So another season has kicked off, and that means another weekly column full of animated gifs and corny jokes. As always, this idea is inspired by Brandon Stroud’s excellent Best and Worst of wrestling columns. And for the record, there’s a partially written season preview somewhere deep on my computer. Like an unreleased album, it’s full of the hottest tracks that will totally make sense when you hear them after I’m gone. Like, watch out for my hot take on freshmen punters in 2060.
Best: Kids and Play
At the risk of sounding even more hacky than usual, I've solidly entered into the "Dad with small kids" part of one's life. If you’ve read, well, basically any sports column in a newspaper ever, you’ve come across this type of meandering prose, this navel-gazing ode to middle-school soccer games with orange slices and kids playing “for the love of the game”, or how being a parent changes the way you look at life and maybe, just maybe, sports don’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things and we should all just relax (until the next opportunity arrives to sermonize, like player compensation, kneeling during the national anthem, satellite camps, etc.). And I’m not going to lie, going from a 32-year-old with no kids and some money to a 36-year-old with 2 kids and no money changes your worldview. I rarely watch full games in real-time anymore, for example; children are tolerant of you ignoring them for a drive or two, but the fifth time they hear a Capital One credit card promo, they’re out. And you do find yourself more tolerant of mishaps on the field, because as cliche as it sounds, these are someone’s kids out there, ostensibly playing a game for your enjoyment, and isn’t trying to ruin your day by throwing a pick-six or missing a tackle.
So this is a long-winded way of saying that I missed most of the first half of this game, instead chasing around a 3.5-year-old and a 1.5-year-old around a playground. So while Grant Perry was getting an unsportsmanlike penalty for spinning a football, and Kekoa Crawford had a ball bounce of his fingertips into the waiting arms of a Florida DB, and Speight threw another pick-six that sailed over the head of Tacopants, I was sprinting across woodchips and sand, trying to keep one kid from flying off a swing and the other from tumbling down a slide or trying to eat a dead bee he found on the ground. All the while, I’m frantically refreshing ESPN.com and following bits of comments on Twitter, aware that Very Bad Things are happening but not being able to do much about it. And yet, by the time I got back home, Michigan was driving for the go-ahead score and the game was effectively done.
Watching Michigan like season is going to feel like parenting to me, most likely. Most of the time, it’s going to run smoothly; diapers will be changed, lunches eaten, blocks executed, and passes defended. And the world will be beautiful and predictable, if a bit stressful. But then there will be those moments when the world seems to be falling apart, where I’m trying to pry a dead bee from a kid’s hand while a receiver runs the complete opposite direction of a playcall, or my daughter is testing the bounds of safe swing rotation while the right side of the offensive line tries to block the left. This team is so impossibly young at some positions, so inexperienced, that the question isn’t when the hiccups will rear their heads, only how often and how manageable.
Watching Michigan systematically dismantle the two-time SEC East champions for the second time in 3 seasons, it’s hard not to see this year being special. College football is full of teams that don’t arrive on schedule, so while everyone is saying 2018 is the year Michigan makes a run at the playoffs, this year absolutely has the potential to kick off that coronation early. Michigan’s offense was disjointed for long stretches of the game; they still put up 26 points on a top-10 defense and were running out the clock midway through the 3rd quarter when it became clear Florida wasn’t going to mount a serious threat. Wilton Speight had a pretty rough game under center, the running game had more success on 3rd down than 1st…and Michigan still finished with 433 yards (a 6 ypp average). The secondary, undergoing basically a complete overhaul after the departure of 4 seniors, barely skipped a beat, stymying Florida’s attempts at moving the ball in the air, while the front 7 crushed the skeleton of Florida’s ground attack. It was an ass-kicking that still leaves you uneasy, like when you’ve been able to watch a football game for 15 minutes without interruption and oh gawd why aren’t the kids making noise?!?!?
We still won’t know much about this team until they go to Happy Valley, but Michigan handled it’s first major test without too much trouble (save for a 4-ish minute stretch that is unlikely to be a trend), and now they’ve got a couple of weeks to sand down the rough edges.
Best: Closing The Door
Florida’s offense wasn’t going to be all that good this year even before Jordan Scarlett and Antonio Callaway thought credit card fraud was a sound decision for making a couple extra bucks. But still, this was a display of defensive domination that was still shocking. Consider this: Florida’s two pick-sixes covered 90 yards; their offense didn’t pick up 90 yards until midway through the 3rd quarter. Florida’s longest drive was also their sole scoring one, a 46-yard FG drive that featured a somewhat-dubious personal foul penalty on Devin Bush (that was nearly, inexplicably, considered targeting) and a 34-yard strike to Hammond in which Hill had solid coverage and Franks simply put it to the outside shoulder.
Beyond that, Michigan’s defense simply choked the life out of Florida both on the ground and in the air. The Gators finished the day with 11 yards on 27 carries, a performance that significantly eclipsed the futility displayed both in 27-for-27 and 2016 Rutgers. Florida’s credited with 181 yards in the air, but 70 of those came on their last 2 meaningless drives, while the bulk of the remainder came on the aforementioned bomb to Hammond and another to Cleveland, himself well-covered. But that’s it. Florida had months to prepare and guru-approved talent at key spots, and they simply looked outclassed the whole day on the offensive side of the field. Hell, Florida threw up the proverbial surrender cobra early, trotting out Malik Zaire to replace Franks despite his (reasonable) struggles picking up the full playbook in a couple of months.
And more to the point, Michigan’s defense snuffed out any chance Florida had to sustain their momentum after scoring a quick 14 points on defense. After the Gators successfully blocked a Michigan punt and were in prime position to add to their 7-point lead, the defense held firm, forcing Florida into a 47-yard FG that they missed, and that was the last time Florida seriously threatened the score on the day.
Michigan finished the day with 11 TFLs for 41 yards, including 6 sacks and a defensive TD on a forced fumble in the endzone where Chase Winovich absolutely demolished Zaire. The defensive line, led by Hurst and Gary, dominated the line of scrimmage, repeatedly driving blockers into the backfield and denying attempts to run around the edge of the defense. In what I assume are just the first of many suck highlights, both Hurst and Gary ran down Florida backs as they tried to find gaps near the sidelines, destroying plays they (frankly) have no business even being close to. The linebackers, led by Devin Bush’s 7 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 2 sacks, never let Florida get into the open field consistently, and guys like Metellus, Hill, and Hudson showed little drop-off from the acclaimed players they replaced in the lineup. As a team, they forced 3 fumbles, including one on special teams, and tacked on 5 pass breakups, especially impressive when you consider they only faced 26 pass attempts.
Honestly, watching Florida felt like watching those later Hoke teams. The defense was stout and could keep you in games, but the offense rarely seemed able to string along drives, and at some point what you’re doing on defense gets downloaded and countered by good coaching staffs, exhaustion sets in, and you start seeing 3-yard runs turn into 6- and 8-yarders. Michigan so dominated Florida’s offense that it broke their defense, and that’s way more exciting to be on the other end of that revelation.
Now, I will say this now – this year’s defense is not as talented as last year’s. That isn’t an indictment of the current roster; they’re just young, and expecting freshmen and sophomores, even really talented ones, to replace that level of productivity is foolish. And it’s only been one game against a team with a middling offense at best; let’s see how they look against Air Force, Purdue, and then Penn State. But still, the one consistent drumbeat we’ve heard about Don Brown is that the first year is the learning experience and after that, his defenses make significant strides. Now, it’s virtually impossible for him to improve on last year’s dominant defense, but the team looked far less confused out there than at times last season, and most of these guys have either been in the system for a year or were recruited specifically with it in mind. It isn’t beyond the pale that this year’s defense replicates the same general production/stinginess as last year’s, and if that’s the case, there’s no reason Michigan can’t ride that dominance to a conference title.
Devin Bush had himself a game. As noted earlier, he had 3 TFLs for 14 yards, including 2 sacks, and was singularly disruptive on a dozen plays that didn’t even show up in the boxscore. A moment that stood out to me was on the drive following the blocked punt, Florida caught the Michigan defense a bit flat-footed on 3rd down. Even while some of the other defensive players didn’t have proper positioning, Bush sniffed out the run immediately, help string it out toward the sideline, and met the back in the gap. It was clear that part of Florida’s gameplan was to test Michigan’s linebackers and their ability to cover sideline-to-sideline, and Bush in particular showed the type of burst and pursuit ability that will be essential going against teams like PSU and OSU down the line. And in Don Brown’s defense, Bush’s combination of speed and size is only going to become more of a weapon.
Meh: Well, the Music Was Nice
I honestly don’t know the angle to take when discussing Speight’s game this week. On the one hand, he had some nice throws into tight windows, especially on that opening drive of the second half that put Michigan ahead for good. His dart to Perry that got Michigan into the redzone was spot-on, and some of his incompletions, especially in the second half, were safe throwaways when his receivers were covered and/or miscommunications with a starting receiving corps that came into the game with a career total of 34 catches, 27 of them by Grant Perry. And looking at the schedule right now, Florida probably has the 2nd- or 3rd-best defense he’ll face all year, depending on your view of Wisconsin, and was able to generate decent pressure with 4-5 rushers against Michigan’s re-jiggered offensive line. They would have struggled somewhat throwing the ball against this defense even with last year’s receiving options.
Speight finished the day with his second-lowest completion percentage of his career (44%, the only lower being the 42% he recorded @ Iowa last year), more TDs credited to Florida DBs (2) than his own receivers (1), and stretches where he just looked lost out there. So if you’re asking me how this night at the playhouse went, well…
During that disastrous stretch in the second quarter that was the sum-total of Florida’s momentum in this game, Speight not only threw 2 pick-sixes, but he also threw a cross pattern about a yard behind Crawford, sailed another ball out of bounds, and nearly fumbled when he tried to pull back a throw while under duress, “saved” by the fact he spiked the ball as his arm flew forward. Brian often mentioned during the lead-up to this season that there are two Speights: efficient, intelligent Harbaugh Speight that’s one of the best passers in the league, and Borges/Hoke Speight, a statue who guides his throws and seems flummoxed by the rush. Get the prior and Michigan is terrifying; get the latter and Michigan is also terrifying, but for completely different reasons. In this game you saw both, and again, that’s understandable in spurts; if this opening weekend taught us anything, it’s that college football players aren’t robots and knocking off the rust may take a week or two, doubly so as so many new players get integrated into the offense.
And the offensive playcalling definitely changed once Michigan went up 9. Much like MSU last year, the coaches seemingly recognized that Florida’s only chance to score would be due to miscues by Michigan’s offense, so they shortened the playbook and played conservatively. Speight had one or two reads on a pass play and then it was either out or to the sidelines. More generally, the team had trouble staying out of 3rd-and-long (their average distance for a first was 7.5 yards), and the playcalling reflected that (Michigan ran on about half of their 3rd- and 4th-down chances). Other than that first second-half drive, Speight wasn’t asked to stretch the field and he didn’t, and that seemed by design as much as his limitations.
So honestly, I don’t even want to read too much into this week’s performance one way or another. Nothing Speight (or really anyone on the offense) does exists in a vacuum; he’s behind a new offensive line still figuring itself out (in particular, Ulizio struggled mightily against edge rushers), throwing to receivers who were bit players or getting ready for homecoming last year, and working in an offense that is still trying to wed Harbaugh’s bread-and-butter run offense with more passing spread concepts. He can’t play like this and expect to keep his job going forward, but growing pains like this aren’t unexpected. If he’s still missing receivers against Cincinnati and Air Force, then there’s reason to worry. But for now, it’s a mediocre performance in a comfortable win, and leave it at that.
Somewhat-Best: Qualified Smash
There were times during this game when I didn’t really understand the playcalling as it pertained to the running game. The one identifiable Gator strength you heard all week was their defensive line and linebackers, especially against the run. Despite the tire fire that has been their offense since the days of Meyer and Tebow, their defense has largely remained stalwart, averaging a top-10 ranking in S&P the last 5 years. On the other side of the line, Michigan was basically breaking in 3 new starters and dealing with an additional position switch as Cole moved out to left tackle. While Cole and (to a lesser extent) Bredeson are known commodities, Kugler is a 5th-year senior making his first career start, and both Onwenu and Ulizio are seeing the first meaningful snaps of their collegiate careers. And yet, repeatedly Michigan tried to establish an inside running game and, more times than not, were met with minimal success. Yes, when Ulizio could get his hands on a defender he typically could remain engaged and get some push, and Cole and Kugler seemed pretty good at getting to defenders on the second level, but early on it felt like downs were wasted trying to get 2 or 3 yards between the tackles.
On paper, you look at about 5.5 ypc (sacks excised) and figure Michigan was consistently gashing the Gator front 7. And yet, if you look at the play breakdown, you’d see Michigan ran for nearly the same number of yards on 3rd and 4th down (78) than they did on 1st and 2nd (90) until the last couple of drives in the 4th quarter when Florida was just sorta playing out the string. On the one hand, it was great playcalling in obvious passing downs, mitigating a weakness (pass blocking) by going against tendency and using Florida’s aggressiveness against them. On the other hand, it goosed the rushing stats quite a bit in game situations that aren’t sustainable going forward; team’s aren’t going to keep falling for Michigan running on third-and-forever. Throw out those 78 yards on 7 carries and Michigan’s top 3 rushers averaged 4.3 yards on 33 carries, closer to 3.5 yards per carry before garbage time. That’s not abysmal by any stretch, but the one consistent stat last year was that Michigan’s line struggled against good rush defenses, and that was with an older and more cohesive (if inconsistent) line.
To Florida’s credit, a lot of these struggles were due to their front four being able to hold up without blitzing, leaving linebackers free to shoot gaps and stop runs from breaking outside. And as with the passing game, first-game jitters might explain away some missed blocks and poor angles. And Evans, Isaac, and Higdon all showcased what makes them great. Evans was elusive and showed new power as he surged past the line. Isaac looked like a work-horse back, consistently breaking free from initial contact and beating speedy defenders to their spots. And Higdon ran behind his pads all day, displaying the balance and power we saw last year on one memorable run where he broke multiple tackles and turned what should have been a 3-yard loss into a 3-yard gain, punctuated by him bounding into the chest of a Florida DT. There’s a really good rushing attack in that group; I just think this particular box score makes it look a bit prettier than it was.
Best: Hot Kicker Sex
Hot kicker sex
— mgoblog (@mgoblog) September 2, 2017
Listen, man, we've all got our things.
But yeah, Nordin had himself a day. He connected on 2 50+ yard FGs, made 4 of 6 attempts overall, and generally looked like the elite talent he was supposed to be out of high school. Yeah, #CollegeKickers and all that, but if Nordin’s range truly is 50+, that can dramatically change the complexion of this offense. An elite kicker is both a shield and a sword for an offense, letting you take some chances downfield while also leaving the option open to, say, run the ball on 3rd down when at the end of that range. And it forces defenses to stay honest with longer attempts, opening the door for fakes without tipping one’s hand. Outside of the friendly confines of a dome his range will vary more, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Nordin tried a 60-yarder on a particularly blustery day at Michigan Stadium.
- The offensive line wasn’t really good; my guess is the UFR will be pretty ugly. Still, it wasn’t unexpected against Florida, and my hope is that they’ll make marked improvement as they get more comfortable. That said, pass blocking will likely remain an issue all year simply because guys like Ulizio and Cole aren’t prototypical tackles, and that’s going to put a premium on the backs and TEs to chip in. My gut feeling is that Isaac probably gets the nod in those instances because he’s big enough to hold up for a bit AND also a danger in the passing game, but we’ll have to see. As always, keeping Speight upright will be paramount to this team’s success, as the backup QB situation looks unsettled.
- Sean McKeon may well be the starting TE on this team. He showed solid athleticism on his routes, strong hands, and didn’t seem like a total disaster blocking. With the exception of maybe Wheatley, it’s hard to imagine any of the TEs being even average blockers, so I could see Michigan just leaning into that skid and deploying the three of them (including Bunting) more often as a means to get mismatches with LBs and smaller corners.
- I am all for player safety, but it feels like the referees are quick to assume any contact north of a player’s chest to be targeting. Both times it was under review in this game, the play was clearly part of a defender’s normal play and any contact to the head was incidental at worst. Player safety needs to be number 1, but this feels like a confusing half-measure that will continue to punish football plays on a subjective level.
- Maryland might be pretty good this year; Texas is garbage defensively but 51 points on the road is always going to impress. MSU was fine, but they are light-years away from the type of teams they put out in years past. OSU and Wisconsin broke out after early struggles, but I’m not buying the Badgers offensively, and we’ll have to see how OSU does throwing the ball against Oklahoma. Personally, Barrett looked a bit lost out there, and his numbers were goosed by gobs of YAC due to poor tackling and good play-calls. PSU crushed Akron, but excuse me if beating up on the 107th defense last year doesn’t move the needle too much. It still feels like an offense with issues on the line, and at some point that will derail anyone’s season.
- Tarik Black is going to be really good both this year and going forward. Grant Perry will probably fill that Jake Butt “throw it in my general direction” safety valves in this offense. Crawford feels like a #2 trying to be a #1, and my hope is that the offense integrates guys like Black and DPJ quickly. That doesn’t mean any of them are #1s, but these throws might as well be distributed more evenly.
The Bearcats are bad. They’re coached by the last OSU coach Michigan beat. And like seemingly all Tressel-based OSU assistants, he’s going to try to recreate OSU at a lesser program. That might work to make Cincinnati feisty in a couple of years, it’s not going to matter much this week. I expect the passing game to get going early and often, and hopefully we’ll see some more young guys see the field before the inevitable redshirts. Go blue.