Best: Hold On Loosely
Michigan has been in the equivalent of a holding pattern since the Penn State game, doing enough to comfortably win games and whittling the base offense to a nice, sharp point with which to stab overmatched defenses, but that's been about it. Yes, they have broken in their shiny new QB a bit, but even that’s been only around the neighborhood and some weekend drives, no freeways or crowded streets. It's been vanilla ice cream topped with a pile of vanilla wafers while watching Vanilla Sky. And that's fine; Michigan's biggest issue this season has been a lack of offensive identity, some collection of plays that provide a backbone for your playcalling that, more times than not, can matriculate the ball downfield. Really from the IU game on, the run game has consistently shed most of their zone variants and gone with what people conveniently call "power", shorthand for a cornucopia of plays designed to exploit the most basic of physics problems: that if you throw more mass with more acceleration at a point than your opponent, you'll be able to force the ball down the field. And this mindset, this visceral simplicity of sending JBB and Onwenu voraciously at student-athletes smaller and/or slower than them, allows it to be deployed across a variety of formations that, especially when combined with Counter, keeps defenses off-balance and allows Michigan to finally RPS opponents consistently despite clear limitations in the passing game.
So from a fan standpoint, it's been a blast to watch Michigan steamroll a couple of mediocre teams to this degree. But as someone who, for some illogical reason, tries to write an interesting recap of said contests each week, picking out meaningful nuance and at least a handful of semi-intelligent insights, it's been a little rough. Against Rutgers you had the "excitement" of a QB change, Brandon Peters finally getting his moment to shine. Against Minnesota there was Peters's first start, a game where the opposition knew what to expect and could have, I guess, tried to game plan for him instead of trying to cross one of Minnesota's many lakes. Against Maryland you had Michigan's first road game with Peters at the helm, but at that point we're definitely getting into Malibu Stacy's new hat territory in terms of meaningful differences. Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland all occupy the same basic space in college football's hierarchy; teams with enough talent to put up a fight but not nearly enough to damage a good team capable of taking a couple body blows. But this was always a four-game season, with MSU slotting into the spot we all sorta assumed Florida would have occupied, and this 3-game stretch was always a prelude to a more exciting conclusion, the Rocky montage of the 2017 season if you will.
And so, I'll be honest, there isn't much to say that you haven't read already. During the end of the Hoke era these columns devolved a bit to "look at last week's column and imagine a slightly different way they lost badly", and while this stretch is the opposite result on the field, the useful information to glean from it is similar. Michigan is better than a bunch of teams with far less talent, and whether that talent deficiency is due to a late-game coaching transition after a terrible sexual assault, a voluminous number of injuries at the QB position, or being Rutgers, the reason is irrelevant because the results were always the same. They will now face teams with as much, or more, talent than them, and we'll see if the steps taken by this offense are at least somewhat sustainable or not. And either way, it'll at least give me something new to write about.
Best: If You Could Only See
Because it's Maryland and Michigan fans just can't enjoy their meal without looking for a reason to send it back, way too much was made of the fact that Maryland finished with more yards than Michigan (340 to 305). Michigan "only" had a 28-0 lead and "only" about 100 yards more of total offense (212 to 112) at halftime, "only" scored 1 TD in the second half while Maryland mounted 3 solid-ish drives (55, 85, and 75 yards) resulting in 10 points, and "only" rushed for 160 yards on 38 carries, a pedestrian 4.2 ypc after two weeks of cartoony numbers on the ground. And so this game became the newest Rorschach test for the Michigan faithful; look at it one way and you see a dominating first-half performance by a team that packed it in the second half in order to minimize injuries/hide any wrinkles for more important games coming up, or look at it another way and see a team get "figured out" a bit by a Maryland offense that sorta, kinda, maybe looks a bit like Ohio State's offense, and good lord not in the face again.
Since you have read this far in both this column and this series, I assume you want my take. Well, I fall squarely on the "packing it in" side of the equation. Also, Michigan didn't accumulate more yards in the first half in large part because they had fewer yards to go to score. Their average(!) field position to start a drive in the first half was Michigan’s 48 (!!) yard line. They had TD drives of 33 and 19 yards, which combined required 3 plays. And it didn't really get much better for the Terrapins in the second half, as Michigan's average starting position was Michigan's 44 (!!!) yard line. For the game, Michigan basically started at midfield (!V) every drive, and when you only have about 54 yards to go each time for a score, your total yardage is going to be capped unless you just have an obscene number of drives. By comparison, Maryland's average field position was about their own twenty.
Compounding this yardage discrepancy was how efficient Michigan was at scoring. Michigan's average scoring drive in this game was 5 plays; Maryland's was 11. Michigan ran 56 plays to get their 35 points, while Maryland ran 70 to get their 10. For the game Michigan's average play was 5.4 to Maryland's 4.9, but that masks the fact Michigan was averaging 6.8 ypp in that first half while Maryland barely eclipsed 3. Michigan figured out Maryland's offense in the first half and largely stymied it save for one drive; the second half drives that worked for Maryland featured a fair number of one-off plays and 3 4th-down conversions against a defense that played a number of backups. Yes, you'd like to see Michigan just choke out a team for a whole game, but no matter how much Glen Mason wanted it to be competitive, Michigan was never in danger in this game.
About the only thing fans wanted more from this 3-game stretch than a coherent offense was to emerge largely unscathed on the injury front. Unfortunately, after seemingly getting by with minimal damage (Michael Onwenu was dinged up the past couple of games, but none of it sounded too serious, and Perry, Crawford, and Isaac all seem to be nursing various infirmaries), Michigan saw Gary, Hill, Long, and Higdon leave the game for various (seemingly minor) injuries. I know that's a lot of equivocating in one sentence, but it's honestly hard to get a read on most of the injuries. Every player walked off the field under his own power; Hill suffered a concussion and Gary had a shoulder stinger, while Higdon and Long had various lower-body injuries, but none seemed all that serious. At the same time, this is a team already out their starting QB and one of their top-3 receivers, and while it has depth in terms of warm bodies to throw into positions, there's Watson and a bunch of freshmen after the starting corners. Similarly, this offensive line really can't afford to miss probably it's best run blocker or the guy best suited to run through those holes.
After the game, Jim Harbaugh didn't shed much light on the seriousness of the injuries beyond your boilerplate "we'll see how the guys look". On the one hand, that's sorta ominous when he could just as easily state "they're all good, held out for cautionary reasons". But considering this is a guy who fought tooth and nail to not release a 2017 depth chart before the season, and keeping Wisconsin guessing a bit is every bit a competitive advantage he needs to leverage against a talented opponent, I'd be amazed if much comes out before game day. My working assumption is that Michigan will dress everyone possible against Wisconsin unless it's pretty clear they are working with a hindrance; all bets are off against OSU.
The stats weren't gaudy by any means, but Michigan was about as dominant on the ground as they have been the past couple of weeks when necessary. Both Evans and Higdon were averaging north of 5 yards per carry at halftime, and Higdon also added 2 receptions for 48 yards, the latter catch-and-run being a great bail-out for Peters that turned into a long gain after Higdon absolutely stiff-armed a Maryland defender straight to hell. In the second half Evans got the bulk of the carries and finished the day with 2 TDs on the ground and a couple receptions, including a key third-down one on the final scoring drive. People may fixate on the offense sputtering for much of the third quarter and the running game's inability to get on track without Higdon, but other than two deep balls to DPJ Michigan never really tried to shake Maryland out of their aggressiveness once up big. Michigan seemed content to run a base offense and just salt the game away, and once Maryland got to within 18 Michigan responded with a back-breaking drive to them off. Wisconsin will obviously be a step up in talent, but this rush offense feels somewhat opponent-agnostic at this point; they should be able to get some reasonable yardage against anyone on the schedule, though consistency and amplitude will depend at least in part on how the other half of the offense performs. Speaking of which....
Meh: Nobody Knows
Another day, another perfectly acceptable performance by Brandon Peters. Peters finished the day with 2 TDs on 9/18 passing for 8.1 ypa. The 50% completion percentage is a downer, but he also hasn't thrown a pick all season, though Glen Mason helpfully pointed out that had a Maryland player not been 3 yards out of bounds he'd have picked him off along the sideline. And for the game, other than really bad throw to Wheatley where someone wasn't on the right page, he seemed to make the right decisions and play within the offense. I know there was some optimism that Peters would "unlock" the passing offense, but that's not been the case. He's a first-year starter behind a rickety offensive line throwing mostly to other first-year/lightly-used players or tight ends. That's it, and against Wisconsin and OSU that almost assuredly won't be enough to win.
That said, Peters does look more at-ease than either Speight or O'Korn, and while that is probably due in large part to the competition, it's still a good sign that he can make the routine plays more times than not. And he did take a couple of deeper shots in this contest; one was the DPI Peoples-Jones got to extend the final scoring drive, and another was a missed opportunity down the middle of the field to DPJ that would have probably gone for a score had it not been overthrown. It still feels like Peters is figuring out the depth and touch needed on these longer throws; he overthrew Jones one time but his TD to Gentry and the pass interference to DPJ were both underthrown balls that the receivers had to slow down somewhat significantly to pick up. With Gentry it was probably the right call because he had beaten his man so thoroughly that having him slow up wasn't going to stop a score; the one to DPJ was a bit more suspect because had the corner turned around he'd have probably picked it off.
Still, it remains an overall positive experience with Peters under center. I would caution fans expecting the playbook to open up dramatically these next couple of games; the coaches seem to be calling the game with a limited playbook intentionally, not because they are saving plays. Peters job is to manage the game, and the offense seems to be called with that in mind. And I don't see him being able to extend plays with his feet nearly as effectively against the next couple of defenses as he had against the past 3 units, so it will be interesting if the coaches push him to just throw the ball away versus trying to make something happen after breaking the pocket. But anyone claiming to having a great read on the QB position after 3 weeks is either Jim Harbaugh (in which case he may be lying) or is just hoping illogically.
I've noted this a bunch of times already, but the defense did a fine job shutting down Maryland for most of this game. The highlight were the two picks, one in the end zone by David Long on Maryland's one promising first-half drive, that resulted in 102 return yards. For the game Maryland threw 38 times for 160 yards, something I doubt the was their goal heading into the game with their 5th-string QB. The Terrapins found a bit more success on the ground, rushing for 5.6 ypc, and both Johnson and Harrison broke some long-ish runs when tackles were missed in the open field. I'm sure various LBs and safeties will come in for some dings, though in particular Metellus had some nice coverage downfield and both safeties seemed to limit the damage as much as possible more times than not when put in bad spots. And while Hudson didn't have the gaudy stats last the Minnesota game, he was still disruptive through the contest and had the nice pick on Maryland's last drive of the game.
All that said, Michigan still finished the day with 7 TFLs, including 3 from Winovich, and Maryland's running game was still quick boom-or-bust. 90 of Maryland's 180 rushing yards came on three runs, each by Harrison, Johnson, and Brand, with the latter two coming on the missed FG attempt. And for the first half of this game, Maryland really couldn't do much despise breaking out a number of sweeps and a halfback pass that absolutely were game planned for this opponent. I know people want to be concerned about this, and maybe I'll change my tune after Wisconsin, but right now this feels like a defense coming into its own a bit. And Wisconsin doesn't feel like the type of team to really confuse or misdirect this defense. Hornibrook isn't a runner or a passer; even beyond the 2 pick-sixes he threw against Iowa, he has thrown at least one interception every game this year except against BYU and Utah State, and has more picks (11) than TDs (9) in conference play this year despite not playing a defense better than 26th against the pass all year. Michigan's pass defense rank? 7th, and number 1 in terms of efficiency. And their rush offense hasn't faced a top-30 rush defense either, while Michigan's is #12 in the nation. So for all the (rightfully skeptical) questions about how Michigan is going to move the ball against Wisconsin, it's safe to argue that the same questions apply for the Badgers on offense.
- Because news sites are dying and realize any click is better than no click, MLive ran with the story that Quinn Nordin and Jim Harbaugh got into a yelling match on the sidelines, which of course led to a bunch of people on the internet (especially Michigan fans) to come out of the woodwork to crap on Nordin and question his commitment, his attitude, etc. Basically, your greatest hits of lazy takes. And thought MLive removed it from the link, their go-to tweet was this gem from chatsports, the same site that was found to make up stories, writers, and even readers to keep their numbers up. Yes, Nordin has struggled these past couple of games. We are also dealing with a small sample size. Michigan cannot afford to miss kicks against Wisconsin or Ohio State, but at the same time it seems immensely premature to get worked up over the situation.
- Glenn Mason was...he was an announcer in this game. I don't know why networks continue to think fans want to listen to guys prattle with barely-relevant information pertaining the games actually being played, but here we are in 2017 and Glen Mason is arguing adamantly that a ball that clearly bounced off the turf was a reception even after being overturned. This guy somehow won more games than he lost at Minnesota, so I guess P.J. Fleck can look forward to floating around in a space suit in 2049 calling games on Mars and not understanding why throwing the ball past Quarg is considered out of bounds.
- Michigan only had 1 penalty for 10 yards (a hold on their last drive) versus 7 for 59 on Maryland. I never bought into the notion that the refs had it out for Michigan; young, inexperienced players making dumb decisions largely explained away most of their issues. I've been analyzing the penalty situation for Michigan compared to previous seasons, and while it's not complete what I've gathered thus far points to a team making dumb procedural mistakes that lead to penalties, the types you expect to see ironed out both during the season and year-to-year. They'll need to keep this up this improved focus against Wisconsin; being able to do so on the road against Maryland is a decent sign in the right direction.
Bring on the Badgers
I've already laid out most of my arguments, but this feels like the more winnable game of the two remaining. Wisconsin is probably really good; they certainly aren't undefeated good. This is a team that hasn't played anyone all that impressive, and in all likelihood Michigan is going to be the best team they'll face until the conference championship. Michigan's defense should be able to stymie their running and passing game somewhat; Taylor is still very talented and Michigan has shown enough inconsistencies to expect some breakdowns. But it's still a limited offense and a sound defense, and if that sounds familiar it's because you watch Michigan football. Wisconsin is coming off a hamblasting of Iowa in which they held the Hawkeyes to 66 yards of total offense, though I'd not read too much into that number. Kirk Ferentz game plans intensely for Michigan and Ohio State in a way he doesn't for other teams, and so I'm not remotely surprised all the weaknesses we've seen this year from Iowa would rear their ugly heads against Wisconsin. Michigan's pass protection is probably going to be worked over by Wisconsin's top-10 sack rate, but my guess is Michigan will compensate as best they can with max protection. If Michigan can get some turnovers and reach even moderate success on the ground, they'll have a chance to escape Madison with a win. My best guess is this will look a lot like last year's game at Michigan, where Wisconsin had no right being close late in the game but Michigan made just enough mistakes to keep it close. Flip the teams and I could see Michigan stay within reach of Wisconsin until the end, and then it's anybody's game.