This is going to be quick. You all watched the game. Brian will do a better job analyzing it during the UFR. I’m annoyed and don’t want to dwell on a crappy game.
Michigan isn’t Alabama. It isn’t even really OSU. It’s not a program that can just roll out dominant teams every year and compete for a title. It has windows of opportunities, seasons where they can play at an elite level and play for championships. 1997 they obviously made it to the end. 2006 got tantalizingly close. And 2016 felt like another (in what seems to be a once-a-decade window) of being another one of those great seasons. The defense is loaded with veterans and future NFL stars, the offense is being guided by one of the best coaches in the country, and the schedule is reasonably favorable. And for 9 weeks, UM largely looked the part of a champion, demolishing teams with ruthless efficiency. #3 in the CFB playoffs rankings, #1 in S&P+, top-10 on both offense and defense. About as close to a juggernaut at we’ve seen in Ann Arbor for decades.
This is a year when UM can take their crack at titles, both conference and national, before graduation and the machinations of football likely force UM to regroup a bit. Iowa should have been just another step on the path, a night road game yes, but also against a team that has looked lifeless recently. After playing bitter rival MSU and prodigal son’s Maryland, this game felt like a reprieve by comparison; a Greg Davis offense and a shaky QB against one of the best defenses in the country. UM might not blow the Hawkeyes off the field, but this was going to be one of those comfortable wins that get gentle nods from knowledgeable fans when discussion turns to UM playing “like a champion”. And then…
I wish I could write something eloquent and insightful, some 10,000 word opus that makes sense of losing to Iowa again, letting a team that had no business staying within 20 points of UM grind them up on the ground and kick a game-winning FG as time expired. But I just don’t got it, guys. This was a game UM should have won because they are the better team, and yet here we sit, a big black mark on a previously-spotless resume. And maybe they run the table and still get a shot to the playoffs, but this misstep makes that mountain even higher to climb, and now we are stuck rooting for more chaos and hoping the nagging injuries and the weaknesses that have arisen these past couple of weeks can be mitigated in real time.
For the third week in a row now, Michigan had trouble tackling ballcarriers, allowing 54 yards after contact to Akrum Wadley as part of his 167 yard performance. Both Darboh and Chesson struggled to haul in much of anything (a combined 3 catches for 35 yards), and Chesson compounded his issues by allowing Rugamba to rip the ball from his hands for Speight’s INT late in the game that stopped a promising drive. UM didn’t crack 100 yards rushing a week after Iowa gave up 359 to PSU, and repeatedly ran plays that led to TFLs (Iowa had 8 on the day) or, in one incredibly poorly-blocked sequence, a safety. The offensive line looked legitimately overmatched by an under-performing Iowa front 7. And Wilton Speight, after weeks of looking like a star, fell back to earth quite a bit, completing less than half of passes (11/26) for 103 yards and the aforementioned pick, and might have a shoulder injury to boot.
If there is a silver lining, I guess it is that it took sooooo many things to go wrong for UM to lose. Khalid Hill missed an obvious block on the safety that gave Iowa some life early on when UM was up 10-0, then fumbled the second-half kickoff that Iowa was able to turn into a FG. Michigan again suffered at the hands of the Arbitrary Targetting Gods, losing Devin Bush to a marginal late hit when the Iowa punter flipped over on a fake. Speight repeatedly missed deep despite both Chesson and Darboh streaking open; connect on any of those deep balls and this game absolutely turns for the good guys. Kirk Ferentz, a young earth zealot because he was there, man, when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, went for it on 4th down 2 out of 3 times, called multiple fakes, and generally coached that one game a year when the little old gerbils in his head take a break and the mongoose hoped up on Red Bull and whippets starts calling the shots.
The referees were atrocious in this game, to the point that John O’Neill should be booed every moment of every day he’s in Michigan Stadium from now until the heat death of the universe. Just a clownshow, the same incompetent goober who was the official for MSU 2015. The borderline facemask penalty to set up Iowa’s game-winning final drive, terrible spots including on Beathard’s final run, apparently not understanding grounding until it smacked him in the face, all of the kicker-related penalties, just everything. And that isn’t to take all of his calls were wrong, only that they seemed so damn arbitrary and inconsistent. At least he called roughing the center right this time.
It was a crazy weekend, so maybe it’s fitting UM joined the lot. Washington and Clemson lost just as badly, exposing their own weaknesses in the process, and the end of the season remains the gateway to accolades it’s always been: beat IU and OSU, and UM will be in the B1G championship game and have a chance at a playoff spot. And maybe I’m in the minority, but OSU still feels tractable simply because it’s a team with decided issues (QB accuracy, limited rushing attack outside of Barrett) and performances that have exposed them. But after a tumultuous week off the gridiron, I wasn’t expecting to be writing about another underdog stunner.
Worst: Offensive Offense
This was just a terribly called game offensively. Maybe the UFR will prove me wrong, but this looked like a Hoke offense at times out there. UM finished with a bit over 200 total yards of offense, and most of that came in the first half. The offensive line couldn’t get any push all day against the 86th-ranked rushing attack in the country. Repeatedly Michigan tried to get “cute” running the ball, throwing little pitches to Smith and Evans on short yardage to the short side of the field, only to have it snuffed out almost immediately by eleventy-billion Hawkeyes. Ty Isaac ran the ball exactly once for UM’s lone TD, then was relegated to the bench. Smith and Evans were basically running into Mason Cole half the time, as there was no push up front. Kalis really seemed to struggle at the point of the attack, even though the safety was probably on Hill not picking up Johnson at the snap. Both tackles had trouble keeping the pocket clean as the game wore on, and Iowa wound up blistering Speight those last couple of drives. And yes, field position played some role in this whole day, as UM’s averaging starting position was the 27 yard line, which is a far cry from UM’s nation-leading 36-yard spot coming into the game.
As for throwing the ball, Speight looked really good to start the game but could never connect on a deep throw to shake up the defense even though Darboh was flying down the field most plays. I know it was a tough ball to a diving Chesson, but his little hesitation-feint-throw-pullback-throw on the run on 3rd down was fantastic to watch. He had a some balls to Butt and Chesson early on that were great, and he looked in control of the offense. But then he started to get hit, and his receivers dropped a couple of balls, and the offense kept getting stuck in long third downs (for the day they were 5-for-15), and the playcalls became really focused on the deep throw. That’s not his game, that’s not this offense’s game, and it honestly felt like UM’s attempts to take the top off the defense gave Iowa easy outs. After halftime Speight was just 3/9 for 24 yards and a pick, and never looked comfortable. Even his completions were wonky, such as the ball to Butt that wobbled past a tight Iowa defender and succeeded because Butt knows a thing or two about holding onto the ball. And now it sounds like he might have a shoulder or wrist injury, which is fantastic news with team sorta-CHAOS and OSU the next 2 weeks.
What bothered me most was how predictable the offense looked. McDoom came in and they either ran the sweep or faked it; I get that teams will respond to his appearance and you can play off that, but throw him the damn ball once or twice just to give people a sense. Same with Peppers, who is a screaming “WE’RE RUNNING THE BALL NOW!” at this point, who mostly gets yards because he’s an incredible athlete and UM can sorta block teams anyway. But either put that back into the garage and tinker with the Pepcat package or let the guy do something, anything else. Because right now, it’s starting to get like that one song at the top of your Spotify playlist you hear all the time before you hit shuffle. You ain’t fooling anyone, Cults.
And yet, despite probably the worst offensive performance we’ve seen under Harbaugh at UM, Michigan probably should have still emerged with the victory. Sometimes that does just happen, and I’m okay with it to an extent. Iowa was able to weather some early trouble, got a couple of breaks, and pulled out a tight victory. Still, the offensive line still has question marks, and asking Speight to throw deep when it clearly wasn’t working (versus some shorter balls to get the chains moving and not tax leaky protection) are coaching issues that must be addressed. UM simply cannot play like this offensively again and expect to win, and they’ve only got a week to figure it out.
Meh: The Defense
I see people complaining about the defense, mostly because Wadley had a great day and they lost. And their is some credence to the ongoing issues tackling in space by the linebackers and defensive backfield. McCray repeatedly struggled to stay with Wadley in the open field, and it’s clear now that more physical backs can give UM trouble. The linebackers are athletic but still seem prone to taking bad angles or missing on shifty backs, and the idea of them trying to keep up with Weber and especially Samuel aren’t appealing. I’d say just throw Peppers into that role, but not only is it yet another burden on him, it would probably disrupt the defensive flow for the team.
I know people want to get on Stribling for his tackling, but I don’t expect miracles from my corners in run defense. And he had some nice pass defenses and what I erroneously assumed would be the game-clinching pick. And Beathard was terrible this whole game; he cracked 3.4 ypa, and that was with a Wadley pitch-and-catch.
Both Hill and Thomas, though, missed easy tackles and let Wadley pick up big yards after contact. Iowa probably should have had a TD (or at least a long completion) in that first half when seemingly everybody forgot Nate Wieting and were bailed out by an underthrown ball and Hill getting there a bit late to clean up. But in general, the defense played well enough to win. They held a team that averaged about 5.5 yard per play to 3.4, and that was with some zaniness to boot. Yes UM isn’t a murderdeathmachine against the run, but people saying it was “exposed” might be overstating it a bit. Sometimes the way you stop a running game is by taking those plays out of the playbook via scoring, and had UM found a way to push this to a 2-score lead in that second half, I think some of the Wadley damage doesn’t materialize.
Indiana will be a challenge; I have no idea how UM will fair against the all those goofy Redding, Natee, and Diamont packages, but my guess is UM will be fine. UM played well enough to win this game defensively, and I’m not ready to call a team that gave up 12 points on 68 plays “exposed.”
Worstest: The F**************cking Refs!
Watching this game every time a yellow flag came out felt like this.
It was just a cavalcade of insanity and insult. Iowa played well, but they got a health dose of help from O’Neill and his pack of blind squirrels. It’s bad spots, it’s bad targetting calls, a fringe facemask penalty, roughing the kicker penalties that basically forced UM to stop bringing any pressure lest they get blamed for Iowa’s kicker falling on his ass again, just everything. And I don’t think they cost UM the game; Michigan barely putting up 200 yards of offense was the bigger culprit. But at the same time, I shouldn’t be cringing as soon as I hear who is calling these games, and yet the minute I realized O’Neill’s crew was on the docket, I harkened back to last year’s MSU game and just knew something would go wrong.
College football is all about spending millions of dollars of coaches, training techniques, new technology, everything, and yet they have these part-time refs with histories of ineptitude messing around with important games. I don’t care about paying these guys, but there also needs to be a public reprimand if they screw up. Coaches and players get called out, let these guys answer questions after the game. They are grown-ass men and women, and their decisions have an outsized impact on games.
Best: Kenny MF Allen
Kenny Allen drained a 51-yard FG to give UM the late lead. Outside of basically 2 games this year over a month ago, Allen has been good as both a punter and kicker. For all the negative parts you can take from this game, one positive should be that Allen has ice in his veins and a leg to back it up.
Worst: The Heisman Talk
Listen, I think Peppers is great. He’s an amazing athlete and a special talent. He’ll be a mixture on Sunday for a decade. But at this point, I’m getting tired of every announcer trying to make a case for him. Peppers is special because of his flexibility on defense, and tangible, quantifiable proof of that impact is hard to find (save for TFLs, which aren’t even that good of a barometer). I know he’s great, fans know he’s great, but he isn’t going to win the Heisman, and as a viewer of college football I don’t need breathless commentary every time he runs for 4 yards on a designed run. It’s lazy and somewhat insufferable, and cheapens what else he does on the field.
Worst: RPS All the Minuses
I’ll let Brian figure this all out, but I thought the offensive playcalling was really bad in that second half. UM has a great offense, but when you are playing in a 1950’s game, call it like a 1950’s game. Maybe break out a jet sweep if you are feeling frisky, but otherwise just run the ball between the tackles and throw short passes to the flats and Butt and force Iowa to stop you. They repeatedly called for Speight to throw the ball deep, and it just wasn’t there. That partially falls on the players for not “making plays” (oh god, I feel dumber having just said that), but it also falls on the coaches for putting them in tough spots. I don’t know how to describe this offensive gameplan other than it felt like a Borges offense, too clever by half. A couple of times, Speight would pitch the ball on the short side of the field and the play was inevitably chewed up, and I just didn’t know what the plan was. Iowa’s defensive line isn’t that good, and my guess is a steady stream of runs right at them probably hit paydirt sooner rather than later. And yet, Michigan put themselves in long 3rd downs way too often (they averaged about 3rd-and-6), and it hurt their offensive flow and options.
As for the defense, I don’t think Greg Davis outcoached anyone, but Wadley in space was clearly all of Iowa’s offense and yet Brown and co. were slow to react. They did shut down the Iowa passing attack, as anemic as it was during the year, and again, that final drive wasn’t why UM lost.
I get that UM will get a team’s best effort; that happens when you are a major player. But on the road, you can’t mess around with competent teams, and for all of Iowa’s struggles they are still probably going to win 8-9 games this year. They aren’t a pushover, especially at home, and yet UM let this game play into their hands way too much.
IU comes to town next. They really aren’t that good, and while they are still CHAOS team, the shoe doesn’t quite fit like it did in the past. Their offense is janky and sometimes explosive, and the defense is fine for IU standards but has still given up a bunch of points recently (36 to MD, 27 to Rutgers, 45 to PSU). I assume UM will handle them and the focus will be on The Game for a shot at the playoffs. And yeah, a small part of me is hoping MSU builds on their demolition of Rutgers to give OSU a fight, but whatever margin UM had is gone after this game, and so it’s time to just win and advance.