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.

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