So that felt...routine-ish? Like, not demonstrably different than against Maryland except that Michigan wasted a couple more scoring opportunities? I'm not sure how I'm going to keep writing these diaries without fresh content. It also doesn't help when the game ended well into Saturday night...
Best: Changing Expectations
First, a mea culpa: I have been very wrong about a bunch of stuff thus far, mostly to the betterment of Michigan's football team. I thought Shea Patterson would be fine at QB but erratic enough that Brandon Peters (yes, THAT Brandon Peters) would likely see real, live gametime. I'm just going to link to my preseason diary for a bunch of blockquotes.
On one hand, the top-line stats for Patterson at Ole Miss last year are a bit misleading; he put up great numbers against South Alabama and UT-Martin (918 yards, 76% completion, 9:1 TD:INT, 12 ypa) and perfectly adequate numbers against the P5 defenses he saw (1341 yards, 58% completion, 8:8 TD:INT, 7.4 ypa)... When he’s right, it’s a thing of beauty; when he’s wrong, it’s…not. And my guess is that that gunslinger mentality will lead to some rough games having him “play through it” might not be the best option, especially with a pretty good QB right behind him.
So the gunslinger tendencies have popped up, mostly in the form of bad sacks/dangerous throws (he had a couple in this game) and fumbles, but certainly not to the degree I expected nor particularly detrimental to the team overall when you consider all of the ancillary benefits. He's re-awakened the offense just with his presence, seemingly in the control of the playbook and allowing the team to maximize the athletic and systematic (and yes, I wanted to say "schematic" but that word is forever ruined by Charlie Weis) advantages they have against virtually everyone on the schedule. And the "pretty good QB right behind him" isn't Peters, but instead Dylan McCaffrey, the Mike Teavee of the McCaffrey family who had another great run this game and should be a worthy successor to Patterson in the likely event Shea goes to the NFL next year.
After Notre Dame, I said the following about the offensive line:
Now, before you call me a homer, that doesn't mean I think the offensive tackles will be even below-average this year. They won't; we've seen enough from the current starters to know that ain't no bird rising up from their ashes... But I've seen enough football, particularly at Michigan these past 10-odd years, that I'm not holding out hope that it will. At best, they'll likely be below average pass blocking, and the hope is that the ranking is closer to 80 than 120. My one hope is that they hold on for dear life to those redshirts for guys like Mayfield and Hayes. This team is probably 1.5 tackles away from being a real contender nationally, but because of timing, luck, and poor roster management they couldn't get another year year out of Mason Cole or any year out of Grant Newsome.
And while I was marginally optimistic in the preseason that Warriner's track record plus the fact you can sort of "rep your way to competence" on the line (because it's so much about communication, knowing your spots, etc.), I certainly wasn't banking on them being any better than below average. And on top of that, I figured they'd be manhandled by offensive lines like Wisconsin's, which we all sort of assumed would be full of mashers and All-American linebackers who are in the backfield before Ruiz has turned his head up.
And yet, as I sit here on October 14th, 2018, Michigan has given up about 1.5 sacks a game and are a top-25 sack rate to S&P+. Last year? Michigan gave up nearly 3 sacks a game and were 117th in adjusted sack rate. And true, they haven't faced a particularly ravenous slate of pass rushers this year, but (a) there aren't a ton of those on the horizon either, and (b) they've shown significant improvement even against the middling pass rushes they've seen versus last year, where they gave up 3 sacks to Minnesota, 4 to Purdue, another 4 to MSU, 7 to PSU, and what felt like way more than 5 to OSU. There were multiple times during this game where Wisconsin rushed 4 and Patterson had all day to survey the field and look for receivers, a seemingly-innocuous occurence to people who hadn't watched 2017 Michigan give up pressure to those basic front in seemingly every game. JBB and Runyan have their ceilings, but whether by maturation, coaching, luck or some combination of those three, they've raised those bars to the point that Michigan had the second-best pass-blocking effiency in the conference a couple weeks ago and have since mashed both Maryland and Wisconsin into the ground. Maybe a hitherto-unnoticed shoe will drop, or Michigan will suffer some rash of injuries that limits their line play, but at this point it's getting hard to deny that Michigan's offensive line is pretty good, certainly good enough, with all the other facets of this team humming along, to beat anyone on the schedule and bring home some hardware.
And I guess that's the part of being a fan that is always hardest. On the one hand, your intimate knowledge of a team gives you outsized positivity about every coaching change and hyped backup "catching the eye of the coaches"; you hear "Mo Hurst, but big and fast" for a guy who hasn't played more than a handful of meaningful snaps and nod your head without hesitation. But at the same time, if you've paid attention over the years and retain some of that institutional memory (and you aren't an Alabama fan), you know most of the optimism is missplaced and bad things happen to your team, so you simultaneously fixate on every misstep and foible as a sign of larger, systemic issues that won't ever be solved. Count me amongst the masses who thought the offensive line was going to be a turnstile at tackle after the ND game, even though in hindsight most of those issues were probably based on inexperience and Warinner still getting his plans downloaded, not fundamental issues with the players involved. Notre Dame completes a couple of inch-perfect deep balls and every grumble about safety coverage rises to the surface and feels like a prophecy about to bring about locusts in the slot so thick they block out the sun.
But that's not the issue, really. Michigan is a really good football team; S&P+ has them #4 and while you can quibble about the ranking a bit, the fact that Michigan is hanging out comfortably amongst the top 10 teams in the country certainly isn't. Are they perfect? Nope. But they just dismantled a team that entered the year #4 in the country and, despite a stumble against BYU, looked like one of the better teams in the country. Hell, over the past decade they've lost 4 games by more than 10 points, and those teams were a couple of national title teams in OSU and Alabama (and a really good Tressel-era OSU squad in 2009). I'm not one for superstitions or omens, but if a blowout of the Badgers is a precursor to greatness then let's Good Luck Chuck this all the way to Indy and beyond. And what felt like a murderer's row of teams now looks far more tractable, rivalries and past blowouts be damned. I'm not predicting that Michigan is going to run the table until Columbus or anything, but against one of the toughest schedules in the country they've been beating good teams as you'd expect for a top-4 team, and they've done so with steady improvement on both sides of the ball. They're starting to live up to their expectations, and it's starting to feel like 2017 was the aberration that it sort of felt like in the moment, and this is the type of team Michigan will look like under Harbaugh going forward.
Best: Leave Nothing to Chance
One of the more encouraging signs for Michigan this year has been their ability to, for lack of a better word, messing around with opponents. That doesn't mean they are infallible, only that they are pretty good at not letting teams get off the mat against them. At halftime of this game, Wisconsin had 127 yards to Michigan's 203 and even though Michigan had probably left 7-10 points on the field thanks to a couple of missed FGs and some scuttling in the red zone, they hadn't really let the Badgers get going offensively save for their one TD drive. Yes, Jonathon Taylor was running well (7.2 ypc), but that was basically it for their offense. But we've seen that story before; last year Michigan entered the half tied despite outgaining Wisconsin by 70 yards and then proceeded to gain about 50 yards in the second half, turning a game they led into the 3rd quarter into a sound defeat. That was emblematic of Michigan last year; they would let teams hang around and let games go pear-shaped. To point, Michigan gave up 7 leads last year (Florida, Purdue, MSU, IU, Wisconin, OSU, and South Carolina), and even though they won a couple of those games and the magnitude of those leads wasn't always immense (there were a couple of 3- and 7-point leads in there), it was still a team that couldn't put that distance between them when they had the opportunity. Compare that to this year, where they've given up a lead and trailed as a result exactly once - to Maryland last week, on a Ty Johnson 98 yard KO TD. They've let a couple other teams tie it up 7-7 (Wisconsin this week, SMU a couple back), but that's it. And while they've struggled at times to score early on in games, from the 2nd quarter on Michigan has outscored their opponents by a combined 223-77, and a TON of that 77 came like it did in this game, with Wisconsin going hurry-up with 5 minutes to go down 30. It's why we've seen so many backups and rotational players see snaps in games this year; Michigan is putting these games out of reach efficiently and ruthlessly, and they're reaping the benefits.
Michigan started the 2nd half of this game going 75 yards in 11 plays, scoring a TD after getting a couple of breaks (Higdon's fumble squirting out of bounds, Cheeseman getting fouled on a punt), and you could see Wisconsin visibly deflate on the sideline. Coming into the game the big concern for Michigan defensively was Wisconsing embarking on one of those long, meandering drives that lasts half a quarter and beats up defensive tackles. But the script was flipped in this game; Michigan was the one who talied 3 11+ play drives while Wisconsin's longest was 8 plays; they didn't break 6 plays in the second half until their meaningless final drive. When the game was still close-ish, the Badgers were the ones punting after 6 plays and 16 yards, or turning the ball over for a defensive TD after another long FG drive. Wisconsin never had a chance to catch their breath, and it's those lulls that let worse teams keep games close. It's what MSU will try to do next week, and it's something Michigan seems designed to minimize.
Best: The Problem With Counting Stats
So in this game, Michigan tallied 3 sacks for 23 yards as part of an 8 TFL, 33-yard effort. They also picked up 3 other hurries and 2 forced fumbles as well as 2 PBUs, while Wisconsin only had 2 sacks (no other TFLs), 4 PBUs and 2 hits.
Oh wait, nevermind. Flip those names.
If you looked at the box score, you'd have thought Wisconsin dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, harassing Patterson constantly while imposing it's will on Michigan's tackles. And yes, Wisconsin's line looked every bit as Wisconsin-y as advertised. But outside of some early success running the ball, Wisconsin struggled to get much going against a Michigan front 7 down Rashan Gary and with some hobbled pieces in Dwumfour and Solomon seeing the field. And Hornibrook never looked remotely comfortable throwing the ball; both of his picks were the direct result of Michigan pressure forcing him to either throw off his back foot or directly into coverage. In the end, Michigan's defense played so well that they made Alex Hornibrook play worse than the 2/17 for 8 yards and 4 picks QBs at Rutgers.
According to ESPN, Rutgers' QB went 2/16 for 8 yards and 4 interception and still had a better QB rating than Hornibrook did against Michigan pic.twitter.com/ThDOiDkaAx— Spooky Patrick Barron (@BlueBarronPhoto) October 14, 2018
That's right - Michigan's defense made Hornibrook go full Rutgers, and you NEVER want to go full Rutgers.
On the year, Michigan boasts a decent sack rate per game (27th) as well as TFLs (22nd), don't force a lot of turnovers, and are only pretty good at kicking teams off the field on third down. Based purely on the numbers, it would almost feel like a step down from the past couple of seasons. And yet, per S&P+ Michigan has the #1 defense in the land; they next two teams are defense-first, second, and third teams in Kentucky and Auburn. Michigan, on the other hand, features a top-30 offense.
And it's games like this that highlight how great Don Brown's defenses are. Wisconsin, a team that entered in the game with a top-10 offense per S&P+ and somehow went up after barely cracking 200 yards, were given credit for being able to really do anything during the competitive parts of the game. We're used to seeing Brown download opponent tendencies and wrinkles at halftime; in this game, it was basically one scoring drive and that was it. At this point, it feels like a defense that can absorb some punches without really giving much ground up, and unlike in years past the offense lets them take some chances without needing to play perfectly.
I didn't take a lot of notes during the game; this was a more visceral watching experience than, say, SMU. But one I did write down, especially in that second half, was how Michigan's offensive line was just caving in whatever side of the Badger defense it wanted to when running the ball. While Wisconsin had some success early on busting up runs before they got much going, by midway through the third quarter Higdon and Evans were consistently getting 5+ yards before they even sensed an opposing player nearby. And in the end, Michigan finished the day with 320 yards on the ground and multiple big runs. I remain skeptical about how PFF grades offensive linemen, but they've been touting Michigan's improved line play all year and so has the UFR, and for all the caveats about Wisconsin's defensive line this was still another test the linemen passed with flying colors.
Worst: Ball Security
It feels weird to find something negative after a win like this, but both Higdon and Patterson coughed the ball up in opportune moments that, in a tighter game, could have hurt more. Higdon fumbled the ball on 3rd-and-1 and was, frankly, lucky it bounced out of bounds instead of get returned the other way for a score. And I get that bad breaks can happen when guys lead with their helmets like that, but had Higdon simply turned into the line and pushed through the contact, he probably gets a first there and Michigan is still on track. Similarly, Patterson did hold onto the ball a couple of times longer than you'd have liked, and when he started scrambling around he got the ball raked away by Connelly. He was also lucky that the ball was recovered by McKeon, and the loss of yardage pushed Michigan into the 54-yard FG attempt to end the 2nd quarter. Either take the sack or throw the ball away without putting it on the ground and maybe Michigan gets another 3 points before the half.
Michigan has been fine this year in terms of turnovers; they've only lost one fumble and gained another. But as we've seen with MSU both this year and last, they thrive on turnovers to keep them close to superior teams, and I do hope that this rash of turnovers was the outlier it appears to be and not something that will become a trend. I assume not, but if would be great if Michigan got it out of it's system this week and keep the slate clean next week.
- Patterson had a nice, efficient day. I saw people complain about not throwing the ball deep and missing some receivers, and I'm sure there were parts of that. But in a game where Michigan didn't face much resistance running the ball and Wisconsin's best chance to score would have been short fields, it made sense that the gameplan got pretty conservative. Will that be possible next week against MSU? No idea, but much like concerns regarding Patterson's running ability with the read option, I have faith that the downfield passing will be there when necessary.
- Similarly, Michigan got multiple big runs from their QBs as Wisconsin bit down on a number of handoffs. Both Patterson and McCaffrey used the threat of a handoff to great effect, and Milton's broken-ish run showed his potential in that department as well. It'll never be a core part of the offense, but this is the first time I can remember Michigan having a legit running threat at QB who is also very accurate throwing the ball. It really opens up the offense and will help buy Michigan some extra time against more aggressive pass rushes. They'll probably need it against MSU and PSU, and it's good to see it's in the bag of tricks.
- Penalties were limited in this game (Michigan's sole one was for excessive celebration), and I have mixed reactions about that. On the one hand, it's nice to see a game just run the way it should; these were two physical teams and so rubbing and racing is to be expected. But at the same time, Michigan got away with some handsiness on defense and Wisconsin just tackled guys on the edge seemingly all day. Again, it might not matter in a blowout, but in a closer game the inconsistencies in penalties could swing a contest.
- Michigan's concerns along the defensive line, especially at tackle, turned out to not matter. Kemp held up well, Mone did the same, and Michigan got valuable snaps from Solomon and Dwumfour not so much for this game but for the next couple. You hope Gary can come back and play next week; what sounded like a "walking wounded" injury may be worse than expected, but with another week off and a bye week after, I hope Gary is good to go. In his stead, Winovich played his usual elite game while Paye and Uche were able to get consistent push on the few pass attempts while not get completely bulldozed on running plays.
Next Week: These Guys
I don't know, man. MSU looks like a mediocre team; they won in Happy Valley because James Franklin is a pretty meh coach who maybe pulled a rabbit out of his hat (and a superstar away from Rutgers) to save his job a couple years ago but is still the same guy who got outcoached by Brady Hoke. Michigan State still can't run the ball to save their lives, they aren't particularyly efficient throwing the ball (Lewerke threw 52 times for 259 yards, which is less than 5.0 yards per attempt), and you can throw on their corners. At the same time, they play an ugly, sludgefart of a game that can mess with any team. So I don't know. Michigan is the better team this year; they've also arguably been the better team the past 3 years and have 1 win to show for it. So who knows, though it does feel like this Michigan team is both properly motivated and has the temperment to handle all the shit MSU will throw at them. I think it'll be a close UM win, but one that is painfully tense despite, say, MSU being demonstrably worse for most of the game.