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 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.

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