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. 

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