I swear I've written this analogy before, but I guess if it rings true there's no reason to deny it. Some football games feature a pitched battle between two teams trying to out-flank each other, to employ misdirection, counterplays, and true creative playcalling to attack their opponent's weaknesses and adapt to their counters. It's like when you open up the full Madden playbook and realize the hundreds of different formations and wrinkles to said formations that most teams possess. Brian has the RPS metric for a reason, and oftentimes you can determine who won or lost a game based on who got the upper hand in these sideline matchups.
And other times, you can just keep throwing Rock because the other guy either doesn't understand Paper exists or knows Scissors is all he's got. This game was a classic Rock fight. Michigan ran for 394 yards on 34 carries, a nice 11.6 ypc that included a bunch of runs at the end of the game designed to send everyon home quickly. Both Chris Evans and Karan Higdon averaged over 12 yards a carry; at one point in the second half, both were averaging over 18 ypc. They both had long TD runs (Higdon a career-long 77 yarder; Evans a pair of 60+ ones), had a total of 2 lost yards, and did so behind a line missing perhaps its best run blocker in Michael Onwenu (though being able to slot in Runyan and Ruiz). And coming into the game, Minnesota had been semi-competent against the run; they were 82nd in the country per S&P+, but had held both Illinois and Iowa to under 160 yards on the ground, and their defensive strength was along the defensive line. It didn't matter one iota in this game, though, as Michigan pulverized Minnesota for kickoff and never really let up. That's how you put up 33 points with only 14 (!) first downs. One of the few reasons Minnesota didn't give up more yardage and points was because their punter averaged 49 yards a kick and the Gophers were able to hold onto the ball for about 33 minutes to Michigan's 27. Both teams had 11 real-ish drives of the game, and Michigan scored on 5 of them and missed a FG on another; Minnesota accumulated most of their yards on their first two drives (111), and spent the rest of the day around 0 total yards until their last drive of the game where they kicked a FG.
Karan Higdon was again the star for the offense, picking up another 200 yard game and running consistently behind an improved offensive line (at least in run blocking). He's been a revelation these past 3-4 weeks; this is starting to feel like an opponent-independent level of production from him. If so that also leaves open opportunities for guys like Evans and Hill to get into other parts of the offense, especially as receivers, and for a young QB that's an invaluable safety valve. The move to a more power-based running approach has been a godsend for Higdon, and really for the whole offense, and this looks like substantial, recognized improvement, not a mirage based on fortuitous scheduling. Does it mean they'll run for 10+ ypc against Wisconsin or OSU? No. But it does mean they will have some offensive identity going into those games they can rely on, a statement that would have felt foolish even a couple weeks ago.
Meh: Brandon Peters - Competent QB?
For the second week in a row, Brandon Peters came in and was competent. He threw the ball reasonably well, completing 62% of his throws with 1 TD and no picks. He didn't really try to push the ball downfield much, throwing one sideline ball to Peoples-Jones that he sorta dropped and another hitch to DPJ near the goalline that set up a TD run. He also threw a nice throwback screen to McKeon for Michigan's first TD.
At the same time, he also threw for only 56 yards on his 13 attempts, was sacked a couple of times, and had the same accuracy issues throwing behind or at the feet of open receivers as he showed last week. It was sub-optimal weather conditions for throwing downfield, and when your top two backs run for almost 400 yards as 13.5 ypc, there's even less reason to do so. Still, I don't know if any fans have a great sense of Peters as a QB under duress. Minnesota was able to get 3 sacks for 23 yards on about 16 dropbacks, and the last sack in particular led many (including myself) to believe he was seriously hurt, something totally foreign to Michigan-Minnesota games. There seemed to be little concern about a possible concussion, so that's a good sign. But this game feels like it doesn't answer any lingering questions people have about Peters going forward both this year and beyond. He seems to have more than enough talent to be a good QB at Michigan; he's also not been asked to really show it given how dominant the running game and defense have been these past 2 games. I doubt Maryland will test this team either, what with them being on their 4th QB of the year and coming off a loss to Rutgers, so that means Michigan will be going to Wisconsin with 2.5 games of Peters at QB and, in all likelihood, only slightly better understanding of his potential as they had when the season started.
I have to assume that Harbaugh will want to air it out, if possible, against Maryland just to get Peters some game-time reps before being thrown to the wolves in Madison. But who knows; if Michigan can keep averaging 10y pc even with sacks, there's little reason to deviate. And as a (slight) added bonus, Wisconsin may actually have to prepare a bit for Iowa this week, which means Michigan might still be able to catch them a bit off-guard in two weeks, especially if Peters can get his timing down a bit.
Worst: November Night Games
It's not that I have some fundamental issue with night games; they're mostly just collegiate theatre, a stunt of sorts by TV networks that want "iconic" shots and 3+ hours of programming to fill in a Saturday night. And when the setting is right, like Under the Lights, it can be a great experience for everyone involved. But there was no reason why Michigan-Minnesota needed to be played at night, doubly given how unpredictable the weather is and, as we saw all day, how much havoc that can play in terms of scheduling and fan safety. This game wound up starting at 8:30 pm when it was previously scheduled for 7:30, all as a result of a bad storm that blew through the state all day, dropping rain, hail, and featuring a lightning storm that had previously delayed the MSU-PSU game midway through the 2nd quarter for a couple of hours. The fact it was cold and slippery didn't help the aesthetic appeal of the game (there were a couple of drops/muffs on passes and returns all day, plus players on both sides seemed to struggle with their footing), and because you gotta pay them bills, they still found a way to cram in as many commercials as possible despite the late start time. Thus, it came as no surprise that while the dubious +100k plus streak continued, another streak ended against the Gophers.
I bailed. 20 year home attendance streak over.
— mgoblog (@mgoblog) November 4, 2017
And I don't blame Brian one bit. This game ended officially at 11:40 PM, but that last quarter or so was simply a mixture of Michigan seeing if it could have two 200-yard rushers in a game and run through the allocated commercials. That's boring/annoying at 3:30 or 5:30; it's downright insane at 11:00 PM against 4-5 Minnesota, fighting over a brown jug that Minnesota has won 5 times since 1966. This felt like a naked cash/rating grab by Fox the minute they announced the time change, and while it wasn't a huge viewership win, it still was the second most popular show of the night. So I'm sure we'll see more of these games in the coming years, and my only hope is that they're at least reserved for meaningful matchups and, I hope, earlier in the year.
Best: Hudson Hawk
Did you know Khaleke Hudson played the "viper" position at Michigan? You know, the position Jabrill Peppers played last year, the "viper"? The position the announcers were so keen the point out because it's so integral to Michigan's defense, the position demarcated on the formation diagram as the "viper"?
Hudson had himself a game, the type of "coming-out" party one I think people have expected all year. It's not that he's been bad this year; he's 4th on the team in tackles, and on a defense that prides itself on not letting a lot of plays get out of the backfield and you're competing with guys like Devin Bush, Maurice Hurst, Rashan Gary, and Chase Winovich for these stops, it's easy to fly under the radar a bit. And Hudson had been trending up in recent weeks; he nearly had the pick-six against PSU, and had picked up 2.5 TFLs the past two weeks. Still, Hudson came into the game with 6 TFLs...and left with a team-leading 12.5 for the season. He had 2 sacks, 13 tackles overall, forced a fumble, and overshot a punt block because he went too fast and then had to adjust so as to not clip the punter as the sailed by. He's not Jabrill Peppers, but he's got plus athleticism and is being deployed as more of a weapon than it seemed earlier in the season, and while Maryland won't likely be much of a challenge defensively, both Wisconsin and OSU feel much more tractable if Hudson can maintain this certain level of whirling dervish-ness he showed in this game.
Best: The "Get In My Belly" Portion of the Schedule
This defense isn't as good as last year's unit (even though I'll admit to believing they were probably a bit better than they are based on some early-season success), but the past two weeks they've held suddenly-resurgent Rutgers to their second-lowest (by a yard!) and Minnesota to their worst offensive performances of the year, and the only reason I don't expect that to happen against Maryland is because OSU held them to 66 yards and that level of futility requires a whole lotta stars aligning.
Still, after getting what turned out to be all of PSU's best offensive plays a couple weeks ago (because James Franklin is a mediocre coach and an even worse gauge of timing), they've looked much the part of a championship-caliber unit save for a couple of missed tackles or overly-aggressive shifts. Mo Hurst continued his dominant senior year with 1.5 sacks, including one where he drove the guard so into Croft that he tackled both of them. Both Winovich and Gary followed up on good games last week with equally-dominant ones this go-around, and you saw further rotation along the defensive line with Solomon and (I think) both Paye and Dwumfour getting a couple of snaps.
This 3-game stretch was supposed to be easy, and it has been for the defense, so analyzing the unit is sort of a steady-state check-in; it's still really good at chewing up bad offenses. I remain unimpressed by Wisconsin despite some of the point totals they are putting up, and after Iowa destroyed OSU's offense there is a flicker of hope that a mediocre day throwing the ball by OSU could give Michigan a chance at the upset with a good defensive effort. Still, those last two games will define both this year's defense and set expectations for next season's. Play well (even in loss[es]) and I think they go into next year getting the "Don Brown's defense will be elite until proven otherwise" stamp of approval, even with the loss of Hurst.
Worst: Perception vs. Reality
I've seen a lot of people complain that the safeties are a major weakness for this team, and that their performance is somehow below par. I don't disagree that they've had some issues, particularly tackling at times, but the reaction seems outsized compared to both the actual results on the field and what should be reasonably expected for a couple of first-year starters. So I went back and pulled the defensive UFR's for Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas from 2014, when both started seeing semi-regular playing time and picked up some starts. For those who don't remember, 2014 wasn't a banner year for Brady Hoke's squad, so I'm not sure Brian UFR'ed every game (if I missed a UFR, let me know), but for those he did here's the breakdown for both players
If I remember those last couple of games, they weren't particularly encouraging from a defensive standpoint, so my guess is the UFRs would have been pretty down as well. Still, that's a chart showing guys who show flashes of competency awash in a series of major and minor mistakes. There were talented, NFL-level talents in these players, they were just a couple years away from being fully formed. Compare that chart to this one I've accumulated thus far for the current starters, Kinnel and Metellus.
So basically, other than a terrible game against PSU (something you could say for basically the entire defense), both Metellus and Kinnel have been perfectly competent safeties, missing some tackles and having issues in coverage but also picking up some pass break-ups and sometimes taking the fall for the couple of times an opponent is able to bust for big yardage in games Michigan otherwise dominates. You can very well describe them as the "weak links" on this defense, but most teams would love to have two competent safeties that are still maturing. My point isn't to say they should not receive criticism for bad plays, but to point out that they seem to be pretty well along the path to the "boring" safety goal Michigan should always aspire to, and a couple of hiccups along the way should be expected.
Worst: Just Stop Talking
These announcers made me yearn for Matt Millen, someone who just last week I opined
needs to be moved out of the booth. He just...it's just...in this game he mentioned multiple times that a young Patrick Kugler loved to eat, said that both Michigan and Rutgers don't want to be in 3rd-and-15, and for some inexplicable reason started to sing during the broadcast.
I get this is Fox Sports and there is only one Gus Johnson, but are Spencer Tillman and Tim Brando really functionally better than, I don't know, this clip of Jim Ross just running in a loop? At least with Good Ol' JR, you'd get someone who knows how to manufacture drama out of nothing well, as opposed to the 10+ minutes these two guys spent trying to justify why Josh Metellus getting punched in his face led to him being ejected. Oh, and hearing someone describe a hitch as a "back shoulder fade" when DPJ was about 3 yards behind the corner after coming back.
Now, there are good commentary teams; I think Tony Romo and and Jim Nantz do a really good job breaking down games naturally, and Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth can also accentuate a game in the right context. Chris Spielman could be a troll at times, but get him calling a game like Northwestern-Michigan and you'd get some really good analysis of defensive tendencies and blocking schemes. And while I still think Matt Millen's worst days are unbearable, he has at least shown the ability to provide useful analysis in the right context.
But we live in a world now where having someone "explain" the game to you feels anachronistic, a relic from a time when people consumed sports via the radio, and then low-resolution video. This will be a shock to basically anyone under the age of, I don't know, 30 who reads this blog, but I once watched most of the Superbowl XXXI on a 2.3" portable television while working as a bagger at my local grocery store. For most of you, the only words that made sense in that sentence were "Superbowl" and "television", but I want to stress that without announcers actively narrating what I was seeing, I would have only guess that the guy running for a record kickoff TD was former Wolverine Desmond Howard. It was a different time is all I'm saying. But now? Beyond streaming high-definition video to portable devices, there are millions of ways to consume sports and get commentary, whether it be Twitter, message boards, liveblogs, etc. We no longer need nor want some ex-football player or talking head sitting hundreds of feet above the game to tell us he or she thinks that was a holding penalty or a guard may have missed a block on the counter-trey that was just run; it's already been discussed and dissected by a half-dozen other sources. Those sources may be full of shit, but at least you've got a bunch of them to choose from.
And so while I assume the Maryland game will be covered by whomever got left on the tarmac in Dulles, both Wisconsin and OSU should be reasonably high-profile enough games to warrant something better than these past couple of weeks.
- The offense line remains underwhelming in pass protection. Peters dropping back only 16 times yet getting sacked 3 times, mostly on straight-up rushes where someone either failed to hold his block or completely missed it, is not a good sign, and while Ruiz was in for Onwenu it seemed like a line-wide issue.
- The ejection for Metellus always seemed like horseshit; the refs' explanation after the fact confirmed that. And this was the same incompetent crew we saw last year against OSU and have seen I think twice this year now (the other was, I believe, MSU). All that said, Michigan picked up 9 penalties for 85 yards in this game, and a majority of them were for dumb procedural infractions (illegal formation, offsides, etc.) or things like holding on a punt return. That is to be expected with such a young team, but you'd have hoped some of these mistakes would have become less visible as the season went on.
- Quinn Nordin missed another PAT and a 49-yard FG. Neither would be that alarming except that there have been mentions of a possible lingering injury and, with more low-scoring games likely in the future, uncertainty at the kicker spot warrants some focus. If it's just #collegekickers, so be it. But if he's injured and recovery is not likely for the year, it would behoove Michigan to get someone else warmed up for the spot.
Michigan goes on the road to Maryland to take on former DC DJ Durkin. On paper, it feels like a repeat of the past couple of weeks except Maryland is probably the worst of the three. Michigan will have a strong chance at another great rushing performance, and the defense should find another overmatched opponent. My hope is that Michigan is able to keep whatever new stuff they have planned for the last couple of weeks under wraps and win comfortably before the gauntlet to end the year.