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. 

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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.)

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