This is not going to be a typical recap-ish diary. It's been a long regular season, draining in ways I didn't expect and refreshing in others. While perhaps not the king, I certainly am on the royal court for clichés, and trotting out a couple dozen more to fill out a diary-length entry is just a waste of time. I've been writing some form of this diary for about 7 years; I just passed my 9 year anniversary as a member of this version of MGoBlog. In other words
And yeah, that says something about my stupid obsession with watching college sports and probably the oblong-shaped hole missing in my soul, but that's a discussion for another day. Needless to say, though, I've been around enough of these games, enough of these gut punches, that I try to keep some perspective about the proceedings, to remember that in the end we're talking about sports and college athletes to boot. These are young men, tasked with performing on grand stages before millions for our entertainment, and sometimes they fail to meet our expectations. And that's the thing; we take it so personally when they don't succeed because, as a fan, you are so powerless in the narrative you willfully take part in. You wear the clothing, you buy the tickets, you strain every fiber in your body to scream from the stands, because that's as much as you can do to affect the outcome on the field. Your avatars, the young men in those jerseys bearing your team's colors, don't need you to be there to do their job, but you need them for this whole exercise, this pageantry, this obsession to mean anything.
I get it; this reads like some scrambled freshman literature or sociology essay, something you throw together because you forgot it was due in 12 hours. And maybe it is; there are much better writers around here than me, and there's a reason I stopped being a lawyer years ago, where being pithy and concise is a mandate. But what I want to stress, what I think needs to be stressed in the wake of this game and what I can only imagine was a deluge of stupidity that followed, is that these are human beings out there, and they wanted this win to a degree that us in the peanut gallery probably can never quite grasp.
— Justin Rose (@JRoseWXYZ) November 25, 2017
Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that every person who's ever put on a school's uniform does so with unbridled passion in his heart and single-minded focus to win; I can say with 100% certainty that players have won and lost these games without giving a shit either way. But John O'Korn, the much derided last guy standing of Michigan QBs, he cared. He cared deeply about this game, deeply about what this meant for his class and the legacy they'll have at Michigan. He's the one who got sacked 5 times and hit a half-dozen more. He's the guy who couldn't quite connect on plays when he needed to, who will probably relive that missed conversion to Evans, that pick to effectively end the game, for the rest of his life.
Just because he cared doesn’t shield him from fair criticism, and even Jim Harbaugh made it clear that his QB missed plays that needed to be made. So I was going to rag on him a bit, point out that if he had played even 10% better this team probably wins, maybe even comfortably. That all 4 Michigan losses this year occurred when the offense couldn't consistently move the ball with him at the helm. But that's reductive and inflammatory without context; he didn't play those games in a vacuum. He played against Purdue because Wilton Speight got crushed by one in a series of unblocked rushers; he regained his job from Brandon Peters in much the same way. And it’s not like I’ve got any new insights into what went wrong; we long ago distilled his failings down to see throw/make throw trivialities. He's got one more game in his college career, likely his football-playing career, and then that's it. He and the few seniors on this team will officially enter the history books at Michigan, reference points to the year (I hope) when Michigan pulled out of the nose dive that started with Carr and basically proceeded with little correction until Jim Harbaugh arrived on campus.
Because this team showed improvement, noticeable improvement, this season. Now, whenever Brain re-enables comments feel free to run to them and call my an idiot, a lackey, a homer who stares at the world through maize-colored glasses. Go for it. I don't blame you. But this isn't the team I saw get beaten to a bloody pulp by Penn State, or the disjointed, self-combusting unit that got water-logged against MSU. These past two weeks, Michigan has faced at least one team that will be in the college football playoffs this season*, and for the most part looked downright competitive against them despite being, at various times: on the road, down to their 3rd QB, and short any number of key players. And this isn't one of those "they kept it close on the scoreboard" types of performances like PSU, where the Nittany Lions were much better and Michigan was holding on by the skin of their teeth. Against Wisconsin, Michigan had over a 100 yard advantage, and the lead, midway through the 3rd quarter, and probably should have been ahead even more had they been able to capitalize on good field position (and not gotten a bad review on a TD pass to DPJ). Against OSU, Michigan finished the first quarter up 7 and with 105 yards of total offense to -6; at halftime Michigan was tied with OSU despite dropping a sure-fire interception and still receiving an erratic performance from their QB. Unlike in years past, they could run the ball reasonably effectively; Evans and a banged-up Higdon averaged over 5 ypc and Evans added 34 yards in the air, a fair cry from their past couple of years on the ground. Hell, it was a 4-point game with about 2 and a half minutes to spare in the 4th quarter. I'm not one for moral victories, but if you had told me this Michigan would be on their 3rd QB, without an established wide receiver and a running game that moved in fits and spurts behind an inconsistent (and yeah, that's charitable) offensive line and STILL be in either of these past two games late into the 4th quarter, I'd have been rather pleased.
That’s not because I accept defeat and mediocrity, or am a “bad” fan or don't know how to spell "unacceptable" without 45 exclamation points. No, it's because this is what a young team should look like at the end of the year. People have complained around here for years that Michigan fades as the leaves fall, that they never show improvements and instead simply regress. And for as wrong as that take is objectively, I'll concede it for now. Michigan just went toe-to-toe with the best in the conference and were in fights to the end. The youngest team in P5, a team cycling through QBs, with running backs who can't stay healthy and an offensive line that can't really block anyone, didn't luck their way into competitive contests; if anything, they had bad luck to not pull one of them out. And I know people want to look at 2018 and scream about trap games and loses to rivals and all that, and there will be time to discuss how 2018 looks when we aren't about 9 months out, but this is a team returning a hell of a lot of talent and potential across the roster. And while a win or two this year would have been nice, you can see the foundation for the type of team Michigan will be under Jim Harbaugh. And I'm sure some jackass will run to the comments and say "3rd in the division", but I don't care.
I've said all along that Ohio State is not going to come back to Michigan; they are not obliged to stub their toes for nearly a decade like their rivals to the north. It has always been on Michigan to catch them, to get themselves back to that competitive balance. And for the past 2 seasons, Michigan has looked the part sooner than I expected. They should have won last year in Columbus; they could have won today. "Shoulda, woulda, coulda" and all that, but I'll take this ending over Hoke's and RR's games against OSU any day. And my guess is that Michigan will look even better in their bowl game, and they'll surprise some people next year. We've seen what Michigan looks like with talent returning; 5 points from a perfect season, road trips and all. I'm not saying that Michigan will be an elite team in 2018; they've got enough questions to tamp down that talk, and regardless we're months away from that being a relevant discussion. But I've seen this team make strides toward making that a reality, and that means something to those of us who remember this rivalry's history.
*Even though I think both teams are worse than Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Oklahoma, Clemson, and would be in dogfights with Miami, ND, USC, TCU, and maybe even UCF)
Worst: Just a Bit More
John O'Korn played basically to his season numbers. He threw for 195 yards, 53%, 6.1 ypa, with a TD and a pick. In his 7 appearances this year prior to OSU: 53%, 6.1 ypa, 1 TD, 5 picks. He got sacked 5 times in the game and hit even more, a couple of the "so we're just not blocking guys this play?" variety. He missed open receivers, threw a bit too high to others, and never seemed to get into much sustained rhythm. You've heard this before, and barring a setback with Speight's and Peters's recovery from various injuries, it'll probably be the last time. It's going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but he was who everyone thought he was, and expecting more at this point AND being disappointed when he doesn't reach that level shouldn't be a surprise. He clearly had a larger grasp of the complete playbook compared to Peters, or at least did coming into the year. His ability to execute on it, though, was always the limiting factor.
That said, he helped Michigan put up nearly 300 yards of total offense against a top-20 defense, basically equaling the combined output of their last two opponents (MSU and Illinois) combined. Unlike in past games, he posed a believable threat as a passer despite his inconsistencies; whether by play design, individual performance, or most likely a combination of the two, Michigan was able to break receivers open somewhat consistently all day. Even on the late interception, the problem wasn't the play but the execution; the throw shouldn't have been the Crawford, as both Gentry (I think) and DPJ where better options in single-ish coverage. OSU's corners and safeties aren't as talented (at least yet) as the slew of first-rounders they had last year, but they aren't slouches. The playcalling sprung receivers for open looks, and when given the opportunity they took advantage, even if the ball didn't quite get there. Hell, in the first quarter Michigan should have had a TD on an overthrown ball to McKeon in the endzone; that was a great call and route that has been missing at times this year. It's going to sound like a broken record so feel free to read something else if it's annoying to you, but flip a couple of plays and Michigan maybe pulls this out. It gives me hope that we'll see an improved passing game in the bowl, and with (I assume) every receiver returning next season plus Black and others coming off the injured list, a far more dynamic unit than this year.
Best: Running the Ball
Michigan's top 2 backs (Evans and Higdon) finished with 122 yards on 22 carries on the day, a nice 5.5 ypc and, most impressively, only 1 TFL for a paltry 1 yard. Last year, Smith and Evans averaged under 3 ypc on 27 carries for 78 yards; the year before that, Smith and Peppers barely broke 3 ypc on 17 carries for 52. Other than a blip in 2014 when Drake Johnson flitted his way to 74 yards before getting hurt, Michigan hasn't consistently moved the ball on the ground against OSU since 2011 when both Denard and Fitz went over 100 in the win.
With Michigan within striking distance in the 4th quarter, I saw people complain that Michigan went away from the running game. But if you look at the playcalls, that wasn't the case. After O'Korn got sacked and then completed a nice little screen to McDoom for the first, Michigan ran the ball for 9, 3, and 9 yards again. On the next play, O'Korn was trying to hand the ball off when he was stepped on by one of his linemen; that probably would have been for another first. On the next two downs Michigan threw the ball, but they still tried to engage the backs. Evans was wide open on that 4th down, and could have easily busted it for a big gain had the ball gotten to him. For the game, Evans led all receivers with 5 catches (3 if you ignore the last two on the final, meaningless drive), including a great catch-and-run in the redzone that set up Michigan's first score. Going forward, I hope the recent uptick in Evans's receptions (11 receptions in the last 6 games after having 3 previously) is a sign he'll provide that element to the offense going forward. And Higdon, despite some clear limitations due to lingering injuries, ran the ball aggressively and effectively. He should probably be the feature back next year, with Evans providing some change-of-pace plus good hands out of the backfield, and guys like Samuels and Walker grabbing carries as needed.
And credit should go to the offensive line's run-blocking efforts. That Wisconsin game looks more like an outlier than a harbinger of doom, as Michigan was able to get a consistent push against a talented OSU front. Like the rest of the team, they've made strides being legitimately good at opening holes for these backs, and while losing Cole will hurt that effort next year, we've seen enough from Ruiz, Onwenu, and JBB to have some confidence the interior of this line will be able to move bodies effectively going forward.
Worst: Still Can't Stop the Rush
I've said it before and I'll repeat - I don't know who (or if) anyone should be fired on this staff, but when changes are made, it needs to start on those involved with the offensive line's pass blocking. It can be Frey, Drevno, I don't care, but the one area where this team really hasn't shown any noticeable improvement all season is handling what feels like somewhat-rudimentary pass blocking concepts. I get that teams will try to disguise their rush lanes, disrupt timing and communication by the linemen, stunt teams to death, etc. But Michigan has allowed 34 sacks this year; they allowed 22 all of last year, and that was an underwhelming unit as pass blockers. On top of that, they lost 2 QBs due to poor protection; Speight's still recovering from a broken back and Peters was never going to see the field after getting a concussion last week. With even competent pass blocking this year Michigan is probably looking at 10+ wins already; at the bare minimum, they wouldn't have had to entertain the legitimate discussion of who's the 5th QB on the roster.
Best: Slowing Down OSU
This isn't your classic OSU offense; they struggle to throw the ball downfield and neither Weber nor Dobbins strike me as the multi-purpose, dominant backs that this offense thrives with. Still, it came into the game #4 in the national per S&P+, because when it gets going downhill it's hard to stop. And so it should be noted that until OSU's back-breaking final TD, Michigan's front 7 had held Barrett, Weber, and Dobbins to 160 yards on 42 carries, a 3.8 ypc clip. They also picked up 7.5 TFLs and consistently disrupted OSU drives. I know Barrett was hurt at some point before the game by a mysterious camera man, but he never looked comfortable out there and was taking some rough hits both in the backfield and on the run. Gary in particular was a monster with 2 sacks and 10 tackles, continuing his dominance from the past couple of weeks. If he takes the expected evolutionary step as a true junior next season, he'll be one of the best linemen in the country and should mute the loss of Hurst somewhat. Plus, Winovich seemed to have broken out of the mini-slump he was in during the middle of the year, picking up a sack and 9 tackles on the day.
Speaking of Hurst, when not being tackled by overmatched OSU linemen he was slowing down the OSU backs and making life uncomfortable for Barrett. Bryan Mone saw a lot of time as well, as Aubrey Solomon didn't chart for the game and, I'll be honest, I don't remember seeing him much out there. It could be that teams ran away from him, but this felt like a game where Michigan was able to deploy Mone to eat up blockers and he did so effectively.
And McCray, Bush, and Hudson all had their moments, with both Bush and Hudson running down plays before they could get dangerous and McCray limiting runs past the line and tying for the team lead in tackles. OSU tried a couple of times to exploit him in space and other than one long Barrett run and (maybe) one of the crossing routes by Haskins I don't remember him getting into trouble. OSU had a bit more success once Haskins took over, but that fell more on the secondary than the front 7 in my opinion. Overall, an encouraging day from the unit that should be one of the best in the country again next season.
Meh: The Secondary
Metellus will draw most of the ire for his dropped pick in the first half, but it was an up-and-down day for the secondary. Barrett struggled to find his receivers all day, and I thought the coverage was pretty good in that first half. But there were a couple of missed tackles, especially in that second half when Haskins came in and OSU seemed to always spring a guy loose on these short pitch-and-catches that turned the game. In particular, Hill got beat on OSU's first FG drive when K.J. Hill just sprinted past him, and OSU nearly scored again the next drive when K.J. Hill again was able to slip past his defender. And to make matters worse, both Kinnel and Long left the game at various points, with Kinnel's backup Woods also getting dinged on a run stuff, necessitating Jordan Glasgow coming on. And no matter how deep you are as a team, having your 4th safety out there late in a game isn't a good sign.
I don't believe for a second that the defensive backfield cost Michigan the game or anything, but there were a couple of plays in this game where a turnover, a PBU, a tackle short of the sticks, maybe gives Michigan another chance. And for an OSU team that struggles in the air, being able to string together drives with run-and-catches for big gains were back-breakers. It's part of the reason I wasn't sure what to make of Haskins as the backup; he finished 6/7 for 94 yards, but about 80 of those yards were YAC from simply crossing routes and screens, plus the now-expected inch-perfect downfield throw into coverage. He played a lot like Peters did when he filled in for O'Korn that first game; he was tasked with simple reads and his receivers did the bulk of the work. And while credit should go to OSU for calling the right plays and for executing, there's probably going to be plays in the UFR (if Brian does indeed do one) where the defense could have booted OSU.
This is apparently not a hold
Looks clean to me ðŸ™ˆ pic.twitter.com/MZDrrsqZN8
— Charles Power (@CharlesAPower) November 25, 2017
Brandon Watson got called for a defensive hold in this game and it was 100% the right call; it kept OSU's game-winning drive going. But how you can call one and not the other, and do so for years straight, is astounding. Michigan also got screwed on a spot following an O'Korn scramble; he was over the line, and had he gotten that spot Michigan would have had a fresh set of downs and a promising drive moving through OSU's defense. I am not one to cry conspiracy because that is idiotic; there no reason to believe a bunch of grown-ass men sat around and decided to punish Michigan with terrible calls because (pick your conspiracy claim) they don't like Jim Harbaugh, they want "X" to win because it looks better for the conference, they hold a grudge against Michigan for some undisclosed reason, etc. No, it's much simpler: the league employs incompetent refs who never get punished or removed, so you have the same 50-year-old lawyers and accountants trying to keep up with college athletes and deal with hostile crowds and that’s going about as well as you expected.
I'll be quick - Michigan doesn't stay within 4 points of OSU with the current state of the roster without some inspired playcalls. Don Brown stymied OSU for much of this game; the defense gave up the ghost a bit at the end, but he had counters for a lot of OSU's favored tendencies and generally forced OSU to win with J.T. Barrett's legs. With a bit more scoring, that would have been a winning strategy. As for the offense, Harbaugh and co. were able to get guys open in the passing game and was able to cobble together a rushing game that, again, was one of the better performances we've seen against OSU both this year and in recent Game history. People will complain about particular playcalls and accountability and all that horseshit, but in a game where Michigan's staff had to manufacture points with play calls, they did so.
Next: The Bowl and 2018
If projections hold up and Michigan is going to the Holiday Bowl for a date with Stanford, that would be a fun (if somewhat boring) game to watch, more for the narratives than the game itself. Still, it would be a decent matchup and a game where Michigan wouldn't be tasked with playing a vastly underseeded team; Stanford is better but not demonstrably so compared to Michigan.
And while I know I said discussing 2018 isn't really relevant, I would like to point out that perceptions of opponents can change a lot in a couple of weeks. Less than a month ago, ND was looking like a playoff contender; today, they're 9-3 with big losses to Miami and Stanford and a close win over Navy. They'll also be replacing the bulk of their offensive line, and it's not remotely crazy to wonder if the 8-1 team we saw for most of the year was a bit of a mirage, that ND wasn't quite 4-8 bad last year but also wasn't quite so good this season. Penn State replaces much of their offense and has looked far more mortal after playing Michigan, perhaps confirming the "James Franklin saved up his whole playbook for Michigan" narrative that popped up after OSU and MSU slowed his team down dramatically as they saw most of the wrinkles on tape. MSU finished 9-3 as well, and they've looked better than expected. Still, it's an offense that relies heavily on Lewerke to keep it going, and he's been all over the map. He had 400 yards against PSU and 445 against NW; he also failed to break 200 yards passing 5 times this year, "highlighted" by throwing for 20 yards on 2/14 passing against Maryland. Wisconsin should still be Wisconsin, but it remains a team with 3-loss potential beating up on probably the worst division in college football. And OSU looms, but they'll be replacing Barrett as well as a decent senior class, and while people are going to overreact about Haskins at some point every team gets a bad beat at QB, and I'm not sold that Dobbins or Weber are going to bring much dynamic playmaking to that backfield.
I'm not going to promise that 2018 will be some magical re-awakening of Michigan on the national stage, but I've been a fan long enough to realize that things move in ebbs and flows. Michigan is on the way up, record be damned. It's a talented team with stockpiles of talent waiting in the wings. Michigan's got 3 cracks at resetting some rivalries next year, 4 if you count PSU. I don't see them going 0-4 in those contests, and I like their chances in all of them.
But fall 2018 is far away, and there's still one game to go. I'm looking forward to it, even if that puts me in the minority, and it'll be nice to see this place quiet down a bit.