Man, I was really looking forward to this game needing a lot less discussion.
Best: It's a win
It was an ugly game after a big win last week. If people want to rend garments after a 22-point win, then by all means do so. That's their choice. But at no point would I classify this as a "game" in the sense Michigan was in danger of losing. This wasn't Akron or UConn circa 2013, two games I've seen people reference because they sorta resemble the outcome here in the broadest of strokes. And I am here to say that is categorically not the case here. Those games were bad teams playing poorly; this was a good team having a bad day. Go back and look at those box scores, look at those drive charts. Those were games where (seemingly) inferior teams were going toe-to-toe with Michgian and winning a number of individual and schematic battles. I almost pulled an Event Horizon watching those two games because of how impotent Michigan looked on both sides of the ball, to the point that Akron put up 418 yards of total offense, their third highest total of the year after ULL(!) and Ball State(!!).
Contrast all that with this game. Cincy got exactly 200 yards of offense; Michigan doubled them up with 414 yards. Cincinnati had a total of 13 first downs; almost as many came on penalties (3) as rushes (4). For the game, they averaged 2.9 yards per play (and if you factor out that yakety sax fumble-turned-safety, it's still just 3.3 ypp); Michigan averaged 6.3. This was closer to games like Ball State 2006, EMU 2007, Northern Illinois in 2005,Miami (NTM) 2001, etc. Hell, the first game I attended at Michigan Stadium was the 1995 game against Miami (NTM) wherein Michigan let the Red Hawks hang around well into the 2nd half before putting them away. My point is they were all games where Michigan was the more talented team but played down to the competition to varying degrees, whether it be by turning the ball over, failing to convert on 3rd downs, taking too many penalties, playing poorly in the secondary or along the defensive line, etc. They were never really in danger of losing these games, but the opposition was allowed to hang around due to a number of self-inflicted wounds by the Wolverines.
Off the bat, I'll say the defense played quite well (again) save for a handful of blown coverages or poor positioning/tackling. So the focus here will be on the offense. Here's the quick recap: the Bearcats were supposed to be an easy win, a chance to "clear the benches" and get some guys a couple of snaps against an overmatched squad that struggled to beat a terrible FCS team last week. Michigan had just come off a big win against Florida, limiting a mediocre offense to 11 yards on the ground and not much more in the air. But it was obviously pretty early on that this wasn't going to be a cakewalk, or at least Cincinatti wasn't a Baby Seal U opponent. The first Michigan drive was masterful, with a nice mix of running by Isaac and passing by Speight leading to a long TD by Crawford. But even then, you saw the Bearcats getting some pressure without dedicating lots of rushers, and that would be an ongoing theme. Their offense was just anemic, and Michigan capitalized with a pick-six. Michigan's next two drives didn't amount to much, with a bad 3-and-out and then an errant punt allowed to bounce off a Michigan player giving Cincy great field position they ultimately capitalized on for a TD. The subsequent drive started well, with a DPJ run flipping the field, but it sputtered out in the red zone after a bad exchange between Speight and Isaac and some missed/tightly covered passes. The next drive featured another fumble on a jet sweep with Crawford. And that was basically the story for the rest of the quarter; nobody but Isaac could really get going on the ground, and Speight was fine but never really pushed the ball downfield. And all the while, Cincinatti couldn't do much offensively while their speedy, undersized front 7 either got into the backfield or snuffed out plays for minimal gain. Oh yeah, and Michigan kept taking dumb penalties like illegal substitutions and holding penalties on kickoffs.
The second half started the same as the first; Cincy scored on a long drive, then Isaac got a couple nice runs, Speight and the receivers couldn't get on the same page, and Michigan kept taking dumb penalties like Ulizio getting a 15-yard unsportsmanlike for (it seemed) some extracurricular activities after getting beat. Cincinatti didn't really do much (though good lord did Brock Huard want any possible reason to claim the Bearcats were definitely, totally in this game), but the score stayed close. Then Speight got a long ball to Gentry, another to Perry for his second TD of the game, and the game was basically over. The only interesting part left was another pick-six and Rashan Gary getting called for a borderline roughing the passer and a totally insane targeting (before they rightfully reversed that) call that led to the utter destruction of Cincy's QB for the remainder of that drive. Oh, and Luke Fickell somehow deciding to huddle before punting down 2 TDs around midfield, then in the mad rush to get set up seeing the punt sail by his unsuspecting punter into the endzone for a safety. Because like former Alabama assistant coaches, OSU assistant coaches are probably poor copies of the original.
I know I'm going to be reiterating this throughout the rest of this diary, so you've been warned, but this was just a messy game by a good team, facing an opponent unusually prepared for them. Remember, Luke Fickell had been a coach at OSU since 2002; he's been preparing to defend every permutation of Michigan football for 15 years. Sure he doesn't have the athletes to fully implement his gameplan, but it's safe to assume that he saw tendencies and deficiencies in Michigan's team that probably would have been missed during your usual prep week, and did his best to exploit them. We make a big deal about Jeff Brohm and what he's done to turn Purdue into a competent club after the tire fire last year, but Fickell is a good defensive coach and this team went to a bowl game 2 years ago and won 10, 10, 9, and 9 games before that. They were bad last year, but the bones of a competent team are still there, and they seem to have an identity on defense and enough speed to give it some teeth. And just like last week, this is still a very young team, especially offensively, and those questions you had about the offensive line, RB, QB, and receiver didn't suddenly fix themselves in 7 days. Ulizio still seems a bit lost out there (though better than last week) and had trouble with outside speed, and there were communication breakdowns as the Bearcats consistently found success with stunts and delayed blitzes, and had success limiting outside runs by outrunning linemen to spots. Isaac continues his renaissance, but both Higdon and Evans averaged 3 yards a carry and still seem to be finding their sea legs a bit behind this rejiggered line. Speight had a couple of bad throws but there were a couple of plays where it was clear either the receiver didn't run the expected route or went to slow/shallow. And later in the game, Michigan seemed to deal with some of Cincy's pressure by leaving more guys into block longer, creating passing downs with maybe 2 receivers and a late-releasing TE or back as the only options.
And yet, Michigan won this game by 22 points. Cincinatti had 3 drives of 9+ plays...and every other drive (save the last meaingless one) was 4 plays or less. I'll get into it a bit farther down when discussing the passing game, but this is still a passing offense with about 50-ish catches to their names combined; they'll improve as guys get in sync with each other. My point isn't to excuse a mediocre performance; I'm not going to be particularly kind to anyone in terms of the overall performance. But good teams can have bad days, and while it doesn't surprise me that this bandwagon-heavy fanbase can overreact to a bad performance, it's still disheartening to see the same comments about "lack of heart" and the rest of that tired dreck. We have two data points thus far in this young season, and they point to an immature offense and a dominant and aggressive defense. You hope and expect the prior to improve and the latter to refine, and during that process games like this will happen. I said this elsewhere, but give me 13 more messy 22-ppint wins and I'll be happy.
Based on my point total and the fact I've been writing some permutation of this column since 2009, it's safe to say I'm a fan of this site. Obviously I'm a bit of a biased homer, but it's telling that lots of other fan sites out there mirror what MGoBlog does in terms of game recaps, deep-dive playbook analysis, formation discussions, etc. It holds immense influence over Michigan sports, as the narratives you hear about the team throughout the season oftentimes have a genesis in the main-page posts. And that's largely fine; Brian and co. have a great deal of both analytical and "fan" knowledge at their disposal to draw larger inferences from; as Brian mentioned, he's been doing some form of UFRs for about a decade, and this site's seen this team go from late-era Carr to RR, then Hoke, then finally Harbaugh. That's an eclectic collection of coaches and styles, to say nothing of the innumerable analyses on opponents.
And so it's why, when Brian declared he'd be amazed if an Al Borges-recruited QB ever started at Michigan, it'd be a minor miracle, many people (myself included) mentally wrote off Wilton Speight. When Speight came in and relieved an injured Rudock against Minnesota and led them to a victory, we all sorta assumed it was dumb luck, the "QB Whisperer" in Harbaugh dragging the last drop of talent and competence out of a flawed player. And then last offseason all the buzz was about John O'Korn wresting the starting spot from the departing Rudock, the gunslinger coming to bring a new level of excitement to a position that was dynamic in the air but still rather stationary on the ground. And yet, Speight beat out O'Korn rather handily, and then led Michigan to 10 wins and was basically the only semi-consistent part of the offense against OSU and FSU. Speight has proven now for 2 seasons that he's a pretty good QB; he's not Deshaun Watson or Lamar Jackson, but he's big, strong, and elusive enough to effectively move this offense even other parts (i.e. the running game) falter. I know the go-to reference is John Navarre, but he's probably a little bit better than that, as he never had those types of weapons around him (Doak Walker-winner Chris Perry and Belitnikoff-winner Braylon Edwards) and has had to weather the aftershock of a coaching change, even if he had only been on campus a short time. Of recent college Michigan QBs, I think his ceiling is college Tom Brady or Jake Rudock (I was considering Griese, but he was the definition of game manager for much of his time under Carr), guys who were B+ across the board and can win you a bunch of games if you don't expect them to carry you. And yet, I'm already fairly certain there are people who are rushing to the comments below to call me an idiot, that there's no way Wilton Speight should be considered in that same class. His career's tombstone was etched a year ago, and you ain't getting "just a guy" off easy.
Wilton Speight had another fine game. Yes, he had a couple of bad throws; Harbaugh said he overthrew DPJ in the third and Speight mentioned that he thought his mechanics were off on a couple of throws. He also fumbled a handoff to Isaac near the goalline that stymied a TD drive and him and Crawford fumbled a handoff on a jet sweep. There are all human mistakes, mistakes virutally every QB has made both at Michgian and elsewhere, and will the same imperfections you'll see in the guys who ultimately replace him. He also completed around 60% of his throws, for about 7.6 ypa, for 2 TDs and 0 picks. For every bad pass, he had a couple that were dynamite (his second TD to Perry, his long throw to Gentry, his 4th-down completion to keep a FG drive going), and he suffered from a couple of uncalled PIs (there was one on Black where the defender just yanked him forward as he curled back, and other where Crawford was basically carrying the corner) and what seemed like miscommunication with his receivers. People complain about his struggles in the 2nd quarter, but Michigan had 8 yards rushing in the 2nd quarter and 37 in the 3rd; Speight was 10/17 for 123 yards and a TD over that same time frame. He's operating behind an offensive line still breaking in 3 new starters and, as mentioned above, is throwing to Grant Perry or a bunch of guys with under 10 career catches total coming into the year, 2 of whom were suiting up for thier high schools this time last year.
And some credit should go to Cincinatti; they were able to consistently generate some pressure with their front 4 and that let them sit back in coverage on Michigan's WRs, who for the second week in a row seemed to struggle getting separation downfield. Outside of the busted coverage on Crawford's TD, it looked like guys were reasonably well covered downfield; Michigan's best passing typically happened when guys went inside and either got a mismatch on a LB or a safety let a guy slip by. I was really impressed by the speed Cincy showed out there in the front 7, and my guess is that will be a strength for this team going forward.
I'm not absolving Speight of his mistakes or arguing that he's some underappreciated star; he's a solid QB who can have wonky mechanics in spurts, seems to throw "smaller" than he actually is (a trait he does share with Navarre), and is never going to be much of a runner. Like I said, a B+ guy across the board with moments of elite play and moments where he's all over the place. But he moves well under duress, is always looking downfield, and is certainly not the main, or even a key, reason the offense has struggled at times early in the season. And I think if his name didn't have all this baggage attached to it, this memory of a bad Iowa game and Al Borges calling him one of the best QBs in his class, he wouldn't come under such fire. But he's a QB at Michigan, and he's always got the ball in his hand and the camera locked on, so every real flaw is magnified and conflated into both the symptom and the disease for any stagnation or struggles by an offense that is clearly still getting itself right. This will undobutedly fall on deaf ears for some, but give this whole offense Speight's "mediocrity" and we're talking about one of the 3-4 best teams in the country.
Worst: Everything But The Isaac
Speaking of people I think a lot of us wrote off; Ty Isaac had a career high running the ball, averaging nearly 7 ypc and running with a newfound consistency. He's always looked the part of a 5* in the open field, but until this year he couldn't keep ahold of the ball, or break enough tackles, or follow enough blocking schemes, to showcase that. This year, he looks like a new player, busting through arm tackles and making solid cuts through holes that the other backs simply haven't. Like all the runners he's a bit of a non-entity in the passing game, but my hope is that those aspect of his game will be integrated more into the offense as the season proceeds, because without a dynamic pass catcher Isaac (and, one hopes, Evans) in open space are one of the few believable options to generate chunk plays right now.
But for everyone else, this is the second week when it felt like both Evans and Higdon couldn't quite get on track. Neither of them have broken 4 yards per carry in a game this year, and against the Bearcats they averaged 3 yards on 9 carries. I assume they will still be involved in the rotation, but Isaac already doubled his carries from last week, and at some point Harbaugh is going to stick with his workhorse who also gives him decent pass protection and is a solid short-yardage option given his size. Had the game been over sooner, maybe those carries are handed out more equally and we also see guys like Samuels and Walker get some playing time. But this is starting to feel more and more like a feature-back offense.
Worst: Still Figuring it Out
The offensive line was better than last week; wave your tiny white flag like there are no reprecussions. Despite the personal foul penalty, Ulizio held up better at the point of attack; he gave up a sack, though, and continues to be a little slow in reacting to the outside rush, though he was better than against Florida. It did feel like I saw more guys getting even partial pressure from that right side, as there were a couple of instances where defenders weren't handed off properly between Kugler, Ulizio, and Onwenu. That I assume will be less frequent as the line gels. My biggest complaint with Cole and Bredeson was that there were times, especially on stretch plays and screens, where the speed of the Bearcats let them blow up plays for minimal gain because guys couldn't quite get their hands on them. There was one Isaac run in that second half where Michigan had numbers but was stopped for a loss because either a corner or safety just sliced between both of them.
What scares me is that if you ignore Isaac's rushing numbers, this team can't crack 3.5 yards a carry with any other running back. I'll accept that against Florida, but against Cincinatti you'd have expected there to be solid holes and guys getting into the second level and taking out linebackers; even Isaac's longer runs required him to break a tackle or two before getting into the open field. At some point, this offensive line needs to start depositing running backs 4-5 yards downfield before contact. I'm sure the UFR will point out a lot of places where a back took the wrong cut or a shoestring tackle saved a TD, but this is starting to feel a lot like last year, and if that's the case fans will need to downgrade their expectations a bit.
Best: The Defense, Again
I feel like these columns always focus on the offense, and it's not intentional. I really, truly enjoy watching a great defensive effort; few things are more exciting as a fan than a pick-six or a defensive end depositing the soul of a QB about 20 rows into the stands. But while the offense had its ups and downs, its tense moments and discussion points, the defense did basically what its done the past 2 years; strangle an offense and grind it into a fine powder. As I noted above, the Bearcats had 3 legitimate scoring drives (the 2 TDs and the missed FG), and nothing else. And honestly, that first TD was a gift of a short field after a bad punt return. As for the other TD, I don't think it was an illegal offensive PI (as a corner you have to be careful about initiating and maintaining contact with a receiver when they've been using that against you earlier in the game), but the refs definitely allowed more physicality by the Bearcats on offense than you'd expect.
I saw people complain about tunnel screens and a couple of blown coverages that Cincy couldn't capitalize on, and certainly those plays will turn into points against better offenses. But no defense is perfect, and if you can count the number of big plays on one hand your team gives up, I'll take it. In particular with the deep balls, the one to Hudson down the sideline was clearly a bust that should have been caught; the other throw that was about 4-6 yards ahead of the Cincy receiver with a corner (Hill?) in pursuit happens sometimes in games, but banking on college QBs consistently hitting those while under pressure is a fool's bet.
The defensive line was dominant, as usual. Hurst could not be blocked all day, and after that bogus targetting penalty was overturned, it felt like the rest of that drive was a contest between the ends to see who could smoosh the Cincy QB fastest. I saw in AJDrain's that McCray had a bad game, and I have to agree. He seems injured, and teams are going to continue to go at him with RBs until he either shows he can keep up with them in the passing game or he gets replaced. I also couldn't tell who failed to keep contain on the one long Cincy run by the keeper. Air Force will be a different beast and won't tax him in coverage, so I'm guessing we'll see a better version this weekend.
Devin Bush had another disurptive day, picking up 8 tackles, including a sack. Hudson joined in with 2 sacks of his own, and it's clear that Brown is going to send these death missles at teams until they figure out how to block them or they run out of QBs. My only concern remains both of these players in coverage; it felt like Hudson took a couple of bad angles on some of the deeper balls. Again, small sample size and all, but it'll be interesting to see what happens against Purdue and their revitalized passing game.
Finally, both Kinnel and Hill had interceptions they returned for score, and Kinnel added a sack along with a team-leading 9 tackles. There is a totally believable and expected drop-off in the secondary compared to last year's squad, but thus far it seems like a relatively small step back. Hill, in particular, seems to have an aggressiveness with his coverage that this team can use. Again, it's going to be a couple of weeks before we see them really tested.
Overall, it's a great defense not being asked to do all that much. Purdue should be a solid test, and PSU's somewhat-janky offense at night awaits. But after watching OSU play this weekend, I'm not sure Barrett is going to be able to challenge them vertically, and their running game remains a mystery to me. This defense is probably really good; I'm not sure how often they'll have to really show it looking at the schedule.
It's getting late and I'm running out of gifs.
- I miss Peppers on punt returns. DPJ is an athletic marvel, but he's still a freshman and those guys make mistakes. If you aren't going to fair-catch a punt, make it super-obvious you aren't as early as possible and let everyone else on the return team know it. At this point, I'd rather Perry just down them than left two hit the ground and possibly lead to turnovers.
- The referees were ATROCIOUS in this game. The Gary penalty was pretty bad (I can sorta accept roughing the passer, but how anyone thought that was targetting even for a moment astounds me), and then on the other side they missed at least two horsecollar-type tackles on Isaac. They also missed a DPI on Black that ended a drive, and didn't count a catch by Perry that was pretty clearly a completion. That PI on Lavert Hill was also suspect, but I've sorta given up understanding what constitutes PI when both guys are grabby. Still, not a shining moment for that crew.
- Brock Huard and whatever rejected sentient Sesame Street puppet they had in the booth next to him were almost unlistenable at times. I get they are about generating drama, but if Cincy got past the line of scrimmage it was met with a "you know, this Bearcat team isn't afraid of the big moments" when they were down double-digits. A white noise machine and a Teddy Ruxpin fished out of the Huron River would have been just as effective a team at calling the action.
- There's a thread about this where I've made my feelings known, but in general: don't boo college players. You can boo professionals because part of the contract they sign implicitly states people are going to yell at you from the relative anonymity of the stands. That's what's the money is for. But these are college athletes playing a game for your enjoyment, they don't "work for you" as a paying customer, they don't have to "suck it up" because they get a "free education", as if keeping your grades up while also being an elite athlete are just a given, and they don't need a "wake up call" from some jackass 30 rows up who doesn't like that his team isn't winning by enough. If that makes me a White Knight, a patronizing asshole, a snowflake, or whatever, so be it. I'd rather by that than someone who can't find a more constructive handling of their negative emotions than yelling at 20-year-olds playing a game you paid money to watch.
- I've noticed this for a couple of weeks now, but it seems like the receivers aren't catching the ball with their hands as much as their bodies. In particular, I noticed Crawford bobbling a couple of balls and letting them get into his body a bit too much. It's small sample size and all so I'm not reading too much into it yet, but last week that first pick hit him in the hands and it was bounced, and there was anther ball this game that he had trouble corralling. I think that's as much timing with Speight as a technique issue, but something that popped up twice.
Bring all your knee braces. Air Force isn't going to stretch the field with its receivers, and my guess is Michigan's defensive line is going to eat them up. But there will be some runs that break into the secondary, and I hope the corners tackle properly and avoid injuries. Beyond that, I'm always happy to see a service academy, and as a PSA - please donate to relief efforts in Houston, Florida, and beyond. There are bigger things in this world than college football, and let's unleash the Michigan money cannon at people and places that could use it. Go Blue!