Best: Infuriatingly Appropriate Use of Talent
A couple of days ago, the question was asked about whether or not people should be worried about DPJ's career at Michigan, that perhaps his body of work was more in-line with a 3/4* receiver and not the 5* athletic dynamo he was christened coming out of HS. And this isn't an attempt to put the OP of that post "on blast" or whatever the kids are saying; one of the lingering concerns around Michigan football for what feels like decades has been it's inability to consistently capitalize on the high-level talent it tends to recruit, in particular on the offensive side of the ball. I mean, look no further than the top-rated commits of all time per 24/7. While most of the defensive stars have generally played up to expectations, the offensive stars are filled with names like Ryan Mallet, Kelly Baraka, Kevin Grady, Derrick Green, Carlos Brown, Tim Massaquoi, and oh god this is rough. Even if we are generous about offensive lineman, maybe the most "successful" highly-rated skill player Michigan has produced in over a decade is Mario Manningham, a fine receiver at Michigan with an iconic catch and a solid NFL career but certainly not the first name that leaps to mind when you think of Michigan's talent maximization. And yes, I recognize that the ratings services only go so far back and any list would be deemed incomplete depending on your context; my time at Michigan featured Drew Henson, Anthony Thomas, David Terrell, early Braylon, etc., and I'm sure there are other guys I'm forgetting to came in with proper accolades and more-or-less lived up to them. Plus, there is soemthing to be said for being able to recruit high-level talent to such a degree that you can still be pretty successful despite it not always panning out; in the world where recruiting is a lot like a weighted lottery, you'd much rather have more tickets than not.
Still, it's hard not to look at Michigan's record since Carr left (76-54, 58% winning) compared to his run (122-40, 75% winning) and wonder why Michigan can't quite seem to use the talent they have as effectively anymore. Because the talent is still definitely there; here's a chart of Michigan's recruiting since 2008:
I'll save you the math - it works out to just a shade under .9000 average across all classes, which means Michigan's average recruit during one of the least successful stretches in its history is a top-300 player nationally. So let it never be said that Michigan brings a knife to a gun fight; they are almost always packing some pretty big rounds.
So I dug a bit deeper and charted the S&P+ rankings for the offenses and defenses over that same frame. Let's just say they carbon-date the RR/Hoke years almost perfectly.
Again, to save you the math that's an average of a top-50 offense and a top-30 defense, with the deviation more significant for the offense than the defense (so far this year, Michigan is sporting both a top-40 offense AND a top-10 defense). And really, once Michigan figured out that Rich Rod wasn't going to work out and that forcing defensive coordinators on a head coach wasn't smart business, Michigan has been one of the more consistent defenses nationally. Still, this is a team that averages a 4* player trotting out a top-25 offense exactly twice in the past decade, one the year they gave up 35(!) points per game and the other the year following, where a metric ton of golden horsehoes (in the shape of Denard Robinson and Fitz Touisant) fell out of Brady Hoke and Al Borges for 13 weeks.
So why bring this all up? It's certainly not because I love re-evaluating the past couple coaching regimes. But it's to highlight that perhaps Michigan fan's, myself included, have come to be far more dour and dismissive of this team under Harbaugh than we probably should be, especially when it comes to the perception that they aren't beating some of these teams by "enough" based on the talent currently on the field. To look through the game thread and see various peoples' reactions on social media, you'd have believed Michigan barely escaped against 0-3 SMU, that Michigan was out-coached and out-executed by some scrappy team.
But the thing is, this is how games against overmatched opponents sometimes look; they're gross and disjointed, usually a combination of one team letting up a bit on the gas while the other finds a couple breaks and gets hot for a quarter. Even during this game I had flashbacks to sitting in the stands and watching WMU do basically the same thing in 2002, a game where Michigan was always up comfortably but they'd give up just enough yards and sputter just enough offensively (2/11 on third down) that it was annoying. And annoying is probably the best word for it; at no point did I expect Michigan to even be challenged by SMU, but it didn't "feel" like the 25-point shellacking it was. And that's probably due mostly to how the game game began and sorta ended.
That first quarter was a mess, as Michigan started off sluggishly on offense as they were without leading rusher Karan Higdon and are still dealing with the very-real issues on the offensive line. On their first two drives, Michigan only picked up 30 yards on 8 plays (and one completion probably should have been a pick), with SMU getting far more penetration on both runs and pass attempts than you'd like to see.
But then Michigan started to wake up on theird third drive of a game; Michigan mixed in Ambry Thomas and Chris Evans on 4 straight rushes, then a nice throw to Gentry got Michigan deep into SMU territory. A couple plays later Michigan was close to scoring when Patterson got picked off in the endzone on a play where McKeon sorta stopped coming back to the ball and allowed the SMU defender to jump ahead of him. Thus the first quarter ended tied at 0, and even though the top-line numbers looked about right (Michigan had 103 yards to SMU's 50 and had held the ball for 11 of the 15 minutes), the scoreboard wasn't as encouraging. But you could tell Michigan was just more talented by SMU, and that the talent was winning out more times than not. Michigan struggled (relatively) all day on the ground, averaging less than 5 yards a carry and failing to crack 200 yards. But SMU couldn't cover any of their receivers for a meaningful bit of time, and so on Michigan's first drive of the second quarter it wasn't surprising to see Patterson drop a dime on Gentry under pressure for 32 yards. He followed that up with another nice throw to Perry, and from there Michigan just battered their way to a TD and the lead. SMU answered with a 50-yard TD on a clear defensive breakdown, but Michigan quickly answered with a 5-play, 60 yard TD drive, culminating in a 35-yard TD pass to DPJ where he was screamingly wide open. SMU worked their way down the field on the next drive, helped by what would be a series of dubious DPI calls, but Josh Metellus closed the half with a pick-6 and Michigan entered halftime up 14 and, again, dominating SMU (205 yards of total offense compared to 144 for SMU). And Michigan kept the good times rolling for basically the whole rest of the game, scoring on all 4 of their 2nd-half drives (3 TDs and a FG) usually quite quickly. And Michigan's top players shone best in the end, with Patterson throwing for 3 TDs, all to DPJ, who probably would have had a couple more had SMU not had two scoring drives in the third quarter that spanned a total of 28 plays and 13 minutes.
And yes, SMU scored twice in that third quarter, but to say they did so only with some healthy doses of horseshit officiating would be a disservice to defecating horses. For the day, SMU had 7(!) first downs awarded them by penalty; they only had 15 total via run or passing. And four of those first downs came on defensive pass interference, apparently due to the fact that this crew hadn't seen Days of Thunder or, I guess, college football defenses in decades. So no, this game was annoying not because SMU "figured out" Michigan's defense as much as they made a couple nice plays and then were handed gobs of extra yardage along the way.
Michigan out-gained the Mustangs by 115 yards and generally looked like the more talented team yes, but also one that was figuring out just how many weapons it had offensively and how they could be used to make life hard on their opponents. Michigan isn't Alabama, Georgia, or (probably) OSU; those teams are variable amounts of terrifying on both sides of the ball. But they are at least as talented, if not more, than every other team in college football, and even in a game where they couldn't run the ball all that effectively their offense looked crisp and efficient, and the defense was it's usual meat grinder even with the occassionaly hiccup. This is the type of game really good teams have during a season, and the fact that Michigan has outscored it's opposition 111-33 since the first quarter against Notre Dame shouldn't be dismissed.
Best: Throw Everyone the Damn Ball
Shea Patterson is pretty good at football, apparently. Evan having played the #5 defense nationally per S&P+ (Notre Dame), he currently sports a 6:2 TD:INT ratio, 9.1 ypa, 71% completion, and has started to unleash Michigan's downfield passing game for what feels like a half-decade of slumber. Of note, Michigan has 3 completions this year of over 40 yards; last year they had 5 total, and they haven't gotten to play defenses like Nebraska (351 yards passing to Colorado), Rutgers (354 yards to OSU), and MSU (319 yards to Utah St., 380 yards to an Arizona State that couldn't 130 against San Diego St.). He has re-introduced Michigan's vertical threats, and because of that he's helped taken some pressure off a Michigan offense that last year had to just grind for touchdowns. Last year Michigan's average play was 5.18 yards; this year, it's up to 6.58, and so Michigan is able to strike faster and more efficiently, which lessens the exposure Patterson has behind this still-developing offensive line while also letting more guys get comfortable in the expanding playbook. Last year Michigan's passing offense spread the ball out (8 players caught at least 10 balls), but it felt more a by-product of trying to get someone, anyone to be a consistent threat; it's why their two leading receivers were a TE (McKeon) and a slot receiver (Perry). Already this year Michigan's got 6 guys with 5 or more catches in 3 games, and WRs already have more TDs (5, 6 if you count McCurry) than they had all last year (3).
And yes, Patterson isn't throwing the ball all that much, but that's to be expected given the blocking and Michigan's overall gameplan in a lot of these games. I said after the Notre Dame game that this season might play out a lot like 2015, where an early-season tough loss on the road to a good defense perhaps overshadows an improving offense, but what took half a year in Harbaugh's first year seems to already be in the works now. Patterson's playing like the highly-rated QB he was coming out of HS, and Michigan's other skill players are benefitting as a result. Northwestern, I guess, looms as the next major "challenge" for him as a passer, but that's starting to feel more dubious by the week. And even Wisconsin doesn't look like quite the killer defensively as they did to start the year. So as long as Patterson stays upright, it's probably safe to assume that he'll continue to be the hyper-efficient orchastrator of this offense well into the fall.
I'm not as down as some are about the running performance in this game; Chris Evans's best attributes are not as a grind-it-out feature back running the ball 20 times, and with Higdon out he filled in that role admirably but unspectacularly. For the game he averaged right around 5 yards per carry before going down with cramps midway thorugh the 4th quarter. Of course, his last play was a nice little scamper for 35 yards; before that run, he was chugging along at under 3 yards on 17 carries. Michigan needs Higdon to be that battering ram, that inside-out threat that sucks defenders close to the line so that players like Evans can sneak out to the flats or just behind the defensive line and into space. All accounts I've read point to this being a (relatively) minor injury, one that you hope another week off will remedy.
And initially, I thought this was due to SMU being more disruptive on the defensive line. A week after pretty authoritatively sandwiching a mediocre rush defense, it just felt that SMU was able to consiswtently get more penetration, even though the top-line stats (1 sack, 4 TFLs) don't scream it. Again, that may also just be the by-product of Michigan being without Higdon and the lack of plays Michigan ran in this game. Despite the score, neither SMU nor Michigan broke 70 plays in this game; Michigan only recorded 59. So maybe the disruptions stuck out because they'd be one of the few plays Michigan would run before they scored. But then I dug into the play-by-play and realized Michigan had one negative play the final three quarters of the game, a 1-yard loss by Tru Wilson. I'm intrigued to see what the UFR says for this game; I feel like it'll be better than I thought during the game, which might as well be this site's motto at this point.
This isn't a knock on the defense as much as how the game was called; Michigan getting flagged for 4 defensive pass interferences drove me insane, especially since all 4 came on SMU's scoring drives or almost-scoring drives (the first was on Metellus just before the half). And I get it that some officials are going to call tight coverage different than others; pass interference is inherently somewhat subjective, and one guy's "fighting for position" is another's "interference". But it felt like they assumed every bit of contact was initiated maliciously be the defender, even if the ball was uncatchable. And similarly, while I accept that the NCAA wants you to believe they care about the health of their players (without actually, you know, having to do anything about it), "guys hitting other guys with their bodies" feels like a core component of the sport, and semi-arbitrarily treating one tackle as a suspendable offense while ignoring countless others isn't going to make the game any safer; it's just going to piss people off because it's very difficult to alter human behavior in the moment.
One thing that did bother me was the couple of contrarians who said that Michigan fans complaining about poor officiating was rich because they got a couple of bogus calls for them, chief amongst them they VERY nice spot on Evans's 4th-down run. And to them I say we can live in a world where the referees called a bad game AND Michigan still benefitted from some of it. I don't ascribe malice to the officials in this game as much as weirdness or ego. They wanted to send some type of message here, and if that means they don't see yardage markers or actually witness Rashan Gary get held and properly throw a flag for it, that doesn't change the fact they made this game both longer and worse than it had any right to be.
Best: The Defense Was Fine, Again
So I don't know what to make of the defense's efforts in this game. They played really well, got gassed a bit in that third quarter when SMU couldn't quite get booted off the field, but still held them to under 5 yards a play and generally dominated at all three levels. James Proche was a handful all day and made a number of great plays in tight coverage; he had a TD called back on a hold that was perfectly dropped into his lap despite a guy being on his back. William Brown had a solid day running and throwing the ball in that second half; yet again, they defense struggles with mobile QBs rears its ugly head. At the same time, he didn't throw a pass until his team was down 21-7 (and didn't complete one until they were 28-7), and a couple of his throws were both right on the money and also at such weird angles that it didn't feel like a sustainable offensive system.
In the end, they played well enough to comfortably shut down a bad team. Metellus was picked on a bit, and Hill has definitely come back to the pack as a corner, but that just means there are now 3 really good corners instead of 2 plus an elite one; life could be worse. As for last week's breakout player, Carlo Kemp kept the good times rolling picking up a sack amongst his 2 TFLs and generally holding up SMU's attempts at running the ball. If Martinez is able to go next week for Nebraska we'll see how he handles a pretty mobile QB, but thus far he's provided exactly the type of steadiness people expected from Dwumfour (who was fine in this game as well) and, who knows, might be able to provide a bit of pass rush as well.
It's weird; I want to write more about the defense. But there really isn't that much that hasn't been discussed ad naseum. Don Brown's units are tenacious, well-coached balls of death, and teams like WMU, SMU, and ND don't really stand a chance unless they can pull some magic out of their hats throwing the ball into super-tight windows. Credit to SMU for doing that a couple of times this game, but otherwise this was a game where the defense let the offense figure itself out with minimal pressure to score, and then let up slightly once the game was out of reach. Maybe Nebraska asks more of them, but it'll probably be Wisconsin before they meet a team that has an offensive system that could test them in any meaningful way.
- Ambry Thomas being mixed into the offense is a nice change-of-pace, though I do hope they don't just trot him out as the ceremonial Jet Sweep recipient twice a game. He's not going to be a Peppers-type offensive weapon, but when Matt Millen keeps chirping on about how "he's out there for a reason", it's a pretty big sign to opposing defenders that you should keep an eye on him. Michigan tried to use him as a distraction, but lining him up for a fake sweep and then running said sweep on the next play isn't all that deceptive.
- All the ink was spent on the connection between DPJ and Patterson in this game, but Gentry looked really good out there as well and seems to be forming a good relationship as a constant mix-match. Patterson throw a ball to a well-covered Gentry that wasn't really in danger of being defended due to Gentry's physical proportions, and that's the type of guy a shifty QB like Patterson will fall in love with on the run.
So yeah, this Scott Frost guy is coming in next week, and he had some choice words the last time he was in Ann Arbor. I think Frost is going to be a solid coach in the conference, but I think a lot of people forgot that UCF had been a pretty successful program before he arrived there and has a talent advantage over most of the G5. Nebraska has it's charms and is still a decent recruiter for the West, but my guess is this year is going to be rougher than expected as he grapples with the issues left behind by Riley plus the fact that he can't just out-athlete most of the teams on the schedule. Of course, one would have assumed he'd have had the edge over Troy Trojans (of Troy!) and Colorado, but so be it. My guess is that it'll be a game not unlike SMU, with Nebraska being able to move the ball with some regularity but Michigan being able to do what they want offensively. That Notre Dame loss will always sting, but right now Michigan is looking at a far less daunting schedule than we figured to start the year, and you don't have to squint all that much to see them only having one or two losses before they head to Columbus. I'll take that.