Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Michigan 32, Florida State 33: The (third) one that got away

Some games are close, others "close," others somewhere in between.

Michigan's Orange Bowl matchup against Florida State Friday night fell somewhere in that in-between No Man's Land. After all, Michigan lost by one on a last-minute Seminoles field goal. They made some big plays in the second half, namely Mike McCray's pick six and, later, Chris Evans juked a Florida defender out of this dimension to put Michigan ahead with 1:57 to play.

That juke was the future in motion, an example of what can't be taught and what Michigan desperately needs more of: raw, unmitigated explosion. The ability to make people not just miss, but miss so badly that they fall to the ground, questioning what is up and what is down. It's the type of play elite talents make in big moments. Grinding opponents into dust on 10-play drives is fun, but Michigan has usually done that because it had no other option. But when you have the ability to take a shortcut, you take it, and that's what a player like Evans brings to the table.

In Evans, and some other promising players on offense (and, hopefully, some on defense, to be unleashed next season), Michigan has a game-changing talent. Unfortunately for Michigan, it didn't quite have enough of it this season when it counted, especially on offense. A close loss at an offensively challenged Iowa team, a brutal loss at Ohio State featuring five fourth-quarter yards and a bowl game with just 252 yards of offense, 4.3 yards per attempt through the air and this on the ground ...


... and it's safe to say Michigan's fall from possible eliteness to a degree or two below that starts here.

Even so, Michigan had a chance to pull out a 2012 Sugar Bowl-esque victory (I was at that game in New Orleans, and it was the kind of game that almost left you feeling compelled to apologize to the opposing fans for winning). Alas, 65 yards of Keith Gavin kick return yardage later and the Noles were in position to comfortably drive for a score, which they got ... by throwing at Jourdan Lewis in the corner of the end zone.

Go figure. Sometimes there's not much to say. Things happen. When Dalvin Cook runs around and past your defense a few times like they're painfully limited pawns on a chess board, that's one thing. When a team gets your All-American corner for a touchdown in a key situation?

Well, that's football.

---

When a season concludes, especially one like this one, there's always an urge to categorize it, to tag it, to fit it into a neat, little box.

Was it a "successful" season or was it a "disappointment"?

In truth, it's a little bit of both.

Michigan's three losses came by a total of five points. It's disappointing that with this collection of talent, Michigan wasn't able to find the one or two plays it needed to join the playoff field.

But, only four teams go, and only one team wins. If we're categorizing all seasons that don't end in a playoff berth or a national title as failures, just about every fan should be disappointed. That's no way to live.

What is disappointing is the still lingering conference title drought. As a high school sophomore in 2004, I never thought that would be Michigan's last conference crown for a long, long time.

Here we are, though. Next year, Michigan probably won't be a playoff-caliber squad, simply by virtue of what they need to replace on defense -- I do think, however, that competing for the division crown and a trip to Indianapolis are within reach, once the early-season growing pains are sorted out.

While the 2016 season ended with a thud, it can't be said enough: Michigan has won 10-games in consecutive seasons, just two years after going 5-7 and getting a coach fired. Yes, Hoke recruited fine in parts, but a failure to identify offensive talent, namely on the line, hamstrung Michigan this year.

Right now, for all of Michigan's defensive talent, that's the difference between them and the cream of the crop: Michigan's line just couldn't stand up. For further example of what that looks like, watch the tape of the Ohio State-Clemson game.

Until Michigan upgrades its line and fields upper-echelon skill position talent, its defense can never be good enough to carry it to a title, where it is at this point a pretty solid bet they'd have to beat Alabama.

One day. It didn't come together this year, and likely won't in 2017 by virtue of roster turnover.

After that? Anything is possible.

---
Of course, no season finale is complete without fond reminiscences over the players taking their abilities elsewhere, whether into the real world or the NFL.

This year is especially heavy on the heart, as Michigan loses a cast of likeable, not to mention very good, football players. Jourdan Lewis, Jabrill Peppers, Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Ben Gedeon, Taco Charlton, Channing Stribling, Delano Hill, Dymonte Thomas -- and that's just defense.

The odds are good Michigan will never have another Taco -- both in name and in his particular combination of size, speed and agility. While Michigan lacked game-changing ability on offense, there was no shortage of it on defense, thanks to players like Charlton. He was a bringer of doom, a destroyer of poor, unprepared tackles.

Lewis? Despite his size, he blanketed receivers, with such grace and ease -- even when a receiver seemed open, that was never the case.



As far as interceptions go, that play falls in the same category as Charles Woodson's in the 1997 Michigan State game. That's something. No one will remember the particulars of this year's defensive slugfest against Wisconsin, but they'll remember that play -- it's hard to forget something like that.

As for the defensive linemen, it will be some time before a Michigan defensive line is so unflinchingly dominant again. Wormley is a guy who has seemingly been around for eight years -- like Mike Martin, he's an example of a human being who is impossibly agile for his size. Watching him play, it's still hard to believe that Wormley weighs more than 300 pounds. Losing an agile, versatile planetoid on the defensive line will be a major loss, to say the least.

As for Glasgow, his journey -- and his brother's before him -- is all you need to know when considering why some think Jordan Glasgow could be something far more than a special teamer. Whatever it is, that family has it. Michigan missed Ryan Glasgow's presence late last season when he was knocked out with an injury -- they'll certainly miss it next year when he's beginning what should be a long and productive NFL career.

Peppers hasn't officially announced his departure, but it's safe to assume he's probably gone (rather, it would be a surprise if he returned, simply based on his draft projections). All in all, it feels like only yesterday when he committed to Brady Hoke's Michigan: a different time, a different world. Fans were robbed of a full 2014 season when he went down with an injury, but he entered the fray in 2015 and truly began to shine brightly this season. Few Michigan players, if any at all, have ever brought his overall speed, instincts and playmaking ability on defense and special teams. I only wonder if Michigan couldn't have done more with him; but that's over and done now.

For our purposes now, I'll say this: it might cause some whiplash when opposing teams run successful screens next season, or Michigan's punt returner, whoever it is, doesn't make the first few would-be tackles miss like they're not even there.

All of the above is not to discredit the offense, of course. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, for example, had some big moments in their career. While Darboh had some unfortunate drops and lacked big-play speed, he was a mostly reliable option and a guy who could usually churn out some tough yards after contact. With Chesson, we'll always have the Florida game.

Then, of course, there's Jake Butt, whose Michigan career unfortunately ended on a sour note. (An aside, but for what it's worth, my personal opinion is that if the player wants to sit out a non-playoff bowl game to get ready for the draft, I have no problem with it. Would it be disappointing, from a selfish fan's point of view? Sure. But, the truth hurts: any bowl game not involving Alabama, Washington, Ohio State and Clemson this bowl season meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.) Like Wormley, Butt offered a unique combination of size, speed and technical ability. When Butt dropped an easy pass in a game this season, I was shocked, because it happened so infrequently.  When Jake Rudock to Wilton Speight needed a play, they could throw it up to him and count on him coming down with the ball more often than not. Michigan has some promising tight ends waiting to step up, but none will be Butt right away, if ever -- after all, most would probably agree he's the best tight end in program history.

The worst part is that none of these guys will play for Michigan again. They were all fun to watch, in good times and bad. It's a shame their times as Wolverines has to come to an end, but all things do.

And while 2016 ended on a down note, the season brought far more good than bad. And, eventually, Michigan will find itself on the winning side of the sort of games it lost this season, when a play or two flipped things.

It'll all come together, in due time. For now, fans will just have to be patient, and remember how things were not too long ago.

Until then, enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Michigan 70, Virginia Tech 73: Highs and lows

For the second time in less than a week, a Michigan team let one get away.

After a macabre showing at South Carolina and a game against Mount St. Mary's we know took place because there is a box score as evidence, Michigan looked to regain the confident step it found in New York City not long ago.

The Wolverines found that step early, a confident strut, against visiting Virginia Tech, staking claim to a 15-point lead at one point. That strut gave way to a nagging limp, however, as the Hokies would claw back to within two early in the second half, then again erased a 10-point deficit in the final 8 minutes to score a 73-70 win in Ann Arbor.

Zak Irvin led the way for Michigan with 23 points, 15 of them in the first half. But, unfortunately, he saved the worst for last, airballing a three late and then, given a chance to put Michigan in the lead with the shot clock off, dribbled and dribbled and dribbled before missing an ill-advised, stepback two just inside the arc.

Michigan, paced by an 8-for-12 start from the field (4-for-6 from three), raced out to a 23-8 lead. Unsurprisingly, Michigan found the rims much kinder at home than it did in Columbia, where they scored 46 points in what was easily one of the poorest, if not the poorest, offensive efforts in the John Beilein era.

With that said, defense has easily been the most notable facet of this Michigan team thus far. It has by no means been perfect, but the errors of the past don't seem to be taking place as frequently thus far this season. A fairly experienced roster certainly helps, but there's no doubt the coaching of Billy Donlon has helped sharpen the defense at every level, from perimeter defense to rotations; an uptick in rim protection has also helped. Michigan forced nine first-half turnovers and allowed just one offensive rebound in the first half.

But just like everything else about this game, Michigan's defense was good to start, then it was bad, then it was good, then it was bad again.

Michigan found itself up 39-30 at the half, a somewhat unsatisfying lead considering its domination of the better part of the opening 20 minutes. Part of that strong effort came from a bounceback performance from Irvin, who tallied 15 first-half points after scoring just 5 points on 2-for-13 shooting against the Gamecocks.

Virginia Tech's surge coincided with a quiet stretch from Irvin early in the second half. Irvin scored just over 6 minutes into the second half to extend Michigan's lead to three, though, a key moment in the game. Then, Duncan Robinson took a charge on the defensive end and buried a three on Michigan's next offensive possession, upping the lead to 50-44 with 13:04 to play.

In the frontcourt, instead of DJ Wilson or Mark Donnal, Mortiz Wagner led the way with 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting. Meanwhile, freshman center Jon Teske made an impact, too, entering the game and immediately altering a VT shot attempt, plus grabbing a pair of rebounds (one of the offensive variety).

By the 8-minute TV timeout in the second half, Michigan led by 10, aided by a banked-in triple from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The worst seemed to be behind them.

However, foul trouble reared its ugly head.

Wilson drew his fourth on a Derrick Walton free throw attempt with 7:44 to play, putting VT in the bonus. He later picked up his fifth foul with 3:03 left. Despite playing at home, the Wolverines trailed in free throw attempts, with VT going 15-for-17 and Michigan just 4-for-7 at the final TV timeout.

The Hokies took their first lead at 68-67 with 1:44 to play, and a triple extended it to 71-67. Robinson canned a three after an airballed Irvin attempt to cut it back to one with 42 seconds left.

Michigan received a bit of luck on the ensuing possession, when VT's Seth Allen was called for an offensive foul, giving Michigan a chance to win it with the shot clock off.

Unfortunately, Irvin put up another clunker, missing a long, stepback 2-point jumper after having the ball stick to his hands for most of the possession. VT then buried two free throws to push the lead back to three. Michigan lucked into a half-court inbound opportunity after the full-court pass was deflected out of bounds, but Robinson's three-point attempt at the buzzer fell off the mark, capping the collapse for the Wolverines.

The wind in Michigan's sails after the blowout wins against Marquette and SMU has faded, drifting elsewhere across the vast ocean of the college basketball seascape. The Wolverines looked listless against South Carolina and collapsed against Virginia Tech -- while the squad is sure to continue to improve, there's no doubt a home nonconference loss of this variety will sting, and could even come back to haunt Michigan come tournament time, if things get that bad.

Michigan hits the court Saturday for a tilt against Kennesaw State before facing major-conference competition again, with Texas and a trip to UCLA next up on the schedule. Especially given the fact that Northwestern recently beat the Longhorns convincingly, the Wolverines cannot afford another nonconference home loss.

Michigan is 5-2, a collapse away from 6-1. But, as Michigan fans have been twice reminded in the past several days, the final score is the only fact that matters. Everything else is just exposition: intriguing, but irrelevant.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Michigan 27, Ohio State 30 (2OT): A little extra

Never underestimate the rivalry's ability to find that spot, the one that hurts the most. A well-placed nudge to the unsuspecting elicits a yowl, a yelp, a cringing collapse on the floor.

Just when you thought the rivalry couldn't yield a more painful outcome, it did on Saturday, when No. 2 Ohio State bested No. 3 Michigan, 30-27, in double overtime. It was the first overtime game in the history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, and thus presented Michigan with a chance to lose in a new way.

When the game ended, I quietly checked my phone for 10 minutes, taking in reactions from around the internet, positive and negative. But, eventually, I wondered if this game was even worth the consternation.

After so many losses of all kinds -- unmitigated blowouts, near-upsets of better Ohio State teams, upsets of better Michigan teams, close-but-not-really-close games, and so on -- is it possible that one more piece of kindling on the losing fire burn makes it burn any more horrifically?

How you deal with the loss is up to you. But one fact remains: In its infinite cruelty, the rivalry game in Columbus sought maximum pain, going to not one but two overtimes.

Sixty minutes was not enough -- the newest iteration of disappointment needed a little more time to cook.

---
Saturday offered a strange combination of Michigan both looking like the better team yet simultaneously making the errors of a lesser team.

Michigan led 17-7 late in the third quarter, with Ohio State's seven points coming on a Wilton Speight pick six in the second quarter. The defensive line had suffocated the Ohio State offense to that point, putting to bed any notion of a reprisal of last season's dud of an effort, coordinated by now Maryland head coach DJ Durkin. If any individual unit in the country is worthy of a playoff bid, it's this defense (and Alabama's, of course).

While the Wolverines were aided to an extent by JT Barrett's general inaccuracy, they shut down Ohio State's passing game, as Barrett went just 15-for-32 for 124 yards, good for a measly 3.9 YPA. Michigan also shut down the powerful Mike Weber (11 carries, 27 yards).

In essence, Barrett's legs were just about Ohio State's entire offense, as, for whatever reason, Urban Meyer limited Curtis Samuel to just seven carries (he also caught four passes for 32 yards). Barrett made some plays, but the Michigan defense was able to swarm him a majority of the time. Many of those tackles for loss or even simple open-field tackles (Mike McCray's tackle on Barrett late in the game comes to mind) would have yielded big gains in previous years -- in fact, you only need look to 2015 for many examples.

Truth be told, watching Michigan's defense go to work against Ohio State yielded an unfamiliar feeling. It had been quite a while since Michigan's defense kept an Ohio State offense in check like that. Even in years when the Buckeyes were held under 30 (2007, 2009), there was an obvious feeling that they could have scored more if the game was ever truly in doubt.

Of course, the ode to improvement rings hollow. At a certain point, hearing about The Way is tiring. Are we there yet, are we there yet? The answer is no, not yet. They almost scaled the mountain, but had to turn back, low on oxygen and morale.

For Michigan fans familiar with the composition of the roster, most folks said before the season that this was the year to make some noise. It wasn't just bravado -- this team as constructed is loaded, although of course not without weak spots (namely the offensive line and linebacker).

In no uncertain terms, this season was nothing more than a missed chance.
---
After close losses on the road, you'll usually hear the following: "Make the plays you need to win the game and don't let the referees have a hand in the outcome."

You hear that and by now are conditioned to nod in agreement. Whether it's Big Ten basketball or football, everybody knows the aforementioned -- it's an unspoken contract. Don't put the game away and any officiating malfeasance is fine, because something.

What can be said about a sport in which the home team has a built-in, infrastructural advantage? A sport in which, in the biggest game of the year, one team is called for two penalties totaling six yards? One in which pass interference can be called on one play and not on the exact same kind of play another time? A sport in which a wrong call can't -- rather, won't -- be overturned. "Indisputable video evidence" is a phrase made up of words made up of letters, but I'm thoroughly convinced is devoid of meaning, etymologically and in practice.

Yes, referees are human and make mistakes. With that said, it's also tiring to watch a big game on Saturday and have to pretend that Ohio State committed just two penalties, or that Barrett got that first down, or that Jim Harbaugh should be called for an unsportsmanlike penalty because a referee's feelings were hurt.


So, you can say Michigan should have won this game, in spite of the officiating -- and you'd be right. Michigan really should have won this game. They were up 17-7 late in the third quarter until a questionable Speight throw from Michigan's end zone essentially gifted the struggling Buckeye offense a touchdown.

Still, the fact that officiating has to have any sort of impact at all is puzzling.

In the end, though, Michigan's weaknesses prevented it from winning. Good teams salt games away with their offensive lines; Michigan's is decidedly just OK.

While the decision to have Speight passing from his own end zone late in the third was questionable, it was a calculated risk, one that Harbaugh and Co. probably felt okay rolling with given that the running game wasn't doing much at all. On the play prior to the interception, De'Veon Smith was dropped for a loss of four.

Rushing totals for the day:

  • Smith: 21 carries, 65 yards (2.9 YPC)
  • Chris Evans: 6 carries, 18 yards 
  • Karan Higdon: 3 carries, 5 yards
  • Jabrill Peppers: 4 carries, 9 yards
Michigan's longest carry of the day was a 17-yarder by Smith early in the third quarter (on the drive after Peppers' interception, a drive capped by Speight's mishandled snap at the OSU 1). 

Meanwhile, when Speight wasn't tossing those two interceptions, he was otherwise very good, fitting passes into tight windows and generally looking poised in a raucous Ohio Stadium. The performance is all the more impressive given the fact that it is unlikely he was 100 percent. 

Michigan couldn't close things out with its line, and that did it in. And, late, Michigan's linebackers, including Peppers, didn't make the plays they needed to keep the Buckeyes from driving down the field for the game-tying field goal. 

In overtime and needing to hold OSU to a field goal, Michigan had every opportunity to bring Samuel down for a loss on third-and-9. Instead, Samuel nearly picked up the first down, setting up Barrett's conversion attempt on the following play. 

In the end, Michigan's weaknesses were exposed. Unfortunately, its strengths weren't enough to paper over those holes in the drywall. 

---
Maybe it's fatigue, maybe it's resignation, maybe it's age and perspective, but I've found myself thinking less about this loss than previous losses. Even last year's 42-13 drubbing in Ann Arbor left me more frustrated, simply for the sheer ineptitude of the performance. 

Ohio State won, Michigan didn't. These are facts, even if you dispute the events that led to those conclusions. 

Other facts: Michigan has not won a conference title since 2004. Michigan has not won a division title since the Big Ten started its conference championship game in 2011. Michigan has not beaten Ohio State in Columbus since 2000, in the final months of the Clinton administration. Urban Meyer is the first Ohio State coach to start 5-0 against the Wolverines. 

On the other hand, there are positives. Michigan hasn't had more than three players selected in the NFL draft since 2008, when seven Wolverines were drafted, a year after seven were taken in the 2007 draft. In this coming spring's NFL draft, Michigan is sure to see at least seven players drafted, many from its stalwart defense. 

While this is bad for the Wolverines in the short-term, it's great for recruiting and overall profile. For almost a decade, Michigan was a program where players seemingly only made it to the next level via their own inherent talent and determination to improve individually. Now, potential draftees are being developed into slam-dunk selections, and probable picks are developed into first-rounders. 

In addition, Michigan has recorded 10 wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2002-2003. While this feels like faint consolation, it is something. Pending the bowl game, Michigan has a chance to grab 11 wins for the first time since Brady Hoke's first season in 2011. 

On top of all that, Michigan returns the most important player on the field next season: its starting quarterback. Speight, with a year of starting experience under his belt -- including trips to Spartan Stadium, Kinnick Stadium and Ohio Stadium -- will be back to lead an offense that will have some fresh faces next year on the line and at the skill positions. 

In any case, the future is bright. Michigan might not have a playoff-caliber team next season, but there will be time to worry about that when it comes. 

However, talk of the future is empty; promises can be broken, prophecies can be wrong. The present is the only certainty. 

This time, many Michigan fans were hoping to set aside the future for talk of the now: a win against the Buckeyes, a shot at a conference title, a playoff berth. 

None of those materialized. So, in defeat, all eyes fix upon the future, and what might be on another day. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Michigan 20, Indiana 10: The storm before the storm and tackling the ghost

So much for the proverbial calm before the storm.

Michigan headed into its penultimate regular-season game simply looking to survive, without Wilton Speight, against a capable Indiana team before heading to Columbus for a shot at a division title. With reports of bad weather on the horizon and backup quarterback John O'Korn getting the starting nod, it wasn't hard to guess how the game would have to be won: defense and the running game.

Michigan used those very things, holding the Hoosiers to 10 points and a season-low 255 yards, a significant improvement from last year's effort in Bloomington. On top of that, the often brilliant yet often criticized senior De'Veon Smith had a career day, notching 158 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.

But late in the third quarter, the outcome floated in the air, blowing left and right like the wind and the snowflakes that would slowly envelop Michigan Stadium in a blustery maelstrom.

Down 10-6 late in the third quarter, the stagnating Michigan offense faced a third-and-8 from its own 36. To that point, the Wolverines had converted just one of nine third-down attempts.

O'Korn dropped back, giving the token play-action fake. Two unblocked Hoosiers screaming toward him, the transfer from Houston deftly split them and headed to daylight down the left side. Thirty yards later, O'Korn was brought down. He bounced back up, pumping his fist and breathing smoke into the cold Ann Arbor air.

Years from now, when Indiana fans remember this game, that's the play that will come to mind. And rightfully so, because the game quickly shifted in Michigan's favor from there. On the next play, Smith rumbled 34 yards for a score, which proved to be the winning tally.

Later in the third, after pinning Indiana deep in its own territory, the Wolverines got the ball back starting at the IU 39. Again, Smith made quick work of things. After an O'Korn incomplete pass, Smith went 39 yards for his second score of the day, giving Michigan a 20-10 lead that was essentially insurmountable given the weather conditions.

With the win, Michigan recorded its first consecutive 10-win seasons since 2002-2003. Let that sink in for a minute.

---
Needless to say, this wasn't the prettiest performance. O'Korn looked harried and uncomfortable, and rightfully so, as Michigan's pass protection was far from good. Even so, the pocket awareness that Speight seemed to have perfected in his season to date just wasn't there.

But, given the blanketing snows, expecting huge numbers would have been foolish. After all, it's not as if Ohio State did much better in poor conditions against Michigan State (and those were nothing compared to the conditions in Ann Arbor).

Michigan did what it had to do to win, a week after it didn't quite find the juice to flip an eventual one-point loss into a close win. On top of that, this isn't the Kevin Wilson Indiana teams of old -- these guys actually play defense. Not just "good for Indiana" defense, but good, period.

Sure, 7-for-16 for 59 yards and no touchdowns is not good, however you spin it. In the end, though, a win is a win.

The question is: can Michigan get by with a similar performance in Columbus this Saturday? Instinct responds with a resounding "no," although it's not as if Ohio State isn't without offensive issues of its own.

Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines have spent their seasons subconsciously fighting proxy wars against common opponents. The numbers are all there, ripe for dissection and analysis.

But for all of the advanced stats that have flowered into being in recent years, the biggest storylines are reductive. Michigan has beaten Ohio State three times this century (2000, 2003, 2011). For someone like me, who grew up in the '90s when the situation was different but I wasn't quite old enough to appreciate it, I haven't known much else. Even in 2011, Michigan barely eked by a bad, Luke Fickell-coached Buckeyes squad.

In this game, there are no tricks or fancy ideas. There are no easy ways. You could even say that, for the most part, there are no lucky bounces or fluke plays (certainly not of the Auburn-Alabama "kick six" variety).

The winning team, more often than not, is the better team; in the '90s, Michigan wasn't always the better team heading into the game, but they were the better team on that one day in November.

Without a doubt, Michigan's defense cannot afford to be thoroughly outplayed like it was last year in Ann Arbor, to the tune of 42 points. Unlike the 2006 matchup, when the Buckeyes scored 42 and Michigan fell just short with 39, this team isn't built to meet that challenge.

That will be especially true if O'Korn starts. Speight may be able to play, but maybe the doubt being cast about his status could just be a classic case of gamesmanship. At this point, who knows.

Certain things will have to happen for Michigan to win. Facing talented athletes like JT Barrett and Curtis Samuel, the tackling simply has to be better. And, when pass rushers get to Barrett, they have to bring him down. Of course, that's easier said than done -- after all, memories of Braxton Miller, Terrelle Pryor and Troy Smith are recent evidence of that. Those ghosts linger, have lingered, for many a year. A step too slow, a step misplaced, and the ghost has escaped, over and over again, living to haunt another year.

Michigan will have to bring those apparitions down, this time. This time, Michigan fans hope that Don Brown has the answers DJ Durkin, Greg Robinson and Ron English couldn't find.

On the bright side for Michigan, the Buckeyes have not seen a defense like Michigan's to date. Further still, the Ohio State offense has struggled against lesser teams, including against Northwestern and a Malik McDowell-less Michigan State.

But, as we all know, those sorts of things tend not to matter when it's time for The Game. Both teams, in theory, will be bringing their best, including previously unseen wrinkles and miscellaneous fancy machinations.

Like any rivalry, the big-time players will leave their mark, either as landmark moments in lore or as markers of what could have been. Last year, Barrett and Co. rolled over Michigan with ease. This time, Michigan will need, among others, its best player, Jabrill Peppers, to have his moment. His Woodson, his Howard, his Biakabutuka. Peppers can very easily shut down the whispers of "overrated" by playing his best game on Saturday. On defense, on offense, on special teams, Michigan will need Peppers to leave his mark.

Michigan has spent its season showing flashes, revealing little tricks here and there with their superstar from New Jersey. Through it all, fans have wondered if there are additional wrinkles in the bag of tricks, beyond what we've already seen, tricks that would ostensibly be deployed down the road on a Saturday afternoon in November.

Well, the wait is over. There is nothing left to save, nothing left to hide. On Saturday, everything will be tinged with finality.

It won't be No. 1 versus No. 2, but it'll be close enough. In reality, in the new playoff world, it will mean just as much as that November day in 2006, when everything hung in the balance.

All roads lead to this. As the opening kickoff rises into the sky, Michigan will have a chance to decide: Will it tackle the ghost?

Or, will the ghost slip through them yet again, incorporeal and unattainable?

For now, we wonder. On Saturday, that ghost will reappear, to haunt or ... to be defeated.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Michigan 79, Marquette 61: The bigs show

After two easy but not necessarily impressive wins against lesser foes, perhaps Michigan needed the bright lights of the World's Most Famous Arena to get going.

That turned out to be the case Thursday night against Marquette, as the Wolverines were lights out in a 79-61 victory to move to 3-0.

And in a bit of a plot twist for a John Beilein team, the Wolverines' frontcourt players led the way.

Mark Donnal, Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson all hit triples early for Michigan, which built up a 25-15 lead about halfway through the first half.

With Michigan up 32-20 and shooting 61 percent from the field at the 8-minute TV timeout, the same old question came up: Can they keep this up? That's always been the question for John Beilein's teams -- albeit a reductive one. When will the downturn come, the cold streak, the decline? When the offense is working and guys are hitting their outside shots, Beilein's offense is hard to stop. Once those shots stop falling, Michigan looks quite the opposite, particularly in years without players who can attack the rim.

Well, that storyline didn't come into play tonight. In fact, it might not even be the story anymore at all -- there are still many pages to turn, but we might be reading from a new book entirely.

For the first time in Beilein's Michigan tenure, the Wolverines' frontcourt size might a very real advantage. Of course, who knows how good Marquette is, but the Wolverines' frontcourters dominated, hitting their outside shots, grabbing offensive boards and blocking shots all night.

Wilson has been the story of the season to date. Preseason hype is one thing -- in fact, there was Wilson hype last year, after he spent his offseason adding muscle to his frame. But, last season came and went and the hype train never left the station.

This time, however, Wilson's development appears to be real. Tonight, he scored 10 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked two shots (not to mention affecting others). The long, athletic guy who seemed lost last season has looked like a completely different player through three games.

Michigan did all this with Derrick Walton picking up two early fouls, which, while not a positive for Michigan, allowed freshman Xavier Simpson to get some meaningful run. Simpson executed a Spike Albrecht special, dribbling circles in the lane before finding Wilson up top for a three.

Walton's absence didn't matter too much, as Michigan not only shot 6-for-11 from three en route to a 50-28 halftime lead, they did it in the paint, too. Michigan's offensive attack was humming to the tune of 1.27 points per possession, despite Walton not scoring in the half. Donnal was the star of the first half for Michigan, scoring 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting and adding three offensive rebounds.

Meanwhile, Marquette shot just 42.3 percent from the field in the first half with only five attempts from the free-throw line.

Michigan kept its foot on the gas early in the second half, later highlighted by a poster-worthy dunk from Wagner over Marquette center Luke Fischer.

Eventually, though, Marquette did start to wake up, cutting into Michigan's lead with a 10-0 run to make it 65-49 with 8:15 to play. Marquette later cut the lead to 14, but a fortunate bounce on a Zak Irvin jumper followed by an alley-oop slam by Wilson on the next possession prevented the Golden Eagles from mounting a real comeback.

Donnal and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led Michigan with 15 points apiece. Fischer led Marquette with 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting.

Michigan will face SMU (3-0) tomorrow night in the 2K Classic title game. The Mustangs defeated Pitt, 76-67, led by 24 points from F Semi Ojeleye.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Michigan 13, Iowa 14: That November feeling, pt. 2

File Photo
On a November Iowa night, perfection crashed into the gaping maw of unpredictability, like a deer running right across I-80 and into your path: sudden terror, swift and paralyzing.

But that's November football. September and October are utterly different things, separate and apart from that month, November. Had T.S. Eliot been a college football fan, perhaps he would have reconsidered his stance on April, the ostensibly cruelest month. T.S. Eliot never watched a No. 3 team in the country -- one that had scored 40-plus points in seven of its first nine games -- travel to Iowa City and cough up 201 yards of total offense and 13 points against a previously 5-4 team, one that lost by 27 points the previous week.

What branches grow out of this stony rubbish? For Iowa, it's a game in which you could say the Hawkeyes outplayed Michigan despite only putting up 230 yards of offense, going 4-for-16 on third down, and 3.5 yards per attempt by C.J. Beathard.

None of that mattered. Michigan ran into a seemingly refocused, re-energized Hawkeyes squad, and didn't have an answer when they weren't able to connect on the early knockout punch. Every game has its primary inflection point (some games have many). The Wolverines laid claim to a 10-0 lead -- it seemed as if one more first-half score from Michigan would have done the Hawkeyes in.

Instead, a Ron Coluzzi punt downed Michigan at its own 2, Michigan's pass protection failed and suddenly Iowa had two on the board. A Michigan three-and-out later and the Hawkeyes were starting on their own 48. Seven plays later, it's 10-8.

In games like these, each mistake is magnified. Khalid Hill coughs the ball up on the kickoff return to open the second half, and it eventually leads to three more for Iowa. Michigan was down just 11-10, but the winds had shifted, unabated on the vast Iowa flatland.

Michigan bumbled through the rest of the quarter before a fortuitous roughing-the-center call on a Michigan punt gave the Wolverines life. Even then, the Wolverines stumbled mightily when faced with a third-and-1 from the Iowa 27, when the swarming Iowa defense engulfed Karan Higdon shortly after he received an outside pitch from Wilton Speight.

The two teams traded interceptions, with Michigan's particularly backbreaking given that they'd reached the Iowa 38 -- even a field goal would have changed everything.

Then, with a chance to truly put the game away, Michigan ran De'Veon Smith for one yard, Jabrill Peppers for one yard, then a shot downfield to Amara Darboh fell incomplete (with Speight taking a vicious shot to the shoulder).

Few situations in sports fandom are more tense than this: The other team has the ball with just enough time to get into field goal range and, in the process, leave your team with little or no time to respond. There's a helplessness that builds with each successful play, with each moving of the chains.

Even worse, starting from the Michigan 36 after a face mask penalty, the Hawkeyes didn't have to go far. They did what they had to and booted the 33-yarder as time expired, ending Michigan's run of perfection.

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So, what now?

Even after Iowa's brutal performance at Penn State, I knew this matchup presented the proverbial "trap" game (I would be lying if I thought it would be that close, let alone yield a Michigan loss). A Big Ten road game, at Kinnick, at night, is always going to be tough. Ohio State learned a similar lesson earlier this year against what at that point seemed to be a fairly pedestrian Penn State squad.

Such is college football. If Michigan fans can take any solace, it's in the fact that they weren't the only ones to fall. Clemson, Washington, Auburn and Texas A&M all dropped games, with Clemson and Washington falling out of the undefeated ranks.

Still, there's no antidote for the frustration that follows a November failure. With that said, Michigan still, in theory, can win out and join the playoff field.

It's just that that proposition seems far shakier than it did, especially with the news of Speight's injury.

Enter John O'Korn.

It wasn't long ago that another Big Ten team rode a backup quarterback to a national title. Ohio State, of course, struck gold with Cardale Jones, who powered the Buckeyes with his blend of running ability and arm strength to wins in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, then playoff wins against Alabama and Oregon.

Michigan fans will have to hope Jim Harbaugh can find similar success with O'Korn, the Houston transfer billed as the higher-ceiling option earlier in the calendar year before Speight proved himself more capable of consistently and prudently moving the ball.

None of that matters now. O'Korn will be the starter, and Michigan's hopes will ride on his ability to get the offense back on track after a faith-shaking night in Iowa City (perhaps Unreal City, as Eliot wrote, is more appropriate).

Bullets

  • Tackling ... it is a concern. Whether it's Mike McCray or Channing Stribling or even Peppers, Michigan's back seven players have had some whiffs in recent weeks. Sure, Iowa's Akrum Wadley can make you look silly, but these sort of mistakes don't bode well for Michigan's defense against J.T. Barrett et al. 
  • Even so ... talk of the defense's failures should be tempered by talk of its successes. For all of the teeth-gnashing following Saturday's loss, the defense still completely shut down Iowa's passing game. Plus, 12 non-safety points is still pretty good, any way you slice it. 
  • But cracks are showing, and it's not hard to have visions of last year. Remember when Michigan's defense started to wilt late last season against Indiana and Ohio State? This isn't that, exactly, but teams were previously unable to do much of anything running the ball between the tackles. That wasn't the case for Iowa. Is it the beginning of a trend or did Iowa simply strike gold via Wadley's shakin' and bakin'? We probably won't find out for sure against an Indiana team that isn't the offensive force it has been -- we certainly will against Ohio State. 
  • Pressure. Michigan's 'D' still tallied six tackles for loss, including a sack apiece from Taco Charlton, Chase Winovich and Chris Wormley. So, that's good. 
  • Downfield shots. It's an almost pointless thing to say, but if Speight hits one or two of those open receivers down the field, this is probably a different column. But, for whatever reason, he didn't, and here we are. I wouldn't expect the downfield quarterback-receiver synergy to be better with a new quarterback taking the reins, unfortunately. 
  • Perfection isn't easy. Four of the last five national champions had a loss. College football is too prone to random bouts of concentrated insanity for perfection to be easy or common. Even Alabama, that paragon of infallibility under Nick Saban, has only won one national championship while going undefeated (2009), while the other three seasons featured a loss (2011, 2012, 2015). I don't know if this Michigan team will join that club of slightly imperfect champions -- let alone make the playoff field -- but it remains true that Saturday wasn't the end of the world. It was only the end of a perfect one. Luckily for Michigan, college football championships are not necessarily won with perfection, but excellence at the right time. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Michigan 59, Maryland 3: That November feeling



Here we are: another week, another blowout.

The difference, this time, is the time of year. With Michigan's 59-3 win against Maryland on the fifth of November, the Wolverines are undefeated in the final month of the Big Ten regular season for the first time since 2006.

It's easy to chalk some of this up to level of competition (although some seem to be forgetting Michigan has three wins against top-15 teams on its resume), but that still doesn't change the absolute certainty with which Michigan is winning. Ohio State, Clemson and Washington have all looked mortal against lesser conference foes. Michigan had its early tense period against Colorado and a close-but-not-close win in East Lansing, but otherwise this season has been a lovingly unfurled red carpet rolling toward Columbus, Ohio.

In 2006, Michigan opened its November with a shaky 34-26 victory against Ball State, which at the time didn't mean much but in retrospect presaged defensive failings later. Of course, those failings came to pass in a 42-39 loss against No. 1 Ohio State and yet another Rose Bowl thumping at the hands of USC.

This time, it was a conference foe in Maryland, not Ball State, and Michigan left no doubt. Wilton Speight continues to improve, playing his best game since the UCF game way back in September. Like the 2006 defense, which showed its cracks in the secondary late in the season, this otherwise dominant Michigan defense has showed some vulnerability against the run the last two weeks, particularly on the edge.

How many rushing yards do you think Maryland acquired on Saturday? Without looking, your guess probably greatly exceeds the reality. The Terps carried the ball 38 times for 78 yards, a figure that includes a long of 21 yards from the speedy Lorenzo Harrison.

That cognitive dissonance tells the tale to date. When Maryland finally got on the board with a field goal, the crowd seemed slightly perplexed. How could this be happening? When Rutgers acquired its first first down against the Michigan defense, some were mildly upset (sarcastically so, but still).

The level has been raised. It's why a two-score victory on the road against a rival, even a rival with a 2-5 record heading into the game, yielded mixed reviews rather than primal ululations on a mountaintop.

With said blowouts comes the cacophony of crowing on "class," that shape-shifting thing that means nothing except what the invoker wants it to mean. In this case, it's "don't score too many points because that is not nice."

Instead, Michigan should have taken delay of game penalties, punted the ball backwards, played Michael Onwenu at quarterback (okay, actually, please do this) and forgotten how to perambulate. In a Big Ten conference game, Michigan should be careful not to do too much, for it is unseemly.

I understand the desire not to feel embarrassed -- at the same time, it is not one opponent's duty to make up for its foe's inferiority with a forced display of "class," especially when there are still things to be accomplished (e.g. getting backups real, live reps).

It's no coincidence that other teams are doing the same. Ohio State dropped 62 on Nebraska. Clemson hit Syracuse with 54, only seven fewer points than the Michigan basketball team scored against Jim Boeheim's squad in a Final Four game in 2013. Washington scored 66 at Cal in an effort to make the playoff committee look bad after giving Texas A&M the No. 4 ranking. Louisville scored 52 at Boston College.

Style points supposedly don't matter anymore, they say. I'm not so sure.

In any case, Michigan has its sights set on a playoff berth, its destiny in its own hands. The Wolverines get Iowa on the road, a tricky Indiana team at home then a trip to Columbus against an Ohio State team that is still in play for a postseason spot. Then, should Michigan get through that stretch unscathed, they'll likely get a rematch with a tenacious Wisconsin squad.

Style points and strength of schedule and discussions of class will soon be blown away like a patch of fall leaves. Winning is all that matters.

And for the first time since 2006, winning is all Michigan has done heading into November, the month in which champions declare themselves.

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As for the game itself, I'll direct you to MGoBlue's notes section for a full list of notable achievements. Among them:
  • Michigan set a new season-best for total yards (yes, besting the Rutgers output). 
  • Speight set a record for first-half passing yards with 292. 
  • Somehow, Michigan became the first FBS team this season to score a touchdown on all of its first-half drives. 
  • Jake Butt passed Jim Mandich in tight end receiving yards, becoming the program's all-time leader. 
  • Michigan matched a season-high in tackles for loss with 13 (!), marking the sixth time this season Michigan has recorded 10 or more in a game. 
And so on and so forth. 

With the earlier caveat regarding Maryland's actual rushing output in mind, Michigan did show some vulnerability on edge runs, with linebacker Mike McCray looking wobbly in space at times. There's no doubt Urban Meyer was watching. McCray and all other would-be tacklers will need to be at their best on that November day in Columbus. Lorenzo Harrison is a solid player, but Curtis Samuel is something else. 

Otherwise, Michigan was just about perfect. Speight continues to display that uncanny, Roethlisberger-esque ability to shake off would-be tacklers and make a play. Although he was tackled for a loss once while attempting a hilarious spin move on third down (resulting in a Michigan field goal), he otherwise flashed a useful ability to get out of danger and even make big plays, including his first rushing touchdown of the season. 

In other noteworthy happenings, Jehu Chesson came alive, notching his first 100-plus yard receiving game of the year. Perhaps he's still working his way back from the knee injury sustained earlier this year against Florida. Whatever the case may be, now would be the perfect time to start seeing Citrus Bowl Chesson again. His speed and field-stretching ability would add yet another component to what has been an enjoyably diverse and productive offensive attack. 

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Next week, Michigan visits an ailing Iowa squad that just took a 41-14 loss at Penn State. Iowa's running game was non-existent (26 carries, 30 yards). Its run defense failed to exist, too, giving up 359 yards on 52 carries (6.9 yards per carry). PSU QB Trace McSorley went 11-for-18 with 240 yards and two touchdowns. 

Michigan, of course, gets Iowa in Iowa City, a place they haven't won since 2005. That sort of trivia doesn't exactly matter, for a number of reasons, but it does mean Michigan cannot expect to play poorly and win easily. 

Most importantly, Speight will have another opportunity to get a road game in a hostile environment under his belt (I'm not sure the Michigan fan representation will be quite as strong for this one as it was in East Lansing). Every little bit of experience counts as the Wolverines prepare to gear up for the trip to Columbus later this month. 

Even a cursory scan of Iowa twitter reveals a deep sense of resigned frustration, one that Michigan fans know well -- except not really, because Michigan has never had a contract albatross like Kirk Ferentz's. 

This, for example, hearkens to Michigan teams of old, before the M Train and Peppers wildcat packages and fullback dives. 
Michigan should leave Iowa City with a comfortable victory. But November can be a funny place in time, where "should" and reality part, leaving a swirling madness in the cleft.