Best and Worst: South Carolina

Submitted by bronxblue on January 1st, 2018 at 10:43 PM

This is going to be quick, because I really don't see the need to rehash a disheartening game. So I'm digging into the writer's bag of cliche tricks and doing a "theme" diary.

Worst: 10

Michigan hasn't started the same QB in consecutive games since weeks 10 and 11, with Brandon Peters getting the nod against Maryland and Wisconsin. Already down Wilton Speight, Michigan was forced to start O'Korn against OSU due to Peters's injury against the Badgers, and then went back to Peters here. There has been a lot of 1's and 0's shed about why Michigan's offense has looked...butt this year, but "playing 3 QBs, 1.5 of which would be considered functional at best" is pretty high up there.

Best/Worst: 9

#9 Mike McCray, playing in his last game as a Wolverine, picked up 9 tackles in this game, including a team-leading 4 TFLs. People will harp on him in coverage against terrifying players like Barkley and Cook, but he's been a stalwart for a defense that only had 2 returning starters coming into the year. There are absolutely bodies on the roster who can step in to fill his shoes, but that's going to be a bigger task than some people expect.

Michigan entered halftime up only 9-3 despite two SC turnovers due to, you guessed it, inconsistent offensive production. I don't know the actual hierarchy of playcalling on this team; you hear that it's some combination of Drevno and Hamilton that funnels down to Harbaugh, but functionally I don't know if that's the case on every down. But there were multiple times in this game where Michigan's offense could have, should have been able to move the ball downfield on a very aggressive SC defense. I'll accept (to an extent) that they might not be able to run the ball against a top-25 rush defense, but Michigan had 9 3/4-and-outs in this game, and a lot of them occurred from drives where Michigan showed virtually no offensive creativity. For the game, Michigan ran 33 times for 74 yards and threw the ball 44(!) times. And this wasn't necessarily all when Michigan was trailing; Peters was at 23 attempts in the first half. Peters hadn't thrown the ball more than 18 times in a game all year.

Best/Worst: 7

#7 Khaleke Hudson led the team with 10 tackles, including a sack for 7 yards and 2 pass breakups. In a story we've all seen far too often this year, the defense gave up the ghost a bit in that second half as the offense imploded, but Hudson continued his strong play to end the year. He's going to be a key part of the defense next year, and I wouldn't be surprised if he had an all-conference type year as he gets even more experience in this defense and his role expands.

A season-long trend for Michigan's woeful offense has been their 3rd-down yards to go. In this game, Michigan faced, on average, 3rd-and-7 on 21 plays. The national average is around 5 yards to go, and Michigan has consistently been above that against semi-competent defenses. There are myraid of reasons why that occurred: poor run-blocking on earlier downs, predictable playcalling, turnover at QB leading to poor decision-making, etc. But no offense does well when the defense sorta knows what you're going to do, and Michigan's 2-for-17 on 3rd downs this day is the distillation of this issue writ large.

Worst: 6

Brad Robbins punted 6 times in this game...and averaged 34.8 yards per kick. The national average is about 41 yards per kick. So even an average punting performance in this game nets Michigan an average of 6 yards more per kick. Coupled with DPJ's continued struggles fielding punts (he fumbled one that set up a late SC score, and had a couple other instances where he made poor plays on the ball), and I hope people retroactively appreciate even more Michigan's special teams play from last year. Peppers saved hundreds of yards last year with his ball-handling on ST, and Kenny Allen's 43.3 average was extremely useful in flipping field position. Early in this game, Michigan traded punts with SC and wound up 15-ish yards back. Bad offenses need breaks generated by other facets of the team, and outside of one muffed punt return by SC Michigan lost the field position battle pretty handily.

I do want to hone in on the most inexplicable turnover of this game, stemming from the most inexplicable playcall of the year. For reasons that I will never understand and I don't care how hard people try to explain it, Michigan ran what I can only assume was a modified FB dive with noted not-fullback Sean McKeon on 3rd-and-short inside their own 20 yard line. Because this is a play McKeon probably has never practiced doing expect for 2 days before this game, him and Peters messed up the handoff, SC recovered, and the rout was basically on from that point. Michigan has FBs; they have handfuls of them, perhaps even a surplus, even though apparently Hill was out for this game. They have RBs who conceivably can fling their bodies at the line for 1 yard with more consistency than a 6-5 TE. Even if that was the wrong formation or the wrong personnel, nobody on that sideline or the huddle looked at the play configuration and called a timeout, audibled to a different play, set himself on fire so as to distract the referees and players and halt the game, anything. That wasn't bad luck as much as karma punishing Michigan for hubris, and they deserved it.

Worst: 5

Michigan had 5 second-half turnovers against SC, which resulted in 10 SC points. They also had 5 TOs in their loss against MSU earlier in the year. In both those games, Michigan probably wins if they turn the ball over even 3 times. Yes, South Carolina had a bit of bad luck in the first half as well, but overall they've been reasonably lucky all year with a TO margin of +0.75 and an even better adjusted TO mark. Michigan has, well, not been so lucky, with one of the worst TO margins in the nation and even worse luck than you'd expect. One of the reasons I'm cautiously optimistic about next season is this TO margin being pretty bad; more consistency at QB and maturation in the receiving group should cut down on the interceptions, and things like fumbles are sufficiently wacky that Michigan losing 10 a year after losing 5 all of 2016 and 6 in 2015 feels a bit extreme and might be due for a correction next year. Of course, there remain issues of ball security across the team, so perhaps that's being a bit optimistic. Still, turning the ball too many times in a winnable game has become a bit of a theme for the Wolverines of the years, and it's cost them a number of wins in the process.

Best: 4

After some mid-season struggles, Quinn Nordin ended the year a perfect 4/4 in FG attempts in this game and was basically the offense for long stretches. He's probably not the kicking god we all sorta assumed he was after nailing multiple 50+ yarders to star the year, and I'm not sure how beneficial it is to have a kicker grabbing his nuts and directing it toward the SC sidelines after a conversion, but he's still a weapon and one you hope continues to improve over the next couple of years. Heck, maybe he can double-dip as a punter as well.

Worst: 3

Michigan ended the year losers of 3 straight. True, 2 of those losses came against top-5 teams in closer-than-the-final-score contests, but at some point you are your record and 8-5 with one win against a .500+ team is pretty damning. This is year 3 for Harbaugh but, due to lagging recruiting misses by Hoke, this is the year Michigan was going to experience a lot of depth and talent issues if they didn't get a heaping helping of luck at spots like QB, offensive tackles, and WR. With few exceptions, Michigan didn't catch those breaks, and that's why they had yet another different starting 5 on the offensive line trying to block for their 3rd-string QB. Help is on the way, I guess, with the addition of Shea Patterson and maybe a couple of last-second recruiting pulls, but with JBB possibly playing his last game as a Wolverine and assorted other question marks on the offensive line, I fear 2018 will be another year where Michigan looks great at most position groups and still gives a game or two away because they can't block a team to save their lives.

Worst: 2

For the game, Michigan averaged 2.2 ypc. That is the 5th time this year Michigan failed to break 3 ypc. Michigan hasn't had a 1,000 yard rusher not named Denard since 2011; Rutgers has accomplished it more recently than that. The only team I've seen to have more futility running the ball than Michigan over the years has been Illinois. I know the college game has evolved, and Michigan has been effective at distributing carries across different backs, and Higdon was close to 1,000 yards and both him and Evans return next year, and it's a top-10 rushing attack per S&P+, and blah blah blah. But Harbaugh's best teams have always had a dominant ball carrier who grinds opposing defenses down. I'm not calling for 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust or anything, but it doesn't seem like Higdon nor Evans can be that type of every-down back against the better teams Michigan will face, and until they find someone who can fit that role they're going to be succeptible to getting shut down on the ground. You watch teams like Wisconsin and what they do is just hit you with the same guy 25+ times a game, and at some point you start making mistakes and they punish you. Michigan has struggled all year to get into that type of rhythm offensively, and it's cost them in games like this one. I don't even care about 1k as a number as much as what it would mean for an offense to have a workhorse back who will be there, consistently getting yards and keeping Michigan in manageable downs and distances. Setting downs on fire for 2 yards certainly isn't working.

Best: 1

Mo Hurst played his last game at Michigan and, at least per the stat sheet, had a quiet game, recording 1 tackle, 1 QB hurry, and 1 pass breakup. But he was the heart and soul of this defense this year, an All-American to basically anyone who mattered, and one of the more fun players to watch all year. He's going to be a first-round pick in a couple of months, and wherever he winds up he'll make that defensive line instantly better. Michigan will have a lot of pieces returning next year, but his absence will be immensely felt.

Worst/Best: 0

No more Michigan football until September. That also likely means, barring another crazy run in the NCAA tourney by the cagers, no more Best and Worst columns until Notre Dame. It's a downer because I like to write these, but as a trade-off I'll have some free hours every weekend to, I don't know, pay attention to my kids or whatever humans do when college football isn't on. So thank you all for bearing with me this year, and see you in the fall.

Go blue!

Comments

snarling wolverine

January 2nd, 2018 at 1:15 AM ^

Michigan hasn't had a 1,000 yard rusher not named Denard since 2011;

You could also just say we haven't had one since 2012.

I feel for Higdon. He finished with 994. If he hadn't sprained his ankle against Maryland...

Maize and Bloop

January 2nd, 2018 at 1:19 AM ^

Usually Best/Worst coddles me back to sanity after a rough Michigan loss. This one didn't do it for me though.

Regardless, thanks for the words all season and helping me cope with this terrible condition I have called MichiganFan

bronxblue

January 2nd, 2018 at 10:14 AM ^

Brady Hoke's 3rd season featured 13 returning starters from the year before; this year featured 5, and they lost one of them (Speight) pretty early in the year.  And Michigan went 8-5 this year, a game better than Hoke's 7-6 mark.  I know people like to keep trotting out Hoke's record because it's an easy number to point at, but these teams are demonstrably different.

bronxblue

January 2nd, 2018 at 12:32 PM ^

Absolutely.  But I'd argue Michigan has never really "dominated" the conference in any meaningful way during the lives of the vast majority of fans complaining.  So it's this desire to return to a time that they don't really know, this Rockwellian past where every other team in the conference just bowed down to the Wolverines when they showed up.

Michigan will be better next year; I think PSU and maybe MSU take a step back a but, PSU because they lose so much on the offensive side and MSU because they went 4-1 in one-score games (6-1 if you kick it up to 10 points), and historically close games tend to split down the middle.  OSU will be good as usual, and Wisconsin in that division will still be a monster.  ND should be a tough team (though I think a return to greatness or whatever they usually say is a bit premature).  That's life in the Big 10.  But Michigan isn't going to be handed a conference title and a playoff berth.

skwogler

January 2nd, 2018 at 2:14 AM ^

Thanks for all your sane, reasoned commentary and analysis on the TEAM all year.  Can always count on you to bring clarity.

Harbaugh will figure this out.  Gotta build that OL and secure that starting QB and brighter days lie ahead.

Thanks again and Go Blue!

Goggles Paisano

January 2nd, 2018 at 7:23 AM ^

After a day of  letting my emotions settle in, I am in no different place than yesterday.  I am neutral toward the program.  I guess you could say I could give anywhere from 0 shits to 2 shits.  

What a long, unexciting off-season this will be.  Very unexpected.  My prediction is that the productivity in this country increases to levels unknown as MGoBloggers are no longer distracted by the excitement of the upcoming season.  

MadMatt

January 2nd, 2018 at 8:41 AM ^

Excellent work BB, I love reading your column.  Hopefully, the BB team, or one of the other sports, will tickle your fancy and lead to another Best (and hopefully only a little Worst) column this spring.  But, only do it if it's fun for you.  Wishing you and your family all the best for the new year.

I have my own Hot Takz on what I think the issues are, but I am avoiding that conversation (and to be honest, this website) for a little bit while I decompress.  Bottom line: we'd had a disappointing football season, but in the context of a lot of fine young men with excellent coaches and mentors doing many great things that make us proud.  There are hideous things in this world; one deflating football game is not one of them.

Mannix

January 2nd, 2018 at 9:07 AM ^

The last time a Michigan passing attack (loosely named) garnered only 9 TD for a season was when Harbaugh was a ball boy in 1975. That year Leach, in a run heavy offense, passed for 9 TD's.

Maybe Harbs was feeling nostalgic and wanted to harken back to the Bo era.

Other Andrew

January 2nd, 2018 at 10:54 AM ^

Thanks as always, Bronx. Still so impressed that you can get these out given your family situation is similar to mine...

Worst: ESPN coverage. (Not the announcers who were pretty good.) They probably spent half of their footage time on crowd reactions, player close-ups, or coaches calling in plays. They missed countless snaps and never showed the formations. There was zero view downfield (in part because of the low camera angle which may be a stadium issue?), so we have no idea how bad the receivers were at getting open. And there was generally a dearth of replays except for Nanni in the onion costume. Don’t get me wrong, I’m angrier about the play than this, but it did make the experience all the more frustrating.

bronxblue

January 2nd, 2018 at 12:34 PM ^

Yeah, that's what amazed me.  You have a place set up for a billion-dollar sport, and yet you'd miss pre-snap movement all the time.  I watched the Rose Bowl on their "enhanced" ESPN2 feed and even there, with 2 cameras they'd miss guys going out of bounds and bad throws left and right.

tybert

January 2nd, 2018 at 1:12 PM ^

We have big problems in coverage and tackle angles from Kinnel and Metellus - has been a problem all season. 

Yesterday, a stupid PF by JM and getting beat (again) by Kinnel. 

Hopefully, we have two new starters next year - I don't see these two ever getting to be even good enough to start on a Richrod D. 

This is the missing piece on having a truly GREAT D next year. Zordich and DB - they will fix this position.

tybert

January 2nd, 2018 at 1:14 PM ^

Two guys who played with heart all year long. Chase forced the game sealing INT vs. IU. Gary was a monster at times and had a sack yesterday.

I hope Chase is told "your draft grade is not good enough" and comes back. 

viewfromalbany

January 2nd, 2018 at 1:43 PM ^

You rightfully highlighted the disasterous call with a tight end trying to be a fullback.  When the play occurred, I just screamed at the tv.  Harbaugh's explanation afterward was appalling.  How could Harbaugh, Drevno and Hamilton have been so wrong.  Unfortunately, this is not an isolated, 2nd half of a game coaching mistake.  Starting with the 2015 MSU punt fiasco, there have been a series of late game coaching errors that have cost UM multiple victories.

A pattern has emerged when UM is evenly matched with its opponent - coaching mistakes have caused unnecessary losses.

This pattern overlayed with UM's 2018 schedule is a very ugly picture.

 

bronxblue

January 2nd, 2018 at 3:20 PM ^

I don't blame them for 2015.  I had this argument with an MSU fan yesterday and he kept arguing the same thing - that somehow Michigan didn't block properly there.  But if you watch the play, it made sense.  They were blocking 10 with 8, were rolling the protection so that Blake could rugby punt it over, everything.  Had that snap gone well, that game is over and Michigan probably forces MSU into a 70-ish yard 1-play attempt.  That was bad luck, not bad scheming.

Iowa was a bad game with some questionable decisions.  OSU last year was just two really good teams playing a close game, though I do think Speight being asked to throw out of his endzone late wasn't optimal.

This year against MSU wasn't the best playcalling by any means, but again the coaches aren't necessarily turning the ball over 5 times.  They certainly didn't call a play that made Isaac fumble the ball, or in this game Higdon coughing up the ball 4 yards from taking the lead, or DPJ misplaying a ball in the air.  I am not one to blame players and I get that coaches should deal with the brunt of criticism, but at some point you are telling player X to execute the play and if he messes that up, it's on him moreso than the guy calling the play.

This staff has had it's ups-and-downs, but they've also been weirdly unlucky.  Yes, they put McCray on Cook or Barkley, but they also found a way to win 8 games with a hodge-podge of QBs and linemen they (mostly) didn't have a choice in picking.  It wasn't Harbaugh that left Michigan with 4 senior starters total on the team, or a dearth of tackle prospects, or not a single WR from, like, 2.5 classes.  They haven't played the deck given to them expertly, but at some point you have to look at the dealer too.

BlueMurph

January 4th, 2018 at 11:47 AM ^

You do an excellent job with this column, and this was one of your best.

You celebrated what was accomplished this year, and gave a healthy dose of realism for what wasn't.

I committed myself to have moderate expectations for this young group, and for the most part maintained that, but it still disappoints to see underperformance, and there was some of that. I think the future is very bright, but there is work to be done. I have no doubt our team and staff are attacking it with an EUTM, and we'll get there.

Enjoy your offseason, and thanks for your effort to write the column. I have always enjoyed and looked forward to it.

Go Blue!