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. 

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