Meh: Last Two Weeks
As I'm sure none of you noticed, there wasn't a Best and Worst column two weeks ago after the PSU game or a week ago following whatever that was in New Jersey. That ends a bit of a streak for me, but I knew it was going to happen eventually. Rest assured, though, the streak buster wasn't because of something momentous in my life, or some frank realization that writing a couple thousand words in a day about a football game y'all watched 24 hours ago and will be disected and discussed with far greater alacrity by people here, or something equally-relevant and understandable. Nope, I am just an ironic klutz.
One of the things I have to stress to my very small, very headstrong children is to pay attention when they are running down the sidewalk, especially as fall passes and the ground becomes covered with a thick carpet of dead leaves. Holes, protrusions, sticks, everything that can trip up small feet suddenly can't be seen, and so I've stressed to them that when they are careening down the street they need to make sure they don't trip.
You can guess how this ended. I wasn't paying attention when I was running, tripped on a hidden pipe on the sidewalk, and smashed my hand up enoigh that it's still got some healing to do 2 weeks out.
So yeah, this is going to be a shorter column. Mainly because there wasn't a ton to take away from this game, despite the (relative) closeness of the result and a couple of injuries, and it's not NOT painful to type a bunch. We've seen this game a couple of times this year, where a team Michigan is better than makes it look a bit prettier on the scoreboard because of a couple of bad plays by Michigan and some fortunate clumping of yardage and points. Northwestern jumps to mind, but ND looked a bit like this as well (obviously the Figs are better than IU), as well as your Maryland/SMU types. IU had 4 of 11 drives over 40 yards in this game; they scored points on all 4 (2 TDs and 2 FGs); Michigan had 9 of their 11 drives span 40+ yards and scored on 8 of them, but only 1 was for a TD. Michigan punted 2 more times against Rutgers than IU while picking up 53 fewer yards. IU played a great first half and seemed to have a number of playcalls that caught Michigan off guard defensively, but make no mistake about it: had Michigan caught even a couple of breaks (Gentry holding onto a good pass in the endzone, better clock management/the refs not being incompetent at the end of the half, etc.), this is a blowout and nobody is losing sleep over it. But Michigan was undoubtedly caught looking at least a bit toward next weekend, and as we saw this weekend that can bite you in the ass for a bit.
Michigan still looks the class of the conference, has a date with an OSU team that needed a boneheaded play not to lose at Maryland and hasn't looked remotely competent on defense for what feels like months, and considering where this team looked at the start of the year that's amazing.
If you have children, or know people who have children, have passed a crowd of miniature people with snot coming out of their noses from unimaginable angles, or been Clay Travis trying to board an airplane, you know about lice. And the thing about lice is that they aren't particularly dangerous; they don't carry diseases, unlike bedbugs they die fairly quickly if they aren't firmly attached to your hair, and the most common treatment of shampoo + excessive grooming for a week or two is innocuous. In a way, they are the training wheels of parasites, the one that reminds you the world is pretty gross and you have to be vigilant, but not life-altering in the way, say, ticks with Lyme disease are. They just like They still suck and you'd be happy never to have to deal with them, but you also recognize that part of being a parent is accepting that the place where you spend thousands of dollars a month to house your child while you work is full of other little kids, and apparently a major way for them to communicate is to rub their heads against each other. Hell, some people even argue that they are beneficial, getting the body ready to battle far more dangerous forms of disease in the future.
Now, if you haven't gotten the allusion by now, let me make it explicit: Indiana is the louse of ... er, are the lice of the Big Ten East. They aren't particularly dangerous (they've finished with no fewer than 4 wins and no more than 6 wins since 2012), since booting Kevin Wilson they haven't been particularly exciting or sexy, and they haven't beaten Michigan since 1987 and have a Winsipedia page that reminds you that before Maryland and Rutgers the Hoosiers were the original "why do they field a football team?" in this league. But unlike those two other schools, who have largely taken their losses quietly and with minimal resistance in recent years, Indiana has made it their damn mission to annoy the hell out of every elite team they run into. And this isn't new; I've written about this game for years now, and basically every one of them has been the same. Indiana does something unexpectedly well (in this game that meant Rutgers de-commit and future All-Pro Stevie Scott rushing for 139 yards at a healthy 5 ypc clip), Michigan fails to convert on a couple of great opportunities, and a game where Michigan outgained Indiana by 120 yards while limiting IU to 136 yards in the second half was still only a 1-possession game halfway through the 4th quarter. But they hung around regardless of how many times Michigan tried to flick them off.
And I'm starting to believe that's their destiny, at least this incarnation of IU football under Tom Allen. When Indiana has been their approximation of good, it's because they had an identity. Kevin Wilson turned out to be a pretty bad guy in a league sadly known for it's fair share of heartless assholes, but he made IU into #CHAOSTEAM and that offense became something they ran. Once he left, Tom Allen's defense-first philosophy became their guiding principle, to middling effect. Still, when the winningest coach in your school's history is 8 games under .500 for his career, 5-7/6-6 with competitive games against most squads doesn't look all that bad.
And when IU plays Michigan, they put up a fight, usually highlighting some deficiency, if not momentary weakness, in the team. Now, their is some benefit to that, at least as it pertains to Indiana's place on the schedule this year. With OSU next week, there's a school of thought that putting too much of the playcalling "back in the barn" for another week might not be beneficial; Michigan's running game sputters when the threat of Patterson keeping the ball is removed because, for the better, Michigan's best rushing attack features the realistic threat of a QB run. It was fine against Rutgers to not subject Patterson to unnecessary shots, but there's a "rhythm" to games and running the plays as designed in practice, and which you want to run in the games as they are called is easier for everyone than an opponent-dependent alternative. It's why Michigan's passing game has become more dynamic even against the tomato cans, and for whatever real or fabricated concerns teams may have about QBs getting hurt running the ball, guys get hurt in random ways and I'd rather have a guy running the offense as designed and executed rather than in a manner one hopes will mitigate some hitherto-unknown injury. Michigan had to execute offensively to win this game, and after watching OSU drop 52 on Maryland becasue they had to, knowing your offense has some diversity and explosiveness isn't the worst thing.
The only real concern coming out of this game is the status of a couple of injured players, Chase Winovich because of what he means for the game against OSU and Berkley Edwards because I'm a human being and seeing a college guy strapped to an immobilization board is sobering. Early reports are that their injuries are less severe than previously expected, which is a relief, but there's still a chance this game will have lasting effects on the rest of Michigan's season, one where the team sure looks like the best one in the conference. And those injuries were avoidable; in both cases had IU not taken liberties with the health and safety of their opponents the game's outcome wouldn't have been different but a couple of players and, I wanto to be sure I have the proper scientific term, a shit-ton of fans would feel much better.
Still, Michigan overcame their last major hurdle before The Game in a fashion that we saw in their other close-ish game of the year (at NW); they took IU's best shot, kept chugging along with their gameplan while making the necessary adjustments, and slowly took control. IU will make you itch for a bit, but they don't hav the staying power, and while I'm confident they'll upset Michigan at some point in the not-too-distant future, it wasn't going to be this weekend against this team.
Best: Kick It
Worst: Why Kick It?
On the one hand, it's awesome that Jake Moody set a Michigan record going 6/6 on FG tries in this game. Points are points however you come about them, and you can tell that Harbaugh was a bit concerned going into this final couple of games that there were some concerns at kicker. Admittedly, only one of these kicks was over 40 yards, but you can make the kicks they've put in front of you, and for that Moody was spectacularly efficient.
At the same time, Michigan wasted so many opportunities to blow this game out early on. As noted earlier, Michigan got into scoring position seemingly at will. 8 of 11 drives ended in points, and they probably should have gotten even more to end the half. IU had some early success against Michigan's running game when Patterson didn't pull the ball, but once he started posing a threat IU really didn't have an answer. Had Michigan scored TDs on 1 or 2 of those early drives, this game probably plays out differently. I basically skipped the UFR last week because Rutgers, but I'm intersted to see how this week pans out. To my untrained eye it felt like a couple of cuts were missed or balls dropped, which is understandable. And the line absolutely gave Patterson time and paved running lanes, as IU only picked up one TFL and that was on Michigan's first drive. My guess is there will be a ton of yards and points left on the field, and I guess it's better to have that happen now than in more important games. I've seen enough of this team to assume the best and treat this as an aberration.
Meh: The Defense
I want to be bothered by this performance more than I was, but looking back a lot of IU's offensive success came on a couple of plays. Peyton Ramsey was able to somehow not touch the ground despite being sacked by Paye twice on one play, instead running for a first down. Stevie Smith had a couple of nice runs when guys were out of position. Ramsey completed a couple of slants and put some balls into phonebooths. But overall, this wasn't a game where IU seemed to "figure out" Michigan like, say, when Jordan Howard was steamrolling them. Smith looks like he's going to be a good RB for IU (though most of his yards came in that first half), but still IU's passing offensve only averaged 5.5 ypa and Indiana struggled to maintain drives in that second half. It did seem like the defensive line struggled to consistently hold up against the run early on, which I'll be interested to see was due to scheme or player performance, but like the offense this felt like a game where Michigan could have racked up bigger stats with a bit more luck. The fact Ramsey was able to get some yards on the ground is troubling considering Haskins all of a sudden seems to be a bit more of a mobile threat, but I think it's safe to assume Don Brown is probably going to put a couple more reps into addressing that weakness this week. Still, provided Winovich is able to return next week I expect to see another dominant performance.
Worst: The Refs
John O'Neill is a terrible referee; he officiated the Nebraska game and I called him out there as well. He perpetually looks aggrieved at being out on the field, his general understanding of the rulebook seems to be "it exists", and if Michigan has been in a rough game there's a better-than-even-money chance he was at hte same. In this game, beyond the the run-of-the-mill bad calls I expected, he allowed an extra level of bullshit such as an IU player to kick a ball of an official's hand as he was spotting it to end the half or a parade of dangerous or late hits by IU players. I beseech the conference to stop employing this man, as there must be dozens upon dozens of semi-sentient newts hanging around in riverbeds across the conference's footprint who would be just as effective as O'Neill and only need payment in the form of, I don't know, lichen or whatever newts eat. But when a referee messes up, nothing happens except guys get hurt and games are messed up, and for a conference that sure seems to like money they are absolutely costing themselves it by not having better officials available for games.
- Zach Gentry feels like he's about really to explode, as he had another solid day receiving and remains a matchup nightmare for anyone. Patterson is also looking for him dowfield quite a bit, and that's leading to longer completions and even a couple of DPIs.
- The end of the first half highlighted one of those time-management cliches I've never understood. When you're that close to the endzone and with about 30 seconds to play, just spike the ball on first down. I know there's this fear the other team will be able to regroup, but you aren't going to run out of downs either way and it gives you a chance to survey what the defense is going to do and have a coherent countermeasure. Instead, Michigan was rushing after a first-down run by Mason and Patterson threw a ball to McKeon who was 4-5 yards away from the endzone and led to the insanity at the end with the kicked ball. Credit to IU for coming up with the stop there, but Michigan wasted precious seconds calling that play and that felt like a sub-optimal decision.
OSU isn't close to the team people expected them to be coming into the year. They throw the ball a ton but are middling running it and can't seem to stop anyone with a heartbreat from putting up good numbers; they've given up 5+ yards per play in 8 of their 10 games this year, while last year they only did so 4 times against arguably better offenses. Does that means they'll stay true to form against Michigan? Of course not; this is an insane rivalry played by college students, and so that means predicting anything stays to plan is a fool's errand. But as I've been saying here, Michigan is the better team. And not in a 2016 "when they play their best" sort of way. Michigan's A- game is better than OSU's A game right now, and Haskins has definitely slowed down from his torried pace to start the year. On paper, Michigan should win this weekend, even on the road. I'm not quite ready to believe that outcome, but that feels like a ton of OSU baggage divorced from the reality of this year. Swap out OSU with UCF (which has a remarably similar profile), for example, and I'd feel like Michigan should win without reservation.
So I guess I'll settle into the declaration that this Michigan team, coming off an 8-5 season and with some staff turnover, is 8 quarters away from a shot at the national title, and we should all recognize how amazing it's been. I'm looking forward to enjoying the final game of the regular season and the chance to write about this team having to play bonus football before they can bring home some more hardware.