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.
- 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.