This is going to be a short one. I didn’t get home until late Sunday night, only finished watching the game in full around 9:30 pm. Of course, after weeks of relatively uneventful games that let me ramble on for 5,000 words, an actual, compelling contest breaks out and I’m going to be quick-hitting the whole thing. Ah well.
Best: The Lewis
For a certain vintage of Wolverine fan, The Woodson has mythical properties. It came during that magical 1997 season and, along with the punt return against OSU, was THE signature play for Woodson during his final year. From a contextual standpoint, the play had everything you wanted: the opponent was a rival that was actually pretty good (MSU was ranked as high as #11 that year and were definitely turning into the best version of those Saban teams), the stakes were huge on a season level (UM was #5 in the country), and the game itself was still close late in that third quarter. And in the moment, all of the elements were perfect: Woodson displaying preternatural instincts and athleticism to be in that position, to stretch out every inch of his body, the amazing control to corral that ball and land with a foot inbounds, even the way the referee signalled the turnover with one of those emphatic arm swings you usually see when umpires punch batters out or when Shelton Benjamin's jaw was greeted with some Sweet Chin Music.
It was a perfect distillation of football, of all those coach-isms you hear spouted by announcers of players "just needing to make a football play" as they choke a bit on the faux nostalgia. It's a moment that feels both of the time and timeless, one of the greatest players in college football's history putting his stamp on the timeline while the sidelines seem to to be outfitted only with rejected windbreakers from Eastbay. And the fact that everyone who wasn't in East Lansing that day saw it in 4:3 aspect ratio on some oversized "standard definition" tubed TV made it more indelible because it required a certain article of faith. We didn't have super-clear HD signals on massive flatscreens and DVRs; you saw MSU's QB get flushed toward the sideline, toss it up and out of bounds to live another day, and the next moment you saw Woodson just dripping in swagger from the sideline while the ref said it was UM's ball and it all seemed insane and unbelievable, a defiance of physics and unspoken laws of football. You hear rival fans complain about UM often living on past glories, and there's some truth to that, but every year I find myself watching this play a couple of times and every time it still fills me with the same giddiness, the same excitement, the same logic-defying awe that a person catching synthetic leather in his hand can take my breath away. And it stands up; it'll always stand up.
For a new generation, I hope Jourdan Lewis's interception in this game takes on such reverence, because it deserves it. Like Woodson, even outside of the context of the game the mere mechanics of the play were pretty remarkable. First off, it’s man coverage with Lewis trailing Rushing and only daylight ahead of him. Thomas was somewhat in the vicinity of the play, but had Lewis let that ball get past him I’m not sure anyone stops a TD. Also, like a lot of Hornibrook’s throws, it was a bit short, meaning that Lewis had to judge on the fly that he was no longer trailing the intended receiver but was starting to wall off the “defender” on his own reception. To those watching on TV, it’s obvious the ball is slowing up, but on the field and going at full speed, I have to imagine this wasn’t as clear. Plus, if the ball was coming up short, the corner is always susceptible to the cheap PI call as the target tries to “fight back” to the ball, forcing Lewis to play it as it flew. And finally, he had to make that play with full extension and only one hand.
I know there are #GameTheory reasons why Lewis should have just batted that ball down (1st-and-goal from the 8 vs. around midfield), but this is college football, and so "knock it down" isn't a given. But regardless, it was an amazing play by a player I think some people have forgotten about amongst the stars on defense. But while Peppers and the line have gotten the lion’s share of the attention these first couple of games, and Stribling and (before his injury) Clark played great while Lewis was on the mend, it’s Jourdan who was the All-American last year and hasn’t missed a beat since he took the field.
Now, Lewis probably isn’t going to receive the accolades Woodson received during that year; if anything, another defensive player will be getting that love. But this team still has the same goals, and if they attain them it’ll be because of players like Lewis making plays like that.
Best: Eater of (Cheese) Worlds
Oh boy, the defense.
Where to start? Wisconsin’s isn’t a dynamic offense, but it still came into the game averaging around 410 yards per game; they finished the day with 159 yards. They didn’t crack 100 yards rushing or passing despite averaging about 200 in each phase coming into the game. Despite only recording 2 sacks on the day, UM’s defense allowed exactly 3 drives (out of 13) over 4 plays, with no drive being longer than 37 yards. Wiscy’s lone score came after a 46-yard interception return, and for the game were only in UM territory 3 times. If last weeks’ game was an ass kicking, this was a smothering.
At no point did Wisconsin show an ability to move the ball consistently, and at times it almost felt like they just wanted to give the defense a breather before sending them back out.
In addition to the fantastic coverage by Lewis all game, he also had 4 solo tackles, including a couple against the run/off screens that stifled what could have been dangerous plays. It took him a couple of weeks to get on the field, but he was an All American when he ended last year and is probably better thus far this season.
On the other side, Stribling had a really solid day. He had 2 picks, played really solid defense despite being the clear focus of Wisconsin’s (admittedly anemic) passing offense, and didn’t let anything break long on him. There was one mistake in the 4th wherein he sort of tripped and let Jazz Peavy get open with yards of open space only for Hornibrook to overthrow him, but otherwise Stribling played almost as well as Lewis. With Clark out for the year, it’s nice to see that Stribling can still give UM great coverage opposite Lewis.
The defensive line, as usual, dominated the opposition. This was a pretty stout Wisconsin line that could not get anything going on the ground, and the lack of sacks and TFLs can in part be attributed to the relatively small number of plays and the fact Hornibrook rarely looked to throw the ball deep. And when he did, he had to get rid of the ball in a hurry as the pocket collapsed around him.
About the only area that had some issues were the linebackers in coverage, as both McCray and Gedeon seemed to lose contact with Wisconsin receivers and running backs for substantial gains this game. But even that is picking nits; the one TD scored was on a perfect throw with Gedeon giving decent coverage; sometimes you just get beat by a good playcall and execution.
Honestly, I’d like to write more about the defense because it feels like I’m short-changing them, but what else is there to say? This is the second week in a row where nobody busted big, and the rest of the time the unit was just gnashing up playcalls and spitting out the remnants for 2nd-and-long. Without hyperbole, I’m not sure there’s a team they’ll play this month that will be able to break 300 total yards against this defense, and both Rutgers and Illinois have strong chances of seeing the Michigan side of the field only at the end of quarters. I’m going to have to spend part of my time this week finding ever-more-humiliating images to encapsulate what this defense does to mortals.
Best: Two-Dimensional Offense
You look at the raw numbers (130 yards rushing at 3 ypc, 219 yards passing at 6.8 ypa) and it feels a bit underwhelming – coming into the game, UM averaged 52 points and around 470 yards per game. But watching the game, it felt like the offense was working hard against a really good Wisconsin defense (even down star LB Biegel) and finding ways to move the ball. Speight was under fire throughout this game (4 sacks, 3 more QB hits, and a dozen other times where one or more Badgers were bearing down on him), and handled it pretty well. There were a couple of times he spun away from pressure, kept looking downfield, and didn’t panic with the ball.
As per usual it seems, his worst throws were when he was reasonably clean; his pick was thrown between 4 Wisconsin defenders, and he nearly had another ball picked off near the endzone in the first half while sorta statring-down Grant Perry. He’s never going to be a 2016-style “playmaker” like Lamar Jackson or Deshaun Watson, but he plays within himself and keeps the team in a game (63%, 219 yards, 1:1 TD:INT). And his final TD drive was borne from a calmness that has been his trademark this season, throwing a perfect ball to Darboh for the winning score.
(As a quick aside, Darboh is having a great final year. Him and Speight are clearly on the same wavelength, and he’s displaying some quickness to complement his physicality. He beat the Wisconsin corner here by a step or two, and picked up another first down on a slant where he outran the trailing player. He’s not a burner, but there’s an athleticism emerging here that UM can absolutely exploit).
The running game also felt solid even though they recorded 200 yards less on the ground than against PSU last week. Excising sacks and end-of-game runs designed to bleed the block, UM averaged about 4.5 ypc and picked up 11(!) of their 21 first downs on the ground. And they did so despite losing Grant Newsome for half the game (and, based on early reports, the rest of the year), conscripting Bushell-Beatty into the lineup with mixed results. And against a Wisconsin front that loves to bring pressure, the backs kept moving forward (only 2 TFLs for 2 yards).
Isaac felt like the star of the game for the backs, consistently slicing through creases and picking up yardage, especially in that second half. Of course, he also almost coughed up the ball deep in UM territory with barely anyone around, which brought back nightmares of his game against Maryland that basically stapled him to the bench. But he recovered nicely and really is a solid talent when he can keep the ball secure. Smith plowed through guys (though he missed at least 1 big cutback on the first TD drive that would have picked up a first down), while Evans had a nice early run and also caught a ball for a first down. It was weird to not see Higdon a week after his coming out party against PSU, but otherwise everyone you sort of expected to show up did and performed consistently, which given how this running game has looked in the past is whole-heartedly welcomed.
What got Michigan was it’s inability to end drives with points. UM had 23 more plays than Wisconsin (76 to 53), 13 more first downs (21 to 8), held the ball for 11 more minutes (35:41 to 24:19), won the turnover battle 3-1, and the field position battle by 8 yards per drive. But they also went 3/15 on 3rd down. They had a couple very makeable FGs they missed and had a couple more drives into Wisconsin territory that died due to costly penalties and sacks. Some of that you expect against a top-10 defense like Wisconsin’s, but this was a game that shouldn’t have been so close late in the 4th. A big part of Wisconsin having a shot to win a game like this hinged on UM’s offense struggling to put them away, and that nearly came to fruition. There isn’t a team on this schedule save for OSU that can slow down UM’s offense, but there are quite a few teams that can absolutely turn bad plays into gifted points. That needs to be shored up quickly.
Worst: Kenny Doggins, Amirite?
Something is wrong with Kenny Allen. He can sorta still punt, but if there is really such a thing as yips, he’s got it with kicking FGs. I’m not blaming him; kicking a football sounds incredibly stressful, especially since perfection is the baseline and you have so few opportunities to make amends. Blow a block or give up a long TD, and you’ll (probably) be out there on the next series with a shot at redemption. But there might only be 3-4 times a game when a kicker can ply his trade, and thus misses are amplified. But it might be time for UM to either find a different FG kicker or change their approach offensively in those situations. I assume Harbaugh will look into all options, including going for it on reasonable 4th-down distances, but I think we’ve seen enough evidence that something is amiss and until it gets resolved, there’s no reason to keep playing roulette.
Also, and this will be an ongoing complaint, but can this team just settle on a spread punt formation? I get when you are playing dinosaur football you trot out all the favorites, but the way an overmatched team stays in games is with special teams miscues, and there were a couple of punts late in the game the Badgers had chances to return because there were 2 gunners and nobody else for 10 yards. If you are going to block the kick, then go for it, but a standard formation that half-assedly puts pressure on the kick while leaving returns exposed seems like the worst of all worlds.
Worst: TV Clock Management
Complaining that football games take too long isn’t new; all those unpaid amateur athletes apparently still have bills that only EA Sports* and heavy-duty trucks shilled by a self-professed “asshhole” can pay, and that isn’t going to change. But as someone who was watching this game in pieces at a 90th birthday party, it was, I guess, the opposite of a blast to watch the last 3 minutes of Definitely Not Back Texas vs. Oklahoma St. when I fired up the DVR Sunday night (oh, and watch a video of a college QB going all Dude Perfect throwing a ball to his friend on a Jet Ski). Games don’t fit into nice little 3-hour chunks like they used to, and yet still scheduling games into those blocks just leads to the inevitable overruns and frantic channel flipping as you have to find something called ESPNews 7.5 so that you can watch kickoff recorded on a portrait-oriented video from a production guy’s iPhone 5. And the thing is, we’re all football addicts; you could schedule the game to start at 4 and we’d still watch. And with #Pac12AfterDark, Saturday games have actually become a 14-hour bender for the rabid fan. But don’t force me to watch two teams I don’t care about run out the string either.
* I’ll admit, I do think this particular commercial is clever. Doesn’t mean I need to see it every couple of breaks.
Best: Another Rivalry Game!
So UM will finally leave the cozy confines of Ann Arbor and travel to hated rival [citation necessary] the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. They are of course coming off a stirring…a, nevermind.
Yeah, this will be ugly. UM isn't going to score 58 like OSU because, well, what the Buckeyes are doing is a bit unreal (and probably a bit unsustainable), but they'll dismantle Rutgers just as easily. And given that it's UM's first road game, I'm looking more to see how the offense looks in a hostile-ish setting, given the fact they'll be going to MSU, Iowa, and OSU later on in the season. You always hear the adage that defense travels, but the offense is still just wonky enough that I'd like to see them put a couple of TDs on the board early. That said, again, this game should be out of reach by halftime, though I suspect Harbaugh will play it straight for a bit longer. Still, UM should head into their bye 6-0 and primed for the meat of their schedule, and we’ll have a Wife Day worth discussing.