Best, I Hope: The Peters Principle
I assume most people have heard of the Peter Principle, a theory that most commonly is applied to management, which states a person's advancement with an employer is based more on their current job qualifications than those required for the job they are being placed in. In other words, you don't stop moving up until you show you can't do the job you have, resulting in you "rising" to the level of your incompetence. Both the US and UK iterations of The Office have this as their underlying principle, embodied by Michael Scott/David Brent and their various follies as middle-managers. So on it's surface, this principle (along with it's spiritual brother principle Murphy's Law) dwells on the negative, the times when square pegs meet round holes, and everyone looks like a fool.
But the Peter Principle is, at its core, far more benign. It's not about finding failures as much as seeing how far something can go, about applying what works to new and demanding problems until the solution stops working, and only then trying something new, gaining knowledge of your limitations in the process. As a society, we lionize this process of trial-and-error, of using what you know and then growing and responding when that stops working. Whole industries are based on this approach. And in sports, particularly football, you see it most prominently when announcers say a team is "imposing it's will" on its opponent, running plays it knows will work and the opponent being unable to do anything to stop it. And as fans, when you see that happen, you are usually overtaken with awe/dread (depending on what side of the equation you're rooting for), but also surprise it didn't happen earlier, that they wasted plays/quarters/games doing something inferior. And in hindsight, the fact the team clung to something that wasn't working almost always seems a bit foolish, a waste of finite resources that now seems even more egregious compared to what is working now.
The thing about hindsight, though, is that it's lazy; it only shows up when it's too late for it to matter. People have been arguing for weeks that Brandon Peters should have replaced John O'Korn at QB, and after every ineffective, demoralizing, and emotionally-draining performance, this decision to stick with O'Korn seemed less and less logical. It wasn't that John O'Korn had played particularly well in any of those contests, but if the guy who couldn't be out this guy wasn't particularly good, what are the chances the guy who couldn't beat out him would be any better? And this wasn't an indictment of Peters's abilities as a football player, only the reality that a RS freshman might struggle behind a porous offensive line and (until recently) supported by an ineffective rushing attack, leaving him the crosshairs of a world of hurt with minimal payoff.
But after 4 offensive drives that featured two fumbles, a pick by O'Korn in which he significantly underthrew Gentry, and 13(!) yards on 3/6(!!) passing, any lingering notion that maybe, sorta it worked with O'Korn at QB was eradicated, and the Brandon Peters era commenced.
When a change at QB happens, you hear people talk about how a team's complexion and "attitude" changes with it, how when it goes well, the offense gets a new life and starts executing at a level previously unseen. Personally, I don't buy that as being a real phenomenon, since it presupposes that players give up on the starter and cover their diaries with odes to the boy on the bench. It applies a mens rea to what usually is just an atomic process; either the ball is there or it isn't, a pass gets completed or it doesn't. Petty grievances aside, most players just want the spot on the field to perform well, to keep this human Rube Goldberg machine moving along, and they'll do whatever it takes to make that happen regardless of the number on the jersey.
But when that spot on the field isn't performing, for whatever reason, and you replace it with a person who does, Brandon Peters's game against Rutgers is what you hope happens. Peters was both efficient (71% completion rate) and effective (8.9 ypa, 1 TD). He was a perfect 4/4 passing on third down, converting 3 and the other one leading to a missed Nordin FG. He played within himself, supplementing the dominant running game with easy passes to open receivers and, in what is sadly a notable achievement in the art of quarterbacking this year at Michigan, going through his progressions and finding the right receiver a couple of times. Basically, he didn't screw anything up. And yes, he got a little lucky his "I'm going to stare at the receiver the whole way near the goal line and then rocket the ball like Henry Rowengartner" was batted down instead of picked off, and against non-Rutgers defensive lines he probably won't be able to outrun tacklers until his receivers can break open to consistently, and his throws were consistently a bit behind his receivers, most notably the ball to Evans for the TD that could just have easily been batted down or even intercepted, but like we said when Speight was scuttling and O'Korn looked awesome against Purdue, the other guy couldn't even do this much, so stop complaining!
Now, if you can sense a "but" coming, then you read my column when O'Korn came in against Purdue and somehow overlooked my terrible Korn-based pun in the title. I'll get into it a bit more below, but we've seen this story play out before, and no matter how awesome your new square peg is, there are some round-ass holes here that you aren't going to fill in a year, holes left by poor recruiting, poorer player development, and poorest (?) bad luck. Brandon Peters looks like a upgrade over John O'Korn and Wilton Speight; the fact he's the third option, and the coaches were pretty reticent to bring him out until literally they had no other option, is as telling as however good he looked against Rutgers. So I want to hope that the coaches looked at what did and didn't work with Speight and O'Korn, recognize that this offense is only going to survive with a focus on running the ball and opportunistic passing that doesn't ask the QB to do more than make 2-3 reads, and continue that with Peters. He is now the present and future for this team at QB, and my hope is that the competence he showed at the position on Saturday translates going forward. Because while a conference title and a 10-win season are longshots this year, having some clarity about the guy who will be leading the charge the next couple of years is priceless.
Worst: Pumping the Brakes...Again
I'm going to crib a lot of my earlier comments when it came to O'Korn's great performance against Purdue and how, well, everybody should maybe take a step back before proclaiming it a repeatable performance. Against Purdue I noted:
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...This is a long-winded way of saying that some of Michigan's improvements offensively are opponent-dependent.
Well, Rutgers and Purdue are ranked 33rd and 34th, respectively, in defensive S&P ratings at the time I wrote this diary. Both are inexplicably decent at stopping the pass despite having sack rates in the 100s, and both are middling in terms of creating turnovers. But, and this is so weird to say when talking about either of these clubs, they are both competent enough against the pass that you can't totally discount both O'Korn's and Peters's performances against them out of hand. Given the context, both of them played very well against defenses that weren't the 2016 vintage we all expected. At the same time, I'd argue that neither opponent probably spent much time preparing for either guy at QB, and at least Minnesota has a frisky enough defense that Peters will be tested by a unit capable of game planning for him. Still, this is slightly more encouraging than I expected.
But this is the part that still scratches away at the back of my brain:
O'Korn still made some ill-advised decisions...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...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.
Peters is probably a better all-around QB than O'Korn, and at least anecdotally one consistent theme throughout his recruitment and his time at Michigan has been a calmness, a consistency in his approach that you didn't hear as often about O'Korn. Peters absolutely can "explode spectacularly" on certain plays when he tries to do too much, but even in this game you saw a guy who tried to make the best throws available, not the best throws possible. It's probably cliche, but Peters took what was available, and if it meant balls toward the sidelines down and away, so be it. Other than one deep ball to DPJ he didn't try to really stretch the field vertically, and other than the aforementioned throw near the goal line he seemed to throw away from traffic whenever possible.
Still, this is a RS freshman who couldn't beat out Speight (understandable) and O'Korn (understandable if a bit less believable now), and even if he's the best version of a RS freshman he is still the third-best option the coaches felt they had this year; he's the "in case of emergency, break glass" option in 2017, and that means something significant and shouldn't be brushed aside with "he just needed a chance" or "maybe the coaches were wrong". Because (a) we heard the same types of things about O'Korn, and (b) it introduces a conundrum about the coaches. It either means these coaches were wrong about either 1 or both QBs before Peters, which brings into question their ability to accurately analyze QB play, OR it means they are right about the quality of QBs on the roster and Peters was sufficiently worse than both Speight and O'Korn that he was only given a chance at QB after their hands were pushed by some terrible games. Now, that doesn't mean Peters is doomed to weeks of terrible performances; a player can be slotted behind others for reasons well beyond talent, and it is certainly believable that after the loss to Penn State effectively eliminated Michigan from the conference race, the argument that "you can't ask a freshman to lead a championship contender" disappeared and with it, the last major hurdle to keeping Peters off the field.
Still, barring a change of events that would defy most rational analysis, Brandon Peters is not going to complete 70% of his passes and lead an offense on 5 straight scoring drives (I'm crediting Peters for getting Michigan into very makeable FG range for Nordin). That's totally fine, and if he's reasonably as efficient as he was in this game this team can beat anyone left on the schedule. But I just want to set expectations that the dude who replaced the dude who only replaced the other dude when that dude got hurt might have some (totally understandable) rocky outings in his future.
Best: The Best Nearly-300 Yard Drop Ever
Last year, Michigan went to Rutgers and dropped the equivalent of a Yokozuna on them rushing the ball; 605 yards at 8.8 ypc. In this game, Michigan took a massive step back from that performance, recording a mere...334 yards on the ground at 6.5 ypc. in 2016, they had 2 guys rush for over 100 yards and Isaac missed being the third by a single yard; this weekend, Evans didn't even crack 30 yards on the ground, though Khalid Hill did keep up his 1 carry-per-TD pace he showed last year's game with, now, 3 TDs on 3 carries for a total of 3 yards. If you went into this game hoping to see Michigan somehow put up a Patrick-Mahomes-vs-Oklahoma passing-type numbers on the ground, then you were severely disappointed.
Still, despite this bitter disappointment, Michigan had a pretty good day on the ground. Higdon and Isaac were dynamite running the ball, with Higdon having his second 150+ yard rushing game of the season and Isaac looking the part of the every-down back he was to start the year. Evans didn't run the ball much, but was effective when asked, and he also flashed the pass-catching component he brings to the offense with a great catch on an underthrown wheel route for Peters's first TD. That's a play that should have been in the playbook all year, and either it never worked or the coaches didn't feel like dialing it up, but after being on the receiving end of a LB chasing after a super-fast RB out of the backfield, it's nice to be on the right side of the ledger for once.
I know there was some discussion after last week's game that Michigan was bad at zone blocking, but I didn't see anything in the UFR that was all that definitive either way. They picked up one or two longer runs with either a pin-and-pull or Power O, but with so few meaningful carries and PSU not even considering paying lip service to the pass, but with enough One Guy Messing Up I'm not sure how much you can take from that game. This contest will be much more illustrative because Michigan was consistently able to gash Rutgers on a variety of runs, and with so many different backs, that we should get a better sense of which playcalls worked best and with which players. Unless game situations demand otherwise, these next couple of weeks should play out a lot like this game, with Michigan being content to bash their opponents backwards at 6 yards a pop and throw only when necessary or to take advantage of defenses cheating up.
Best: This Team Can Run Block; Ask Again Later About Pass Blocking
The good news is that Rutgers, a team that was one of the worst in the country at TFLs and sacks coming into the game, left largely at the same place; Michigan gave up only 5 TFLs (and really only the O'Korn fumble was more than a yard or two) and 0 sacks. For those of you scoffing at the tiny white flag I'm waving over such an accomplishment, remember that Purdue recorded 4 sacks and 8 TFLs against Michigan despite coming into the game with only 1 sack and 8 TFLs in the previous 3 games.
Michael Onwenu in particular looked great in run blocking; Matt Millen is an atrocious voice to hear for 3+ hours, but one of his view solid observations was how good Onwenu was executing his assignment and sticking with his blocks. He's been the best run blocker on this team for over a month, and I'd be amazed if he didn't grade out at that level again after this game. It's not coincidence that Michigan's current identity as Jerry Kill's Minnesota++ coincided with his his emergence as a road grater, and I don't see that changing much regardless of opponent.
The pass blocking remains a mystery. Yes, some of those sacks last week were on O'Korn not throwing the ball away despite there being reasonable options downfield. At the same time, Rutgers is not a team that is going to get after you, and there were times in this game where Peters was able to escape pressure that probably won't be as easily duplicated against better defensive ends. As I noted earlier, pass blocking remains the biggest hole on the team, and unless Michigan has a Khalil Tate hanging out in the locker room, you can only paper over that limitation so much with the current roster. And watching OSU completely man-handle PSU's line a week after Michigan struggled to do so, I'm not optimistic that we'll see massive improvement against better competition.
Worst: People Being Worried About Points
Rutgers scored on what felt like a near carbon-copy play of Barkley's first TD last game, a direct snap to Grant who cut against Michigan's aggressive slanting for a 65-yard TD. Bad angles were taken, LBers ran themselves out of the play, and there was probably a safety who took a bad angle. And they also scored on one of those drives where Rescigno suddenly couldn't miss (and his receivers pulled off 1-handed grabs under heavy duress), and Gus Edwards Sr. just smashed his way through the chest of Devin Bush for annoyingly-incremental gains all the way to the endzone. Those two drives amounted to virtually all of the yards Rutgers accumulated on the day; two 75-yard TD drives and 10 other drives that totaled 45 yards. Along the way Michigan picked up 5 sacks and 11 TFLs, consistently smothering anything resembling and offensive rhythm by Rutgers and, heck, even got a holding penalty called on the other team's offensive line, something that had happened in about a month.
And yet, I saw a number of people call the safeties "trash" and demanding sacrifice to appease their displeasure. I'm sure there will be a couple of plays where Kinnel and/or Metellus took a bad angle or missed a tackle, but I thought both bounced back pretty well after really rough games against PSU. Kinnel had the one-handed catch against him on Rutger's second scoring drive, and either him or Metellus overshot his spot on the Grant run, but not a lot of plays even got to them (4 tackles total), and Kinnel had a nice PBU to boot. I think the farther we get away from that PSU game, the more it will be clear that PSU was (a) an elite offense capable of exploiting even the tiniest sliver of space, and (b) Moorhead called a great game and found ways to put talented-but-young guys into tough spots in a way that most teams can't.
Rutgers is a demonstrably better team than last year, and yet Michigan still dominated them. It remains a young defense figuring itself out a bit, but if the defensive line can replicate what it did in this game (4.5 sacks, 7 TFLs), this team should start looking the part of the dominant defense there were basically before going to Happy Valley.
Best: Playing Himself Into the Draft
Hurst had another game that I hope the scouts paid attention to, because I think Brady Quinn was on to something. On the first play of the game, he just obliterated the poor Rutgers blocker tasked with stopping him and sacked Rescigno into oblivion. He controlled the line throughout the day, gumming up any attempt by Rutgers to mount a rushing attack and laying waste to anyone Rutgers threw at him. He finished second on the team in tackles on the day, and continued to be the anchor the rest of the defense revolved around.
And with Hurst dominating inside, both Gary and Winovich had solid games at the edges. Gary had one sack and probably should have had another; he got around the edge so quickly he couldn't quite square up to the QB. Still, he looked dominant and, and Winovich got back to harassing QBs with 1.5 sacks. Devin Bush also again unleashed, keeping plays from escaping to the edge and getting into the backfield with regularity. I now I've said this a lot already, but these next couple of weeks should be a nice reset for the defense as they get a chance to feast on offenses ill-equipped to handle them.
Berst?: Semi-Competent Officials
There were a total of 6 penalties called in this game for 45 yards. Compared to past weekends (and what we saw by the O'Neill crew in the OSU-PSU game later that night), this would be considered a solid outing. And yet, I thought the officiating was still wildly inconsistent. Michigan's 4th-down conversion by Higdon could best be described as a "charitable" spot; I thought he was short in real time and, even if on review you could argue he got just to the line, the certainty by which the refs initially spotted that ball felt a little premature. As for the fumble recovery on the punt, I honestly though Michigan had lost it. I didn't go back to rewatch the play beyond rewinding it in the moment, but that felt like another lucky break for Michigan as Rutgers had a bunch of guys in the vicinity. But sometimes judgment calls happen in games. What really got me was the number of missed holds by both teams. Yes, Michigan finally got a holding call go their way, but JBB blatantly held a couple of times and Rutgers at one point just started tackling Hurst as soon as the ball was snapped. I'm totally fine if proper penalties are called on Michigan as long as they are consistent; I'm less of a fan of swallowed whistles even if it benefits Michigan. As a referee, your job is to call the game as you see it, and too much or too little application of the rules has the same effect in my eyes; it forces players and teams to play differently and deal with uncertainty in how the game will be officiated.
- Good lord Matt Millen 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. And I don't know, when your were the GM of the only 0-16 team in NFL history and your Wikipedia page includes a section about "controversies" that includes calling a former player a gay slur and another guy a derogatory term of the Polish, how much are you really bringing to the table that a Big Mouth Billy Bass couldn't?
- I'll say this here: I think Michigan beats Wisconsin on the road. It's just...Wisconsin hasn't played anyone, and that can 100% hide your weaknesses but also diminish your strengths. And yet, for the second week in a row they were in a close-ish contest with a clearly inferior opponent well into the second half. And their offense is pretty one-dimensional; Hornibrook isn't going to beat anyone in the air, and while they are great running the ball it's the type of straight-ahead style Michigan is better equipped to handle than the types we saw by PSU and will by OSU. The next couple weeks might change that opinion, but right now that feels like a coin-flip game.
- While I've not been a huge fan of the offensive playcalling this season, I do think the constant changes at QB have limited what the coaches can do. In this game, it wasn't that the team called noticeably different plays once Peters came in, only that their QB did a better job executing them and finding the right safety valves to keep plays going. I've harped on the fact these receivers struggle to get open against good coverage teams, and that's still a big issue. But I also get a sense that sometimes they are open and the passes just aren't being thrown. My hope is that Peters will be more inclined to do so, because there is a passing offense in this team that can do some damage if given time.
- I am done with announcer and PBP people praising mediocre coaching. In this game it was constant references to Chris Ash having a team that wasn't the worst in the country somehow being on the upswing (maybe they are, but you sorta had to be after the last couple of years). In the PSU game, the Fox announcer kept praising the genius of James Franklin for "saving" a timeout before the half. To me, that was ludicrous. First off, had Franklin really planned on sneaking in a final possession of the half, he wouldn't have let the clock wind down 30 seconds after OSU's first play lost 7 yards. Then, when OSU was punting, he would have tried to actually block the kick and not set up for a non-existent return, in the process not punishing OSU for a bungled snap. And then finally, he would have actually gotten the team ready for that last drive and not, you know, taken a delay of game on the first play, then kneeling to run out of the clock. Sometimes people just do things because they don't think about it and it looks "smart" in the end because of context well beyond their control. But for whatever reason announcers are so starved for something new that they'll create these scenarios out of pure fiction.
- This is beyond petty I know, but watching both MSU and PSU lose in such soul-destroying fashion was great. MSU has been playing with fire way too often this year, and PSU blowing a lead in part because their offense turtled a bit was fun TV, especially given how much praise Franklin has gotten for game management. Yes it means OSU is in the driver's seat again, but one step at a time.
The Fleck Express arrives to town, and this will be a nice second game for Peters. Minnesota's defense is probably not quite as good as their top-25 ranking denotes, but they are definitely good enough to make Peters work for this yards, and it will be interesting to see how he handles some gameplanning. I still think Michigan wins comfortably, probably following the same formula they did this weekend. I just want to see a reasonably facsimile to this week against a similar opponent, because a little momentum and continuity on offense could really help with this closing stretch of winnable games.