Friday, March 23, 2018

Michigan 99, Texas A&M 72: Thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening

When Michigan raced out to a 9-4 lead, things seemed different — but it was still early.

When that lead ballooned to 27-10, the corners of mouths lifted slowly, buoyed by cautious optimism.

When the Wolverines led 52-28 at the half — oh yeah, that's a paddlin'.

There are almost too many great moments to call out from this game — above all else, the sheer ferocity with which it happened was remarkable.

For a team that is supposedly not a vintage sharpshooting, defense-somewhat-optional Beilein outfit, this one has now on several occasions brandished a palette of ominous hues to paint grandiose pictures of woe and despair. These images were splashed onto canvases left behind at Maryland and Penn State, in New York City, and, now, in Los Angeles, as tokens of great feats, like a contemporary basketball Bayeux tapestry.

One shot falls, then another, then the other team loses its mind in an apocalyptic din, Michigan defenders swatting and swarming and racing. Another shot falls, then another, and in the cruelest zero-sum game, air is duly siphoned from opponents' lungs and deposited into Michigan's own — a physiological transfer of metaphysical wealth.

ESPN shot chart says it all. Michigan picked apart the zone, rained in threes and TAMU failed to respond from beyond the arc.

The opponent is quickly left gasping for air. West Virginia has its press; Michigan has its ability to execute (and now, get in your shirt on defense, whether in transition or the half court). Seven different Wolverines hit a three in the first half; it's not just one guy. 

From the outset, Michigan had no intention on purveying any such air. When you've got a monopoly, it's a brutal supply-demand market for a buyer. The rest of the way, Texas A&M had to give everything it had, living every moment on a knife's edge — comebacks are tiring and costly. That's why they're so remarkable when they happen; so many can chip away and get close, even pulling ahead for a time (for example, Kentucky led Kansas State by one point after trailing for a long time). 

Comebacks are costly, which is in part why so many can look so promising before ultimately dissipating.

The Aggies, however, never had a chance. 

Their version of a comeback journey saw them cut the deficit to 18 points, but that was with just over six minutes remaining. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman hit a triple on the ensuing possession, and Charles Matthews, the best iteration of Charles Matthews (8-for-11, 18 points, 5 rebounds), added a jumper to push the lead back up to 23. 

Did Jordan Poole's buzzer-beating shot against Houston create a break in space and time, granting the Wolverines supernatural powers of precision, speed and strength in the process? Probably not, but there has to be some explanation for how the Wolverines were able to look like a bottom-of-the-barrel offense for two games only to then put up 1.41 points per possession tonight at the Staples Center. 

On defense, Zavier Simpson tallied six steals, two more than the entire Aggies team. Calling Simpson a defensive pest doesn't do him justice; he is a walking harbinger of doom. A&M freshman guard TJ Starks, who will probably be a pretty good player when all is said and done (and was thrust into a much bigger role than he was probably ready for this year) struggled to the tune of 2-for-11 shooting and as many turnovers as points (5). 

It's hard to play when you can't breathe, when mistakes mount up faster than successes and a mulligan is only an option on the golf course when the season is over. 


Had Michigan lost against Houston, there's no doubt it would have been a disappointment. Michigan had surged to a conference tournament title and a No. 3 seed — by definition, anything less than a Sweet 16 would have been disappointment. Such is the way of expectations, which rise and fall with performance. 

Even so, it would have been a disappointment that could have been overcome. Michigan had a great season and with the next class of recruits, the future is exceedingly bright. 

But Poole's miracle shot stopped all of that talk, as he buried one at the buzzer before juking Michigan teammates like Denard Robinson on his fumbled-snap touchdown against Western Michigan. 

It's on to the Elite 8, where the Wolverines will face yet another team fresh off of an upset in Florida State. Michigan will be expected to win, and justifiably so. 

If this tournament has proven anything, though, it's that expectations can be shattered in the span of a 40-minute game. But if this Michigan shows up again Saturday night, it's hard to see this team not making it to San Antonio. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Enter the horizon

We watch sports for a lot of reasons.

Some people do it because it's passed down like a family heirloom. Others watch it to see tremendous feats of athleticism well beyond the realm of the average person — a LeBron James chase-down block, for example, a one-handed catch by Odell Beckham Jr.,  an effortless Lionel Messi jaunt through a pack of hapless defenders stuck in quicksand. Some people watch to pass the time or fill it, like any other hobby, with Super Tuesday representing the arrival of a new set of pages to fill one's scrapbook with minutiae of all sorts.

When it comes to Michigan basketball these days, I watch for one big reason: what comes at the end is usually unrecognizably different than it was at the beginning.

I write this as I look back 11 years, to my freshman year in Ann Arbor, as the Lloyd Carr era came to an end at Michigan Stadium and the John Beilein era began next door at what was then called Crisler Arena. Excited to watch college sports of any kind, I made use of my student season tickets that 2007-08 season, watching a Michigan team short on talent limp to a 10-22 record — including a season-ending 51-34 loss against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals — before punching a ticket to the Big Dance the very next year.

Sports programs don't always work that way. In that sense, Michigan basketball fans have been very lucky for the past decade.

Michigan started this season with promise, but an ugly loss against LSU in November took a bit of wind out of its sails. In that game, Zavier Simpson played just 10 minutes, tallying two assists, two turnovers, four fouls and goose eggs across the rest of his stat line.

You could say things have changed just a little bit since then.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

It'll end or it won't

The season came to an end Monday, not with a bang or a self-propelling jolt but a sad, timid whimper.

I watched the game from the U.K., and the figurative distance between myself and the game eventually matched my literal distance from it — that is, a feeling of increasing detachment built with each second-half mistake.

As the mistakes snowballed — no need to recount them here, nor is it really necessary to talk about the game itself much at all — it became obvious that something had broken. Whether it was the cosmic good will brought to South Carolina via #FryinNanni or something else, Michigan's will withered like an unwatered plant.

At first, I was irritated. The Wolverines blew a big lead and a game they were about five yards away from sealing for good before a Michigan fumble gave the Gamecocks, who trailed 19-3 at that point, new life.

The game ended, and I wasn't mad, really, but annoyed. First, at the result itself. Then, at the fact that I, like many other Michigan fans, considered the bowl game a slam dunk — South Carolina wasn't very good, after all. Unfortunately, they still aren't very good; Michigan was just bad, too.

While my expectations for this season weren't very high — I figured 8-4 or 9-3, and that was assuming Wilton Speight played the whole year — but concluding on such a note is undeniably disappointing.

With that said, life is about nuance, even if nuance is being increasingly whittled out of existence. The sky isn't falling, but 2018 doesn't necessarily offer the prospect of a significantly improved Michigan team, either.

Many, many words could be devoted to a Big Picture assessment of where the Michigan football program is at, but I don't think too many are required to get at the heart of the thing. There are two camps — those expecting Alabama/OSU results right away and all the time versus those who don't. There is no doubt that you could argue Michigan should want better results given Harbaugh's salary (and Michigan's resources, in general), but it's funny how quickly we forget where Michigan was not too long ago.

As a student from 2007-2011, I had a four-year ticket to the beginning of Michigan's descent, when it broke through the floor of mediocrity on its way to a state of being simply bad. I was there for Appalachian State, for Toledo, for every frustrating loss against supposedly lower-level conference foes (not to mention against the upper echelon of the conference).

Things were bad. Jim Harbaugh took a 5-7 team and won 10 games with it the following year, and quite nearly took Michigan to the playoffs in Year 2. Sure, an 8-4 regular-season mark in Year 3 is frustrating, but look at Dabo Swinney's track record (etc. etc.). Things could be much worse than two 10-win seasons and an 8-win year during which just about everything went wrong.

If you weren't expecting a step back this year, that's on you.

It's also on you if you think the bowl game matters in any way (it doesn't, honestly). A 2017 Michigan season that concludes with a bowl win over a not-very-good South Carolina isn't much different than the one that actually happened.

Criticism, however, is justified.

While Michigan's offense was hampered by injuries, offensive line shuffling and inexperience, it would have been nice to see more improvement throughout the year. The power-running game had its stretches, but, overall, Michigan's offensive attack was once again lacking oomph. The coaches should be given credit for a fairly brilliant game plan against Ohio State, especially in light of Michigan's severe limitations, but that sort of schematic advantage was decidedly not with Michigan for most of the year, it seemed.

One would think a wide receiver coach would be a targeted addition. As for the offensive braintrust? Well, it's hard to look at 2017 and not think that some sort of change is needed there. Then again, who knows — maybe an offensive line that couldn't be dubbed "patchwork," a quarterback that can make plays (Patterson?) and more seasoned receivers could make the same guys look smart next season.

As always, every decision has its pros and cons. Just in case you didn't read this sentiment 1,000 times already, but the 2018 offseason will be the most important one for the program in quite some time. Michigan now enters an uncertain void; who knows what will emerge when the Wolverines hit the field in South Bend.

This year has been a busy one for me. From getting married to work to a host of other things, I've had less time for this here blog. I didn't even get to write a recap for every game, which I've enjoyed doing for a while now, whether these things are read or not.

As I've said before, I know the traffic numbers here aren't blowing anyone away, nor is anyone coming here first for Michigan analysis. As such, the venture had better at least be enjoyable to me, or there would be no point.

The exercise of writing is still a joy to me, like watching a Denard Robinson keeper unfold or Don Brown's defense in pursuit, blitzers flashing across the screen like mischievous electrons.

The overall experience of fandom, however, is growing more and more tiresome. The sheer amount of bile from fans, the lack of nuance, the negativity — all with respect to a game played by college kids — is wearying.

I don't care about jokes from rival fanbases — I mean, who cares? That is easily ignored. It's more difficult, however, when it is Michigan fans themselves making the fan experience less pleasant. Sure, the losing doesn't help; at a certain point, though, you've got to just grow up.

Of course, the internet has an overwhelmingly negative role to play in all of this. I have no idea how large-scale fan negativity manifested itself in pre-internet days, and if it was as intense but simply unrevealed. I don't know.

What I do know, though, is a lot of people need to seriously think about what this game means to them, and why it means that, and how those answers inform their reactions to the results on the field. It's a futile hope, I think, but that's what needs to happen.

In 2018, everyone has to be better. Jim Harbaugh, the players ... and you. We all have to be better.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Michigan 75, LSU 77: Going for two

Welcome to this odd part of the year, when the intensity of a waning college football season, haggard from the sleepless intensity of unrelenting expectation, overlaps with the low-burning flame of early-season college basketball — a brooding bonfire next to a candle smelling sweetly of Maui.

At the very least, college basketball is a welcomed reprieve from what has been a fairly unexciting football season. On the gridiron, each win has been a stultifying drudge. The losses? Well, you know. Don't gaze too long into the maw of the Michigan internet, where you're likely to hear the crescendoing drumbeat of southeast Michigan's passionate cohort of sports talk radio callers.

Look away, instead, in the direction of this nice, low-stakes, Thanksgiving week basketball.

So, naturally, as you settled in for some stress-free sports and aesthetically pleasing B-roll of Hawaiian scenery, Michigan went on to blow a 9-point lead with just over 5 minutes to play en route to a 77-75 loss against LSU.

I hadn't had the chance to catch the Wolverines this season before tonight, but from everything that has happened to date, this is clearly a team that will spend much of this season incubating. A lot of new faces, plus a year in which Moritz Wagner is the guy instead of a guy, and growing pains are expected.

At this point in the year, you're mostly looking for competitiveness and incremental improvements, sometimes so minute they might be represented by individual moments or plays. Add those up, especially for the young guys, and you eventually accrue enough to reach a eureka moment or two later — the light switch, on.

Michigan got off to a rough start. Wagner (24 points) and Charles Matthews (28 points) carried the Wolverines, contributing 9 points apiece in the first half. However, Michigan got only got 4 points from the other three starters in the opening 20 minutes (Duncan Robinson and Zavier Simpson went a combined 0-for-1 in the first half).

Despite shooting just 3-for-11 from beyond the arc as a team (and an eFG% of 46.6 percent) and allowing LSU to rebound 50 percent of its first-half misses, the Wolverines found themselves down just 31-29 at the break.

Wagner found some success in the two-man game with Matthews, popping for some nice mid-range jumpers. Matthews himself flashed his athleticism, including a nice spin in the post for two and other strong takes to the basket. It's still not clear what Matthews will ultimately be, but it's obvious the talent and athleticism is there; it was on display in grand fashion tonight.

Is Matthews a legitimate No. 2 option on a good team throughout an entire season? I don't know, but it's apparent he will have to be until some other players get a little more Beilein coaching. (And with a team-high 28 points, he was No. 1 tonight.)

It's a long season, but the offense is a work in progress. Now, it's basically a combination of Wagner making NBA-level moves and Matthews leveraging his athleticism and hard work into offense.

Otherwise, Michigan got very little (or nothing at all) from most everyone else (save Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and his 12 points on 13 shots).

Robinson's scoreless stretch ended with 9 minutes to play, swishing a triple in transition for a 55-53 lead, its first of the game.

Not long after, freshman Eli Brooks dropped a nifty bounce pass back to a trailing Wagner in transition, who buried a three to extend the lead to 58-53. While Brooks didn't show up much in the points category (4 points), his confidence was obvious. Some freshmen dribble the ball like they're carrying a hot plate they desperately want to put down — Brooks doesn't appear to be one of those freshmen. The turnover late? Freshman stuff, unfortunately, but better now than later.

Now, the usual "this is November college basketball" caveats apply, but after 40 minutes of basketball tonight, it seems like Michigan this season will rely on...the mid-range game?



Beilein's Michigan program has been reinvented a couple of times in the last decade, and it appears as if this team will adapt to add another iteration to that history. While Michigan gave up 77 points on 1.24 points per possession, the defense had stretches of solid play.

After Michigan battled back from a 7-point deficit, the Wolverines coughed up a hairball late, as freshman guard Tremont Waters went off for LSU and Matthews couldn't bury both of his free throws for the tie with 9 seconds to play.

The loss isn't a big deal. You'd like a win, sure, but it's more about seeing signs of potential. Wagner is Wagner. Matthews might be something real, too. Abdur-Rahkman will once again be the desperation creator, the wheeling late-shot-clock freelancer. Brooks had some nice moments, including a nice assist in the second half and a confident three in the first; he also looked like a freshman in other moments (e.g. the crucial late turnover).

Michigan didn't get much from anyone else. Ibi Watson was ineffective, while Simpson and Simmons were non-factors. Robinson hit one three, but the bigger concern is the fact that he put up just four shots. While LSU's Brandon Sampson played admirably tenacious defense, Michigan has to find more than four shot attempts for a shooter of Robinson's caliber.

As is usually the case at this point in the season, there are many questions wanting answers. The answers for this Beilein team might be different from those for any other team Beilein has had in Ann Arbor.

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 always 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 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?


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.