Best and Worst: Air Force

Submitted by bronxblue on September 18th, 2017 at 6:59 AM

Worst: I'm Sorry Dave, I'm Afraid We Won't Do That Again

As you all know, this was Dave Brandon's lasting legacy at Michigan, these weird OOC games where Michigan has to dedicate a week of the season to defending an offense they will almost assuredly never see again this year (unless Georgia Tech has one of those seasons where they keep rolling 7's and 11's and get to a BCS bowl). There's little to be gained and much to be lost, from potential knee injuries to, you know, football games. Win and congrats, you beat a bunch of undersized servicemen who are about as close to "student-athletes" as you can get in college football; lose and you'll get sent a bunch of Top Gun references from other fanbases because it's a great movie AND sweaty beach volleyball exists. It's like scheduling App St. as a "revenge" game, a macabre attempt to paper over 2007 with a soul-less thumping that just helped to remind everyone that, oh yeah, history was made the last time these two teams played.

So I've been writing this column for a long time, but I didn't remember whether or not I had written a column specifically for the Air Force game in 2012. So I went back through the archives and found out...yeah, I sorta lumped them into an OOC write-up and that was it. The general takeaway, for those uninterested in reading a discussion of an Al Borges offense or a weird eulogy about Denard Robinson that also points out how Michigan fans have always weirdly deified their QBs until the moment they struggle and then people are fighting over the last shovel to bury them with, is that playing a service academy is that it's "refreshing to watch a mid-sized David battle a slightly-larger Goliath for an afternoon, provided that Goliath doesn't, you know, lose." And in broad strokes, that same story played out in this game, though the margin was wider and Michigan was never in much actual danger of losing. Unlike in 2012, when Michigan barely outgained the Falcons (422 to 417), Air Force was rarely allowed to get into an offensive rhythm (359 to 232 yards), and as a result they had 2 drives of 12+ plays...and 7 that were 4 plays or less. Michigan was the much better team and played like it until they got into the red zone, which allowed the contest to appear closer than it was. I know I said this last week, but this is not 2013 all over again. Michigan is thoroughly outclassing these teams, but they're making just enough mistakes and having just enough bad luck that they look worse on paper. Case in point: Michigan scored on 7 of their 11 drives, but one was a TD on a punt return and the other a somewhat-meaningless TD to end the game. The rest of the time, they mostly moved into the redzone with few issues but then had to settle for chip-shot FGs (35, 26, 29, and 36 mixed with a 49-yarder just to keep everyone on their toes). Connect on a pass that's a little long or catch Air Force slanting at the right moment and this game looks and feels demonstrably different.

The defense remained stout throughout. Yes, there was that drive where Air Force was gashing Michigan on the edges and probably should have scored but for a missed FG. And yes, there was the one 64-yard completion for a TD where Kinnel just got lost. But that happens in games like this against the service academies; it's why they tend to have some of the nation's best rushing offenses as well as highly-rated passing attacks. You see a team run the ball 49 times, you're likely to bite once or twice on a fake. But still, Air Force finished the day averaging 3.4 ypc, a rate they haven't been held below by a non-Navy team since 2014, and that one completion was all they could muster in 9 attempts. And you know how I mentioned that Navy had 2 12+ play drives? Well, one was a 12 play, 24 yard(!!) slog after an Evans fumble that ended in a FG. Michigan struggled on the offensive side of the ball at times in this game, but let it be said that the defense dominated yet again. Claims of "serious concerns about the defense" shall be met with the following.

So yeah, I'm not even sure I'd call it an ugly game. Ugly games are

Denard vs. Notre Dame in 2012, or OOC games in 2013, or, well, the entire 2014 season. Those were ugly. This was just boring, a game where Michigan was better but never could put the hammer down, so everybody got to watch 48 minutes of a team trying to play an NFL-style offense poorly vs. a team running a really precise HS offense well. But now it's over, and may we never speak of it again. Oh wait...

 

Worst: Speight - Still Not a Scapegoat

Apparently I will be that guy this season, but this was another perfectly fine week by Wilton Speight. It wasn't great, it wasn't terrible, it was a workmanlike 61%, 7.4 ypa performance, with a couple of drops thrown in there to depress some of the top line numbers. Just like last week, it was a B/B+ performance in a game that Michigan again struggled to run the ball outside of Ty Isaac. If you throw out Isaac's 89 carries on 16 yards, this team rushed for 101 yards on 22 carries, a 4.6 ypc average. Of course, that includes that 36-yard Higdon run at the ass end of the 4th quarter, when Air Force and Michigan both knew the game was over but the strictures of the sport require people to ram into each other for a couple more minutes. Subtract that, and we're at 65 yards on 21 carries, a ghastly 3.1 ypc and a fumble against a defensive front that, while feisty and disciplined, was outweighed by about 50 lbs a person compared to the Michigan's offensive line. And this has been the case for the entire year; both Higdon and Evans averaged under 4 ypc coming into the game on 38 combined carries; that's about half of the total carries on the year up to that point. Sure, if you gave one of them 30 carries a game I'm sure they'd break a couple of long runs, but Evans's ypc has been halved (7.0 to 3.4) and Higdon's isn't much better (5.9 to 3.7) from last year, and neither has provided much else in terms of receiving or pass blocking (through credit to Higdon for taking out 2 guys on pass pro to give Speight time for a third-down conversion). Isaac left this game with an apparent "internal injury"; hopefully it doesn't keep him out of action heading to Purdue, since right now I'm honestly not sure this team can crack 4.0 ypc to carry without him. But that's for a later section; let's keep the focus on the QB.

What has gotten me about the Speight criticism isn't that it isn't at least partially correct. He has absolutely looked rattled out there at times, and his mechanics suffer. A handful of times a game, he doesn't get set properly and the ball can then sail on him. Beyond that, his timing seems off with his receivers and his touch can be insistent, leading to situations like his endzone lobs to Black and Crawford that were either too high or out of bounds. He has made some questionable decisions at times as well: he nearly fumbled the ball when he tried to flick it toward Isaac (?) as he was being tackled, he missed a wide-open Isaac on the ball he tried to inside-shoulder throw to Black on the sideline, he probably should have tried to run the ball in on the goalline instead of flick it Crawford. He has left points on that field, and since he provides virtually no additional offense beyond his arm, he needs to be better throwing the ball. These are all real complaints, real negatives to point out about his game and how it has helped to stymie what looks (on paper) to be a pretty good offense.

But what happens is that lots of people stop their analysis there. It becomes a "replace the QB, save the season", as if the guy who touches the ball every snap is somehow responsible for what the other 10 guys on the field do as well. What needs to follow is "And the offensive line can't seem to consistently provide pass protection or pick up a blitz. And the receivers seem unable to consistently get separation from defensive backs you'd charitably describe as 'short' and 'future pilots or pilot-related people'. And then drop a number of balls that do manage to get them. And the play calling has led to downs being set on fire to put the fear of a 2-yard jet sweep on tape, or throwing short slants 8 yards short of the endzone and expecting a receiver to make 3 guys miss, or try to establish the run inside despite ample evidence that isn't a strength." But that never happens. It's always that Speight is barely qualified to handle the water bottle that is given to the third-string QB in between the halves. And so you get the same refrains as always, that Brandon Peters or John O'Korn should replace Speight despite ample evidence neither is an improvement, just so that a team that has won every game this year by double digits wins by more than that. And in particular, I see people clamoring for Peters based on, I guess, some spring game tape and the idea that this is a "lost season" because, again, Michigan is only winning games by 16 points and not 40.

Worst: Third and Too Damn Long

A couple of years ago The Mathlete wrote a really interesting diary about 3rd-down conversions and how distance affects it. The average 3rd-down position to go was 6.5 yards; a good offense usually is a bit below that, and more times than not converts on 1st or 2nd down a good clip. A basic takeaway (and I really encourage you to read it) is that 3rd downs tell you more about how an offense performs in its "optimal" situation than necessarily how good they are on late-drive conversions; if you are an efficient offense, you don't get into 3rd down all that often and, when you do, you have advantageous positioning (a couple yards to go). Manageable yardage lets you keep your whole playbook available, it makes the defense a bit more guarded about pinning their ears back, and means you are (likely) limiting TFLs.

So I've been keeping account of Michigan's 3rd-down positioning thus far. Last year's Michigan team was a little above average; they converted around 43% on their 185 attempts; the national averages are 40% on 183. But this year they are down at 34%, 102nd in the country. And a big reason is they are facing pretty long odds; their average 3rd-down position is 7.4 yards; against Air Force it was 7.8. And yes, that 7.8 is goosed by a 3rd-and-21; you zero that out and they are around 6.3. But this remains a consistent problem for this offense; they can't seem to get on track consistently on 1st and 2nd down, so they're walking into these long conversion attempts with few options. Against Florida they were able to catch the Gators sleeping and convert on a couple nice Isaac runs on long 3rd downs. But that's not something you can rely on and, with the exception of Higdon's TD late on 3rd down, it really hasn't been replicated in the last two games. When you're staring down 3rd-and 8+ multiple times on a drive, the expected value from that drive is going to be low. Thus far Michigan has survived being behind the sticks because of the defense and opportunistic offensive output, but that's not going to continue forever. People will say that's on Speight, and some of it is in terms of the general struggles throwing the ball, but the offensive play calling at times has left the team in low-percentage plays that feel like burned downs, such as the multiple McDoom sweeps in the red zone. 7.4 yards feels abnormal and should settle a bit down as Michigan stops getting dumb penalties (they average 7 a game for 65 yards compared to 4.8 for 45 last year) and (one hopes) gets more into a rhythm earlier in the drive. But for this team to be successful offensively, they need to stop putting themselves in bad spots.

Worst: Ballin'

As noted above, Michigan can't seem the run the ball with any consistency. I saw people say "Air Force sells out against the run", which is a totally valid statement and was true in this game. But here's the thing - every team tries to stop the run. If the reason a team can't successfully move the ball on the ground beyond one player is "because the other team is trying to stop them", then stop playing football. It's Mike DeBord being surprised teams look different on film than in the game. Michigan should have been able to run the ball consistently against Cincy and Air Force despite them trying to doing what they can to slow down the Wolverines, and yet here we stand, 3 weeks into the season and your 2nd- and 3rd-leading rushers have a combined 135 yards on 38 carries. As a team they have 2 rushing touchdowns, which is the same number of rushing TDs as Brian Lewerke. I can go on, but you've got the point.

I want to believe this is just a series of bad luck, of guys missing a cut here, a free hitter there, and the law of large numbers holds up and Evans and Higdon start busting huge runs. That final TD by Higdon, for example, was Michigan catching Air Force guessing wrong and springing for a long run; repeat that in non-garbage time and we're cooking.

But then you see plays like that one near the goalline with Isaac, where a whole flight crew met him in the backfield so viciously that Speight just threw his arms up in shock and disbelief. It wasn't quite this bad, but it was close.

And with Ty Isaac possibly injured with various guts and bones moved around in unnatural ways, this team may well have to figure out their issues without the one consistent ground performer.

On the day, Air Force finished with 8 TFLs for 22 yards; they had another half-dozen stops for 0 or 1 yards. I know Air Force's defensive brand is disruption and getting past your line before it's set, but Michigan has given up an average of 8 TFLs a game this year, which is nearly 2 per game more than last season. And we're supposedly in the "easy" part of the schedule save for the Florida game; Michigan was averaging under 6 a game until OSU and FSU got them for 20. It's only going to get tougher going forward, and for all the coach speak and the semi-positive UFR scores, I still see a line that gets surprised by twists and blitzes, consistently lets a free runner to get the QB (Speight's long completion to Gentry, for example, required him to take a pretty big shot by a blitzing linebacker), and is generally playing below last year's level. Yes, Cole has been solid as ever at tackle, and Bredeson looks like a future all-conference player at either guard or tackle, but I'm starting to believe the ceiling for the running game (and the offensive line generally) is "a bit worse than last season". .

 

Worst: I Need a Hero

The other big takeaway from this game is that this team is still figuring out the WR position after Grant Perry. Speight tried to get the ball to Crawford a couple of times to little success; they had a badly-thrown ball in the endzone, that scramble-and-toss near the goalline that was well-defended, and just a bad drop on 3rd down that would have extended a 4th-quarter drive, another in a series of drops this year. Crawford also made some questionable decisions on kick returns (returning one pretty deep in the endzone out to the 15), and had a bad penalty that negated much of a long Isaac run. I feel like the staff is trying to force him into being a #1 receiver, but I really do think he's better as a complimentary player, especially on downfield routes.

McDoom was given some run in the second half, including a couple of short throws, and his incompletion in the endzone in the 4th felt like him and Speight just being a bit off on timing but was a good playcall nonetheless (Speight had the ball out before McDoom had fully broken inside, but it seemed like Eddie slowed down a bit as well). Black was starting to get into the game a bit more before his injury, which has reported as ranging from "slight sprain" to "broken foot". DPJ remains fast but raw; he's going to be a star one day but you can tell he's still a bit of a work in progress. Gentry had the customary "long completion to a tight end that they never go back to", and Perry again did Perry things.

But overall, it's another day where nobody really stood out. It was troubling to again see the announcers comment that the Michigan receivers couldn't seem to shake coverage. I don't have the endzone view so it's hard to tell on a given play if someone is realistically open (being 45 yards downfield may technically be "open", but not always relevant), but last year you saw Michigan try to air it down the field more than they have thus far, and it would have been nice for the past couple of weeks to see that become more a part of the offense. I am also somewhat puzzled by elements of the passing game that seem to rely on short completions and YAC; against both Cincy and Air Force, the one thing you don't want to do is get into sideline sprints with small guys running on constant motors. And yet, multiple times guys like McDoom, Perry, and Black were the first read on passes that ended almost immediately with a tackle for minimal gain. Speight had issues throwing jump balls in this game, but it would have been nice to see the team try more downfield throws and let their significantly taller athletes go up and get them.

Best: Sleepover

People (read: old newspaper writers and rival fans) made fun of Jim Harbaugh for his "sleepover" during Quinn Nordin's recruitment. Why spend that time and make such a show for a kicker? Well, Nordin is the third-leading scorer in the country and crushed another kick that would have been good from 55. You can tell the coaching staff realizes what they have in him, and while it may have made them slightly more conservative on 4th down, it has allowed the sputtering offense to come away with points more times than not. As the weather gets colder and less predictable I'm guessing they'll be some consternation on some long bombs, but Nordin gives this team some certainty on offense that they've lacked otherwise.

 

Best: The Defense, again

Every one of these posts has featured 5,000 words about the offense and then some hand-waving about "the defense looked really good". But honestly, they've been steadily dominant all year. As noted earlier, Air Force averaged 3.4 yards per carry on 49 attempts, for a total of 168 yards. Last year they averaged 320 yards per game. They had a handful of long-ish runs, but for the most part Michigan limited Air Force to single-digit rushes and racked up 9 TFLs for 49(!) yards, including 3 sacks for 27(!!) yards. Chase Winovich was a man possessed on the afternoon; after a particularly thunderous hit he popped up bleeding from his mouth and looking like an angry Viking who needs to taste blood to feel alive. Air Force, unsurprisingly, couldn't stay in front of anyone on the defensive line, and Gary and co. consistently held the edge and limited runs up the middle. Both McCray and Bush finished with a team-leading 11 tackles, and Bush in particular was consistently the first to make contact on runs. Kinnel was beaten on the one long TD, but otherwise Michigan's secondary was boring and helped to clean up plays that got past the front line. I want to say more, but watching Michigan's defense in this game reminded me of rock-paper-scissors where the offense likes to call rock a bunch and once the defense figures that out, it's a whole lot of paper. Yes, Air Force had that one nice drive in the second half where they were consistently gashing the edges of the defense; that's going to happen sometimes. In particular, you could tell Michigan had some troubles substituting guys in and out when tired/injured, and Air Force took advantage. And there were times when Michigan put 3 guys on the line when Air Force only needed a couple to convert, and yes that worked out exactly how you'd assume, but these are minor quibbles. A must truer test will be next week, when Purdue will try to test the team vertically like they haven't remotely thus far. My only caution is that Purdue has put the screws to a mediocre MAC outfit in Ohio and maybe the worst defense in college football in Mizzou. When the Boilermakers faced Louisville (themselves a pretty meh outfit), they averaged 4.5 yards per play and struggled to get much of anything going on the ground. Yes, Purdue will get some big plays against this defense, and my guess is I'll have more detailed observations about the secondary afterwards. But Purdue is a high-volume, moderately-efficient offense against anyone other than Ohio; that's not a recipe for success against a Michigan defense that kicks you off the field quickly.

Quick Hits

  • I am not a particularly old Michigan fan; I'm 36 but really only started to "care" about Michigan football when I was a freshman, and even then it took me a couple of years to actually get excited beyond the school spirit-level of excitement. But what I've seen over the years, especially when Michigan entered the Upside Down with RR and Hoke, has been this fanbase's primal desire to eat its own at the hint of trouble. Stevie Brown used to get it, then Tate Forcier, then Denard Robinson, then Devin Funchess, then Taylor Lewan, then Devin Gardner, and on and on. That's not to say players are above criticism, but there's this rabid, "All Takes Matter" contingent that wraps itself in the "Those Who Stay Will be Champions" trope and believe it grants them authority to pass judgment on players and their worthiness. And it's bullshit, and it'll never change.
  • Holding happens on basically every play in college football; I understand that refs can't call it every down. But good lord is it getting annoying to go 2 straight games and see, I think, one offensive holding by the other team. I guess I shouldn't be surprised with an option team, but Michigan is getting dinged for questionable calls all the time (there was another unnecessary roughness penalty on Bush, for example) while the opposition can basically bear-hug people.
  • DPJ finally broke one on the punt return after a couple of close ones earlier. He runs with that loping gait I remember Vince Young having in college; he seems like he's barely moving and then he's 10 yards past you. He also had a great run after a short pass to flip the field, again showing a rare combination of speed and elusiveness. I do wonder how long until he winds up as the kick returner; Crawford isn't very dynamic back there and it's rarely more than 4-5 additional touches a game. As he becomes more integrated into the offense, getting the ball in Peoples-Jones's hands in space is always a good idea

Bring on Purdue

This will be a game unlike any Michigan has played thus far this year. Purdue will play with tempo, they'll force Michigan's linebackers to cover in space, it will be a game where you will see a ball sail down the screen and hope someone in maize and blue is nearby. And on paper, Purdue's defense looks pretty good, at least compared to past seasons; they are about the national average on ypp, and the advanced stats are a bit more down but still a marked improvement over last year. But this will be a major test for them, because while Louisville has a dynamic offense, they also fumbled the ball 3 times and generally looked out of sorts independent of what Purdue was doing. But this is going to be Purdue's biggest home game of the year, and I fully expect them to put in a big effort. Michigan should still win, and I wouldn't be surprised if the offense broke out a bit, but my hope for a laid-back viewing experience is probably for naught.

Comments

Rabbit21

September 18th, 2017 at 7:42 AM ^

The one thing I was consistently surprised by during the game was how little separation the receivers were getting, given what we have been told over and over was a big upgrade in athleticism, that was a bit disappointing. I love my Falcons, but I don't expect to see them in blanket coverage all day unless it's a very rare USAFA team indeed. Beyond that I agree with the takes on the offense, it's just not in sync and the O-line not quite picking up a blitz seems to be a big reason why

bronxblue

September 18th, 2017 at 9:00 AM ^

They also struggled getting consistent breaks from Cincy last week too. The athletes are there to do it, so either they aren't running consistent routes, the playcalling is somehow hamstringing them, or when they are open the ball isn't getting there. My guess is all 3.

EGD

September 18th, 2017 at 9:59 AM ^

Since I was watching the game on TV, it's hard for me to really say what the problem is.  But here are a couple things I did notice:

1) AFA was playing a lot of off coverage--so it was man-to-man, but the CBs were giving large cushions to the receivers to compensate for the speed difference.  Yet they seemed to be disguising these coverages well enough so that Michigan couldn'tnecessarily count on a WR getting off coverage on any particular down.  A couple times M caught them in it and threw quick passes to the WRs for good run-after-catch gains.  But a couple other times AFA recovered to tackle immediately.  And throwing quckly to a WR at the line of scrimmage can obviously be very dangerous when you aren't sure what the corner is going to do. 

2) Both Cincinnati and Air Force had their linebackers shooting gaps and blitizing frequently, rather than playing more read & react style defense.  I have to think that negates much of the beneift M usually gets from play action.  

Michigan4Life

September 18th, 2017 at 10:28 AM ^

to route running. With the exception of Perry, the WRs are young and raw in route running.  They may be fast straight line but not necessarily shifty coming in/out of the break. 

I wished the recruiting sites would incude 3 cone and short shuttle drill times to get an idea of how quick they are. These two times are more important than the 40s IMO.

Year of Revenge II

September 18th, 2017 at 7:57 AM ^

Good write-up except for your defense of Speight.

Speight gonna Speight for now.  Stop if you would joining the chorus of those Cromagnons who cannot objectively appraise his performance because they do not favor replacing him with Peters. 

Peters is not replacing Speight. Get it? Take it to the bank.  That program, if there was such a thing, would have evidenced its seed in game #1. Nobody sane, including me, is calling for such a thing. 

Speight made no major mistakes, and had a serviceable game, but it was far from good.  If you have any doubt, ask him.  I'm sure he is not happy with his performance; I am sure he is happy with the win, as we all should be. But if you cannot see that the Speight we have is not leading us to the Big Ten title, then there is no hope for you.  You either do no understand sports, or you do but your emotions rule your brain and you should be playing somewhere other than the backfield.  (See "Read Your Guard") 

We need Speight to be Speight 2.0, or we are going down, perhaps even before PSU away, though I personally do not think so.  But to win 1 of 2 of PSU away and WI away, and to beat OSU at home, he is going to have to improve in several areas, most notably consistency.  If he does, we are probably golden, though it is obviously not all on him.  It's a team game.  The O-line better improve as well, or even Speight 2.0 probably won't save us.  

IMO, nobody understands this better than Speight and Harbaugh.  It's time more mgobloggers do as weill. Speight has it in him somewhere; let's hope he can bring it to the surface before PSU. We are going to need it.

mgogogadget

September 18th, 2017 at 8:43 AM ^

More than defending Speight, I feel like he's trying to provide counterargument to the overwhelming number of critcs who latch on to any and every mistake Wilton is making. In every game this year Speight has made some + plays that you don't see from the average college quarterback, but the fanbase is honing in on the mistakes because "we're winning by 16 instead of 40". The entireity of the 11-man offensive unit is playing below our expectations and probably their talent level, and the qb shouldn't have to shoulder the bulk of the blame. I'm increasingly becoming a critic of the coaching staff, in fact. I haven't seen an offensive gameplan that utilizes the unit's strengths while minimizing the impact of their weaknesses, and I'm curious as to why....

 

I agree with you that the team needs Speight 2.0, and also that he does in fact have it in him.

EGD

September 18th, 2017 at 10:18 AM ^

I actually thought this was the worst of the three games Speight has played.  Against Florida he really only made a few physical errors (the second INT and the overthrow to wide open Crawford being be most blaring examples).  Against Cincinnati, he still made a few physical errors--though not as bad--but also made concentration errors (the two fumbles).  

In this game, he actually made some bad decisions.  That weird flip to Crawford could have wound up in a turnover, that thing where he tried to throw the ball as he was being sacked probably should have been a turnover, and then he missed several open receivers.

I still have confidence in Speight and think he'll figure it out.  I can't imagine that he has somehow become worse at playing QB than he was last season.  Rather, I think the massive turnover on the offense and all the new young players has just created a lot of chaos for him and presented new things he needs to adjust to, and of course he is facing a lot more pass rush pressure this season than he was probably used to.  Fortunately the defense is good enough to carry us through for a while while the offense tries to get its shit together.

I also don't necessarily think we're going to see a linear improvement curve.  Hopefully Spegiht (and the rest of the offense) gets a little better against Purdue, a little more better against MSU, a little more better against Indiana, and is then playing at a high level in time for Penn State.  But maybe they'll look much improved one week, and then look bad again the week after, and so on.  Who knows?  That being the case, I am just happy to get these early wins--especially against teams like Air Force who absolutely can beat you if things go far enough south--and then see what we come up with later in the season after our new guys have had a chance to really gel.

bronxblue

September 18th, 2017 at 11:11 AM ^

To me, the ball to Crawford in the endzone was as good a try to make a play as any in a bad situation.  No way Speight is running that in from 7 yards out, and if Crawford had pulled back toward the back of the endzone I think he either pulls the DB with him (giving Speight some more room) or widens the gap so Speight has more options to get the ball to him.  The fumble as he was going down to the ground was a bad idea, but honestly, you see QBs do that all the time.  He also (probably) would have gotten away with an incompletion there had he not run into his lineman on the way down.  Not an excuse, though.

The progression for this offense falls on the line and the receivers at this point.  Speight is going to be who he is.  I think you can win a decent number of games and maybe even make the playoffs with him and this defense.  But that relies on the receiving corps being able to stretch the field, catch the balls thrown to them, and the offensive line keeping Speight upright and the backs clean in the backfield.  

EGD

September 18th, 2017 at 4:33 PM ^

I guess maybe I am just coming at this from a more conservative point of view.  I think our defense is playing so well that I'd rather take a sure 3 points rather than make a risky play going for the TD, at least in that Air Force game.  I didn't like those decisions because I thought they were unnecessary risks given the circumstances.  But I guess when you are out there competing, if you think you can make a play then you try to make it.  

Anyway, nice job again on your diary.  I know you have young kids so I really appreciate that you find time to put these together.

Gameboy

September 18th, 2017 at 12:19 PM ^

This is the problem.

People are howling "GET PETERS NOW!!!" on every high pass, when practically EVERY QB, including Brady, throws them. No INT's last two games and he is averaging 60% completions. He is doing okay. He is not great, but he is not the worst QB in Div 1 like people are sayiing.

I am far more worried about the line-play. The lack of consistent run game and redzone is really about the line. If we cannot dominate small D-line like AF, we are not going to have much chance against folks like OSU.

bronxblue

September 18th, 2017 at 4:14 PM ^

Yeah, it astounds me that people can watch college (or for that matter the NFL) and believe Speight is fundamentally a worse QB than the vast majority of guys who line up in that position.  He's not a star, but he throws a good ball and has helped move the offense in fits and spurts while, admittedly, having some bad throws.  But this is what a "good" QB sort of looks like, especially with an impossibly young group of receivers and a maturing offensive line.  Flip 2-3 bad throws/drops in this game and he's over 200 yards at, like, 64% completion percentage.  Those are good numbers.  And he has really been bailed out by his receivers these last two games; he's not getting those David Terrell/Braylon/Walker catches where you just lobbed it up and they pulled it down.

Again, I am fine if Speight and Peters battle it out for starting QB in 2018 and beyond.  But the idea that Michigan's problems begin and end with the QB is insane to me.

charblue.

September 19th, 2017 at 1:21 AM ^

is largely an attack on the inefficiency of the offense which is the actual problem this team has been experiencing, trying to convert drives with too many third and long situations. This manifests itself as bronxblue's analysis astutely notes in too many cases where nothing is happening on first and second downs to make it easier to extend drives.

Which means the gameplanning isn't necessarily the issue, it's the execution and discovering what your team does best consistently. Establishing consistency and confidence in any part of your running and passing game on early downs obviously drives and determines which third down package will work best to navigate downfield to complete a drive with a score.

Some plays are called to set up others, some plays are repeated after they are successful on both sides of the field, and some plays are called to see how the defense will react, so that the reaction can then be countered later on.

We tend to think of play-calling as a matter of creativity and deception, but most plays are designed simply to outnumber the defense in a gap or side of the field or take advantage of defensive alignment whether you do it through pre-snap movement or by simple formation.

The thing that I've noticed is that Michigan has had a number of potential big plays this year go awry early in games for one reason or another, by penalty or failed execution on a long pass, which then alters the demeanor and confidence of their play. A young offense needs to feel good about itself before it can really explore and do more things effectively. These are growing pains which occurred with this team two years ago when Rudock was starting. 

And so part of the fan base angst stems from that recollection and the belief that Speight's experience would mitigate the issues of breaking in a new Oline and receivers. But that hasn't happened, so the fear of tight contests against road opponents is now rising.

And if you can't establish your attack on first and second down regularly, you really do limit the play-calling aspect of the gameplan in order to advance the ball, become more efficient and obviously more big play reliant.

Goggles Paisano

September 18th, 2017 at 12:03 PM ^

Watching a lot of games around the country each week and one of my big takeaways is that there isn't a lot of great QB play going on right now.  Rosen has a golden arm but threw across his body toward the middle of the field on Saturday's loss at Memphis and it cost him a pick six. Sam Darnold is struggling a bit right now and Josh Allen at Wyoming, who many pundits have as the #2 player in next years Draft has been horrible.  Against Iowa Allen was 23-40 for 174 yds and 2 picks.  Against Oregon he was 9-24 for 64 yds and a pick.  I watched all of the Florida/Tenn game - Franks and Dormady both looked terrible and clueless most of the time.  

QB is the hardest position in sports and it takes all 11 guys to make the offense go.  Speight is the best option we have and is also an option that a high percentage of the 128 FBS would love to have.   I'm tired of the general bashing that he is taking as most of it is unwarranted and from people that say things that they know nothing about (it's not in this thread by the way).  I feel most comfortable when he is leading our team and I'm sure they will all get better as a unit as the season progresses.  

bronxblue

September 18th, 2017 at 4:27 PM ^

I think a big part of the problem is people see big numbers put up by guys likes McSorley and Randolph and sort of assume that's a good QB, even if there are innumerable factors involved (i.e. different offensive philosophies, opponent adjustments, luck, etc.).  Rosen has something like 1300 yards in 3 games; he also has to throw the ball because UCLA is terrible on the ground (102nd in the country) and defensively (123rd).  And he's played terrible defenses to boot.

Speight and the receivers will get better; we saw it with Rudock once Chesson and Darboh sort of emerged and everyone got on the same page.  I keep seeing "Speight has been in this system for a couple years now, and so he shouldn't struggle."  And sure, some of his throwing issues you'd have hoped would have been worked out.  But hsi receivers are, for the most part, in their first year in this offense (and even with Crawford and McDoom, the first serious playing time).  They have to figure this all out, and so he's going to have to wait for them a bit.

You Only Live Twice

September 18th, 2017 at 2:43 PM ^

Not with the substance of your remarks necessarily; I don't know enough to agree or disagree there.  I do believe the constant criticism is at the very least, unhelpful.  

Prior to this season starting, what was the expectation?  8-4 or 9-3 with the new crop of freshmen.  

I guess I don't see anything wrong with defending our quarterback and trusting that the coaching staff knows their jobs.   

TraumaRN

September 18th, 2017 at 8:02 AM ^

You briefly mentioned the receiver drops. Each game has had at least 2 drops that I can recall offhand. That's a big reason for offensive stalls in all 3 games so far. Not to pick on a single player but Crawford especially seems to have hands of stone at times. He dropped a pass that basically hit him in between the numbers in this game. If we're gonna pass blame around some has to go on the WR's as well. 

MadMatt

September 18th, 2017 at 8:32 AM ^

Thanks again for you interesting takes (and without the pro wrestiling allusions, thank God).  I look forward to your column after every game and will read it before even the front page content.

Worst: we got out-coached (WTF?!)  Harbaugh admitted as much when he said AF made better calls in the red zone.  Goes to show you that even the enthusiasm unknown to mankind will have off weeks.  I do like that fact he admitted it right away; seeing the problem is step one to solving the problem.

Best: explosive punt return.  How long did we tell ourselves that it was only a matter of time before Dennis Norfleet was gonna break one?  Never did.  How about Jabrille?  Only one against an overmatched opponent when the game was already won.  Maybe Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson and Mario Manningham spoiled us, but it seems we have had to wait a really long time for really talented returners to break one (accent on the "one," for their entire careers).  Now DPJ has his first return TD under his belt; maybe the next one can be in a close game against a Conference rival?  Please?

Not worst but kinda frustrating: another meh offensive line.  Good grief!  How long has it been since we didn't feel like the O line was going to limit how successful the offense could be?  Like every damn season since Jake Long graduated. It's been a parade of excuses: RR changing the offense, RR not recruting any dang O linemen, Darrell Funk's alleged coaching, Brady Hoke's 4 & 5 star recruits washing out en masse.  Meanwhile, Auburn won a NC with an O line even greener than the one we have now, and programs with an identity keep chugging along with lower rated recruits, like Wisconsin or Stanford.  (To say nothing of the death machines like Alabama or Ohio State).  This spans several coaching staffs and is getting very old.  Do we have to hire away Wisconsin's O-line coach?

Slightly disappointing: Rashan Gary.  Don't get me wrong.  He has been very good most of the time, and had 2 or 3 spectacular plays per game.  But let's be honest, there are several D-linemen in his class, or the true freshmen, who have played better.  That's just a tad disappointing for a guy who was the consensus best recruit in his class who flashes the kind of athletic skills he does in the combine tests.  Yes, he is headed towards an All Big Ten Team, but it feels more like second team or honorable mention, not first team (let alone All American).  Maybe I'm being unrealistic, but I was sorta hoping for Jadevon Clowney, or heck underclassmen Joey Bossa.

Best: linebacker/safety HSPs:  Wow! I didn't think it was possible after Peppers went to the draft, but as a unit the LB corps is even better than last year.

Worst: officiating (still).  I feel you BB on the uncalled holding.  I watched the replay of AF's TD, and sure enough the center had a handful of jersey under the DT's shoulder pad that you could clearly see as the DT tried to pull away from him.  C'mon, that one was obvious from 50 yards away.  In AF's defense, the pass was out so fast that I don't think the DT stops the play (unless he spooks the QB).  It would be refresshing to see the judgment calls go the same way (whether loose or tight) for both sides.

Best: 3-0 despite all of that. WGIBTU?!

NowTameInThe603

September 18th, 2017 at 10:40 AM ^

I do not know what Hurst motivation was to come back. Could have been to finish his degree, just enjoy one more year, or to raise his draft stock. If its the latter I think stats do play a factor. You need stats to get hype with the exception being Pepppers.

Peppers was a Heisman finalist which garners more hype than statistics.

Goggles Paisano

September 18th, 2017 at 12:09 PM ^

As far as the red-zone play calling that Harbaugh was referring to, I believe he meant we were in a RPO and Speight checked to a run when it should have been a pass and vice versa.  I don't think the issue is with play calling, but more with recognizing what the defense is going to do and getting into the right play.  I think he was just giving AF credit for disguising their intentions pre-snap.  

charblue.

September 19th, 2017 at 1:42 AM ^

this year, worse in the Cincinnati game than Air Force. But it appears as if Big Ten officials have secretly pledged to punish Michigan and back up their top crew after Harbaugh was fined last year for his remarks about the game calls against Ohio State.

How else do you explain the fact that Michigan which has never been penalty-prone has regularly committed more fouls than its opponent in all three games this year?

The holding call on Crawford during Isaac's TD run was awful when the same application of the rule is virtually ignored in line play. I will say there appears to be a point of emphasis among officiating crews in calling receivers for holding defenders during downfield blocks downfield.

That call was made in both the Oklahoma-OSU and the Clemson-Louisville games negating long or TD plays in both games.

Brimley

September 20th, 2017 at 1:11 PM ^

Your "returners who spolied us" list needs to begin with Anthony Carter and Steve Breaston.  I know you have to be old to remember AC, but Breaston, who 99% of us watched, was his equal in the return game, and that is HIGH praise.

M-Dog

September 18th, 2017 at 8:52 AM ^

Best: The maize on the unis all matches . . . helmet wings, jersey numbers, pants, even shoes and gloves.

All of it.

I thought this day would never come.

 

Rdog

September 18th, 2017 at 10:06 AM ^

Worst, offense is not fun to watch.  In fact, it reminds me a lot of watching Hoke's offenses after Denard.

Also worst-  Kickoff returns.  Crawford is not the right returner.

I think we are going to lose a couple games that will be disappointing because of our offense.   It is possible that it starts to click this year but we are 3 games in and not seeing a lot of improvement.    Crawford is not the guy, Speight should be looking for Perry first, then a TE, then Crawford.   

Speight should not try to throw fades, he just doesn't seem to have that skill.   I think that giving O'Korn some series in red zone would be worthwhile because having a QB who can run adds a dimension that makes it harder to defend.  Plus, O'Korn knows how to throw a fade.

Y-UM

September 18th, 2017 at 10:28 AM ^

"contingent that wraps itself in the "Those Who Stay Will be Champions" trope and believe it grants them authority to pass judgment on players and their worthiness. And it's bullshit, and it'll never change."

I wonder if the people internetly screaming at Spaeight realize that their predessors were at a bar screaming at Devin Gardner, Denard Robinson, Tom Brady, Rick Leach, Steve Smith.

When I was young, I decided that having strong, fierce judgments proved I was strong and fierce myself. I learned better.

 

 

DualThreat

September 18th, 2017 at 10:43 AM ^

Thanks again for taking the time to do this!  Phenominal writing.

This statement always strikes a chord with me: "I want to believe this is just a series of bad luck, of guys missing a cut here, a free hitter there,..."

I hear this over and over from different folks, but at what point is it a fundamental flaw of your offense that you depend on everything going right for it to be successful?  I'd rather Michigan play a style of offense that spreads the field, puts players in space, and minimizes the dependencies of everything going right from play to play.

bronxblue

September 18th, 2017 at 11:19 AM ^

I think the offense works fine when running properly.  There are always points of failure on a team; OSU has talent out of its ears on offense, but when Barrett struggles throwing the ball they are a mess.  It'll be interesting to see how PSU looks if Barkley is slowed down; they didn't look great against Pitt and a part of that was they couldn't consistently run the ball.  I think Michigan's problem is lots of different parts are having issues offensively.  Usually you can gameplan around 1, but if your line struggles against the blitz AND your running backs can't consistently gash aggressive fronts AND your receivers have trouble getting open AND your QB struggles with accuracy issues, you're in trouble.  I honestly think if half of these issues didn't exist, Michigna would be much farther along offensively.  You just have to hope it gets remedied over time.

reshp1

September 18th, 2017 at 11:24 AM ^

"If you throw out Isaac's 89 carries on 16 yards, this team rushed for 101 yards on 22 carries, a 4.6 ypc average. Of course, that includes that 36-yard Higdon run at the ass end of the 4th quarter, when Air Force and Michigan both knew the game was over but the strictures of the sport require people to ram into each other for a couple more minutes. Subtract that, and we're at 65 yards on 21 carries, a ghastly 3.1 ypc"

 

That's a lot of adjusting of the raw numbers to get it down to where you want to make the point you want. The yardstick for acceptable YPC is set with all the long runs factored in as well to offset the stuffs, so it's not really fair to cherry pick out the big ones. That's doubly true against Air Force since they are so boom and bust. I think we can run the ball better, but I don't think it's that much of a sore spot. My worry is more that we're not able to punish teams for over playing the run more than we have. The coaches have seemed all to willing to keep stuffing it into a stacked front over and over instead of reacting and countering.

jackw8542

September 18th, 2017 at 12:15 PM ^

And 2 long Isaac runs were substantially reduced, one because he barely brushed the sideline and the other because Crawford made a totally boneheaded hold that was also totally unnecessary, as Isaac was already essentially past the defender with a good stiff arm.

It is hard to blame offensive struggles on Speight when neither Evans nor Higdon can do much of anything (except for Higdon's one long run).  The thought before the season started was that both would be doing better than Isaac and at least somewhere around where they were last year on YPA and more carries.  But, neither seems to be able to come anywhere close to expectations, and I cannot believe it is all on them, anymore than I can believe it is all on Speight.  Looking for all new receivers - who have speeds and moves different than last year's receivers - has to be as difficult as running behind linemen who move a little differently than last year's linemen.  It takes time.  Let's hope that there is improvement as everyone gets to know everyone else a little better.

Gameboy

September 18th, 2017 at 12:26 PM ^

Redzone effieciency is all about being able to run in confined spaces. We are not doing that right now and thus our crap RZ effeciency. All you need is one guy to slip through the line to blow up a play and there are way too many of these "one-off" mistakes to get consistent run game without bouncing to the outside.

You Only Live Twice

September 18th, 2017 at 2:59 PM ^

have we had that were CALLED BACK in 3 games... 3, 4?

Against Cinci Grant Perry CAUGHT a Wilton Speight pass that the refs ruled incomplete.

I'm over the whole ref situation, accepting that we need a 7-10 point ref cushion for every game.  What I think is getting overlooked in conversation is that

1) the team has improved in resiliency each year.  The bad calls don't kill the momentum of the entire game (maybe a series) - Speight and the team play to win up until the last second is off the clock.  This alone is very heartening to see.

2) Reverse those ref calls, give us the TDs and Speight looks a whole lot better.

bronxblue

September 18th, 2017 at 4:39 PM ^

My point was that Isaac has been the only consistently rusher on this team.  What I don't like about YPC is that it's just blind division; it lacks much context or nuance.  Higdon had runs of 1, 3, 6, 2, 1, 4, 0, 3, 3, 3, 2, and 36.  The average is 5.3 ypc with a median of 3.  To me, the latter is WAY closer to telling the true story of his day than the prior.  But yes, he absolutely did have one great run, and you can't completely discount it regardless of when it happened.

I don't disagree that they should be better, but I also don't agree with "Air Force is aggressive against the run."  That is 100% true; it also really shouldn't matter.  Michigan shouldn't struggle to run the ball against a team full of, in Brian's words, angry squirrels they outweigh but hundreds of pounds.  And it's been 3 weeks now where everyone not named Isaac have struggled to get consistent yardage on the ground.  That's the bigger issue I'm going to.

reshp1

September 19th, 2017 at 8:46 AM ^

My point is the metrics and rules of thumb we use for what YPC amounts to a good running game have the long runs baked in. You can't just excise the long ones and say "3 YPC, that's terrible" because 3 YPC with long runs taken out might actually be pretty decent compared to the national average.

I totally disagree that it shouldn't matter because air force is undersized. Brown's defenses at his previous stops have run similar hell for leather type schemes with undersized, less talented players and been very effective. You can trade size for momentum, numbers, and confusion and be very successful 95% of the time. Michigan just also happened to not really capitalize on the 5% (although they were very close on a few occasions).

bronxblue

September 20th, 2017 at 10:58 AM ^

I excised 1 long run from Higdon's numbers because, as noted, he really didn't do much beyond that.  YPC is a semi-useful statistic over a long season because, yes, those long runs get baked in.  But with a sample size of 10 or 11, a 36-yarder at the end of a game when both sides are basically running out the clock is an outlier that should be factored out.  Had Higdon been consistently running for 4-5 yards a carry, which isn't particularly crazy number for a consistent running team, then sure.  But he basically averaged 2.5 yards on 11 other carries in that game.  And thus far in the season, neither Evans nor Higdon have done anything consistently on the ground, despite facing three different defenses with 3 different styles.  

I understand teams try to confuse people and that you have to punish them when that confusion and break-neck approach is wrong.  But I disagree with the idea that style matters when analyzied how anemic this rush offense is.  It's been 3 outings where nobody other than Isaac has been remotely consistent despite him only getting a plurality of carries; other guys have had chances are struggled.  That could well be bad luck, but it's weird one guy has all the luck any nobody else.  And Brown's defenses were very good against mediocre offenses; he struggled like anyone against your Clemson's, FSU's, and Louisville's.  Michigan should be closer to that category of teams than NC State, so breakneck or not when you've got 50 pounds on a guy and untold resource advantages, you should have some basic level of success regardless.

Erik_in_Dayton

September 18th, 2017 at 11:51 AM ^

I particularly appreciate these after an angst-inducing game.

On another note, has Michigan run a screen to a running back yet this year? It seems like a natural reaction to the pressure Speight is under.