Best: Assimilation is Awesome
Last year's defense was one of the best in Michigan's history; it was both remarkably efficient at getting teams off the field and deadly at ending drives that did get into scoring position without giving up points. It was one of the national leaders in sacks, tackles for loss, and red zone defense. And it featured two first-rounders as well as a slew of 3rd- and 4th-rounders. In fact, Michigan lost so much talent on the defense that even the most optimistic fans assumed Michigan would take a step back this year. I mean, they had to. Even with a number of playmakers coming back, expecting that dominance to continue simply wasn't reasonable.
And yet, 4 games into 2017...Michigan is again one of the national leaders in sacks, TFLs, and red zone defense. They lead the nation in yards allowed with 203 per game. Both Chase Winovich and Devin Bush are top-10 players nationally in sacks, and Winovich is also #4 in TFLs. Hurst and Gary, despite not collecting a bunch of sexy stats, have been dominant; Purdue's running game finished with 30 yards on 20 carries. For almost the entire second half of the game, Michigan's defense held Purdue to 1 yard of total offense. More generally, Purdue came into the game averaging 6 yards per play and 25 first downs a game; Michigan held them to 3.8 and 9 first downs, only 1 in the second half.
And while I'm supposed to be surprised, I'm really not. This is what Don Brown's defenses do in their second years. In his second year at UConn, the Huskies went from 51st in total defense to 9th. Boston College went from 93rd to 11th to #1. Every game, you see his defenses look at what you do, assimilate it into their scheme, and then smother you from that point on. It has to be demoralizing to watch. Purdue's first play from scrimmage was a nice 24-yard throwback screen that Michigan sorta-sniffed out beforehand. But that was basically it for Purdue in terms of misdirection or confusion; the rest of the game was just a grind despite a couple of attempts to get Michigan defenders on skates. As usual, Devin Bush was flying all around the field and causing havoc, which Winovich demolished whomever was sent to block him on the way to 4 sacks. Purdue is going to be annoying as long as Brohm is there, but it's still Purdue talent and good lord, Don Brown with top-5 talent is going to continue to eat offenses up regardless of their wrinkles. As someone who lived through the Drew Brees Boilermakers while in college, seeing a Michigan defense so effortlessly crush the will of a team trying to confuse them is mesmerizing.
Best: Everything Zen
I'm going to wear a hole into my copy of Sixteen Stone, but I'm going to have to keep coming back to it as long as Devin Bush continues to have games like he did yesterday. For yet another week, Bush just wrecked Purdue's offense both in the backfield and when they (rarely) got past the front line. He combined with Winovich to destroy David Blough on a dropback. He screamed around the corner to crunch Blough again later in the first quarter. He also sprinted to the sideline to break up a pretty good throw to a Purdue TE. He finished the day tied with Winovich for the team lead in tackles, while also picking up a PBU and, while not documented on the official box score, close to a billion hits on the QB. I know there was some consternation about Michigan going so hard after Bush while, perhaps, ignoring higher-rated targets, but right now Bush is probably the defensive play of the year in the conference, or at the very least should be in the top 3. This defense would be very good without him, but he brings and edge, an aggressiveness to it that Don Brown can deploy with abandon. I know coming into the year the question was who would replace Peppers as that do-it-all player that drove the defense, and everyone sort of assumed it would be a safety hybrid in his mold. But it's pretty clear that Devin Bush has taken over the role of disruptor on defense, and he should only get better as the season progresses.
Best: No Fly Zone
Purdue looked like the first opportunity for the defensive backfield to be "exposed" by a competent passing game. Hill and Long have looked solid for most of the season at corner, and Metellus and Kinnel have largely kept the mistakes tamped down (save for one bust against Air Force), but Purdue came into the game averaging around 300 yards in the air with a 65% completion rate and 7.5 ypa. Michigan held them to 159 yards on 43% completion percentage and 5.3 ypa. Terry Wright was a tough matchup on Purdue's one long-ish scoring drive, but beyond that Michigan's defensive backs just sat on the Purdue receivers and didn't give them a chance to get open or, on the rate occasion they caught the ball, additional yards.
I guess we'll see how they handle their next big test against PSU in a couple of weeks, but (a) I don't think the Nittany Lions' receivers are all that scary, and (b) it's hard to see them suddenly regressing all that much even against improved competition.
Best: Freak off a Leash
I am going to get into what will likely be a much-ridiculed discussion about the future of the QB position in the next section, but for now I want to point out that John O'Korn had himself a fantastic game. The top-line stats were great: 18/26, 270 yards, 10.4 ypa, 1 TD and 1 pick that was a bit behind Perry but also probably should have been caught/bounced up and harmlessly onto the turf. It was his best game since his freshman year at Houston, and he displayed the mix of athleticism, quick decision-making, and solid mechanics that made him so appealing as a transfer a couple years ago. To me, his scramble to escape an unblocked Purdue defender (a not-unfamiliar sight in this game, sadly) and find Perry on a broken play was probably the best one of the day, and one that doesn't happen with Speight under center. If John O'Korn can play like he did against Purdue going forward, he should 100% be the starting QB and, more than likely, will lead this team to a conference championship and a spot in the playoffs.
And beyond the stat line, O'Korn played with a decisiveness and aggression that we haven't seen consistently out of Speight. Sometimes you hear people pejoratively describe a QB who makes only one or two reads as playing with a "simplified" playbook, as if the mettle of a QB is measured in the number of seconds a ball stays in his hand. To me, the offense changed when O'Korn took over because the ball came out quickly and (usually) to a player on the move. One of the consistent complaints you've heard about Speight (and one I've agreed with to an extent) is that his throws tend to be a little behind or ahead of his receivers, that he forces them to break their stride or compensate, and that severely limits yards after the catch and the type of open-field explosiveness that is the hallmark of good offenses. With few exceptions (an overthrow to Perry on an easy third-down conversion jumps out probably because of its infrequency), O'Korn's passes were on-point and let guys like McKeon and Schoenle build on the separation they had on the Purdue defenders. And it shouldn't be a surprise that for the most part, O'Korn's throws were to his tight ends and slot receivers; their routes tend to be the shortest/closest to the line and sprung guys quickly, oftentimes because of the "rub routes" and the usual advantages Michigan's hyper-athletic blocky-catchy guys enjoy over middling linebackers in space. The 4 leading receivers were McKeon, Gentry, Perry, and Schoenle, and you rarely saw O'Korn even look deep once it was clear that Purdue wasn't going to put up much resistance on the shorter routes.
This is the type of offense Michigan should be running, in all honesty. The receivers are very young and/or inconsistent; if they can't consistently get usable separation from defensive backs (e.g. Moe Ways was very open but was also 30+ yards downfield and was effectively out the play), building an offense around them is a recipe for scuttled drives. But Michigan has a plethora of tall, large men who can out-run your linebackers and run over your corners; they also have two pretty sure-handed slot types with enough speed to stretch the field with the ball in their hands. That's a perfectly viable offense, and it's one few teams are prepared to really contend against without somewhat-dramatically altering their front 7. And to boot, they made some tough grabs and bailed out O'Korn when he needed it. So regardless of the QB under center, letting McKeon, Gentry, and Perry lead the charge is probably the way to go, especially given the demonstrated relationship and comfort O'Korn seems to have with them.
Meh: Maybe Make the Whole Offense Out of The O'Korn Plays?
This is still something I'm struggling with, and I will happily admit if I'm way off-base, but it felt like the offensive playcalling shifted when O'Korn came in. You didn't see him look much downfield; it was short passes on quick reads. When he held the ball longer, he was under pressure and scrambled either for yardage or to throw downfield. But for the first couple of games this year, it felt like Speight was trying to throw more downfield and somewhat eschewed the shorter stuff until later in the game, if at all. Part of me thinks this was on Speight not looking for the shorter dump-off, but you'd figure the coaches would have corrected this over the past couple of weeks. Instead, it seemed like with Speight in there the focus was on stretching the field a bit and trying to get balls to the outside, while when O'Korn took over the passing offense moved closer to the line. I'm really interested to see how it shakes out in the UFR, because this is the type of offense they should have been running once it became clear that either the WRs couldn't consistently get open downfield or Speight wasn't able to get it to them.
Worst: Not Quite Here to Stay
I saw this a number of places over the weekend, and AJDrain put forth his cogent analysis and argument for John O'Korn being the starting QB going forward over Wilton Speight. And as I said above, if this is the John O'Korn we get going forward, then by all means he should be the starter; this version of O'Korn is probably the best QB in the conference (depending on how much you deduct for McSorley's, um, "displays of confidence"). You'll hear no argument from me, and my guess is Speight wouldn't disagree either if he was given a legitimate chance to win it back when he is healthy.
But we have a mountain of evidence that, when healthy, Wilton Speight is the QB the coaching staff prefers to be the starter. He won an open competition with O'Korn last year seemingly rather convincingly. O'Korn came in against Indiana and, um, played a bit worse than Tyler O'Connor did against OSU on that same day, but it was a win. Then, with evidence that Speight still had some lingering shoulder issues and O'Korn having a game under his belt, Speight was still immediately inserted back into the starting QB role against OSU and FSU, and played pretty well. Then, another offseason competition happens (even though Speight clearly had the incumbent advantage), and O'Korn acquits himself well enough but the general consensus was Speight was the starter and it was going to be Peters and O'Korn battling for the backup minutes. Speight then struggles to varying degrees for 3 games to start the year and other than a planned couple of series against Florida, O'Korn doesn't see the field during meaningful play. And even after this game, when asked if this performance opened up the QB competition again, Harbaugh laughed it off and praised O'Korn, but still seemed (at least to me) non-committal on this day truly swaying his opinion on the pecking order at QB.
Now, I'm an engineer and a lawyer; I 100% understand that as new evidence becomes available, the situation and your preconceptions around it should and will change. That's how you learn and grow as a person and achieve the most successful outcome. This was a great game by O'Korn, and should absolutely be considered by the coaching staff when determining who gets the starting slot against MSU and the rest of the teams coming up. But there is this pervasive notion by a subset of the fanbase that O'Korn was always better than Speight and that Jim Harbaugh, a man so competitive he trained his children to maximize halloween candy collection by changing costumes and hunted down kids in laser tag and apparently fired or demoted 8 Stanford coaches after their first winning season, somehow denied him of an opportunity because of some loyalty to a QB he didn't recruit and who isn't some superstar.
And let it be noted that Purdue had, by far, the worst defense Michigan has played this year. Coming into the game, they had a defensive efficiency of 60th; Florida was 42nd, Cincy 29th, and Air Force at 21, and in the case of Florida, that number is a bit depressed because they had only played 2 teams (Michigan and Tennessee). Last year, Purdue's defense was ranked well into the 100's in both fancy stats and raw defensive numbers. It is not a good defense, even if they are more aggressive and (I'm assuming) getting coached up by whatever screaming ball of blood vessels and sunburn that was tromping along that sideline. But Purdue's defense looked semi-competent because they had great turnover luck (they lead the nation in fumble recoveries), and while no defense should apologize for good luck, it can paper over a lot of deficiencies that a competent team can exploit.
This is a long-winded way of saying that some of Michigan's improvements offensively are opponent-dependent. After O'Korn took the reins, he marched the team down the field and scored a TD efficiently. But on the next 5 drives you had an interception, a 3-and-out, a 3-and-out, a 6-and-punt, and a fumble. The fumble isn't on the QB (it was a janky-looking RB screen but the ball got to Higdon and he just coughed it up), but that's still basically a quarter of play where the offense totaled a shade over 50 yards. Yes, Michigan ultimately started to break through and the offense played well with O'Korn at the helm, but to assume Speight wouldn't have been able to take similar advantage of a tiring, struggling defense as the game proceeded feels needlessly myopic.
O'Korn still made some ill-advised decisions; off my notes, he threw a ball between 3 defenders to McKeon that could have blown up, he threw ball as he was dragged down well over the head of Gentry that was immensely dangerous, and he had a little flick to Evans late in the 4th that Evans clearly wasn't expecting and could have been picked off by the two Purdue defenders directly behind him. Yes, Speight makes terrible decisions as well at times, but the line between a "gunslinger" and "reckless" is fine and unforgiving. The fact it worked out today makes no promises of similar results in the future; Speight looked like a world-beater at times last year and is now, to a vocal minority, a candidate to get a firm handshake at the end of the year or shot behind the barn, depending on your level of vitriol. And I get a strong sense that the coaches prefer Speight because he doesn't necessarily take as many risks as O'Korn; they likely recognize that this team's best chance to win is to lean on the defense and take your shots offensively when they pop up.
I know people are going to assume I'm a Speight stan, and so be it. But to me, barring additional information, this performance is exactly what you hope for out of your backup, but expecting it week-in/week-out, especially as teams have a chance to gameplan for a change at QB, seems optimistic. I want to see O'Korn get a chance against MSU in 2 weeks, even if he doesn't start; forcing the Spartans to prepare for 2 QBs with different styles is only going to be a net positive, even if Harbaugh sticks to one for the majority of the game. But Speight isn't and shouldn't be considered out as starting QB, and anyone expecting Harbaugh to yo-yo between the two as starters is going to be disappointed. The degree of his injury could absolutely change this outlook, but that's my position right now.
Better: At Least We're Average!
So as noted last week, I've been maintaining a running average of Michigan's 3rd-down distance in every game this year. Going into this week's game, it stood at a deflating 7.4 yard to go. In this game, Michigan was able to shave that down to 6.2 yards per 3rd, which is about the national average. A good amount of that can be credited to O'Korn and the offense limiting negative plays on first and second (Michigan saw only 15 3rd downs in this game, which is the same number as they did last week, but ran 10 more plays and were content to run the ball halfway through the 4th qaurter to bleed time off the clock). For the game, Michigan was 6-of-15 on third downs, 6-of-13 if you ignore the last couple of run-the-clock drives, well above the 30-ish percentage rate they were coming into the game. This is probably never going to be an explosive offense, but Michigan's ability to grind teams down requires them to stay on the field, and minimizing 3rd-and-longs is a great step in that direction. Michigan State is one of the national leaders in booting teams off the field on 3rd down, but color me skeptical about that number considering ND converted 57% against them.
Worst: Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before
I have been railing for weeks now that outside of Isaac, Michigan really struggled to get anything going with the running game. Well, after Isaac left last game late with an apparent foot injury and was limited to 20 yards on 10 carries...Michigan finished with 139 yards on 44 carries, a ghastly 3.2 ypc. And it could have been worse; I got yelled at least week for this, but if you ignore Evans's 49-yard TD run late in the 4th, Michigan barely cracked 100 yards if you factor out sacks on about 40 carries. Yes, this Purdue defense is better against the run than in years past (they gave up 146 to Louisville and 173 to Ohio while holding Missouri to 70), this is still a pretty terrible performance. Purdue was able to get penetration consistently all day, and when the backs bounced outside they rarely could find daylight. I hear the refrain that "Purdue was selling out against the run", and maybe they were a bit at times, but I honestly didn't see anything all that crazy. This wasn't Air Force throwing 8 or 9 guys into the box; this was your typical front 7 defense being aggressive, sure, but winning one-on-one matchups consistently.
And because you can't have poor run blocking without poor pass blocking, Michigan gave up 4(!) sacks to a team that came into the game with 1(!!) on the season. Speight's injury was the result of multiple linemen missing their blocks, and even when O'Korn came in he was running for his life against a number of unblocked linebackers and linemen. Twists continue to befuddle large swaths of the line, and too often you saw guys either not communicate hand-offs or just plan miss them, leading to unblocked guys barreling into the backfield. On the day, Purdue finished with 8 TFLs and I have to assume a dozen or more QB hits and hurries. In a game in which Michigan held Purdue to about 1 yard of total offense for most of the 2nd half, it was the Boilermakers who had more TFLs, more yardage lost to sacks, and probably as many opportunities to disrupt the Michigan offense as the Wolverines had against Purdue.
This should not be happening at this stage in the team's existence. Michigan has solid enough recruits at offensive line; Brady Hoke did no one any favors toward the end, but Michigan is 121st in the national in TFLs allowed. They give up 8 a game! Teams around them are your UMass's, your Washington State's, your Akron's and Kent State's. If you can't piece together 5 large human beings who can block other large human beings better than Texas State, then you are bad and you should feel bad. That's what got me about all the optimism surrounding the offensive line coming into the year; last year's line wasn't particularly good at limiting negative plays and was then replaced by players switching positions and guys who couldn't dislodge said mediocre players from last year. I will say this now - if the offensive line doesn't show dramatic improvement in the coming weeks, Michigan is going to lose 2-3 games before the end of the year, and it will be in excruciating fashion.
One mitigating factor may well be the insertion of O'Korn into the starting lineup, if the coaches decide that's the best option. He isn't an elite athlete by any means, but O'Korn has displayed an ability to run away from pressure and escape a collapsing pocket better than Speight, and if they gameplan around that I can see the offense being a bit more dynamic against all but your Wisconsins and Ohio States. That's not the news you want to hear in the 3rd year of a Harbaugh regime, but it's reality.
- The game featured 2 targeting penalties, both of which were pretty clear violations of the rule even though I could see how Thieneman hit was (somewhat) incidental. On the day, Purdue got dinged for 10 penalties, and a number of them were of the "aggressive" variety. It felt like a really chippy game all around, but it was good to see that Michigan largely kept away from situations where they could have lost players for upcoming games.
- I didn't realize Purdue didn't have A/C in the visitor's locker room during this game. I understand they are due to renovate the facilities in the near future, but how a school that gets north of $30M a year in TV and licensing revenue couldn't spend a bit of that to outfit a room with cool air is a bit amazing. Their former AD is apparently quite cheap, so if you hear about people complaining about how there isn't money to go around for student-athletes, remember that some guy in Indiana thought air conditioning in only half of the locker rooms of a D1 football program was reasonable.
- Winovich got the big numbers in this game, but the Michigan defensive line controlled this whole game. Hurst remains on most people's first-round boards, and my guess is you'll see a couple more defenders pop up there as the year goes on. Teams are running away from Gary, and the linebackers are making them pay by being able to flow free to the ball carriers because offenses can't get any real movement against the starters. In a weekend of hyperbole, mine is that I think this front 6/7 is better overall than last year's, simply because they seem like perfect complements to each other.
Hate Two Weeks!
So MSU is in 2 weeks, which means (a) MSU has a chance to come into the game riding a 2-game "Defeated with Dignity" streak after playing the Hawkeyes, and (b) Michigan won't be looking past them even with road games against IU and PSU looming. MSU's offense is, I guess, better than last year's at QB, though Lewerke still looks grossly overwhelmed while under pressure. You'll hear MSU fans say they significantly outgained ND in their last game, which is factually true though you could counter that basically that whole margin came on 2 drives at the end of the game when Michigan State was down 28 points. They were also able to somehow have a 19(!) play, 81 yard drive end on downs(!!), which really is the most MSU drive you could imagine post-2015. On defense, they play aggressive and have some talent on the defensive line, so expect them to get pressure on Michigan's QB and for there to be some grinding drives where the running backs get 3 yards repeatedly. But that secondary is still terrible and if Michigan plays to its strengths in the moderate distance downfield, they should have a field day. It's a team that isn't as bad as you thought it would be but isn't anywhere close to the program that went to the CFP less than 2 years ago. We all remember what happened the last time MSU came to Michigan Stadium; I expect there to be consistent and painful retribution. Go Blue.