anything resembling and offensive rhythm by Rutgers and, heck, even got a holding penalty called on the other team's offensive line, something that had happened in about a month.
And yet, I saw a number of people call the safeties "trash" and demanding sacrifice to appease their displeasure. I'm sure there will be a couple of plays where Kinnel and/or Metellus took a bad angle or missed a tackle, but I thought both bounced back pretty well after really rough games against PSU. Kinnel had the one-handed catch against him on Rutger's second scoring drive, and either him or Metellus overshot his spot on the Grant run, but not a lot of plays even got to them (4 tackles total), and Kinnel had a nice PBU to boot. I think the farther we get away from that PSU game, the more it will be clear that PSU was (a) an elite offense capable of exploiting even the tiniest sliver of space, and (b) Moorhead called a great game and found ways to put talented-but-young guys into tough spots in a way that most teams can't.
Rutgers is a demonstrably better team than last year, and yet Michigan still dominated them. It remains a young defense figuring itself out a bit, but if the defensive line can replicate what it did in this game (4.5 sacks, 7 TFLs), this team should start looking the part of the dominant defense there were basically before going to Happy Valley.
Best: Playing Himself Into the Draft
Hurst had another game that I hope the scouts paid attention to, because I think Brady Quinn was on to something. On the first play of the game, he just obliterated the poor Rutgers blocker tasked with stopping him and sacked Rescigno into oblivion. He controlled the line throughout the day, gumming up any attempt by Rutgers to mount a rushing attack and laying waste to anyone Rutgers threw at him. He finished second on the team in tackles on the day, and continued to be the anchor the rest of the defense revolved around.
And with Hurst dominating inside, both Gary and Winovich had solid games at the edges. Gary had one sack and probably should have had another; he got around the edge so quickly he couldn't quite square up to the QB. Still, he looked dominant and, and Winovich got back to harassing QBs with 1.5 sacks. Devin Bush also again unleashed, keeping plays from escaping to the edge and getting into the backfield with regularity. I now I've said this a lot already, but these next couple of weeks should be a nice reset for the defense as they get a chance to feast on offenses ill-equipped to handle them.
Berst?: Semi-Competent Officials
There were a total of 6 penalties called in this game for 45 yards. Compared to past weekends (and what we saw by the O'Neill crew in the OSU-PSU game later that night), this would be considered a solid outing. And yet, I thought the officiating was still wildly inconsistent. Michigan's 4th-down conversion by Higdon could best be described as a "charitable" spot; I thought he was short in real time and, even if on review you could argue he got just to the line, the certainty by which the refs initially spotted that ball felt a little premature. As for the fumble recovery on the punt, I honestly though Michigan had lost it. I didn't go back to rewatch the play beyond rewinding it in the moment, but that felt like another lucky break for Michigan as Rutgers had a bunch of guys in the vicinity. But sometimes judgment calls happen in games. What really got me was the number of missed holds by both teams. Yes, Michigan finally got a holding call go their way, but JBB blatantly held a couple of times and Rutgers at one point just started tackling Hurst as soon as the ball was snapped. I'm totally fine if proper penalties are called on Michigan as long as they are consistent; I'm less of a fan of swallowed whistles even if it benefits Michigan. As a referee, your job is to call the game as you see it, and too much or too little application of the rules has the same effect in my eyes; it forces players and teams to play differently and deal with uncertainty in how the game will be officiated.
- Good lord Matt Millen needs to be moved out of the booth. He just...it's just...in this game he mentioned multiple times that a young Patrick Kugler loved to eat, said that both Michigan and Rutgers don't want to be in 3rd-and-15, and for some inexplicable reason started to sing during the broadcast. And I don't know, when your were the GM of the only 0-16 team in NFL history and your Wikipedia page includes a section about "controversies" that includes calling a former player a gay slur and another guy a derogatory term of the Polish, how much are you really bringing to the table that a Big Mouth Billy Bass couldn't?
- I'll say this here: I think Michigan beats Wisconsin on the road. It's just...Wisconsin hasn't played anyone, and that can 100% hide your weaknesses but also diminish your strengths. And yet, for the second week in a row they were in a close-ish contest with a clearly inferior opponent well into the second half. And their offense is pretty one-dimensional; Hornibrook isn't going to beat anyone in the air, and while they are great running the ball it's the type of straight-ahead style Michigan is better equipped to handle than the types we saw by PSU and will by OSU. The next couple weeks might change that opinion, but right now that feels like a coin-flip game.
- While I've not been a huge fan of the offensive playcalling this season, I do think the constant changes at QB have limited what the coaches can do. In this game, it wasn't that the team called noticeably different plays once Peters came in, only that their QB did a better job executing them and finding the right safety valves to keep plays going. I've harped on the fact these receivers struggle to get open against good coverage teams, and that's still a big issue. But I also get a sense that sometimes they are open and the passes just aren't being thrown. My hope is that Peters will be more inclined to do so, because there is a passing offense in this team that can do some damage if given time.
- I am done with announcer and PBP people praising mediocre coaching. In this game it was constant references to Chris Ash having a team that wasn't the worst in the country somehow being on the upswing (maybe they are, but you sorta had to be after the last couple of years). In the PSU game, the Fox announcer kept praising the genius of James Franklin for "saving" a timeout before the half. To me, that was ludicrous. First off, had Franklin really planned on sneaking in a final possession of the half, he wouldn't have let the clock wind down 30 seconds after OSU's first play lost 7 yards. Then, when OSU was punting, he would have tried to actually block the kick and not set up for a non-existent return, in the process not punishing OSU for a bungled snap. And then finally, he would have actually gotten the team ready for that last drive and not, you know, taken a delay of game on the first play, then kneeling to run out of the clock. Sometimes people just do things because they don't think about it and it looks "smart" in the end because of context well beyond their control. But for whatever reason announcers are so starved for something new that they'll create these scenarios out of pure fiction.
- This is beyond petty I know, but watching both MSU and PSU lose in such soul-destroying fashion was great. MSU has been playing with fire way too often this year, and PSU blowing a lead in part because their offense turtled a bit was fun TV, especially given how much praise Franklin has gotten for game management. Yes it means OSU is in the driver's seat again, but one step at a time.
The Fleck Express arrives to town, and this will be a nice second game for Peters. Minnesota's defense is probably not quite as good as their top-25 ranking denotes, but they are definitely good enough to make Peters work for this yards, and it will be interesting to see how he handles some gameplanning. I still think Michigan wins comfortably, probably following the same formula they did this weekend. I just want to see a reasonably facsimile to this week against a similar opponent, because a little momentum and continuity on offense could really help with this closing stretch of winnable games.
- Ohio State improves Michigan's B1G East title hopes by beating Penn State in a Michigan-fans-can't-really-lose game!
- Michigan State manages to lose to Northwestern in 3OTs!
- Michigan has a run game!
- Michigan beat Rutgers the way Michigan should beat Rutgers!
- Peters might be average this year!
- DILLY DILLY!
Edit: Here's a (link) to get people in the know about this 'Dilly Dilly' bit.
This is going to be a relatively short post. I'm a father of two small children with a reasonably demanding job; games that finish after 11 pm aren't giving me a lot of time. Plus, y'all saw the game.
Best: Sometimes You Run Into a Bigger Fish
There's no reason to sugar-coat this, so I won't; Michigan got beaten handily by a much better team. It was methodical, it was unrelenting, it was the type of performance that rightfully would be the headline in the Ass Whooping Gazette if USC-ND hadn't happened. I said last week
[b]ut I also don't see PSU as a particularly good team. They are #2 because a bunch of teams ahead of them lost, not because they've looked particularly dominant. They're better than Michigan, but the difference isn't nearly as pronounced as you'd expect for a #2/#16 matchup would suggest, and their issues along the offensive line aren't likely to go away. It's going to be an uglier game than people think, and probably lower scoring than PSU would want. This feels like a game where if Michigan can keep PSU within reach, they can pull off the upset. But they'll have to survive PSU's initial assault. The hope I have is just like Michigan looked rusty after the 2-week layoff before MSU, PSU will have some issues getting going and, perhaps, Michigan can capitalize.
I still don't know if they’ll be the #2 team in the country at the end of the year, but at least yesterday they played like a dominant team, and Michigan was the unfortunate victim in front of that steamroller. You see those scenes in movies where a guy walks into a bar and then is immediately thrown out by the hero? Well, sometimes you're Steven Seagal, and sometimes you're the guys who know Richie.
The only way Michigan was going to win this game was if it got into a rock fight, a boring-ass game from a bygone era where the space between the 30s was a muddy battleground and every run or pass looked like an NFL Blitz tackle.
But PSU was too good, too prepared to let Michigan ugly it up, and then it became an exercise in PSU's talented, experienced playmakers on offense matching up against Michigan's talented but inexperienced/ill-positioned defenders, and we all saw how that played out.
Michigan had it's moments, especially after picking off McSorley, driving down the field to score a TD. They nearly got another on the ensuing PSU possession, and McSorley again threw a bad pass, this time a screen directly into the arms of Hudson in the end zone, but who dropped it. And Michigan's second scoring drive was much like their first; a grinding affair featuring a nice mix of straight-ahead runs, a little O'Korn scrambling, and some nice pitch-and-catches. There were some subtle shifts on the line, a nice mix of zone and power, and basically the type of offense you hoped to see.
But as Ace noted in his recap, it did feel a bit smoke-and-mirrors. Michigan still hadn't figured out how to exploit the mismatches they had (mostly along the defensive line) or compensate for PSU's, chief amongst them Saquon Barkley on the move. I'll get into it later, but this was Dalvin Cook and FSU all over again, with McCray consistently losing in foot races with Barkley he could never expect to win, and PSU rightly using McSorley as a counter to Michigan's slanting by having him run through some gaping holes left by the flowing front 7. Sometimes you just get got, and when you have upperclassmen across your offense and probably the most complete back in the country (it's either Barkley or Bryce Love), it can get ugly.
And so PSU marched down the field after Michigan cut it to one, aided by a couple of nice moonballs by McSorley against overmatched safeties. Michigan went into halftime down 8 and while I didn't expect Michigan to win the game, it felt manageable. And really, that first drive out of the half set the tone for the half. While I don't put much blame on Hill for his drop to start the drive (O'Korn was under pressure and the ball was high), Michigan's ongoing issue catching the ball reared its fetid, pus-filled head, with both Grant Perry and DPJ dropping balls that either would have been first downs or been big gainers, in particular the DPJ tunnel screen that was set up pretty well. Michigan punted the ball, PSU marched down the field against limited resistance, and the rout was on. Michigan wasn't going to score 28 points in this game, and a defense that was already having a rough night wasn't positioned to turn it over with a couple turnovers or stops. The only question was if Franklin would call off the dogs a bit in the 4th, which was the most obvious question in the world that night.
Penn State scored a couple more times, punctuating the night-long mismatch with Barkley juggle-catching a wheel route that McCray was barely on the screen to see. Michigan left O'Korn out there and he did what he could with the offense, but when you can't run block all that well and the couple of receivers you do send out on drawn-out routes can't get open, comebacks aren't usually in the cards. On PSU's final drive, the announcers (who were your usual mixture of insight and chuckle-yucks I've come to expect from Herbstreit and Fowler) wondered if Franklin would try to score 49 with his backup QB, and for a while it looked like he would. Not that it would have mattered either way, but I've always subscribed to the notion that if you want the other team to stop scoring, you better do something about it. But still, Michigan ended the game with a whimper.
So where does that leave the season? Honestly, about where I thought. I figured Michigan would be 5-2 after 7 games; at best 6-1. It's a very young team that was hit by injuries at places they couldn't really afford (LT coming into the year, QB during) and continue to struggle with multi-season issues like sub-standard offensive line play, few dynamic playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, and depth issues that resulted from recent program instability and questionable recruiting practices from previous regimes. The play calling on offense still befuddles me at times; there were a couple of pass plays in that second half where the protection was reasonable but everyone was running these long, slow-developing routes that to call them "coverage sacks" would be misleading; "running out of range sacks" would be more appropriate. O'Korn seems to continuously fight this internal battle between a miniature Rex Grossman on one shoulder and whatever is the opposite of Rex Grossman (Sam Bradford?) extolling the virtues of not endangering anyone by hurling the oblong ball. On defense, those lingering questions people had about the secondary and the LB’ers were put under a spotlight, and while getting beat up by an elite offense isn't the death knell to possible upsets against Wisconsin or OSU, it's a unit that (rightfully) isn't as good as last year's, and can be exploited with the right plan and execution.
But I can also see pockets of improvement. The run blocking was solid if stunted, due in no small part to the fact that PSU didn't have to worry much about legitimate play-action passes going over their heads too often. Pass blocking wasn't great but not necessarily a tire fire; Michigan gave up 7 sacks, but a number of them came in the second half when PSU could pin their ears back without repercussions. The line should find much more success against Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland. O'Korn played within himself and, in a vacuum, would deserve another start; he won't likely get it against Rutgers, or at least he'll split time with Peters. At the very least, the play calling shouldn't change all that much, especially if Peters can pose a credible threat as a scrambler. If the official participation sheet is to be believed, Nico Collins saw some action, and at this point they might as well break some of these guys in, even if it's unlikely to mean much on the field. Young offensive playmakers like DPJ and Gentry are having their moments, as well as their struggles, in meaningful games, and you can see natural improvements in the coming years leading to a more dynamic offense. And this game notwithstanding, it's still a defense starting a hell of a lot of first- and second-year players playing at a high level, which portends only good things going forward.
I'll dig into some parts of the game in more detail below, but this was less demoralizing a loss in retrospect than it felt in the immediate aftermath. I know people want to fire everyone and blow it all up again, and the 6-5, 1-4, record-like-Hoke memes are a-comin', but I'm patient enough that if this is "rebuilding" from the RR/Hoke era, I'll enjoy the rest of the year and look for the seeds of future successes in the next couple of games.
Best: An Underdog Offensive Play calling
Now, I'm sure people will disagree with this, but I thought the play calling early on was about as good as could be expected given the talent available and the game situation. Michigan wasn't going to survive a fire fight with PSU, so they tried to run the ball with Higdon and co. and leave simple, easy throws for O'Korn. And I'm not sure if this was a decision by O'Korn or was a deliberate playmaking decision, but he also did two things that were atypical compared to previous weeks. First, on a number of dropbacks, he either almost immediately took off when it was clear PSU was dropping it's linebackers back, or quickly avoided the rush and then picked up a couple of yards versus trying to force the ball downfield. They even trotted out some occasional read option/RPO-style plays, though as far as I can tell they always handed it off. O'Korn is not a run threat like even McSorley, but when PSU sold out against the pass they opened up yardage in the middle of the field, and he took it. In a game where Michigan wasn't going to get a lot going with the conventional offense, at least early on, it "took what the defense gave them" and kept the game closer than it probably should have.
The other "wrinkle" I noticed at QB was O'Korn took some Diplo-level deep drops on his passes, and while it did lead to some hilarious "he threw 30 yards to get the ball 4 yards past the LOS" takes, it also seemed to help him see the field and, had his receivers been open and/or consistently able to hold onto the ball, get some momentum going with the passing game. I may be reading too much into those plays, but it felt deliberate, or least a response to what I can only assume was a feeling of the world crashing in on him.
Weirdly, I wasn't all that bothered by the PA on Michigan's last 4th-down attempt, which seems to be a minority opinion. It was 4th-and-11 in a blowout; it wouldn't have been beyond the pale for Michigan to fake the pass and do a delayed handoff to Higdon or Isaac and try to "trick" their way to a first. Hell, they did it a couple of times against Florida on long 3rd downs to good success. The obvious negative was O'Korn got destroyed, but in all honesty I'm not sure that half-second wasted on the fake would have meant all that much.
Now, it wasn't all Princess UniKitty. I still don't understand the passing game's completely false assumptions that (a) these receivers can consistently get separation against good corners, (b) that the offensive line can hold up on long-developing, limited-misdirection passing routes, and (c) that anyone we've seen under center can consistently deliver the ball into those tight windows in the rare circumstance a player is actually open. It's been a couple of weeks since the Purdue game, where I thought the play calling was solid specifically because it relied on short mesh and slant routes to get the ball out quickly. In that time, the passing game has regressed substantially, and a big part is that the easy throws and release valves aren't there and, when they are, aren't always being completed. There were two plays in the 4th where O'Korn dropped back and you didn't see a Michigan player anywhere near the line of scrimmage even with the rush coming, leaving him to either hurl it up or eat a sack (he chose the latter both times). Zach Gentry, Grant Perry, Sean McKeon, etc. aren't going to beat guys downfield in a straight line more times than not, and asking them to do it more because you've taken the 10,000 hours rule to the extreme is just setting downs on fire.
Worst: I Don't Understand College Rules, Part Deux
As a precursor, I am not going to equate missed calls to a missed opportunity for Michigan to win this game. Just like how some missing PSU linebackers weren't worth 39 points in 2016, a couple missed calls, no matter how egregious, weren't worth 29 points in 2017. PSU is the better team this year, and the better teams tend to not shoot themselves in the feet, knees, groin, whatever with bad penalties and poor decisions.
Nor am I a football referee, as I only have a cursory knowledge of the rulebook, and I have been called a "homer" by enough people to believe that I am not always 100% objective in viewing football plays. And I'm sure if any rival fans read this, they'd dismiss it as salty or whatever the going term for it is. I will cop to all that. But for the life of me, I don't understand what intentional grounding or offensive holding is in football anymore. Like last week when IU's Ramsey threw the ball in the general “vicinity” of a player because they were both on a football field, McSorley had at least one throw-away where a receiver wasn’t remotely capable of catching the ball as he was in the clutches of a defender. The purpose of the rule is to reward defenders for hemming in a QB and not letting him escape lost yardage by just flicking the ball into the dirt. And yes, Michigan probably got away with one or two of those throws this year, and I'd be fine if they were called for it as well. I'm fine if actual penalties are called, even if they hurt the team I'm rooting for.
Similarly, PSU wasn't called for a single hold in this game (their only penalty was an illegal block on a return in the first quarter) despite multiple times seeing guys like Gary, Winovich, and Hurst either get sat on or head locked as they beat the protection. This has been an ongoing issue for Michigan these past couple of weeks, so it's getting to the part where either referees are incompetent and/or Michigan is being legitimately blocked most of the time and my ignorance is showing. Though if it's the latter, then I'd advise Tim Drevno, for however longer he's at Michigan, to employ the "sit on guys constantly" style of blocking. It's pretty effective.
That said, Michigan earned a number of their penalties with the same inconsistent execution and recklessness (witness Winovich with a totally unnecessary roughing the passer call after crunching McSorley on PSU's second drive) we've seen all year. Even ignoring the insanity of the IU game, Michigan is one of the most penalized teams in the country, which in one way would be sort of cool/interesting if it meant they were some swaggering, intimidating defensive unit. But sadly, the bulk of these transgressions are not in the Rasheed Wallace he stared daggers through me" vein, but more of the procedural Sideshow Bob type. And you sort of expect that with the youth on both sides of the ball and systemic issues such as pass protection and changes at QB. But it is still jarring to see Michigan have some of the fewest penalties called on their opponents as well.
If people want to see the difference between having a playmaker like Peppers out there last year versus this one, this game and the FSU bowl game are all you need. Mike McCray is a good linebacker, but he's not a sideline-to-sideline athlete the likes of Devin Bush or Peppers before him. Against guys like Barkley, he's always at a mismatch, and perhaps in another game where Michigan could confidentially pull a defender over to help out, this wouldn't have been such a bloodbath. But if you watch Barkley's highlights from this game, his biggest plays typically featured McCray desperately trying to cut down an angle or catch him in the open field. That's not his game, and PSU knew this and put him in situations like it whenever possible.
By comparison, the couple of times you saw Bush match up, it went better. Barkley had that stutter-step first down run, but Bush also caught him trying to reserve field a bit out of the backfield for a short gain. He's a Heisman front-runner for a reason, but credit to Moorhead for calling plays that forced Michigan to commit to these matchups. I know there was some commentary about this being a sign of Michigan's arrogance, but Don Brown doesn't strike me as a guy who'd put McCray on Barkley repeatedly out of obstinance. Instead, I think PSU used their extra week to design plays that got Barkley moving before the snap, preyed on misdirection, and found the holes in the defense and ruthlessly exploited them. Again, there isn't another offense quite like this Nittany Lion unit until (again) OSU, so it probably won't be a weekly occurrence, but this was a matchup Michigan had no real answer to.
Worst: Catch the Damn Ball. Seriously.
In my second EDM-based, dad-tinged pun of the weekend, I haven't seen this many drops since the last Movement Festival.
But seriously, it was atrocious again. John O'Korn finished the day completing 57% of his passes for under 6 ypa; he legitimately could have had 4-5 more completions for another 50-60 yards. Does that change the outcome of the game? Probably not. But when people say "put in O'Korn, Speight can't throw the ball", and then they say "put in Peters, O'Korn can throw the ball", at some point you have to focus on the other half of those attempted exchanges. It remains a unit that struggles to consistently get the basic stuff right, which is why you have a passing chart 6 games into the season that looked like this:
McSorley isn't an arm-punter as much this year, but to watch some of his throws you are left to wonder how they'd look going to Michigan's receiving corps and not PSU's. They are accurate moonshots; they are still moonshots. Michigan has shown virtually no ability to reel those in save for Crawford's impressive reception in this game; the fact Ace tweeted about a receiver doing so 7 games into the season is telling.
I don't see it getting much better with Peters at QB; this doesn't feel like a familiarity or timing issue. At the same time, it's probably not a talent issue, as you don't usually make it this far in your career if you consistently drop passes that hit your hands. So I don't know, honestly, what the next couple of weeks mean for the receivers. They should be able to get open against the next 3 opponents, to varying degrees; hopefully their hands follow suit.
Meh: A Change at QB
It's going to happen; apparently Peters was ready to go on that final drive before the coaches put in O'Korn. I am not a believer in the notion that a player or team learns much about itself from "game reps" versus practice ones, at least to the degree fans hope they would. Peters has been watched in practice for 2 years now, and coming into the year he had sufficient hype but also the usual "he doesn't quite know the offense" and "he's a RS freshman who is as likely to explode in his own face as the opponent's". I doubt playing Rutgers will change that calculus, much like "Wilton Speight is the best QB on the roster" was borne out despite John O'Korn's game against Purdue. Peters might as well play at this point, and I assume Michigan will win these games if he plays basic, predictable football. He will make mistakes, he'll make some nice throws. He'll probably look like virtually every freshman QB you've seen over the years. But at least a couple million more people will be able to see it.
But if this was the final stand for O'Korn, he acquitted himself better than I expected. And he came in during a rough stretch, played to his abilities (warts and all), and won a couple of games. That should be commended, and I'm happy he got a couple nice moments in his senior year.
Worst: Defensive Expectations
McCray's problems with Barkley were the highlight, but the defense struggled all game to deal with PSU's offense, in all it's phases. McSorley exploited coverage downfield against everyone, in particular the safeties. The fact the top three tacklers for this game were a safety (Kinnel), a corner (Hill), and Hudson isn't how I imagine Brown drew it up. Michigan had one downfield breakup (Hill on 4th down) after picking up multiple in seemingly every game this year, and could only collect 2 sacks while repeatedly letting McSorley break contain for big gains (76 yards and 3 TDs on the ground). For the game, they gave up over 7 yards per game on the ground (excluding sacks) and 10.8 per attempt in the air. The direct snap plays to Barkley presented a diminishing return, but it only needed to work once and boy did it.
My guess is the unit bounces back against the more manageable offenses coming up, but this was probably a unit playing a bit above its head thus far. PSU clearly had scouted them out and took advantage of mismatches, and they have a particularly skilled collection of players to do so, but I fully expect teams like Maryland and Minnesota to try similar gameplans with their available talent, and it'll be interesting to see how Brown takes what he can from this game and integrate it before the last two weeks of the season, where Michigan will play the Alpha and Omega of Big 10 offenses.
Worst: The Fans
I was thinking about skipping this part, but I'll keep it brief. I saw a number of people get upset about this tweet recounting something Jim Harbaugh said after the game.
John O’Korn asked what Harbaugh told them after the game: ‘The fake love’s gone. There’s no bandwagon. Only us.’
— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) October 22, 2017
In the most predictable response imaginable, some people believed this was "calling out the fans" and was disrespectful to...someone. The fact it is 100% true and should be the message every coach communicates to his charges is irrelevant to some, but if this place is a likely microcosm of the larger Michigan fanbase, damn right they shouldn't give a shit caring out the whims and emotional maturity of the fanbase. I've said this before, but watching football is very one-sided in terms of risk-reward. I sit on my couch hundreds of miles away from virtually every game these students play each year. If they win, good. If they lose, that is annoying but I'm not going to suffer any long-term negative effects. But John O'Korn felt every one of those 7 sacks. Mo Hurst slammed into a bunch of 300 pound human beings 50+ times this weekend. They are ultimately playing for themselves and whatever motivates them to bust their asses each week, and before this veers even more into sermonizing, that team cohesion, that inter-dependence on your teammates, is what is going to get them through the last couple of months of the season, not the fickle whims of men and women checking in for 3-4 hours a weekend. Michigan is always going to have an outsized number of bandwagoners, and trying to draw much motivation or inspiration from them after a loss is a waste of energy. So good on Harbaugh for rallying his guys while reminding them of the reality of this sport, and I hope they find a way to stay this motivated and passionate going forward as they have thus far.
- PSU has an elite offense, but this was a perfect storm for them coming into this game (bye week, at home for biggest game of the season, revenge-minded, limited Michigan offense). What I suspect will happen is they'll struggle much more against OSU and, to a lesser extent, MSU in the coming weeks, just because teams will have more tape on them against "better" defenses and limit the mismatches they first for. I'm actually interested to see how they play on the road; Iowa was a near-upset, and even NW was a game going into the 3rd quarter.
- I assume this week will feature your usual grab-bag of carries for the running backs. Higdon looked good, as did Isaac, but my hope is Walker sees the ball as well. Evans continues to be an enigma; I know he's a bit snakebitten on these runs, and the play calling remains unable/unwilling to get him the ball in space on the corners, but it's more than halfway through the season and he's probably my biggest disappointment simply based on expectations.
- I understand the calls for Tim Drevno's head even if I don't necessarily agree with them, but I'm not remotely sure how people can start calling for guys like Hamilton to be fired, what, 7 games into their tenures? I get it's a vocal minority saying it, but the sample size for "acceptable viewing" is seemingly shrinking to unsustainable bounds. I am interested to see what his offense looks like with some experienced players; I have to imagine Speight getting hurt threw a wrench into his plans for the offense as much as anyone's.
- I don’t like James Franklin for a number of reasons that you I can dive into later, but credit to him for turning PSU around. I fully expect Michigan to get revenge next year when he brings a younger, less experienced team to Ann Arbor, but him desperately wanting to go for a TD to end the game is one of the more genuine things I’ve seen out of him.
Next: The Founders of Football
Rutgers is next on the schedule, featuring the same conference record as Michigan (!) and riding a two-game win streak (!!), their first as a member of the conference, apparently. It's been against Illinois, the Rutgers of 2016 for 2017, and Purdue, but wins are wins. They will be frisky, they will not necessarily be pushovers, but this still feels like a game Michigan wins pretty handily. As I've mentioned before, my guess is Peters sees at least a couple of series, and there should be more rotation at RB, WR, etc. as the team gets a little breathing room on the schedule before the final push. I'm along for the ride, at the very least.
Worst: Pick one
Nobody should have expected this game to be a fun watch. Michigan might be riding a 22-game win streak over the Hoosiers (spanning 30 years), but other than a 34-10 win in 2014 none of them have been all that comfortable since the Carr era. Michigan would put up 67 on the Hoosiers in 2013...but never led by more than 14 points until the very end of the game. RR's games featured late-game interceptions and TDs, the platonic ideal for Rich Rod games. And since Jim Harbaugh arrived, the two teams have gone to OT twice and the other game was a 10-point win that featured a terrible performance by...(check my notes)...John O'Korn. Oh wonderful. This is just what happens when these two teams play, I guess, and the hope is that when IU breaks through it doesn't submarine a meaningful season.
Now, I'm going to spend some time later on talking about the very real positives you can and should take away from this game; Michigan successfully ran (6.2 ypc) against a good IU run defense, they blocked well on passing downs (0 sacks given up), they didn't turn the ball over while picking off IU twice, and save for about 2 drives the defense held up despite facing 15 real IU possessions. But at not point should this lead you to believe this was a "good" performance by Michigan, especially on offense. This was categorically not that, and I'm not sure I possess the grasp of the English language necessary to convey how...not good this team looked for large swaths of this game when they had the ball in their hands and a whole sideline pointing where they should go.
IU got as many first downs by penalty (3) as rushing the ball, and that was part of a 16-penalty (!), 141 yard (!!) day of crime and punishment. That's almost 1 and a half football fields of penalties! That's about 4.25 blue whales in length, for those of you who have recently read flip-page books to a 3-year-old about animals in the ocean. And Indiana turned down multiple penalties, meaning they left even more blue whales off the field! And the sad thing was that most of those penalties were earned; I don't understand what is pass interference anymore, but Michigan was guilty of it a couple of times that were semi-legit. Yes, Mo Hurst was hit with a roughing the passer call because he tackled the QB literally as he was throwing the ball, and apparently a center can be called for holding because he used his body to block a defender, but for the most part Michigan kept IU drives alive or stymied their own through self-inflicted wounds. And yes, I will 100% point out that the refs missed at least one block in the back on the big IU return, also a pick play on their last TD that was blatant enough that Brock Huard noticed it in between huffs of paint or whatever he was doing for most of this game. But all the same, you can't give up nearly 5 blue whales of free yards and be focused too much on a couple of missed calls.
But much like last week, where Michigan turned over the ball 5 times, this ungodly number of penalties would have just been an interesting footnote in an otherwise ugly-but-comfortable victory had the play at QB been within earshot of competent. These are college kids and are doing their best; I am not trying to impugn their character or abilities. But if you missed this game for whatever reason, (a) thank your friend's new wife for scheduling a wedding on a fall Saturday, and (b) just imagine watching this for almost 5(!) hours(!!) whenever Michigan looked to matriculate the ball in the air.
Just that for 4 quarters. Somehow, an offense that threw 3 picks and 5.6 yards per pass in a monsoon turned in a demonstrably worse performance on what seemed like a perfectly fine day in Bloomington. 2.9 ypa, 50% completion percentage, 58 yards passing, and despite multiple times facing 3rd down and effectively the game, Michigan seemingly didn't even consider throwing the ball. It was atrocious, probably the worst performance this side of Russell Bellomy, and at least there you had the unexpectedness of being called into action to explain a bit of it away. This is basically week 3 of Michigan's offense under John O'Korn, and the outlier performance is starting to look super-obvious. I'll get into it later, but while I think giving the ball to Peters is a bad idea for a number of reasons, if you lack confidence in your QB to throw the ball when you need to, then you have to replace him. Otherwise, you might as well just put another RB in the game and see if you can Wildcat or whatever the hell to 6-6.
And for what felt like the umpteenth time this year, O'Korn got very little help from the receivers. Yes, there were throws behind some receivers or into coverage, but there were also routine drops and the ever-present inability of anyone on this team to pull anything out of a hat. I'm not even looking for a rabbit; a gerbil with alopecia would suffice. I swear, the next time anyone catches even a semi-underthrown ball the crowd is going to erupt like they just saw Marquise Walker vs. Iowa. Yes, there were easy passes missed in this game, notably (and stop me if you've heard this one before) Gentry being screamingly wide open on the contested ball to Crawford, and that falls on the QB to make. But good lord, there were probably 3 or 4 just straight drops in this game that had to be made, from Perry letting a ball hit his hands while extended, or Schoenle just dropping a ball on a little flair, to one or two others in what felt like a lifetime of bad plays. And if you have a struggling QB, somebody needs to find a way to get open quickly and catch the ball when it gets there, because expecting this passing attack to both get the ball there AND then survive a 50/50 chance of it actually getting caught is a mountain too high to climb.
And yet...had the flag-happy refs called even one block in the back on that punt return, Michigan probably wins this game by 10 or more. Much like MSU, Michigan gave a game IU team every out they could, every mistake and misstep that lets an underdog pull out the win, and still Michigan won. And like your average horror film monster, we're learning what can and can't kill Michigan. Apparently a program-record number of penalties on the road will make it close; 5 TOS and a torrential rainstorm was just enough to keep them down. PSU is going to be on another plane of opponent to anyone Michigan has seen thus far, and if they play like they have the past couple of weeks James Franklin is going to be extra smug in his press conference about how little it meant avenging a 39-point loss last year.
Best: A Land-Based Offensive
But all was not lost offensively. For the second week in a row, the running game looked like a weapon against a competent defensive outfit. Last week's output wasn't particularly inspiring on paper (102 yards, 2.6 ypc), but factor out sacks and you are looking at a semi-decent day (3.5 ypc) and the emergence of Karan Higdon as the feature back (5.4 ypc). This week, Higdon asserted himself with 25 carries for a career-high 200 yards and 3 TDs, including the game winner in OT where he just bounced off a broken play and sprinted to the corner on the first play from scrimmage. Much has been made about Michigan incorporating more power/ISO elements to the running game, and that type of play calling really seems to benefit Higdon. He's not the fastest or biggest back on the roster, but he is great at squaring his shoulders and running through first contact, which was what made DeVeon Smith so valuable the past couple of years. Plus, one of Higdon's biggest weaknesses, his sometimes-spotty vision for finding the holes and cutbacks in the running game, are mitigated somewhat by this "run to the hole" mentality.
And what was also encouraging was that Higdon didn't pick up most of his yards on 1 or 2 runs. While he averaged 8 ypc, his median run was 4 yards, which is pretty impressive since the last couple of drives Michigan was content to just run him into the line for a couple of yards to burn the clock; throw out that last clock-killing drive as well as the meaningless one at the end of the first half and we're about 5 ypc. That wasn't a Saquon Barkley vs. NW situation where he averaged 4.7 ypc because of a 53-yard TD run and not much else; despite the world knowing Michigan couldn't throw the ball, Higdon was able to consistently get positive yardage behind an improving offensive line.
Of course, I'm not naive enough to believe anything that happened this week will translate to future opponents; for all I know, Higdon could fumble twice against PSU and we'd be back to Chris Evans and, I don't know, Kareem Walker getting the majority of carries. But it does seem like the offensive line has turned a bit of a corner here the last couple of weeks. The running game is still not particularly dynamic, but it's finally something I can sorta rely on being there more times than not. I don't know the formation breakdowns, but my guess is the minimization of zone blocking and at least a plurality of power/ISO blocking schemes we saw the first two years under Harbaugh are a large reason why we've seen some success on the ground as well as the drop in TFLs (5 this week, only 2 non-sacks TFLs last week) compared to a season average of around 8. It's not night-and-day different, but it feels like progress nonetheless. And if this team has any hope of winning against PSU, OSU, or Wisconsin, they have to be able to do something consistently on offense, even if it means playing dinosaur football at times.
Best: Air Defense
Another day, another strong defensive performance by the secondary. Yes, they haven't faced a particularly good passing attack yet (MSU's is statistically the best, though I'd probably say Purdue's is better overall), but other than PSU there really isn't one on the schedule unless you are buying that J.T. Barrett has suddenly figured out how to throw consistently against pass defenses (my lack of heavy sarcasm font should not dissuade you from deducing I am a doubter). Yes, IU was able to throw a bit toward the end of the game, where they found some success throwing the ball to Timian and Cobbs. Still, IU completed only 49% of their passes on the day for 4.6 ypa, and at no point did they look remotely comfortable throwing the ball to their receivers even though that was about the only offense they could rely on (2.8 yards per carry on 29 runs in the game). Lavert Hill was flagged for PI on his first interception, a call that was probably correct (he was definitely in contact the whole time), though (a) he was also running the receiver's route for him, and (b) the ball was thrown a bit behind, which is why Hill picked it off. I'll take PIs in those instances all day because of how disruptive it was for the IU offense to rarely find guys open. On the other side of the field, I thought David Long had another great game. He drew Cobbs a decent amount of the time late in the game and kept with him the whole way, getting a pass breakup and generally styme the best receiver Michigan has seen thus far. He also picked up a nice TFL on a cornerback blitz, a new wrinkle to the defense that I assume they'll employ more as the season progresses. Watson also should come in for praise; despite the refs best attempts to consider Cobbs both pushed out of bounds AND reestablishing presence in the field when he caught a moonshot out of bounds, he did a good job keeping in contact with receivers and rarely gave up much. Most of the yards the receivers picked up on the day were the result of quick slants that were immediately down, or breakdowns on scrambles when Michigan couldn't get to Ramsey and he was able to run around a bit. Oh, and a couple of rather egregious pick plays that I guess we're just never going to be seen called anymore. The TD catch was particularly aggravating because the receiver just ran into (I believe) Watson and pushed him into Hill, but there a couple others where guys would spring open and you'd see a defensive back trying to shuck off a Hoosier with a death grip on their jersey.
Penn State will be a different beast, at least compared to teams like MSU and IU. They don't have a dominant receiver like, say, an Allen Robinson, but guys like Hamilton, Gesicki, and Johnson are all competent pass catchers who can win a 50/50 ball in the right circumstance. Barkley is probably a better pass catching threat than a running threat in this game, as PSU's offensive line is still pretty terrible, so it will behoove the likes of Kinnel and Metellus, along with the corners, to be able to tackle when he gets the ball in space. There will be missed tackles and assignments, and you aren't going to shut down teams forever throwing the ball; we saw it in this game a bit what happens when a team has over a dozen cracks at your corners. But I think we've gotten to the point in the season where the defensive backfield can be considered a strength of one of the best defenses in the country.
Best: The Good Kid
You always hear that teachers spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with the "troublemakers", the disruptive kids in a classroom. The quieter kids, the ones who just do their work without a fuss, are given a pat on the back and a silent "thank you" as the teacher navigates the room. You want to praise them and you do, but the reality is that the squeaky wheel gets the most attention, and if this analogy hasn't been made clear yet, the offense is the biggest fucking squeaky wheel on this team. By comparison, the defense is a wheel covered in the contents of a 55-gallon tub of lube rolling on a floor covered with Teflon. Also, it's the quiet kid who does her job really well without much fanfare, while the offense is destroying the school bus. Yes, this whole paragraph exists for the sole purpose of linking to an article about a tub of sexual lubricant. Deal with it.
On the day, Indiana was held to 278 yards of total offense, 3.9 ypp and 13 first downs, all season lows for the Hoosiers. This isn't CHAOS team like in years past, but when you face 72 plays over 15 drives and hold the opposition to well under 300 yards while picking them off twice, you're doing something well. Michigan forced 7 3-and-outs as well as a 2-and-turnover, and racked up 2 sacks and 7 TFLs to boot. Even when they buckled a bit at the end, it wasn't particularly egregious; the late TD was due mostly to IU getting a great return on a punt (again, ignoring multiple blocks in the back), and leaving a college kicker with a 46-yard FG to tie the game is a reasonable strategy. On the last play in OT, which brought back memories of way more games than I'd like, Michigan's defense was able to overwhelm IU's line and chase Ramsey into throwing the pick to Kinnel, and at the end you saw Winovich just passed out on the field next to Ramsey, exhausted but elated. I sadly know the feeling.
This remains a 3-game season, with road contests against PSU and Wisconsin and a home date with OSU being the only offenses I could see having much success against Michigan. PSU I touched on above, and I've seen enough of PSU's run blocking to know that they'll be overwhelmed by Michigan's line more times than not. Wisconsin is probably the best offensive line they'll see all year, and Jonathan Taylor is another in an annoying line of really good Wisconsin running backs that will find some success against Michigan. And then OSU is, well, OSU, and that spinning death ball is going to be a handful. But unlike Brian, I am not certain that PSU will murder this unit, even if the offense will almost assuredly let them down.
Worst, Maybe Ever: Throwing the Ball
You know the stats. You watched the game (unless you attended the aforementioned fall wedding). Brian will break it down with Ace on the podcast, then in the game recap, then the UFR, then the burning questions, then on WTKA, then probably before the PSU game in the preview. There have been and will probably be another handful of threads about what to do about the play calling, about how bad O'Korn has looked under center, everything. If you want to hear people talk about shitty QB play...hell, after this weekend you could find it a lot of places, and ONE of those places is here.
I only have two things to add to the discussion. One, this shouldn't surprise anyone. I honestly hate being right here because it means I correctly deduced that a college student who is trying his best wouldn't be particularly good at QB, and that a bunch of (mostly) faceless assholes on the internet would take him to task for it. But there's a reason John O'Korn left Houston after losing his job, why he never was able to surpass Wilton Speight, and why in 3 games we've seen him start he's had an average stat line of 46% completion percentage for 105 yards, 1.5 ypa (!), and a pick. It feels mean even writing that, and before you rush to the comments to say "but what about the weather?", his two best performances were arguably those two snow- and water-slogged events. As Brain mentioned on (I believe) WTKA, this John O'Korn is a better version of the one who got benched in Houston, but that doesn't mean he is objectively good enough to be the starting QB on a team like Michigan. He looked great against Purdue because his first read was usually open and Purdue, honestly, didn't have the defensive players or the preparation to really limit what Michigan wanted to do vertically. Both MSU and IU have, and you see the results. And its hard not to look at the play calling in that 4th quarter, when the only pass he was asked to throw was a short tunnel screen to DPJ despite a number of third-down situations, and believe that if there was any way Wilton Speight could play, he'd be out there. Because I will say this with 100% confidence: this team is undefeated with a healthy Speight under center. It wouldn't have been remotely pretty, but I don't think he loses to MSU or IU, and in retrospect, Purdue's defense was going to give up big plays regardless of the guy under center; O'Korn's elusiveness on that first drive accelerated it, but those plays were going to be there and Speight would have made enough of them.
Second, and perhaps more pressing, is what should the coaches do going forward. There is obviously no reason to throw Peters out there against PSU, but I can see the argument that if you are going to lose, might as well see if the new guy can handle the heat. I mean, it's a terrible idea because, as we've seen with O'Korn compared to Speight, the coaches are pretty accurate at ranking the QBs on the roster based on readiness. If Peters can't usurp this John O'Korn, it's hard to believe he's a QB who plays better on Saturday than he does the rest of the week. You know what you're getting with O'Korn, and while that's not particularly pleasant, it's medicine you can swallow. It gives the offense some continuity going into a hostile environment, and if nothing else, O'Korn should at least know the playbook and get the guys into position. Switching to Peters would be throwing the offense it's third signal caller in about a month, and would jeopardize any growth and cohesion that may exist for this unit. Plus, and I can't stress this enough, if/when you find a need to move back to O'Korn, you'll probably find a husk of a player who now won't even have confidence in himself or (I assume) from his teammates. I know we're getting into feelingsball territory, but "put in the guy who is demonstrably worse than the guy ahead of him" isn't a winning strategy, and Peters will be better served not getting his brains bashed in based on the sole expectation that he can't be worse than the starter (hint: He 100% can be).
I believe in Harbaugh as a QB guru; his record is largely unassailable on that front. But you can only do so much with the tools at your disposal, and his hands were tired the minute a Purdue player sat on Wilton Speight's neck. If the coaches truly believe the season is over and want to see Peters play QB against non-Michigan defenses, then go for it. But unless this has been the longest of long cons, I don't see Harbaugh having some ace up his sleeve. So until such time as a change is made, Michigan needs to run some type of a passing offense that John O'Korn can be semi-successful in, even if that means going against the tendencies of this staff.
Worst, Probably Not Ever But Getting There: Catching the Ball
Coming into this game, this is the charted receptions by the receivers on this team.
Other than Perry, everyone who is capable of catching a pass has produced a single circus catch (out of 8 attempts), 5 tough catches (out of 9), and good percentage of routine catches. And in what is apropos for this team, that 1 circus catch was Crawford's disallowed TD against Florida. At this point, the receivers are what they are, and combined with issues at QB and on the offensive line, you are in for a lot of drive-killing drops and overthrows. But I think people sort of assume all of the passing issues are with the QB, and I don't necessarily see that. I know Brian didn't chart the OSU and FSU games formally, but here's the receiver's chart after the IU game last season.
Yes, that's with two NFL receivers and Tight End, but sometimes your QB needs to be bailed out on a tough throw. Michigan hasn't gotten that at all this year. The tough catches aren't made AND a disturbing number of easy catches are also being botched. You can't have it both ways, and so it's why I cringed when Brian suggested they go 5-wide against MSU or people call for the offense to open it up more. To be able to run a high-octane offense, you need to have confidence that the routines plays will work as well. And right now, you might as well just consult a magic 8-ball before calling the play in. In this game DPJ was overthrown a bit on a bomb early on, Crawford couldn't come down with a highly-contested bomb in the 4th, and maybe there was one more deep ball in the mix. And unsurprising, none of them connected. And if the offense was otherwise consistent catching the ball, that would be troubling but acceptable. But McDoom dropped another pass this week, Perry let a ball bounce off his hands, a couple of other guys botched easy throws, and so on a day where O'Korn wasn't sacked and Michigan ran for about 6 yards a pop, they couldn't break 60 yards passing on 20 attempts. This offense doesn't want to nickel-and-dime it's way down the field, but unless the light comes on for a bunch of players that's their only option.
Worst: Happy One-Sided Flag Day
I will stipulate up front that a fair number of these penalties were procedural. There were multiple delays of games, too many men on the field, false starts, stuff like that. You don't pick up 16 penalties because of subjectivity. And Michigan is one of the more penalized teams in the country; even before this weekend they were averaging about 8 penalties a game. I take issue with the PI on Long in OT, the roughing-the-passer on Hurst, and whatever they called with the center on the last punt, but Michigan earned a bunch of their infractions in this game.
But what drove me crazy was that it didn't seem like the same whistle applied to IU. Yes, IU got a questionable PI that wiped out an interception, but it was basically the same type of contact that erased Hill's first pick as well. But Michigan came into this game ranked in the top 10 in terms of sacks per game, and yet for the second straight game nobody on IU's offensive line was called for a hold. This despite IU dropping back to pass 40+ times in this game, and Michigan still possessing a multitude of athletic, angry men. There were at least 2 times in this game when Ramsey was definitely in the tackle box and just threw the ball forward, a receiver in the same general zip code but certainly not with any real chance of being a viable target. The fact it went past the line of scrimmage is immaterial, and yet that seemed to be the sole factor. They also bungled both the Cobbs non-catch and his non-recovery of the onside kick (they at least ruled it initially out of bounds), ultimately getting it right only after length replays. I get the reception might have been iffy because of the contact in real time; there is no way that onside kick recovery looked good in real or slow motion. And the less said about a punt block where a guy throws his hands up as soon as the Michigan player ready to tackle for a loss goes flying forward, the better. And yes, fans of a team are always going to believe calls should have gone their way; I am not wholly objective in my analysis of this game or the officiating. But there were 15 combined penalties called in that first half, yet in the second there were 21 total. Now, maybe the coaches pep talked one of the youngest teams in college football to stop messing up, but Occam's razor leads me to believe the refs figured out they were being a bit too whistle-happy and tamped it down in the second half, which is sort of the antithesis of their job description.
- Half of the top 10 have lost to unranked teams over the past 2 weeks. WSU was run off the field by a Cal team that had lost their last two games by a combined 63 points. OU lost at home as a 30-ish point favorite, then nearly blew a 20 point lead against Texas. Clemson lost to a middling Syracuse team even before their QB got hurt, Auburn somehow let LSU of all teams mount a 20-point comeback, and Washington scored 7 points against an ASU team that gave up 31 points to New Mexico State. Hell, MSU nearly blew a 20-point lead against Minnesota, a team that is 0-3 in conference play and had the 99th-ranked offense coming into the game. My point is that (other than Alabama), there really isn't a dominant team in the national title picture, and every team has their flaws. Michigan's is basically "offense", which is not particularly encouraging, but with a week of hindsight losing a game by 4 with a -5 turnover margin, in a rain storm, with a chance to steal it at the end should be tempered a bit.
- Again, this is going to feel mean, but a key complaint I've had all year is that Kekoa Crawford's hands are suspect, so of course he was on the "hands" team on that onside kick and of course the ball deflected off his hands and was almost recovered. And if we had just paid attention...
- I saw a number of people complain about Michigan throwing the ball in that second half after successfully picking up a couple of first downs on the ground. While I agree that you shouldn't deviate from a working system, Michigan's 3rd-down yardage bugaboo popped up again in this game (their average yardage to go for a first was almost 9 yards), and so if you can take advantage of a sagging defense on first down you should take that shot. The problem was O'Korn was by gawd going to throw that to Crawford, and it was nearly picked off. But play action exists to punish teams creeping up, and a better decision there is probably a TD.
Next Week: PSU
I know I'm in the minority, but beating PSU is probably the second-biggest "rivalry" win I want to see in a year. Every time I read some article about PSU fans wanting to save the reputation of Joe Pa despite ample evidence he overlooked child rape, or hear some announcer talk about PSU being able to "heal" from, again, the fair punishment handed down for harboring a sexual predator for over a decade, or see Trace McSorley swing his dumb little bat taunt, or James Franklin try not to come across as petty during an interview after beating Pitt, all I want to see is them lose a game like this. I'll cop to it being petty. But I also don't see PSU as a particularly good team. They are #2 because a bunch of teams ahead of them lost, not because they've looked particularly dominant. They're better than Michigan, but the difference isn't nearly as pronounced as you'd expect for a #2/#16 matchup would suggest, and their issues along the offensive line aren't likely to go away. It's going to be an uglier game than people think, and probably lower scoring than PSU would want. This feels like a game where if Michigan can keep PSU within reach, they can pull off the upset. But they'll have to survive PSU's initial assault. The hope I have is just like Michigan looked rusty after the 2-week layoff before MSU, PSU will have some issues getting going and, perhaps, Michigan can capitalize.