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.

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