Worst: Pick one
Nobody should have expected this game to be a fun watch. Michigan might be riding a 22-game win streak over the Hoosiers (spanning 30 years), but other than a 34-10 win in 2014 none of them have been all that comfortable since the Carr era. Michigan would put up 67 on the Hoosiers in 2013...but never led by more than 14 points until the very end of the game. RR's games featured late-game interceptions and TDs, the platonic ideal for Rich Rod games. And since Jim Harbaugh arrived, the two teams have gone to OT twice and the other game was a 10-point win that featured a terrible performance by...(check my notes)...John O'Korn. Oh wonderful. This is just what happens when these two teams play, I guess, and the hope is that when IU breaks through it doesn't submarine a meaningful season.
Now, I'm going to spend some time later on talking about the very real positives you can and should take away from this game; Michigan successfully ran (6.2 ypc) against a good IU run defense, they blocked well on passing downs (0 sacks given up), they didn't turn the ball over while picking off IU twice, and save for about 2 drives the defense held up despite facing 15 real IU possessions. But at not point should this lead you to believe this was a "good" performance by Michigan, especially on offense. This was categorically not that, and I'm not sure I possess the grasp of the English language necessary to convey how...not good this team looked for large swaths of this game when they had the ball in their hands and a whole sideline pointing where they should go.
IU got as many first downs by penalty (3) as rushing the ball, and that was part of a 16-penalty (!), 141 yard (!!) day of crime and punishment. That's almost 1 and a half football fields of penalties! That's about 4.25 blue whales in length, for those of you who have recently read flip-page books to a 3-year-old about animals in the ocean. And Indiana turned down multiple penalties, meaning they left even more blue whales off the field! And the sad thing was that most of those penalties were earned; I don't understand what is pass interference anymore, but Michigan was guilty of it a couple of times that were semi-legit. Yes, Mo Hurst was hit with a roughing the passer call because he tackled the QB literally as he was throwing the ball, and apparently a center can be called for holding because he used his body to block a defender, but for the most part Michigan kept IU drives alive or stymied their own through self-inflicted wounds. And yes, I will 100% point out that the refs missed at least one block in the back on the big IU return, also a pick play on their last TD that was blatant enough that Brock Huard noticed it in between huffs of paint or whatever he was doing for most of this game. But all the same, you can't give up nearly 5 blue whales of free yards and be focused too much on a couple of missed calls.
But much like last week, where Michigan turned over the ball 5 times, this ungodly number of penalties would have just been an interesting footnote in an otherwise ugly-but-comfortable victory had the play at QB been within earshot of competent. These are college kids and are doing their best; I am not trying to impugn their character or abilities. But if you missed this game for whatever reason, (a) thank your friend's new wife for scheduling a wedding on a fall Saturday, and (b) just imagine watching this for almost 5(!) hours(!!) whenever Michigan looked to matriculate the ball in the air.
Just that for 4 quarters. Somehow, an offense that threw 3 picks and 5.6 yards per pass in a monsoon turned in a demonstrably worse performance on what seemed like a perfectly fine day in Bloomington. 2.9 ypa, 50% completion percentage, 58 yards passing, and despite multiple times facing 3rd down and effectively the game, Michigan seemingly didn't even consider throwing the ball. It was atrocious, probably the worst performance this side of Russell Bellomy, and at least there you had the unexpectedness of being called into action to explain a bit of it away. This is basically week 3 of Michigan's offense under John O'Korn, and the outlier performance is starting to look super-obvious. I'll get into it later, but while I think giving the ball to Peters is a bad idea for a number of reasons, if you lack confidence in your QB to throw the ball when you need to, then you have to replace him. Otherwise, you might as well just put another RB in the game and see if you can Wildcat or whatever the hell to 6-6.
And for what felt like the umpteenth time this year, O'Korn got very little help from the receivers. Yes, there were throws behind some receivers or into coverage, but there were also routine drops and the ever-present inability of anyone on this team to pull anything out of a hat. I'm not even looking for a rabbit; a gerbil with alopecia would suffice. I swear, the next time anyone catches even a semi-underthrown ball the crowd is going to erupt like they just saw Marquise Walker vs. Iowa. Yes, there were easy passes missed in this game, notably (and stop me if you've heard this one before) Gentry being screamingly wide open on the contested ball to Crawford, and that falls on the QB to make. But good lord, there were probably 3 or 4 just straight drops in this game that had to be made, from Perry letting a ball hit his hands while extended, or Schoenle just dropping a ball on a little flair, to one or two others in what felt like a lifetime of bad plays. And if you have a struggling QB, somebody needs to find a way to get open quickly and catch the ball when it gets there, because expecting this passing attack to both get the ball there AND then survive a 50/50 chance of it actually getting caught is a mountain too high to climb.
And yet...had the flag-happy refs called even one block in the back on that punt return, Michigan probably wins this game by 10 or more. Much like MSU, Michigan gave a game IU team every out they could, every mistake and misstep that lets an underdog pull out the win, and still Michigan won. And like your average horror film monster, we're learning what can and can't kill Michigan. Apparently a program-record number of penalties on the road will make it close; 5 TOS and a torrential rainstorm was just enough to keep them down. PSU is going to be on another plane of opponent to anyone Michigan has seen thus far, and if they play like they have the past couple of weeks James Franklin is going to be extra smug in his press conference about how little it meant avenging a 39-point loss last year.
Best: A Land-Based Offensive
But all was not lost offensively. For the second week in a row, the running game looked like a weapon against a competent defensive outfit. Last week's output wasn't particularly inspiring on paper (102 yards, 2.6 ypc), but factor out sacks and you are looking at a semi-decent day (3.5 ypc) and the emergence of Karan Higdon as the feature back (5.4 ypc). This week, Higdon asserted himself with 25 carries for a career-high 200 yards and 3 TDs, including the game winner in OT where he just bounced off a broken play and sprinted to the corner on the first play from scrimmage. Much has been made about Michigan incorporating more power/ISO elements to the running game, and that type of play calling really seems to benefit Higdon. He's not the fastest or biggest back on the roster, but he is great at squaring his shoulders and running through first contact, which was what made DeVeon Smith so valuable the past couple of years. Plus, one of Higdon's biggest weaknesses, his sometimes-spotty vision for finding the holes and cutbacks in the running game, are mitigated somewhat by this "run to the hole" mentality.
And what was also encouraging was that Higdon didn't pick up most of his yards on 1 or 2 runs. While he averaged 8 ypc, his median run was 4 yards, which is pretty impressive since the last couple of drives Michigan was content to just run him into the line for a couple of yards to burn the clock; throw out that last clock-killing drive as well as the meaningless one at the end of the first half and we're about 5 ypc. That wasn't a Saquon Barkley vs. NW situation where he averaged 4.7 ypc because of a 53-yard TD run and not much else; despite the world knowing Michigan couldn't throw the ball, Higdon was able to consistently get positive yardage behind an improving offensive line.
Of course, I'm not naive enough to believe anything that happened this week will translate to future opponents; for all I know, Higdon could fumble twice against PSU and we'd be back to Chris Evans and, I don't know, Kareem Walker getting the majority of carries. But it does seem like the offensive line has turned a bit of a corner here the last couple of weeks. The running game is still not particularly dynamic, but it's finally something I can sorta rely on being there more times than not. I don't know the formation breakdowns, but my guess is the minimization of zone blocking and at least a plurality of power/ISO blocking schemes we saw the first two years under Harbaugh are a large reason why we've seen some success on the ground as well as the drop in TFLs (5 this week, only 2 non-sacks TFLs last week) compared to a season average of around 8. It's not night-and-day different, but it feels like progress nonetheless. And if this team has any hope of winning against PSU, OSU, or Wisconsin, they have to be able to do something consistently on offense, even if it means playing dinosaur football at times.
Best: Air Defense
Another day, another strong defensive performance by the secondary. Yes, they haven't faced a particularly good passing attack yet (MSU's is statistically the best, though I'd probably say Purdue's is better overall), but other than PSU there really isn't one on the schedule unless you are buying that J.T. Barrett has suddenly figured out how to throw consistently against pass defenses (my lack of heavy sarcasm font should not dissuade you from deducing I am a doubter). Yes, IU was able to throw a bit toward the end of the game, where they found some success throwing the ball to Timian and Cobbs. Still, IU completed only 49% of their passes on the day for 4.6 ypa, and at no point did they look remotely comfortable throwing the ball to their receivers even though that was about the only offense they could rely on (2.8 yards per carry on 29 runs in the game). Lavert Hill was flagged for PI on his first interception, a call that was probably correct (he was definitely in contact the whole time), though (a) he was also running the receiver's route for him, and (b) the ball was thrown a bit behind, which is why Hill picked it off. I'll take PIs in those instances all day because of how disruptive it was for the IU offense to rarely find guys open. On the other side of the field, I thought David Long had another great game. He drew Cobbs a decent amount of the time late in the game and kept with him the whole way, getting a pass breakup and generally styme the best receiver Michigan has seen thus far. He also picked up a nice TFL on a cornerback blitz, a new wrinkle to the defense that I assume they'll employ more as the season progresses. Watson also should come in for praise; despite the refs best attempts to consider Cobbs both pushed out of bounds AND reestablishing presence in the field when he caught a moonshot out of bounds, he did a good job keeping in contact with receivers and rarely gave up much. Most of the yards the receivers picked up on the day were the result of quick slants that were immediately down, or breakdowns on scrambles when Michigan couldn't get to Ramsey and he was able to run around a bit. Oh, and a couple of rather egregious pick plays that I guess we're just never going to be seen called anymore. The TD catch was particularly aggravating because the receiver just ran into (I believe) Watson and pushed him into Hill, but there a couple others where guys would spring open and you'd see a defensive back trying to shuck off a Hoosier with a death grip on their jersey.
Penn State will be a different beast, at least compared to teams like MSU and IU. They don't have a dominant receiver like, say, an Allen Robinson, but guys like Hamilton, Gesicki, and Johnson are all competent pass catchers who can win a 50/50 ball in the right circumstance. Barkley is probably a better pass catching threat than a running threat in this game, as PSU's offensive line is still pretty terrible, so it will behoove the likes of Kinnel and Metellus, along with the corners, to be able to tackle when he gets the ball in space. There will be missed tackles and assignments, and you aren't going to shut down teams forever throwing the ball; we saw it in this game a bit what happens when a team has over a dozen cracks at your corners. But I think we've gotten to the point in the season where the defensive backfield can be considered a strength of one of the best defenses in the country.
Best: The Good Kid
You always hear that teachers spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with the "troublemakers", the disruptive kids in a classroom. The quieter kids, the ones who just do their work without a fuss, are given a pat on the back and a silent "thank you" as the teacher navigates the room. You want to praise them and you do, but the reality is that the squeaky wheel gets the most attention, and if this analogy hasn't been made clear yet, the offense is the biggest fucking squeaky wheel on this team. By comparison, the defense is a wheel covered in the contents of a 55-gallon tub of lube rolling on a floor covered with Teflon. Also, it's the quiet kid who does her job really well without much fanfare, while the offense is destroying the school bus. Yes, this whole paragraph exists for the sole purpose of linking to an article about a tub of sexual lubricant. Deal with it.
On the day, Indiana was held to 278 yards of total offense, 3.9 ypp and 13 first downs, all season lows for the Hoosiers. This isn't CHAOS team like in years past, but when you face 72 plays over 15 drives and hold the opposition to well under 300 yards while picking them off twice, you're doing something well. Michigan forced 7 3-and-outs as well as a 2-and-turnover, and racked up 2 sacks and 7 TFLs to boot. Even when they buckled a bit at the end, it wasn't particularly egregious; the late TD was due mostly to IU getting a great return on a punt (again, ignoring multiple blocks in the back), and leaving a college kicker with a 46-yard FG to tie the game is a reasonable strategy. On the last play in OT, which brought back memories of way more games than I'd like, Michigan's defense was able to overwhelm IU's line and chase Ramsey into throwing the pick to Kinnel, and at the end you saw Winovich just passed out on the field next to Ramsey, exhausted but elated. I sadly know the feeling.
This remains a 3-game season, with road contests against PSU and Wisconsin and a home date with OSU being the only offenses I could see having much success against Michigan. PSU I touched on above, and I've seen enough of PSU's run blocking to know that they'll be overwhelmed by Michigan's line more times than not. Wisconsin is probably the best offensive line they'll see all year, and Jonathan Taylor is another in an annoying line of really good Wisconsin running backs that will find some success against Michigan. And then OSU is, well, OSU, and that spinning death ball is going to be a handful. But unlike Brian, I am not certain that PSU will murder this unit, even if the offense will almost assuredly let them down.
Worst, Maybe Ever: Throwing the Ball
You know the stats. You watched the game (unless you attended the aforementioned fall wedding). Brian will break it down with Ace on the podcast, then in the game recap, then the UFR, then the burning questions, then on WTKA, then probably before the PSU game in the preview. There have been and will probably be another handful of threads about what to do about the play calling, about how bad O'Korn has looked under center, everything. If you want to hear people talk about shitty QB play...hell, after this weekend you could find it a lot of places, and ONE of those places is here.
I only have two things to add to the discussion. One, this shouldn't surprise anyone. I honestly hate being right here because it means I correctly deduced that a college student who is trying his best wouldn't be particularly good at QB, and that a bunch of (mostly) faceless assholes on the internet would take him to task for it. But there's a reason John O'Korn left Houston after losing his job, why he never was able to surpass Wilton Speight, and why in 3 games we've seen him start he's had an average stat line of 46% completion percentage for 105 yards, 1.5 ypa (!), and a pick. It feels mean even writing that, and before you rush to the comments to say "but what about the weather?", his two best performances were arguably those two snow- and water-slogged events. As Brain mentioned on (I believe) WTKA, this John O'Korn is a better version of the one who got benched in Houston, but that doesn't mean he is objectively good enough to be the starting QB on a team like Michigan. He looked great against Purdue because his first read was usually open and Purdue, honestly, didn't have the defensive players or the preparation to really limit what Michigan wanted to do vertically. Both MSU and IU have, and you see the results. And its hard not to look at the play calling in that 4th quarter, when the only pass he was asked to throw was a short tunnel screen to DPJ despite a number of third-down situations, and believe that if there was any way Wilton Speight could play, he'd be out there. Because I will say this with 100% confidence: this team is undefeated with a healthy Speight under center. It wouldn't have been remotely pretty, but I don't think he loses to MSU or IU, and in retrospect, Purdue's defense was going to give up big plays regardless of the guy under center; O'Korn's elusiveness on that first drive accelerated it, but those plays were going to be there and Speight would have made enough of them.
Second, and perhaps more pressing, is what should the coaches do going forward. There is obviously no reason to throw Peters out there against PSU, but I can see the argument that if you are going to lose, might as well see if the new guy can handle the heat. I mean, it's a terrible idea because, as we've seen with O'Korn compared to Speight, the coaches are pretty accurate at ranking the QBs on the roster based on readiness. If Peters can't usurp this John O'Korn, it's hard to believe he's a QB who plays better on Saturday than he does the rest of the week. You know what you're getting with O'Korn, and while that's not particularly pleasant, it's medicine you can swallow. It gives the offense some continuity going into a hostile environment, and if nothing else, O'Korn should at least know the playbook and get the guys into position. Switching to Peters would be throwing the offense it's third signal caller in about a month, and would jeopardize any growth and cohesion that may exist for this unit. Plus, and I can't stress this enough, if/when you find a need to move back to O'Korn, you'll probably find a husk of a player who now won't even have confidence in himself or (I assume) from his teammates. I know we're getting into feelingsball territory, but "put in the guy who is demonstrably worse than the guy ahead of him" isn't a winning strategy, and Peters will be better served not getting his brains bashed in based on the sole expectation that he can't be worse than the starter (hint: He 100% can be).
I believe in Harbaugh as a QB guru; his record is largely unassailable on that front. But you can only do so much with the tools at your disposal, and his hands were tired the minute a Purdue player sat on Wilton Speight's neck. If the coaches truly believe the season is over and want to see Peters play QB against non-Michigan defenses, then go for it. But unless this has been the longest of long cons, I don't see Harbaugh having some ace up his sleeve. So until such time as a change is made, Michigan needs to run some type of a passing offense that John O'Korn can be semi-successful in, even if that means going against the tendencies of this staff.
Worst, Probably Not Ever But Getting There: Catching the Ball
Coming into this game, this is the charted receptions by the receivers on this team.
Other than Perry, everyone who is capable of catching a pass has produced a single circus catch (out of 8 attempts), 5 tough catches (out of 9), and good percentage of routine catches. And in what is apropos for this team, that 1 circus catch was Crawford's disallowed TD against Florida. At this point, the receivers are what they are, and combined with issues at QB and on the offensive line, you are in for a lot of drive-killing drops and overthrows. But I think people sort of assume all of the passing issues are with the QB, and I don't necessarily see that. I know Brian didn't chart the OSU and FSU games formally, but here's the receiver's chart after the IU game last season.
Yes, that's with two NFL receivers and Tight End, but sometimes your QB needs to be bailed out on a tough throw. Michigan hasn't gotten that at all this year. The tough catches aren't made AND a disturbing number of easy catches are also being botched. You can't have it both ways, and so it's why I cringed when Brian suggested they go 5-wide against MSU or people call for the offense to open it up more. To be able to run a high-octane offense, you need to have confidence that the routines plays will work as well. And right now, you might as well just consult a magic 8-ball before calling the play in. In this game DPJ was overthrown a bit on a bomb early on, Crawford couldn't come down with a highly-contested bomb in the 4th, and maybe there was one more deep ball in the mix. And unsurprising, none of them connected. And if the offense was otherwise consistent catching the ball, that would be troubling but acceptable. But McDoom dropped another pass this week, Perry let a ball bounce off his hands, a couple of other guys botched easy throws, and so on a day where O'Korn wasn't sacked and Michigan ran for about 6 yards a pop, they couldn't break 60 yards passing on 20 attempts. This offense doesn't want to nickel-and-dime it's way down the field, but unless the light comes on for a bunch of players that's their only option.
Worst: Happy One-Sided Flag Day
I will stipulate up front that a fair number of these penalties were procedural. There were multiple delays of games, too many men on the field, false starts, stuff like that. You don't pick up 16 penalties because of subjectivity. And Michigan is one of the more penalized teams in the country; even before this weekend they were averaging about 8 penalties a game. I take issue with the PI on Long in OT, the roughing-the-passer on Hurst, and whatever they called with the center on the last punt, but Michigan earned a bunch of their infractions in this game.
But what drove me crazy was that it didn't seem like the same whistle applied to IU. Yes, IU got a questionable PI that wiped out an interception, but it was basically the same type of contact that erased Hill's first pick as well. But Michigan came into this game ranked in the top 10 in terms of sacks per game, and yet for the second straight game nobody on IU's offensive line was called for a hold. This despite IU dropping back to pass 40+ times in this game, and Michigan still possessing a multitude of athletic, angry men. There were at least 2 times in this game when Ramsey was definitely in the tackle box and just threw the ball forward, a receiver in the same general zip code but certainly not with any real chance of being a viable target. The fact it went past the line of scrimmage is immaterial, and yet that seemed to be the sole factor. They also bungled both the Cobbs non-catch and his non-recovery of the onside kick (they at least ruled it initially out of bounds), ultimately getting it right only after length replays. I get the reception might have been iffy because of the contact in real time; there is no way that onside kick recovery looked good in real or slow motion. And the less said about a punt block where a guy throws his hands up as soon as the Michigan player ready to tackle for a loss goes flying forward, the better. And yes, fans of a team are always going to believe calls should have gone their way; I am not wholly objective in my analysis of this game or the officiating. But there were 15 combined penalties called in that first half, yet in the second there were 21 total. Now, maybe the coaches pep talked one of the youngest teams in college football to stop messing up, but Occam's razor leads me to believe the refs figured out they were being a bit too whistle-happy and tamped it down in the second half, which is sort of the antithesis of their job description.
- Half of the top 10 have lost to unranked teams over the past 2 weeks. WSU was run off the field by a Cal team that had lost their last two games by a combined 63 points. OU lost at home as a 30-ish point favorite, then nearly blew a 20 point lead against Texas. Clemson lost to a middling Syracuse team even before their QB got hurt, Auburn somehow let LSU of all teams mount a 20-point comeback, and Washington scored 7 points against an ASU team that gave up 31 points to New Mexico State. Hell, MSU nearly blew a 20-point lead against Minnesota, a team that is 0-3 in conference play and had the 99th-ranked offense coming into the game. My point is that (other than Alabama), there really isn't a dominant team in the national title picture, and every team has their flaws. Michigan's is basically "offense", which is not particularly encouraging, but with a week of hindsight losing a game by 4 with a -5 turnover margin, in a rain storm, with a chance to steal it at the end should be tempered a bit.
- Again, this is going to feel mean, but a key complaint I've had all year is that Kekoa Crawford's hands are suspect, so of course he was on the "hands" team on that onside kick and of course the ball deflected off his hands and was almost recovered. And if we had just paid attention...
- I saw a number of people complain about Michigan throwing the ball in that second half after successfully picking up a couple of first downs on the ground. While I agree that you shouldn't deviate from a working system, Michigan's 3rd-down yardage bugaboo popped up again in this game (their average yardage to go for a first was almost 9 yards), and so if you can take advantage of a sagging defense on first down you should take that shot. The problem was O'Korn was by gawd going to throw that to Crawford, and it was nearly picked off. But play action exists to punish teams creeping up, and a better decision there is probably a TD.
Next Week: PSU
I know I'm in the minority, but beating PSU is probably the second-biggest "rivalry" win I want to see in a year. Every time I read some article about PSU fans wanting to save the reputation of Joe Pa despite ample evidence he overlooked child rape, or hear some announcer talk about PSU being able to "heal" from, again, the fair punishment handed down for harboring a sexual predator for over a decade, or see Trace McSorley swing his dumb little bat taunt, or James Franklin try not to come across as petty during an interview after beating Pitt, all I want to see is them lose a game like this. I'll cop to it being petty. But I also don't see PSU as a particularly good team. They are #2 because a bunch of teams ahead of them lost, not because they've looked particularly dominant. They're better than Michigan, but the difference isn't nearly as pronounced as you'd expect for a #2/#16 matchup would suggest, and their issues along the offensive line aren't likely to go away. It's going to be an uglier game than people think, and probably lower scoring than PSU would want. This feels like a game where if Michigan can keep PSU within reach, they can pull off the upset. But they'll have to survive PSU's initial assault. The hope I have is just like Michigan looked rusty after the 2-week layoff before MSU, PSU will have some issues getting going and, perhaps, Michigan can capitalize.