Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Michigan 27, Indiana 20 (OT): Deja vu

As I watched Saturday's game in Bloomington, I felt as if I was transported to a time in the not-too-distant past.

No, not the 2015 Indiana game, which also ended with a Michigan overtime win (and a touchdown on the first play of the winning overtime drive).

Saturday's game felt like the bizarro version of another game, another win that left residual dread in its wake in spite of the outcome.

That game, of course, is the 2010 Illinois game, a 67-65 win of Pyrrhic proportions for Michigan — despite coming ahead in the box score, the result reflected a deeper rot. A sharp poke and the whole structure wobbled on the verge of collapse. The program's wooden support beams were hollowed with insatiable termites — that much became clear once the euphoria subsided and fans collectively exhaled a whoosh of air indistinguishable from a sigh of relief.

This past Saturday's game reminded me of that, but the other way around.

Instead of the ceaseless offense of that 2010 Illinois game — an experience akin to an afternoon spent eating sleeve after sleeve of Oreos — Michigan and Indiana drudged through your standard Big Ten noon slugfest. Offensive ineptitude and defensive dominance converged, repulsed by each other like the like poles of two magnets.

At the end of it, John O'Korn finished 10-for-20 for 58 yards.

As an undergrad, that Illinois game was fun to watch in the stadium (after all, my graduating class didn't have many signature wins to celebrate, so we had to take what we could get). Michigan couldn't stop Illinois and Illinois couldn't stop Michigan. It was instant gratification taken to the extreme.

When it was over, though, reality set in. Michigan had won, but it was not a confidence-inspiring thing. Michigan moved to 6-3, but games against Wisconsin and Ohio State remained on the schedule.

If anything, the outcome only further affirmed that Michigan was not a serious football program. A win is a win, but giving up 65 points at home is not something good teams do.

With that said, I'm not saying Michigan is in the same situation now. Jim Harbaugh is a better coach than Rich Rodriguez, and the overall direction of the program is still generally trending upward, even if this season is shaping up to be a step back (albeit not an unexpected one).

Still, it was hard to watch Saturday's game and not draw parallels to that Illinois game. In the context of this singular season, at least, Saturday's win was not a great thing, insofar as a road win against a team with a decent defense can be considered as such.

Just like that Rodriguez team — and every Rodriguez team — lacked a semblance of a defense, this one lacks on the other side of the ball. Receivers are not getting open consistently, the offensive line has struggled and the quarterback (whether O'Korn or Wilton Speight) has killed drives with botched reads and general skittishness, at times understandable, in the pocket.

This year, it doesn't appear that a fix is coming. Harbaugh has done some great things in his coaching career, but this seems unsalvageable, even by him.

I won't pretend to guess at why Brandon Peters hasn't inserted himself into the discussion. I was at the spring game this year and saw him sling beautiful passes all over the field with confidence (I know, it's the spring game, but still).

Assuming O'Korn struggles again at Penn State, the logical thing to do would be giving Peters a shot against Rutgers, because even a quarterback sitting below O'Korn on the depth chat can't mess things up enough to lose that game — right?

That's the thing. Consider O'Korn's stat line: 10-for-20, 58 yards. It is bad.

But it can get worse.

As bad as O'Korn was against Michigan State, he didn't turn it over against Indiana. A small victory, to be sure, but imagine that game with one or two O'Korn turnovers sprinkled in.

What it comes down to is trust. If you trust Harbaugh, and you should, O'Korn will continue to start, even if he is generally ineffective again this Saturday, because Harbaugh sees these guys every day and has no reason not to play the guy he thinks gives them the best chance to win. That's not to say that great coaches don't make mistakes, but this would be a colossal mistake; I think Harbaugh has earned the benefit of the doubt.

At the same time, you could argue you won't truly know what Peters is until he enters a game for meaningful snaps.

Harbaugh has a decision to make. For all of the hand-wringing, Michigan's season is not over yet. The Wolverines are 5-1, even if it's a rickety 5-1, like Michigan's 5-0 (then 6-3, after Illinois) start in 2010. Find a way to win at Penn State and Wisconsin, take care of the rest, and, ostensibly, anything can happen in a rivalry game against Ohio State (even if recent history dictates that not to be true).

Sure, the above is likely not going to happen. Penn State and Wisconsin are pretty good, and expecting Michigan's defense to safeguard the razor-thin margin of error the offense affords it is probably asking too much.

Unlike 2010, however, the formula is much simpler.

Michigan's defense will most likely give it some sort of chance in every remaining game. Aside from some second-half slippage in Bloomington, Michigan mostly shut down the top receiver in the conference in Simmie Cobbs (4 receptions, 39 yards). If there's anything to wax poetic about, it's Michigan's young corners. Lavert Hill and David Long have exceeded what were already lofty expectations. Even Brandon Watson, deemed somewhat of "a guy," has contributed with some emphatic pass breakups and generally dependable play.

Offensively, as limited as the Wolverines are, there have been bright spots. Karan Higdon dashed for 200 yards on 25 carries, which, as you probably know by now, makes him the first Michigan running back to run for 200 yards in a game since Mike Hart. That probably speaks to the level of offensive line play over the last decade as much as anything else, but 200 yards rushing against a solid Indiana defense is something on which to build.

Harbaugh's offense has always worked by virtue of multiple formations — confusing the defense and then bludgeoning it.

Unfortunately, with the injury to Speight — who, yes, was the starter for a reason, as we are now seeing — and Tarik Black earlier in the season, in addition to the line's struggles, Michigan doesn't have the ability to make that work. The first half of the season has been a long struggle to find what is often called an "identity." What do you do well?

For this limited Michigan offense, we have some indication that power running is its identity — or, at least, the closest thing to one.

The formula isn't exciting, but it's clear. Michigan has to win with defense, running the ball, field position, and non-traditional scoring (either via the defense or special teams). Other programs have made a living out of that strategy; Virginia Tech, of course, comes to mind. While no disrespect is meant to those Virginia Tech teams, many of which were very good, in the long-term Michigan hopes to be more potent, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

For now, though, Michigan has to squeeze every bit of positive play that it can out of what it's got. It might not end up being enough, but it's the only way.

Another thing is clear: 58 yards isn't enough. Against Penn State, O'Korn will need to make some plays, in addition to protecting the ball. Even if O'Korn somehow quadruples his Indiana yardage total in Beaver Stadium, it might not be enough if he turns it over two or three times.

The margin for error is thin. Next year might be different with another year of seasoning for the linemen and receivers, in addition to, possibly, a new quarterback.

For now, though, this is what Michigan's got. This is where coaches make their money.

It's also where players either shine ... or wilt.

If Michigan puts up a fight against Penn State, and the outcome is still in question heading into the fourth quarter, I don't think anyone can be too upset. A 2008-esque blowout, on the other hand, would be somewhat of a confidence killer.

On Saturday, we'll find out which way the wind blows.

Miscellaneous Minutiae
  • I'm glad Karan Higdon took things into his own hands and scored on the first play of the overtime period. If he doesn't score there, I wonder how things would have turned out. 
  • Penalties? Yeah, I don't know either. When Michigan picked up that delay of game penalty on the beautifully designed shovel pass, Harbaugh yelling "come on, John!" was all of us. To be sure, it was a horribly officiated game (for both teams). Add in the team's youth and it's easy to chalk this one up as a particularly aberrant showing. 
  • Donovan Peoples-Jones didn't light the world on fire (4 receptions, 34 yards), but he did lead the Wolverines in that department ... which is not saying much, but still a positive for him, as it was his best game of the season. The learning curve was always going to be steep for him given the nature of his high school offense. Michigan can only hope that, in the absence of Black, DPJ can continue to grow each week. 
  • Yes, the Michigan defense did the thing where they throttle an opponent all game only to give up points late when said opponent is in desperation mode and the team's own offense is just trying to scrape by. Hey, it happens. Nonetheless, it was another solid day for the trusty defense. "Only" two sacks, but the defense notched seven tackles for loss, including 2.5 from Rashan Gary. 
  • This Michigan team is particularly fortunate to have a darn-near-automatic kicker like Quinn Nordin. The whole defense and special teams thing doesn't work so much if the offense can't turn what drives it puts together into points, particularly long field goals. If Michigan is going to have a chance in Happy Valley, I'm willing to bet Nordin will have to bury one, if not two kicks of 50-plus yards. Making those in a neutral environment or at home is one thing — making them at night in Happy Valley is another. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Michigan 29, Air Force 13: September daze

From Section 37

In a vacuum, this game went about exactly as expected. 

I saw the spread heading into Saturday and thought "Michigan won't cover that." Given the Michigan fanbase's ability to furrow away bad memories only to be pulled out and revisited like a manila folder from a storage cabinet, it's no surprise that the 2012 game bubbled near the top of a lot of fans' consciousness. 

Michigan didn't cover, which in and of itself doesn't really matter — but the route to that outcome included some bumpy roads. 

Like the Cincinnati game, the outcome was never truly in doubt. This wasn't the 2012 Air Force game, when the outcome hung in the balance until the very end. 

Still, Michigan will face much better teams than Air Force, teams more equipped to make it pay for the type of sloppiness it has showed so far. 

Even so, things often don't seem so bad after you've thought on them for a while. 

As I sat through an oppressively hot — for Michigan in mid-September, that is — game on Saturday in Michigan Stadium, it was hard not to feel antsy. I tried to find seats as close to the student section as possible, but even enthusiasm by proximity didn't work — a listless non-student section for a frustrating nonconference game will be what it alway is. 

Add heat and you've got a crowd of grumblers, murmuring about missed cuts or an inability to move the Air Force defensive front. 

To an extent, I can't blame people for feeling the way that they did (whether or not watching a game with such a crowd is a fun experience is another issue entirely). 

When all was said and done, Michigan notched another close-but-not-really-but-still-frustrating win, its second in a row, and ran the ball for north of 5 yards per carry (removing Speight's sack yardage). 

I was in the stadium, and thus missed Matt Millen's commentary live. Upon rewatching, he prefaced Michigan's opening drive by saying this about Speight: "He just needs to calm down." 

As easy as it is to poke fun at Millen, maybe there's something to that. Yes, Speight was prone to mistakes last year, particularly later in the season, but you could attribute those to injuries or simply being a first-year starter. Frustrating, yes, but understandable. 

This year? Speight's numbers still seem okay, in a vacuum and in the context of each game, but as I wrote last week, the eye test reveals isolated bouts of questionable moments. For example, the strange play on which Speight scrambled and attempted to gently loft a touch pass, like a tear drop in the lane, over a defender in his face to Kekoa Crawford. 



It didn't work out — fortunately for Speight, it didn't result in a turnover. (Naturally, if it had worked out it would have been a moment of genius and creative flair from Speight.) It marked another one of those in-between moments for the second-year starter, moments in which he seems caught between two options, A and B, and somehow melds the two in favor of a 27th letter of the alphabet that does not exist except in his perspective at the moment of decision. 

In short, uncertainty has crept into his play. Whether that's a product of the offensive line, the play calling, or Speight simply backsliding to a baseline much lower than the one we saw for much of last year remains to be seen. 

So far, early returns haven't been particularly encouraging. He currently ranks 105th in Total QBR, has just three touchdowns to two interceptions and has struggled to move the offense once in the red zone. In 10 trips to the red zone this season, Michigan has just one touchdown — thanks to Quinn Nordin, Michigan has come away with points on eight of those 10 trips, with the one field goal miss against Florida making the lone points-less (pointless?) red zone foray. 

Could this just be a September daze? A confluence of an offensive line still trying to come together, a receiving corps made up of players born within a year of Michael Jordan's second retirement, a running game that has missed opportunities while facing aggressive, boom-or-bust defenses? 

It could be all of those things. But it could also be much simpler: Speight maxed out last year and is coming back down to a much humbler, terrestrial plane of performance. 

Speight found a nice groove early in the second quarter, hitting Donovan Peoples-Jones on a screen, Tarik Black for 8 and Zach Gentry for 30 on the type of play he's made numerous times — standing in and delivering: 


He's shown flashes of the guy he was last year, but hasn't put it back together just yet. 

I'm not going to say what we've seen so far is how it's going to be. I will say, though, if things don't change, win projections will have to be recalibrated. General youth and inexperience at a number of positions have prevented yours truly from recalibrating just yet. Even at current levels, Michigan could roll to 6-0 with a combination of strong defense and special teams before the trip to Penn State. 

But from that point forward, Michigan needs Speight — and, really, the rest of the offense — to find itself, or this September haze could yield fall frustrations that exceed those of the past two weeks by several orders of magnitude. 

---
Otherwise? Things are pretty good. 

The defense faced the frustrating option attack and, for the most part, crushed it, giving up 13 points, seven on a secondary coverage error that was going to happen eventually. Given Air Force's offensive style, it's not surprising that they hit the Michigan defense for one of those. 

Michigan gave up just 232 total yards and Air Force went 3-for-13 on third down. In addition, the visitors managed just 3.4 yards per carry on the afternoon. 

For as much attention as Speight and the offense is getting, I'm not sure enough attention is being given to the wholesale reload of the defense. Sure, the competition hasn't been top-notch — Florida's offensive issues exceed even Michigan's, Cincinnati didn't have the talent and Air Force is tricky but limited. 

Still, you defend what is put in front of you, and Michigan has done a great job of that thus far. 

According to NCAA.com statistics, Michigan is ranked 11th in third-down conversion defense, 7th in pass efficiency defense, and is tied for 6th in tackles for loss with 27 (behind four teams with 28). At this point in the season, level of competition obviously renders much of this meaningless, but comparing similar data is still worth mentioning. 

So far so good, basically. Several players have exceeded expectations, including guys who already had lofty expectations. The secondary has had a few wobbles, but nothing to be concerned about — nobody has gotten massively beaten — minus the Air Force touchdown — or looked physically overmatched. Lavert Hill and David Long, in addition to generally looking like they belong in pass coverage, have stuck their nose in well in the run game, too. Long had a nice play on Air Force's first drive, getting to Arion Worthman first on a third-down stop, and Hill added a nice stick on the pitch man on an Air Force first and goal (the drive after the Chris Evans fumble). 

Watching the defenders fly around while sitting in the stadium was a treat, as well. Devin Bush on this play, for example: 


The way he subtly stutter steps there for a second around the 13-yard line then explodes to close in on Worthman is truly remarkable. I speculated about Michigan player comparables after the Florida game, and the closest I could come up with for Bush was Ian Gold — but even that isn't accurate. Gold was a great player, a guy who went on to play in the NFL for seven years, but Bush is in a different class in terms of speed and general burst. 

A lot is made of team speed, but it isn't a panacea. Speed means nothing when players are flying around to the wrong spots on the field, not breaking down to tackle or generally move about with a giant neon question mark floating above their helmets. 

Speed does, however, make up for a lot of deficiencies. While I don't think it's fair to say this defense has real deficiencies beyond youth — if that can be called a "deficiency" — it's obvious that this defense is fast. Florida, after all the trash talk, found that out, as did Cincinnati, as did Air Force, leading head coach Troy Calhoun to praise the Michigan defense in the aftermath. 

Those who are hoping for a course correction from the offense can reasonably expect similar improvement from the defense. Michigan fans are already taking guys like Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and Devi Bush for granted, and rightfully so, it seems. But think about their run as full-time guys, and remember that improvement for them is not an unreasonable proposition. Add in the young guys in the secondary and the cumulative improvement grows. 

Ask the average fan whether they'd rather have a dominant defense or a dominant offense, and their heart would likely say offense — but the head will say otherwise. 

Simply put, there are much worse situations in which to be. 

Michigan is 3-0 and life is imperfection. Check back when the opponents are more skilled and Michigan takes its show to a true road environment. 

The spread for this Saturday's trip to West Lafayette is a product of Purdue's surprising competence and Michigan's offensive issues to date. Jim Harbaugh and Co. will have to prove that the Wolverines have only shown a sliver of what they can do so far. 

Miscellaneous Minutiae
  • At this point, I can basically only swing one, maybe two games a year. Unfortunately, if I'm not sitting in the student section, it's becoming more and more difficult for me to justify going to these September nonconference tilts, when the atmosphere is akin to that of a particularly rowdy night in the basement of the Ugli. I've mostly tried to move on from criticizing atmosphere, particularly for games against lesser foes — but Saturday's game was mostly close throughout. I don't even mind if people want to sit all game (minus the big plays where everyone stands). Whatever, fine. But games frankly aren't very fun when you look around and nobody around you participates in anything — cheers, chants, even just making a little noise on third down. I know I'm just shouting into the ether about a thing that will likely never change, but there you go. 
  • The idea of a player so good he appears not to be trying relative to his peers is not a new one, but for Donovan Peoples-Jones, it's true. I'm not saying he's Jabrill Peppers, but he has the same quality of simply operating in a different plane of being from everyone else when he has the ball in his hands. Peppers eluded poor punt defenders with ease, deploying an arsenal of spins, stutters and stiffarms. On DPJ's punt return score, he exuded a similar quality — at no point during that return did he look like he was in top gear. With Tarik Black's unfortunate injury, Michigan can only hope that increased wide receiver snaps for DPJ will accelerate his development in that department. His two receptions for 52 yards (including a screen pass he turned into a 37-yard gain) against Air Force were a nice start. 
  • Speaking of wide receivers, Eddie McDoom seemed to get a little more run in this one. In addition to his usual jet sweep action (2 carries, 6 yards), he was targeted in the passing game (2 receptions, 14 yards), making things happen on a couple of screens for some easy perimeter yardage. He was even targeted in the end zone early in the fourth quarter, but Speight's pass after the play action was off the mark. Either way, it would be a great thing for the Michigan offense if McDoom can begin assimilation into the general offense, as opposed to just being a jet sweep/screen specialist. This team is full of athletic wideouts, including the aforementioned DPJ, but McDoom is right up there with the rest of them. (Also, more "DOOOOOM" chants would be a good thing.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Michigan 36, Cincinnati 14: What you see and what you know

Wilton Speight is cognitive dissonance. He's a walking fist fight between the eye test and cold, hard numbers — the two modes of thought rage against one another around his 6-foot-6 frame every week, every series, every play.

On Saturday, the box score sang a cheery tune. Speight went 17 for 29 for 212 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He only took one sack.

But, like Week 1, there were Speight Moments.

In these moments, a battle wages in the brain between the side that wears glasses and pores through advanced stats and the part that grunts "THAT GUY IS A FACTORBACK" unironically. Speight tests both sides — not equally, necessarily, but test them he does.

Like last year, Speight's intent and desire can't be questioned. He's clearly a smart quarterback, capable of doing all the things a quarterback has to do in order to put his offense in a winning situation, pre-execution.

As easy as that might be to discount, it's important. Some quarterbacks never even get that far.

Sure, you might want to fill your quarterback grocery shopping cart with meats and fancy cheeses, but you also need the mundane — the broccoli, the celery, the Brussels sprouts.

Of course, intention and desire only go so far, and celery's virtues can only be extolled for so long before one wonders if the whole thing is not a cover for something else.

Spright's hiccups are concerning. He has a year-plus in starts under his belt, but there are times when he still seems to get rattled, in a way that reminds me of that version of NCAA in which crowd noise would make your controller rattle. At times, Speight's controller seems to rattle him into a funk, dissolve his ability to do simple things like hit a wide open Kekoa Crawford for an easy touchdown against Florida or execute a handoff. Things happen, yeah, but Speight's things seem to gain steam in isolated spurts throughout a game.

Sometimes, Michigan has overcome those spurts, like in last week's Florida game. Other times, it hasn't (2016 Ohio State).

Overall, though, the standard being built is high. Speight is making mistakes that merit criticism (and not the always unrealistic desire for 100 percent deep ball accuracy). If he's still making those mistakes in October and November, no amount of defensive destruction will power Michigan to a shot at a title.

With each additional set of data, Speight is looking more and more like the John Navarre of this decade — at times prolific, at times frustrating. The funny thing is, that comparison means different things to different people.

Navarre had a Big Ten championship under his belt by the time he left Ann Arbor. Will Speight? I don't think we're any closer to feeling more comfortable about that possibility after two weeks.

That's not to say that Michigan can't go on to win something with him. With Speight last season, Michigan bested Penn State (albeit not necessarily because of his play) and was right there against Ohio State, in spite of his mistakes. (Iowa? We don't talk about Iowa.)

There's no reason to think Michigan cannot reach the precipice of something meaningful — a Big Ten title, even a division title — with Speight.

But there are times when, armed with a quarterback like Speight, that gap between almost and there can seem impossibly vast, like the last half-mile in a marathon. A quarterback like Speight can make that leap a paradoxical oddity — at once tantalizingly close yet unbearably far away.

---

Michigan didn't play particularly well, a week after playing Florida in a stadium underneath a jumbotron so jumbo it would probably be called a megatron if not for the existence of the "Transformers" franchise.

This is not surprising.

Michigan is bursting at the seams with youth. Much more seasoned teams have suffered the head-scratching hiccup (it's almost involuntary invocation at this point, but 2006 Ball State, for example).

This team is, and will continue to be, subject to wild swings in the on-field product by virtue of said youth. But through raw talent and coaching, Michigan will overcome that en route to eight, nine ... 10 wins? More?

Maybe.

For now, it's important to simply acknowledge that while Michigan did not cover the spread or play a great game, it still won by 22 points on Saturday. Perhaps it's no real consolation, but there was a time when Michigan would look far worse — or even lose — that kind of game.

The hope is the wide receivers continue to learn the intricacies of the game. For all of their collective talent, there are too many plays when Speight is staring down the field at receivers with an upright phonebook's worth of separation between them and a defensive back.

The hope is Speight nixes the occasional yips — if not 100 percent, then to some degree.

The hope is the right side of the line can continue to improve, becoming less of a liability as the season progresses.

The hope is that the young corners continue to learn with each deep shot attempted against them — there have been close calls, but so far, so good.

The hope is Michigan can avoid injuries to any of its marquee defensive starters — check that, any of them at all, really.

The hope is that special teams can start to gravitate back toward reliable competence – crawl, walk, run — particularly at punter and punt returner.

These are all hopes. Unfortunately, with a game against an outlier of a team like Air Force, Michigan won't learn anything real about itself this coming Saturday, except for its ability to deal with something that is schematically (and, sometimes, physically) uncomfortable.

As strange as it is to say, the trip to West Lafayette in less than two weeks will say a lot about this team and where it will go this season. Purdue isn't the tomato can it has been in recent years — that offense will test Michigan's defense and its depth, of which there notably isn't a ton.

But that's getting ahead of things a bit.

Air Force, as Michigan fans know, will be annoying. Michigan fans should not be surprised if the game produces another ugly, unsatisfying result (I hope not, because I'll be in the stadium for it).

But a win makes Michigan 3-0 heading into conference play. That's when the fun begins.

Miscellaneous Minutiae
  • Ty Isaac eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the second straight game. It's taken some time, but if the light has officially gone on for him, Michigan will have a really nice, versatile 1a/b running back. Carries will continue to be split, of course, but it would be nice to see somebody notch 1,000-plus yards. 
  • Special teams are back to not being so fun. Getting ready to watch Jabrill Peppers return a punt was like being enveloped in an aura of warmth and ultimate safety. Nothing bad could ever happen, and it never did. While Donovan Peoples-Jones flashed some ability to make some things happen against Florida, fielding much less booming Cincinnati punts proved to be a more harrowing affair. Switching him out for Grant Perry was the correct (and obvious) move. It sounds like DPJ will be back out there returning punts, though, per Harbaugh
  • Say what you will about Speight's accuracy, but he's been dealing about as well as you could ask for on the deep shots. That touchdown pass to Crawford on the first drive was a parabolic beauty. 
  • If you looked closely, you could see cartoon smoke rushing from Rashan Gary's helmet earholes after that roughing the passer penalty against him. He was, indeed, mad. 
  • Tyree Kinnel has exceeded expectations thus far. I think a lot of people sort of automatically assumed he'd be competent, as a factor of his relative experience and general offseason chatter. But he's been more than competent — so far, he's been a legitimate playmaker. Guys like Josh Metellus and Khaleke Hudson get all the hype when it comes to athleticism and ability to close and bring the noise, but Kinnel is right there with them in those departments. Kinnel's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week nod was well-earned. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Michigan 33, Florida 17: Sticking to the plan

Courtesy of my parents
There is something transcendent in a plan stuck to over time, a plan executed with precision and capable of weathering the vagaries of real-time action.

No, not the NFL's run-of-the-mill, hamfisted plan, where offenses are all the same as a matter of course. In the NFL, you're a pocket passer, whether you like it or not, and 3-4 defenses are exotic.

For Michigan, Saturday was not just a win — it was an assertion of its plan, its very way of doing things.

By the end of the offseason, national media folks' invocation of Michigan's personnel losses became somewhat of a tired joke. Sure, Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich were not starters last year; Michigan fans suspected that that fact would prove to be a semantic point.

After four quarters of football, Michigan fans appear to be right.

The Michigan defense gave up just three points en route to a 33-17 drubbing, a game that was not as close as it looked in the box score.

At halftime, Michigan trailed 17-13, despite a 203-91 advantage in total yards and holding the Gators to 1.2 yards per carry on 13 attempts. The offense moved, but early struggles by the young wide receivers — including the first interception — and Wilton Speight's miscue on the second pick 6  found Michigan in the lone scenario in which they could lose that game.

Save for a 34-yard completion from Feleipe Franks to Josh Hammond on a perfect ball to beat Lavert Hill — 37 percent of UF's first-half offense — the Michigan defense contained the UF attack like lightning bugs in a bottle.

Even so, Michigan entered the danger zone after handing the Gators touchdowns on consecutive possessions, then had a punt blocked on the next.

Then, Michigan did this:


Florida might not have known it at the time, but its chances at victory evaporated in the Dallas air, obliterated like a power play by precisely timed blitz.

There's still a long season to go, and Michigan is not without problem spots. The offensive line, which most agreed, like the team in general, wouldn't be appreciably affected by personnel losses, gave up five sacks and a total of 11 tackles for loss. Of course, Florida's offensive problems notwithstanding, the Gators still have serious talent in the front seven — the Wolverines won't see that kind of talent again for a while.

As for Speight? Well, there's no doubt people will (and have) hit the internet to proclaim how they're DONE with him as the starter. But in the light of day, Speight was fine until the interceptions, and was just fine after. He wasn't excellent, and had some downfield misses ranging from "didn't give his guy a shot" to surrender-cobra-inducing (completely overshooting a wide open Kekoa Crawford for a sure touchdown). Unfortunately, that's a familiar song, but on the whole Speight did more than enough to win (the deep shot to Nick Eubanks, who is allegedly a tight end, was a nice one).

The first interception wasn't his fault, really, and the angst the second interception yielded was simply compounded by the first one — which, again, wasn't his fault.

With an offensive line still finding its way and a running game that did its job but wasn't exactly consistent (until the Gators wore down late), Speight finished 11 for 25 for 181 yards, two interceptions and a beautiful 46-yard score to freshman Tarik Black.

Perfect? Far from it. But consider the circumstances.

Speight started every game but one last year, only to get the John Beilein two-foul hook from Harbaugh. (John O'Korn would have played regardless, supposedly, but still.)

He could have wilted — no pun intended — but instead found his groove, hitting Sean McKeon and Grant Perry on key completions to open the second half.

I know it's a cliche, but if anything can't be questioned, it's Speight's toughness.

This is the same guy who threw an interception on his first pass in last year's season opener against Hawaii and went on to finish 10 for 13 for 145 yards and three touchdowns. He bounced back after getting clobbered early in the Colorado game. He played hurt late in the season.

Bouncing back from getting pulled by Harbaugh stands out as the biggest display of resilience in his career to date. Players of lesser stuff might have caved, checked out, sulked.

While he had help from his friends, Speight didn't do any of those things. That's a good sign for a Michigan team that will continue to go through growing pains this year.

As Florida's two-headed quarterback attack struggled in the face of the Michigan defense, I thought to myself: I'm glad Michigan isn't dealing with a freshman quarterback this year.

That counts for something. It will count for something, once the air chills and the leaves change color.

---

Michigan marched 75 yards in 10 plays to open the second half, a drive capped by a pair of runs from Karan Higdon, who had carried it just once in the first half (on a third and long, the play before the blocked punt).

When Chris Evans (22 carries, 78 yards) wasn't working, Michigan went to Ty Isaac (11 carries, 114 yards). Then, they went to Higdon.

Say what you will about the offensive line and Nolan Ulizio's struggles at right tackle, but Michigan appears to have a group of skill position players that by the end of the year will rank among the program's best in recent memory.

If I'm left with anything from this game, it's how remarkably accurate the hype and general perception of the team throughout the offseason showed through in this game.

Michigan has a diverse group of pass catchers and ball carriers? Check.

The future is here. (Source: Parents!)
The defense will once again be a TFL machine, hounding quarterbacks and offensive linemen into considering retiring into the woods and living out a Walden-esque existences for the rest of their days? Check.

The young secondary will now and then give up a big play or two? Check.

The right side of the offensive line will struggle? Unfortunately, check, although Michigan eventually found ways to lessen that deficiency's impact, either by running left or giving Ulizio help.

The game, surprisingly, offered no real surprises. The only way Florida could win was via Michigan mistakes. Those happened, but it didn't even matter.

---
Let us take a moment to acknowledge the defense. Did it look any worse than last year's?

The scary thing is, the answer might be "not really."

Yes, things will get hairy if injuries happen. And if we're nitpicking, the secondary could be an issue...but against whom?

I never thought I'd say this, but Purdue's passing attack looked surprisingly competent (albeit against Louisville's less-than-enthusiastic defense, but still). Michigan gets them in West Lafayette to open the conference slate. Indiana's passing attack features some fearsome targets, but will it matter if Richard Lagow is continually snacking on the Memorial Stadium field turf?

Penn State? Well, I suppose Michigan can worry about that when it gets there.

But as we saw all of last season and against Florida on Saturday, a voracious front seven cures a lot of ills.

Linebackers who see in heat maps and defensive linemen who sustain themselves on tackles for loss like they're plates of chicken broccoli bake are a young defensive back's best friend. The thread below is a nice summary of the afternoon's defensive destruction.
When it became evident that Florida's running game posed no threat, the scent of blood lingered in the water. Michigan's defense transformed into 11 sharks, looking for revenge.

Most expect Michigan's defensive stats to drop this year. They probably will.

The plan, however, remains in place. All the usual buzzwords, which sound ugly in regular conversation but make for great defense — violence, aggression, etc. — apply here.



You can solve a lot with that.

Forget about the breathlessly uttered words of praise, the encomiums following this defense like Link's Navi saying "Listen! This defense is still elite despite significant losses to the NFL!"

Look at the cold, hard numbers.

Michigan tallied 11 tackles for loss and six sacks, forced four fumbles (recovering three, including one by Noah Furbush for a touchdown) and held Florida to 0.4 yards per carry.

Zero point four. Based on that average, Florida would have needed to run the ball 25 times to gain the yardage needed for a first down.

A plane ride back to Gainesville doesn't seem so long when the first-down markers look like they're a mile away.

Miscellaneous Minutiae 
  • Notwithstanding the brief targeting scare on the first play, Devin Bush looked exactly as advertised. Michigan has had shifty, undersized linebackers of varying quality before (Ian Gold, for example). But I don't know that Michigan has ever had a laser-guided missile of a linebacker like Bush. The targeting thing will continue to be an issue — more because of the ongoing confusion about what targeting actually is than it is about Bush's playing style in and of itself. The hope is that Michigan doesn't lose him in a game that matters because of it. Setting that aside, Bush had himself a day, tallying three tackles for loss, including two sacks. 
  • Running back roulette. Chris Evans is slippery, but Michigan fans knew that. He also goes down a little too easily at times, but that's a tradeoff you take. With that said, Evans did show a little bit of seemingly newfound power on a few runs, including a relatively nondescript 4-yard carry early in the third quarter on which he drove for an extra yard or so after contact. Throw in Ty Isaac, who flashed the total package of speed, power and vision, and Karan Higdon's all-around toolkit, and it's safe to say the days of giving Chris Perry 51 carries in a game are in the rear view mirror. Sometimes, the committee approach is by virtue of a lack of skill — this is not an instance of that. 
  • Wild Thing for Heisman. For years, Ohio State has seemingly trotted out kickers ranging from competent to excellent, while Michigan has, at best, topped out at decent. There's no need to revisit Michigan's dark kicking history, but it's safe to say Michigan finally has a legitimate weapon in Quinn Nordin. The leg is real. Yes, the two late misses were a bit of a bummer, but they only took a A+ performance down to an A-. It should also be noted that a college kicker missing a 52-yarder and having that classified as a "bummer" is something in and of itself. 
  • As for the rest of the special teams, check back later on punter Will Hart, who punted twice and got one blocked. At punt returner, one still remembers Jabrill Peppers, expecting to see him out there but finding nothing, like a phantom limb. Donovan Peoples-Jones looks like he could be an asset there, however. He had a nice 18-yarder, displayed some quicks and agility, and didn't cough it up. In short: success. Also, Ambry Thomas forced a fumble on a UF kickoff return early after Michigan's touchdown opening the second half. 
  • Although DPJ didn't get on the receiving stat sheet, the wideouts were about as expected, flashing tantalizing skill. There were a couple drops, but young guys plus a hypercharged environment against an SEC foe and the dropsies are easy to forgive. Tarik Black did his best Jehu Chesson impression on that deep ball. With Black taking the top off of defenses, Grant Perry picking up where he left off in his role, guys like McKeon and Nick Eubanks giving Speight big targets...covering this group is going to be a problem. As for Kekoa Crawford, you'd like to see him come down with that ball that became the first interception, but there's no real reason to think he won't be a plus contributor. He did draw a pass interference penalty on that deep ball during the first drive. The competition for catches will be fierce this season. 
  • As mentioned above, the inexperienced secondary will have some issues. Fortunately for Michigan, Franks and Malik Zaire didn't exactly have much time to find receivers downfield. Hill looked the part, athletically, and that first big play completed on him was simply a perfectly thrown ball by Franks. Unsurprisingly, turning to look for the ball was a problem on one occasion (e.g. the 31-yard completion to Tyrie Cleveland in the second quarter). That can be corrected, and, in fact, was corrected, as Hill made a nice play later on a downfield shot. Aside from coverage, Hill had a fairly authoritative fill on the edge to bring down Lamical Perine to close the first quarter — a nice thing to see given Channing Stribling's issues in run support. It was just one play, but still nice to see. 
  • Injuries, stay away. Mike McCray not getting the start was a bit of a surprise, but he seemed fine once he got in. David Long went down with a leg injury late in the first quarter, but did come back in shortly thereafter, contributing solid coverage on a deepish shot by Franks to start the second quarter. I'm not entirely sure if he played much after that — I don't remember seeing him on the field again after that aforementioned pass defense. Brandon Watson, meanwhile, did a good job of mostly not getting noticed. When he did get noticed, he made a textbook pass breakup on a throw downfield. There was the one shot completed over him late in the third, but that was a tremendous catch by Cleveland (and scramble by Zaire to find him downfield). All in all, the secondary didn't give up any huge plays. Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus, as far as I could tell, were excellent, both in run support and in coverage. 
  • Young guys and old. While briefly filling in for McCray, Devin Gil assisted for a nice tackle early on. Carlo Kemp also had a nice shed and tackle near the sidelines late in the first quarter. Meanwhile, a substantially larger Lawrence Marshall recovered a Florida fumble — a nice thing to see for a guy who was highly touted but hasn't made much of an impact to date. Cincinnati will hopefully provide an opportunity for these guys to get some extended action. 
  • When Maurice Hurst is busting up your tunnel screens, you're going to have a bad time. In a big game against a big-name foe, Hurst only further cemented his first-round draft status. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Look at the time

Most offseasons move glacially, in no hurry to get to the place where you mutually agreed you would meet.

This offseason, I got married, friends got married, I worked harder than I ever have and I inched ever closer to 30, further and further away from the version of me who started this blog seven years ago.

I've had my mind on other things, is what I'm saying.

But Michigan football has always been there. I went to the spring game in April and enjoyed a perfect Saturday afternoon in the old house.


In other years, the Michigan football offseason marked a submergence into a great unknown, particularly during the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke years. During the former, Michigan had Denard and his flapping shoelaces, blowing against unmanageable headwinds. Fun, sometimes, but futile.

The Hoke years were like taking a sip of crisp, cold Vernors for the first time in years, leaving it outside in the hot sun, uncapped, then taking sips of it later — increasingly stale, not what it once was, constantly depreciating. A lost cause.

The only solution? A new Vernors.

Michigan got just that two years ago. Since then, things have been pretty good.

Remember in 2010, when Wisconsin ran the ball 748 times in a row like a high school football powerhouse running out the clock against a bad local rival? Back then, 10 wins seemed like a distant dream — like a Vernors outside of Vernors' distribution map. (I would like a Vernors.)

Yes, last season ended with a thud. But Michigan was in the national championship picture in November, something that had not happened since 2006. It's easy to feel like last season was the one that got away. It would be easy for the Michigan fan, in recent years battered and bruised by strokes of misfortune and sheer ineptitude, to look on the dark side of life.

In those moments, I like to say "it's just a game" over and over again, in the hope of incrementally reaching belief of that notion. It isn't just a game, though — it's something that chooses you, whether you like it or not. That's not to say that this game we watch is in any way important or impactful in a greater sense. For the most part, it really isn't.

But as those of us who have become entangled in the regularly scheduled nonsense that is college football know, the disconnect between importance and meaning is wide. In that sense, college football is like a book of memories, without value but full of meaning.

---

I keep a scrapbook, filled mostly with tickets to sporting events and other miscellaneous items — a Chicago Marathon bib; the magnetic strip CTA card used before the City of Chicago switched to the new, thicker Ventra cards; newspaper covers for Stanley Cup titles. They're just things, taped to paper, in a book I only open now and then.



When I do, I remember things I would not have even thought to remember. The brain takes cues from  these relics. A piece of paper recalls the time when a group of Indiana fans uprooted a row of stadium bleachers at the end of the 2010 game in Bloomington, carrying it with them like an old couch left on the curb for anyone to take. I wonder what happened to that row of seats.

I remember it was there. And then it was gone.

---
This offseason has come and gone in an instant, even more remarkably so given that none of my professional rooting interests gave me much to root for in their respective postseasons. Usually that would buy me some time — distract me, prevent me from spending idle time trying to memorize from which town every single player on the roster hails. You know, useful things.

This time, the offseason got up and walked out in the middle of a Florida night. It disappeared for a short time in that strange land.

But then it returned, and got into woodworking, and started reading "War and Peace," and volunteered for no fewer than three charities at any one time. It paid its bills early — because early is on time, on time is late and late is a grievous sin. It called its parents almost every night.

Seconds became minutes became hours became days. The Michigan-Ohio State game, No. 3 on ESPNU's offseason replay series of the top 25 games of the 2016 season, plays for the 349th time, and you watch it like it's the first time. It isn't, though, and each time its effect lessens, so that the result is nothing more than anodyne eventuality. When you know what happens, you don't even need to close your eyes. Horror movies lose their power with frequency of exposure.

Fortunately for Michigan, 2016 was less horror thriller than it was triumphant Bildungsroman. In Year 2 of Young Michigan's story, it nearly reached expectations, lofty ones, but was foiled by the usual hangups of youth: bum shoulders, somersaulting punters, nefarious Ohioan referees twirling dastardly mustaches and Peppers-less preparations.

It happens, you know?

In Year 3, the outlook is a little different. Expectations are a function of loss, and Michigan lost quite a bit, sending more players to the NFL than any other team.

Of course, Michigan returns quite a bit of talent, too — some of it tested, some of it not.

Therein lies the horror: the unknown. The shark patrolling the waters around your boat, the whirring chainsaw of third-down inefficiency, the terrifying clownishness of inexperience.

Each brush with horror, though, renders it slightly weaker. What's dark in September lights up in November.

Sometimes, however, it's the demons out in the open, the ones who make no effort to hide, that are the scariest.

Eventually, the door must be opened. On the other side, a scarlet and gray thing will emerge.

---

In a way, this season sets up perfectly for the Michigan fan.

Not only does Ohio State travel to Ann Arbor, but expectations seem to be reasonably assigned. Is anyone expecting a playoff berth? Not really (I'm not). Would anyone necessarily be shocked if it happens? Maybe a little, but not incredibly so.

It's like a Year 1 in a Year 3, which sounds bad when you say it aloud but works out just fine as a factor of roster turnover and understanding of what the future probably holds in store.

Supposedly, 2016 was The Year, until it wasn't. This year is not The Year — 2002, as far as I can remember, wasn't The Year for Ohio State. Even 2016 wasn't The Year, and the Buckeyes still made the playoffs. Point being, sometimes The Year happens when you don't think it will.

The gravity of The Year will pull expectations back into its orbit next year. A Harbaugh outfit is surprisingly predictable — they can be tracked like Johannes Kepler and his orbits. It doesn't take long before a Harbaugh team approaches the top of the heap.

Johannes Kepler prepares to watch the 1594 Purdue game on ESPN+ with some lo mein takeout. 
Michigan was almost there last year, whizzing past the sun audaciously — a little too close, maybe. The moment passed, and the orbit continues on, further away from the glorious light. For now.

If Kepler were alive today, and happened to be a college football fan, he would probably tell you that orbit is taking Michigan farther away from the College Football Playoff this year than they were last year. After all, it's just simple observation (and a little mathematical ingenuity).

Kepler would probably tell you that college football moves in predictable ways, that programs move in a mathematically verifiable pattern and can be expected to return to a certain place in a certain time.

But Kepler, who was born in the 16th century, knew about a lot of things, but probably not college football. College football isn't cyclical (or elliptical), in the sense that programs simply return to greatness by virtue of their former greatness.

Michigan is back, but not because it is Michigan and thus must be back, like a planet traversing its elliptical orbit. It is back because it got a generational coach, the one guy who was the best possible fit for the job, in addition to being one of the best in the game. There is nothing ordained about that. Someone made it happen. A series of events converged to create the wormhole through which all of this could acquire safe, hyperspeed travel.

Sometimes, amid the hard numbers, the scientists of old saw divinity in the natural order, even when their notepads showed evidence of reproducible knowledge earned.

In an obviously hyperbolic sense, that's Harbaugh coming to Michigan — a brilliant flash of light. It can probably be explained by humble, empirical means — there was a job opening, the allure of coming home, the financial draw from the Michigan athletic department, etc. etc. — but even the most analytical among us sometimes look to the light in awe.

Whatever happens, Michigan football fans are lucky. After years traversing the vast darkness of the universe, careening through belts of wayward space rocks, there is now a hand correcting course.

---
One last note about the horror behind the door.

Fear is a function of the unknown. What is unknown is partially a function of inherent unpredictability of circumstances and environment. Under Harbaugh, there is certainly much less unpredictability, in terms of the big picture.

Whatever impression of last season lingers in you, there is no doubt that Michigan has improved by leaps and bounds in a very short time. Sure, every once in a while a cosmically bewildering Iowa Event happens, but scientists agree that those are rare in the cosmic calendar.

Michigan was embarrassed against Ohio State, that horror behind the door, at home two years ago. Last season, the Wolverines had them on the ropes— should've, would've, didn't. You know that tune, the one that turns from major to minor only in the final dreary movement.

If there's one thing I still keep with me from Rich Rodriguez's time at Michigan, it's his invocation of "The Lion King."

"It doesn't matter, it's in the past."

It's true: 42-13, 30-27, are in the past.

Michigan has seen the horror twice. This year, the call will be coming from inside the house.

And there should be no fear.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Walton Watch: Walton signs two-way contract with Miami Heat

Big Ten Media Days kicked off today in Chicago, an annual tradition full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (okay, maybe I just recently reread Macbeth). Commissioner Jim Delany talked about the the conference's newest TV deal and offered not much else of substance ... that is, unless you love FCS teams on your team's schedule.

But, when it comes to Big Ten Media Days, that's to be expected. It's a nothing event creating nothing stories, with no tough questions or illuminating answers. In short, it's a glorified small-talk chamber.

In actual news that you might care about today, Derrick Walton signed a two-way contract with the Miami Heat. He will join the Heat's G League (the artist formerly known as the D League) team, the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Walton impressed during his stint on the Orlando Magic summer roster, which he shared with former Michigan State Spartan Kalin Lucas. Despite his play, the Magic's signing of Shelvin Mack seemed to have closed a door there, as the team already had starter Elfrid Payton and highly paid backup D.J. Augustin on the roster.

Walton clearly did enough to get a chance elsewhere.

The Heat appear to only be carrying two point guards right now (Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson). As NBA fans know, the Heat nearly made the playoffs despite a dreadful first half, only to finish 30-11 in their last 41 games.

Dragic is a veteran and the 25-year-old Johnson had a strong third season in 2016-17, averaging 13.7 ppg and shooting 37.5 percent from beyond the arc.

Obviously, Walton will have to put in work in the G League, but if he plays like he did during the summer league, he'll get his shot on the big stage. As mentioned before, you only need look to Yogi Farrell this past season to see a player like Walton, overlooked in the draft process, who managed to burst onto the NBA scene in-season.

Meanwhile, fellow Wolverine Zak Irvin also inked a deal, only his will take him to Italy's VL Pesaro. If his life is anything like Aziz Ansari's in the second season of "Master of None," a life of pasta-making, vespa-riding, on top of playing basketball, sounds pretty, pretty good.

Also in the column of "pretty good" -- as new MLive beat reporter Aaron McMann notes in the aforementioned link -- is V LPesaro's description of Irvin as an "excellent technical schoolman." If we do anything in this life, we must strive to be excellent technical schoolmen/women.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Walton Watch: Solid day for Derrick Walton, but challenger Kalin Lucas shines in Magic win against Knicks

Derrick Walton's quest for a spot to prove himself further in the Orlando Magic's training camp continued Wednesday against the New York Knicks.

Unfortunately for Walton, fellow point guard and former Michigan State Spartan Kalin Lucas stole the show Wednesday.

I recapped Walton's first three games on Monday -- thus far, Walton has turned heads with his ability to direct the action on the floor while also hitting his own shots, both at the rim and from outside.

Through two games, he led the Orlando summer squad in points. On Monday, Walton dropped five assists, but finished just 4-for-12 from the field after playing an excellent first half. The announcers posited fatigue was the cause -- maybe, maybe not.

On Wednesday, Walton's Magic took on the New York Knicks. As I've mentioned here previously, Walton is in a pretty good situation with a Magic squad that is not exactly set in its point guard rotation.

However, Walton does have some competition within the summer league squad from Lucas, a player familiar to Michigan fans.

Lucas didn't play Monday (Walton got the start), but he stole the show in Wednesday's 84-73 Magic (2-2) win.

In 31 minutes, Lucas scored 20 points while tallying seven assists and three steals -- an impressive performance for Lucas, who is already a member of the Erie BayHawks. He was acquired by the team in December, and has bounced around quite a bit since his days in East Lansing, first playing overseas before bouncing around NBA and developmental league rosters.

I didn't get to watch today's game, but clearly Lucas brought his A-game with Walton charging hard for a camp spot. Walton, meanwhile, in 20 minutes scored nine points on 3-for-7 shooting (2-for-3 from beyond the arc) with four assists, two rebounds and zero turnovers (Lucas had two).

Through four games, Walton's stat line is pretty good: 10 points per game, 3.5 assists per game, 15-for-32 from the field (46.9 percent) and 6-for-12 from three (50 percent).

Scan Magic Twitter or other Magic social media pages and you'll find Magic fans raving about Walton. Lucas, however, has acquitted himself well -- having bounced around as much as he has, he's looking to leave his mark during the Summer League.

But has it been enough?

We'll find out soon. Either way, Walton has made Magic followers take notice. From Orlando Magic Daily:
But the attention, as it sometimes does in Summer League, went elsewhere. To the shiny new toy. 
Derrick Walton Jr., a rookie from Lucas’ college’s in-state rival, quickly stole the spotlight. Fans began salivating over Walton’s passing and driving ability. He took over a lot of the scoring load. The buzz around Summer League quickly became about Walton and his chances to make the Magic’s training camp roster. 
Walton supplanted Lucas as the starting point guard for the team’s third game against the Dallas Mavericks with Lucas sitting out the entire game.
 Internet buzz is just that, buzz, but the chatter about Walton has been mostly glowing.
The Magic close Summer League play at 10 a.m. Thursday against Charlotte.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Walton Watch: Solid first half for Michigan's Walton in Magic's third Summer League game

Derrick Walton continued to make his case for a shot at a roster spot during Summer League play Monday.

As mentioned last week, the undrafted Walton finds himself in a solid situation on the Orlando summer squad. The Magic point guard depth chart is particularly inviting for an undrafted player looking to make an NBA team.

The Magic return starter Elfrid Payton, who closed the 2016-17 well but still struggles as a shooter. Backup point guard D.J. Augustin is entering the second year of a four-year deal, but he wasn't exactly impressive this past season. C.J. Watson's contract for next season is only partially guaranteed.

In short, Summer League is Walton's chance to make an impact, get a camp invite and potentially get a shot to make the roster.
While it wasn't his best day from the field, Walton did just that in Orlando's third Summer League game of the season.

"When Walton's out there, they just seem to get good looks," commentator Greg Anthony said during the third quarter of the Magic's matchup Monday against Dallas.

Although the Magic squandered a big first-half lead, Walton made an impact throughout the first half, flashing his ability as a floor general. At no point did he looked rushed or overwhelmed.

Heading into today, Walton led the squad with 11.5 points per game (in two games), just ahead of former Michigan State Spartan Kalin Lucas' 11.0 ppg.

In the Magic's third game of the summer, Walton wasn't incredibly efficient with his own shot (8 points, 4-for-12 shooting), but he finished with five assists (his best assist total in three SL games to date). Unfortunately for Walton, he went 0-for-4 from beyond the arc. The NBA TV announcers said it seemed like he might have run out of gas in the second half -- hard to tell, but he certainly wasn't as impressive in the second.

I can't say I watch too much Summer League basketball, but the announcers spent quite a bit of time throughout the game -- and especially in the first half -- praising Walton, even going so far as to predict he'll not only make the Magic's roster, but figure into the rotation.

On Saturday, Walton scored 10 points on 3-for-6 shooting, with three rebounds and two assists in 16 minutes.

On Sunday, Walton dropped 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting, with three rebounds and three assists in just under 22 minutes.

While you can't read too much into SL play, it is an important time for players like Walton, who want to put additional data out there to convince teams to give them a shot.

So far, Walton looks like he belongs in the conversation. Plus, as mentioned, Orlando needs reserve point guard help.

Walton and the Magic will next take the floor Wednesday against the Knicks. The Knicks roster includes former Wisconsin star Nigel Hayes, who, like Walton, also went undrafted.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What writing does -- and how it does it

When I started this blog seven years ago, not knowing where it would go, I expressed a fear that many writers -- the real ones, the dilettantes, everything in between -- think about at one point or another.
I have many things to say about the sport, and my team, but, then again, so do many other people. I fear that it is perhaps possible that I have nothing new to say; I hope that is not the case. 
 A fear of being ordinary, of being derivative, of shouting platitudes into the howling winds of the sum of rhetoric -- what is more terrifying for a writer than that?

Seven years later, I don't know if I have written anything novel here. I like to think that I have, but I don't really know.

What I do know, though, is that I love words, and writing them, and trying to piece together a cohesive narrative about something that I love, as incomprehensible as that love is. Whether it's a standard gamer -- a good gamer is like a perfectly pruned word plant, the Shakespearean sonnet of sports -- or a feature or a generic news roundup, words give the writer a chance to approach an idea from infinite angles and perspectives.

As someone who has worked in journalism and done a lot of copy editing, writing is like the process of copy editing, in a sense. Copy editors exist because a second reader almost always catches errors the primary reader (the writer) doesn't see. A third reader, even, catches things the second did not.

It's a matter of perspective and experience. One copy editor has a better command of a certain subset of grammar, another is more solid in AP Style rules. Each pair of eyes brings a new set of experiences, knowledge and hyperspecific understandings of what works well.

The same, of course, is true for writing and writers.

My writing has evolved quite a bit over the years. The writing on this blog, for example, began with free-flowing, flowery, meandering prose and paragraphs like Thwomps (I was an English major, after all. Eventually, that writing was hardened by journalism school.

Get to the point. Simple is better. Be accurate, first, then worry about the rest. Bring the reader in, grab them and do not let them go -- this is not just an idea, it's an idea that carries with it an actual blueprint for its execution. Whatever you do, do not give them the chance to let go. Hook them in the lede, give them a taste of the conflict then go back to the conflict's genesis.

My writing about Michigan, too, has evolved, if I am being frank in my assessment of it. While I still write from the perspective of an invested fan, these days I try to do so as dispassionately and objectively as I can. I've moved away from some of the hagiography of the early days of this blog to something more grounded. I don't know the players, and don't want to project things on them just because there are things I want to believe -- so, it's best just to write about the games as they are.

Take, for example, this past season's Ohio State game. I wrote:
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.
 The hurt is there -- it's obvious (even more so in this one, since it's The Game). But there was once a point when I might have written about my stunned silence, my disappointment, my inability to cope with yet another loss to the Buckeyes. But why, how could this happen, how unfair and cruel and unfortunate?

Instead, it's about the type of loss. Overtime, a rivalry first, a new way to lose -- those are the headliners. Those ideas, through my personal prism, make my writing what it is. (By the way, this is not to say that I think my writing is great or to toot my own horn. This is all just a survey of how it has changed and what makes it mine alone.)

Instead of bile, words offer a tool to express gradations of hurt or joy. On the 2015 Penn State game:
Even when things don't seem to be going so well, Michigan flexes, you look up and the opponent is done. Like that, disintegrated.
Run a video package over and over again, as many times as you like -- video can do a lot of things, but it can't define a feeling or give structure to an experience like the written word can. Words can tell you how to feel or perceive. Zoom in further: Words show you what one way to feel or perceive might be like.

---

Video will give you words to hear and visuals to process. In some ways, video is more effective than the written word. When I go down the YouTube rabbit hole of old Michigan games, and, for example, watch Chris Perry's touchdown scamper on Michigan's second play against Washington in 2002 -- no words can serve as substitutes for the roar of the crowd.

With that said, video is not a total substitute for words. As you've probably heard (or read), FoxSports.com has decided to ditch its editorial team, essentially, in favor of a monomaniacal focus on videos.

Funny enough, this screenshot of the new-look site is actually a pretty good summation of the state of things there:

Aren't we all paralyzed by one fear or another? Like, for example, not having enough video content to watch?

I'm not going to spend too much time here on why this is a particularly silly business decision, partially because I touched on it a little bit the other day, but also because there is hard data on the subject. It's also not worth analyzing extensively because Jamie Horowitz doesn't seem to know what he's doing and is not a rational actor. I want to say this decision was about aiming for the lowest common denominator, but I don't even know if that's true, because it seems to be aimed at ... a denominator that doesn't exist, i.e. people who only want videos. 

Video is an invaluable component of any media operations, whether it covers sports or politics or Chilean sea bass cooking techniques. When done right, video can be more impactful and appealing to media consumers than writing. 

But video can never be a substitute for the written word. 

---

The fragmentation and balkanization of media these days means many things can be true simultaneously. Writing is good, but stories are best kept at fewer than 1,000 words or so to keep a reader's attention. Also, longform articles are good, too. 

Videos can be good, but are more effective at extremes: the social media world of Vine-length (RIP) items, short highlight packages or interviews, and even some of the documentary-style pieces ESPN does. Videos of network personalities talking? I'm not sure who wants that. 

A wholesale elimination of an editorial operation in the name of this video revolution is like throwing out an entire refrigerator's worth of good food because you like cheese sticks and want to fill your refrigerator with said cheese sticks. No matter how much you like cheese sticks, eventually you'll get sick of them and will be left wanting something else (probably as a result of the vitamin and mineral deficiencies developed while only eating cheese sticks). 

The good news is that the written word will persevere, no matter what the delivery mechanism is. Moreover, we're in an era with an all-time high level of access to writers of varying styles, perspectives and expertise. 

Even though isn't a great time for journalism, it's a great time to be a writer and, in turn, to be a reader. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Miscellaneous Minutiae: MAAR goes to Spain, Taco Tuesday and Walton in the City Beautiful

It's June, nothing is happening -- so, Miscellaneous Minutiae is back. 

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman took a trip to Spain, and it sounded delightful. From MGoBlue:

"I went to Barceloneta Beach, which is the main beach there," said Abdur-Rahkman. "I'd take the subway to the beach right after classes, and it was a great way to relax. I'm pretty sure it's better than any beach I've been to. I went swimming a little bit, but mainly just soaked up the sun.
"Putting your feet in the sand, letting the water hit your feet and watching the sunsets. I had such a great time there. Now it's back to the grind."
Abdur-Rahkman was there taking a class on how sports and society intertwine. I wonder what an America-centric class on that subject would be like...

"Now, class, in this module we'll discuss the inverse relationship between tweeting at high school recruits and said recruits coming to the tweeter's preferred school. Next slide, please. As you'll see, the data show a whopping 93 percent block rate..."

On the basketball side, for a guy who has gotten as much run as him (albeit to varying degrees), his production as a senior will be key for a team that is replacing a lot of offensive firepower. As the article notes, he shot 48.9 percent from three during Big Ten play -- pretty good. That, combined with his ability to make things happen off the dribble make him a pivotal piece for the 2017-18 team.

Speaking of basketball, Derrick Walton went undrafted but signed a free-agent deal with the Orlando Magic.

As Michigan fans know, Walton lit the college basketball landscape on fire during the last couple of months of the 2016-17 season, carrying Michigan to a conference tournament title and a Sweet 16 appearance. As for the next step? It's always hard to predict which NBA hopefuls will wade through the swamp of Summer League play with a shot at a roster spot, but I can't help but think of a guy like Yogi Ferrell when I consider Walton's chances.

I know, it's a pretty facile comparison -- both sturdy, yet undersized Big Ten point guards; dynamic from outside; engines of their college offenses. For all of Ferrell's exploits in Bloomington, he also went undrafted.

Ferrell eventually signed a 10-day deal with the Dallas Mavericks and impressed so much that he signed a two-year deal with the team in February. He also made the All-Rookie Second Team.

Every year that passes, I'm certain that a lot of NBA scouts are not good at their jobs. As a Bulls fan, I know this all too well.

Teams missed on Ferrell, likely wary of his lack of size. But, like him, Walton plays bigger than his size, especially with respect to his rebounding numbers (something Michigan will miss in a big way).

It also helps that Orlando isn't very good. Looking at their roster, Elfrid Payton is a flawed, albeit capable NBA point guard. After that, it's less than ideal.

Perennial Bench Spark Plug Guy D.J. Augustin just finished the first year of a four-year deal, but his play was less than inspiring this past season. There's also the 33-year-old C.J. Watson, who is entering the final year of a three-year deal and is a candidate to be waived or dealt.

In short, there's clearly opportunity here for Walton.

A footnote: former Michigan State Spartans point guard Kalin Lucas, of the G-League's Erie BayHawks, is also on the Magic's Summer League roster. There may be some Spartan-Wolverine competition during the coming Summer League action.

All in all, I think Walton is in a good spot. He might not make the team to start the season (or even get a preseason camp invite) -- but as Ferrell showed, all it takes is a shot to impress.

The Orlando Pro Summer League runs from July 1-6.

It was a joyous Taco Tuesday, indeed. Only a matter of time:
Charlton already had a deal with Big Red soda in place, but on Tuesday it was announced that Charlton also would be endorsing Taco Bueno.
I look forward to future deals: Rashan Gary professing his love for Gary, Ind. in a tourism ad; John O'Korn popping Karmelkorn and Ian Bunting in the new, modernized Tom Emanski instructional baseball videos focusing specifically on the dark art of bunting.

Gators with familiar concerns. Looking ahead to Michigan's season opener, Gator Country has been highlighting question marks in each position group for Florida. The offensive line is one such group with question marks -- a familiar song for Michigan fans.

Also in familiar songs:
He takes over an offensive line that returns four starters in Martez Ivey, T.J. McCoy, Tyler Jordan and Jawaan Taylor. There is talent and experience, he just has to bring it out. When Davis took over, he made an interesting analogy, telling his players that it is pointless to have a Lamborghini with a bad transmission.
“We have a bunch of tough, physical, athletic football players that really haven’t maximized their football potential,” said Davis. “My job and why I’m here is to get the best out of them every day.”
If Michigan's defensive line takes a step down -- and, let's be serious, it will by virtue of relative depth compared to 2016 -- it won't be much of a step down at all, barring injuries. If Florida's offensive line is still figuring things out, it could be a good day for the Michigan defense, especially given the question mark at quarterback for UF.

What are words but mere distractions from tantalizing video content? FoxSports.com is ditching the whole written word thing in favor of, yes, wait for it -- videos!

The website is laying off 20 writers and editors in favor of video production staff and, of course, hyping up the on-air "personalities" (I prefer the term "useless caricatures of caricatures," but that's just me). The layoffs include Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel -- the pair discussed their writing/podcasting futures in their most recent -- and possibly last -- episode of The Audible (which also features Dave Wannstedt talking about 2007).

I cannot fathom this decision, but I also can't wrap my head around just about anything Fox Sports is doing. Yes, I understand, they are trying to differentiate themselves from ESPN while, oddly, siphoning off the worst aspects of ESPN (e.g. Skip Bayless).

But now you're coming after the written word, Fox Sports? Word?

It might be intuitive to see all the social media being used by young folks and assume they want video content, not things to read. It's an easy logical leap to make. And, safely in my own media consumption bubble, perhaps more people want that sort of thing than I am estimating. That might be the case for some people -- I know it's not the case for me (it's also why I tend to avoid TV news, except for local broadcasts and major breaking news events).

In a sense, this will be somewhat of a referendum on the aforementioned: Do people actually want short videos explaining the news of the day? Will that drive eyeballs to the site? Maybe. If anything, it will be an interesting media experiment, not unlike seeing what happens when you take two curiously unmarked bottles of liquids in a chemistry lab and mix them together.

Even if the radical shift away from words and toward video proves successful, it is stupid.

Awful Announcing has an interesting longform rundown -- words, beautiful words! -- of the leadup to the decision to put the kibosh on the website's original, written content. During a meeting held in January, Jamie Horowitz, president of Fox Sports National Networks (and formerly of ESPN), laid out the new path to staff:
"What really does work is when you take things are good like ’11 Coaches Oregon Might Hire’, that might be something someone is interested in the day Helfrich gets fired, and we change to ‘Colin Cowherd’s 11 Coaches.’ We’ve seen this be very successful. You look at Fox News right now, O’Reilly and his take. That’s all it is. And there are many different ways. “Colin, some of our guys and girls want to write stuff.” Sometimes you might ghost-write it for them. Sometimes you might just hear them say things on shows and that can lead you to write a story about stuff they have said. And here’s a good example of something like that. Bradshaw says something interesting about Greg Hardy on a pre-game show, and immediately writing a story about what TB said. Taking our existing content and making that into news.”
Who are these people who want more of Bayless, Shannon Sharpe and Terry Bradshaw? Do they really exist?

Maybe I could find the answer somewhere on the internet -- perhaps an article with graphs, charts and words?

Probably not in a video, though.