Okay, now that that’s out of the way.
Worst: Freaky Saturday
Usually I take this opening section to lay out a narrative for the rest of the diary, provide some holistic summation of the last game and how it fits into the context of a season, a player or coach, the program, something. Lord knows I’ve gone through my fair number of shoehorns to make some of these stories fit, but the goal is always to let the moments breath a little while also trying to make some sense out of what happened on gameday, to not over-analyze it but also connect the data points and tease out what the past my portend for the future.
But try as I might, it just wasn’t coming to me this week. Maybe it’s because the next couple games will be what defines this season. It’s always hinged on how UM performs against their two biggest rivals, and throw in a feisty, sometimes absurdly tony-deaf Nittany Lions, and there isn’t much room left in my gut to get worked up over the collective gristle that the conference otherwise produces every year. And while IU is always game for a shootout, and the results sometimes harrowing, the reality is they haven’t beaten UM since 1987 and only have 1 win in the last 36 contests.
Or maybe Harbaugh’s mere presence on the sidelines has validated all the optimism that enveloped the program as soon as his plane touched down, dulling the game-to-game fluctuations in coaching staff faith that used to fuel a decent part of these columns. After limping through almost a decade of ineptitude and mismanagement, the fact that UM is in a position to challenge for a conference title, to play in the Rose Bowl or even something more, feels like manna from the heavens. Sure, I want UM to keep winning now and forever, but I no longer worry as much about what one or two losses might mean, or if the most recent struggles are indicative of a collapse. This is year 1 of what (I assume) is a multi-decade run of glory for the Wolverines, so if it’s a bit rough go to start I’m not going to get too worked up about it.
Or maybe it’s because there are certainly more important things going on in the world* than how a bunch of college kids did playing a sport for our collective entertainment, even though I’m well aware that finding enjoyment in sport does not invalidate or minimize the emotions one can feel about what else happened this weekend. But this was just an absurdly-weird game that worked out for the good guys, even though it exposed a number of potential problems (depth issues behind Glasgow, poor LB play, continued struggles running the ball) and strengths (Rudock as a playmaker, (re) emergence of Butt, pass defense maturation). It featured Jake Rudock throwing for more TDs in a game than anyone in UM history, Jordan Howard nearly tripling the number of yards on the ground UM gives up during an entire game, 89 combined points with over 1,000 combined total yards, and an ending sequence where UM scored 3 TDs in a total of 4 plays. In short, it was a college football game in November, and we were all brought along for the ride.
* This is a no-politics blog and I am one of the more stringent “there are literally a thousand other sites where you can have those conversations” proponents of that rule, but it was a pretty rough weekend across the globe.
Worst: Owners of a [Broken] Heart
I want to take a minute to, I don’t know, empathize with the IU fans for another heart-breaking loss in a season marked by an absurd number of them. Yes, I recognize that virtually all of the losses are due to fundamental weaknesses of the Hoosiers, namely on defense; as the announcers kept pointing out, IU has one of the best scoring margins in the 3rd quarter (something like +7 points) and the worst in the 4th (a bit over –8 points). Coming into the game, IU’s defense gave up about 500 yards of total offense a game, and their advanced stats aren’t much better. But still, to lose games to UM, Rutgers, OSU, MSU, and Iowa that you were definitely in a position to win late in the 4th quarter has to be dispiriting. And at least in this game, it wasn’t some massive brain fart or self-inflicted wound that did them in, unless you consider “defense” being that injury. They ran the ball about as well as possible against an undermanned-but-still-game UM defense, threw the ball decently enough, and even picked up a punt return to start the comeback in the second half.
And hell, on the final drive of the game they stopped UM 3 straight times as they tried to run the ball down their throats. That’s right, a Jim Harbaugh-led football team struggled to get a couple of yards on the ground against a team best encapsulated in this picture.
Now, you can see the ceiling for Indiana and the type of team they field under Kevin Wilson; I know people call them a chaos team, but lots of teams can move the ball effectively in today’s football landscape like IU does, but the good ones figure out a way to at least slow down the opposition semi-consistently. It’s why Baylor and Oregon have been consistently hanging out in the top 10 nationally for years while Texas Tech and and West Virginia are scrambling for bowl eligibility more times than not. With the (apparent) recruiting limitations at IU and their placement in the B1G East, it’s hard to see them winning more than 8 games in even the best seasons.
But still, man, it was a weird feeling watching UM escape Bloomington with the win. A big part of me was obviously ecstatic, happy to win another crazy game against the Hoosiers and excited that the potential run to the division title was still in place. And it’s not like they were “screwed” out of a win; they had multiple opportunities to stop UM and seal the game but they came up short. But a part of me just wanted to grab someone on that sideline and tell them
IU isn’t a football rival like MSU, OSU, or ND; I’m fine if any of those fans never see another win against UM. But IU is trying something fun and innovative in the conference, trying to win despite their limitations and not, say, sludgefart their way through 12 Saturdays a year like Rutgers or Maryland. And on that front, they’ve succeeded; I enjoy watching IU play football, even against UM, because at least they’re trying to make it work. And that’s why I want Wilson to stick around there versus IU “changing direction” and picking up some third-tier MAC castoff like the rest of the lower half of this conference, because I think this team is good for this league. So I’ll be pulling for IU the rest of the year, and hopefully they can beat Maryland and Purdue and be bowl eligible. And hopefully next year, they get that big scalp they’ve been chasing, as long as it isn’t Maize and Blue.
Worst: Unleashed the Glasgow! (Wait, We’re Out of Glasgows?)
So about that dominating, nation-leading rush defense. That Eater of Worlds on the ground…
Now up front, Jordan Howard is probably the second best back in the conference (behind Elliott). I’ve had him on my fantasy team all year and thus caught a couple of his games (including one against Wake Forest in some really ugly conditions), and he has this great blend of patience, power, and decisiveness when using his blockers that hasn’t been seen in Ann Arbor for what feels like ages. I know it took me a bit to realize that UM wasn’t playing all these runs terribly (at least early on), only that Howard was running what the offense was designed to do about as well as possible. Howard is just that good, and while he’s not the receiver or home-run threat Coleman was last year, it probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise that a guy who put up 1,500 yards at UAB last season (including 90 yards against Arkansas and 89 against Miss. St.) would be good in IU’s offense. And Indiana has an experienced offensive line with a couple of NFL-caliber linemen in Feeney and Spriggs, and even guys that have bounced around like their center Reed is a 5th-year senior with a decent number of starts under his belt. This is a team that gashed Iowa for even more ypc (5.8) than they did the Wolverines (5.6), and only struggled to move the ball on the ground when they were down both Studfeld and Howard against PSU.
So yeah, lose an all-conference-level DT, your run defense is going to take a hit against this team, but I don’t think anyone expected this to happen when Ryan Glasgow was (apparently) lost for the season. The drop-off from Glasgow to a guy like Hurst isn’t terrible, but the drop from Hurst as your backup to guys like Godin, Pallante, and Strobel is significantly more, which is a large reason why UM got run over for what felt like the entire 2nd half (IU running almost 90 plays didn’t help either). UM has been able to weather the losses of Mone and Ojemudia reasonably well because of the depth and flexibility of players on the defensive line, but this feels like one loss too much, and sadly it’s come at the time when they probably needed it the most with PSU and (especially) OSU next up. PSU isn’t likely to stress UM’s defensive line nearly to the same degree at the Hoosiers did, but OSU is basically IU on offense but with a bigger, faster back and a QB who can run through gaps as well as most runners (to say nothing of the inevitably Braxton Miller packages that I’m sure Meyer will break out).
This is when guys like Durkin and Mattison will have to earn their paychecks, shifting around the line as best as possible and shore up the middle while hoping the LBs and Peppers can handle anything that breaks outside. My guess is that Henry and Wormley will cycle inside more often, and if there is any potential hype left to wring out of Lawrence Marshall for this year you’d have to hope UM would try to set him loose just to give the line another able body. RJS (9 tackles, 2 TFLs including UM’s lone sack) and Charlton (5 tackles, 1 TFL) had solid games, so I don’t expect the unit to fall off a cliff even with some shuffling.
I know some are quick to wonder if moving guys like Strobel and Poggi to the offensive side of the ball was smart given the current dearth of tackles, but (a) it’s hard to plan on losing both NTs in a year, and (b) you have to see if guys buried on your depth chart can help out elsewhere, while still retaining at least the faint capability of bouncing back in an emergency. Well, consider that glass broken and the sirens blaring. We’ll see how the team responds next week in PSU; I’m guessing it won’t be giving up 300 yards, but I expect PSU to have moderate success moving the ball on the ground, especially if the game is close in the latter half.
Meh: The Rest of the Defense
It’s hard to tell how much of the rushing defense implosion was due to injuries on the line and how much was due to poor LB play, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these aren’t going to be super-positive grades for anybody in the front 7. Bolden caught a couple of blocks on plays, and the fact that both Gedeon and Ross had as many combined tackles as Channing Stribling isn’t a good sign. It does seem like defenses are starting to identify holes in the LB core (Minnesota picked on Bolden and Morgan in pass coverage, while IU picked apart them on the ground) and exploiting them. And if the line isn’t there to keep them clean, I’m not sure we’ll see dramatic improvement for the rest of the year. Again, I’ll wait for the UFR to see if it was just a combination of good playcalling and a great back, but I’m not optimistic.
It bears repeating, but when your leading tacklers are your safeties, that means you probably didn’t have a fun time out there. Hill had the game-ending pass breakup on Paige, and both helped to mitigate the damage somewhat whenever Howard got into the secondary, so there is some positives to take out of their performance. And while Sudfeld was kept reasonably clean, he also struggled at times to connect with his receivers (58% on completions for 6.5 ypa) and his one big pass play to Cobbs Jr. was a comebacker where Jeremy Clark was in decent enough position to make a play had he turned around in time. The game was pretty quiet on that front, and you have to think a large part was because Lewis and co. made it inadvisable to throw the ball (of course, the rush defense made it very welcoming to keep it on the ground).
IU is a weird offense to prepare for, and despite giving up over 500 yards and being on the field for 89 plays, they basically matched IU’s average for yard per play (5.9) and conceded 34 points. They forced the Hoosiers to kick FGs on their early drives, and were never really caught off-guard in the ways they were under Hoke. With a healthy Glasgow I doubt this game is as close, and PSU definitely isn’t going to tax them in the same ways.
Worst: Like Falling Off a Horse
After rushing for over 200 yards 4 of the first 6 games of the season (and barely missing a 5th with 198 yards), UM hasn’t come close to cracking that mark since the MSU game. Against IU they finally broke 5 yards a carry after failing to break 4 as a team against Minnesota and Rutgers, but that was mostly due to Rudock scampering for a bunch of first downs. And this little stretch of games was when I expected the running backs to establish themselves on the ground, facing some less-than-stout rush defenses.
But nope, they continued to struggle to break anything long (Rudock had a long of 23; Smith led the regular backs with a long of 20), and for the umpteenth time failed to make second-level defenders miss. Now, I’ll acknowledge that a part of this output is due to Rudock’s record-setting passing night, but I doubt UM’s gameplan envisioned him throwing the ball 46 times. And despite having a couple 5* backs and the leading rusher from last year seemingly healthy again, UM’s second back is Houma, a good runner for a FB but nobody’s ideal backup rusher.
I do think a decent amount of these struggles are due to offensive line issues; the fact they couldn’t get reasonable pushes on multiple goalline rushes on UM’s last two scoring drives of regulation was shocking. And IU inexplicably thought it was a better idea to fill the box and stop the run instead of, say, staying within 10 yards of UM’s receivers for much of the game. But all the rationalizations and philosophies shouldn’t really matter; at this point, a Jim Harbaugh-led team shouldn’t be pushed around by Indiana on both sides of the ball. Maybe Rudock’s recent strides will help to loosen up teams a bit, but if IU and Rutgers didn’t see the light I don’t expect the Nittany Lions or Buckeyes to do the same.
Going forward, I guess Smith is your feature back and everyone else nibbles at the scraps. I have 0% faith that they’ll break 100 yards against PSU or OSU, and that’s not in some reverse-jinx “Rudock will never complete a pass over 5 yards” thing, but in a “I don’t see how it happens unless someone just busts terribly” sort of way. The fact guys like Green (who I know was injured this week) and Isaac aren’t sniffing the field most games despite it all speaks volumes, and puts added pressure on Davis, Enis, or someone else coming in to be an “impact” rusher next year.
Best: More Than Jake
I'll admit; I thought Jake Rudock was a lost cause all of 2 weeks ago. My completely-baseless prognosis was that he had an undisclosed injury that severely limited his downfield accuracy and arm strength while also robbing him of the velocity you need for those short and intermediate routes that you expected from him when he arrived from Iowa. He struggled to get the ball to his receivers, hadn’t hit a pass longer than 20-ish yards down field without stupendous luck/terrible defense, and at times seemed stupefied by the playcalling.
But fast forward two weeks and Rudock has thrown for 770 yards on 71 attempts, a tidy 10.8 (!) ypa, and has a sparkling 8:1 TD:INT ratio. He’s also added 68 yards and a TD on 8 carries, picking up precious first downs with his legs in this game. Yes it’s been against terrible pass defenses, but he also failed to crack 200 yards against equally-moribund Oregon State and UNLV pass defenses. And for the first time all season, he seems to be hitting his receivers with the ball in places where they can make plays; witness Chesson catching passes of 34, 41, and 64 yards, Butt snagging another 29 on a decent ball, as well as Darboh’s game-winning catch that could have gone for 100 yards had it been necessary. He’s still got a propensity to leave balls a bit short (that 41-yarder to Chesson had a bit “Mitch Leidner inside back-shoulder post” to it), and that pick was another pass where he either didn’t see or didn’t compensate for the IU defender on his loft to Williams (though the IU safety made a great play to bring it down), but it still feels like he’s turned a major corner at just the right time. My new theory is that there was an evil, goateed doppelganger called “Jakke Ruddock” who had previously occupied his locker until the Minnesota game, wherein he was knocked out by the head-hunting Gophers and Jake Rudock was able to return back from the Netherrealm.
But I will say this with absolutely certainty: there is no way UM wins this game against IU without him. And given how much dirt was on top of his grave even a couple of years ago, I’m kind of amazed his TD celebration isn’t one of these:
Best: Now in Pairs!
For the first time in decades**, UM had two receivers break 100 yards receiving, including Chesson reeling in 4 TDs and over 200 yards on 10 catches. These are obviously all season and career highs, and continue a torrid scoring binge for him (7 TDs in the last 3 games). I’ll admit to being down on Chesson for most of this year, believing at least some of Rudock’s problems throwing the ball deep were due to his main deep threat’s inability to run the proper routes and/or reel in balls, but I stand corrected. We always knew he could do great things with the ball in his hands, but he’s starting to put the rest of it together, highlighted by great concentration in pulling down that game-tying TD at the end of regulation.
Jake Butt added to his late-season renaissance with another great game, as Rudock is (finally) starting to throw balls high to his virtually-uncoverable TE. 7 catches, 82 yards, and a TD for the Booty Man, and he’ll need to continue this against PSU as the Nittany Lions haven’t really played a receiver like him at that position all year and could be susceptible (especially after Jordan Lucas got hurt against NW).
Penn State will definitely be a new level of competition for the passing game, but I’m starting to believe that they’ll be able to move the ball reasonably well regardless of competition. You might not see another 200-yard game this year, but this feels almost *gasp* sustainable for the rest of 2015.
**The last time? Oh, just that batshit 67-65 RR-special against the Illini in 2010(!!)
Best: Quick Shots
- I’m getting a bit worried about the reliance on Peppers to jump-start the offense. In this game, Indiana definitely keyed in on him to start the second half to stall the drive that led to Paige’s punt return, and even on one of his successful screens to set UM for a score in the 4th he had to make multiple IU defenders miss behind the line. And considering he was on the field for 90+ plays just on defense and special teams, I worry he might be wearing himself thin. I’m all for him being part of the offense, but his chief value on the team remains as a HSP, and just because the backs are struggling doesn’t mean he should be doing that job as well. UM’s defense needs him to be healthy for the next couple of games, and I’d hate to lose him because the other team’s defense is sending 4 guys to hit him on every obvious pass.
- 13 penalties, seemingly half of them for false starts, were infuriating. Consecutive false starts helped stymie a promising drive before Rudock threw his pick, and UM had a number of defensive offsides and false starts to give IU free yards. UM is averaging about 56 yards in penalties a game, and they simply aren’t good enough to keep giving up yards like this.
- Last week’s kick return troubles were largely due to missed calls and general incompetence by the refs; this week, it was just bad tackling. UM had 4 guys all closing in on Paige, and yet he was able to wriggle out of an off-balance high tackle and scoot into the endzone for a game-changing score. Some of this is absolutely bad luck, but at some point you hope that Baxter and co. can get back to stuffing a team’s return game.
- Finally, kudos to O’Neill for handling that bad snap on the game-tying extra point attempt. That could have gone a million ways wrong, yet he calmly righted the ball and Allen was able to sneak it in. After the MSU game, it’s nice to see him involved on the positive side of a seemingly-automatic ST play NOT ending in disaster.
Next Week: Penn State
It’s a road game at noon. The good thing is PSU fans won’t have had enough time to get thoroughly hyped/drunk enough to be out in full force, and despite being 7-3 it doesn’t seem like anyone is all that excited about this season. If Hoke vs. Franklin was like two kids playing checkers, Franklin vs. Harbaugh is like one kid playing checkers and the other kid playing Deep Blue to a standstill. Penn State is coming off a bye AND it’s senior day, so emotions will be high. But every time I think the Nittany Lions are starting to come around (e.g. dismantling IU and Illinois, for example), they stumble against anyone decent on their schedule. It’s going to be ugly, but UM survived a scare against IU and I’m guessing the staff will find a way to compensate on the ground against Barkley, and despite the massive drop in INTs thrown I’m not seeing Hackenberg making huge strides from last year. Assuming OSU beats MSU, that sets up a division championship the following weekend, and I don’t see PSU spoiling that for the Wolverines.