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?


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. 

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