Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Michigan 70, Virginia Tech 73: Highs and lows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, foul trouble reared its ugly head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rushing totals for the day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

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

So much for the proverbial calm before the storm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Michigan 79, Marquette 61: The bigs show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what now?

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

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

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

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

Enter John O'Korn.

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

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

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


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

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Michigan 59, Maryland 3: That November feeling

Here we are: another week, another blowout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Michigan 32, Michigan State 23: Home on the road

What tells the story of college football better than colors and sound?

The maize contingent in the crowd at Spartan Stadium stuck out more than usual on Saturday. Twice, a very clear and audible doooommmm rang out when Michigan's Eddie McDoom carried the ball, first for 20 yards and later for 33.

You can often discern the state of a program by how many fans it is able to attract to a road venue. Even the hardiest fan base is not likely to travel when defeat is a foregone conclusion.

In the days of Rodriguez and Hoke, scarlet-clad fans flooded the Big House, providing the audio-visual signpost declaring Michigan's obvious inferiority to the Ohio State Buckeyes. Similarly, the Michigan State Spartans have filled the Big House in recent years, ringing the autumn air with chants of "Go Green, Go White."

On Saturday, things were different, both on the field and in the stands. I'm not sure exactly how many Michigan fans were there, but it had to have been the largest contingent in East Lansing in quite some time. The showing was in stark contrast to, for example, the 2008 Ohio State game (one I attended, for some reason). The Michigan contingent for that game was infinitesimal, a sign of the season and the times.

This time, Michigan waltzed into a road game against a rival with a No. 2 ranking and last season's catastrophic finish on its mind -- once the bullied, now the bully.

Even after the Spartans shocked the Wolverines with a 12-play, 75-yard odyssey of a touchdown drive to start the game, Michigan responded like a team fully in possession of its bearings. The Wolverines cut through the Spartans defense like a speedy defenseman carrying the puck end to end, maneuvering around opponents in the neutral zone as if they weren't even there, like green-and-white pylons.

DeVeon Smith for 20. Devin Asiasi for 15. McDoom for 20. Amara Darboh for 8. Smith for 7. Then, the coda, Jabrill Peppers cruising to the pylon to tie it.

The Spartans never led again, as Michigan began to slowly exert itself over the less talented opponent. When the Spartans dared to air it out -- according to Mark Dantonio, the call was actually a screen pass -- Tyler O'Connor tossed a ball into the waiting hands of Jourdan Lewis. Michigan promptly seized on the error, adding three points to go up 27-10 at the half.

The box score belies the nature of this contest. Outside of the brief collar-tugging stretch following Michigan State's impressive opening drive, it never felt as if the Wolverines were in real danger. And, unlike last year when the Wolverines led by two scores late, Michigan State didn't have Connor Cook to bring them back. This time, Michigan scored five second-half points, and it was fine.

Take, for example, the start of the second half. Michigan drove to MSU's side of the field, but a Wilton Speight interception gave the Spartans a brief sense of hope. MSU marched down to the Michigan 8, after which they bashed their heads into a wall seven times.

Earlier in the game, MSU failed to convert a fourth-and-1 from the Michigan 38. Times they are a-changin'.

Michigan didn't play its A game, but it didn't even need to. Down 30-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Spartans had a first and goal from the Michigan 8-yard line. Instead of methodically pounding the Wolverines into submission like the Spartans have done so many times before, the Spartans lost 9 yards, then Damion Terry tossed two incomplete passes before Dantonio opted for a 34-yard field goal, which Michael Geiger missed.

Sure, fourth and goal from the 17 is not exactly a promising venture, but a field goal gets you from three scores down to ... three scores down. The field goal attempt was thus pushed off line by a subtle mathematical breeze.

Even late, when the Spartans scored to cut the lead to 30-23, they opted to go for two, which promptly offered up the most pleasing conclusion for Michigan fans: Peppers scooping up the ball and jetting the length of the field to add two final points to Michigan's total.

Michigan fans were hoping for a more lopsided result, and they were certainly justified in expecting one. The Wolverines boasted all the gaudy statistical advantages, while the Spartans entered with a 2-5 record, a listless passing game and a defense bearing no resemblance to the stalwart groups of previous Dantonio teams.

Despite all that, the Spartans racked up 401 yards of offense, 23 first downs, 23 points and 5.2 yards per carry. They brought what they could -- unfortunately for Michigan State, it was not nearly enough.

As for Michigan, the win marked their first against Michigan State since 2012, and just the third in 10 tries against Dantonio. MSU fans will still say Michigan is 3-7 in their last 10 meetings against the Spartans -- and that's fine. It is a fact, after all.

But the past can be a sad place to live, as Michigan fans know. The past is fixed, and what has happened has happened. Nothing changes recent results -- in the past decade, Michigan has faltered, over and over and over again.

What does change, though, is the here and now, and in turn, the future. One team is ascending while the other descends. Will Michigan State continue to fall? That remains to be seen. It's hard to believe a Dantonio-led program will continue to be this bad, especially a year removed from a playoff appearance. It's also fair to say that the Spartans benefited from Michigan's post-Carr decline.

Well, it appears the era of benefits has come to end. That account has closed. The windows are boarded shut and the tellers have gone home.

On Saturday, Michigan won a game reminiscent of some box-score close Ohio State victories over undermanned Michigan teams (2009 and 2013 come to mind). While a total blowout may have been more satisfying for Michigan fans -- not unlike the 2002 Michigan-Michigan State game -- there's something to be said for a "close" game, one in which Michigan didn't play nearly its best and still emerged without suffering a heart-pounding final moment, a position of true danger, trouble with the snap.

This time, Michigan State fans chanted "f--- Jim Harbaugh" as the Spartans went out to attempt a meaningless two-point conversion.

Whether you believe in some sort of cosmic justice or not -- and, if you do, whether you believe such a thing can be applied to the ultimately meaningless world of sports -- the idea reveals itself from time to time, like a rare bird casually strutting into your field of vision before equally casually disappearing from view.

"[O'Connor] pitches it backwards and it's scooped up and there goes Jabrill Peppers ..." 

Peppers picked up O'Connor's wayward option pitch around the MSU 13-yard line -- O'Connor and his fellow teammates did not even bother to give chase, and justifiably so. The cause was lost.

Michigan's No. 5 sprinted unabated for two, crossing the goal line like a sprinter going through the finish line tape.

"Dantonio hates it," Brock Huard said. "That's the worst thing that could possibly happen."

I suppose, in the end, we will see about that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Michigan 41, Illinois 8: Riding the M Train

Fouad Egbaria
Sometimes, with the passage of time, you look up at a long-standing symbol and see something in a different light, new and reborn.

I returned to the Big House on Saturday for the first time since 2012, when Michigan scored a hard-fought -- and what then seemed meaningful -- 12-10 victory against Michigan State, the first win against the Spartans since 2007.

What I saw on the field Saturday was something entirely different, unrecognizable in every way from what existed four years ago. Just like the City of Ann Arbor itself, which has seen businesses come and go in just the past few years, Michigan has gone forth with an entirely new business model.

From the very beginning, Michigan flashed its new-age business acumen. The Wolverines took another ride on the M Train, capping a long touchdown drive, the first of four touchdown drives to start the game. The Wolverines set up in a row, like camel riders in the desert, one behind the other, sowing some degree of momentary confusion in the sand.

Then, action. Winged helmets move like electrons around a nucleus of stolid protons and neutrons, zipping to and fro, changing the makeup of the structure, stabilizing and destabilizing, but most importantly, changing. It's difficult to say how much the M Train -- maybe the People Mover is a more physically and locally apropos nickname -- actually flummoxes a defense, but its early returns are indicative of efficacy.

The Michigan offense emerged from the M Train car, headed downtown or uptown or out of town, and lost in the ruckus of travelers was Jake Butt, who crossed the middle of the field for an easy 3-yard touchdown grab (which I saw unfold beautifully from my end zone seats in section 34).

And just like everything Michigan is doing these days, it looked too easy.

You can say Michigan's level of competition hasn't been great, but, then again, great compared to what? The Wolverines have dispatched a very good Wisconsin team, easily handled a Penn State team that just beat Ohio State, eventually handled a Colorado team that is one of the biggest surprises of 2016, and easily handled non-power conference teams (Hawaii and UCF) that, at the very least, appear to be not totally horrendous (UCF is third in the American Athletic Conference's East division, while Hawaii is second in the Mountain West's West division).

The only moments of tension in the stadium occurred when Chris Evans went down on the turf, and later when Illinois scored a touchdown.

Fouad Egbaria
Michigan games this year have been an exercise in cognitive dissonance, not unlike watching certain once-in-a-generation players run, like Vince Young or Jabrill Peppers. The frequently uttered sentiment about Young was "he doesn't seem to be moving fast" -- then you look and he's outpaced the chasing defensive ends and the linebackers, and pulls away from the defensive backs like a sports car racing past a fleet of rickety minivans. 

The Wolverines, similarly, have cruised through some of these blowouts with remarkable ease. Sure, facing Illinois' third-string quarterback had something to do with it, but the Wolverines managed to put the game away before anyone in the stadium even had the chance to ask their neighbors about their post-game plans. Main Street? Sure, but let's sing The Victors for the 38th time first. 

Not long after that, Tyrone Wheatley Jr. caught a ball in the middle of the field and cruised 21 yards to the end zone, looking like Devin Funchess if Funchess gained 40 pounds and didn't lose any speed. 

Illinois did get a first down on its next drive, but Michigan responded to this grave injustice with its customary Gradgrindian efficiency: 10 plays, 81 yards, capped by none other than DJ Khalid. Touchdown runs of greater than 1 yard are unseemly, and Mr. Hill does not bother with them. 

And with all of Michigan's shiny new offensive weapons, namely Evans and Eddie McDoom, it's been surprisingly easy to forget that De'Veon Smith is the senior back who's been through it. Against the Illini, however, he carried it a season-high 18 times, and ran in Michigan's fourth touchdown of the first half. Like the linebacker position, the running back spot has evolved from a preseason sea of disparate pieces to a working committee of diverse, talented players. Smith does Smith, Evans does Evans, Ty Isaac does Ty Isaac. Anthony Thomas, Chris Howard, Clarence Williams -- there's a pretty nice precedent. 

And that's all without even mentioning Karan Higdon, who on pure running ability might be Michigan's most complete ball carrier -- this is a guy who carried the ball 11 times for 19 yards in 2015. He carried it eight times for 106 yards on Saturday. 

On what was a sunny, beautiful day, I couldn't have asked for a better homecoming. "The Victors" sounds much better during a blowout win than in the waning seconds of yet another defeat. 

Michigan is now 7-0 for the first time since 2006 and just the fourth time in 40 years (the others being 1986 and 1997). In the final days of October, the air of perfection builds, breathing palpably -- the form of expectation wisps like frosty breath. 

Later, running toward my end zone, Higdon weaved his way through the Illini defense, 45 yards for another Michigan score. Having not been to a game in several years, the feeling of being in on something that's about to happen came back to me. He hit the hole to the right side, unperturbed by any defensive presence, but eventually cut back to the middle and then carried a couple of Illini defenders for the final two or three yards. 

It looked easy. 

That's probably because it was just that. And while homecoming crowds at Michigan Stadium tend to be somewhat subdued to begin with, this crowd gave off the air of one watching a game without a sliver of tension. 

No tension makes for boring games, but that's sort of the whole reason for the path Michigan has taken: so many games that should have been boring were not boring. Hence, fired coaches, then Harbaugh. 

With that said, no matter how dominant Michigan has been, Ohio State's loss at Penn State on Saturday is proof that guards must stay up. Michigan closes its season with three out of five games on the road, including a much-anticipated trip to East Lansing this Saturday. On Nov. 12, Michigan heads to Iowa City for a night game -- while the Hawkeyes don't appear to be nearly at the same level as last year, night games are night games. A mistake here, a mistake there, and what should be a boring game becomes a nail-biter becomes a loss. 

But, Michigan can only cross that bridge when it gets to it. For now, the road has been far easier than expected. After all, there's no place like home. 

I look back on my senior year at Michigan, 2010, and feel as if I'm watching a different program entirely. That year, Michigan took crushing home losses, all by double digits, against Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin, the latter of which encapsulated Michigan's inability to stop much of anything. Michigan was one-dimensional, unorganized, dependent on vague, sporadic bursts of magic. That year, Michigan beat Illinois, at home, in triple overtime, 67-65. 

Six years later? It's a different story, in a different book, in another language. 

Fouad Egbaria

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Michigan 45, Colorado 28: Momentary panic

Over the weekend, I saw a question posed that just about sums up college football, especially in September. Paraphrasing, it asked: "Is there a sport in which perception changes from week to week more than in college football?"

The answer to that, I'd say, is that there is not. College football Team X is indomitable one week and worryingly flawed the next. Levels of competition swing widely, and when injuries occur, the dropoff from starter to backup is far greater than in the professional league (where even the third-string guy is supposedly competent, by virtue of even being in the league at all).

Michigan's game -- rather, quarter and change -- against Colorado on Saturday is evidence of the blind swings of perception, more like a mace wielded wildly than a pendulum, for a pendulum indicates order by design.

The Wolverines took two quick haymakers in the game's first five minutes, one a lightning-quick 49-yard drive and then a scoop-and-score off of a Wilton Speight fumble.

Just like that, Michigan found itself in a new situation this season. But, really, how much can you panic 3 minutes, 12 seconds into a game?

A theme for the day, Michigan's special teams gave it a boost, with Grant Perry scooping up a blocked punt for a score, offering a brief moment of relief.

It didn't last long, though, as Sefo Liufau channeled the spirit of the present Tom Brady and orchestrated a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive to put Michigan behind 21-7.

Oh, this is real? This is indeed real.

Michigan clamped down in the second quarter and added 17 points to take a halftime lead, but the drama extended to the second half, when a hobbled Liufau somehow was able to loft a perfect downfield strike 70 yards for a score.

In a half and change that was one to forget for Michigan's defense, it was perhaps most forgettable for the safeties, Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas, who appeared to be culpable on two of Colorado's touchdown passes.

With Jarrod Wilson, the next iteration of Jordan Kovacs, out of the picture, I think most Michigan fans expected some sort of uptick in big plays allowed. That uptick came to pass on Saturday (and to some extent against UCF, too). Luckily for Don Brown and Co., it was Week 3, not a pivotal Big Ten contest.

The big question mark looming over all of this is the return of a triumvirate of Michigan defenders: Jourdan Lewis, Bryan Mone and Taco Charlton. This defense is still good without them, but not the dominant thing it can be. Remember when Michael Jordan pursued baseball, and the Pippen-led Bulls still managed to win quite a few games? Take that analogy and compress it for the college football world, and you have a similar thing going on. Everything is just wobblier without them, even if the defensive line is still capable of wreaking havoc, and Jeremy Clark and Channing Stribling have done just fine to date (albeit against no real top-notch receivers).

Liufau left the game, and it was all over but the shoutin' for the Colorado offense. But, in a way, this was a good thing for the Michigan defense. Sure, they gave up some big plays -- that's going to happen. For all of the offseason Don Brown hype, switching to the third defensive coordinator in three years doesn't forecast immediately positive returns with that third coordinator, no matter how respected.

In short, there will be, and have been, some growing pains.

Offensively, Speight recovered from his shaky start and some early hits to go 16-of-30 for 229 yards, one touchdown and just the one early turnover. No interceptions is good. In Jake Rudock's third game last season against UNLV, a measly 28-7 win, he went 14-of-22 for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

By comparison, against a more talented opponent, I'd say Speight looked just fine, even showing some pocket-passer mobility to shake a Colorado blitzer and pick up positive yardage.

On the ground, Michigan ran for just under 200 yards on 4.1 yards per carry, with DeVeon Smith leading the way with 87 yards on 11 carries (albeit with one of those carries a 42-yard romp on which he wasn't touched until he was already practically in the end zone). It's still early to pass judgment on some of the guys up front (Bredeson, for example), and others more perceptive than I with respect to line play can comment on the line as a whole. Certainly, it's a work in progress.

All in all, it was an imperfect performance, one that momentarily induced a sort of low-level panic. But, the Wolverines did what they needed to do, which was eventually pulverize a far inferior team, even if the score doesn't show it. Other teams have players, too, and Liufau looked the part. We can wonder what would have happened had Liufau remained in the game at full health, but we'll never know. Perhaps even more unfortunate for Michigan, if Liafau is out for an extended period of time, the Buffs are far less equipped to make some noise in league play, which would benefit Michigan's playoff profile.

But, it's over and done, and Michigan has a league slate of its own to worry about.

Somehow, I've come all this way without mentioning the omnipresent Jabrill Peppers. Travel to an alternate universe in which Peppers isn't on that field Saturday. Think of all the plays he had a hand in, in every phase of the game.

If it isn't obviously already, you really need to pay attention. It might be a long time before Michigan gets a player like this again.

Sure, Peppers has some things to work on for his NFL resume (coverage), but he is otherwise a shutdown player, one who can affect a game so profoundly. Look at the other side -- Colorado's Chidobe Awuzie does not have the national recognition Peppers does, but his defensive ability opens up so much for that defense and closes down so much for opposing offenses. Michigan's previously uncoverable wideouts ran into a pair of corners of a caliber they won't see again for a while. It's tough to get open against very good corners -- that's why they're very good. It reminds me of folks quoting a team's record against average or bad competition versus, say, top-10 teams. Well, of course the latter is probably not going to look that great -- top-10 teams are good, usually.

Perhaps the highlight of the game was Peppers finally breaking through for his first punt return touchdown, a breakthrough on the heels of so many almosts. I'm willing to bet it won't be his last this season.

I generally don't like to make comparisons between current players and former elites -- but the Peppers-Woodson comparison is inescapable. On one play, Peppers diagnosed the play and sped into the backfield to level a Colorado back for a loss.

As it unfolded, and he arrived at the ball before the doomed had a second to ponder his first move, I was reminded of another play from 19 years ago, on Sept. 20, 1997:

Sometimes, all it takes to resume calm is to have the best player on the field. On Saturday, Michigan did.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Week 2: Close encounters of meaning, or not

Week 2 

With one more week in the books, the picture becomes clearer in some spots, blurrier in others. 

The nonconference slate is a mishmash of comfortable victories, head-scratching close calls and everything in between: Week 2 offered a diverse selection of all three. Take Clemson, Georgia, Arizona, for example -- and those were all wins. 

Thus far, Clemson looks nothing like the team that closed the 2015 season on a high note, the highest note of any team not named Alabama. Deshaun Watson passed a whopping 53 times and completed just 27 of those attempts, which is fine if you're Texas Tech or the Detroit Lions' Matt Stafford, but not if you're the No. 2 team in the country playing Troy at home. 

Meanwhile, in Athens, Kirby Smart's squad limped its way to a win against Nicholls State (which finished 3-8 in 2015). After a solid win against UNC (made slightly more solid after UNC's thumping of Illinois), the Dawgs came back down to earth, with Nick Chubb managing just 80 yards on 20 carries. Turnovers helped keep the Colonels in the game, as if often the case when the Little Guy hangs with the Big Guy. Georgia can definitely compete in the SEC East -- which, I suppose, is a lot like saying the Big Ten West winner will have a chance at winning the conference title. But this team is another Chubb injury away from some real problems ... an injury that hopefully does not happen, because he's a fun player to watch, and isn't that what all of this is about? 

Arizona, well, they scored 28 unanswered and beat Grambling State by 10. If you need a second to reread that sentence, feel free to do so and meet me at the next paragraph. 

Done? Yes, that is something that happened, yet another drop in the torrential downpour of madness that is the college game. And, really, let's be honest: Is that result even all that surprising? Does that box score move the needle in any way whatsoever? No? I'm not sure what to say about the Rich Rodriguez era in Tucson other than his teams always seem to teeter perilously on the precipice separating resurgence from oblivion. Rodriguez's squad followed his first two seasons, both 8-win campaigns, with 10 wins in 2014, but just seven last year. 

The Wildcats cap the season with trips to Oregon State and Washington State, and the rivalry tilt against Arizona State. But it's the five games prior that will decide the season and, perhaps, move the needle back in the positive direction for Rodriguez and Co. After this week's matchup against Hawaii, Arizona hosts Washington, travels to UCLA and Utah, then hosts USC and Stanford. Win three of those and close out with four straight against WSU, Oregon State, Colorado and ASU and you're looking at eight wins. 

But, you know, who knows. Arizona, like so many others, is just one of those teams that generally does not adhere to philosophical structures of order or reason. They're either firing on all cylinders, zooming down the highway, or crapped out on the side of the road, belching smoke into the pastel Arizona sky. 

Speaking of close calls, you can even look at Nebraska, which dispatched Wyoming with ease, 52-17 -- close call? The Cornhuskers held a 24-17 lead after three quarters. But hey, that's why you play four. 

If all of the above sounds like bad news for the aforementioned teams, maybe it is and maybe it isn't -- but take it all into account, hand-wringing Michigan fan, when you bemoan Michigan's "unimpressive" 37-point victory against UCF. 

That performance was far from perfect, but why is anyone expecting that in the first place? Even Alabama, the colossus from T-Town, didn't look like the same team in Week 2, besting Western Kentucky by "just" 28 points, 38-10. Jalen Hurts threw two picks and the Tide averaged 3.2 yards per carry. None of that means anything. 

Oh, right, there was also that business in Stillwater. What to say? I still lack words for the conclusion of the 2015 Michigan-Michigan State game. Things happen in college football that are spectacular for their lack of decipherable meaning. You can say "why?" but you already know the answer. 

Incredulity, thy nom de guerre is college football. 

If you're looking for sense in anything, college football is the last place you'll find it. You might as well roam the desert looking for a Wi-Fi hotspot, pining for a chance to send that Tweet about how something that happened on Sept. 10 presages either doom or success against a future opponent. 

  • Iowa State is truly bad. This is a fact that only underscores the awesome accomplishment achieved by Iowa in its 42-3 win against them. The Hawkeyes have found a way to lose to some wretched Cyclones teams over the years, but not this time. Really, I was far more impressed by this victory than one ought to be. We're not talking a hex of the late 1990s/early 2000s, when ISU beat Iowa five years in a row, but ISU did take three of the last five before this year's matchup, including the 2012 9-6 game. That ISU team finished 6-7. They also finished 6-7 in 2011, another winning year for ISU over Iowa, and 2-10 in 2014. This is probably more than you needed to know -- the point? Beating a bad Iowa State team by many points is significant for an Iowa team that has struggled to beat bad Iowa State teams. 
  • Remember Danny Etling? If you do, you're either a recruiting buff or a Purdue football die-hard. Regardless, he played most of a football game this past Saturday ... for LSU. Etling, who transferred from West Lafayette to Baton Rouge, went 6-of-14 for 100 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Which, somehow, was worse than Brandon Harris' performance in Week 1 against Wisconsin. It really is difficult to think of a program that has squandered so much talent based on its inability to get one thing even sort of right (i.e. quarterback). Gone are the glorious days of Matt Mauck.
  • The Seminoles head to Louisville to take on QB Lamar Jackson and Co. this week in what promises to be an exciting matchup. Jackson posted another big day in a Week 2 win against Syracuse. In two games, he's passed for 697 yards and completed 59.7 percent of his attempts. He's also rushed for 318 yards. Needless to say, FSU is a step or two up from Charlotte and Syracuse. But if early returns mean anything, Jackson is a step up from the quarterbacks FSU has faced to date. 
  • There's still something strange about seeing Washington sitting there at No. 8. They went 8-6 and 7-6 in Chris Petersen's first two years, yet somehow found themselves in the preseason top 10. Why? I don't know. It's not even that they necessarily don't "deserve" to be there, so much as their inclusion feels very strange, like a curly fry that finds its way into a batch of regular fries. With that said, unlike many other teams, the Huskies have taken care of business thus far, and the schedule actually looks quite manageable. UW hosts Stanford Sept. 30 and visits Oregon Oct. 8, but after that I don't see any games that are slam-dunk losses. A trip to Utah is always tough (ask Michigan), USC is the Pac-12's LSU (hey, look at all that talent) and the Apple Cup is a rivalry game still, even if the Cougars have failed spectacularly to date. If UW wants any chance at a playoff berth, it will need to sweep that Stanford-Oregon stretch. 
  • The game of the week? Arkansas-TCU, which was actually sort of a snoozer until the very end. The unsnoozeification of this one began when Arkansas missed a 22-yard field goal, then up 20-7 late in the third. TCU stormed back to take a lead, until Arkansas went 58 yards in 62 seconds to tie it with a minute to go at 28-28. TCU had a chance to win with a field goal, a 28-yarder. That was blocked, because the very notion of field goals resides in the realm of Bad Possibilities, and Arkansas went on to win in overtime. It's still unclear to me what Bret Bielema and Arkansas' path to success in the SEC West is, but one thing's certain: Razorbacks games are worth the watch. A Sept. 24 date with Texas A&M will likely be another one worthy of viewing consideration. 
  • After a rough first quarter that saw Tennessee trailing Virginia Tech 14-0, the Vols bounced back to notch a comfortable win at Bristol Motor Speedway (it's a brave new world). Tennessee gets a breather with Ohio this week -- well, in theory -- but then the schedule gets brutal before finishing with a pretty breezy five-game stretch. After Ohio, UT gets Florida at home, Georgia and Texas A&M on the road, and Alabama at home. The Vols were talked about as a playoff contender heading into this season, but that four-game stretch always loomed large. Assuming they get to the SEC title game and score an upset against Alabama, they can't afford to lose more than one of those four. Maybe Tennessee figures things out and manages to go 3-1 there, win the final five and have a shot at a play-in game in the SEC title game. Either way, like the Stanford-Oregon stretch for Washington, the Florida-Georgia tilts in consecutive weeks are must-wins. 
  • If college football can be likened to Game of Thrones, then Nebraska's 2015 season was akin to the guy who jumps on the bandwagon of the deity in vouge at exactly the wrong time. That's really the only explanation for Nebraska's insane run of bad luck last season. However, looking at their schedule, the 'Huskers have a chance to be one of the notable bounceback teams of 2016. In one of the more quietly interesting games of the week, Nebraska welcomes Oregon to Memorial Stadium, a team that is undoubtedly a few notches below what it once was. The Ducks can still score, sure, but they've given  up yards and points like they're hosting a yard sale. Excluding UVA QB Kurt Benkert's -27 yards rushing, the Cavaliers racked up 220 yards rushing on the Oregon defense this past weekend. ESPN's Power Index gives Nebraska a 74.2 percent chance at victory. If Nebraska can score a win -- which would only be an upset in terms of the arbitrary nature of early-season polls -- then a 7-0 start is not out of the question. Nebraska follows this one up with games against Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue; that is, the antithesis of the middle of Tennessee's schedule. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Week 1: The princess is in another castle

Week 1

The first week of a college football season is almost always anticlimactic, failing to deliver on an offseason's worth of pent-up excitement. 

The opening slate typically features an array of snoozers, like a pedestrian hotel continental breakfast. You'll get just enough, but not what you really want, like a omeleteer serving up whatever egg-based dish you like at 7 in the morning. No, you'll take the toast and wake up to the season with a generic roast and USA Today. 

Take, for example, Michigan versus Hawaii: a classic Week 1 no-doubter. The game was over before you could say "Colt Brennan." Michigan rolled, 63-3, and it was fun until it wasn't, the point where every fan of a brand-name team wonders if there is even a point to this particular contest and if it should even be played at all. When one starts to truly feel bad for the other team is the exact moment in which that realization of the game's lack of utility takes root. 

Michigan, a team of four- and five-stars, experienced and talented, versus jetlagged Hawaii, which had already given up 51 points in a game before even coming to Ann Arbor: Welcome to opening weekend. 

The Wolverines won, but like wins scored by so many other teams dotting the top 25, the win means little. I't's Level 1, a step, the initial foray into the great unknown. 

The princess is in another castle. 

Then there's Alabama. 

Alabama, winners of last season's national title, lost its usual bevy of talent to the NFL, reigniting another round of The Process. 

The Crimson Tide opened with USC, a matchup of name brands. Coke and Pepsi, Rolls Royce and Bentley, Apple and Microsoft -- you get the idea. 

Alabama even had the courtesy to let the Trojans hang around for about a quarter. USC struck first with a field goal, but they would never lead again. Alabama started the game with Blake Barnett at quarterback, but finished it with Jalen Hurts, who offers a scary thing: an Alabama quarterback who is an active playmaker for the offense, as opposed to the parade of game-managing types of recent years. 

Hurts fumbled early, but proceeded to dissect the Trojans defense like a film class recitation one might take on the USC campus. Hurts started things with a 39-yard strike to ArDarius Stewart, then Alabama added a field goal and a pick-six to enter the half up 17-3. Against anyone not named Cam Newton, that means the game is over. 

And it was. The Tide rolled to a 52-6 win. Maybe USC isn't that good, but even the most cynical observer of the Trojans program probably doesn't think they're 52-6 bad.  

Once again, everyone is chasing the team from Tuscaloosa. 

And yet, despite the Tide's aura of invincibility, they have been prone to the occasional slip-up. In recent years, that has been at the hands of Ole Miss, who the Tide face in Week 3 in Oxford. The Rebels are fresh off of a crushing collapse against Florida State in Orlando -- maybe they'll be eager to prove that was a fluke? 

Or, maybe, Alabama will see them coming this time, particularly after losses to the Rebels in 2014 and 2015. If there's one thing you don't want, it's an Alabama that sees you. 

Speaking of, Florida State seemed destined to both get blown out and get its quarterback, freshman Deondre Francois, injured Monday night against Ole Miss. 

The Rebels raced out to an early 7-0 lead, scoring in under two minutes. They eventually led 28-6 after a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Jimbo Fisher and everyone else on the FSU sideline looked bereft of answers or words, like someone who has just missed a flight. 

Francois and Co. couldn't get much of anything going, much of it the fault of an offensive line that played like five large pieces of rice paper. Even star tailback Dalvin Cook (23 carries, 91 yards), with a free run to the end zone, simply dropped the ball out of bounds at the 3-yard line (FSU would eventually have to settle for a field goal). 

Nothing was working for the Seminoles -- another top-10 team appeared ready to topple. 

Then, having enough of it, Francois started firing in the face of heavy pressure. I'm not sure what happened or what unseen switch was flipped, but the redshirt freshman started making throws even fifth-year seniors can never hope to make. 

Less than six minutes into the third quarter, FSU led, 29-28. Blink and everything can change in an instant. In the span of less than a quarter's worth of NBA action, the Seminoles turned a 22-point deficit into a one-point lead. 

Questions now abound about Ole Miss, which looked unstoppable to start and completely flustered to finish. Whatever the Ole Miss season becomes, this was a hello to the college football world from Francois (whose debut compares favorably to the guy who recently won FSU a national championship). 

A tricky trip to Louisville on Sept. 17 beckons for the 'Noles, not to mention a home game against UNC followed by a trip to Miami. Then, of course, there's Clemson on Oct. 29. 

Can they run the table? Maybe, if Francois' brilliance on Monday night is any indication. But the offensive line will need to protect him and get Cook going, or they might not even get a chance to set up a matchup of potential undefeateds against Clemson. 

And as we all know, freshman quarterbacks usually mean a slip-up is just around the corner. 


Clemson went down to Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, riding as high as one could on the heels of a national championship game defeat. After that loss to Alabama, everyone acknowledged Deshaun Watson and Co. as legitimate, an anointment that can these days only come after going head-to-head with Alabama and nearly winning on the biggest stage. This is "little ole Clemson" no longer. "Clemsoning" was once a word with meaning, but has sharply disappeared from the college football lexicon, lost in the gradually roiling seas of language transformation. "Clemsoning" is Middle English of yore -- in the dictionary, it's marked "archaic." 

Now, some might be down on the Tigers after a less-than-impressive 19-13 win. Watson went 19-of-24 for 248 yards (1 TD, 1 INT). Wayne Gallman carried it 30 times for 123 yards. Mike Williams caught nine balls for 174 yards, dismissing the Auburn secondary as if it wasn't there. Hunter Renfrow, hero of the national title game, fittingly reeled in a key touchdown grab. 

The score is not impressive, but the result and the individual performances are worthy of praise. Clemson didn't start with Hawaii or Furman or Wofford or Tumbleweed State -- they started with an SEC foe on the road. 

Now, say what you will about Auburn, a team with no offense led by an offense-first head coach, but Clemson doesn't need style points like, say, Houston does. The win is enough. 

There were hairy moments, moments when Clemson appeared destined to fall into one of Bowser's many lava pits or run into a whirling dungeon fire bar. 

But time expired, and Clemson found itself at the end, meeting Toad. The princess is in another castle, he says. 

Things lighten up for the Tigers the next few weeks; that is, until Lamar Jackson and Louisville roll into town Oct. 1. 


The madness continued Sunday night in Austin, when Texas took down Notre Dame with an 18-wheeler and a freshman gunslinger. 

Both teams used two quarterbacks, but the Longhorns were far more effective in their deployment, buoyed by freshman Shane Buechele's 280 passing yards and Tyrone Swoopes' three rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, Malik Zaire got the start for Notre Dame, and even got the first series of the second half, but proved ineffective. Deshone Kizer took over down the stretch, finishing 15-of-24 for 215 yards and five touchdown passes. Kizer, a Toledo native, makes one wonder: What if he now wore the winged helmet instead? 

After 6-7 and 5-7 seasons to kick off the Charlie Strong era, this was one he, and Texas, badly needed. It's one thing to ambush a much better Oklahoma team in a rivalry game like they did last season -- it's another to beat a team like Notre Dame in a nonconference tilt. 

Like many of the other teams discussed here, Notre Dame's fate is yet to be determined. Texas could turn out to be good, and this loss would just mark an unfortunate loss concurrent with the rise of the Longhorns. 

Notre Dame will have a chance to collect itself and get back on track with a contest against Michigan State on Sept. 17. A loss there, and the outlook for Notre Dame takes on a blue-gray hue that's more gray than blue. 


The opening weekend was full of the usual array of upsets, pseudo-upsets and near-upsets. Northwestern won 10 games last year but couldn't do enough to stem the tide that was the Western Michigan Broncos, who rowed their boats onto the shores of Lake Michigan and claimed the City of Evanston for Kalamazoo County. 

Mike Leach's Washington State Cougars proceeded to plunder the good will of a nine-win 2015 season by losing to Eastern Washington, at home. 

Oklahoma fell against Houston, much to no one's surprise. That's not to say that many would have thought a Houston win a certainty, but its possibility was seen a mile away in the pensive hours of the long, long offseason. Houston will both take its long shot at a playoff shot, plus the more likely possibility of a conference upgrade. 

Indiana led FIU 12-10 at the half. Michigan State beat Furman 28-13. Tennessee just barely avoided casting themselves in "Appalachian State: The Sequel." No. 16 UCLA crawled back from a 24-9 deficit at Texas A&M only to lose in overtime. The Aggies appear to have a quarterback, but check back later, as folks thought the same thing for the last two seasons with Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen, who both now play at different Texas schools. 

Week 1 is also about noise, much of it meaningless. Is Tennessee that bad? Probably not. Is Texas A&M "back"? Texas? Who knows. Michigan State? Well, they beat Western Michigan by 13 in 2013 and again by 13 last season, and they went 13-1 and 12-2 in those seasons, both ending with conference championship. 

At this point, you simply shrug and move on. That's all you can do. 


College football is a constantly unfolding story, with climactic moments not woven in but thrown in seemingly at random. Rather, it's a collection of short stories, anchored by a central theme but by no means wholly tethered to it. 

Results are like the stars -- sometimes you try to connect the dots, but you'll often have to take someone else's word that the Big Dipper or Orion are in fact up there. 

They are, but you have to wait .Wait for them to come into focus -- and don't get distracted by that fleeing comet, or you might lose the picture, as the sky reverts to a sea of bright lights, apart and alone.