I almost didn’t write this one, but it’s the last game of the season so whatever.
Worst: A Terrible, Exciting Game
Man, that was a weird game. It was a “classic” in the sense it ended with a bunch of exciting, game-changing plays in the final couple of minutes, but for about 3 quarters it was pretty ugly. FSU’s defensive line dominated UM’s offensive unit, while UM largely bottled up FSU’s offense save for a couple nice plays by Cook and a 92-yard TD throw on busted coverage by Francois. UM had 23 yards rushing on 15 carries and 83 yards passing on 19 attempts in the first half. FSU was a bit better, but without that 92-yard bomb they had 85 yards passing on 6/14 passing and 78 yards rushing on 19 attempts despite Cook picking up 12 and 28 yards on successive carries on that first drive. The teams were a combined 3 for 15 on third down before halftime, and while for the game FSU only had 4 sacks and UM 2, both QBs were getting knocked around on a significant portion of their attempts. Speight was nearly beheaded a couple of times by Walker and Sweat, while Charlton probably moved a couple of Francois’s organs on a crunching sack in the 1st quarter.
It can’t be understated how badly the offense played in that first half. They somehow turned a 1st-and-goal on the 1 after Kenny Allen’s booming punt led to a fumble into a FG, then failed to score a TD on their only real sustained drive of the half after Butt was lost for the game with a rough looking injury trying to stretch for more yards. They couldn’t run the ball with any real success, particularly sideline-to-sideline, and yet they just kept setting downs on fire trying to get to the edge, usually resulting in a TFL. I wasn’t surprised UM had trouble running the ball, but at some point if you aren’t going to really try to throw deep or utilize play-action effectively, running the ball for a loss/minimal gains into 8-9 men is just being obstinate (not coincidentally, FSU finished this game with 15 TFLs [!!!]).
It also didn’t help that the first quarter took eons, as ESPN apparently had a mandate all game to stick as many commercials as possible into every pause in the action. This was a sixty-minute game that took nearly 4 hours to play and featured both an off-key national anthem AND whatever that halftime show was featuring a band headlined by one of the lesser Jonas Brothers lip-syncing and finger-syncing instruments for 5 minutes.
But adjustments were made in the second half, and UM slowly clawed their way back into this game. UM held FSU to 15 yards in that third quarter, including a pick-six that pulled UM within 5, and were plowing into the backfield with regularity. For the game, UM finished with 6 TFLs, five PBUs, and 5 quarterback hits. Cook ran for 145 yards, but it felt like a Barry Sanders-type game, where he was stopped a bunch of times for a loss or minimal gain (9 runs for 2 yards or less) and a couple long runs to offset (71 yards and 28 yards). Francois had 222 yards, but he threw the ball 27 times and picked up 137 of those yards on the 92-yard TD throw where someone got confused and let Murray go free, and a 45-yarder to Cook that was perfectly called to get McCray on Cook going down the sideline. People will look at the big plays and assume the defense played poorly, but this was a solid performance against a good offense (with an elite RB) while dealing with the loss of Peppers.
As for the offense, it got…slightly better. Speight missed open receivers all day and absolutely looked shell-shocked at times as FSU kept the pressure up with their front line. But as the game progressed, Michigan found ways to move the ball in the air, stringing together a FG drive to start the second half, then scored TDs on two of the next 3 drives after the McCray interception return. It all culminated with Chris Evans capping off the only real long run of the game for UM with a nice juke and dive to score the go-ahead TD with about 2 minutes left in the game.
And then…a kick returner ignored basically his whole team telling him to take a knee and returned the ball 66 yards. A couple plays later, Francois threw a great ball to Murray, who was covered by Lewis about as tightly as legally possible, and that was the game. The ensuing blocked kick and return by Metellus was bonkers and fun, but there was no way UM was going to move the ball 40-ish yards in 30 seconds subject to that pass rush to get into reasonable FG range. And before you rush to the comments, I initially thought FSU was offsides on 4th down but upon review it seemed pretty instantaneous, and in the heat of the moment it’s hard to fault the refs for letting the play go. I had a much bigger issue with the screen pass to Smith 2 plays earlier, for what it’s worth.
Worst: The One Where I Get Angry
I’ll get into some analysis below, I promise. But off the bat, a couple of things that, to steal a line, grind my gears (warning: bad words ahead).
1. ESPN talking about Jabrill Peppers every 30 seconds. Yes, he was a late scratch in this game, unexpectedly downed by a hamstring injury apparently suffered a couple days ago in practice. Yes, he’s a dynamic playmaker on defense and in the return game, and when the #4 Heisman trophy candidate (and oh lord is that a sore spot for some people online) can’t show up in a marquee game that should be noted. But my gawd, move on Steve Levy and Brian Griese. I don’t care what the voice in your ear from the control booth is saying, you are sentient human beings, you don’t have to repeat the same talking point for 4 fucking quarters. Hell, drag your dad back into the booth and flail around trying to shake hands again. Talk about the turf monster nearly taking out Renegade before the game. Talk about Jake Butt, also an All American, who apparently tore his MCL or ACL in this game and didn’t return. Talk about the actual game, as boring and disjointed as it was in the middle. Literally talk about anything except keep harping on an injury we’ve all acknowledged an hour ago. ESPN is already offensive with so much of their product over the years, but the in-game work always felt like the last bastion of competency. Not perfect by any means, but even guys like Spielman and Millen could provide some top-notch color and analysis during games. But about the middle of the 3rd quarter in this game, I just muted the TV because I was actively starting to hate Brian Griese, which is sort of amazing considering he led UM to their last national title and is generally a solid color guy.
2. Everyone who questioned Jabrill Peppers and him not playing/being on the sideline yesterday, you can all seriously fuck off. I mean, just fuck the right off. And before you say “oh, those were just trolls”, no they weren’t. Look at the comment boards here and the liveblog, you’ll see people calling him out based on nothing more than their own misguided, self-obsessed measurements of their own being and worth transposed on a college kid in a uniform trying to win a fucking “amateur” athletics competition sponsored by a second-rate credit card provider in a stadium branded by a shitty chain restaurant while dumpy old men in suits collect huge paychecks. First off, there were some who thought he was faking the injury or not playing to protect his draft position, because the idea of unpaid monkeys not dancing for your enjoyment is deeply unsettling. I mean, clearly this guy was all about protecting his draft stock, you numbnuts.
Then people started questioning his heart and dedication to his team because he was up in the booth and not on the sideline with his teammates, again without knowing one fucking thing about how the team was handling the situation. Then it came out Harbaugh ordered him to the stay up there because was so emotional and didn’t want to disrupt the sideline, as a human being with fucking emotions would likely be in what could be his last college game.
Peppers was devastated he couldn't play. Said Harbaugh told him to go to the booth instead of sideline. Had trouble holding back tears
— Bob Wojnowski (@bobwojnowski) December 31, 2016
Finally, there were those who came out and said Peppers was overrated and not that important to Michigan’s success, calling him a mediocre defensive presence because he doesn’t have a bunch of interceptions or whatever counting stat makes it easiest for you to disengage your brain and just let your slack jaw sway around for 10 seconds. You probably also think RBIs, pitcher wins, and points per game are the best way to determine award recipients, and that the QB with the most touchdowns every year should have the Heisman.
There is a part of this fanbase that loves to tear down UM players, and its fucking unbearable. Before Peppers it was Kalis, then Funchess and Lewan. Before that, it was Stevie Brown until his senior year. Then guys like Gabe Watson and John Navarre. The list goes on. That doesn’t mean you have to be a cheerleader or blindly optimistic, and it’s fair to criticize performance on the field. But good lord, the personal attacks, the concern trolling about how much that player “cares” about the team, all that shit, it’s depressing. There will undoubtedly be other players who come under fire in future seasons, but for whatever reason this particular response felt particularly offensive.
3. Florida State fans after a win. Again, it isn’t everyone, but I had friends who were UF and Miami (YTM) grads who warned me about this fanbase, but I figured they were just acutely aware because of the rivalry element. But man, for all the crap UM gets for being arrogant, front-runners, self-persecuted, etc., FSU has got to be right up there. On the Tomahawk Nation blog, one of the most-commented/popular articles, written after they won the fucking game, was complaining about ESPN not wanting to talk about all of FSU’s injuries leading into the game. Mind you, I agree ESPN spent too much time talking about Peppers as the game progressed, but that and the Butt injury happened basically during this game; Derwin James hasn’t played since September. It had been discussed a bunch of times leading up to the game. And ESPN mentioned Ermon Lane being out with a broken foot, and I thought Auden Tate (a guy with half of his production for the year coming in two games against Syracuse and BC) being out was noted as well. And then they trotted out Trey Marshall being ejected in the 4th quarter for fucking targeting Lewis on a punt return as something ESPN consciously decided not to cover because of some hair-brain omerta Bristol has against The ‘Noles. Guess what, you don’t get to play the “woe is our secondary” card when your player tries to knock a guy’s head off. Mind you, nobody seems to mention UM was down a starting left tackle and a top cornerback because those injuries happened long ago, or Perry being suspended because of his sexual assault charge, or that true freshman Josh Metellus basically replaced Peppers with little notice, and that’s how football works; you deal with depth chart issues when they happen. Losing two All-Americans in the same game is new and potentially game-altering to the current contest, unless FSU believes removing Dalvin Cook from this game before the first half was completed wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
But whatever, that’s understandable if you are a fanbase with a vocal component imbued with a persecution complex; UM absolutely has that. But then, good lord, are they sore winners. Bud Elliott on Twitter was bad but he’s also an FSU guy and recruiting analyst so it behooves him to point out the dual narrative that FSU is supremely talented yet also a scrappy underdog because for about 12 minutes in a game they played 3 true freshman in their secondary (caused because, again, guys got hurt 2 months ago and/or got booted for targeting). But the worst were all the little eggs and nameless avatars on Reddit going at it, because they inevitably confirm all their stereotypes: multiple discussions about the finer points of shed construction, questions about getting “back in the game” after they stopped selling weed a decade ago or how to stop using offensive slang for homosexuals and the mentally handicapped in mixed company, retweets of posts from Stormfront. I know UM fans can be obnoxious, but you win on a crazy sequence in the final couple of minutes and all of a sudden it’s “domination” this, “southern speed” that, “whambulance” that (and yes, all those words were originally misspelled). I mean, #FSUTwitter existed for a reason, and was atrocious at times during the whole Jameis Winston era, but still, it’s jarring in the moment. Just a bunch of people who absolutely feel the world is out to get their precious football team, history be damned if they deserved some scrutiny, and won’t rest until you are reminded of it.
Okay, good. That felt good. Moving on…
Worst: Offensive Offense
First off, credit to FSU’s defensive line – they were dominating in this game. For those who didn’t watch the game, here’s it in gif form:
UM struggled offensively for a lot of reasons in this game, but the biggest was guys like Sweat and Walker were unblockable for long stretches. Again, 15.0 TFLs is 4 more than MSU had in 2013 when UM rushed for –48 yards and we all wondered if blocking had been outlawed as “undignified”. And honestly, that probably undersells how dominant this performance was by the Florida State defensive line, as the two best runs of the game by Michigan required (a) Smith hurtling a defender to get all of 13 yards, and (b) Evans having to break like 2 tackles at the line to even get into the second level for his TD. Nothing came easy for Michigan’s offense, and while I absolutely believe some of that was due to questionable play calling, especially in the redzone, FSU imposing their will with extreme prejudice had a lot to do with that.
Nobody on the line played particularly well, but Bredeson was clearly a weak point FSU tried to exploit, repeatedly lining Walker over him and, not surprisingly, finding a lot of success. Kalis whiffed on a number of blocks as well, Cole struggled to get any push, and it started early when UM couldn’t score from the 1-yard line after the Thomas fumble recovery as Smith was driven back for a 3-yard loss and Speight was almost immediately under siege at every snap.
Issues in the redzone continued throughout the game. They set downs on fire trying to run the ball (on four redzone runs, UM recorded –12 yards), and the play calling was remarkably disjointed and/or conservative (depending on how much you felt the play calling changed when Butt got hurt) the closer they got to the endzone. I initially thought the issue was their unwillingness to throw fades and lobs to Darboh, Chesson, or a TE, but upon review it was more Speight just holding onto the ball. He had the one deep-ish thrown to Darboh that Amara caught but was just out of bounds, but otherwise those throws just never seemed to be made in the normal flow of the offense. For example, down 17-3 and inside the FSU 10, Speight missed 2 straight plays where he could have either gotten the ball to Darboh or even dump it off close to the endzone by instead held the ball way too long. Speight loosened up a bit in that second half and the passing offense opened up, but he never seemed wholly comfortable. Absolutely some of that was good coverage and Speight maybe sensing footsteps from an impending rush (even if the pocket was reasonably clean), but it was painful to watch this one-note offense bog down so close to the endzone. Say what you will about FSU’s offensive gameplan (I thought Fisher was trying way too hard to make Francois throw against UM’s corners instead of picking on the LBs/Hybrid spots), but they were much more effective close to the goalline both because they could run the ball with Cook but also because Francois got rid of the ball quickly.
As a microcosm for the running performance in this game, Speight had the second longest run of the day when he scampered for 17 yards on a “oh shit, gotta go” escapes in the 4th quarter. As has been a trend when Michigan runs into strong defensive fronts (see Iowa, OSU, and not FSU), the offensive line simply is overmatched on the ground. I thought Evans looked the best of the bunch, mostly because he could hit whatever sliver of holes existed and had enough speed and wiggle to eek out what yards were there. Smith was a load when he could get going, but throwing multiple swing passes to him and expecting that bus to get up to full speed against this level of athleticism on defense was a tall order, and it should come as no surprise 2 of his 3 receptions were for 0 and –3 yards as he was tackled almost immediately.
Apparently this is a trigger warning for people who find a white guy dressing up like a Native American war chief and throwing a flaming in the spear into the ground totally acceptable in 2017, but Michigan could have used Peppers on offense in this game. Not so much running Pepcat (unless they’d actually let him throw the ball), but as a playmaker in space, either on a sweep, a screen, even as a back. Just that hint of unpredictability, of game-breaking speed and elusiveness, might have been enough.
Meh: QB Competition 2017
I’ll go on record and say Speight was fine in this game. Not good by any means, but not nearly as bad as some people thought, especially given the fact he got virtually no help on the ground and was under siege from the opening snap. Throw out that final, desperate drive to end the game and he was 20/34 for 163 yards and a TD. The average yardage he faced on his 15 (!!) third down passes was 7.1 yards (by comparison, Francois only had to throw 4 times on 3rd down, though his average down-and-distance was 9.2 yards). Some of that was absolutely self-inflicted, but as with the OSU game, you can only expect so much out of the guy when he loses Butt and was sacked 4 times and hit countless other times. Francois was worse (9/27 for 222 yards, 92 of them coming on a single throw where Murray was blitheringly open), and he had maybe the best running back in the country to shoulder the load.
One thing that I still don’t know the cause of is the team’s inability to throw the ball downfield. Yet again, Michigan never found a way to take the top off the defense with a deep ball to either Chesson or Darboh, and outside of maybe 1 or 2 throws they barely seemed to try. Maybe there’s an injury to Speight’s shoulder or wrist, but you’d think we’d hear about it. Maybe it was a conscious decision not to minimize turnovers, but that just doesn’t seem to jibe with Harbaugh’s naturally-aggressive sentiments or his past history as a playcaller. Maybe the calls were made but not executed properly, or the receivers couldn’t get open, or some combination of it all. But they have to rediscover this element of the offense to be effective, especially if the running game and the offensive line remain underwhelming.
So my guess is Brandon Peters will be given every opportunity to compete for the starting spot next year. Speight has had a solid season but trailed off as the year progressed, and if the future is on the roster there’s no reason to make him serve as an apprentice because of seniority. Especially with a whole new receiving corps to break in as well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Peters gets a long look in the spring game. I still think Speight has the edge simply because his ceiling seems to be #2/3 QB in the league, and this conference is winnable with that level of play in the right games.
Best: Swan Song for the Defense
Up front, yes there were a couple “how did you enjoy the play otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln” plays to discuss, namely the 3rd-and-22 run by Cook, the 92-yard TD where somebody in the secondary had the wrong play (my guess is Lewis, but it was suggested that maybe Michigan was going zone and in that case maybe there were multiple breakdowns and Lewis just got the short end of the stick in terms of help over the top). FSU also had a great call on Cook’s long completion in the first half when he lined up outside and just ran past McCray down the sideline. Peppers probably sticks closer to him, but that’s the definition of an RPS win for the offense. But outside of those 3 plays, FSU had 163 yards on 59 plays, an average of 2.8 ypp. That’s a pretty solid performance against a team that averaged 6.5 ypp coming into the game, and whose only worse performance offensively was probably their blitzing at the hands of Louisville.
The game-winning pass to Murray over Lewis was just a great pass and catch; those happen against all corners. Lewis could have just as easily gotten a hand on it (as he had earlier when Francois tried to beat him deep) and the game would have probably gone to OT. Doesn’t change the fact that the secondary played a really solid game overall, and I’m already fearing that twinge in my gut whenever the camera jerks downfield on a thrown ball, as I can no longer assume the receiver will be blanketed. Still, to see Lewis go from just another slightly undersized Cass Tech corner into an All-American was a joy, as was Stribling going from the guy who phased out of reality against Allen Robinson to a second-team all conference recipient. Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill also ended their careers well, with Thomas leading the team in tackles and PBUs in this game and Hill helped tamp down the FSU passing game (and I thought the PI he got called on for somewhat weak).
Considering Peppers was basically a gameday scratch, I thought Metellus filled in admirably. Cook was able to exploit the edge far more than I think he would have with Peppers on him, but for a true freshman making his first start, he didn’t turn into a liability. McCray had the game-turning pick-six after a nice play breaking on that pass, and while Cook beat him on that one deep ball he and Gedeon played their roles well enough to win. Yes, neither is an elite athlete, but they didn’t look overmatched out there.
As for the front line, in any other game they would have been the story. Taco Charlton was virtually unblockable in this game, as he has been for about a month, and hey, look, a team was actually called for offensive holding in this game, the first since Michigan played Illinois on October 22nd. Of course, there were half-dozen instances in this game (on both sides) where linemen just sat on defenders to slow them down, but I’ll take baby steps when it comes to calls like that. And I know FSU fans will point out that Cook had over 200 yards of total offense and scoff at the idea that he was “bottled up”, but again, down Peppers Cook had basically 2 big plays and not much else. Coming into the game, I’d take that, and it was largely due to guys like Wormley, Hurst, and Glasgow consistently getting penetration into the backfield. There’s obviously still talent coming back, but this was a championship defense if I’ve ever seen one.
Best: Kenny MFing Allen
Just bombing kicks all night, including the 61-yarder that Murray bobbled at the 1-yard line. For the game he averaged 47 yards a kick and consistently helped flip the field for Michigan. Plus, he nailed 3/3 on FG attempts, finishing the season on a 15-kick streak and further cementing how unpredictable college kickers can be. He’ll be missed.
Best: Quick Hits
Couple of quick points:
- I thought Harbaugh’s decision to go for 2 after the pick-six was debatable, since there was still so much of the game to go. At the same time, the offense hadn’t really worked at all up to that point, so you have to take points (and make it a FG game) if you can. It ultimately didn’t wind up mattering all that much because they got 2 on the last TD and, I assume, would have just kicked the extra point had they been up 2 instead of 1. I’m personally fine with it, but I can see why it wasn’t a slam-dunk call.
- I thought the pass interference call on FSU’s first TD drive was correct, but then later in the quarter Jake Butt was hit by a defender as he went up for the ball and the general arguments I heard were “a defender is allowed his space for the ball” and/or “it was uncatchable”. I buy the first more than the second, as the ball to Izzo was probably 4-5 feet above his head and was basically just as uncatchable, but a defender’s right to the ball doesn’t include hitting the receiver as you run toward the ball; some consistency is all I expect.
- Not having Peppers hurt immensely in the return game. There were so many of those line-drive kicks that he would have returned on the fly instead of Lewis’s (probably correct) decision to just catch and down the ball. In a game like this, those extra 10-15 yards on a couple of drives would have likely changed the outcome.
So that’s the season. 10-3, same as last year, ending on a bit of a down note but still a solid enough go of it. UM beat the Pac-12 South division champion by 17, the B1G West winner by 7, the B1G East winner by 39, stomped MSU, beat Rutgers by 78 points, and lost 3 games to ranked opponents by a combined 5 points and 2 of them when time expired/in OT. A lot of talent and experience needs to be replaced on this team, but there are players in the pipeline to do so, and there are enough pieces coming back that I don’t expect anything like MSU’s or Notre Dame’s 2016 seasons.
Don Brown’s defenses tend to improve mightily in year 2 and beyond, so one hopes that even with the substantial talent departure familiarity will offset that a bit. The defensive line won’t be stocked with All-Conference recipients as backups, but it should be solid and I expect Gary to make a huge leap forward in year 2, as will Hurst. I assume Peppers is gone, and Gedeon was solid for most of the year, but there is young talent at LB and I thought Bush showed solid improvement in limited snaps. McCray should have a good senior season as well. Losing Lewis, Thomas, Hill and Stribling will be a huge blow to the secondary, but if Clark comes back that gives you at least one semi-known commodity, and guys like Kinnel, Hill, Long, and Metellus all showed flashes on the field and/or in HS to give fans hope.
Offensively, I expect there to be heavy competition at QB, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Peters get starter-ish support going into fall camp. The offensive line needs to be figured out and, I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how many of those pieces are on the roster right now. I like to think some of the bad tendencies we’ve seen this year are just sort of baked into the formula after the transition away from Hoke, and that fresh blood will mitigate them, but we’ll have to wait and see. We saw in this game how a great back can paper over some mediocre blocking; there isn’t a Cook on this roster right now, but maybe Evans, Higdon, or Walker could make a semi-major step forward and at least give UM a threat in the backfield (I’m dubious right now, but it is a long offseason).
Next year’s schedule opens against Florida and has a couple scary road tests (@PSU, maybe @Wiscy), but they get both MSU and OSU at home at least.
I know some people are disappointed, but UM has now won 10 games for 2 straight years. The last time they did that? 2002 and 2003. The rebuilding is moving along, but it isn’t going to be instantaneous. Still, UM was a handful of plays away from an undefeated season, and if you had told me that after 2014 I’d have eaten a bag of lemons. Recruiting must close strongly and I assume it will, and then it’s on to 2017 and Jerry World.