This is going to be a relatively short post. I'm a father of two small children with a reasonably demanding job; games that finish after 11 pm aren't giving me a lot of time. Plus, y'all saw the game.
Best: Sometimes You Run Into a Bigger Fish
There's no reason to sugar-coat this, so I won't; Michigan got beaten handily by a much better team. It was methodical, it was unrelenting, it was the type of performance that rightfully would be the headline in the Ass Whooping Gazette if USC-ND hadn't happened. I said last week
[b]ut I also don't see PSU as a particularly good team. They are #2 because a bunch of teams ahead of them lost, not because they've looked particularly dominant. They're better than Michigan, but the difference isn't nearly as pronounced as you'd expect for a #2/#16 matchup would suggest, and their issues along the offensive line aren't likely to go away. It's going to be an uglier game than people think, and probably lower scoring than PSU would want. This feels like a game where if Michigan can keep PSU within reach, they can pull off the upset. But they'll have to survive PSU's initial assault. The hope I have is just like Michigan looked rusty after the 2-week layoff before MSU, PSU will have some issues getting going and, perhaps, Michigan can capitalize.
I still don't know if they’ll be the #2 team in the country at the end of the year, but at least yesterday they played like a dominant team, and Michigan was the unfortunate victim in front of that steamroller. You see those scenes in movies where a guy walks into a bar and then is immediately thrown out by the hero? Well, sometimes you're Steven Seagal, and sometimes you're the guys who know Richie.
The only way Michigan was going to win this game was if it got into a rock fight, a boring-ass game from a bygone era where the space between the 30s was a muddy battleground and every run or pass looked like an NFL Blitz tackle.
But PSU was too good, too prepared to let Michigan ugly it up, and then it became an exercise in PSU's talented, experienced playmakers on offense matching up against Michigan's talented but inexperienced/ill-positioned defenders, and we all saw how that played out.
Michigan had it's moments, especially after picking off McSorley, driving down the field to score a TD. They nearly got another on the ensuing PSU possession, and McSorley again threw a bad pass, this time a screen directly into the arms of Hudson in the end zone, but who dropped it. And Michigan's second scoring drive was much like their first; a grinding affair featuring a nice mix of straight-ahead runs, a little O'Korn scrambling, and some nice pitch-and-catches. There were some subtle shifts on the line, a nice mix of zone and power, and basically the type of offense you hoped to see.
But as Ace noted in his recap, it did feel a bit smoke-and-mirrors. Michigan still hadn't figured out how to exploit the mismatches they had (mostly along the defensive line) or compensate for PSU's, chief amongst them Saquon Barkley on the move. I'll get into it later, but this was Dalvin Cook and FSU all over again, with McCray consistently losing in foot races with Barkley he could never expect to win, and PSU rightly using McSorley as a counter to Michigan's slanting by having him run through some gaping holes left by the flowing front 7. Sometimes you just get got, and when you have upperclassmen across your offense and probably the most complete back in the country (it's either Barkley or Bryce Love), it can get ugly.
And so PSU marched down the field after Michigan cut it to one, aided by a couple of nice moonballs by McSorley against overmatched safeties. Michigan went into halftime down 8 and while I didn't expect Michigan to win the game, it felt manageable. And really, that first drive out of the half set the tone for the half. While I don't put much blame on Hill for his drop to start the drive (O'Korn was under pressure and the ball was high), Michigan's ongoing issue catching the ball reared its fetid, pus-filled head, with both Grant Perry and DPJ dropping balls that either would have been first downs or been big gainers, in particular the DPJ tunnel screen that was set up pretty well. Michigan punted the ball, PSU marched down the field against limited resistance, and the rout was on. Michigan wasn't going to score 28 points in this game, and a defense that was already having a rough night wasn't positioned to turn it over with a couple turnovers or stops. The only question was if Franklin would call off the dogs a bit in the 4th, which was the most obvious question in the world that night.
Penn State scored a couple more times, punctuating the night-long mismatch with Barkley juggle-catching a wheel route that McCray was barely on the screen to see. Michigan left O'Korn out there and he did what he could with the offense, but when you can't run block all that well and the couple of receivers you do send out on drawn-out routes can't get open, comebacks aren't usually in the cards. On PSU's final drive, the announcers (who were your usual mixture of insight and chuckle-yucks I've come to expect from Herbstreit and Fowler) wondered if Franklin would try to score 49 with his backup QB, and for a while it looked like he would. Not that it would have mattered either way, but I've always subscribed to the notion that if you want the other team to stop scoring, you better do something about it. But still, Michigan ended the game with a whimper.
So where does that leave the season? Honestly, about where I thought. I figured Michigan would be 5-2 after 7 games; at best 6-1. It's a very young team that was hit by injuries at places they couldn't really afford (LT coming into the year, QB during) and continue to struggle with multi-season issues like sub-standard offensive line play, few dynamic playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, and depth issues that resulted from recent program instability and questionable recruiting practices from previous regimes. The play calling on offense still befuddles me at times; there were a couple of pass plays in that second half where the protection was reasonable but everyone was running these long, slow-developing routes that to call them "coverage sacks" would be misleading; "running out of range sacks" would be more appropriate. O'Korn seems to continuously fight this internal battle between a miniature Rex Grossman on one shoulder and whatever is the opposite of Rex Grossman (Sam Bradford?) extolling the virtues of not endangering anyone by hurling the oblong ball. On defense, those lingering questions people had about the secondary and the LB’ers were put under a spotlight, and while getting beat up by an elite offense isn't the death knell to possible upsets against Wisconsin or OSU, it's a unit that (rightfully) isn't as good as last year's, and can be exploited with the right plan and execution.
But I can also see pockets of improvement. The run blocking was solid if stunted, due in no small part to the fact that PSU didn't have to worry much about legitimate play-action passes going over their heads too often. Pass blocking wasn't great but not necessarily a tire fire; Michigan gave up 7 sacks, but a number of them came in the second half when PSU could pin their ears back without repercussions. The line should find much more success against Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland. O'Korn played within himself and, in a vacuum, would deserve another start; he won't likely get it against Rutgers, or at least he'll split time with Peters. At the very least, the play calling shouldn't change all that much, especially if Peters can pose a credible threat as a scrambler. If the official participation sheet is to be believed, Nico Collins saw some action, and at this point they might as well break some of these guys in, even if it's unlikely to mean much on the field. Young offensive playmakers like DPJ and Gentry are having their moments, as well as their struggles, in meaningful games, and you can see natural improvements in the coming years leading to a more dynamic offense. And this game notwithstanding, it's still a defense starting a hell of a lot of first- and second-year players playing at a high level, which portends only good things going forward.
I'll dig into some parts of the game in more detail below, but this was less demoralizing a loss in retrospect than it felt in the immediate aftermath. I know people want to fire everyone and blow it all up again, and the 6-5, 1-4, record-like-Hoke memes are a-comin', but I'm patient enough that if this is "rebuilding" from the RR/Hoke era, I'll enjoy the rest of the year and look for the seeds of future successes in the next couple of games.
Best: An Underdog Offensive Play calling
Now, I'm sure people will disagree with this, but I thought the play calling early on was about as good as could be expected given the talent available and the game situation. Michigan wasn't going to survive a fire fight with PSU, so they tried to run the ball with Higdon and co. and leave simple, easy throws for O'Korn. And I'm not sure if this was a decision by O'Korn or was a deliberate playmaking decision, but he also did two things that were atypical compared to previous weeks. First, on a number of dropbacks, he either almost immediately took off when it was clear PSU was dropping it's linebackers back, or quickly avoided the rush and then picked up a couple of yards versus trying to force the ball downfield. They even trotted out some occasional read option/RPO-style plays, though as far as I can tell they always handed it off. O'Korn is not a run threat like even McSorley, but when PSU sold out against the pass they opened up yardage in the middle of the field, and he took it. In a game where Michigan wasn't going to get a lot going with the conventional offense, at least early on, it "took what the defense gave them" and kept the game closer than it probably should have.
The other "wrinkle" I noticed at QB was O'Korn took some Diplo-level deep drops on his passes, and while it did lead to some hilarious "he threw 30 yards to get the ball 4 yards past the LOS" takes, it also seemed to help him see the field and, had his receivers been open and/or consistently able to hold onto the ball, get some momentum going with the passing game. I may be reading too much into those plays, but it felt deliberate, or least a response to what I can only assume was a feeling of the world crashing in on him.
Weirdly, I wasn't all that bothered by the PA on Michigan's last 4th-down attempt, which seems to be a minority opinion. It was 4th-and-11 in a blowout; it wouldn't have been beyond the pale for Michigan to fake the pass and do a delayed handoff to Higdon or Isaac and try to "trick" their way to a first. Hell, they did it a couple of times against Florida on long 3rd downs to good success. The obvious negative was O'Korn got destroyed, but in all honesty I'm not sure that half-second wasted on the fake would have meant all that much.
Now, it wasn't all Princess UniKitty. I still don't understand the passing game's completely false assumptions that (a) these receivers can consistently get separation against good corners, (b) that the offensive line can hold up on long-developing, limited-misdirection passing routes, and (c) that anyone we've seen under center can consistently deliver the ball into those tight windows in the rare circumstance a player is actually open. It's been a couple of weeks since the Purdue game, where I thought the play calling was solid specifically because it relied on short mesh and slant routes to get the ball out quickly. In that time, the passing game has regressed substantially, and a big part is that the easy throws and release valves aren't there and, when they are, aren't always being completed. There were two plays in the 4th where O'Korn dropped back and you didn't see a Michigan player anywhere near the line of scrimmage even with the rush coming, leaving him to either hurl it up or eat a sack (he chose the latter both times). Zach Gentry, Grant Perry, Sean McKeon, etc. aren't going to beat guys downfield in a straight line more times than not, and asking them to do it more because you've taken the 10,000 hours rule to the extreme is just setting downs on fire.
Worst: I Don't Understand College Rules, Part Deux
As a precursor, I am not going to equate missed calls to a missed opportunity for Michigan to win this game. Just like how some missing PSU linebackers weren't worth 39 points in 2016, a couple missed calls, no matter how egregious, weren't worth 29 points in 2017. PSU is the better team this year, and the better teams tend to not shoot themselves in the feet, knees, groin, whatever with bad penalties and poor decisions.
Nor am I a football referee, as I only have a cursory knowledge of the rulebook, and I have been called a "homer" by enough people to believe that I am not always 100% objective in viewing football plays. And I'm sure if any rival fans read this, they'd dismiss it as salty or whatever the going term for it is. I will cop to all that. But for the life of me, I don't understand what intentional grounding or offensive holding is in football anymore. Like last week when IU's Ramsey threw the ball in the general “vicinity” of a player because they were both on a football field, McSorley had at least one throw-away where a receiver wasn’t remotely capable of catching the ball as he was in the clutches of a defender. The purpose of the rule is to reward defenders for hemming in a QB and not letting him escape lost yardage by just flicking the ball into the dirt. And yes, Michigan probably got away with one or two of those throws this year, and I'd be fine if they were called for it as well. I'm fine if actual penalties are called, even if they hurt the team I'm rooting for.
Similarly, PSU wasn't called for a single hold in this game (their only penalty was an illegal block on a return in the first quarter) despite multiple times seeing guys like Gary, Winovich, and Hurst either get sat on or head locked as they beat the protection. This has been an ongoing issue for Michigan these past couple of weeks, so it's getting to the part where either referees are incompetent and/or Michigan is being legitimately blocked most of the time and my ignorance is showing. Though if it's the latter, then I'd advise Tim Drevno, for however longer he's at Michigan, to employ the "sit on guys constantly" style of blocking. It's pretty effective.
That said, Michigan earned a number of their penalties with the same inconsistent execution and recklessness (witness Winovich with a totally unnecessary roughing the passer call after crunching McSorley on PSU's second drive) we've seen all year. Even ignoring the insanity of the IU game, Michigan is one of the most penalized teams in the country, which in one way would be sort of cool/interesting if it meant they were some swaggering, intimidating defensive unit. But sadly, the bulk of these transgressions are not in the Rasheed Wallace he stared daggers through me" vein, but more of the procedural Sideshow Bob type. And you sort of expect that with the youth on both sides of the ball and systemic issues such as pass protection and changes at QB. But it is still jarring to see Michigan have some of the fewest penalties called on their opponents as well.
If people want to see the difference between having a playmaker like Peppers out there last year versus this one, this game and the FSU bowl game are all you need. Mike McCray is a good linebacker, but he's not a sideline-to-sideline athlete the likes of Devin Bush or Peppers before him. Against guys like Barkley, he's always at a mismatch, and perhaps in another game where Michigan could confidentially pull a defender over to help out, this wouldn't have been such a bloodbath. But if you watch Barkley's highlights from this game, his biggest plays typically featured McCray desperately trying to cut down an angle or catch him in the open field. That's not his game, and PSU knew this and put him in situations like it whenever possible.
By comparison, the couple of times you saw Bush match up, it went better. Barkley had that stutter-step first down run, but Bush also caught him trying to reserve field a bit out of the backfield for a short gain. He's a Heisman front-runner for a reason, but credit to Moorhead for calling plays that forced Michigan to commit to these matchups. I know there was some commentary about this being a sign of Michigan's arrogance, but Don Brown doesn't strike me as a guy who'd put McCray on Barkley repeatedly out of obstinance. Instead, I think PSU used their extra week to design plays that got Barkley moving before the snap, preyed on misdirection, and found the holes in the defense and ruthlessly exploited them. Again, there isn't another offense quite like this Nittany Lion unit until (again) OSU, so it probably won't be a weekly occurrence, but this was a matchup Michigan had no real answer to.
Worst: Catch the Damn Ball. Seriously.
In my second EDM-based, dad-tinged pun of the weekend, I haven't seen this many drops since the last Movement Festival.
But seriously, it was atrocious again. John O'Korn finished the day completing 57% of his passes for under 6 ypa; he legitimately could have had 4-5 more completions for another 50-60 yards. Does that change the outcome of the game? Probably not. But when people say "put in O'Korn, Speight can't throw the ball", and then they say "put in Peters, O'Korn can throw the ball", at some point you have to focus on the other half of those attempted exchanges. It remains a unit that struggles to consistently get the basic stuff right, which is why you have a passing chart 6 games into the season that looked like this:
McSorley isn't an arm-punter as much this year, but to watch some of his throws you are left to wonder how they'd look going to Michigan's receiving corps and not PSU's. They are accurate moonshots; they are still moonshots. Michigan has shown virtually no ability to reel those in save for Crawford's impressive reception in this game; the fact Ace tweeted about a receiver doing so 7 games into the season is telling.
I don't see it getting much better with Peters at QB; this doesn't feel like a familiarity or timing issue. At the same time, it's probably not a talent issue, as you don't usually make it this far in your career if you consistently drop passes that hit your hands. So I don't know, honestly, what the next couple of weeks mean for the receivers. They should be able to get open against the next 3 opponents, to varying degrees; hopefully their hands follow suit.
Meh: A Change at QB
It's going to happen; apparently Peters was ready to go on that final drive before the coaches put in O'Korn. I am not a believer in the notion that a player or team learns much about itself from "game reps" versus practice ones, at least to the degree fans hope they would. Peters has been watched in practice for 2 years now, and coming into the year he had sufficient hype but also the usual "he doesn't quite know the offense" and "he's a RS freshman who is as likely to explode in his own face as the opponent's". I doubt playing Rutgers will change that calculus, much like "Wilton Speight is the best QB on the roster" was borne out despite John O'Korn's game against Purdue. Peters might as well play at this point, and I assume Michigan will win these games if he plays basic, predictable football. He will make mistakes, he'll make some nice throws. He'll probably look like virtually every freshman QB you've seen over the years. But at least a couple million more people will be able to see it.
But if this was the final stand for O'Korn, he acquitted himself better than I expected. And he came in during a rough stretch, played to his abilities (warts and all), and won a couple of games. That should be commended, and I'm happy he got a couple nice moments in his senior year.
Worst: Defensive Expectations
McCray's problems with Barkley were the highlight, but the defense struggled all game to deal with PSU's offense, in all it's phases. McSorley exploited coverage downfield against everyone, in particular the safeties. The fact the top three tacklers for this game were a safety (Kinnel), a corner (Hill), and Hudson isn't how I imagine Brown drew it up. Michigan had one downfield breakup (Hill on 4th down) after picking up multiple in seemingly every game this year, and could only collect 2 sacks while repeatedly letting McSorley break contain for big gains (76 yards and 3 TDs on the ground). For the game, they gave up over 7 yards per game on the ground (excluding sacks) and 10.8 per attempt in the air. The direct snap plays to Barkley presented a diminishing return, but it only needed to work once and boy did it.
My guess is the unit bounces back against the more manageable offenses coming up, but this was probably a unit playing a bit above its head thus far. PSU clearly had scouted them out and took advantage of mismatches, and they have a particularly skilled collection of players to do so, but I fully expect teams like Maryland and Minnesota to try similar gameplans with their available talent, and it'll be interesting to see how Brown takes what he can from this game and integrate it before the last two weeks of the season, where Michigan will play the Alpha and Omega of Big 10 offenses.
Worst: The Fans
I was thinking about skipping this part, but I'll keep it brief. I saw a number of people get upset about this tweet recounting something Jim Harbaugh said after the game.
John O’Korn asked what Harbaugh told them after the game: ‘The fake love’s gone. There’s no bandwagon. Only us.’
— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) October 22, 2017
In the most predictable response imaginable, some people believed this was "calling out the fans" and was disrespectful to...someone. The fact it is 100% true and should be the message every coach communicates to his charges is irrelevant to some, but if this place is a likely microcosm of the larger Michigan fanbase, damn right they shouldn't give a shit caring out the whims and emotional maturity of the fanbase. I've said this before, but watching football is very one-sided in terms of risk-reward. I sit on my couch hundreds of miles away from virtually every game these students play each year. If they win, good. If they lose, that is annoying but I'm not going to suffer any long-term negative effects. But John O'Korn felt every one of those 7 sacks. Mo Hurst slammed into a bunch of 300 pound human beings 50+ times this weekend. They are ultimately playing for themselves and whatever motivates them to bust their asses each week, and before this veers even more into sermonizing, that team cohesion, that inter-dependence on your teammates, is what is going to get them through the last couple of months of the season, not the fickle whims of men and women checking in for 3-4 hours a weekend. Michigan is always going to have an outsized number of bandwagoners, and trying to draw much motivation or inspiration from them after a loss is a waste of energy. So good on Harbaugh for rallying his guys while reminding them of the reality of this sport, and I hope they find a way to stay this motivated and passionate going forward as they have thus far.
- PSU has an elite offense, but this was a perfect storm for them coming into this game (bye week, at home for biggest game of the season, revenge-minded, limited Michigan offense). What I suspect will happen is they'll struggle much more against OSU and, to a lesser extent, MSU in the coming weeks, just because teams will have more tape on them against "better" defenses and limit the mismatches they first for. I'm actually interested to see how they play on the road; Iowa was a near-upset, and even NW was a game going into the 3rd quarter.
- I assume this week will feature your usual grab-bag of carries for the running backs. Higdon looked good, as did Isaac, but my hope is Walker sees the ball as well. Evans continues to be an enigma; I know he's a bit snakebitten on these runs, and the play calling remains unable/unwilling to get him the ball in space on the corners, but it's more than halfway through the season and he's probably my biggest disappointment simply based on expectations.
- I understand the calls for Tim Drevno's head even if I don't necessarily agree with them, but I'm not remotely sure how people can start calling for guys like Hamilton to be fired, what, 7 games into their tenures? I get it's a vocal minority saying it, but the sample size for "acceptable viewing" is seemingly shrinking to unsustainable bounds. I am interested to see what his offense looks like with some experienced players; I have to imagine Speight getting hurt threw a wrench into his plans for the offense as much as anyone's.
- I don’t like James Franklin for a number of reasons that you I can dive into later, but credit to him for turning PSU around. I fully expect Michigan to get revenge next year when he brings a younger, less experienced team to Ann Arbor, but him desperately wanting to go for a TD to end the game is one of the more genuine things I’ve seen out of him.
Next: The Founders of Football
Rutgers is next on the schedule, featuring the same conference record as Michigan (!) and riding a two-game win streak (!!), their first as a member of the conference, apparently. It's been against Illinois, the Rutgers of 2016 for 2017, and Purdue, but wins are wins. They will be frisky, they will not necessarily be pushovers, but this still feels like a game Michigan wins pretty handily. As I've mentioned before, my guess is Peters sees at least a couple of series, and there should be more rotation at RB, WR, etc. as the team gets a little breathing room on the schedule before the final push. I'm along for the ride, at the very least.