This is going to be a relatively short diary, mostly because I want to pace myself for what feels like a long year and because there really isn't that much to say about this game. And virtually all that needs to be said is pretty good.
Best: Back to Normal
So the refrain since the Notre Dame game was that this was a no-win situation for Michigan in terms of restoring confidence in the program: beat teams like Western and SMU by a billion points and that's what's expected; lose and you better hide your kids because the pitchforks and torches are out. These games are viewed as cupcakes, the teams you're supposed to feast on because you are bigger, stronger, and faster to a man, and so they can really only tell you what's wrong with your team, not what's right. But as we've seen this year, none of these early-season games are gimmes, and so when a team like Michigan, coming off a tough loss on the road to start the year, basically takes 1 drive to get going and then doesn't really let up until the final whistle, that's notable and shouldn't be dismissed as par for the course.
A Fleck-less Western Michigan isn't the pretty-good team nationally they were in 2016, and they are certainly closer to that base-level homeostatis all MAC teams settle into when they don't have an elite coach. At the same time, they have recruited like a low-level Big 10 or high-end G5 team for some time, and a decent number of those players are still on the roster and thus make the Broncos more of a headache than usual. This was a game I predicted would be "not that close, but still annoying", and for about 5 minutes it looked like that. Michigan struggled to get the ball moving on their first drive, Shea Patterson was under pressure on his first couple of pass attempts, people weren't lining up right, and it was hard to ignore the audible grumbling come through my TV's speakers. On the other side, WMU broke off a good run to start their drive, and took a couple of deep shots downfield that, while not particularly accurate, showed how free-wheeling they'd be in this game. To say flashes of 2017 rushed through my brain would be a lie, and while I could fashon excuses such as "never schedule Air Force" and "Luke Fickell planned to stop Michigan for over a decade", that wasn't going to cut it against a team like Western.
Luckily, those uneasy feelings disappaited almost immediately thereafter. After punting on their first drive, Michigan scored TDs on their next 5(!) possessions, averaging 53 yards (!!) in 3 (!!!) plays. Remember when Michigan dropped 78 on Rutgers a couple years ago? That was the last time Michigan scored so freqeuntly, and like that game they did it mostly on the ground. Over that 5-drive scoring binge, Karan Higdon and Chris Evans averaged 16.1 yards per carry on 11 runs, and generally looked like the two-headed monster fans hoped for the backfield when the season started. And while his first big run wasn't as violent as De'Veon Smith's versus BYU a couple years ago, Higdon broke a number of tackles and ran with the mix of speed and blunt force I expected from him this season. On the day Michigan finished with 308 yards rushing on 35 carries, a tidy 8.8 ypc that was depressed a bit by Michigan getting sacked twice for 18 yards.
The only big concern I had coming into the game was how would Michigan's passing game look a week removed from facing a pretty good ND defense on the road, and, well, the jury is still somewhat out. Patterson looked great; he was 12/17 for 125 yards and 3 TDs on the day, again finding Nico Collins deep for a big completion, this time a 44-yard TD. And unlike last week, he was throwing downfield more consistently and giving guys opportunities to pick up yards after the catch; his first TD to McKeon was completed just inside the 10 yard line and let him race to the pylon, and he had another dart to Peoples-Jones I believe that resulted in a nice pickup. Again, when you are gashing a team on the ground to the extent Michigan was and you have questions at tackle, you aren't going to expose your QB to any more hits than necessary. Still, it was encouraging to see Patterson play like he does against overmatched opponents, something we didn't see out of Michigan's QBs all that much last year.
But if the jury unanimously thought "this Patterson guy is pretty good", where did they get hung up? You guessed it - on the offensive line. Now, the line played really well, especially running the ball, which should be a shock to nobody considering Ruiz, Bredeson, and secret "sucks to be you Pluto" planetoid Onwenu average about 330 lbs and can move people when engaged. And Runyan and JBB looked better than they did against ND, again especially when running the ball but also once Michigan's passing game got settled in. Still, against a team like WMU that doesn't have a whole lot of defensive line talent, I still didn't see them stonewall guys the way you would have hoped given their size and experience, though they absolutely did hold up better than last week. There's a lot of equivocation in that last sentence, but it's week 2 and sample sizes make it such that broad generalizations beyond "good lord is Arizona bad" and "MSU can't seem to run block to save their lives" are hard to come by. Now, the optimist in me hopes this is a sign that both of them can be the slightly below average-ish tackles Michigan could probably survive with, not the "half a season of minuses in a game" players Brian charted last week. And the problem is that due to Michigan not really needing to throw the ball, every positive feeling seems a little forced and every negative amplified, and I think that's a disservice to these players. My guess is the UFR will come out fine for them, much like it did last year against Cincy (it will shock people to see Ulizio was +7.5 in that game, tied with Mason Cole), but all that tells us is that they can probably block your average MAC defense. Trying to divine how that applies to any Big 10 defense gets the Magic 8 ball "please ask again later" treatment.
Best: The Defense Carried Over
After the first quarter of their game against Notre Dame last week in which Michigan gave up 140 yards of total offense and 14 points, Michigan's defense has given up a total of 370 yards and 13 points over the past 7 quarters of football. And considering Michigan was up 42-0 heading into the 4th against WMU and pulled most of their defensive starters, it's even more impressive. Yes, nobody would call Notre Dame and WMU "elite" offenses, but they have decent units and the potential to be better than that if they can stay healthy and get some maturation at key spots (ND at tackle, WMU at receiver and QB). This was a really solid performance by a Michigan defense that seemed a little shook last week and snakebitten on a couple of those long ND plays. Other than WMU's last two garbage-time drives, Michigan held WMU to under 3 yards per play over 9 semi-meaningful drives (feel free to debate the meaningfulness in football at all on your own), never had a drive last longer than 30 yards, and racked up 8 TFLs and 3 sacks along with 4 pass breakups and a pick. And while those counting stats may not jump out at you, realize that WMU did everything possible to not hold onto the ball any longer than is absolutely necessary before breaching the neutral zone; over the first three quarters of the game, WMU ran or passed for between 0 and 3 yards 16(!) times on 52 plays. Western never got going, and Michigan made sure of it. SMU, despite having Sonny Dykes and some offensive talent on the roster, haven't looked remotely competent on that side of the ball these first two weeks against far worse defenses than Michigan's, then it's on to Nebraska, Northwestern, and Maryland, three teams that don't necessarily inspire much fear offensively especially if Nebraska can't keep it's QB healthy. So like the Transformer movies, get ready for this storyline to be recycled quite a few more times.
Best: I Don't Really Blame Them
So, this happened yesterday:
If you ever find yourself wondering “why wasn’t Rashan Gary more productive”... pic.twitter.com/w2JZJHvZBQ— Bryan Mac (@Bry_Mac) September 8, 2018
That's Rashan Gary getting the Thanos treatment from 3/5ths of WMU's offensive line and basically fighting them to a standstill until half a ton of humanity was just able to get him off his feet. That's stupendous, and a big reason why he's brought up as one of the top 4-5 picks in the NFL draft.
But as Bryan Mac noted, people will argue that Gary has underwhelmed in his career at Michigan because his numbers aren't all that impressive; he's got 7 sacks for his career and while he tacked on 11.5 TFLs last year, that barely cracked the top 100 nationally. For perspective, Bradley Chubb went #5 last year and had 23.0 TFLs and 10 sacks for the year and didn't have nearly the other defensive weapons around him to draw attention. Still, that immensely undersells Gary and what he does in this defense. Gary strung out that play long enough that Bellamy, a legit 4.3 guy, was nearly caught from behind by Michael Dwumfour, an athletic defensive tackle but not someone who is going to run down backs without them slowing up. In that way, Gary may have the type of season Jadeveon Clowney had his last year in college, where he helped USC record a top-25 defense despite having lost a number of starters from the year before and not having a ton of talent left around him (this was at the end of Spurrier's "you know, golf can wait" resurgence). He's got quite a bit more talent around him, but he'll also act as the glue and swiss-army knife that lets guys like Winovich, Hudson, and Bush be even more disruptive while also, you hope, cover up some of the deficiencies at the interior of the line. In this game he made his presence felt both on and off the stat sheet (6 tackles and a sack), but going forward Michigan's defensive success is going to hinge on him holding up against plays like the one above and the rest of the defense taking advantage of that asymetrical blocking schemes.
Meh: Competent Defensive Tackles
With news that both Lawrence Marshall and Aubrey Solomon were out for the game (and Solomon apparently out for some time after getting knee surgery), Michigan's already-suspect depth inside was stretched even thinner. Western has a center who will likely be drafted by the NFL and a couple of other upperclassmen inside, and so I figured we'd see Bryan Mone and Dwumfour exploited. And yet, WMU never had much success running inside the tackles, with most of their big gains running outside. That was reassuring because, again, this was already a sore spot in Michigan's lineup before those guys went down, and last week wasn't inspiring. Again, caveats and all that about quality of the opposition, but if Michigan can continue to get solid play from their tackles AND rotate younger guys through to build up some semblance of experience, that will go a long way to letting the rest of the defense terrorize opposing offenses. Will that give me any more confidence against Wisconsin or Ohio State? Of course not. But considering MSU's center had this done to him by an Arizona State defensive end masquerading as a tackle, that gives me some hope for a couple of road games this year.
Best: Lightning and slightly larger Lightning
I mentioned it earlier, but both Higdon and Evans had fantastic games, continuing some of the positives we saw against Notre Dame that were, unfortunately, minimized by being down 14 points after 1 offensive series. Neither guy is probably the platonic ideal for Jim Harbaugh; my guess is he didn't bat an eye when Frank Gore reported to the 49ers on his first day as head coach. But both Evans and Higdon are big enough to give defenders fits trying to take them down and also enough speed to jet past them in the open field. And you saw in this game what a fully-functional Michigan running game can look like; Bredeson and Onwenu just steam-rolling guys while the back is tucked behind them until they see daylight. Throw in Ben Mason and it actually gets me a bit excited about what Michigan will be able to accomplish on the ground this year, especially with the renewed threat that Patterson and his receivers pose to those safeties who, with few exceptions, just creeped up all season long last year.
Worst: Everyone Else OR
Best: About that Schedule
Coming into the year, one of the common refrains was how terrifying this schedule looked, and for good reason. Michigan was scheduled to play basically half of the top-12 teams in the country, and even teams like Maryland (looking at you Texas) and Northwestern looked like potential top-40 teams that could trip them up. And then the first couple of weeks happened and...I'll be honest, it's not as terrifying. I mean, we're always grading on a curve wherein Michigan goes back-to-back-bye-to back against Wisconsin, MSU, and PSU and then ends the year in the Horseshoe, but that particular configuration felt almost maximized to cause pain and suffering. And then the first week happened and MSU and PSU barely escaped with home wins against solid clubs that were still ugly and not all that inspiring. MSU then went to Arizona State to play a game at 4:42 a.m. and lost in appropriate MSU fashion, rushing for 4.5 yards on 17 carries and only putting up 377 yards total while giving up 424 yards, nearly 400 in the air. PSU blew out Pitt in their second game, but it was an ugly affair featuring a soupy field, McSorley completing under 50% of his passes at 4.8 ypa, and Pitt turning the ball over 3 times and recording 14(!) penalties for 116(!!) yards. Pitt gave up the ghost in that second half and Franklin did the thing where he scores a ton of points after the game is decided so he can say at the press conference that "it's just another game for us" instead of admitting that some teams are rivals because, I don't know, he's 14 and thinks showing he cares is uncool. Regardless, both those teams feel far more tractable than when the season started, especially since both struggle in pass blocking and have defenses that look somewhat suspect. Again, not predicting blowouts or anything, but both of these teams have shown consistent chinks in the armor, and luckily they are the types that Michigan can exploit. As for OSU, the less said the better, but beating up on two of the worst teams in P5 isn't necessarily going to move the needle for me. Playing TCU this weekend will give us a better idea of Ohio State's ceiling this year.
As for the one relevant West team, Wisconsin struggled a bit against a WKU team that isn't like the Hilltopper teams you think of under Brohm and Taggart, and then only lead 10-7 at halftime agianst the Fightin' Bob Davies of New Mexico. Yes, in both those games they ultimately pulled away, but the Badgers still don't look like they have much confidence in the passing game, and while Taylor has been a beast he's already racked up a ton of carries (51 in 2 games) and while Wisconsin has a track record of running the rubber off a RB's tires without breaking him, their offense is SO dependent on him right now that I could see a world where Michigan slows him down enough that Hornibrook has to throw the ball against actual coverages and that end badly for someone. Also, Purdue lost to EMU by 1. Michigan doesn't play them, but watching that tiny bundle of aggression they call their defensive coordinator throb uncontrollably as his team gave up a 4th-and-15 conversion makes me happy.
So I'm feeling, what's the word, slightly encouraged that Michigan is probably the favorite in every game they have coming up save OSU. It may not be by a lot (Wisconsin in particular will pull some rabbits out of their hats), but Michigan's first two weeks look far better than some people would admit, especially in the context of the season thus far. And the next couple of weeks will allow Michigan to figure out workable solutions for some of their glaring issues without the need to really open up the playbook, which for once will be nice going into that slog.
- Michigan had an up-and-down day again on special teams. They blocked another punt to set up a score and could have preserved the shutout had Thomas not lined up offsides on the initial FG block. DPJ had some issues again with returning punts and Nordin just shanked a 40 yarder, but in a world where college kicking is sorta random, rather get those missteps out now than in games that matter.
- I'd like to point out that WMU kicking a FG down 49 points is the reason we all laugh at moral victories.
- Dylan McCaffrey looked solid out there when he took over for Patterson. I don't buy that he's the actual #2 in the pecking order, as Peters was apparently injured going into last week's game and handed off on the last drive he saw of the game this week, showing a bit of gingerness when he did. I believe McCaffrey has a bright future as a starting QB at Michigan, but he's still quite young and needs to physically mature, and Michigan would be in some trouble if he was pressed into service for an extended time. Still, it's nice to know there are 3 QBs on the roster who have shown some familiarity with the offense, and that could be invaluable in the event that Patterson goes down for even a part of a game.
- It's not surprising, but it was nice to see Michigan secondary really shut down a WMU team that put up almost 400 yards in the air last week. After reading the UFR I actually felt a bit better about the secondary because so many of those receptions were just perfect throws or dumb luck, and it's unlikely that Michigan will be snakebitten quite that badly going forward.
It's SMU. If you see Craig James on campus, run. Otherwise, enjoy another nice win and, I hope, some continued maturation by the team. Go Blue.