This will be short, mostly because this feels like yet another version of the last couple of games and because I'd rather not be up until 2 a.m. again. Maryland isn't worth the hangover.
Best: Just Wait it Out
As has become a common theme, perhaps explicably, in this column, I am going to analogize a Michigan football game with the raising of small, sentient human beings the laws of the land identify as "my children". I apparently entering into that part of my life where everything I do is influenced by their existence, which if I was a better/more cynical writer I could probably turn into a book deal.
Anyway, kids get sick. They get sick by going outside, staying inside, playing with their friends, eating food and drinking water, going to school, not going to school, looking at their dog too long. It's natural and helps strengthen their immune system and all that, but there is really nothing you can do about it beyond tinkering at the edges (more sleep, better food, accept that the five-second rule isn't real). At the same time, kids are like little Wolverines (Hugh Jackman variety) or Deadpools in that they are virtually indestructible otherwise, shaking off bumps, bruises, and falls that would, at the bare minimum, lead a parent to unleash a slew of expletives that would make Clark Griswold blush. And so, when their mutant healing factor fails them and one of the Stooges gets through the door, they become a sullen, confused mess because they don't feel quite right but (usually) have enough boundless energy that they want to do something. As an added bonus, this also makes it difficult to determine just how ill your kid is, since a 4-year-old can roll out the door with a 102 degree fever like a boss while I'd be curled up on the couch in a cold sweat main-lining episodes of The West Wing on Netflix with one eye open.
Now, I'm usually the type of parent who tries to not go to the pediatrician unless there is exposed bone, mostly because (a) it's a pain in the ass to get a sick kid to go see a stranger who'll poke them with a couple of metal instruments and then enter and exit a room a half-dozen times in a 5-minute appointment, and (b) there's a GREAT chance that your kid will contract some other, probably far worse disease from the other mongrels in the waiting room, as every child is just a Patient Zero you haven't met yet. Still, at some point discretion is the better part of valor and you head in to have your child looked at by a professional, baby MRSA be damned. And more times than not, what the doctor will tell you is some version of "give it time, it'll pass". Basically, whatever they have isn't something modern medicine is designed to cure, and the best remedy is to let your child's immune system take over and fight it off; for all of your physical limitations, the human body is still pretty good at keeping itself alive. It's both a reassuring and depressing thing to hear; reassuring in that it means you've probably made the right call in keeping the kid going but depressing because it means you, well, just have to wait it out and deal with all the attendant aches, snotty nose, and coughing fits that will inevitably follow. But that's the deal sometimes, and the alternative, that something is structurally wrong and needs immediate attention, is usually worse.
And if you have read this far both in this column as well as my general posting history here, you know where this is going. Michigan "struggles" sometimes to start games. It's obviously a bit overblown, but they've had a hard time putting up points on the board, and keeping the opponent from doing the same, in the first quarter of games this year. Again, we're talking relatively, as Michigan has "only" outscored their opponents 43-31 to start games, but compared to the rest of the games (185-64) it at least feels demonstrably worse.
To be honest, I don't know why Michigan has trouble getting into their groove when games start. A fair bit of it feels like bad luck; it's a guy dropping an easy pass or not coming back to the ball, or a QB throwing a great one or just a lucky one. And some of it absolutely is Michigan being caught flat-footed, highlighted by last week's issues against NW as well as the opener against Notre Dame, when in particular the defense just can't get off the field and makes uncharacteristic errors. But for lack of a better analogy, it's just the ebb and flow of a college football game that feels a bit off-center, like observing a wave at a crest or trough and not at the equilibrium; it's not good or bad, it's just when it came into focus.
The Maryland game started much the same way; Michigan was down 7-3 at the end of a quarter mostly due to a breakdown on special teams (and Ty Johnson simply being a really good player) and the usual fits and starts of the offense, whether it be failing to convert on 4th down or getting bogged down in the red zone again. But unlike in games past when Michigan seemingly couldn't even pick up a first down for 15 minutes, these were offensive series with a clear beginning, middle, and unfortunate ends. The first drive was 5 plays, 40 yards, the second 10 for 56, and the third 5 for 39 and a FG. That's a healthy 6.8 ypp. At the end of a quarter, Michigan had a substantial yardage advantage (132 to 21), more first downs, and a much more coherent offensive flow to the game. Maryland wasn't doing much to stop Michigan, and so it was incumbent on the fans and the team to, well, give it time.
And true to form, Michigan turned it on after the opening stanza. It was a bit ragged at times, but in the end Michigan opened the 4th quarter with a nearly 300 yard advantage and a 20-point lead on the scoreboard. The teams then opened it up a bit in the 4th quarter, but Michigan never let Maryland really get going and won comfortably, with the Terrapins cracking 220 yards while racking up 465 of their own, an over 2:1 first down ratio, and a defensive touchdown to boot. After punting on their first two possessions, Michigan scored on 7 of their next 8. The offensive line, expected to be a major anchor at the start of the year, took another major step forward, not giving up a sack and only 2 TFLs to a team that entered the game averaging 3 and 8, respectively. The receivers, who collected all of 2 touchdowns last season, already have 9 on the year. Patterson is playing like the 5* QB Michigan has been looking for since, I don't know, Chad Henne, completing 69% of his passes for 10 TDs, 3 picks, and 8.6 ypa, all top-3 numbers in the conference. Since the Notre Dame game, Michigan has looked the part of a top-10 team, one capable of beating anyone with a suffocating defense and a rabidly-expanding offense. And yes, it's been trying at times to watch, but sometimes that's the deal with a team trying to get better from whatever ju-ju struck them last season. They've gotten better seemingly every week, and with Wisconsin and MSU coming up it feels like a team better equipped to handle those challenges than the one we saw a month ago. And as a fan of college football, that's all you can ask for.
Best: A Team Effort
Maryland isn't a great offense, but they've been pretty good this year moving the ball largely opponent-agnostic. While those Texas numbers maybe are a bit less impressive in light of recent developments, that was a weird game marred by a weather delay and playing in front of what I can only assume were DMV residents who missed an on-ramp, and still Maryland put up over 400 yards at over 5 yards a play. As someone who watched Temple last weekend, I have no idea what happened in their game with the Owls, but Maryland must have had just the worst possible luck and execution to not crack 200 yards.
But in this game, Michigan absolutely demolished any semblance of an attack until we were beyond the relavant portion of the game. Heading into the 4th quarter, Maryland had 87 total yards of offense on 29 plays; they averaged exactly 2 yards per carry and 41 total yards in the air. Maryland was able to string together a couple of drives in that last frame, including some runs by Piggy Pigrome, but that felt like a couple of backups missing a play and not emblematic of anyone "figuring out" Don Brown.
For the game, Michigan's defense finished with 5 TFLs, 2 sacks (on only 13 dropbacks) and the aforementioned pick six. Kinnel and Bush were the top tacklers on the day, but this was 100% a team effort across the board. Maryland's long runs came on a QB run and a sweep, but not much else got past the front 7. It doesn't matter waht Ty Johnson averaged coming into the game, as Michigan held him to 0.6 yards per carry. Nothing Maryland did worked more than once, and that was with a week to prep for the game. Wisconsin will be another test for this defense, but while it may not have as many top-line stars as that 2016 unit (and is suffering from some injuries), it's starting to look like one of those vintage Don Brown defenses from his days at BC, where they just keep improving as they absorb more and more of the tendencies and counters opponents throw at them.
Worst: The Injury Bug
Already down Rashan Gary for what sounds like a lingering shoulder injury as wel as Chris Evans, Michigan suffered more attrition on the defensive line as Michael Dwumfour and Carlo Kemp both limped/were carted off the field. The scarier injury was to Dwumfour, as it looked like one of tbose non-contact injuries that portends an ACL tear, though rumors have hinted at a more benign rolled ankle. With Aubrey Solomon also out, there isn't a ton of depth at the defensive tackle spot, which isn't great news considering Wisconsin and it's 3/5th All American line is up next. David Long also limped through the latter part of the game, though that doesn't sound particularly serious.
Now, it's not all doom and gloom. Harbaugh said Gary could have played if necessary, but was held out because "Maryland but I'm not saying Maryland" reasons. With the emergence of Hutchinson, Paye, and Uche on the ends, Michigan could rotate guys like Gary more inside if necessary. As for the Badgers, for all of their pedigree Wisconsin has been decidedly "fine" running the ball this year but not the sledgehammer to the face of seasons past. And the less said about MSU's rush offense the better, as that's a burning bag of dirty diapers on top of a tire fire (they've not come close to having a 100-yard rusher all year, and are currently 110th in the country running the ball).
Still, in a game that wasn't in doubt you'd have hoped Michigan would have escaped unscathed on the injury front, but now all one can do is hope they are more dings and long-term losses.
Best: X-Back Roulette
Ben Mason hurdled a guy and the only truly surprising thing was that he didn't clear the defender by more. Jared Wangler, a converted FB, scored a nice TD to really put the game away in the 4th quarter. Tru Wilson, a walk-on RB who blocks like a FB, had another solid game as Higdon's backup and earned the "trusted agent" moniker from Harbaugh. Hell, Zach Gentry, converted QB, set a career high in receptions and yards out of the TE spot. I know there has been a ton of complaints about Michigan's offense being "predictable" because they don't throw it a billion times, but Michigan is absolutely a nightmare for defensive coaches to prepare for, and it comes in large part from having this interchangeable mass of players who are athletic and talented enough to keep defenses off-balance. Wilson is the best blocker of the backs but also a good enough runner that it doesn't tip off the play; similarly, Ben Mason can smash you back for a yard but also is nimble enough that when he flares out of the backfield he'll bring a LB or end with him. Those little wrinkles are just as disruptive to a defense as pre-snap motion and post-snap read-options, and is why most dispassionate observers of Michigan's offense see a talented and dangerous unit. And as an added bonus, constantly getting stampeded by a guy named "Bench" leads to a pretty significant "delay" filling the hole on a late 2-pt conversion.
- Patterson had a really solid game again, with 3 TDs, 282 yards, and a couple of nice downfield bombs. Even with another phantom holding penalty on Wilson negating a long TD throw to DPJ, Patterson continues to play like a revelation at QB with his ability to stretch the field, and he's also shown an elusiveness that was missing earlier in the year. His TD to Bell, for example, was due in large part to him spinning away from a free defender and buying time until Bell could get open. I'm not sure how viable that is long-term against more disciplined defenses, but it brings an element to the offense that was missing for large chunks of last year and was only starting to emerge with Rudock. Patterson isn't a "true" dual-threat QB, but his ability to scramble away from pressure and his downfield accuracy makes him a tough assignment for any defense, and we'll see how he matches up against a Wisconsin defense that has struggled at times to slow down teams that can throw the ball.
- The refs were all over the map in this game, but Michigan at least got a couple of holding calls out of it. Still, I remain even more confused by what constitutes targeting as I did to start the year, as a Maryland player got kicked out for what looked like a pretty regular hit on Gentry while the other deservedly was removed for absolutely clocking DPJ when he wasn't even looking at him. On the other side, Bush probably should have gotten the boot for hitting Hill a step late, but that's mostly based on my current reading of the bounds for the infraction, not some indictment of cheapness by the Michigan defense. While offensive holding and defensive pass interference have always felt like definitions of subjectivity for referees, the stated goal of targeting penalties is to increase player safety, and to me that has always meant a pretty objective standard of "was that a dangerous hit to the head area". And yet, there is a tension after every hit that a flag is going to come out and the defender is going to be out for a half because his head slipped down a tad too far a 10th a second before hitting another player running at him, and that the only way someone determines that is by reviewing video evidence of it 5 minutes later.
- Don't look now, but Michigan's early-season schedule doesn't look nearly as ragged and unimpressive as previously assumed. ND is undefeated and #5 in the country (and yes, Michigan didn't play the Book version of the Fighting Irish, but they also didn't play this Patterson version either), Western is 4-2, SMU is 2-4 but put up a solid fight against UCF and has played at TCU, UM, and UCF already, and NW just beat up MSU on the road for the third straight year. Oh, and Nebraska, well, Nebraska is maybe the best 0-5 team in the country and DID put up 518 yards of total offense on Wisconsin. Obviously the second half of the season is going to define this year, but this team has played better competition than a lot of people are giving them credit for, and we might look back and see the beginning of a really good team as they worked through the kinks against the "tomato cans".
Next Week: Wisconsin
Like I said, this was a short one. The Badgers don't look nearly as scary as people assumed they would be to start the year; their S&P+ rating is 13th, with an elite offense (#8) propping up a decidedly meh defense (#55). Taylor remains a load to handle, but he barely cracked 100 yards against BYU and Iowa, and while Hornibrook isn't throwing as many picks (2) as last year, he's also not tearing up secondaries (in part because he's down a couple receivers). I'm not sure what's up with the defense beyond a decent number of injuries, but I don't think there are enough injuries in the world to completely explain away 400+ yards from Adrian Martinez in the air. My prevailing theory is that Wisconsin is a bit like the Eastern Conference in NBA basketball; you can be good against mediocre competition, and sometimes that covers up holes in your game that can be exploited by more talented squads. Is Wisconsin dangerous? Absolutely. But a lot went right for them last year (and they played one of the easiest schedules), and this year they've just been pretty good. If the offense can continue the upward trend we've seen the past couple of weeks, I don't see how Wisconsin can keep up. Even last year in Madison, Michigan was in that game until Peters got hurt, and the year before Michigan probably should have won by more than 1 TD considering they outgainned the Badgers by 200 yards. So it'll be close and I could absolutely see Wisconsin pull off the upset, but Michigan is decidedly the favorite in this game, which is not something I expected to say before the season started.