Formation/Substitution Notes: Nothing of note this week. All of the easily identifiable personnel stayed the same: Thomas and Hawkins as returners on kick with one of them plus Mason forming the two-man wedge, Peoples-Jones at punt returner, Robbins as the punter and Poggi the personal protector in a pro-style punt, and Foug and friends on kickoff. There’s not much to talk about in this section, so I’ll leave you with something that does warrant discussion: a Michigan kick returner creating something out of nothing.
[Large enough sample size to draw early conclusions about the kick return unit after THE JUMP]
|Any kick that doesn't allow Barkley a chance to touch the ball is a good idea.|
|Barkley fields it two yards into his own end zone and doesn't get it to the 25, so that's a plus. Glasgow has a chance to take him down at the 11 but Barkley sidesteps him. Is it really fair to neg a guy three yards when trying to take down Barkley in the open field? 3r14 Doesn't seem like it. He steers Barkley into Mason and Ross, who does a particularly nice job stringing this out to the sideline.|
|Driven two yards into the end zone and Barkley thinks better of taking it out this time. Guessing a bit at the coverage team's positioning at reception since they're out of the frame but it's an educated guess based on reactions from PSU players at the edge of the frame.|
|Straightforward plunge into the middle of the established blocking. Thomas does a nice job to hustle over, but when it comes time to pick who to block he doubles the one who's already blocked and leaves open the guy who makes the tackle (-7yds). If Thomas gets in front of the unblocked man this gets to at least the 30-yard line. Crediting Hawkins with +3yds on the return because of his ability to drag guys once they've made contact.|
|Speed does indeed kill, but what really kills is intelligent running. Thomas indicates with his head that he's going to steer left but somehow still moves forward three yards before dropping back one to move laterally. This one-yard drop causes him to go through the arms of Andre Robinson. Hawkins (+28yds) throws an excellent block to remove the only other tackling threat between the 15- and 43-yard lines.|
|Hawkins catches it a few yards into the end zone and kneels.|
|Same as the last kickoff except this time Hawkins muffs it. He's deep enough in the end zone that it's never a threat to get out; he picks it back up and takes the touchback.|
|Penn State obviously had a plan and sure, keep kicking it to Hawkins. Good vision to see where his blockers are going to create a semi-wall for him, and he decides to work off that to his right. He's moving laterally when he sees that Woods has lost his block, so he cuts hard upfield. Woods tries to recover and gets a guy low while Hawkins simultaneously runs through an arm tackle. He's slowed up enough, though, that the next wave of attackers are one yard away.|
|Davis again kicks right, but this time Michigan has swapped Thomas and Hawkins. Thomas catches it with his back foot on the goal line and takes it. The first 10 yards a gimme due to coverage team penetration, but everything after that is credited to Thomas. Both Hawkins and Mason miss their blocks, but Thomas glides around those and tightropes his way up the sideline.|
|Thomas could kneel and put Michigan in better field position, but I guess I don't have a problem with a guy who's feeling it taking the ball within this context (i.e. late in a blowout). Hewlett misses a block on Andre Robinson, who pulls Thomas down with one arm at the 15. If he's blocked, Thomas has a lane up the middle and just the kicker between him and the end zone. Giving Hewlett the benefit of the doubt since the lane closes quickly, but this is at minimum a 10-yard loss.|
|The punt keeps drifting to the right but the one guy near DPJ (Watson) has inside leverage on the gunner, so the gunner has a free shot at Peoples-Jones. He's able to bring the punt in despite the man in his face, but it catches him stepping back. With no forward momentum and a gunner within a yard of him, Peoples-Jones is spun out of bounds.|
|Michigan brings pressure and appears to be a split second away from blocking it, but thanks to a late cut from the director we have no idea how the pressure got there. Hudson got through the shield and had an arm out, but he doesn't make contact. Hits at the 31, DPJ calls the clear out, and the ball rolls to the Michigan 26 (Ball -5yds)|
|Excellent play by McDoom to force the returner toward the sideline with his positioning, and more impressive yet that he's able to run him down from behind. Worth noting that the ball bounced at the 37 (+7yds), and was fielded off a hop at the 30, hence the discrepancy between in-air yards and the spot.|
|Looks pretty returnable as there are two Michigan defenders in the vicinity and one is being doubled, but the returner calls for a fair catch anyway. It looked like Cheeseman was closing on the returner quickly; I self-timed the hang-time at 3.8 seconds, so that is likely what caused the FC on a punt that wasn't spectacularly long.|
|Thompkins calls for the fair catch at the 10, then the ball bounces directly to his right. It takes a disadvantageous bounce, but at least the coverage was excellent; there were four Wolverines surrounding Thompkins with no PSU players to block for him.|
|Not much hang-time on this, as I clocked it at just 3.5 seconds. Given that, it’s understandable that Michigan is lacking coverage guys downfield; Penn State looked like they were bringing nine at the snap (they sent eight). There's no one within ten yards of Thompkins in any direction. He chooses to take if up the left sideline, and the coverage team converges on him at midfield. Worth nothing that he took it up the sideline of the hash it was punted from.|
|Bounces and Glasgow snags it out of the air to down it at the 20. Thompkins just cleared his guys out and let it happen, as you'd expect.|
|Fair catch called with a Michigan player in Thompkins' face. About as uneventful as punts get, which isn't a complaint.|
You owe Ambry Thomas and Brad Hawkins a thank you note.
For? I am a dispassionate and objective observer. How dare you insinuate that I might have any interest in the gentlemen in the winged helmets performing athletic feats with relatively more success than those in the white helmets.
Jeez, a little sensitive about that? I meant because they did your job for you.
Yeah, they certainly made clear what the crux of this piece would be. This was a really uneventful game for half of the special teams, and even then one really stood above the rest.
Foug was his usual self, booting everything into the end zone. Barkley tried to return one, was taken down 10 yards short of where he would have gotten by just kneeling (and almost was taken down four yards behind that thanks to a slashing Jordan Glasgow), and didn’t try to return it again. This position is heavily dependent on offense, so Barkley’s chances were naturally limited.
One real surprise was Donovan Peoples-Jones’ limited punt return opportunities. I thought this would end up in the neighborhood of 17-10 with plenty of punts on both sides. Gillikin’s record indicates that a lot of those would have likely been fair catches, but Peoples-Jones only having two chances? Didn’t see that coming. One was a clear out and the other drifted so far as to pretty much pull DPJ out of bounds, so not much to talk about here.
|The ball||0||0||-5||-5||-19 (3gm)|
Brad Robbins was generally good, not great. The one time he was asked to punt from just across midfield he was able to put it inside the 20, but only by two yards. Understandable considering his youth, but his biggest area for improvement is obviously touch, followed by placement. He boomed a bunch of kicks that resulted in fair catches, FWIW. The one time he kicked a low burner it was returned 18 yards; Michigan needs Robbins and his typically high hang-time because of the pro-style punt formation they use, as was evident here when Penn State looked like they were going to bring pressure.
|The ball||7||3||4||34 (3gm)|
Which brings us to kick return. Or, more specifically, kick returners. The numbers this week are worth exploring. First, let’s take a look at the ch—
Yes, the chart.
A tradition unlike any other.
The only upside to getting blown out is a chance for all the freshmen on kick return to get live reps; this was the game where you could see what Partridge was talking about when he said that Thomas, Hawkins, and Mason were progressing in their feel for working together (two of the three form the two-man wedge and are the first line of blocking for the returner).
Let’s work through the returns chronologically:
Penn State starts by kicking the ball to Hawkins, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time. As we’ll see by the end of the game, it isn’t. Michigan’s not placing a guy back there who can’t return kicks, though he’s certainly more of a power returner to complement Thomas’ pure speed. On that note, Thomas uses said speed to get across the field and in position to throw a block. The problem is that he chooses that wrong one.
Still docked Thomas seven yards for this but it’s not that surprising considering the circumstances, particularly youth in general and speed that causes him to almost overrun this in particular. Hawkins ends up stepping through the tackle of the unblocked guy in the hole, but he’s eventually taken down by the player coming off Mason’s block and two others. This run encapsulates what I like most about Hawkins as a returner: he may not make a guy miss, but he’s powerful enough to drive through arm tackles and pick up a few extra yards.
Penn State then decides to kick to Ambry Thomas. It takes 13 seconds for them to change their minds, and they don’t take the risk of putting it in Thomas’ hands again until the game is out of reach in the fourth quarter.
Tarik Black may be out for the year, but watch that return and tell me you don’t hear Santana’s guitar solo kick in at the 12-yard line. Thomas looks at what he has in the middle, continues ahead for a few yards, and then puts his foot in the ground and is off to the sideline. Thomas’ foot-plant isn’t the kind of foot stomp you typically see even from skill players but rather a single tap that instantly turns Thomas perpendicular to the attacking PSU players seemingly without any loss in speed. I credited Hawkins with 28 yards for the crushing block he threw that allowed Thomas to get the sideline, and I credited Thomas with all 43 yards because he could have kneeled but instead saw something in his blocking in a split second and, you know, MAKE PLAYS and such.
This kick is sliced hard to the right, and that’s no coincidence. You can see that Hawkins eventually spots a lane and tries to turn it upfield, but he’s not quite twitchy enough to change directions and gain speed before two guys converge on him.
Again, strength’s not a concern. Ol’ J’Marick Woods hesitates for a second before choosing to lay the wood on the guy I drew a line through above, which allows #11 (above Woods in the screen cap) a free shot at Hawkins. That guy goes high and Hawkins runs right through his tackle. A shoestring tug from Woods’ guy slows Hawkins enough to be stopped by the next two PSU defenders; once again, it takes multiple guys to get Hawkins down.
Penn State tries to kick it to the right corner again and finds Thomas there instead of Hawkins. Well played by Michigan’s ST coaches. Hawkins and Mason form their wedge, then Mason takes a bad angle and Hawkins hesitates long enough that he never even gets a hand on the guy he should be blocking. Thomas saves them from picking up negative yardage by getting to the sideline quickly. Like, really quickly. So quickly that he gets from the wedge to the kicker in two seconds*. He might have been able to change directions and get inside here considering his ability to glide through cuts, but I can understand lowering the shoulder and trying to blow up a kicker as well.
*There’s a Michigan player at the 20 who throws enough of a block to trip up the one guy who could shove Thomas out before the kicker, but I can’t see the number and thus can’t credit him with yardage gained.
Mason gets so far inside here because he thinks that the blocks on the right are set. This turns out to be incorrect, as Hewlett whiffs on Andre Robinson, who, it should be noted, looks like a literal giant from the skycam. Thomas tries to alter his direction by weaving a bit further to the left in the big lane that’s opened in front of him, but Robinson connects and takes him down.
At full speed it looks like Thomas just gets taken out, but slowed down you can see him try to widen his path here.
What does it mean for Rutgers and beyond?
Thomas and Hawkins are going to be an excellent tandem and hey wouldn’t you like it if there’s only one return to add to the pile of evidence this week.
Foug’s excellent hang-time and the coverage team’s speed have created a true plus unit. If Saquan freaking Barkley sees a lane good enough to carry out of the end zone and only get 15 yards, you’re a borderline elite squad.
Robbins is about what we thought he’d be. He gets big hang-time most of the time, and when he doesn’t he puts the coverage team in a schematically-designed tight spot. Directional punting will presumably come with time, but that’s worth keeping an eye on since it’s so important to what Michigan wants to do on punt.
Donovan Peoples-Jones is the punt returner. That’s all I have to work with from last week.