Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Michigan 58, SMU 82: If you're gonna play in Texas, you gotta have defenders in the band

Michigan struggled against top-notch competition in Xavier and UConn, looking generally over-matched and like a team still trying to find its way, as individuals and a cohesive unit.

The same held true tonight in Dallas, as SMU's Jordan Tolbert dunked his way to 23 points (11-of-12 from the field) and Michigan (6-3) did very little right, falling 82-58 and never leading in the game's final 33 minutes.

The Wolverines not only had a chance to avenge last season's home loss against the Mustangs, they had an opportunity to tally a quality win (on the road, no less), which could have come in handy come tournament selection time -- but, first things first.

Unfortunately, Michigan was without the services of Derrick Walton (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman got the start in his place). MAAR contributed to a solid early effort, with a 3-of-3 start from the field, mitigating a slow start from Caris LeVert.

Michigan gained an 11-7 lead, but that was about as good as things would get. The U-M offense was out of sync, and aside from a 1-of-8 start from beyond the arc, the Wolverines committed a pair of shot clock violations, in addition to other bad shots to end possessions.

Michigan fell behind, fast, as the Mustangs found open shooters on the secondary break and Michigan continued to stumble on the offensive end. Speaking of, Michigan didn't get its first big-man points until a wide open Ricky Doyle dunk with three minutes remaining in the first half.

From the outside, Michigan finished the first half shooting just 33 percent (14% from beyond the arc) -- not surprisingly, Michigan trailed 36-22, with SMU closing on a 15-4 run.

Michigan's inability to prevent penetration by opposing guards continues to kill it on a consistent basis -- that's hard enough to withstand even if you have an elite shot blocker (which Michigan does not have).

Without one? You get what you saw tonight: alley-oop slams, transition rim-rattlers, thunderous tomahawks, powerful putbacks.

Michigan heated up early in the second half, including a pair of Duncan Robinson triples and a Zak Irvin three off the glass from the top of the key. Even so, Michigan still couldn't shadow Tolbert, who dunked his way to one of the easiest 23-point nights I've ever seen.

Despite Michigan's early second-half signs of life, LeVert remained scoreless 26 minutes into the game -- until some Keith Frazier trash talking netted LeVert a pair of technical foul free throws. (LeVert's first field goal came with under five minutes to play, when the game was already well out of reach.)

Robinson buried another triple, and Michigan was down 12. To the 1-3-1 they went, and to the slam dunk store SMU went, on that possession and the next. Every time Michigan made a bucket, SMU responded, often emphatically.

There's not much to say and no use in over-analyzing. LeVert struggled mightily for the second year in a row against SMU and the Wolverines had no answers defensively. Part of it is experience, part of it is a lack of physicality, and part of it is simply not doing the basketball things that need to be done. There are some things a Beilein team will never be or never do -- but, for example, being able to stay in front of guards has to be one of those things.

Walton would have greatly helped, to be sure, although not enough to get Michigan a win tonight. His ability to lead and drive the team is obvious when he's on the floor, and especially so when he's not.

One would think the Wolverines will improve somewhat between now and February. As it stands, though, Michigan will exit the nonconference schedule without a win to hang its hat on. The Big Ten schedule is far more forgiving than it has been in recent years, but even a tournament berth can't be taken for granted.

SMU is a strong team, and there is certainly no shame in losing to a team like that, on the road. But, if Michigan is to avoid missing out on the Big Dance for the second year in a row, it has to fix some very basic deficiencies in its play to date, and fast.

In-season improvement is almost a guarantee, but who knows if it'll be enough come tournament time. After Michigan reached the national title one year and the Elite 8 the next, last season and the start to this one are a little tougher to watch than they otherwise might be.

That's college basketball for you, talent pools ebbing and flowing like the tides, with them taking and returning fortune.

Michigan still has plenty of talent, and this is a team that can make a little noise in the tournament if it gets there.

But there's a long, long way to go.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Michigan 66, N.C. State 59: The good, the bad and the wunderbar

Michigan led by as many as 10 points in the first half on the road in Raleigh, led by Caris LeVert's nine points and five rebounds. Heading into the break, the Wolverines led 34-26.

This all sounds good: but there was one catch.

Despite all of the above, the story of the first 20 minutes was Derrick Walton, who limped off the floor late in the half with an ankle injury.



Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, somewhat of an odd-man-out thus far, picked up many of those minutes, finishing with four points, four rebounds and a steal.

Of course, a Walton-less Michigan team is not a new thing for John Beilein and Co., so the second half was not quite the shock to the system it otherwise could have been.

And Michigan played the second frame like it had been in that situation before.

Michigan upped its lead to 15 in the second half after a LeVert dunk. The Wolfpack, however, surged back, cutting the lead down to four after slowly chipping away at the deficit for six minutes.

In what sounded like a tough road environment (on TV, at least), Michigan could have wilted under the pressure. Instead, they responded, and from the exact spots on the floor you'd expect them to do so.

Duncan Robinson shimmied and rose up for a right-wing triple, which he buried and then stared at the Michigan bench, a moment eerily reminiscent of one Nik Stauskas.

On the next possession, LeVert drove right and swung a baseline pass to an open Zak Irvin in the corner. Irvin is still recalibrating his shot, but on this one he was true, extending Michigan's lead to 10.

The home team never cut the deficit to less than seven after that critical one-two.

Without Walton, ball-handling duties fell on LeVert for much of the second half, in which he attempted only four shots. On a number of occasions, he did that thing where he penetrates deep into the lane, and instead of going up for his own shot, attempts a pass to a Michigan big, which seems to result in a turnover or some other negative outcome more often than not.

Nonetheless, LeVert's free-throw shooting late helped seal the deal, and he finished with 18 to lead the Wolverines. Robinson was close behind, with 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting (5-for-7 from three).

On the boards, Michigan out-rebounded N.C. State, 30-23, but once again had trouble on the defensive glass. The Wolfpack rebounded 34 percent of their misses -- the last game I recapped (Elon), Michigan allowed its opponent to grab 33 percent of its misses. Regardless, struggles on the defensive glass are nothing new for this program. It is what it is.

Otherwise, the most important storyline will continue to be what Michigan can get out of its frontcourters. Ricky Doyle continues to suffer from a bit of fumbleitis around the basket, but that's to be expected from a great majority of big guys. Doyle had a team-high three turnovers, but did pitch in six points and four rebounds, and took a charge late.

The freshman from Berlin, however, is the frontcourter likely to inspire the most buzz.

Moritz Wagner scored two points on 1-for-5 shooting in a combined nine minutes against Xavier and UConn, both brutal losses for the Wolverines.

Since then? He's logged 16, 18 and 23 minutes in Michigan's current three-game winning streak, scoring a combined 34 points on 15-for-19 shooting. Tonight, he tallied eight points on 4-for-7 shooting. Fouls could be an issue going forward (he tallied four tonight and four against Texas), but otherwise the nimble big man is doing some good things out there, including a solid finish through contact on a feed from LeVert with just over four minutes left and an emphatic first-half dunk.

Who knows if this will fall in the quality win ledger. N.C. State opened its season with a blowout loss against William & Mary of the Colonial Athletic Association and dropped a close one to Arizona State in New York.

Regardless, a road win against a major conference team is nothing to scoff at, particularly without the team's floor general for the second half.

The Wolfpack shot just 32.8 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from beyond the arc. Anthony Barber and Caleb Martin got their points (a combined 35), but the remainder of the starting five went a horrid 1-for-20 from the field. It's difficult to say how much of this had to do with Michigan and how much could be attributed to N.C. State simply taking bad shots, but the numbers are the numbers.

---
In any case, Michigan has rebounded nicely after a pair of tough losses against strong competition. The team is a work in progress, as Beilein continues to try to find the right lineups, Irvin continues to regain his feel for the game and the young bigs make incremental improvements.

But, all in all, after those two losses, things have gone just about as well as you could hope for.

The Wolverines take on Houston Baptist on Saturday before another quality opponent appears on the schedule next Tuesday, when Michigan heads to currently No. 22 SMU. After last year's home loss against the Mustangs, the Wolverines will surely be looking for a different result this time around.

Michigan follows that up with a series of lesser foes -- but after last year's NJIT game, no contest can be considered a slam dunk -- before Big Ten play opens for Michigan at Illinois Dec. 30.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Michigan 13, Ohio State 42: November blues

When you get a new coach, and the hype builds and reacts with the reality of the present situation -- the roster, the schedule, the standard transitional questions of scheme and philosophy-- you get a test tube bubbling with scenarios.

Best case scenarios, worst case scenarios and something in the middle.

Worst case? Michigan was looking at something similar to last year, or maybe a little better: 5-7, 6-6, the Harbaugh effect setting in, but not so much to offset a lack of talent at a number of spots.

Best case? Well, you have just about close to what happened. If not for a once-in-a-generation-style loss against rival Michigan State, the Wolverines would have been 10-1 heading into the Ohio State game, with their destiny in their own hands in terms of a conference title game berth.

Then, there's the vast in between.

When all was said and done, Michigan finished at the upper end of that in between, a 9-3 peppered with impressive blowouts, a pair of close losses (one on the road against a strong Utah team to open the season, the other at home in fairly ridiculous fashion).

Then, there was this past Saturday.

After opening as double-digit underdogs in the summer against the defending national champion Buckeyes, most places had this one even heading into Saturday. Michigan was fresh off a better-than-it-looked win at Penn State, and the Buckeyes were reeling after a listless loss at home against Michigan State.

But the Buckeye team that took the field was not the one that took the field the week before, in spirit and in execution.

The previously disgruntled Ezekel Elliot carried it 30 times for 214 yards and two scores (7.1 yards per carry), and J.T. Barrett only had to pass 15 times (and really, he didn't even have to pass that many times).

Closing a season in which Michigan adeptly hid its deficiencies against the majority of its schedule, it was unable to do so, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, in two of its last three games, when the Hoosiers and Buckeyes tore through the Michigan defense like it wasn't there.

Sure, injuries on the defensive line were an issue, but probably not so much as to send the Wolverines into an abyss of vastly less-effective run defense.

Unfortunately for Jim Harbaugh and Co., they just didn't have enough tricks to take on a refocused Buckeye team, eager to wash away the disappointment of blowing its chance for a Big Ten title game appearance (and thus, likely a chance at another college football playoff berth).

In retrospect, considering Michigan went into the half down just 14-10, the second half is all the more disappointing.

The Buckeyes had their way with the Michigan defense: think the Indiana game, only with more talent, and an actual defense to shut down the Wolverines' surging yet one-dimensional attack (and who would've thought that the effective dimension would be the passing game).

While the initial reaction is surely embarrassment, and a glum resignation, the reality is that Michigan has a long way to go.

The linebackers, who were deemed the weak link of the defense early on, were preyed upon by the Ohio State attack. They looked slow, indecisive, and not up to the task of Urban Meyer's talented, athletic attack, keyed by Elliott and Barrett's skillful running ability.

The good news? Michigan returns players like Bryan Mone on the defensive line next year. The bad? The linebackers are gone, save junior Blake Gedeon. If Michigan's defense is to avoid a reprisal of this performance, some answers will need to be found here, and fast.

Through the air, even Jourdan Lewis didn't have a great day, even though Barrett completed just nine of his 15 passes. But, such is life when facing talents like Michigan State's Aaron Burbridge and Ohio State's Michael Thomas.

Offensively, Michigan's inability to make hay on the ground finally sunk it in a big way. For all of his heroics earlier in the season, De'Veon Smith's (10 carries, 23 yards) lack of any sort of speed (or, more importantly, explosiveness) or ability to consistently hit the right hole continued to be an issue. The fact that Jabrill Peppers led the Wolverines in rushing (7 carries, 29 yards) is not ideal, nor is the fact that fullback Sione Houma was third in carries.

Meanwhile, Ty Isaac has disappeared since his fumble issues, and Derrick Green, as unfortunate as it is, does not seem to be a viable option.

Michigan did well enough in keeping Jake Rudock's jersey clean when he was in the pocket this season; that is, until Joey Bosa et al came to the Big House. On the ground, Michigan will have to hope that another year of seasoning will make this collection of linemen a little bit better in 2016.

But, it won't matter unless the Wolverines can find a tailback that can do the job. And right now, Michigan has a roster of ball carriers who each carry a significant flaw that seemingly prevents them from being a reliable feature back.

Ignoring the obvious vacuum at quarterback post-Rudock -- and Michigan does at least have options there, albeit unproven -- the running back position and the new slate of guys at linebacker will be the biggest question marks heading into next season, discounting the obvious of all-around improving of the skill and athleticism of the skill players on the outside.

In a world of one-game scenarios, it goes without saying that Saturday's blowout falls under the umbrella of worst-case. After a successful season, one would have thought that Michigan had put the days of blowout losses in The Game (e.g. 2008 and 2010) behind it.

Unfortunately, Saturday proved otherwise. If you don't have the players, you don't have the players, and no amount of coaching acumen or schematic chicanery can disguise that fact, particularly when met with the well-oiled machine Meyer has built in Columbus.

So, here we are: 9-3, with three losses to the best opponents on Michigan's schedule. The Wolverines beat who they were "supposed" to beat, and probably a couple others that might not have fallen in that category when the season started.

Overall, the 2015 season will be remembered as the year of transition, a strong first step toward better football and, Michigan fans hope, the beginning of a long and prosperous era on the gridiron in Ann Arbor.

Until those next steps can be taken, though, Michigan is left with the sour taste of Saturday -- of Elliott running through the line, of the Buckeyes not letting up late (which, for the record, I would not expect them to, nor would I necessarily advocate doing if the situations were reversed), of another rival's post-game celebration on the Big House turf.

The Wolverines will get a chance to notch a 10th win, potentially completing just its second double-digit win season since the end of the Lloyd Carr era. That is something worth applauding for now, as Michigan gets back on its feet after wandering aimlessly for the better part of a decade, like someone in a new city with a dead phone and unhelpful townies.

Irrespective of what happens in some prospective bowl game in Florida or California, Michigan successfully eluded the macroscopic reality of its present state for most of the 2015 season.

On Saturday, there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Michigan 28, Penn State 16: Greater than its parts

Michigan hadn't won in Happy Valley since 2006. And on Saturday, they headed there again, looking to move to 9-2 on the season.

Even when things don't seem to be going so well, Michigan flexes, you look up and the opponent is done. Like that, disintegrated.

At least watching the game live, it didn't feel like the Wolverines played particularly well. In addition, the officiating was typically poor, with many of the more egregious calls going against the Wolverines (and in this case, it was so frequent as to be beyond partisan interpretations).

Yet, when it came down to it, the Wolverines clocked the Nittany Lions, even if it doesn't show it on the scoreboard.

Through 11 games, it's undeniably true that the coaching staff has squeezed everything out of this collection of players as is humanly possible. More players are seeing the field, improving incrementally as the season trudges forward into the frigid final weeks.

After a big 56-yard run by Saquon Barkley early in the game, visions of Michigan's vulnerability on the ground against Minnesota popped up again. But that would be Penn State's last huge chunk play of the game. Wide receiver Chris Godwin reeled in 38 of his 51 receiving yards on one play, and Jabrill Peppers got lost in coverage on the touchdown underthrow to Saeed Blacknall.

Other than that? Zip, zilch, nada. The clearly frustrated Christian Hackenberg completed just 13-of-31 passes for 137 yards, good for a putrid 4.4 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, after the big run, the speedy Barkley was held to 12 yards on 14 carries (making for a statistically inferior performance to Michigan's infamous "27 for 27" output against Penn State in 2013...albeit on fewer carries, true).

Michigan hurt itself with a number of pre-snap defensive penalties, and some that are still beyond explanation. Nonetheless, Michigan went on and completed its first undefeated road slate since 1997.

Say what you will about the quality of the Big Ten -- even if you say it's bad, Michigan hasn't gone undefeated on the road in this league for almost two decades.

Michigan's defensive line once again looked dominant, constantly getting in Hackenberg's face. The Wolverines are only marked down for four sacks, but even that seems to underrepresent the level of dominance the line flashed, albeit against a not-so-quality offensive line.

Perhaps most encouragingly, Taco Charlton stepped up and had likely his best game as a Wolverine, leading the defense with a pair of sacks and playing like the athletic, big-time recruit he is. He notched three tackles for loss, and Chris Wormley (2 TFL) and James Ross (2 TFL) found their way into the backfield, too. Other than Jake Rudock's late-season renaissance, the emergence of a different defensive lineman each week has been the most exciting part of the season.

On the other hand, no, it was not Peppers's finest hour. It would do fans well to remember that this is his first full year of college football; mistakes will happen, and coverage skills are still a work in progress.

On the other side, despite throwing 38 times, Michigan only let up two sacks -- let's take a second to remember how things were on the offensive line not too long ago, when poor Devin Gardner never had a chance each time he dropped back to pass. Yes, the running game is an ancillary at best part of the offense, but at least the line is not only holding its own at something, it is excelling.

As for Rudock, two turnovers are the only blemishes on yet another tremendous outing, his third-straight game with 250-plus passing yards. In case you missed it, that makes him the first U-M quarterback in history to pass for that many yards three games in a row.

Not so quietly, Rudock has transformed from liability to net-passable to a real asset. That improvement can in part be attributed to increased familiarity with the offense, but also, of course, to coaching.

This is still far from a big-play offense, but those are starting to trickle through in recent weeks. Rudock completed a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jake Butt, a 26-yarder to Amara Darboh and a 39-yarder to Jehu Chesson. Michigan needed that, as it stumbled to just 2.9 yards per carry on the ground, with the longest run of the day, 20 yards, coming from Chesson.

Comparisons to the 2006 game will be made. Michigan's defense once again overwhelmed a PSU offense in a game that appears closer than it actually was.

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So, here we are.

Michigan is 9-2, outshooting probably at least 95 percent of the fan base's expectations. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Ohio State did not take care of business yesterday, making Michigan's road to Indianapolis seem more like a dead end than a viable route. Michigan needs help from the same Penn State team it just defeated.

Also, of course, they have to win in the Big House against the Buckeyes. I don't need to tell you that Michigan has only come out on the winning end of The Game once since 2003.

No, the Buckeyes didn't exactly look invulnerable this past Saturday, playing against Michigan State's backup quarterbacks and running an offense that was baffling to partial and impartial observers alike. Who knows what Ezekiel Elliott's postgame comments mean for next Saturday, what state of mind the Buckeyes will be in, what sort of team will be coming into Ann Arbor two days after Thanksgiving.

Michigan might not get a shot at Iowa, even if it wins this Saturday, because of one faulty punt snap in October. In the topsy-turvy world of college football, sometimes that's all it takes to knock you off course.

Even so, it's been a while since Michigan has been playing for something in earnest.

Nonetheless, there's no doubt that Michigan has had a successful campaign. But a product of that success is increased expectations. We all know this, like we know the sky is blue or that when in the red zone, Michigan wins far more often than it loses (on both sides of the ball).

But if Michigan plays Ohio State tight, and loses? Well, for that day, no one will remember 9-2. The 2006 season is remembered for many things: the Notre Dame blowout, the Penn State game, even the too-close-for-comfort Ball State game. Above all that, though, that season is remembered for No. 1 vs. No. 2 -- and, to a lesser extent, the disappointing second half of the Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately, that's the nature of sports and humanity. We only remember the last thing.

The road to Indianapolis might close in East Lansing next Saturday. If it does, Michigan will wait -- Indianapolis will be there next year, and for years to come.

On Saturday, the only thing that matters is the two teams on that field, and what they do on that field. On Saturday, this season's legacy hangs in the balance. Lose, and it's just a nice season with two losses to Michigan's rivals.

Win? That's a season to remember, Indianapolis or not.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Michigan 88, Elon 68: Sharpshootin'

Michigan moved to 2-0 with a relatively breezy 88-68 win against visiting Elon tonight in Ann Arbor.

Derrick Walton led the Wolverines with 24 points on 8-for-10 from the field (6-for-7 from three, plus seven assists and six rebounds).

Funny enough, though, the point guard wasn't even Michigan's most accurate shooter.

Transfer Duncan Robinson went a perfect 6-for-6 from the field, and 5-for-5 from downtown. If you aren't used to it already, get used to the phrase "he just doesn't miss."

I didn't have a chance to watch this past Friday's Northern Michigan game, so I finally got to see him in action for the first time tonight. I read some of the offseason practice reports with skepticism -- after all, we've heard flowery praise like that before about so many players, some of whom turned out to be pretty good but maybe not quite as good as such praise indicated.

But, so far, Robinson's outside stroke is as good as advertised. Obviously, we'll need to see it against real competition before he gets thrust into the Nik Stauskas Honorary Ring of Sharpshooters, but early returns are promising, to say the least.

In any case, there's not much use overanalyzing this game too much. Elon offered more size than NMU, but not so much to overwhelm. (Elon grabbed 33.3 percent of its misses in this one, which seems a little high, but it is what it is.)

Defensively, it wasn't a strong performance, but it's still early, obviously, and guys like D.J. Wilson are still getting their sea legs, not to mention Zak Irvin, who is still working his way back from injury and didn't start.

Elon shot 39.1 percent from beyond the arc, but Michigan made up for that by turning the Phoenix over 17 times. On that front, Caris LeVert (3-for-8, 11 points), flashed his length and general disruptiveness in the passing lanes and on the ball. He might not be a defensive stopper, per se, but he's good for at least one scoop and score a game.

In this one, he notched four steals, with at least a couple resulting in scores going the other way.

And not to sound like a meathead, but Michigan is going to need that sort of perimeter defensive intensity, because interior physicality is once again likely to not be their forte. On one play late in the first half, Elon's Brian Dawkins backed down Mark Donnal with startling ease, putting up an easy layup.

Ricky Doyle is the best option Michigan has on the physicality front. He picked up a ticky-tack foul outside of the three-point line on a hard hedge in the first half. That is something to watch out for going forward; if that continues to be called tightly, Michigan could be looking at some quick two-foul outings for the sophomore big man.

Overall, though, nothing has really been too surprising so far. Defense is a work in progress, the Wolverines can shoot the lights out and the frontcourters have a long way to go, even Doyle (who actually had a nice game, going 3-for-4 for eight points).

As for the others, Kam Chatman still seems to be searching for his outside shot, and he did get some good looks tonight (0-for-3 from downtown, 3-for-5 overall). At some point, some of those have to start falling for him.

Aubrey Dawkins had a relatively quiet night (3-for-5, 7 points) and Spike Albrecht wasn't much of a factor -- not that he needed to be -- although he did take a nice charge in the second half.

Moritz Wagner has a long way to go, obviously, physically and otherwise, but did have a nice strip that led to a transition opportunity. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the subject of much "guy who is going to possibly be lost in the shuffle" talk, didn't do much, but had a nice strong take to the basket for two, just the sort of explosive slashery we saw from him in his Michigan debut season.

Michigan won again, and comfortably. The defense wasn't great, and several possessions ended in long jumpers at the buzzer (some ended with makes, but still), but expecting a well-oiled machine in November is far from reasonable.

The competition will pick up, and eventually we'll be able to make meaningful observations about these performances.

For now, though, the most encouraging things are clear. Walton, who has already been excellent in his career to date, looks ready to round into elite college point guard form. It's a long way off, but the matchup against Indiana's Yogi Ferrell on Feb. 2 is going to be one of the best position-to-position matchups of the conference season, in my opinion.

Walton's ability to get the transition game going is paramount: on one sequence in the first half, he threaded a beautiful bounce pass from the back court to hit Robinson in stride for two going the other way. Every assist only counts as one, but that's a super-assist right there.

Otherwise, Robinson's shot appears to be as ridiculous as advertised, and LeVert continues to do LeVert things when he's not having a particularly exceptional night from the field.

With these first two preseason-esque games out of the way, Michigan gets set to face Xavier, UConn and NC State in its next three. The competition picks up -- so does the chance to see some of these guys in meaningful game situations, in which mistakes matter and deficiencies can't be covered up by talent mismatches or a barrage of wide-open threes.

Michigan 48, Indiana 41 (2OT): Different parts

Not all wins are the same.

Some are easy, some are hard. Some are aesthetically pleasing, some are 2014 Northwestern. Some make you sweat, some are laughers.

Some rip your heart out. Some get it beating, shaking uncontrollably like a pinging tuning fork, so much so that it threatens to burst from your chest.

Saturday's trip to Bloomington was a strange concoction, a combination of all of the above. Disorienting, confusing, terrifying: in other words, a normal game against Indiana in the Kevin Wilson era.

Defensively, the Wolverines, now undermanned -- or, at least, relative to prior depth levels -- on the defensive line, were worn down by Indiana's relentless pace. All offense and no defense, the Hoosiers overwhelm with a barrage of passes and quick runs, aided, of course, by the talented Jordan Howard, who would be a good player in any offensive system.

The Michigan defense didn't come away from this looking good, even though 27 regulation points allowed (seven on the punt return touchdown) is actually not that bad against that offense.

It's often said that playing Air Force in your nonconference schedule is a lose-lose, simply because that offense is difficult to prepare for, and even if you beat them, it's not going to be counted in the quality win ledger. Indiana is like that, only Michigan doesn't have the choice to not play them.

So, the Wolverines will have to deal with this every year going forward (that is, until the next tectonic shift of Big Ten alignment). The Hoosiers aren't going away, which is somewhat of a funny statement to make about a team that is now 4-6 on the season, including a loss to Rutgers and close calls against Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky.

But that's just how Indiana rolls. The Hoosiers are nonsensical, a striking configuration of asset and super-flaw, competing against one another. It makes for entertaining viewing from afar, but is nerve-racking to be a part of, whether as a fan of the Hoosiers or a fan of their opponent.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, Jake Rudock seems to finally be coming into his own. Despite sarcastic, eye-rolling comments after first-down scampers (made by yours truly) about his being like Denard, he looks like a completely different, more confident player.

Yes, I know, Rutgers and Indiana likely have something to do with that. Still, Rudock has had an excellent couple of weeks, and I don't need to recite the records broken in Bloomington on Saturday (by the way, it is still somewhat startling that the Michigan record for touchdowns thrown in a game was "only" four).

So, this was Michigan's Air Force of the Big Ten season. With the chance at a division title hanging in the balance, Rudock delivered on the final play of regulation after a frustrating trio of unsuccessful runs leading up to that five-yard strike to Chesson, who had a breakout game of his own.

Rudock's rise has come at a good time, as the running game continues to struggle. Michigan still doesn't really have a reliable feature back, despite promising stuff early in the year from De'Veon Smith, particularly the BYU game. The offensive line isn't really making those holes, and when they do, the backs aren't hitting them. Or, when there's an opportunity to get the edge, Smith is often unable to get there, sometimes resembling a city bus trying to make a left turn.

This is a situation that probably is not going to magically resolve itself in the next two games, particularly not against defenses like Penn State, Ohio State and whatever bowl team (probably an SEC team, I'd imagine) Michigan has to face.

Here we are, with a struggling running game and a defense that is all of a sudden starting to look mortal, and it's Rudock who is coming through it all looking like he could be Michigan's saving grace.

Maybe things are starting to finally click. Maybe this is to a great extent a product of the competition. Like this Indiana win, it's a combination of things, of different parts at odds and yet complementary.

On the bright side for Michigan, Rudock is seasoned. A trip to Penn State and a tilt against Ohio State won't be too big of a stage. He now has 10 games under his belt as a Wolverine and took a big step forward in Bloomington, making throws requiring him to trust his receivers, throws he wasn't making early in the season (not that unmitigated trust in the receivers is always warranted, particularly given some of the route miscues early in the season).

Rudock finished an incredible 33-of-46 for 440 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception. If I gave you that stat line without telling you to whom it belonged, you'd probably think it was the work of [insert Baylor quarterback here]. But no, it was Michigan's Jake Rudock.

That stat line likely won't happen again. The reality is, however, that given the defense's situation, particularly up front, the Wolverines will again need something close to Rudock's best at Penn State, and certainly against Ohio State.

The margin for error is thin. Perhaps the defense's decline is exaggerated, but with the run game being what it is, and Michigan's special teams experiencing a sudden correction in the wrong direction, the burden will increasingly fall on the fifth-year senior from Weston, Florida.

What happens these next two weeks (and beyond) will go a long way toward determining how Rudock is remembered in Michigan lore. If Michigan plays tough but loses out (irrespective of the bowl game, pending the matchup), he'll be the caretaker quarterback who nursed Michigan through a transition year, performing to the best of his abilities. Not great, not bad, but just the right person for the moment to get Michigan through.

But if Michigan wins out, and gets the help it needs to reach Indianapolis, that's a different discussion. That's a discussion of legacy, waiting to be made.

For now, though, let's put the legacy pen back into the ink well, and wait.

Michigan heads to Happy Valley for a noon start this Saturday, playing in a place they've taken losses in 2008, 2010 and 2013. It won't quite be 1997-level "Judgment Day" hype, but it'll be something. If Michigan wins, they'll have a chance to play for a division title on Nov. 28, pending the result of this Saturday's game in Columbus.

It's mid-November, and Michigan is playing for something other than saving its coach's job. That, in and of itself, is something.

Michigan won the Big Ten in 2004, had a shot in the final game of the 2006 season and competed in 2011 (but two division losses sunk that, despite what ended up being a strong season).

This team is flawed, imperfect, a work-in-progress. Still, at 8-2, Michigan has a chance to win something that matters. Through a combination of luck, masking of said imperfections and isolated bursts of skill, Michigan has a chance to make 2015 a memorable one, not just Harbaugh's first year, or the Year that Jake Rudock Played Quarterback and Did Reasonably Fine.

For the first time in a while, Michigan is in the conversation. Forget the much-discussed top four: the playoffs are already here for the Wolverines.

These November games matter. It's an old, yet new feeling. Michigan is playing for something, even a chance at something.

It's been a while.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Michigan 49, Rutgers 16: One man can change the world


At first, I saw this tweet and laughed, like I've laughed many times before when having the pleasure of reading an amusing Harbaugh tweet, one assuredly sent without irony (which makes it all the funnier). 

Then, I thought about its content: one man can change the world. 

And really, could anything be more true for Michigan football right now? 

That man, of course, is Jabrill Peppers. 

Already up 14-3 early in the second quarter, Michigan lined up at the Rutgers 18-yard line and hit Peppers on a bubble screen to the right side. There seemed an impossible amount of traffic for the New Jersey native to wade through, like so much flotsam and jetsam crowding a shore. 

Nonetheless, Peppers weaved his way through like a talented high school player clearly operating on a different plane this his peers (which, naturally, was very much the case in Peppers' own high school career). 

Yet, this is college, and the aesthetics are much the same for the sophomore. Peppers caught it at the 25, avoided a Rutgers tackler, sped past three others through to the line of scrimmage, then locked into another gear, following a Jake Butt block past the final potential tackler into the end zone. 

Too easy. 

Even when he wasn't scoring, his mere presence makes an impact. On another play, a trio of Rutgers defenders followed him, a decoy, as if they were magnetized.

College football isn't college basketball, where one player can truly make the difference between a middling (or even slightly above average) team and a title contender.

But take Peppers away and what you have is simply a slightly better version of last year's team. A team that still has a solid defense, but probably not elite, and an offense that doesn't turn it over (as much) or get its quarterback killed via poor blocking nearly as often. Michigan would still be better by virtue of added experience and Harbaugh, but they likely wouldn't be 7-2, with a very really chance to finish the regular season 10-2 (given a little magic to close the season against the currently undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes).

Before going down with an injury, Peppers briefly flashed his raw ability early last season. But now that he's back in the lineup, he's making an impact in every phase of the game. And as eye-rollingly meathead-ish as the following is, he's also returned a bit of swagger to the University of Michigan football team that hasn't been seen in over a decade, and likely not since Charles Woodson played in Ann Arbor 748 years ago, the Heisman-winning do-everything player whose doings are recorded on papyrus, covered in vague and tremendous hieroglyphics portraying one-handed interceptions and detonations of hapless wide receiver screens in nonconference play. The language is old and not known to many, but call the Michigan sophomore Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, for he's cracked the code and is using its secrets in the present day. 

There isn't much to say about this one other than Michigan took care of a bad team the way they're supposed to, a week after the scraped by against a team they probably should not have had to scrape by.

In other spots, Jake Rudock put on his most impressive performance in the winged helmet, passing for 337 yards and two touchdowns on 18-of-25 passing, a week after being brutally knocked out a game. Sure, it was Rutgers, but the Iowa transfer didn't exactly light the world on fire against weak opponents earlier in the season, so this was progress.

When one kick return touchdown that ended up not mattering at all is the only glaringly obvious blemish in a game, you know things have gone well.

Even so, Michigan is still trying to find its mojo on the ground. De'Veon Smith carried the load with 15 carries for 73 yards, in a week when there were rumblings that Drake Johnson might have his chance at becoming the feature back. Michigan is just going to continue this Swiss Army knife, back-by-committee approach, which I think everyone, including Harbaugh, is okay with for now.

In perhaps the most unironically delightful development of the season, fullbacks Sione Houma (6 carries, 19 yards) and Joe Kerridge are actual pieces of the offense beyond the token single carry for two yards.

Michigan has had a surprisingly diverse cast of fullback types over the years (leading to its relative disappearance in the Rich Rodriguez years): Kevin Dudley, Aaron Shea, B.J. Askew and Chris Floyd, among others.

Houma and Kerridge, in their own way, are adding to that tradition. In perhaps a glossed over development of this season, the use of the fullback is one that I hope, and expect, will continue in the Harbaugh era.

And hey, if there ever was a time to be a school angling for the few fullbacks that now exist, roaming the American plains like the rare buffalo, this it it. With this one-year resume alone, the Wolverines should be in good position to possibly landing even more talented versions of guys like Houma and Kerridge going forward.

After parading through five-straight blowout, then two nail-biters, the Wolverines returned to the land of the comfortable win this past weekend. I felt bad for thinking, at several points in the second half, that this was kind of boring. But then I was quickly reminded that these sorts of wins should be appreciated, now and even long past the point that they're no longer rare.

The rest of this season, however, promises to swing the pendulum back in the other direction. Road trips to Indiana and Penn State are tougher than they might seem, and the Wolverines close the season with, well, you know who.

Peppers alone won't win Michigan those games, particularly the season finale. Even so, it's true: one man can change the world (or, in this case, a football team, if we're avoiding hyperbole).

And with the sophomore from New Jersey playing defense, offense and special teams, the Wolverines will continue to have more than a fighting chance the rest of the way.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Michigan 29, Minnesota 26: Pendulum Swing

Not all forms of luck are the same -- this much is true if you've watched sports for an extended period of time. 

Michigan dropping a punt snap and having that fumbled ball recovered and returned for a touchdown by its opponent as time expired? That's some serious luck (if not luck, then it's something...it's football, I suppose).

But not every form of luck is so pronounced, so apparent, so capable of being distilled so singularly.

Michigan left the Twin Cities with its sixth win of the season, one of those games you watch and, after exhaling, think: "Well, that was lucky."

Michigan was half a yard away from defeat. Minnesota was half a yard away from victory. That small stretch of green might as have been a canyon, a wide gulf between the Minnesota fan and the Michigan fan, standing on either side of a heartbreaking outcome.

But this one was a different strain of luck, the kind that is more about defiance of expectations in the moment -- Jake Rudock went out in the third quarter and I thought "well, it's over," a strange thought given Rudock's play this season.

Wilton Speight, he of four career passing attempts (three against UNLV and one against Maryland), entered the game. Yes, we all thought the same thing: 2012, Lincoln, Russell Bellomy. It must have been a funny time when you could make these observations during a game and think yourself unique -- thanks to Twitter, our reactions are quickly confirmed to be part of a homogeneous hivemind.

Over the years, games sort of just blend together. You remember plays, maybe, or the general circumstances around a certain win or loss. In certain cases, games get tagged, transfixed with a moniker that lasts for the rest of time.

The 2012 Nebraska was The Russell Bellomy Game, remembered in the unfortunate way: a quarterback clearly not meant to play at that time at that level thrust into a difficult situation, playing at night in Lincoln, red balloons floating in the dark. As much as that game is remembered for his appearance, it also sticks as a reminder of Denard Robinson's worth to Michigan. As flawed a quarterback as he was, Michigan was sunk without him.

This, of course, wasn't exactly Denard exiting the game and crippling the offense -- still, it was something. Speight may never start (not counting the non-zero possibility of a start against Rutgers) at Michigan. Even if he doesn't, the 2015 Minnesota game will forever be The Wilton Speight Game to me.

It is possible that we puffed our chests a little too much after the BYU and Northwestern games. The defense is excellent, but not wholly unassailable, especially not when Jeremy Clark is getting "beat" by ridiculously underthrown balls that turn out to work perfectly for Mitch Leidner, who played likely his best game of the season (maybe his best game ever against major competition). 

Not that "humility" is a thing that matters for fans, but a deficit of it can make one unappreciative of wins that deserve appreciation.

Minnesota is probably an average football team, at best. But buoyed by the sudden yet sadly unsurprising departure of its head coach, the Gophers didn't back down after the Wolverines jumped out to a 14-3 lead.

But when Michigan needed to, they answered. The "Wild Wolverine" formation (I know it's easy to roll your eyes at the wild+[insert team mascot] construction, but you have the admit it has a ring to it), Speight's touchdown strike to Jehu Chesson, the stop as time expired.

Yes, Michigan benefited from Minnesota's tomfoolery at the end -- what they were doing, nobody will ever know. The Minnesota offense was paralyzed by inaction, as if met with a Cheesecake Factory menu. After many seconds of debating the merits of a sandwich vis-a-vis pasta vis-a-vis seafood vis-a-vis various stir fries, the Gophers remembered they're Minnesota, opting for hotdish (I imagine this is an option at Minnesota Cheesecake Factories).

Alas, Maurice Hurst et al were ready with napkins on their laps and forks in hand, ready to feast on said QB sneak hotdish. 

I almost feel bad trivializing the moment this way, as Minnesota is that odd rival you don't really "hate" (hate in the sports sense, not the real world sense). They truly are Minnesota Nice. 

I like their uniforms, the Rouser, their new stadium, their coaches. They're easy to root for when not playing Michigan, and their philosophy of defense-plus-running-game is easy to get behind, especially as a plucky underdog (e.g. the TCU game). 

So when it was over, I did feel a little bad, especially after what happened to Michigan in its last game. 

But such is college football. Michigan marches on, looking shakier than they did pre-MSU, but 6-2 is still, I would say, exceeding expectations to this point. 

Realistically, Michigan is probably not going to win out. Penn State is looking like a much tougher out, Indiana will be tricky and Ohio State is Ohio State. 

Nonetheless, on Saturday, Michigan won back the jug on the heels of its yearlong stay in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Michigan survived, with a dash of Peppers, a flash of Speight and a touch of fortune. 

Recipes for victory are always-changing. On the road, Michigan made do with what it had in the pantry. More restocking needs to be done, but for now, the Wolverines are making it work, more often than not. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Michigan State 27, Michigan 23: Things Happen

A time-tested mantra I've found myself resorting to over my years of watching sports is a simple one, but resonant: Things happen.

Michigan completes a Hail Mary against Northwestern in 2012. Colorado completes a Hail Mary against Michigan in 1994. Yin and yang, a grand swinging pendulum of Fortune, karma, mindless spinning of a dimpled, brown prolate spheroid through wind and rain and snow and the sun's reaching rays in the Midwestern fall.

In 2001, with the Wolverines and Badgers tied at 17 in Madison, a Wisconsin punt bounced off of Badgers special teamer Brett Bell and was recovered by Michigan's Brandon Williams. Hayden Epstein then kicked the game-winning field goal with 10 seconds left to give Michigan a 20-17 win.

That same year, the now infamous "Spartan Bob" gave the Spartans extra time, one second -- so the story goes --and MSU's T.J. Duckett caught the game-winner as time expired. Predictably, and sadly, Spartan Bob received at least one anonymous threat by phone.

Now, fourteen years later, the threatening is done over Twitter, targeting Australian punters who would be lauded as heroes if not for one fatal mistake.

One mistake amid a sea of inviting data.

Things happen.

And the sports world continues apace. Michigan fans still talk about Spartan Bob from time to time when invoking memories of wrongdoing against the Wolverines. Meanwhile, two extra seconds granted to the Wolverines in 2005 against Penn State continue to stick in the craw of Nittany Lions fans. Time finds a way to come back around, balancing precariously on an axis made of popsicle sticks and fragile dreams waiting to be crushed or upheld with one slight sway in either direction.

In a sense, things have a way of evening themselves out, albeit chaotically and nonsensically. For a program of Michigan's level playing against other similarly competitive programs on a yearly basis in the highly variable world of college athletics, things are bound to happen.

Oh, things are bound to happen.

On Saturday, they did, in a flash. Only 10 seconds remained, with one final routine play separating Michigan from a major victory, both in the context of the rivalry and the overall health of the program as it attempts to dig itself out of the post-Carr Dark Ages.

For 59 minutes and 50 seconds, Michigan looked ready to notch a win against the rival Spartans, the first since 2012 and just the second since Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing. Even more improbably, a win would've vaulted Michigan into serious contention for the divisional crown, and, more improbably still, an outside shot at the college football playoff.

I only mention all of this to note how quickly expectations can accelerate. Of course, expectations adjust with results, and Michigan's results to date had been exceptional, to say the least. Shutouts, a grinding ground game and erudite coaching all foretold a distant future full of promise and a near future already overshooting expectation.

Then a punter dropped a snap, and in a moment, those burgeoning hopes collapsed in a moment of concentrated shock. I'm still not quite sure that it happened, and I've watched the replay of it more times than I'd care to admit.

I can bring up additional examples of Michigan's positive trysts with Lady Luck. The list is a long one, and, by comparison, there have been far unluckier programs out there. 

Still, I would be lying if I said this one didn't sting more than the others, simply for its suddenness and the lack of comprehension that followed. 

Things happen -- sometimes they happen before you even have a chance to say oh, no. 

That moment, unfortunately, rendered a largely positive performance moot. I could tell you about how Michigan's run defense and special teams (sans the obvious) looked superb, or how tantalizing Jabrill Peppers's offensive debut was. I could tell you how Michigan looked, at minimum, Michigan State's equal, which I don't know could even be said after the 2012 win. We could even talk about officiating, but even that is a faint plea against a howling wind -- it matters, and it doesn't. 

I could tell you how this is just one game, and what's one more rivalry loss in a season Michigan fans began by looking at 8-4 as a highly optimistic outcome. I could tell you how Michigan's season appears headed for at least eight wins, and probably more barring a bad loss and figuring in a potential upset of Ohio State (things happen, you know).

But all of the numbers and logic on Saturday were darkened for a moment, the sun blotted out by a cloud of chaos, casting a shade that still lingers. 

Things happen -- and sometimes there's nothing you can do about it. 

Naturally, Michigan now enters the bye week, a cosmic taunt in and of itself, as if the Universe is saying "think about this and the irrational nature of your recreational pursuits."

The only thing to be done now is to, as Harbaugh put it, steel the spine and move forward. 

The theme here, things happen, can consume you, of course, but it can also make things whole in a sports world that often makes no sense. Staring at it too long is like staring into the blinding, burning sun: it's there, because it is, and will be until it isn't, until it's exhausted its stores of hydrogen and chaos. 

Unlike the sun, I don't think college football's supply of chaos, of games concluding in a flash and bang, will ever run out. 

On Saturday we saw a college football finish that we may never see again. It probably won't happen again. Probably. It probably won't happen to Michigan again. 

But when it does, I'll shrug and say the same thing, a rhetorical anchor in roiling, unstable waters. 

Things happen.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Michigan 38, Northwestern 0: Visions of verisimilitude

It's only a matter of time before Jabrill Peppers breaks one, they said.

So, when Jehu Chesson took the opening kickoff 96 yards to the house, I laughed, because of course.

As the redshirt sophomore from St. Louis left everyone in the dust, the next thought that rolled down the brain stem was: That's probably enough, right? 

A rhetorical question, tinctured with rationality (Northwestern's offense is not that prolific) and hubris (Michigan's defense is good at methodically grinding offenses into a pulp).

The onslaught didn't stop there, as the Wolverines added two more touchdowns in the first quarter and another in the second. Meanwhile, the visiting then-undefeated Northwestern Wildcats managed just four first downs in that first half to Michigan's three touchdowns.

It's gotten to the point where the defense giving up anything at all -- missing a tackle, allowing a ball carrier to get outside the tackle box, giving up a score -- is almost an assault on the senses. When bad things happen so infrequently, the rare mistake is magnified.

Conversely, take recent years, when it seemed like a pass was a 50-50 proposition at best: by some miracle, a completion, or a sack or turnover. Defensively, after solid starts, it was almost a certainty that things would fall apart down the stretch, due to fatigue or whatever reason to which you'd like to chalk up those declines.

Now, Michigan is predictable, in a good way. It's difficult to talk about this team without resorting to the sorts of cliches that are often derided when it comes to sports writing, but this team fits them to a T. The running game produces and the defense plays with a toughness, tenacity and confidence that hasn't been seen in years. They'll rush five, four or three, even, because they can and things will be fine.

The secondary looks like a secondary a good [insert title-winning team name here] SEC team would field. The same goes for the front seven, which at this point might be forced to pay the City of Ann Arbor in property taxes for their constant forays into opponents' backfields. Ann Arbor has built quite a few luxury buildings since my time there, and I suppose it fits with the new vibe of the town for the Wolverines defenders to follow suit, with a brilliant building constructed of tackles for loss, replete with in-unit laundry machines -- for cleaning dirtied uniforms -- and quartz countertops to display the helmets of the fallen.

At first, this was a novel feeling, watching this team incinerate opposing offenses while the offense grinds its way to what it needs.

Halfway through a season in which the Wolverines have already dispatched two ranked opponents with ease and hung tough on the road against another, this is clearly real.

At no point could this have been said during the previous two regimes. Even Brady Hoke's 11-win season felt like a thing that maybe shouldn't have happened, that could've fallen apart when inspected under the light. (It did, beginning with the rout against Alabama to open the 2012 season.)

Rich Rodriguez' tenure never even got the chance to reach this level of reality -- even in the moments of usually Denard-Robinson-inspired brilliance, the Wolverines subsisted on vague magic to move forward, mana that was observably finite.

When it ran out, there was nowhere left to turn.

But Michigan rolled what looked like a strong Northwestern team, one that was 5-0 with a win against a Stanford squad that has looked much better since the 'Cats beat them at Ryan Field. That all felt like a distant memory this past Saturday, as the Wolverines made them look like a generic, overmatched pre-1995 Northwestern team.

Michigan notched three straight shutouts with the win for the first time since 1980, and the first in FBS play since 1995, when Kansas State did it against the following unranked foes: Akron, Northern Illinois and Missouri.

Michigan held the Wildcats to 168 yards of total offense and a 2-for-13 mark on third down. Running back Justin Jackson carried it 12 times for just 25 yards. Clayton Thorson finished with 106 yards passing -- on 4.7 yards per attempt.

The defense gives nothing -- charity is not its forte.

---
Way back in 2011, after Michigan followed a positive first Hoke summer with a rain-soaked thumping of Western Michigan, I dubbed it the Era of Good Feelings.

In retrospect, like many things in life, that is a little funny now, considering what followed and what is currently happening before our eyes.

If that was the Era of Good Feelings, then what is this? The Epoch of Excitement? The Age of Augmented Positivity? The Time of Tenacity?

Whatever it is, something is being built with capable hands and a plan, something that has been missing for a long time. When Gary Moeller and then Lloyd Carr came after Bo, they weren't so much cementing a plan as continuing the success that came before them. Yes, the game changed quite a bit post-Bo, and Moeller and Carr changed with the times as they had to, but what they did wasn't a wholesale upheaval of the previous order.

So, I think it's justifiable to say that Michigan hasn't seen what is happening right now, on an ideological level, since 1969, when Bo came to Ann Arbor. Whether Jim Harbaugh will continue on this track and have the same success as Bo -- or greater -- of course remains to be seen.

But, on a basic level, this all feels very real.

---

Late in the game, something happened that sent a chill up my spine.

The stakes were as low as they could be, on the surface. Michigan was already up 38-0 with 29 seconds left in the game. Northwestern had the ball with a fourth-and-17 upcoming.

Not exactly the most engaging hook, right?

Well, what if I told you a packed Big House started chanting "de-fense" like it was a one-score game? I wasn't there, but watching on my TV, the noise was indicative of a philosophy, a way of being, that has filtered up among the masses.

A shutout is not something you want, it's something you need. Why should they have any points? They shouldn't have any points.

Give nothing and take everything -- points on offense, on defense and special teams. Jourdan Lewis's pick six, rivaling De'Veon Smith's teleportation act against BYU in the incredulity it inspired, was not a chance act or a moment of transcendent brilliance.

Well, it was the latter, but when those moments become the norm, they're no longer extraordinary: they're just ordinary.

And so when the Michigan Stadium erupted in that chant, it felt like one of those moments that would linger.

Matt Millen said that the fans doing so was the mark of a "well-schooled crowd." The first half of this season has been a crash course in Harbaugh's way of doing things. Thus far, it seems like everyone's in good shape after a tough final exam to close the first half of the football year.

But there's always another test on the horizon. Michigan has one week to prepare for another test, this time against the AP No. 7 Michigan State Spartans.

Win that one, and you're talking about some serious verisimilitude being added to this thing.

This one should be a little closer: it's Michigan State, after all. Despite Michigan's offensive limitations, it seems like they haven't come close to showing their hand completely just yet. Michigan has busted out something new in games against BYU and Northwestern, to great effect. It stands to reason that Harbaugh et al probably have some tricks up their sleeve when Michigan State comes to Ann Arbor this Saturday.

And those tricks won't feel like prayers, even if they don't work.

Whatever happens the rest of the way, it's clear that this thing is real. How good this season will be hinges, of course, on how the Wolverines fare against the Spartans and Buckeyes. Lose both and it's still likely a very good season. Win one -- or both, even -- and you're talking about a Harbaugh premiere that blows Hoke's 2011 out of the water.

Michigan football is a real thing again. So are the stakes. It's been a while since either of those things were true.

Narratives of fantasy are often more gripping than those of reality -- but in the case of 2015 Michigan football, the two genres are one. Fantastical yet real, a combination of disbelief clashing against a burgeoning reality.

When the imagined becomes real, you have something. You have crowds chanting "de-fense" near the conclusion of a blowout. You have performances that don't happen too often, one after another. You have records broken and plays that don't seem to be tethered to this world except for by the frailest of threads.

You have all the elements of a good story, a serial Saturday confirmation steeped in a truth so crazy that it has not other option but to be true again and again and again.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Michigan 28, Maryland 0: Boring Is Good

As Michigan went into the half up 6-0 in dreary College Park on Saturday, I felt like I'd seen this game before.

That's because I had, last Sunday, when the Chicago Bears traveled to Seattle to take on the Seahawks, with backup quarterback Jimmy Clausen at the helm for the NFC North cellar dwellers, in for the injured Jay Cutler.

Only this time, my team, Michigan, was the Seahawks, and the Terrapins, led by Caleb Rowe, looked much like the punch-less Bears.

After that Bears game, the coaches and even some local sports personalities praised the first half of play -- the Bears went into the break down just 6-0. The game plan worked, they said, a limited thing in which the Bears didn't allow Clausen to take chances downfield (that, or he chose not to take any) and featured goal line formations near midfield -- the latter was about as close as the Bears got to looking like a Harbaugh-coached outfit.

Even so, it was clear that the Bears had no chance, even down six.

That's why, when Matt Millen -- in an attempt to infuse some sort of life into the surreptitious thumping that was Michigan's eventual 28-0 win -- noted at some point in the third quarter that it was still "a two-score game," I laughed to myself.

As fans, we can often trick ourselves into thinking a game is closer than it is. After all, Michigan fans have had numerous opportunities to be on the trailing end of that in recent years. There's still 10 minutes to go, if we can just make one play and get a stop ... if we can just force a turnover ... if we can just hit this field goal ... if we can just score and recover the onside kick. 

So on and so forth. The sports fan's mind can bend and contort like no other, envisioning realities only found staring back at you in a house of mirrors.

If it wasn't over after Michigan's first two field goals, it was over when Drake Johnson went 31 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown score on another beautifully executed screen pass.

Maryland is not a good football team. They weren't last year, either, and we know how Michigan's matchup against the conference newcomers went last year in Ann Arbor.

The Wolverines led 16-9 in the third quarter. Having advanced to the Maryland 32, a Devin Garden pass on 4th-and-6 fell incomplete.

And it was all downhill from there en route to a 23-16 loss in Michigan's final home game of the season, dropping them to 5-6 and all but assuring a bowl-less season (with a tilt against Ohio State on the road the next week).

Oh how things have changed.

Instead, Michigan ground out a not-aesthetically-pleasing but comfortable win. The defense extended its streak of quarters without allowing a touchdown to eight, not allowing a score in 14 of the last 16 quarters, going back to the second game of the season.

The offense, meanwhile, did enough to make it work. Perhaps the only downside was the offense's seeming inability to make a consistent ground game work in De'Veon Smith's absence. Luckily, it sounds like he could have played, and is set to to do so when undefeated Northwestern comes to Ann Arbor on Saturday.

Drake Johnson (13 carries, 68 yards) did some nice things, but wasn't exactly a replacement for Smith's abilities. Ty Isaac (6 carries, 17 yards) has done some nice things this season, but coughed it up twice (albeit losing just one of them) -- with Smith likely to return to the backfield, I'd imagine that Isaac slips down a slot on the tailback pecking order. How long he stays there will be an interesting early test case in the Harbaugh era vis-a-vis bouts with fumbleitis and their repercussions. Derrick Green (7 carries, 26 yards), in what seemed like yet another audition for more playing time, didn't seem to help his case.

Overall, though, this is an offense that is making do. Jake Rudock's turnovers remain a concern, a week after a turnover-less affair against BYU inspired confidence that maybe the Iowa transfer was set to start playing the generally Big-Mistake-free football many expected him to play.

Against weak competition in Oregon State, UNLV and Maryland, it hasn't hurt the Wolverines. Of course, against Utah, what ultimately was a one-score loss, the pick 6 loomed in its culpability.

Against a Northwestern squad with a freshman quarterback who can run but leads an offense ranked 118th in passing, Michigan cannot afford to gift the Wildcats extra opportunities, especially via turnovers granting them prime field position.

This Saturday's game in the Big House is assured to be a low-scoring slugfest (the legitimate kind, not the euphemism for bad football rationalized as something else). Mistakes could prove the difference when these two teams, fielding two of the statistically strongest defenses in the country, meet this weekend.

But unlike the recent low-scoring Michigan-Northwestern tilts, this one won't make you want to close your eyes and imagine being somewhere else, watching something else, like I felt at Ryan Field last season where the Wolverines won, 10-9, but the game of football lost.

Whatever happens this Saturday, one thing is clear: Michigan football the last few weeks has been boring, but the good kind of boring. Like going to your favorite restaurant and getting the same thing you've been getting for years: the trusty, comfortable standby.

It'll be a while before Michigan once again assumes the mantle of good-boring on a consistent basis. There are still too many variables, particularly at the offense's most important position, to assume that Michigan can't lose to a team it "should" beat (and is it stands now, there are far more of those remaining on the schedule than perhaps previously predicted).

When expectations on a play-by-level are consistently met -- Smith grinding out yards after contact, Michigan's defensive line detonating the pocket, Jabrill Peppers pulverizing the grand designs of an opponent's screen pass -- it can be easy to settle into a feeling of something resembling boredom, stripped of its negative connotations.

I guess -- and this is an old feeling being dusted off and returned to a prominent position on the shelf of the fan base's collective consciousness -- this is what happens when you expect good things to happen, and they do.

This is good. Boring is good. All aboard the boring train to Indianapolis.

It won't be that easy, of course, and I'm being more than a little facetious. But there is something comforting about a 28-0 win in which a 6-0 halftime lead inspired little to no worry.

Whatever happens, despite this team's flaws, I don't dread sitting in front of the TV to watch this team play, even while I know things will go wrong at certain points in a game.

As the Wolverines attempt to put miles behind it and everything that's been, this campaign, almost at its halfway point, has been a success.

This is fun again. It's been a while since I could say that. I suspect it won't be the last.

Eventually, though, I won't have to say "again." It'll just be "this is fun."

Until then, the novelty of the boring reigns supreme.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Michigan 31, BYU 0: Symphony of Destruction

On third-and-11 from the BYU 20-yard line, almost seven minutes into the game, Michigan did something that made me go oh. 

Jake Rudock dropped back to pass -- but that's not the interesting part. It's what happened next.

But first, the prologue.

Michigan rolled out into a two-wide, single-back set. Jake Butt motions from his tight end spot into the backfield, joining Drake Johnson.

Rudock takes the snap. Butt heads for the left flat, clapping his hands, almost as if he's in on something devious.

Johnson, meanwhile, heads to the right. He can be seen waving his arm, even going so far as to start jumping up and down, the internationally accepted motion for I'm open, throw it!

The play unfolded beautifully. Rudock faked left to Butt. At this point, I assumed he'd turn around and flip it to Johnson, or perhaps try a shot into the end zone to Drake Harris.

He didn't, though, and that's when the ball, resting at the top of the hill overflowing with potential energy, unleashed the kinetic.

Rudock looked to the right, again faking, this time to Johnson. Something was afoot.

In a matter of seconds, one Michigan football play was full of more unexpected plot twists than any entire Michigan offensive series in recent memory.

The second fake served as the critical juncture: either something anticlimactic was about to happen, or something extraordinary.

And then, it happened: they forgot about Khalid Hill.

Hill lined up as a second tight end, on the right side. The Cougars defense looked right, they looked left, but they didn't look middle. Upon the snap, Hill waited a moment, looking back to Rudock like a seeker about to uncover his eyes in a game of hide-and-seek.

He released down the middle of the field into an oasis of green, a bountiful land of opportunity and joy and first downs.

Rudock hit a wide open Hill, who rumbled to the 1-yard line, after which Michigan punched it in two plays later on a Rudock scamper.

It was a 19-yard play, not even a touchdown. And yet, the way in which it so artfully unfolded indicated something grander. Nothing like that happens without precision, without thought, without imagination.

It's been a while since Michigan did something that made it seem as an opponent was unprepared for what was coming. The last example approximating this is the trusty Denard Robinson standby, in which even a mere step toward the line left receivers like Roy Roundtree open with acres of verdant, inviting space.

This, however, is less dependent upon magic. As great as Denard was, Michigan came and went with his exploits. Needless to say, Michigan does not have a Denard at the quarterback position now.

And that's okay. Because now, after Michigan exerts its will physically, it does so mentally, too.

I don't know what the BYU players and coaches expected coming into this game. Clearly, based on their postgame comments, they got something very different.

Contrast that with the now infamous comments from USC defenders after the 2007 Rose Bowl, and a diametrically opposed thing is building.

Michigan doesn't have all the pieces yet -- everyone knows that. It might not even have all of the pieces next year, either.

But that one play stands as an early vote of confidence. One play in a 10-play, 80-yard drive to give Michigan a 7-0 lead, a score that, also, was all they needed en route to the third-largest margin of victory by an unranked team over a ranked foe in the last 30 years.

Michigan committed a false start on the next play, but I was still reeling from the 19-yard pass to a tight end.

This is football: this is Michigan.

---
With all of that said, none of the above "trickery" -- and I hesitate to even dub it that -- works without developing a sturdy base.

For Jim Harbaugh and Co., that of course means a face-mashing running game and an equally face-mashing defense.

The product of that, when it works, is an opponent whose will has withered.

As part of my preparation for the Chicago Marathon, on Sunday I went out and ran 20 miles. When I was done, my legs were sore and for the most part useless for the next few hours.

The next day, walking was uncomfortable, each step somewhat of a laboring thing.

Magnify that by an order or 10 and distribute it across the entire body and I imagine that that aching pain is what tackling De'Veon Smith et al and being tackled by Jabrill Peppers and the rest of the Michigan defense for 60 minutes must feel like.

BYU was mystified and overwhelmed, the same team that beat Boise State and Nebraska and nearly upset UCLA. At this juncture, normally such wins can be tempered by lack of sample size and, more importantly, a lack of meaningful sample size, BYU's schedule to date, of course, somewhat negates that. The Cougars have played probably the toughest schedule in the country. They are as tested as a team can possibly before the month of October.

And as the dust settles on the nonconference portion of the schedule, Michigan appears to be by far the best of BYU's first four foes.

Jabrill Peppers executed an impressive takedown, Michigan's defense line parades six or seven players all capable of making an impact and Michigan's secondary is conservatively as good as the 2006 group, which in reality was only buoyed by the talent of the front seven. Truthfully, this secondary is the best to come through Ann Arbor since 1997.

I know it's early, but whether that is an indictment of the secondaries since 1997 or an outright, unmodified designation of praise, I suppose, remains to be seen.

But I don't feel crazy or unrealistic for saying that it's as good as anything since 1997 -- it's not hyperbole, it's just true.

The Wolverines are tied for fourth (with Wisconsin) in points allowed per game, just behind Northwestern's 8.8 per. (Other rankings of note in this category: Ohio State, 10; Penn State, 21; Iowa, 28; Minnesota, 31; and Michigan State, 46.)

Remember when Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison turned a moribund Michigan defense into a solid, functioning thing in 2011? This is like that, but more emphatic. Michigan never had a defensive performance against a meaningful opponent that season like Michigan had against BYU on Saturday.

All in all, things have gone just about as well as one could hope for, especially when you figure in Michigan's performance against the Utes in light of their demolition of the Ducks. Michigan thumped the teams it was supposed to thump (Oregon State, UNLV) and flattened the one that was supposedly a toss-up (BYU).

Now, the Wolverines head into the conference schedule with a head full of steam.

Suddenly, a Mone-less defensive line is one brimming with seemingly even more depth than it had before. A backfield of flawed options has became a parade of bulls, with former five-star recruits fighting for carries behind a four-star from Warren, Ohio.

There probably aren't many people out there who appreciate this season as much as I do, considering the comical juxtaposition of my football watching days. On Saturdays, I watch a Harbaugh-led Michigan.

On Sundays, I watch the Chicago Bears, a team that has given up kick return touchdowns in back-to-back weeks, started Jimmy Clausen at quarterback and was shut out for the first time since 2002 on Sunday in Seattle.

So, when I wax poetic about 19-yard passes to tight ends, keep that in mind.

Kidding aside, one-third of the way into the season, Michigan has for the most part hit all the right notes. Save for Rudock's turnovers in the first three games, the U-M defense looks like one of the best in the country and the ground game appears to be strong enough to mask Rudock's limitations.

Whether Michigan can do it against the cream of the crop in the Big Ten East, Ohio State and Michigan State, remains to be seen.

But right now, Michigan appears poised to possibly head into the matchup against the Spartans with a 5-1 record.

But for now, like Harbaugh, it's best to focus on the next one. That's not because fans looking ahead means anything at all -- seriously, why do people think that matters in any way? -- but because it means you might miss something along the way, fail to appreciate it in all its simple complexity.

The hand-waving Butt and Johnson, probably laughing through their facemasks. Hill, tip-toeing up the middle like an animated bowling ball destined for the sweet spot between the lead pin and either one behind. Two BYU defenders following Johnson upon Rudock's fake, as if they were magnetized. Recording a sack on a three-man rush.

Amid the chaos of power football, it's the little things that make the difference.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Michigan 28, UNLV 7: The machine knows where it's going

NB: I did not get to watch this live and only have had the chance to watch the Every Snap cutups, which makes for a speedy viewing but doesn't quite give you the full perspective that watching a game in its regular progression does. 

For the second week in a row, Michigan clobbered an opponent that was some degree of undermanned and overwhelmed.

For the second week in a row, Michigan allowed just seven points.

Most importantly, for the second week in a row Michigan won. Let's not take even something that small for granted.

But, unlike last week's win against Oregon State, the optimism rings aren't arcing quite as far along the waters of our perspective.

That's not to say that there is appreciably more worry about the rest of the season than there was before. Again, Michigan is 2-1. They decidedly #wonthegame.

But there's the elephant in the room that is the quarterback situation. I think it's safe to say that barring a spectacular collapse, Jake Rudock is going to be Michigan's guy the rest of the way. And to cast my meaningless opinion into the mix, I have to say I'm okay with that.

He seems like a smart guy, he gets players where they need to be, he hits the short stuff, and, up until this three-game stretch as a Wolverine, was a low-upside, low-turnover signal caller. That is, in a nutshell, the kind of thing Michigan needs this year, if only to serve as a sort of palate cleanser from the turnover bonanza we've watched during the twilight of the Hoke era.

But, of course, that last part's the key: turnovers are a thing that can kill any team, but especially a Michigan offense that will look to embark on long drives reminiscent of the stroll to Mordor.

As you probably know, Rudock has already matched his 2014 season total in interceptions. Sure, maybe one in the Utah game was partially Grant Perry's fault, and who knows if any of the others fall under the same umbrella

Still, though, this is something that's not quite a trend but not necessarily something about which to be unconcerned. The assessment of Rudock's play exists somewhere in that nebulous nothing-space between relative calm and the line of demarcation between nagging worry and outright panic.

We don't have much on which to operate: three games is just three games. This team will get better, it will get worse, it will look good against some opponents and not so good against others. Such is life in college football, when the quality of opponents varies far more than the NFL, where everybody can play.

Even with all of that said, Rudock was 14-of-22 for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That's not good, to be sure, but a 63.6 percent completion rate is at least something, even though a 5.6 yards per attempt is not.

On the whole, minus the turnovers, I'd say we've gotten, for the most part, exactly what we expected. Hypothetical exercises are always a little silly, but take away, say, two of his five interceptions, and would the outlook be different? Honestly, I think it might.

Sample size being what it is, it's understandable to be slightly concerned about what Michigan's getting from the most important position on the field.

On the bright side, the sample size will grow, and we'll soon find out whether what's happened so far is some form of bad "luck" or a trend. Right now, it's too early to say.

Whatever happens, though, this is, for better or worse, the Year of Rudock, and Michigan fans should probably get used to it.

---

Outside of that, it's hard to find much to pick at from Saturday's blowout, especially when you adjust for the fact that a 35-7 or 28-7 win for Harbaugh's Michigan equates to something a little more eye-popping for, say, your average Lloyd Carr team (and we all know those squads weren't exactly up-tempo offensive outfits...save when down by two scores late in a game).

The biggest takeaways on the defensive end were such: 1) the play of the defensive backs 2) the general disruptiveness of the line and 3) tackling.

On the first point, Jourdan Lewis is easily the most impressive corner to come through Ann Arbor in a while. Yes, you have to go back a while to find the next one, but when all is said and done, Lewis will likely join the pantheon of pretty good Michigan corners: whether he's among the best of the best (i.e. the tier just below Charles Woodson, who was a tier unto himself) remains to be seen, but the odds are favorable.

As for the defensive line, it's been somewhat remarkable to watch this Michigan defensive line make plays in the backfield despite: 1) the loss of Bryan Mone and 2) its (earned) rep as a unit without much edge rushing panache. Ryan Glasgow continues to make his presence known in the middle and Matt Godin has seemingly rounded into a very useful player for the Wolverines.

For a defense that doesn't have a real edge rushing terror, I'd say things have looked about as good as you can hope for (and that's even when you take into consideration that Chris Wormley had a relatively quiet day compared to his monstrous Weeks 1 and 2).

With that said, even a Taysom Hill-less BYU presents a big step up in competition from teams like Oregon State and UNLV. Michigan's front will need to continue to bring the heat, especially as Michigan's secondary gets ready to face a BYU squad with some large, large wide receivers.

On the last point, tackling, the nice thing about the every snap videos is that they allow a very quick snapshot into the game, removing the downtime between plays that can dissolve big picture memories of individual aspects of the game (e.g. tackling).

Yes, there were a couple missed tackles, but there are always going to be a few, especially on those outside screens. On the whole, however, Michigan's tacklers were sound and often emphatic in their ability to finish. Again, competition caveats apply, but when faced with an opponent like UNLV, Michigan did what needed to be done.

The Wolverines held UNLV to 235 total yards (a good chunk in garbage time, obviously) and 5-for-15 on third down, while the now-No. 9 UCLA held them to 237 and 2-for-15 on third down. All in all, that's an encouragingly comparable performance, if you are one to read into these sorts of juxtapositions (which you probably shouldn't but there it is anyway).

---
As we sit here at the end of Michigan's first quarter, it's hard to say whether Michigan is a buy or a sell. The BYU game will be an inflection point for potential investors (trafficking that most fleeting stock: hope).

With that said, things have thus far gone mostly according to plan, save for Rudock's turnovers. At this point, you can only just shrug about that and hope that's a blip and not something real.

But for the first time in a while -- if you can't tell, I'm looking to set the Guinness World Record for saying "for the first time in a while" during a single season -- there is solidity and shape to Michigan's profile.

Before, it was a mushy, formless nothing. Things happened and meant nothing. Michigan would get blown out by Minnesota at home then play Ohio State tough on the road. Toughness was talked about, but seemed more a fleeting ideal than something being actualized on the field.

Now, at least Michigan's deficiencies are obvious in a comforting way, in that there seems to be a way out. The Michigan program was lost before, using a paper map to navigate out of the abyss.

These days, Michigan has GPS.

But, of course, even GPS fails, as Michael Scott would tell you. GPS only goes so far; after all, following a plan blindly is just as doomed to fail as a Luddite existence, in which a road to toughness is mapped out on a paper map, splayed out on the dashboard in the face of a glaring sun.

The way is only found with a combination of GPS and intuition. Michigan seems to have that, now, in the form of its current leadership.

Then again, GPS doesn't mean a thing if your car fails. And Michigan's car will, in all likelihood, need a few trips to the shop this season. You might have to get out and push, even.

But now, at least Michigan knows where to push. The Michigan of old stood by the side of the road, hat in hand scratching its head.

When the smoke unfurls from Michigan's engine this season -- and it will happen -- at least there's the thought that Michigan knows the exact mileage to the next point for repairs.

Michigan's got GPS. It knows where it's going, even if the parts will make the going slower -- for now.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Michigan 35, Oregon State 7: Harbinger

Michigan ran the ball: again and again and again.

For the first time in a while, they did it powerfully. Make no mistake, Michigan's ground game under one Denard Robinson was no less spectacular, and if another Denard were to walk through Ann Arbor and onto the Big House turf, I doubt if anybody would raise an objection.

But that offense was different. That offense was predicated, in large part, on individual brilliance (i.e. Denard Robinson). There is nothing wrong with individual brilliance, of course. Denard was the shooting spread star of Michigan offensive history -- he came and went, streaking across the Michigan sky at hyperspeed, much to our wonder.

What happened Saturday against Oregon State, however, was something different. While Michigan's fortunes previously hung on the balance of Denard's brilliance -- and the ancillary opportunities said brilliance provided, as in wide open receivers when Denard so much as moved an inch toward the line of scrimmage -- it now seems to hang its hat on sheer, bull-headed anger.

Okay, just to get it out of the way, Oregon State is not a good team: we know that.

Still, Michigan has faced not-so-good teams in recent years, and not come out so well. The ground game, shall we say, was often grounded. It was a tricked out pickup truck that fell apart with the first move forward: set, hut, to the sound of a wheezing engine, a faulty transmission and tires slowly bleeding air.

On Saturday, Michigan looked like a real offense for the first time in some time -- real in the sense that it executed by both malice and design. The linemen, more or less, did their jobs, and Michigan paraded out a series of large tailbacks, with De'Veon Smith the headliner and Ty Isaac and Derrick Green also barreling toward the line imposingly. I wasn't around then to see it, but I imagine it was not unlike the days when Bo's offenses featured multiple tailbacks, well before the workhorse -- think "Chris Perry carrying 51 times in one game" -- became became the norm.

For the past few years, Michigan fans have bemoaned the way the defense, left out to dry by the offense, would eventually wilt late in games. Well, this time, the Oregon State defense wilted, not Michigan's. When Michigan did this...


...one could hear the sound of will being broken.

And so, as tantalizing as Denard's exploits were, there's something equally rewarding about this way of doing things.

As Smith et al pounded through the line over and over again, and Beavers defenders receded into the artificial turf like unblooming flowers, I felt like we were watching a trailer for a movie coming out next fall (or, probably, a couple of years from now).

We were privy to a sneak peak of that film, which is not quite finished. Not even close, really. There's production to be done: editing, cutting, fixing, tweaking. There are scenes that need to be added, story arcs to be emphasized or pushed away.

Michigan is led by a seasoned team of directors and miscellaneous production staff -- Harbaugh, in particular, has a cinematic record worthy of optimism. He's succeeded on multiple sets in California, after all, the nexus of the film industry.

Sure, what we saw was just a trailer, a snapshot of things to come. But on the heels of nearly a decade's worth of box office duds, Michigan finally seems on to be on track, heading somewhere approaching the memorable.

Ultimately, I'm not sure that Saturday's win will make it into that hypothetical movie. Odds are, it'll end up on the cutting room floor, to make way for more dramatic happenings.

If anything, it'll be a blip, a short prologue before the deeper story. For now, though, it is the story, 225 rushing yards and 48 carries in narrative capital.

Sometimes, it's hard to predict box office success. Like anything in life, things can, at times, veer off course.

But if you asked me now, based on the trailer alone, I'd tell you, in between bits of popcorn: "I can't wait to see that."

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

HTR's Weekly 25: Week 1

For a while here, I dabbled in writing a little about Chicago sports (which, as I then had the time, was fun, even if it went unread), I've written traditional game recaps of various Big Ten games (football and basketball) and various other little things along the way.

But, when I started this thing five years ago, it was with football, particularly Michigan football, in mind.

So, while my work as a regular journalist keeps me busy, I'm going to try to create some regularity here. I've tried in the past, with some success during the football and basketball seasons, before dropping back once summer hits.

Well, I'll worry about the summer once it returns next year: for now, the easiest way to stay engaged in the college football scene is by, what else, compiling a weekly set of by and large meaningless rankings.

Does my opinion mean anything? No, not really -- but the older I get, the less justifiable watching hours of football becomes without doing something meaningful with it ("meaning," here, is a generous term).

So, with that, here's my personal top 25 after the first week's worth of action:

1. Ohio State. Talk about a no-brainer. The Buckeyes marched into Blacksburg, missing their best defender in Joey Bosa and several other players, and still dominated despite turning it over a couple of times. Braxton Miller as utility playmaking type is a terrifying concept. Who would've thought that he would one day be a Heisman candidate...as a wide receiver? That spin move will probably feature prominently in college football promo commercials for OSU games the rest of the season, and for good reason. Ohio State appears to be on track to cruise to another playoff appearance.

2. Alabama. The Crimson Tide simply beat up a Badgers team that, for the first time in recent memory, is somewhat shaky on the offensive line. Even so, the Badgers' normally prolific rushing attack was non-existent, with UW tailback Corey Clement carrying it just 8 times for 16 yards before sitting the rest of the game out with an injury. While Joel Stave had a nice game, UW had no answer for Alabama's own rushing attack. It should be no surprise that, like conference mate Georgia, Alabama has multiple tailbacks who can get the job done. Quarterback Jake Coker's (15-of-21, 213 yards, 1 TD) longest completion of the day, in fact, was a 33-yarder to tailback Kenyan Drake. Once again, Alabama appears to be the football equivalent of the trash compactor from "Star Wars."

3. TCU. Okay, you can say the score of their season-opening win at Minnesota didn't inspire confidence. But I give credit for road wins, and the Gophers aren't a pushover. Minnesota lacks offensive punch, but they're still a tough out, and the Horned Frogs got the job done on a hot evening in Minnesota (yes, hot, Minnesota).

4. Auburn. Similarly, it's hard to say the Tigers had an exceptional Week 1, but again, I give credit for beating a real opponent. More importantly for Auburn fans, the defense looked okay, forcing two turnovers and holding Louisville quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Reggie Bonnafon to a combined 5.06 yards per attempt. Sure, new Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson struggled, but I think you'd rather have the defense do okay and the young quarterback struggle than the other way around...at least at this stage of the season.

5. Michigan State. Again, file this under the "not impressive box score but still good" category. Also, props are in order for traveling to Kalamazoo. Of course, this week's tilt against Oregon is the nonconference game of note for the Spartans.

6. Baylor. Maybe I'm giving excessive weight to the halftime score against SMU (28-21, Baylor). But, again, this was a road game, and it's a long season. As long as they continue to win, that first 30 minutes will be nothing but a minor footnote.

7. Notre Dame. Okay, beating Texas -- let alone dismantling them -- doesn't mean much now, but the Longhorns were at least expected to be able to play some defense. The Fighting Irish disproved that assumption, racking up 527 yards of offense and holding the Longhorns to just 20:50 in possession (yes, I know, a meaningless stat in and of itself, but still an indicator of how the game went).

8. Oregon. I know, it's only Week 1, but the Ducks gave up a whopping 42 points and 549 total yards against Eastern Washington. That won't work out too well against conference competition.

9. Georgia. A ho-hum blowout, a college football Week 1 tradition. Todd Gurley is plying his trade in St. Louis, but Nick Chubb and Keith Marshall will do just fine for UGA (that's an understatement).

10. UCLA. Virginia isn't a powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, but the Bruins looked strong against major conference competition, and quarterback Josh Rosen was tremendous (28-of-35, 351 yards, 3 TDs).

The wild back 15:

11. USC
12. Florida State
13. Clemson
14. Texas A&M
15. Georgia Tech
16. LSU
17. Arkansas
18. Ole Miss
19. Boise State
20. Oklahoma
21. Missouri
22. Tennessee
23. Arizona
24. Mississippi State
25. Utah