Best and Worst: South Carolina

Best and Worst: South Carolina

Submitted by bronxblue on January 1st, 2018 at 10:43 PM

This is going to be quick, because I really don't see the need to rehash a disheartening game. So I'm digging into the writer's bag of cliche tricks and doing a "theme" diary.

Worst: 10

Michigan hasn't started the same QB in consecutive games since weeks 10 and 11, with Brandon Peters getting the nod against Maryland and Wisconsin. Already down Wilton Speight, Michigan was forced to start O'Korn against OSU due to Peters's injury against the Badgers, and then went back to Peters here. There has been a lot of 1's and 0's shed about why Michigan's offense has looked...butt this year, but "playing 3 QBs, 1.5 of which would be considered functional at best" is pretty high up there.

Best/Worst: 9

#9 Mike McCray, playing in his last game as a Wolverine, picked up 9 tackles in this game, including a team-leading 4 TFLs. People will harp on him in coverage against terrifying players like Barkley and Cook, but he's been a stalwart for a defense that only had 2 returning starters coming into the year. There are absolutely bodies on the roster who can step in to fill his shoes, but that's going to be a bigger task than some people expect.

Michigan entered halftime up only 9-3 despite two SC turnovers due to, you guessed it, inconsistent offensive production. I don't know the actual hierarchy of playcalling on this team; you hear that it's some combination of Drevno and Hamilton that funnels down to Harbaugh, but functionally I don't know if that's the case on every down. But there were multiple times in this game where Michigan's offense could have, should have been able to move the ball downfield on a very aggressive SC defense. I'll accept (to an extent) that they might not be able to run the ball against a top-25 rush defense, but Michigan had 9 3/4-and-outs in this game, and a lot of them occurred from drives where Michigan showed virtually no offensive creativity. For the game, Michigan ran 33 times for 74 yards and threw the ball 44(!) times. And this wasn't necessarily all when Michigan was trailing; Peters was at 23 attempts in the first half. Peters hadn't thrown the ball more than 18 times in a game all year.

Best/Worst: 7

#7 Khaleke Hudson led the team with 10 tackles, including a sack for 7 yards and 2 pass breakups. In a story we've all seen far too often this year, the defense gave up the ghost a bit in that second half as the offense imploded, but Hudson continued his strong play to end the year. He's going to be a key part of the defense next year, and I wouldn't be surprised if he had an all-conference type year as he gets even more experience in this defense and his role expands.

A season-long trend for Michigan's woeful offense has been their 3rd-down yards to go. In this game, Michigan faced, on average, 3rd-and-7 on 21 plays. The national average is around 5 yards to go, and Michigan has consistently been above that against semi-competent defenses. There are myraid of reasons why that occurred: poor run-blocking on earlier downs, predictable playcalling, turnover at QB leading to poor decision-making, etc. But no offense does well when the defense sorta knows what you're going to do, and Michigan's 2-for-17 on 3rd downs this day is the distillation of this issue writ large.

Worst: 6

Brad Robbins punted 6 times in this game...and averaged 34.8 yards per kick. The national average is about 41 yards per kick. So even an average punting performance in this game nets Michigan an average of 6 yards more per kick. Coupled with DPJ's continued struggles fielding punts (he fumbled one that set up a late SC score, and had a couple other instances where he made poor plays on the ball), and I hope people retroactively appreciate even more Michigan's special teams play from last year. Peppers saved hundreds of yards last year with his ball-handling on ST, and Kenny Allen's 43.3 average was extremely useful in flipping field position. Early in this game, Michigan traded punts with SC and wound up 15-ish yards back. Bad offenses need breaks generated by other facets of the team, and outside of one muffed punt return by SC Michigan lost the field position battle pretty handily.

I do want to hone in on the most inexplicable turnover of this game, stemming from the most inexplicable playcall of the year. For reasons that I will never understand and I don't care how hard people try to explain it, Michigan ran what I can only assume was a modified FB dive with noted not-fullback Sean McKeon on 3rd-and-short inside their own 20 yard line. Because this is a play McKeon probably has never practiced doing expect for 2 days before this game, him and Peters messed up the handoff, SC recovered, and the rout was basically on from that point. Michigan has FBs; they have handfuls of them, perhaps even a surplus, even though apparently Hill was out for this game. They have RBs who conceivably can fling their bodies at the line for 1 yard with more consistency than a 6-5 TE. Even if that was the wrong formation or the wrong personnel, nobody on that sideline or the huddle looked at the play configuration and called a timeout, audibled to a different play, set himself on fire so as to distract the referees and players and halt the game, anything. That wasn't bad luck as much as karma punishing Michigan for hubris, and they deserved it.

Worst: 5

Michigan had 5 second-half turnovers against SC, which resulted in 10 SC points. They also had 5 TOs in their loss against MSU earlier in the year. In both those games, Michigan probably wins if they turn the ball over even 3 times. Yes, South Carolina had a bit of bad luck in the first half as well, but overall they've been reasonably lucky all year with a TO margin of +0.75 and an even better adjusted TO mark. Michigan has, well, not been so lucky, with one of the worst TO margins in the nation and even worse luck than you'd expect. One of the reasons I'm cautiously optimistic about next season is this TO margin being pretty bad; more consistency at QB and maturation in the receiving group should cut down on the interceptions, and things like fumbles are sufficiently wacky that Michigan losing 10 a year after losing 5 all of 2016 and 6 in 2015 feels a bit extreme and might be due for a correction next year. Of course, there remain issues of ball security across the team, so perhaps that's being a bit optimistic. Still, turning the ball too many times in a winnable game has become a bit of a theme for the Wolverines of the years, and it's cost them a number of wins in the process.

Best: 4

After some mid-season struggles, Quinn Nordin ended the year a perfect 4/4 in FG attempts in this game and was basically the offense for long stretches. He's probably not the kicking god we all sorta assumed he was after nailing multiple 50+ yarders to star the year, and I'm not sure how beneficial it is to have a kicker grabbing his nuts and directing it toward the SC sidelines after a conversion, but he's still a weapon and one you hope continues to improve over the next couple of years. Heck, maybe he can double-dip as a punter as well.

Worst: 3

Michigan ended the year losers of 3 straight. True, 2 of those losses came against top-5 teams in closer-than-the-final-score contests, but at some point you are your record and 8-5 with one win against a .500+ team is pretty damning. This is year 3 for Harbaugh but, due to lagging recruiting misses by Hoke, this is the year Michigan was going to experience a lot of depth and talent issues if they didn't get a heaping helping of luck at spots like QB, offensive tackles, and WR. With few exceptions, Michigan didn't catch those breaks, and that's why they had yet another different starting 5 on the offensive line trying to block for their 3rd-string QB. Help is on the way, I guess, with the addition of Shea Patterson and maybe a couple of last-second recruiting pulls, but with JBB possibly playing his last game as a Wolverine and assorted other question marks on the offensive line, I fear 2018 will be another year where Michigan looks great at most position groups and still gives a game or two away because they can't block a team to save their lives.

Worst: 2

For the game, Michigan averaged 2.2 ypc. That is the 5th time this year Michigan failed to break 3 ypc. Michigan hasn't had a 1,000 yard rusher not named Denard since 2011; Rutgers has accomplished it more recently than that. The only team I've seen to have more futility running the ball than Michigan over the years has been Illinois. I know the college game has evolved, and Michigan has been effective at distributing carries across different backs, and Higdon was close to 1,000 yards and both him and Evans return next year, and it's a top-10 rushing attack per S&P+, and blah blah blah. But Harbaugh's best teams have always had a dominant ball carrier who grinds opposing defenses down. I'm not calling for 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust or anything, but it doesn't seem like Higdon nor Evans can be that type of every-down back against the better teams Michigan will face, and until they find someone who can fit that role they're going to be succeptible to getting shut down on the ground. You watch teams like Wisconsin and what they do is just hit you with the same guy 25+ times a game, and at some point you start making mistakes and they punish you. Michigan has struggled all year to get into that type of rhythm offensively, and it's cost them in games like this one. I don't even care about 1k as a number as much as what it would mean for an offense to have a workhorse back who will be there, consistently getting yards and keeping Michigan in manageable downs and distances. Setting downs on fire for 2 yards certainly isn't working.

Best: 1

Mo Hurst played his last game at Michigan and, at least per the stat sheet, had a quiet game, recording 1 tackle, 1 QB hurry, and 1 pass breakup. But he was the heart and soul of this defense this year, an All-American to basically anyone who mattered, and one of the more fun players to watch all year. He's going to be a first-round pick in a couple of months, and wherever he winds up he'll make that defensive line instantly better. Michigan will have a lot of pieces returning next year, but his absence will be immensely felt.

Worst/Best: 0

No more Michigan football until September. That also likely means, barring another crazy run in the NCAA tourney by the cagers, no more Best and Worst columns until Notre Dame. It's a downer because I like to write these, but as a trade-off I'll have some free hours every weekend to, I don't know, pay attention to my kids or whatever humans do when college football isn't on. So thank you all for bearing with me this year, and see you in the fall.

Go blue!

Best and Worst: OSU

Best and Worst: OSU

Submitted by bronxblue on November 26th, 2017 at 6:25 PM

Best: Improvement

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.

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.

Worst: Officiating

This is apparently not a hold

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.

Best: Coaching

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.

Best and Worst: Wisconsin

Best and Worst: Wisconsin

Submitted by bronxblue on November 19th, 2017 at 2:14 AM

This is going to feel a bit listless of a column. It's just...this was exactly how I expected this game to go. It was a game of football played between two teams, and other than "Michigan is better than the last time they played a ranked team on the road this year", I'm not sure what else can be divined from the outcome.

Best: Road Work

The last time Michigan went on the road to play a top-5 team that had basically not seen a credible challenger all year previously...this happened. Michigan got run over, walloped, taken to the woodshed, curb-stomped, whatever euphemism you prefer for describing what PSU did to Michigan that night. I’m partial to saying Penn State stomped a mud-hole in Michigan and then walked it dry. But regardless, PSU trounced a healthier Michigan, and even the token resistance/hope they generated getting within 1 was a mirage. Penn State exploited every one of Michigan's weaknesses and could have won by even more had James Franklin had a couple more seconds at the end of the game.

So fast forward about a month, and Michigan headed to Madison down to their third-string QB (based on the depth chart at the time; I'm not going to re-litigate the O'Korn-Peters ranking), down maybe the best corner in the conference (Hill), and with a number of injuries that hobbled key performers like Higdon, Onwenu, and Isaac. Wisconsin has not really played anyone this whole year; while FAU is a top-20 team to S&P+ now, that was a club coming off a drubbing by Navy and wasn't close to being the team first-year coach Lane Kiffin turned them into. Beyond that, they share a victory over Purdue with Michigan as their other signature win, which says something considering Purdue is 43rd in the country and that's probably a bit generous. So this was going to be their signature game until the conference championship, their one chance to play a ranked team on national television. Like with PSU, Michigan was walking into the lion's den, a rabid stadium full of all the senior day pageantry and mid-November cheese- and beer-infused vittles that Wisconsin can provide. A similar outcome, perhaps not in amplitude but in severity, would have been reasonable to assume.

And yet, Michigan played with a poise and talent they didn't showcase against Penn State. Like PSU, Wisconsin isn't as good as their ranking suggested, but they are a good team, especially at home. They are a fundamentally sound defense and a competent offense; their record is inflated by playing in probably the worst division in Power 5 football. And yet, Michigan led this game midway through the third quarter and, perhaps more impressively, should have been ahead by more than 10-7. For the first half of the game, Michigan's average starting field position was their 30 yard line; for Wisconsin, it was their own 11. Michigan had converted 4 of their 9 3rd-down opportunities; Wisconsin was 1-6. Michigan had 170 yards of total offense to the Badgers' 99, and were largely holding Jonathan Taylor in check. And Michigan had suffered from some bad turnover luck, as Peters fumbled the ball at the 1 yard line while trying to stretch for a score. On the other side, Wisconsin's lone first-half score was a fluky-ish punt return in which the ball bounced and multiple Wolverines ran past the returner before he picked the ball up.

And yet, Michigan could never really take much advantage of their good fortune. The Badgers are not built for large deficits, and had Michigan been able to score on a couple of these drives they could have pushed Wisconsin out of their comfort zone; despite his solid play in the 2nd half, Alex Hornibrook and the Badgers are not going to throw themselves successfully back into a lot of games. But Michigan could never string drives together consistently, and so Wisconsin never had to deviate from their gameplan much offensively or defensively.

To Wisconsin's credit, they kept coming, and Peters kept getting blown up until he was finally knocked out by yet another unblocked Wisconsin defender. At that point, even though Michigan was only down 14-10, it felt like the game was over. The defense that had been leaned on all season was worn down by a relentless, Novacaine-like Wisconsin rush offense. Down Peters and with a hobbled backfield (Higdon limped off the field the play earlier, while Isaac had left in the first quarter), it was mostly academic after that. Michigan's defense gave up chunk plays to Taylor and the rest of the Wisconsin run game, Hornibrook suddenly couldn't miss, and the offense couldn't do a thing. In the end, Wisconsin won comfortably, the type of performance you'd expect from a top-ranked team at home.

Still, this felt like a good sign for such a young team. They 100% could have taken this game on the road with a couple more bounces, and while I'm sure there are people rushing to the comments to complain about whatever definition of "settling for mediocrity" they ascribe to, I really don't care. Michigan came into a year a flawed team, and due to untimely injuries, bad luck, and poor play, have suffered through an uneven year. But last year Wisconsin came to Michigan looking not unlike the Wolverines this year, with uncertainty and youth at QB and issues along the offensive line. They put up 159 yards of total offense and were thoroughly dominated. This year, Michigan played them even for most of the day, and it didn't feel like the mismatch some assumed coming in. This season is going to end, in all likelihood, with a thump at the hands of Ohio State; whatever optimism you can perceive from this column isn't remotely applicable to the angry buzz saw coming next weekend. Still, this is a talented team taking their lumps this year, and seeing them play well on the road against Wisconsin when a far worse effort would have not be a surprise is encouraging.

Best: The Defense

I know - Wisconsin put up 325 yards of total offense and averaged a healthy 6.1 ypc. That's more yards than Northwestern and (inexplicably) Illinois gave up in their games against the Badgers. They gave up a number of long plays, especially on third down during that decisive 3rd quarter, that snuffed out any hopes of a win. They missed tackles, blew coverages, and weren't world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination.

The safeties in particular had some adventures. Metellus and Kinnel both missed tackles on the larger chunk plays given up, and both got victimized by Hornibrook's random NFL-level throws. Wisconsin was also able to slowly push around the Michigan front 7; when your top 3 tacklers are your two safeties and the Viper, that's usually a sign that your opponent is getting to the second level somewhat consistently. And in the second half, Wisconsin got into a bit of a rhythm, scoring 17 points on 3 of their last 4 meaningful drives.

And yet, I find myself pleased with their performance overall. Michigan picked up 8 TFLs, about double the total Wisconsin usually gives up in a game this year. They picked off one pass, and probably could have snagged another, despite being without their top corner and enlisting true-freshman Kelly-Powell to play meaningful snaps. They were victims of some questionable officiating in terms of pass interference; both Kinnel and Metellus were dinged on throws that were probably uncatchable, while Wisconsin's Tindal basically tackled Michigan players on multiple routes and was only called for a single hold on the first drive of the game. And while Taylor's box score shows a solid performance, he was mostly held in check save for a 52-yard bust late in the game. Credit should go to Hornibrook for making some nice throws (his two throws on their second scoring drive, in particular, were great), but for the game he completed under 50% of his throws.

In these last couple of games, judging the defense may be a bit like judging Michigan's defenses toward the end of the Hoke regime; in a vacuum, somewhat divorced from the offense. That may seem harsh, but we've seen what this offense will probably look like the health of the personnel available. It's going to be a grind for this team to move the ball, and that likely will lead to limited drives that will task the defense with keeping games close. And against OSU, "keeping it close" still isn't probably going to be pretty. So I'm going to look for Michigan's defense to show its growing maturity at the fringes, in limiting breakdowns and generating some pressure on Barrett. It's maybe a sad commentary on this season that I'm not expecting more, but this two-game stretch to end the year was never going to be that pretty.

Meh: The Offense

Yeah, this is going to be a broad-strokes couple of topics, the offense and the defense. I'll be honest, watching this game felt like how I envision most of Wisconsin looks like: repetitive, mushy, cold, and angry, with a couple of interesting spots along the way. Trying to tease out meaningful nuance is left for someone willing to rewatch this game with an eye for it; Godspeed to Brian in the UFR.

In a bit of an inversion from the past couple of games, Michigan was pretty good throwing the ball (Peters was 9/18 for 157 yards a nice 8.7 ypa, and no picks) and could do basically nothing on the ground (2.2 ypc without sacks). But overall, it was sort of what I expected based on this Wisconsin's strengths along the front 7 and Michigan's complete inability to block defenders capable of any form of trickeration. I know Wisconsin only recorded 2 sacks on the day, but they hit Michigan QBs seemingly at will, officially finishing with 5 QB hits and that number probably could have been 2 or 3 more. I know the offensive line has made strides run-blocking this year, and I honestly believe had Higdon and Isaac been fully healthy they probably nudge over 100 yards rushing in this game. But Michigan has lost 3 QBs this year to various "getting run over by marauding 250lb+ defenders", and that's at least partially on the guys in front of them.

DPJ finally broke free for a long ball, and Gentry snuck behind the defense for a long catch. You can see the skeleton of a good offense here, and with another year of seasoning and some maturation by guys like DPJ, Peters, and Gentry, and I wouldn't be surprised if this was a top-20 offense next year. The offensive line will probably hold them back a bit, but at the same time they could get by with 2 competent tackles; at some point, the mass of bodies fighting for one of those 2 spots will return with a winner.

Before his injury, Peters looked solid at the helm; he was directing the offense efficiently and didn't look flustered playing on the road in such an environment. Yes, his throw to McDoom in the endzone probably should have been picked off, and his fumble at the goal line was a by-product of poor ball security, inexperience, and bad luck. At the same time, he was decisive when throwing early and really spread out the ball, and his throw to DPJ in the endzone should have been a TD had anyone in the booth actually been paying attention to the game and not, I don't know, looking forward to a bunch of drunk Wisconsin coeds jumping around on bleachers to a a House of Pain song released between 5 and 8 years before they were fucking born. But I digress. Peters likely being out for the OSU game is perhaps a fitting coda on this year, but it's sad to miss out on him getting a chance to take on OSU and (hopefully) continuing his maturation as a high-quality signal caller.

I'm not optimistic about this team's chances against OSU offensively, as the Buckeyes seems angry again and have stymied similar offenses these past couple of weeks. If O'Korn is under center I assume the running game will see a health dose of 8+ men in the box on most plays, so a repeat of this game's performance in the box score is likely.

Best: Kicking the Ball

Brad Robbins had a Blake O'Neill-type game, in which he pinned Wisconsin within their 20 repeatedly, including one at their own 3 yard line. For the game, he averaged 40 yards per kick and 30 yards next, which is pretty impressive considering he got dinged for a 50-yard return that had nothing to do with the quality of his kick. And Quinn Nordin demonstrably rifled his one attempt through the uprights to give Michigan their sole lead of the game. Hopefully this is a sign going forward that his slump has passed.

Worst: Piping Hot Takes

No fanbase handles losses particularly well, and Michigan is no different. Usually after a loss like this, you'll maybe get some high-profile knuckleheads chiming in with inane comments, a whole slew of naysayers with the pitchforks and the memes (10 years without a road win against a ranked team! was the new one this week) aplenty, and a heavy dose of trollish "fans" who have super-detailed opinions about the quality of the Nike uniforms and how often they've beaten their rivals but couldn't name more than 3 starters on the team. It's the nature of the beast, and Michigan being one of the most prominent programs in country, you'll get a surplus of them.

And I'd love to say it's best to ignore these voices, not because every negative opinion should be treated as invalid, but because they tend to be lazy and without anything meaningful behind them beyond stunted anger. Braylon Edwards questioning why John O'Korn got a scholarship is just him being an asshole; his attempts to walk it back were about as lame as you'd expect from someone claiming "Wtf approved his scholarship and transfer????????" was cogent college football analysis. Of course, he's also one of the few Wolverines I've seen with his own detailed "Legal Issues" entry in his Wikipedia bio, so perhaps none of this should have been a surprise.

What bothers most fans is Michigan hasn't beaten OSU and to a lesser extent, MSU, for a long time. I'd argue that MSU's recent wins have been of the "pull it out of your ass" variety; I said it after this year's MSU game, but these games under Harbaugh feel like those random wins Sparty used to get in decades past. It doesn't feel overly sustainable, as punts usually go unblocked and 5 picks in rainstorms are not meteorologically common. But OSU continues to be better than Michigan, and waiting for the Buckeyes to come back to the pack isn't a viable strategy. So I get the consternation on that front. But there's this pervasive stench emanating from a part of the fanbase that Harbaugh is not meeting expectations and that a change should happen if some (usually somewhat arbitrary) threshold is not met. And to me, that seems insane. For one, Jim Harbaugh has proven to be a great coach literally everywhere else he's landed; it's hard to imagine he suddenly lost that ability when he arrived at Michigan. His first two years were solid showings for a program that hadn't enjoyed any sustained success for nearly a decade. This year, with one of the youngest teams in the country and a rash of injuries, he's taken some lumps but also should finish with 8 or 9 wins; I'm sure Florida and FSU, to name but two recent opponents, would kill to have Michigan's "underperformance" this year. Expectations get raised with the higher profile coaches and positions, and I get that, but in the end you are relying on college students and that can be highly variable; look no further than Iowa blowing out OSU in what is otherwise a down year for the Hawkeyes. And secondly, who is the replacement for Jim Harbaugh? I've said this before, but he's the "in case of emergency" hire; if he can't make Michigan a national power again, you might as well just hibernate for the next decade and check back.

There will need to be changes made to the coaching staff. The offensive line remains a sore point for the umpteenth season; you can explain some of it away with recruiting issues from previous regimes, but at some point having Maryland's depth chart at QB because guys are getting destroyed in the backfield falls on the sidelines. I'm more sanguine about the overall offensive performance this year because of the line issues and also because of the upheaval at QB and the youth at key spots. But every position and coach needs to be evaluated, and I assume some changes will be made.

Worst: These Injuries

This is bleed-over from the last topic, but I thought it was worth discussing a bit on its own. Michigan started the year with something like 5 returning starters total, and that included Cole, who switched out to left tackle from his center spot. Coming into this game, Michigan was without their original starting QB (Speight), starting corner (Hill), top-3 receiver (Black), and as the game progressed, 2 of their 3 leading rushers (Higdon and Isaac) and their current starting QB (Peters). Just think about teams like Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, etc. missing so many top players. They'd be shells of their current selves; remove Lewerke and Scott from MSU and they're probably a 3-win team; put McSorley on the sideline and Franklin is probably back on the hot seat instead of just being a disappointment. Alex Hornibrook leads the conference in picks and (last I saw) was tied for pick-sixes; I'm not sure who is the 3rd-string QB on that team, but he'd be 2 steps below that performance. Michigan has suffered from a rash of injuries that they had (largely) skirted the past couple of years; yes they'd lose a Glasgow or a QB, but Michigan has played guys like Collins and JKP because they have to, not because they feel those guys are ready to constructively add to the team.

This is not making excuses for a loss; other than the inexplicable MSU game, Michigan has lost to better teams and probably would have even with a full squad. But when judging Michigan this year, it shouldn't be overlooked that they are a young team that somehow got even younger and less experienced as the year progressed. The fact they've been some competitive despite that portends a bright future, but the present is certainly less exciting.

Quick Hits

  • I'm sort of hoping Wisconsin gets into the playoffs because I'd love to see the B1G scoreless streak continue. Depending on the matchup, I could see the Badgers getting some cheap 3 or 7 point score down 28, but if this team is the best the conference can offer, they should just sit the year out. Taylor seems like yet another in a long line of perfectly fine Wisconsin running backs, but he certainly doesn't seem to generate many yards beyond what the line and formation get him. And their passing game seems about as robust as Michigan's this year, even when you factor in the injuries. Hornibrook has his moments, but even in this game a number of his best throws were either on busts or into tough windows; nothing seems to come all that easy or consistently for them. And since I saw this mentioned a couple of times how Paul Chryst has about the same coaching record at Wisconsin as Harbaugh has a Michigan and how underrated Chryst is as a coach, the last 3 coaches since Alvarez at Wisconsin (Beilema, Anderson, and Chryst) have a combined record of 81-98 at every other stop in their career, while 118-37 at Wisconsin. And the two previous coaches ran away screaming from that place despite the success they enjoyed. So it really doesn't seem to matter who's the coach at Wisconsin; they'll feast on a bad division and have an offensive and defensive philosophy that works for available talent. But at times the West almost feels like a really good G5 conference and not a P5 division; the division has had more than 1 team finish the season ranked exactly once (2015) in its existence, and even if NW sneaks in this season you are reminded just how lopsided these divisions are.
  • Both teams were only flagged for 4 penalties, but it felt like the two big pass interference calls against Michigan were incredibly suspect. Much like grounding, I don't know what is considered the "catch radius" for a receiver in college football. On the DPI assessed to Metellus, the ball seemed to be about 4-5 yards yards behind both players at the time of the flag; contact at that point is irrelevant. Similarly, Kinnel grabbing a guy's hand when the ball is over his head and yards downfield is equally irrelevant. Coupled with the inexplicable DPJ TD review and it was just a day where the couple of times the refs inserted themselves into the game were almost uniformly bad ideas. They didn't change the outcome of the game in all likelihood, but it was still tiring to watch yet another game in which you just sort of assumed the refs were going to screw something up.
  • In another example of "how did Michigan lose to these guys", MSU won their game against Maryland despite completing 2 of 14 passes for 20 yards. Snow and all that, but maybe pump the breaks on the "Brian Lewerke for Heisman" campaignin 2018.
  • In a more positive outlook, it was nice to see the WRs, especially DPJ, assert themselves a bit more in the passing game. These guys are all coming back next year, and all of them look to be making strides despite the upheaval at QB. In particular, DPJ has gotten to the point where he's consistently getting open and then getting screwed by bad calls or bad throws, as opposed to earlier in the year whe he couldn't even present a target.

Not in the Face

I want to be optimistic about next week's game. OSU isn't a great team, and teams that can get some pressure on Barrett have had success this season. But I'm not that naive. OSU knows if they win out they'll have a shot at the playoffs; beating the snot out of Michigan is another step in that direction. Michigan will likely be starting O'Korn and have a number of dinged-up running backs, and against this OSU defense that's going to probably go about as well as you expect. It'll be close for a bit, and maybe the turnover gods will look favorably upon Michigan and give them some free possessions, but Wisconsin felt like the big game Michigan could have won, and even at home OSU is just a different beast. I know it's a sour note to end the week, but I'm just looking for a competitive contest going into the 4th quarter, and then we'll see from there.

Best and Worst: Maryland

Best and Worst: Maryland

Submitted by bronxblue on November 13th, 2017 at 2:42 AM

Best: Hold On Loosely

Michigan has been in the equivalent of a holding pattern since the Penn State game, doing enough to comfortably win games and whittling the base offense to a nice, sharp point with which to stab overmatched defenses, but that's been about it. Yes, they have broken in their shiny new QB a bit, but even that’s been only around the neighborhood and some weekend drives, no freeways or crowded streets. It's been vanilla ice cream topped with a pile of vanilla wafers while watching Vanilla Sky. And that's fine; Michigan's biggest issue this season has been a lack of offensive identity, some collection of plays that provide a backbone for your playcalling that, more times than not, can matriculate the ball downfield. Really from the IU game on, the run game has consistently shed most of their zone variants and gone with what people conveniently call "power", shorthand for a cornucopia of plays designed to exploit the most basic of physics problems: that if you throw more mass with more acceleration at a point than your opponent, you'll be able to force the ball down the field. And this mindset, this visceral simplicity of sending JBB and Onwenu voraciously at student-athletes smaller and/or slower than them, allows it to be deployed across a variety of formations that, especially when combined with Counter, keeps defenses off-balance and allows Michigan to finally RPS opponents consistently despite clear limitations in the passing game.

So from a fan standpoint, it's been a blast to watch Michigan steamroll a couple of mediocre teams to this degree. But as someone who, for some illogical reason, tries to write an interesting recap of said contests each week, picking out meaningful nuance and at least a handful of semi-intelligent insights, it's been a little rough. Against Rutgers you had the "excitement" of a QB change, Brandon Peters finally getting his moment to shine. Against Minnesota there was Peters's first start, a game where the opposition knew what to expect and could have, I guess, tried to game plan for him instead of trying to cross one of Minnesota's many lakes. Against Maryland you had Michigan's first road game with Peters at the helm, but at that point we're definitely getting into Malibu Stacy's new hat territory in terms of meaningful differences. Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland all occupy the same basic space in college football's hierarchy; teams with enough talent to put up a fight but not nearly enough to damage a good team capable of taking a couple body blows. But this was always a four-game season, with MSU slotting into the spot we all sorta assumed Florida would have occupied, and this 3-game stretch was always a prelude to a more exciting conclusion, the Rocky montage of the 2017 season if you will.

And so, I'll be honest, there isn't much to say that you haven't read already. During the end of the Hoke era these columns devolved a bit to "look at last week's column and imagine a slightly different way they lost badly", and while this stretch is the opposite result on the field, the useful information to glean from it is similar. Michigan is better than a bunch of teams with far less talent, and whether that talent deficiency is due to a late-game coaching transition after a terrible sexual assault, a voluminous number of injuries at the QB position, or being Rutgers, the reason is irrelevant because the results were always the same. They will now face teams with as much, or more, talent than them, and we'll see if the steps taken by this offense are at least somewhat sustainable or not. And either way, it'll at least give me something new to write about.

Best: If You Could Only See

Because it's Maryland and Michigan fans just can't enjoy their meal without looking for a reason to send it back, way too much was made of the fact that Maryland finished with more yards than Michigan (340 to 305). Michigan "only" had a 28-0 lead and "only" about 100 yards more of total offense (212 to 112) at halftime, "only" scored 1 TD in the second half while Maryland mounted 3 solid-ish drives (55, 85, and 75 yards) resulting in 10 points, and "only" rushed for 160 yards on 38 carries, a pedestrian 4.2 ypc after two weeks of cartoony numbers on the ground. And so this game became the newest Rorschach test for the Michigan faithful; look at it one way and you see a dominating first-half performance by a team that packed it in the second half in order to minimize injuries/hide any wrinkles for more important games coming up, or look at it another way and see a team get "figured out" a bit by a Maryland offense that sorta, kinda, maybe looks a bit like Ohio State's offense, and good lord not in the face again.

Since you have read this far in both this column and this series, I assume you want my take. Well, I fall squarely on the "packing it in" side of the equation. Also, Michigan didn't accumulate more yards in the first half in large part because they had fewer yards to go to score. Their average(!) field position to start a drive in the first half was Michigan’s 48 (!!) yard line. They had TD drives of 33 and 19 yards, which combined required 3 plays. And it didn't really get much better for the Terrapins in the second half, as Michigan's average starting position was Michigan's 44 (!!!) yard line. For the game, Michigan basically started at midfield (!V) every drive, and when you only have about 54 yards to go each time for a score, your total yardage is going to be capped unless you just have an obscene number of drives. By comparison, Maryland's average field position was about their own twenty.

Compounding this yardage discrepancy was how efficient Michigan was at scoring. Michigan's average scoring drive in this game was 5 plays; Maryland's was 11. Michigan ran 56 plays to get their 35 points, while Maryland ran 70 to get their 10. For the game Michigan's average play was 5.4 to Maryland's 4.9, but that masks the fact Michigan was averaging 6.8 ypp in that first half while Maryland barely eclipsed 3. Michigan figured out Maryland's offense in the first half and largely stymied it save for one drive; the second half drives that worked for Maryland featured a fair number of one-off plays and 3 4th-down conversions against a defense that played a number of backups. Yes, you'd like to see Michigan just choke out a team for a whole game, but no matter how much Glen Mason wanted it to be competitive, Michigan was never in danger in this game.

Worst: Hurt

About the only thing fans wanted more from this 3-game stretch than a coherent offense was to emerge largely unscathed on the injury front. Unfortunately, after seemingly getting by with minimal damage (Michael Onwenu was dinged up the past couple of games, but none of it sounded too serious, and Perry, Crawford, and Isaac all seem to be nursing various infirmaries), Michigan saw Gary, Hill, Long, and Higdon leave the game for various (seemingly minor) injuries. I know that's a lot of equivocating in one sentence, but it's honestly hard to get a read on most of the injuries. Every player walked off the field under his own power; Hill suffered a concussion and Gary had a shoulder stinger, while Higdon and Long had various lower-body injuries, but none seemed all that serious. At the same time, this is a team already out their starting QB and one of their top-3 receivers, and while it has depth in terms of warm bodies to throw into positions, there's Watson and a bunch of freshmen after the starting corners. Similarly, this offensive line really can't afford to miss probably it's best run blocker or the guy best suited to run through those holes.

After the game, Jim Harbaugh didn't shed much light on the seriousness of the injuries beyond your boilerplate "we'll see how the guys look". On the one hand, that's sorta ominous when he could just as easily state "they're all good, held out for cautionary reasons". But considering this is a guy who fought tooth and nail to not release a 2017 depth chart before the season, and keeping Wisconsin guessing a bit is every bit a competitive advantage he needs to leverage against a talented opponent, I'd be amazed if much comes out before game day. My working assumption is that Michigan will dress everyone possible against Wisconsin unless it's pretty clear they are working with a hindrance; all bets are off against OSU.

Best: Run

The stats weren't gaudy by any means, but Michigan was about as dominant on the ground as they have been the past couple of weeks when necessary. Both Evans and Higdon were averaging north of 5 yards per carry at halftime, and Higdon also added 2 receptions for 48 yards, the latter catch-and-run being a great bail-out for Peters that turned into a long gain after Higdon absolutely stiff-armed a Maryland defender straight to hell. In the second half Evans got the bulk of the carries and finished the day with 2 TDs on the ground and a couple receptions, including a key third-down one on the final scoring drive. People may fixate on the offense sputtering for much of the third quarter and the running game's inability to get on track without Higdon, but other than two deep balls to DPJ Michigan never really tried to shake Maryland out of their aggressiveness once up big. Michigan seemed content to run a base offense and just salt the game away, and once Maryland got to within 18 Michigan responded with a back-breaking drive to them off. Wisconsin will obviously be a step up in talent, but this rush offense feels somewhat opponent-agnostic at this point; they should be able to get some reasonable yardage against anyone on the schedule, though consistency and amplitude will depend at least in part on how the other half of the offense performs. Speaking of which....

Meh: Nobody Knows

Another day, another perfectly acceptable performance by Brandon Peters. Peters finished the day with 2 TDs on 9/18 passing for 8.1 ypa. The 50% completion percentage is a downer, but he also hasn't thrown a pick all season, though Glen Mason helpfully pointed out that had a Maryland player not been 3 yards out of bounds he'd have picked him off along the sideline. And for the game, other than really bad throw to Wheatley where someone wasn't on the right page, he seemed to make the right decisions and play within the offense. I know there was some optimism that Peters would "unlock" the passing offense, but that's not been the case. He's a first-year starter behind a rickety offensive line throwing mostly to other first-year/lightly-used players or tight ends. That's it, and against Wisconsin and OSU that almost assuredly won't be enough to win.

That said, Peters does look more at-ease than either Speight or O'Korn, and while that is probably due in large part to the competition, it's still a good sign that he can make the routine plays more times than not. And he did take a couple of deeper shots in this contest; one was the DPI Peoples-Jones got to extend the final scoring drive, and another was a missed opportunity down the middle of the field to DPJ that would have probably gone for a score had it not been overthrown. It still feels like Peters is figuring out the depth and touch needed on these longer throws; he overthrew Jones one time but his TD to Gentry and the pass interference to DPJ were both underthrown balls that the receivers had to slow down somewhat significantly to pick up. With Gentry it was probably the right call because he had beaten his man so thoroughly that having him slow up wasn't going to stop a score; the one to DPJ was a bit more suspect because had the corner turned around he'd have probably picked it off.

Still, it remains an overall positive experience with Peters under center. I would caution fans expecting the playbook to open up dramatically these next couple of games; the coaches seem to be calling the game with a limited playbook intentionally, not because they are saving plays. Peters job is to manage the game, and the offense seems to be called with that in mind. And I don't see him being able to extend plays with his feet nearly as effectively against the next couple of defenses as he had against the past 3 units, so it will be interesting if the coaches push him to just throw the ball away versus trying to make something happen after breaking the pocket. But anyone claiming to having a great read on the QB position after 3 weeks is either Jim Harbaugh (in which case he may be lying) or is just hoping illogically.

Best: Strong

I've noted this a bunch of times already, but the defense did a fine job shutting down Maryland for most of this game. The highlight were the two picks, one in the end zone by David Long on Maryland's one promising first-half drive, that resulted in 102 return yards. For the game Maryland threw 38 times for 160 yards, something I doubt the was their goal heading into the game with their 5th-string QB. The Terrapins found a bit more success on the ground, rushing for 5.6 ypc, and both Johnson and Harrison broke some long-ish runs when tackles were missed in the open field. I'm sure various LBs and safeties will come in for some dings, though in particular Metellus had some nice coverage downfield and both safeties seemed to limit the damage as much as possible more times than not when put in bad spots. And while Hudson didn't have the gaudy stats last the Minnesota game, he was still disruptive through the contest and had the nice pick on Maryland's last drive of the game.

All that said, Michigan still finished the day with 7 TFLs, including 3 from Winovich, and Maryland's running game was still quick boom-or-bust. 90 of Maryland's 180 rushing yards came on three runs, each by Harrison, Johnson, and Brand, with the latter two coming on the missed FG attempt. And for the first half of this game, Maryland really couldn't do much despise breaking out a number of sweeps and a halfback pass that absolutely were game planned for this opponent. I know people want to be concerned about this, and maybe I'll change my tune after Wisconsin, but right now this feels like a defense coming into its own a bit. And Wisconsin doesn't feel like the type of team to really confuse or misdirect this defense. Hornibrook isn't a runner or a passer; even beyond the 2 pick-sixes he threw against Iowa, he has thrown at least one interception every game this year except against BYU and Utah State, and has more picks (11) than TDs (9) in conference play this year despite not playing a defense better than 26th against the pass all year. Michigan's pass defense rank? 7th, and number 1 in terms of efficiency. And their rush offense hasn't faced a top-30 rush defense either, while Michigan's is #12 in the nation. So for all the (rightfully skeptical) questions about how Michigan is going to move the ball against Wisconsin, it's safe to argue that the same questions apply for the Badgers on offense.

Quick Hits

  • Because news sites are dying and realize any click is better than no click, MLive ran with the story that Quinn Nordin and Jim Harbaugh got into a yelling match on the sidelines, which of course led to a bunch of people on the internet (especially Michigan fans) to come out of the woodwork to crap on Nordin and question his commitment, his attitude, etc. Basically, your greatest hits of lazy takes. And thought MLive removed it from the link, their go-to tweet was this gem from chatsports, the same site that was found to make up stories, writers, and even readers to keep their numbers up. Yes, Nordin has struggled these past couple of games. We are also dealing with a small sample size. Michigan cannot afford to miss kicks against Wisconsin or Ohio State, but at the same time it seems immensely premature to get worked up over the situation.
  • Glenn Mason was...he was an announcer in this game. I don't know why networks continue to think fans want to listen to guys prattle with barely-relevant information pertaining the games actually being played, but here we are in 2017 and Glen Mason is arguing adamantly that a ball that clearly bounced off the turf was a reception even after being overturned. This guy somehow won more games than he lost at Minnesota, so I guess P.J. Fleck can look forward to floating around in a space suit in 2049 calling games on Mars and not understanding why throwing the ball past Quarg is considered out of bounds.
  • Michigan only had 1 penalty for 10 yards (a hold on their last drive) versus 7 for 59 on Maryland. I never bought into the notion that the refs had it out for Michigan; young, inexperienced players making dumb decisions largely explained away most of their issues. I've been analyzing the penalty situation for Michigan compared to previous seasons, and while it's not complete what I've gathered thus far points to a team making dumb procedural mistakes that lead to penalties, the types you expect to see ironed out both during the season and year-to-year. They'll need to keep this up this improved focus against Wisconsin; being able to do so on the road against Maryland is a decent sign in the right direction.

Bring on the Badgers

I've already laid out most of my arguments, but this feels like the more winnable game of the two remaining. Wisconsin is probably really good; they certainly aren't undefeated good. This is a team that hasn't played anyone all that impressive, and in all likelihood Michigan is going to be the best team they'll face until the conference championship. Michigan's defense should be able to stymie their running and passing game somewhat; Taylor is still very talented and Michigan has shown enough inconsistencies to expect some breakdowns. But it's still a limited offense and a sound defense, and if that sounds familiar it's because you watch Michigan football. Wisconsin is coming off a hamblasting of Iowa in which they held the Hawkeyes to 66 yards of total offense, though I'd not read too much into that number. Kirk Ferentz game plans intensely for Michigan and Ohio State in a way he doesn't for other teams, and so I'm not remotely surprised all the weaknesses we've seen this year from Iowa would rear their ugly heads against Wisconsin. Michigan's pass protection is probably going to be worked over by Wisconsin's top-10 sack rate, but my guess is Michigan will compensate as best they can with max protection. If Michigan can get some turnovers and reach even moderate success on the ground, they'll have a chance to escape Madison with a win. My best guess is this will look a lot like last year's game at Michigan, where Wisconsin had no right being close late in the game but Michigan made just enough mistakes to keep it close. Flip the teams and I could see Michigan stay within reach of Wisconsin until the end, and then it's anybody's game.

Best and Worst: Minnesota

Best and Worst: Minnesota

Submitted by bronxblue on November 6th, 2017 at 12:38 AM

Best: Rock

I swear I've written this analogy before, but I guess if it rings true there's no reason to deny it. Some football games feature a pitched battle between two teams trying to out-flank each other, to employ misdirection, counterplays, and true creative playcalling to attack their opponent's weaknesses and adapt to their counters. It's like when you open up the full Madden playbook and realize the hundreds of different formations and wrinkles to said formations that most teams possess. Brian has the RPS metric for a reason, and oftentimes you can determine who won or lost a game based on who got the upper hand in these sideline matchups.

And other times, you can just keep throwing Rock because the other guy either doesn't understand Paper exists or knows Scissors is all he's got. This game was a classic Rock fight. Michigan ran for 394 yards on 34 carries, a nice 11.6 ypc that included a bunch of runs at the end of the game designed to send everyon home quickly. Both Chris Evans and Karan Higdon averaged over 12 yards a carry; at one point in the second half, both were averaging over 18 ypc. They both had long TD runs (Higdon a career-long 77 yarder; Evans a pair of 60+ ones), had a total of 2 lost yards, and did so behind a line missing perhaps its best run blocker in Michael Onwenu (though being able to slot in Runyan and Ruiz). And coming into the game, Minnesota had been semi-competent against the run; they were 82nd in the country per S&P+, but had held both Illinois and Iowa to under 160 yards on the ground, and their defensive strength was along the defensive line. It didn't matter one iota in this game, though, as Michigan pulverized Minnesota for kickoff and never really let up. That's how you put up 33 points with only 14 (!) first downs. One of the few reasons Minnesota didn't give up more yardage and points was because their punter averaged 49 yards a kick and the Gophers were able to hold onto the ball for about 33 minutes to Michigan's 27. Both teams had 11 real-ish drives of the game, and Michigan scored on 5 of them and missed a FG on another; Minnesota accumulated most of their yards on their first two drives (111), and spent the rest of the day around 0 total yards until their last drive of the game where they kicked a FG.

Karan Higdon was again the star for the offense, picking up another 200 yard game and running consistently behind an improved offensive line (at least in run blocking). He's been a revelation these past 3-4 weeks; this is starting to feel like an opponent-independent level of production from him.  If so that also leaves open opportunities for guys like Evans and Hill to get into other parts of the offense, especially as receivers, and for a young QB that's an invaluable safety valve. The move to a more power-based running approach has been a godsend for Higdon, and really for the whole offense, and this looks like substantial, recognized improvement, not a mirage based on fortuitous scheduling. Does it mean they'll run for 10+ ypc against Wisconsin or OSU? No. But it does mean they will have some offensive identity going into those games they can rely on, a statement that would have felt foolish even a couple weeks ago.

Meh: Brandon Peters - Competent QB?

For the second week in a row, Brandon Peters came in and was competent. He threw the ball reasonably well, completing 62% of his throws with 1 TD and no picks. He didn't really try to push the ball downfield much, throwing one sideline ball to Peoples-Jones that he sorta dropped and another hitch to DPJ near the goalline that set up a TD run. He also threw a nice throwback screen to McKeon for Michigan's first TD.

At the same time, he also threw for only 56 yards on his 13 attempts, was sacked a couple of times, and had the same accuracy issues throwing behind or at the feet of open receivers as he showed last week. It was sub-optimal weather conditions for throwing downfield, and when your top two backs run for almost 400 yards as 13.5 ypc, there's even less reason to do so. Still, I don't know if any fans have a great sense of Peters as a QB under duress. Minnesota was able to get 3 sacks for 23 yards on about 16 dropbacks, and the last sack in particular led many (including myself) to believe he was seriously hurt, something totally foreign to Michigan-Minnesota games. There seemed to be little concern about a possible concussion, so that's a good sign. But this game feels like it doesn't answer any lingering questions people have about Peters going forward both this year and beyond. He seems to have more than enough talent to be a good QB at Michigan; he's also not been asked to really show it given how dominant the running game and defense have been these past 2 games. I doubt Maryland will test this team either, what with them being on their 4th QB of the year and coming off a loss to Rutgers, so that means Michigan will be going to Wisconsin with 2.5 games of Peters at QB and, in all likelihood, only slightly better understanding of his potential as they had when the season started.

I have to assume that Harbaugh will want to air it out, if possible, against Maryland just to get Peters some game-time reps before being thrown to the wolves in Madison. But who knows; if Michigan can keep averaging 10y pc even with sacks, there's little reason to deviate. And as a (slight) added bonus, Wisconsin may actually have to prepare a bit for Iowa this week, which means Michigan might still be able to catch them a bit off-guard in two weeks, especially if Peters can get his timing down a bit.

Worst: November Night Games

It's not that I have some fundamental issue with night games; they're mostly just collegiate theatre, a stunt of sorts by TV networks that want "iconic" shots and 3+ hours of programming to fill in a Saturday night. And when the setting is right, like Under the Lights, it can be a great experience for everyone involved. But there was no reason why Michigan-Minnesota needed to be played at night, doubly given how unpredictable the weather is and, as we saw all day, how much havoc that can play in terms of scheduling and fan safety. This game wound up starting at 8:30 pm when it was previously scheduled for 7:30, all as a result of a bad storm that blew through the state all day, dropping rain, hail, and featuring a lightning storm that had previously delayed the MSU-PSU game midway through the 2nd quarter for a couple of hours. The fact it was cold and slippery didn't help the aesthetic appeal of the game (there were a couple of drops/muffs on passes and returns all day, plus players on both sides seemed to struggle with their footing), and because you gotta pay them bills, they still found a way to cram in as many commercials as possible despite the late start time. Thus, it came as no surprise that while the dubious +100k plus streak continued, another streak ended against the Gophers.

And I don't blame Brian one bit. This game ended officially at 11:40 PM, but that last quarter or so was simply a mixture of Michigan seeing if it could have two 200-yard rushers in a game and run through the allocated commercials. That's boring/annoying at 3:30 or 5:30; it's downright insane at 11:00 PM against 4-5 Minnesota, fighting over a brown jug that Minnesota has won 5 times since 1966. This felt like a naked cash/rating grab by Fox the minute they announced the time change, and while it wasn't a huge viewership win, it still was the second most popular show of the night. So I'm sure we'll see more of these games in the coming years, and my only hope is that they're at least reserved for meaningful matchups and, I hope, earlier in the year.

Best: Hudson Hawk

Did you know Khaleke Hudson played the "viper" position at Michigan? You know, the position Jabrill Peppers played last year, the "viper"? The position the announcers were so keen the point out because it's so integral to Michigan's defense, the position demarcated on the formation diagram as the "viper"?

Hudson had himself a game, the type of "coming-out" party one I think people have expected all year. It's not that he's been bad this year; he's 4th on the team in tackles, and on a defense that prides itself on not letting a lot of plays get out of the backfield and you're competing with guys like Devin Bush, Maurice Hurst, Rashan Gary, and Chase Winovich for these stops, it's easy to fly under the radar a bit. And Hudson had been trending up in recent weeks; he nearly had the pick-six against PSU, and had picked up 2.5 TFLs the past two weeks. Still, Hudson came into the game with 6 TFLs...and left with a team-leading 12.5 for the season. He had 2 sacks, 13 tackles overall, forced a fumble, and overshot a punt block because he went too fast and then had to adjust so as to not clip the punter as the sailed by. He's not Jabrill Peppers, but he's got plus athleticism and is being deployed as more of a weapon than it seemed earlier in the season, and while Maryland won't likely be much of a challenge defensively, both Wisconsin and OSU feel much more tractable if Hudson can maintain this certain level of whirling dervish-ness he showed in this game.

Best: The "Get In My Belly" Portion of the Schedule

This defense isn't as good as last year's unit (even though I'll admit to believing they were probably a bit better than they are based on some early-season success), but the past two weeks they've held suddenly-resurgent Rutgers to their second-lowest (by a yard!) and Minnesota to their worst offensive performances of the year, and the only reason I don't expect that to happen against Maryland is because OSU held them to 66 yards and that level of futility requires a whole lotta stars aligning.

Still, after getting what turned out to be all of PSU's best offensive plays a couple weeks ago (because James Franklin is a mediocre coach and an even worse gauge of timing), they've looked much the part of a championship-caliber unit save for a couple of missed tackles or overly-aggressive shifts. Mo Hurst continued his dominant senior year with 1.5 sacks, including one where he drove the guard so into Croft that he tackled both of them. Both Winovich and Gary followed up on good games last week with equally-dominant ones this go-around, and you saw further rotation along the defensive line with Solomon and (I think) both Paye and Dwumfour getting a couple of snaps.

This 3-game stretch was supposed to be easy, and it has been for the defense, so analyzing the unit is sort of a steady-state check-in; it's still really good at chewing up bad offenses. I remain unimpressed by Wisconsin despite some of the point totals they are putting up, and after Iowa destroyed OSU's offense there is a flicker of hope that a mediocre day throwing the ball by OSU could give Michigan a chance at the upset with a good defensive effort. Still, those last two games will define both this year's defense and set expectations for next season's. Play well (even in loss[es]) and I think they go into next year getting the "Don Brown's defense will be elite until proven otherwise" stamp of approval, even with the loss of Hurst.

Worst: Perception vs. Reality

I've seen a lot of people complain that the safeties are a major weakness for this team, and that their performance is somehow below par. I don't disagree that they've had some issues, particularly tackling at times, but the reaction seems outsized compared to both the actual results on the field and what should be reasonably expected for a couple of first-year starters. So I went back and pulled the defensive UFR's for Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas from 2014, when both started seeing semi-regular playing time and picked up some starts. For those who don't remember, 2014 wasn't a banner year for Brady Hoke's squad, so I'm not sure Brian UFR'ed every game (if I missed a UFR, let me know), but for those he did here's the breakdown for both players

Opponent Thomas Hill
App St. DNC DNC
Notre Dame DNP DNC
Miami (OH) DNC -2
Utah -1 -0.5
Minnesota    
Rutgers -8 DNP
Penn State 2 DNP
Michigan State    
Indiana DNP 1
Northwestern    
Maryland    
OSU    

If I remember those last couple of games, they weren't particularly encouraging from a defensive standpoint, so my guess is the UFRs would have been pretty down as well. Still, that's a chart showing guys who show flashes of competency awash in a series of major and minor mistakes. There were talented, NFL-level talents in these players, they were just a couple years away from being fully formed. Compare that chart to this one I've accumulated thus far for the current starters, Kinnel and Metellus.

Opponent Kinnel Metellus
Florida 2.5 7
Cincy 7.5 -1.5
Air Force -2 -0.5
Purdue -1 0.5
MSU -3 1.5
Indiana 3 -2.5
Penn State -9.5 -5.5
Rutgers -3 2

So basically, other than a terrible game against PSU (something you could say for basically the entire defense), both Metellus and Kinnel have been perfectly competent safeties, missing some tackles and having issues in coverage but also picking up some pass break-ups and sometimes taking the fall for the couple of times an opponent is able to bust for big yardage in games Michigan otherwise dominates. You can very well describe them as the "weak links" on this defense, but most teams would love to have two competent safeties that are still maturing. My point isn't to say they should not receive criticism for bad plays, but to point out that they seem to be pretty well along the path to the "boring" safety goal Michigan should always aspire to, and a couple of hiccups along the way should be expected.

Worst: Just Stop Talking

These announcers made me yearn for Matt Millen, someone who just last week I opined

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.

I get this is Fox Sports and there is only one Gus Johnson, but are Spencer Tillman and Tim Brando really functionally better than, I don't know, this clip of Jim Ross just running in a loop? At least with Good Ol' JR, you'd get someone who knows how to manufacture drama out of nothing well, as opposed to the 10+ minutes these two guys spent trying to justify why Josh Metellus getting punched in his face led to him being ejected. Oh, and hearing someone describe a hitch as a "back shoulder fade" when DPJ was about 3 yards behind the corner after coming back.

Now, there are good commentary teams; I think Tony Romo and and Jim Nantz do a really good job breaking down games naturally, and Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth can also accentuate a game in the right context. Chris Spielman could be a troll at times, but get him calling a game like Northwestern-Michigan and you'd get some really good analysis of defensive tendencies and blocking schemes. And while I still think Matt Millen's worst days are unbearable, he has at least shown the ability to provide useful analysis in the right context.

But we live in a world now where having someone "explain" the game to you feels anachronistic, a relic from a time when people consumed sports via the radio, and then low-resolution video. This will be a shock to basically anyone under the age of, I don't know, 30 who reads this blog, but I once watched most of the Superbowl XXXI on a 2.3" portable television while working as a bagger at my local grocery store. For most of you, the only words that made sense in that sentence were "Superbowl" and "television", but I want to stress that without announcers actively narrating what I was seeing, I would have only guess that the guy running for a record kickoff TD was former Wolverine Desmond Howard. It was a different time is all I'm saying. But now? Beyond streaming high-definition video to portable devices, there are millions of ways to consume sports and get commentary, whether it be Twitter, message boards, liveblogs, etc. We no longer need nor want some ex-football player or talking head sitting hundreds of feet above the game to tell us he or she thinks that was a holding penalty or a guard may have missed a block on the counter-trey that was just run; it's already been discussed and dissected by a half-dozen other sources. Those sources may be full of shit, but at least you've got a bunch of them to choose from.

And so while I assume the Maryland game will be covered by whomever got left on the tarmac in Dulles, both Wisconsin and OSU should be reasonably high-profile enough games to warrant something better than these past couple of weeks.

Quick Hits

  • The offense line remains underwhelming in pass protection. Peters dropping back only 16 times yet getting sacked 3 times, mostly on straight-up rushes where someone either failed to hold his block or completely missed it, is not a good sign, and while Ruiz was in for Onwenu it seemed like a line-wide issue.
  • The ejection for Metellus always seemed like horseshit; the refs' explanation after the fact confirmed that. And this was the same incompetent crew we saw last year against OSU and have seen I think twice this year now (the other was, I believe, MSU). All that said, Michigan picked up 9 penalties for 85 yards in this game, and a majority of them were for dumb procedural infractions (illegal formation, offsides, etc.) or things like holding on a punt return. That is to be expected with such a young team, but you'd have hoped some of these mistakes would have become less visible as the season went on.
  • Quinn Nordin missed another PAT and a 49-yard FG. Neither would be that alarming except that there have been mentions of a possible lingering injury and, with more low-scoring games likely in the future, uncertainty at the kicker spot warrants some focus. If it's just #collegekickers, so be it. But if he's injured and recovery is not likely for the year, it would behoove Michigan to get someone else warmed up for the spot.

Next Week

Michigan goes on the road to Maryland to take on former DC DJ Durkin. On paper, it feels like a repeat of the past couple of weeks except Maryland is probably the worst of the three. Michigan will have a strong chance at another great rushing performance, and the defense should find another overmatched opponent. My hope is that Michigan is able to keep whatever new stuff they have planned for the last couple of weeks under wraps and win comfortably before the gauntlet to end the year.

Best and Worst: Rutgers

Best and Worst: Rutgers

Submitted by bronxblue on October 30th, 2017 at 2:04 AM

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.

Quick Hits:

  • 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.

Next Week

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.

Best and Worst: PSU

Best and Worst: PSU

Submitted by bronxblue on October 23rd, 2017 at 12:07 AM

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.

Worst: McCray...IN...SPACE!

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:

  THIS WEEK   SEASON
Player 0 1 2 3   0 1 2 3
Crawford       2/2     1/4   0/2  9/11 
Black           1     0/1 10/11 
Perry 1   0/1     8 1/3 4/5   12/12
DPJ 1   1/1 3/3    4 0/1 2/4 6/6 
Schoenle               1/1 1/1 
McDoom 1         4     3/4
Ways           2      2/2
Wheatley       1/1             2/2 
McKeon         1/2           15/16  
Gentry 1     2/2   1    0/1   1/1 7/8 
Eubanks               1/1 1/1 
Bunting         1/1           1/1
Hill   0/1 1/1 0/1     0/2   1/1 0/1   
Poggi       0/1               1/2
Evans       1/1    1           2/2  
Isaac                  2/2
Higdon   0/1       2        0/1 3/3

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.

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.

Quick Hits

  • 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.

Best and Worst: Indiana

Best and Worst: Indiana

Submitted by bronxblue on October 15th, 2017 at 11:32 PM

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.

  THIS WEEK   SEASON
Player 0 1 2 3   0 1 2 3
Crawford 1   0/1 1/1     1/4   0/2  7/9 
Black       1   0/1 10/11 
Perry 1 0/1 1/1 3/3   1/3 4/4   12/12
DPJ 0/1 0/2     4 0/1 1/3 3/3 
Schoenle           1/1 1/1 
McDoom 1     1/2   3   3/4
Ways 1     1/1   2      2/2
Wheatley                   1/1  
McKeon 1       4/4           14/14   
Gentry   0/1       0/1   1/1 5/6 
Eubanks           1/1 1/1 
Bunting         1/1           1/1
Hill   0/1 1/1 0/1     0/2   1/1 0/1   
Poggi       0/1               1/2
Evans     1/1    1           2/2  
Isaac                  2/2
Higdon       2/2     1        3/3

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.

  THIS WEEK   SEASON
Player 0 1 2 3   0 1 2 3
Darboh 3 0/1 1/1   18 3/10 4/7 37/40
Chesson 1 1/1 1/1   12 0/2 11/16 19/20
Perry   1/1 1/1   9 2/2 7/7
Peppers           1/2 2/2
Ways                 1/1
McDoom           1/1   3/3
Crawford         1/1   2/3
Harris       2   1/1 1/1
Butt 0/1   5 2/3 3/7 28/30
Bunting         1     2/2
Wheatley       1     1/1
Asiasi     0/1       0/1 2/2
Poggi               5/6
Hill     1/1   1 1/1 2/2 8/8
Smith     4 1/1 3/3 7/7
Isaac       1/1         1/1
Evans       1 0/1   5/5
Higdon         1      
McKeon                 2/2
Hirsch                 1/1

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.

Quick Hits:

  • 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.

Best and Worst: MSU

Best and Worst: MSU

Submitted by bronxblue on October 9th, 2017 at 7:17 AM

Let's get into it. This isn't going to be as long as I thought simply because I sort of mentally moved on after the 3rd turnover.

Worst: Ctrl-A, Delete

I try not to pre-write too much before these recaps because it feels like tempting fates. But I was also painting my house this weekend, and while I really enjoy writing these diaries I'm not going to stay up for hours when the sum-total of my output is usually "the offense looked bad, the defense is great, here's an animated gif of a professional wrestler doing something weird." So I wrote a couple of paragraphs about this rivalry, about how MSU fans will talk about how competitive it's been forever, with "forever" apparently beginnging sometime in the mid-00's. Point out that until Dantonio showed up, Michigan State hadn't beaten Michigan in consecutive games since 1967 and 1968, and you're branded as someone who lives in the past, the usual refrain from every fanbase that games you won before they experienced whatever qualifies as sustained success shouldn't count. I argued that the MSU people saw earlier this decade isn't coming back, that it took a tornado of bad ju-ju by perennial powers in the division and fortuitous player development by MSU for it to occur, and that once UM and PSU started to assert themselves again on the national stage, MSU was going to be squeezed out. And I noted that for all the apparent growth by MSU as a team both by the advanced stats and just in the competitiveness of their games, it was just in comparison to last season's terrible season. Dantonio had his moment at MSU, and it had passed.

And I knew, in the back of my mind, this hubris was going to bite me in the end. I still assumed Michigan would win because I wasn't an idiot, but I asssumed MSU would play an inspired brand of football, Michigan would let it stay close in part because of some bad luck/turnovers, and it would be one of those games that isn't an enjoyable vieiwing experience even with a good outcome. And sure, I heard about the terrible weather on the way for halftime and figured "great, Michigan will be up at halftime and can just bleed the clock." And I assumed John O'Korn wouldn't replicate his success against Purdue, and the recklessness/unpredictability and questionable decision-making that led to him being passed over in Houston, then repeatedly passed over at Michigan by Wilton Speight, would materialize in some way. And I assumed the running game would struggle to gain traction against an MSU defense that is designed to stop it by throwing as many Axe body-spray wearing MFers you can find in the state at the line. And I assumed the offensive line's horrendous pass blocking wouldn't suddenly "get right" because, last time I checked, you can't go back in time and sign and develop more players on the line even with an off week. And I assumed that, despite Brian's insistence that Michigan never should run the ball and just go Big-12 all game, the offensive playcalling was still going to set downs on a fire and continue to be the same general, uninspiring self it's been in the Harbaugh era. And I assumed that, even with probably the best defense in the country, MSU would be just crafty enough, just against-tendency enough, to score 10-14 meaingful points against them. I assumed all of this, but I also assumed that the team with the best unit on the field (Michigan's defense), homefield advantage, and by gawd 2 weeks to prepare for this mediocre MSU outfit, would find a way to win, even somewhat comfortably.

So all that's gone now. Just Ctrl-A and delete that all the way to hell.

That's not because my core assumptions going into this game have changed. I don't think MSU is somehow on the rise; they still feel like an 8-4/7-5 team that can't consistently run the ball, can't consistently pass, and can be beaten by any team capable of throwing the ball downfield. Every MSU fan will tell you recruiting doesn't matter, but they continue to recruit as the 5th- or 6th-best in the conference, and the bulk of their one truly elite class is either awaiting their next court date for sexual assault or...also awaiting for his next court date for sexual assault. They still went for 2 down 38-16 late in the 4th quarter to Notre Dame so that they "only" lost by 20, continuing this Dantonio trend of throwing truck nuts on a beater to make it look "cooler".

But MSU won this game, and I'm not going to ignore it. They got their punches in early, scored on two solid drives with creative playcalls that worked against Michigan's defensive tendencies, and then held onto through a fucking monsoon for basically the entire second half. Their defense pounced on Michigan's turnovers, robbing Michigan of probable points late in the first half and styming anything resembling any offensive rhythm throughout that second half with timely, sometimes miraculous turnovers.

But this game felt like 2001, or 1990, or even 2015, games where Michigan State was more lucky than good. That doesn't mean MSU didn't play well enough to win, only that these weren't dominant wins by superior teams like (sadly) they were against Hoke's and RR's teams. MSU needed 5 turnovers (and none of their own), a backup QB, a torrential downpour, and a QB being stopped short after a fumbled snap yet sliding on his falling center's leg to barely hold on against Michigan, and while that's usually how underdogs win games, it doesn't point toward sustained dominance in this series by the Spartans.

Bill Connelly pointed this out in his Five Factors post this weekend: MSU had a turnover margin of +4.8 above their national average, which works out to about 24 points of "bad luck" by Michigan. Michigan lost such a game by 4 points, and had a chance on the last play to still pull it out. It always sucks to be the team that has the luck go against it, but this loss still feels different. MSU tried to give this game away, and they nearly did with poor clock management and even poorer self control. This loss, as bad as it is in the moment, feels like 2015, a stumble but not a fall. I don't put too much stock into tides or narratives, but this rivalry is starting to feel like it did during most of my youth, where MSU wins were notable because of their weirdness and not their dominance. And I think the other half of that equation, the scarcity of Spartan victories, will follow soon as well.

Worst: I'm Not Even That Mad

 

In Michigan's last 4 losses, they have had a turnover margin (-10) larger than their combined margin of defeat (-9). On the one hand, improve ball security and this team could well be coming off a playoff run and be a top-5 team nationally. On the other hand, even with sub-optimal parts and ongoing growing pains, Michigan has been able to nearly overcome some horrendous self-inflicted wounds. I'm honestly not sure how to feel about this, but I'm cautiously optimistic that if Michigan doesn't turn the ball over 5 times, they'd probably win more games than they lose.

Worst: Obsession != Virtue

Let me start by saying STOP QUESTIONING THE HEART OF THIS TEAM AND WHETHER OR NOT THEY TAKE THIS GAME SERIOUSLY, especially in comparison to whatever perceived importance people assume Dantonio puts on it. There is no human being in the world who seems to care about this game as much as Mark Dantonio. "You aren't as insane as this person chewing off his whole leg, so you aren't passionate enough" is a terrible refrain, and insinuates that a team loses because of some banal quote on a t-shirt and not because someone has to lose in a football game. Take a step back and replace MSU with any other random mid-level opponent and the perception of this game would be "man, what terrible luck Michigan had. Shit happens, though", not "the coaches gave up and MSU wanted it more." Michigan wanted to win this game, and they prepared for it as well as possible. But sometimes plays don't work, sometimes guys inexplicably fumble while the other team recovers their two muffed exchanges even during a torrential downpour. Sometimes, again, a pretty crazy storm hits and helps bleed the clock for an opposition that couldn't do anything with the ball for a half. Sometimes a team you just lose, and it sucks, but it isn't something deeper than that on a personal level. Had Michigan miraculously scored on that final drive and won the game, it wouldn't have fundamentally changed either team's preparation, unless you believe that Michigan's goal was to win on a 40-yard Hail Mary and the previous 3 hours was just an elaborate long con to set it up. But otherwise, complaining about heart and passion is just short-hand for the speaker's inability to handle life's numerous curveballs.

Best: Nothing (in a good way)

Michigan's defense had some breakdowns in the first half: Madre London had a 50-yard run and a TD catch on a nice RB screen, a 30-yarder to Stewart that was very well covered, and Brian Lewerke was able to get free on a TD run of his own. It was a combination of randomness (the Stewart catch was the type of 50-50 ball that just as easily gets picked off), questionable officiating (the defensive PI on Metellus didn't seem remotely egregious and the less said of an unsportsmanlike penalty because two guys got into a bit after a play but you only called it on Bush) and good playcalling by MSU, exploiting Michigan's aggressive tendencies with a couple of delayed handoffs and screens. Basically, what you saw that first half against Purdue, and what most fans expected to see. They certainly didn't play badly, but the 14 points MSU scored were all relatively "earned" by the Spartans.

But also like the Purdue game, Michigan downloaded whatever MSU was trying to do and just erased their offense in the second half. At halftime MSU was averaging 5.8 ypp, a reasonably good number against what is a top-5 defense nationally. Lewerke never got comfortable throwing the ball, but he was still at 5.3 ypa and was moving the ball on the ground. But from about 3:20 left in the first half until the last drive of the game, MSU didn't record a single first down (!) and compiled a total of 36 yards (!!) of total offense. Michigan's defense nearly pitched the equivalent of a perfect game on defense; ignoring that final 1-play drive after the Michigan fumble to end the half, Michigan faced 8 drives and MSU went either 3-and-out or a turnover on downs. Caveats and all that about the weather, but that was a dominant performance by a unit that understandably could have been demoralized.

For the game, Michigan held MSU to 4.06 ypp on 62 plays, which somehow is the worst performance for the defense all year. To put that in perspective, that is Auburn's average for the year, and they are the #6 defense in the country per that stat. They recorded 4 pass break ups, including 3 by Hill, and despite not recording a sack (!) for the first time all year, they had 5 TFLs and controlled the line most of the night. Maurice Hurst lived in the backfield, recording 2.5 of those TFLs along with 8 tackles overall, a team lead he shared with Devin Bush. At no point could MSU block him with any consistency, and you could tell in that second half that even the running backs knew that any run into the line was likely going to end with 290 lb+ Mass-hole engulfing him. It was glorious to watch, and my guess is NFL scouts are salivating over his first step as well as his ability to get after runners trying to escape down the line.

MSU was able to get some decent runs going in the first half when they could get off the line quickly and either get McCray or Bush flowing the wrong way or simply get a hand on them. In particular, some of MSU's most successful plays were baiting one or both linebackers to commiting to a side, then either using a delayed-handoff to get the RB going away or throwing a short pass to the vacated area of the field. It was reasonably effective until Michigan compensated and the weather turned, removing the PO in RPO. Plus, the defense as a whole was able to minimize MSU's ability to get runs going outside the tackles, consistently turning those plays into short gains or futile attempts to cut back inside.

It really was a remarkable performance by the defense in that second half, and it sucks to see it not lead to a win. In any normal game, this type of performance gives Michigan the ability to pull ahead after their slow state, especially if Michigan State would have found itself needing to move the ball vertically. But sadly, it was for naught. But this defense looks absolutely locked in, and it's why I think Michigan still has a chance to win games like PSU and Wisconsin, to say nothing of OSU. You see what normal defenses can do to those teams and I just don't see how any team on the remaining schedule save OSU and maybe PSU can even dream of consistently moving the ball downfield, and even in those two cases it would be in suchs fits and spurts that any momentum would be fleeting.

Best: The Secondary Just Reloads

I think we are starting to get to the point where even the secondary, the expected "weak link" of the defense coming into the season, is playing at a championship level. Yes, MSU dropped a couple of open balls, but Lewerke struggled to get anything going downfield and a lot of that is due to Michigan's corners absolutely blanketing MSU's receivers. Coming off 9-catch, 114-yard game against Iowa, Felton Davis was held to a single 9-yard catch on the day. Lewerke completed 50% of his passes for 4.2 ypa, and his two longest throws of the day were that aforementioned 50-50 ball to Stewart and the screen to London for the TD. Lavert Hill probably should have had at least 1 pick, maybe 2 on the day, and David Long helped shut down anything downfield for the Spartans.

Yes, there are units out there that could test this seconary. And yes, the weather this game absolutely benefitted them defending balls downfield. But they've passed both Purdue's trickeration-based passing attack and MSU's brusing bodies approach with flying colors, and if a couple of these break ups turn into picks, they could rise to another level on a team that is already one of the best in the country.

Worst: The Other Can of O'Korn

With news that Wilton Speight was likely out for the year with three broken vertebrae, this offense officially became John O'Korn's to run. And I'll admit to being skeptical about his ability to replicate his Purdue performance against future opponents. It's not that I think he's a bad QB; in fact, I think behind this spotty offensive line he's probably the best chance Michigan has to survive and move the ball downfield. But he's still John O'Korn, the guy who got beat out in Houston because he could barely complete 50% of his passes and had more picks than TDs, the guy who couldn't beat out Wilton Speight for two straight years despite ample opportunities, and the guy who who completed 44% of his passes against IU and 46% of his passes against MSU. And yes, weather affected those last two games, but even before the rain and wind he had only completed 53% of his passes in the first half and had eaten 3 sacks. In the second half he threw interceptions on three consecutive drives, only one I'd consider bad luck (the one where the MSU DB batted the ball off his arm into the air could just have easily been an incompletion). The other two were just bad decisions (the pick on 3rd down when he probably could have run for the first, the throw into double coverage seemed like a response to being pissed about an earlier non-call on a hit), and (I'm assuming) the type of cavalier playmaking that the coaches probably frowned upon during practice. A number of times the announcers pointed out O'Korn bugging out of a reasonably clean pocket, sometimes missing wide-open players in the process. In the words of Dennis Green, he is who we thought he was, which is why I tried to temper expectations after the last game.

O'Korn absolutely suffered from some bad luck. McDoom dropped a ball directly on his numbers on that final drive that would have given them a couple of shots to the endzone. DPJ either couldn't quite get free or was held on a nice little hitch-and-go late in the second quarter. McKeon fumbled the ball to end the half when the offense finally got going a bit. Higdon held on a great throw downfield. The downpour throttled the offense even further, as did an offensive line that repeatedly allowed MSU to get pressure with only 4 defenders rushing. Playcalling seemed to abandon the run even when it was clear MSU was going to pin their ears back. All of this is true, and all of it should be considered in judging O'Korn's performance

But even given all that, O'Korn forced guys out of bounds along the sidelines. He ate sacks and failed to throw the ball away when lost yardage would kill scoring chances. He missed wide-open players and, at times, tried to flip the field with the power of his arm alone. He looked like Speight out there, trying to keep the offense moving while the world crashed in around him. And it's why I never thought he'd be some savior for the team, some cure for the ills of poor recruiting and troubling player development along the offensive line. This team's ceiling was always defined by its offense, and at this point we've seen that it has few dynamic playmakers and any advantages they present are oftentimes offset by issues setting up the plays. And O'Korn will be part of that process going forward, and I expect it to be about as variable as the last couple of weeks, save perhaps the amplitude being a bit less extreme. But there's no QB on the roster who could suddenly make this offense a smooth-running machine.

Worst: The Offensive Line, Again

You've heard it all before, so I won't repeat myself. I will simply point out that there were a number of times in this game where MSU sent 4 linemen and could get between 1 and 4 of them past the offensive line into O'Korn's lap. You know that picture you always see with 5 OSU defenders about ready to demolish Mike Hart after the snap? Yeah, this one:

Yeah, that happened multiple times this game. And this isn't MSU from a couple years ago, when they could Double-A gap you to death and had screaming hellbeasts at defensive end. This outfit had 9 sacks coming into the game and the vast majority were from the linebackers. They left Saturday with 4 sacks, including the first 3 of the season by two of their linemen (Willekes and Owens). Much like last game, where Purdue got healthy rushing the passer, Michigan again let a mediocre outfit just blow past them repeatedly. And the thing is, people want to point to Ulizio or Kugler as the problem, but it's systemic. Everyone is missing blocks, failing to pick up guys coming late, abandoning assignments too quickly to get to the second level. I don't remotely claim to know much about proper OL blocking schemes, but in the great debate of "is it bad coaching or is it players not performing", the answer is all of the above. If anything, I thought the line got better run-blocking as the game progressed because weather dictated that they just run forward with minimal guesswork or technique; Higdon had some nice runs in the late third/early fourth because it was 1 cut and go behind solid blocking. But it's about midway through the season and this is the offensive line Michigan has to work with. There isn't some guy waiting in the wings, there isn't some redshirt that should be burned. They lost 3 games last year in large part because they couldn't block all the effectively, and those same problems linger again.

Worst: The Real O'Neill

You always hear referees say that when you don't remember their names, it means they did a good job. And for most referees, they do a reasonably good job at accomplishing that feat; I didn't think the Purdue game was the best-officiated game ever, but I couldn't pick Jerry McGinnout of a lineup. But on the other end of the spectrum are your Teddy "TV" Valentine's and John O'Neill's, guys every conference fan could smell in a dark room. They make bad calls like every ref, but they tend to double down on the theatrics and the pedantry, trying to "control" a game instead of officiate it. And it's become so pervasive that fans look at the referee listings each week like Russian Roulette, hoping their team is spared O'Neill's incompetence during a crucial game. Hell, the WTKA crew has had multiple segments discussing to what level he'll screw up during an important part of a game the past couple of seasons. It'd be a joke if it wasn't so damn depressing.

In this game, O'Neill called an unsportsmanlike penalty on Devin Bush beause Brian Allen slapped him on the head and he (seemingly) slapped him back, then called the aforementioned pass interefence on Metellus for the type of physical coverage MSU was getting away with all game as well. In the second half, when the weather just erased large swaths of the playbook and I half-expected to see Mark Walhberg stumble into frame, O'Neill's ability to influence the game was minimized, though he still found a way to ignore some blatant late hits to O'Korn (to the point that O'Korn bad-mouthed him down the field) and buy what appeared to be a flop by O'Korn along the MSU sideline. He also had a couple of make-up calls that drove me insane; after the Bush penalty there was a false-start on Allen, and after the Higdon hold he called a questionable hold on MSU. The only thing worsse than watching a ref blow calls is faux atonement in the same game, because it tries to equate, say, a drive-extending play with another despite massive changes in context. And what makes it worse is that he made some correct calls; Higdon absolutely held on the Crawford TD (though I've seen that ignored in enough games to not call it bang-bang), and him awarding Lewerke on that fumbled scramble were right on the field.

Michigan didn't lose this game because John O'Neill is bad at his job. But if he's farting his way up and down the field against PSU or OSU, look out.

Quick Hits

  • I need to see the UFR for this game perhaps more than any other in recent memory. During the game I thought the playcalling was illogical, especially trying to throw the ball in the heart of the storm, but it sort of makes sense if you assume (a) Michigan figures it can't consistently run the ball, and (b) they recognized that on an unstable field, players in space with some forward momentum would be incredibly difficult to stop. Throwing a short screen or RB dump-off would have put Michigan's skill position players in space with MSU defenders trying to gather their feet, and in a game where the second half was basically washed away, one or two breaks in the air could have made the difference.
  • This really was the Purdue game without the second half. MSU pulled out to the lead but then tried to basically sit on the lead for a half. Had the storm held up, Michigan probably pulls them back in the second half and wins comfortably.
  • Kirk Herbstreit was beyond insufferable in this game. He's become a bit of a carictature, this un-elected voice for the authenticity and morality of the game, and when he turns it up to 11 and tries to needle one fanbase by salivating over a faux redemption story of another, it is stomach-churning. Yes, MSU deserves a redemption because they were terrible last year and a bunch of their players sexally assaulted women over the offseason. Nothing will ever quite surpass the fellating PSU received last year, but it was still hard to listen to.

Bring on the Hoosiers

Going forward, this team is going to struggle against any competent defensive line. Indiana will likely get consistent penetration into the backfield; O'Korn will probably find some lanes to scramble away and the rest of IU's defense looks tractable. But even with better weather, it's not going to be a fun game to watch. I think Michigan's defense will absolutely engulf IU's pocket-protector, DeBordian offense, and that should be enough for a win.

Best and Worst: Purdue

Best and Worst: Purdue

Submitted by bronxblue on September 25th, 2017 at 2:35 AM

Best: Assimilation is Awesome

Last year's defense was one of the best in Michigan's history; it was both remarkably efficient at getting teams off the field and deadly at ending drives that did get into scoring position without giving up points. It was one of the national leaders in sacks, tackles for loss, and red zone defense. And it featured two first-rounders as well as a slew of 3rd- and 4th-rounders. In fact, Michigan lost so much talent on the defense that even the most optimistic fans assumed Michigan would take a step back this year. I mean, they had to. Even with a number of playmakers coming back, expecting that dominance to continue simply wasn't reasonable.

And yet, 4 games into 2017...Michigan is again one of the national leaders in sacks, TFLs, and red zone defense. They lead the nation in yards allowed with 203 per game. Both Chase Winovich and Devin Bush are top-10 players nationally in sacks, and Winovich is also #4 in TFLs. Hurst and Gary, despite not collecting a bunch of sexy stats, have been dominant; Purdue's running game finished with 30 yards on 20 carries. For almost the entire second half of the game, Michigan's defense held Purdue to 1 yard of total offense. More generally, Purdue came into the game averaging 6 yards per play and 25 first downs a game; Michigan held them to 3.8 and 9 first downs, only 1 in the second half.

And while I'm supposed to be surprised, I'm really not. This is what Don Brown's defenses do in their second years. In his second year at UConn, the Huskies went from 51st in total defense to 9th. Boston College went from 93rd to 11th to #1. Every game, you see his defenses look at what you do, assimilate it into their scheme, and then smother you from that point on. It has to be demoralizing to watch. Purdue's first play from scrimmage was a nice 24-yard throwback screen that Michigan sorta-sniffed out beforehand. But that was basically it for Purdue in terms of misdirection or confusion; the rest of the game was just a grind despite a couple of attempts to get Michigan defenders on skates. As usual, Devin Bush was flying all around the field and causing havoc, which Winovich demolished whomever was sent to block him on the way to 4 sacks. Purdue is going to be annoying as long as Brohm is there, but it's still Purdue talent and good lord, Don Brown with top-5 talent is going to continue to eat offenses up regardless of their wrinkles. As someone who lived through the Drew Brees Boilermakers while in college, seeing a Michigan defense so effortlessly crush the will of a team trying to confuse them is mesmerizing.

Best: Everything Zen

I'm going to wear a hole into my copy of Sixteen Stone, but I'm going to have to keep coming back to it as long as Devin Bush continues to have games like he did yesterday. For yet another week, Bush just wrecked Purdue's offense both in the backfield and when they (rarely) got past the front line. He combined with Winovich to destroy David Blough on a dropback. He screamed around the corner to crunch Blough again later in the first quarter. He also sprinted to the sideline to break up a pretty good throw to a Purdue TE. He finished the day tied with Winovich for the team lead in tackles, while also picking up a PBU and, while not documented on the official box score, close to a billion hits on the QB. I know there was some consternation about Michigan going so hard after Bush while, perhaps, ignoring higher-rated targets, but right now Bush is probably the defensive play of the year in the conference, or at the very least should be in the top 3. This defense would be very good without him, but he brings and edge, an aggressiveness to it that Don Brown can deploy with abandon. I know coming into the year the question was who would replace Peppers as that do-it-all player that drove the defense, and everyone sort of assumed it would be a safety hybrid in his mold. But it's pretty clear that Devin Bush has taken over the role of disruptor on defense, and he should only get better as the season progresses.

Best: No Fly Zone

Purdue looked like the first opportunity for the defensive backfield to be "exposed" by a competent passing game. Hill and Long have looked solid for most of the season at corner, and Metellus and Kinnel have largely kept the mistakes tamped down (save for one bust against Air Force), but Purdue came into the game averaging around 300 yards in the air with a 65% completion rate and 7.5 ypa. Michigan held them to 159 yards on 43% completion percentage and 5.3 ypa. Terry Wright was a tough matchup on Purdue's one long-ish scoring drive, but beyond that Michigan's defensive backs just sat on the Purdue receivers and didn't give them a chance to get open or, on the rate occasion they caught the ball, additional yards.

I guess we'll see how they handle their next big test against PSU in a couple of weeks, but (a) I don't think the Nittany Lions' receivers are all that scary, and (b) it's hard to see them suddenly regressing all that much even against improved competition.

Best: Freak off a Leash

I am going to get into what will likely be a much-ridiculed discussion about the future of the QB position in the next section, but for now I want to point out that John O'Korn had himself a fantastic game. The top-line stats were great: 18/26, 270 yards, 10.4 ypa, 1 TD and 1 pick that was a bit behind Perry but also probably should have been caught/bounced up and harmlessly onto the turf. It was his best game since his freshman year at Houston, and he displayed the mix of athleticism, quick decision-making, and solid mechanics that made him so appealing as a transfer a couple years ago. To me, his scramble to escape an unblocked Purdue defender (a not-unfamiliar sight in this game, sadly) and find Perry on a broken play was probably the best one of the day, and one that doesn't happen with Speight under center. If John O'Korn can play like he did against Purdue going forward, he should 100% be the starting QB and, more than likely, will lead this team to a conference championship and a spot in the playoffs.

And beyond the stat line, O'Korn played with a decisiveness and aggression that we haven't seen consistently out of Speight. Sometimes you hear people pejoratively describe a QB who makes only one or two reads as playing with a "simplified" playbook, as if the mettle of a QB is measured in the number of seconds a ball stays in his hand. To me, the offense changed when O'Korn took over because the ball came out quickly and (usually) to a player on the move. One of the consistent complaints you've heard about Speight (and one I've agreed with to an extent) is that his throws tend to be a little behind or ahead of his receivers, that he forces them to break their stride or compensate, and that severely limits yards after the catch and the type of open-field explosiveness that is the hallmark of good offenses. With few exceptions (an overthrow to Perry on an easy third-down conversion jumps out probably because of its infrequency), O'Korn's passes were on-point and let guys like McKeon and Schoenle build on the separation they had on the Purdue defenders. And it shouldn't be a surprise that for the most part, O'Korn's throws were to his tight ends and slot receivers; their routes tend to be the shortest/closest to the line and sprung guys quickly, oftentimes because of the "rub routes" and the usual advantages Michigan's hyper-athletic blocky-catchy guys enjoy over middling linebackers in space. The 4 leading receivers were McKeon, Gentry, Perry, and Schoenle, and you rarely saw O'Korn even look deep once it was clear that Purdue wasn't going to put up much resistance on the shorter routes.

This is the type of offense Michigan should be running, in all honesty. The receivers are very young and/or inconsistent; if they can't consistently get usable separation from defensive backs (e.g. Moe Ways was very open but was also 30+ yards downfield and was effectively out the play), building an offense around them is a recipe for scuttled drives. But Michigan has a plethora of tall, large men who can out-run your linebackers and run over your corners; they also have two pretty sure-handed slot types with enough speed to stretch the field with the ball in their hands. That's a perfectly viable offense, and it's one few teams are prepared to really contend against without somewhat-dramatically altering their front 7. And to boot, they made some tough grabs and bailed out O'Korn when he needed it. So regardless of the QB under center, letting McKeon, Gentry, and Perry lead the charge is probably the way to go, especially given the demonstrated relationship and comfort O'Korn seems to have with them.

Meh: Maybe Make the Whole Offense Out of The O'Korn Plays?

This is still something I'm struggling with, and I will happily admit if I'm way off-base, but it felt like the offensive playcalling shifted when O'Korn came in. You didn't see him look much downfield; it was short passes on quick reads. When he held the ball longer, he was under pressure and scrambled either for yardage or to throw downfield. But for the first couple of games this year, it felt like Speight was trying to throw more downfield and somewhat eschewed the shorter stuff until later in the game, if at all. Part of me thinks this was on Speight not looking for the shorter dump-off, but you'd figure the coaches would have corrected this over the past couple of weeks. Instead, it seemed like with Speight in there the focus was on stretching the field a bit and trying to get balls to the outside, while when O'Korn took over the passing offense moved closer to the line. I'm really interested to see how it shakes out in the UFR, because this is the type of offense they should have been running once it became clear that either the WRs couldn't consistently get open downfield or Speight wasn't able to get it to them.

Worst: Not Quite Here to Stay

I saw this a number of places over the weekend, and AJDrain put forth his cogent analysis and argument for John O'Korn being the starting QB going forward over Wilton Speight. And as I said above, if this is the John O'Korn we get going forward, then by all means he should be the starter; this version of O'Korn is probably the best QB in the conference (depending on how much you deduct for McSorley's, um, "displays of confidence"). You'll hear no argument from me, and my guess is Speight wouldn't disagree either if he was given a legitimate chance to win it back when he is healthy.

But we have a mountain of evidence that, when healthy, Wilton Speight is the QB the coaching staff prefers to be the starter. He won an open competition with O'Korn last year seemingly rather convincingly. O'Korn came in against Indiana and, um, played a bit worse than Tyler O'Connor did against OSU on that same day, but it was a win. Then, with evidence that Speight still had some lingering shoulder issues and O'Korn having a game under his belt, Speight was still immediately inserted back into the starting QB role against OSU and FSU, and played pretty well. Then, another offseason competition happens (even though Speight clearly had the incumbent advantage), and O'Korn acquits himself well enough but the general consensus was Speight was the starter and it was going to be Peters and O'Korn battling for the backup minutes. Speight then struggles to varying degrees for 3 games to start the year and other than a planned couple of series against Florida, O'Korn doesn't see the field during meaningful play. And even after this game, when asked if this performance opened up the QB competition again, Harbaugh laughed it off and praised O'Korn, but still seemed (at least to me) non-committal on this day truly swaying his opinion on the pecking order at QB.

Now, I'm an engineer and a lawyer; I 100% understand that as new evidence becomes available, the situation and your preconceptions around it should and will change. That's how you learn and grow as a person and achieve the most successful outcome. This was a great game by O'Korn, and should absolutely be considered by the coaching staff when determining who gets the starting slot against MSU and the rest of the teams coming up. But there is this pervasive notion by a subset of the fanbase that O'Korn was always better than Speight and that Jim Harbaugh, a man so competitive he trained his children to maximize halloween candy collection by changing costumes and hunted down kids in laser tag and apparently fired or demoted 8 Stanford coaches after their first winning season, somehow denied him of an opportunity because of some loyalty to a QB he didn't recruit and who isn't some superstar.

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. But Purdue's defense looked semi-competent because they had great turnover luck (they lead the nation in fumble recoveries), and while no defense should apologize for good luck, it can paper over a lot of deficiencies that a competent team can exploit.

This is a long-winded way of saying that some of Michigan's improvements offensively are opponent-dependent. After O'Korn took the reins, he marched the team down the field and scored a TD efficiently. But on the next 5 drives you had an interception, a 3-and-out, a 3-and-out, a 6-and-punt, and a fumble. The fumble isn't on the QB (it was a janky-looking RB screen but the ball got to Higdon and he just coughed it up), but that's still basically a quarter of play where the offense totaled a shade over 50 yards. Yes, Michigan ultimately started to break through and the offense played well with O'Korn at the helm, but to assume Speight wouldn't have been able to take similar advantage of a tiring, struggling defense as the game proceeded feels needlessly myopic.

O'Korn still made some ill-advised decisions; off my notes, he threw a ball between 3 defenders to McKeon that could have blown up, he threw ball as he was dragged down well over the head of Gentry that was immensely dangerous, and he had a little flick to Evans late in the 4th that Evans clearly wasn't expecting and could have been picked off by the two Purdue defenders directly behind him. 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. And I get a strong sense that the coaches prefer Speight because he doesn't necessarily take as many risks as O'Korn; they likely recognize that this team's best chance to win is to lean on the defense and take your shots offensively when they pop up.

I know people are going to assume I'm a Speight stan, and so be it. 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. I want to see O'Korn get a chance against MSU in 2 weeks, even if he doesn't start; forcing the Spartans to prepare for 2 QBs with different styles is only going to be a net positive, even if Harbaugh sticks to one for the majority of the game. But Speight isn't and shouldn't be considered out as starting QB, and anyone expecting Harbaugh to yo-yo between the two as starters is going to be disappointed. The degree of his injury could absolutely change this outlook, but that's my position right now.

Better: At Least We're Average!

So as noted last week, I've been maintaining a running average of Michigan's 3rd-down distance in every game this year. Going into this week's game, it stood at a deflating 7.4 yard to go. In this game, Michigan was able to shave that down to 6.2 yards per 3rd, which is about the national average. A good amount of that can be credited to O'Korn and the offense limiting negative plays on first and second (Michigan saw only 15 3rd downs in this game, which is the same number as they did last week, but ran 10 more plays and were content to run the ball halfway through the 4th qaurter to bleed time off the clock). For the game, Michigan was 6-of-15 on third downs, 6-of-13 if you ignore the last couple of run-the-clock drives, well above the 30-ish percentage rate they were coming into the game. This is probably never going to be an explosive offense, but Michigan's ability to grind teams down requires them to stay on the field, and minimizing 3rd-and-longs is a great step in that direction. Michigan State is one of the national leaders in booting teams off the field on 3rd down, but color me skeptical about that number considering ND converted 57% against them.

Worst: Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

I have been railing for weeks now that outside of Isaac, Michigan really struggled to get anything going with the running game. Well, after Isaac left last game late with an apparent foot injury and was limited to 20 yards on 10 carries...Michigan finished with 139 yards on 44 carries, a ghastly 3.2 ypc. And it could have been worse; I got yelled at least week for this, but if you ignore Evans's 49-yard TD run late in the 4th, Michigan barely cracked 100 yards if you factor out sacks on about 40 carries. Yes, this Purdue defense is better against the run than in years past (they gave up 146 to Louisville and 173 to Ohio while holding Missouri to 70), this is still a pretty terrible performance. Purdue was able to get penetration consistently all day, and when the backs bounced outside they rarely could find daylight. I hear the refrain that "Purdue was selling out against the run", and maybe they were a bit at times, but I honestly didn't see anything all that crazy. This wasn't Air Force throwing 8 or 9 guys into the box; this was your typical front 7 defense being aggressive, sure, but winning one-on-one matchups consistently.

And because you can't have poor run blocking without poor pass blocking, Michigan gave up 4(!) sacks to a team that came into the game with 1(!!) on the season. Speight's injury was the result of multiple linemen missing their blocks, and even when O'Korn came in he was running for his life against a number of unblocked linebackers and linemen. Twists continue to befuddle large swaths of the line, and too often you saw guys either not communicate hand-offs or just plan miss them, leading to unblocked guys barreling into the backfield. On the day, Purdue finished with 8 TFLs and I have to assume a dozen or more QB hits and hurries. In a game in which Michigan held Purdue to about 1 yard of total offense for most of the 2nd half, it was the Boilermakers who had more TFLs, more yardage lost to sacks, and probably as many opportunities to disrupt the Michigan offense as the Wolverines had against Purdue.

This should not be happening at this stage in the team's existence. Michigan has solid enough recruits at offensive line; Brady Hoke did no one any favors toward the end, but Michigan is 121st in the national in TFLs allowed. They give up 8 a game! Teams around them are your UMass's, your Washington State's, your Akron's and Kent State's. If you can't piece together 5 large human beings who can block other large human beings better than Texas State, then you are bad and you should feel bad. That's what got me about all the optimism surrounding the offensive line coming into the year; last year's line wasn't particularly good at limiting negative plays and was then replaced by players switching positions and guys who couldn't dislodge said mediocre players from last year. I will say this now - if the offensive line doesn't show dramatic improvement in the coming weeks, Michigan is going to lose 2-3 games before the end of the year, and it will be in excruciating fashion.

One mitigating factor may well be the insertion of O'Korn into the starting lineup, if the coaches decide that's the best option. He isn't an elite athlete by any means, but O'Korn has displayed an ability to run away from pressure and escape a collapsing pocket better than Speight, and if they gameplan around that I can see the offense being a bit more dynamic against all but your Wisconsins and Ohio States. That's not the news you want to hear in the 3rd year of a Harbaugh regime, but it's reality.

Quick Hits

  • The game featured 2 targeting penalties, both of which were pretty clear violations of the rule even though I could see how Thieneman hit was (somewhat) incidental. On the day, Purdue got dinged for 10 penalties, and a number of them were of the "aggressive" variety. It felt like a really chippy game all around, but it was good to see that Michigan largely kept away from situations where they could have lost players for upcoming games.
  • I didn't realize Purdue didn't have A/C in the visitor's locker room during this game. I understand they are due to renovate the facilities in the near future, but how a school that gets north of $30M a year in TV and licensing revenue couldn't spend a bit of that to outfit a room with cool air is a bit amazing. Their former AD is apparently quite cheap, so if you hear about people complaining about how there isn't money to go around for student-athletes, remember that some guy in Indiana thought air conditioning in only half of the locker rooms of a D1 football program was reasonable.
  • Winovich got the big numbers in this game, but the Michigan defensive line controlled this whole game. Hurst remains on most people's first-round boards, and my guess is you'll see a couple more defenders pop up there as the year goes on. Teams are running away from Gary, and the linebackers are making them pay by being able to flow free to the ball carriers because offenses can't get any real movement against the starters. In a weekend of hyperbole, mine is that I think this front 6/7 is better overall than last year's, simply because they seem like perfect complements to each other.

Hate Two Weeks!

So MSU is in 2 weeks, which means (a) MSU has a chance to come into the game riding a 2-game "Defeated with Dignity" streak after playing the Hawkeyes, and (b) Michigan won't be looking past them even with road games against IU and PSU looming. MSU's offense is, I guess, better than last year's at QB, though Lewerke still looks grossly overwhelmed while under pressure. You'll hear MSU fans say they significantly outgained ND in their last game, which is factually true though you could counter that basically that whole margin came on 2 drives at the end of the game when Michigan State was down 28 points. They were also able to somehow have a 19(!) play, 81 yard drive end on downs(!!), which really is the most MSU drive you could imagine post-2015. On defense, they play aggressive and have some talent on the defensive line, so expect them to get pressure on Michigan's QB and for there to be some grinding drives where the running backs get 3 yards repeatedly. But that secondary is still terrible and if Michigan plays to its strengths in the moderate distance downfield, they should have a field day. It's a team that isn't as bad as you thought it would be but isn't anywhere close to the program that went to the CFP less than 2 years ago. We all remember what happened the last time MSU came to Michigan Stadium; I expect there to be consistent and painful retribution. Go Blue.