[Ed-S: Probably going to bump this feature all year unless I forget to.]
Well, that’s one way to start a season.
Best: Roman Reign’d In
In my preseason preview, I cautioned that this column’s length is going to be much more dependent on the quality of the game compared to earlier seasons; life finds a way of limiting the number of hours you can dedicate matching animated gifs to a sporting event involving kids dangerously close to half your age or more.
While the acquitted themselves admirably against Cal to start the year, the Rainbow Warriors were basically what everyone thought they were. Hawaii has a senior QB with a career completion percentage a shade under 50%, a 19:24 TD:INT ratio, and no real mobility. They don’t really have much of a running game if the defense has any ability to hold up even momentarily at the point of attack, and if the guy throwing the ball doesn’t have good numbers, you gotta believe the guys trying to catch those balls aren’t particularly good either. Their defense last year was nestled between North Texas and Oregon St. in FEI, and that was with a couple of guys on the defensive line who were either injured or kicked off the team for this game. I balked at the 44-point spread for the sole reason that I assumed Hawaii would pick up a couple of meaningless points at the end of a blowout to “only” lose by 40.
That’s what would have happened under Carr. It’s what would have happened under Hoke. It wouldn’t have happened under RR simply because the defense would have given up some points along the way. It was about winning with “class”, about beating an inferior opponent soundly but not excessively. You showed up for the body bag games because you had to be part of the equation, the vengeful god smiting the peasants giving you tribute. That’s how Michigan did it for years, and it seemed to work out pretty well.
But Harbaugh ain’t wired like that. Now, he’s not a Steve Spurrier at Florida or an Urban Meyer at OSU, who took any opportunity to run the score up even if it meant going for 2 on your first two scores of the game. But as was his mantra at Stanford, he wants his teams with win with character, but also with cruelty. Harbaugh will put in his backups when appropriate and won’t necessarily “pick” on an opponent, but as we saw in the Citrus Bowl in which Jake Rudock was throwing bombs well into the 4th quarter of that game, he isn’t going to shrink his playbook or go on “cruise control”. He isn’t wired that way, to relent or show mercy in the patronizing way some other coaches do, and he (rightly) assumes that as long as there is time on the clock you play football.
[hit THE JUMP for complaining that a 98-yard touchdown drive should have gone better and stuff]
The 63 points were goosed a bit by two pick-sixes, but even when UM went up 49-0 thanks to Stribling’s pick, the very next UM drive featured a couple of nice O’Korn passes to his collection of TEs and FBs and a sweep with McDoom. It was the same offense you’d have seen in the first quarter of a game with all the starters, and because of UM’s depth and Harbaugh’s coaching acumen the production really didn’t deviate.
And that’s why I don’t have a huge problem with the number of true freshmen (17!) getting playing time this game; coaches recognize that guys can get hurt at a moment’s notice, and so getting some live-fire experience for guys on the depth chart is essential. Sure, a couple of these guys will pick up redshirts as the season progresses, but I’m assuming that a lot of the contributors we saw today are here for the season. And I’ve always felt that the 5th-year seniors can be a bit overrated at schools that recruit like UM. Maybe at Iowa, Wisconsin, or MSU (at least early on in Dantonio’s tenure), where having older guys who have been in your program for half a decade helps to offset some talent deficiencies, but at programs like UM, OSU, Alabama, etc., who recruit top classes almost every year, you don’t necessarily expect guys to stick around that long. Offensive linemen maybe, but most skill position guys are either going to test the NFL draft before then or (likely) be passed by a younger guy on the depth chart.
As for the offensive line, they clearly overmatched the small Hawaii front, opening holes for the RBs while not giving up a sack. They had some issues early on, it seemed, with identifying targets, but they settled down quickly and just started steamrolling people toward the end of the half. PSU looks like the first time they’ll really be challenged, but by then I’m assuming most of these kinks will be ironed out. The fact Harbaugh was able to cycle guys in and out without a noticeable drop in performance was a positive sign.
On the other side of the ball, the defense did what you expected of an elite unit. They choked out Hawaii drives all day, didn’t give up a first down for almost the entire first half, and outside of some small issues with spread formations with the backups in, looked like they knew Hawaii’s playbook better than the Warriors did. The first 6 drives of the game for Hawaii netted them –1, –7, 0, –13, 0, and 4 yards, and that second 0 resulted in Hill’s pick-six. The fact Hawaii strung together a couple of drives in the second half for positive yards was I guess Harbaugh taking his foot off the gas a smidge, but this was still a Hawaii team that recorded 482 yards against Cal despite 5(!!!) turnovers needing the most garbage of time to break 200.
So no surprises. If anything, I was probably disappointed early on because it didn’t look easy enough; I have a note that the 98-yard TD drive that opened scoring took too long and at some point featured Wilton Speight throwing a screen too high for Darboh (even though that resulted in a 31-yard game). 2014 year old me would kick my ass for complaining, but luckily I don’t believe time is a flat circle so that will never happen. But Harbaugh has raised expectations for this year, for this program, to dizzying heights, and for the first weekend of September, at least, he even found a way to exceed them.
Best: What Curse?
So Wilton Speight got the start this game, and so of course his first pass of the season was a pretty bad INT in which he didn’t seem to see the Hawaii defender between him and Jake Butt until it was too late. Only the most reactionary of fans thought much of this; UM proceeded to get the ball in 4 plays while moving Hawaii back 7 yards. But all we’ve heard about Al Borges’s legacy at UM is his turrible QB recruiting and development, and Wilton Speight basically represents the final test case for this proposition (even though Al Borges was gone before Speight got on campus).
But as we’ve seen Jim Harbaugh is perhaps the best QB coach in America; he’s certainly the best at being able to extract success from whatever pieces you hand him.
And after that INT, things turned around quickly. Speight finished his day 10/13 for 145 yards and 3 TDs along with that one interception. Shane Morris and John O’Korn each had their day under center end with perfection; Morris was 4/4, O’Korn 3/3.
The total yards aren’t going to jump off the screen simply because UM didn’t need to air the ball out, but after some early jitters Speight was efficient and extremely accurate, while displaying a bit more arm strength than you might have thought; he snuck in a couple of balls to Chesson in stride even with defenders nearby. In many ways, he looked like Rudock did toward the end of last year. He knew where the receivers would be and could get the ball to them with minimal disruption. That’s been Harbaugh’s M.O. wherever he coaches; he raises every guy’s floor so that at the bare minimum you are getting a competent starter who can guide your offense effectively. It’s what he did at Stanford with guys like Tavita Pritchard and a freshman Andrew Luck, it’s what he did with guys like Smith and Kaepernick with the 49ers, and it’s what he did with Rudock last year. You need to have a reasonable level of talent, but Harbaugh will 100% make you maximize it on the field.
I’m not sure if Speight will be a multi-year starter at UM; there is certainly a lot of competition on the roster now as well as in the incoming class, and while seniority and experience count for something Harbaugh doesn’t strike me as overly sentimental. He’s not going to pull a Brady Hoke and promise you a spot at the helm. But much like how there are certain offenses that allow a certain level of “plug-and-play” at the QB spot, the same is true for any QB you give to Jim Harbaugh. Speight’s just the next in a long line of examples.
Best: Captain America
First off, I’m suspecting that Google saw a weird search engine collision this weekend as people search for “Chris Evans” and realized the other Chris Evans starred in Not Another Teen Movie when Wolverine Evans was 4.
I will admit I hate the lazy journalism that has sprung up around the SEC over the past decade, the mythologizing of the South generally as the only place where elite athletes can be unearthed and where a different brand of “speed” exists. No one would argue with the assertion that teams in the SEC and ACC have fast, athletic players. But it’s always been this top-level argument, in which people look at Florida, Alabama, LSU, Florida State, and Clemson and proclaim that they have better athletes because of how they run roughshod over Wisconsin or MSU. Good athletes exist everywhere, and good programs recruit them. So what you see at a school like Alabama or OSU isn’t some innately better athlete as much as simply a higher concentration of them.
How does this relate to Chris Evans and Michigan? Well, for years UM has been recruiting “good” RBs, guys who can move the pile and make a cut and check all those boxes you expect to see for the position. But outside of Denard (as a QB) and maybe, sorta smattering of performances by guys like Fitzgerald Toussaint (though he seemed to lose a bit after his first leg injury) and Thomas Rawls, UM hasn’t had anyone in the position who seemed capable of making hard, decisive cuts and then accelerating through into the secondary the way Evans did on Saturday. Mike Hart could make the cuts but never was the type to run away from you. I remember senior Chris Perry being a nice combination of speed and size, but his iconic performance was throwing his body at MSU for 51 carries.
But Evans looks like a different type of back out there. For months fans heard about Evans being a revelation in practice and scrimmages and the general consensus was that he sounded great but probably would have a hard time seeing the field. Besides having a slew of other players at the position, Evans was also a bit of a positional vagabond; he’s probably a bit too small to be an every-down RB (5-11/186) and UM’s offense uses TEs where other teams rely on slot receivers. At best, I think most expected him to fill in the roll Peppers would have in the offense against elite teams. He’d come in for a set of plays, maybe take a sweep or catch a ball on a screen, and generally try to use his athleticism in space. He’d split carries with Isaac, Johnson, Higdon, and the rest of the corps, but a better-utilized Norfleet might have been his ceiling.
Yes, caveats galore about competition and the state of the game, but once Smith went down with his rib injury, Evans sort of took over. He showed an innate ability to follow his blocks (there was a run early in the second where he was on Bredeson’s hip and cut with his blocking that was quite impressive) and then bound through holes with elite speed. On that 43-yard TD run, he ran to the hole adjusted slightly, then burst past 4 Hawaii defenders as the announcer’s chimed in “Goodbye”. He’s never going to grind guys down, but he did seem to handle some contact well, including shaking off an ankle tackle on his other TD run.
Now, do I expect him to have as much success against Wisconsin, Iowa, MSU, or OSU? Nope. Hell, he might barely see the field in some of those games. But this also didn’t feel like a 1-off performance, a game where the stars aligned and a team that had flown three-quarters around the world in 10 days was running on fumes. Evans averaged 14 ypc; none of the other RBs averaged more than 5.8 (which is itself crazy), and had runs of 43, 21, and 18 yards. He looks like a guy who the coaches have to leave on the field at this point, even though Smith and Isaac should still get a lot of carries. But for the first time since Denard, it feels like UM has a gamebreaker in the backfield.
Best: Chesson Recovery
Yes, surgical procedures and recovery are at the point now where injuries that used to hamper players’ ability to perform (if not prematurely ending their careers) are basically off-season speedbumps, but when I saw Chesson make a couple of hard cuts with no apparent issues after undergoing PCL surgery only a couple of months ago, I was…
With Chesson healthy, the offense has a whole other gear. Butt is still great, Darboh is still going to murder corners on screens, and guys like McDoom and Perry will be great in the slot, but Chesson’s ability to just blow by guys makes everyone better, and he already looks to be on that wavelength with Speight that he had with Rudock to end the year. And this type of connection, this timing, is opponent agnostic; the windows will be smaller against better defenses, but the timing and accuracy shouldn’t waver too much. We likely won’t see them challenged until late this month, but right now the preseason prognostications saying UM had the best passing offense in the league is holding true.
Best: Still a Wall
As I noted earlier, the Rainbow Warriors were absolutely demolished in the first half of this game. Hell, they didn’t break positive total yards until their last drive of the half, and finished 2 quarters of football with a total of 55 yards on 39 plays. By comparison, Delano Hill’s interception was for 27 yards. Again, I understand all about the quality of the opponent, but even the Baby Seal U’s of the world would be surprised by that level of domination. For the game, UM had 10 TFLs for 52 yards, including 4 sacks for 41 yards, highlighted by the first 2 of Mike McCray’s career.
Even with Lewis, the secondary was suffocating, recording to pick-sixes and generally smothering the Hawaii receivers. I thought both Clark and Stribling looked solid; there doesn’t seem to be much separation between the two, and my guess is that on most teams in the league either would be considered a #1-type corner.
You definitely did see some growing pains; Hawaii had success throwing the ball to end the half by finding the soft areas in the zone, especially on shorter routes. UM also seemed to dial down the pressure at bit then, so maybe that was inevitable. UCF probably won’t challenge them, but Colorado has the makings of a good offense and should at least attempt to exploit some of these weaker points. Though as with everything said here, “weaker points” is probably overstating the problem. UM was down an All American at corner and certainly wasn’t breaking out anything particularly inventive and were still getting to the QB and into passing lanes seemingly at will.
And the increased aggressiveness, both in the play on the field as well as the schemes, definitely showed up in those two interceptions. Both Stribling and Hill read the play and were in positions to pick off those balls almost as soon as the ball was snapped, and for a team that was only okay at generating turnovers last year, it was nice to see them able to translate the dominant line play into big takeaways.
Worst: Poor Damn Bryan Mone
In addition to Jourdan Lewis, Maurice Hurst, and Ben Braden being held out for a lingering issues, UM had a couple of (minor) scares during the game. Smith left in the second quarter with an apparent rib injury, and Taco Charlton had an ankle issue that sounds like it won’t have any long-term effects. Basically, if the coaches thought you could use the day off, you were on the sidelines as soon as possible.
The only injury that seemed somewhat severe was (sigh) Bryan Mone, who left with another leg injury and apparently needs an MRI. The team has more than enough depth on the defensive line to deal with his absence, but you have to feel for a guy who everyone raves is a star in the making if only he could stay healthy. And the injury seemingly came out of nowhere; he was on the field during Stribling’s interception and then he was out for the day. Here’s hoping he’s able to recover and get back on the field for the start of the conference slate.
Best/Worst: The Rest of the Schedule
So that’s about it for Hawaii. Like I said, blowouts are hard to write about; Evans breaking out is a nice story and the defense looks as elite as ever, but this game played out exactly as most expected. But on this long weekend, I also watched a couple of other games featuring future opponents. You can’t take a whole lot away from some of these games, but I definitely saw a couple noteworthy things:
- OSU looks very good; I’d also pump the breaks on talk about their youth not being an issue. Meyer loves to put up big numbers to start the year, and jump-starting J.T. Barrett’s Heisman campaign was definitely in the cards. They look like one of the best teams in the nation, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. But anyone who reads this as a statement is definitely looking too deep.
- Penn State’s offense still looks janky. They only scored 26 points against Kent St., and other than Saquon Barkley looked like they are still lacking offensive playmakers. The defense does look solid (if a bit diminished after losing basically the entire defensive line), and they have a big kicker. Again, it’s early, but people keeping talking about Franklin’s offenses at Vanderbilt and I keep seeing QBs who can barely complete 50% of their passes and punted 6 times and turned it over on downs against a team that went 3-9 last year.
- Wisconsin looked impressive against LSU, though I’m definitely getting a “late Carr ” vibe coming off of LSU and Miles. They went 9-3 last year and lost to Alabama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss in rapid and uncompetitive succession, then barely got by a flagging A&M team before running over Texas Tech in a bowl game, a team that by its very definition is designed to be smashed into bits by LSU. The Tigers have all the talent in the world but the coaching, at least offensively, seems incredibly stunted; Fournette is a great back but you aren’t going to beat a bunch of teams when your QB averages 5 yards an attempt if you throw out a 31-yard completion to Fournette. On the other hand, Wisconsin’s offense had a hard time against LSU’s aggressive fronts, and the fact Bart Houston threw more TDs to LSU than his own team isn’t super-encouraging. But the Badgers look stout in the front 7, and I expect this game to be much more of a test than I did to start the year.
- Indiana is still TEAM CHAOS, but maybe now lower-case “chaos”. Redding is a good back, and Lagow looks able to lead the offense, but overall the team seems like combustible offensively, and when that’s your identity that’s not a good sign. Plus, it’s still Indiana’s defense. I suspect the Hoosiers will score 14-21 points; I just assume they’ll be down 30 for most of the game.
- Iowa was…Iowa. They looked fine against Miami (NTM), but let’s see how they play next week against ISU. That game is always goofy, and I’m not sold on Iowa being able to keep the magic going again. That said, the Hawkeyes have a solid offense with Beathard at QB and Wadley at RB, and they somehow picked up 3 fumbles yesterday. This remains the game (other than The Game) I’m most worried about.
- MSU played a game against Furman and won. The score wasn’t particularly impressive, but at no point did it seem like MSU would lose it. Sure, Furman got within 8 in the 4th quarter, but they still were pretty rickety. That said, boy do MSU’s corners look suspect. Hicks picked up a couple of PIs in between woofing at FCS receivers. LJ Scott is going to be a handful, but their offensive line definitely looks like it is in flux again, and both ND and Wisconsin loom for them. This felt like an 8-4 team to start the year, and that still feels about right.
Jebus, 3600 words about a game UM won by 60 AND UCF is up next? I assume the Knights will put up a bit more of a fight simply because they won’t be crossing a billion timezones to play in the Big House, but this is going to be another game where UM just steamrolls a team for a half. Maybe I’ll spend the second half looking for better gifs?