Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Disconnected Optimism: Michigan 17, Utah 24

The lead-up to this past Thursday's opener reminded me of rediscovery -- finding an old album of photos, an old game you used to play as a child, a weathered book with bent page corners and marginal notes.

When all those disparate feelings coalesced, it was like a reminder of an earlier time: a fond childhood.

In a way, that is what the long prologue to Thursday's opener came to be by the opening kickoff at 7:30 p.m. Central Time. Both literally and figuratively, it evoked memories of childhood. With respect to the former, it was a reminder of earlier days -- and the thing about the history of Michigan football is, that, this could apply to nearly anyone's childhood as a Michigan fan -- when the Wolverines were a respected power.

Figuratively, those anticipatory moments evoked childhood in a less tangible but more meaningful way: for the first time in a long time, I, and many others, were reminded of what it was like to be truly excited for a game, just like we were as children, before we knew what a 4-3 under defense was or the merits of various punting formations.

And although the result on the field didn't work out how Michigan fans would have wanted, there were moments. Jabrill Peppers blowing up screens, going from 0-60 like an Aston Martin powered by a synthetic blend of dinosaur bones and Gatorade. Chris Wormley caving in the interior of Utah's offensive line. Jake Butt soaring over multiple Utes, posterizing the hapless players in red for a touchdown. Even, if you please to go that far, a Blake O'Neill punt to pin Utah inside its own 5-yard line.

In many ways, Michigan looked much the same as last year. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock turned it over three times (albeit with the blame for one pick seemingly falling on the shoulders of freshman receiver Grant Perry), the offensive line got handled more often than not, the running backs missed holes and the defense was strong but seemed to lack that extra oomph that is the difference between good and great defenses.

On the other hand, the offense executed a competent two-minute drill late (too little too late, of course, but still), the receivers got separation (and made plays even when they didn't separate), the corners looked strong and the run defense, like last year, was stingy.

The relatively cushy schedule helps matters, but there's a sense that Michigan will improve from here on out. It remains to be seen how good Utah actually is, but it's safe to say that they're a solid football team.

It might have been nice to catch Utah in Week 3 or 4 instead of right out of the gate, but such is the schedule. With that said, there is something nice about being thrown into the fire, in a tough road environment at altitude, and seeing how these guys adapt, from the head coach on down.

To a certain extent, they did just that. It wasn't enough, but for the first time in a while, Michigan looked like a real football team, despite its obvious limitations and still existing deficiencies, as seemingly disconnected as those two thoughts might seem.

When the clock rolled to zeroes last Thursday, the old sting was there: not dulled and lifeless, like it has been lately, like it was throughout most of the 2014 season.

It stung, like it mattered, like something worth feeling stung about.


  • Rudock. I have to say, his arm strength and accuracy seemed fine to me, except, perhaps, on the deep throws, when it seemed like his entire body weight was going into them, compromising accuracy. It's easy to be frustrated at the inability to connect on those deep shots, but let's not all pretend that those missed throws don't happen all the time, even to the best of quarterbacks. Sure, you'd like to connect on them, but they're tough throws for a reason. 
  • Missed opportunities. Again, Michigan's running backs seem to eschew following their blocking in favor of plowing into a thicket of interior linemen. De'Veon Smith's toughness is commendable, and his ability to turn a loss of 1 into a few yards is great when the line gets whipped. It's not so great when the line does its job and he misses a wide open hole to the left side, plowing ahead for a 4-yard gain that could have been a 10-plus yard play. At this point, I don't know that this is an area in which to expect improvement. The only back who has shown the ability to hit the hole? That would be Drake Johnson, but, of course, the sample size there isn't great, and then there's the whole knee injury thing...
  • Linebackers. Despite Jake Ryan's at times undisciplined/unsound play at middle linebacker -- understandable, as he's not a MIKE linebacker -- he took with him something this linebacking corps lacks: explosion. Desmond Morgan and James Ross don't bring that except in thumping mano-a-mano stops on ball carriers, and Joe Bolden's game still seems to have a tinge of hesitation in it. The again, you look at the box score and see that Bolden led the Wolverines with 13 tackles (and added a TFL), so who knows. In any case, it'll be interesting to see if Blake Gedeon gets some run against Oregon State.
  • Grant Perry. Minus the interception in which he didn't run the right route, I liked what I saw from the freshman. It's easy to shrug off preseason hype, especially for a true freshman, but Perry looked exactly like the guy we'd heard about: a move-the-sticks, possession type with sure hands. If he can work out the intricacies of the offense (and based on his high school career, he seems capable of doing so), he could be in store for a very nice freshman campaign. 
  • Harbaugh. Somehow, I made if this far without mentioning the guy. Strangely, I find myself not having much to say about his outing. I guess it's still strange to see him on the Michigan sideline, play cards fluttering to the ground as he grimaces like a madman. 
  • Tight ends. I don't need to say anything about Butt -- that guy might end up being the best tight end in the country. Ian Bunting, however, had a nice grab himself. Given his height, you'll continue to have people noting that he needs to add weight, which is probably true if he's going to present even a vague threat as a credible blocker. Still, though: the potential is tantalizing. Also, I suppose it's only fitting that the first touchdown of the Harbaugh era was reeled in by a tight end. 
  • Peppers. Okay, yes, he did straight up get beat in coverage once or twice in that first half. Chalk it up to nerves, luck, a bad play or two, whatever. Overall, his potential as a serious force in space was on display. A guy like that can erase mistakes and increase the defense's margin of error simply by virtue of his athletic ability. Very different plays, of course, but one screen blown up by Peppers reminded me of the Charles Woodson hit on a wide receiver screen against Baylor in 1997 -- not the same raw hitting power of the Woodson hit, but the burst and recognition were comparable. With that said, there's a long, long way to go before Peppers can in any way be compared to Woodson. 
  • Special teams. Not a bad outing. Peppers had a nice return late and O'Neill booted a nice one to pin the Utes deep. Also, they didn't give up a punt/kick return score, which is a sad but very real victory given recent history. Field goals could be an ongoing adventure, but really, in college football that will be the case more often than not. 

No comments:

Post a Comment