Finally the fans in Michigan Stadium got to evaluate this year’s edition of their Wolverine’s against a well-coached and ranked team with talent, grit, a physical capability and aggressive attitude. At game time, M was ranked 4th in the nation.
Wisconsin’s Badgers entered the Stadium as the eighth ranked team in the nation, undefeated in four games. The Badgers held notable victories over LSU at home, and Saturday before last Spartan Stadium rang with the Badger’s victory cheers. The tough Badger’s defense swarmed and smashed the Spartans 30-6, displaying unexpected excellence.
Badger LB, J.W. Watt was outstanding in that game, making 6 tackles, and nailing 2.5 sacks plus 2 QB hurries, again Saturday. Week before last he was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. He was outstanding against the Wolverines Saturday, too.
Wisconsin unveiled a Freshman QB in his first start at MSU. He was up to the occasion, tossing for 195-yards and a TD. He was named Big Ten Offensive player of the Week for facing down the Spartans. He did not produce as well against the Wolverines. He threw for 88-yards on 9 completions. He also threw 3 interceptions, with no TDs.
THE REMARLKABLE JOURDAN LEWIS INTERCEPTION: The Wolverines got three interceptions, one of which was by Jourdan Lewis. That interception was “Woodsonesque” in the difficulty and improbability of its execution. Much like Woodson’s storied side line grab against MSU in 1997, which helped pave his way to a Heisman Trophy. This Woodson catch still radiates and is recalled with awe.
The Lewis effort came as he was airborne and falling backwards and leaping upwards with the intended receiver close behind him, he stretched one arm up and filled his hand with football, caught it against his thigh, and hung on. Harbaugh indicated that he thought Lewis had jumped a tad early, but he hung at the top of the leap long enough to make the grab. Jourdan’s catch will have a similar half- life to Woodson’s.
Facing 4th and goal headed towards the North end zone in the third quarter, Penn State found itself overmatched and overwhelmed. His team down 28-0 and having finally moved the football for the first time on the day, James Franklin surveyed the situation and perhaps due to some sort of bizarre recognizance sent out his field goal unit to turn a four score deficit into… a four score deficit. I turned in my seat and asked somewhat rhetorically “what on earth are they doing?” when Franklin suddenly sprinted down the field to call a timeout; certainly he had awkwardly but correctly decided to put his offense back on the field I and many others thought. Nope. He had no such illusions of grandeur – or sense of proper football game theory. Instead he saved five yards of field position on a 21 yard field goal and told his team, Michigan, and the entire crowd that Penn State wouldn’t be putting up any kind of a fight on this day. Instead of calling a timeout he might as well have waved a white flag. A Penn Live article – if we are liberal with our labels today – during the week purported to unanimously proclaim Franklin to be a better coach for Penn State than Jim Harbaugh would be. I think every single one of the 110,319 in attendance would whole-heartedly agree: Penn State deserves James Franklin.
Michigan trounced Penn State in any statistical category you care to mention. The 20th matchup of the two programs produced the largest margin of victory in the series (39 points) as well as the highest offensive output (49 pts). From a feelings-ball perspective this game was over perhaps even before Jabrill Peppers broke free and exenterated any hope the Nittany Lions may have had entering the day; despite not, you know, actually getting into the end zone. That was the fourth play of the football game. After a week that saw the Michigan fanbase trying to turn too few data points into some meaningful commentary on where the team stood with regard to its rivals and in the national picture, Michigan looked dominant. Also, Colorado beat Oregon… in Oregon… with the same backup QB who was 0 for 7 in Michigan Stadium one week prior. If there is a truer statement in college football than “one week at a time” I have yet to encounter it. Michigan looked better overall this week than they did the week before, hopefully the trend continues heading into a big matchup with Wisconsin.
Offense: Michigan did what they were supposed to do against a defense that lost its entire starting linebacker corps prior to the game; amassing 326 yards on the ground on 49 attempts good for 6.7 yards per attempt. Speight and O’Korn combined to throw just 11 passes in the second half. Other superlatives from your standard statistical evaluation included going 11/16 on 3rd downs and notching touchdowns on all six red zone opportunities. Smith (111 yds, 8.9 yds/attempt), Higdon (81 yds, 9 yds/attempt), Isaac (74 yes, 6.7 yds/attempt), and Evans (56 yds, 7.0 yds/attempt) carried the day against a depleted Penn State defense. It was reassuring to see the offense do what it was supposed to do with favorable matchups.
Insofar as offensive development and adjustments are concerned: this game featured more of Devin Asiasi, not only on his first ever TD but with continued work in various sets as a blocking end and H-back coming out of the backfield particularly in the red zone. The first drive saw the now familiar Asiasi-Wheatley package get key blocks to deliver Deveon Smith to the end zone on 4th and goal and then deliver again on Higdon’s first TD to end the first half. We’ve seen this package previously but they got a lot more work this week. The real appeal here is the inherent flexibility of this formation that gives Michigan a great run-pass option power look. In the backfield, Karan Higdon saw his most meaningful snaps to date and ran well with the majority of his carries going between the tackles. Higdon displayed solid vision with burst and provided an additional option in what is turning into a decent running back rotation.
Some quick thoughts:
– RB blitz pickup was better, particularly from the more experienced backs, the only glaring miss came from Karan Higdon late in the 1st quarter with Speight able to barely escape the pocket and throw the ball way. Overall though this was a step forward from week three
– After what Pitt did to PSU earlier this year it was nice to see the jet sweep motion with runs up the middle. Early in the first quarter Michigan ran a straight jet sweep that saw McDoom quickly stopped in the backfield, the next time Peppers was the motion man and the linebackers bit so hard that Smith had a chasm to run through right up the middle for a big gain. They ran the same look again with McDoom and Evans to pick up a first down in the third quarter.
– Speight looked far more comfortable in this game with some very accurate intermediate throws to Butt, Darboh, and Perry early. His pass to Chesson on fourth down in the second quarter was dead on the money and a flat drop; to be fair it was Cesson’s first target after he was dinged up. The few things that stood out as items to continue to work on were screen passes; the throw to Khalid Hill on the first TD drive was short and low, with Hill making a great catch and somehow picking up the first down, if the throw been on target I think Hill likely scores on this play. Later in the first quarter Speight misfired on a screen to Ian Bunting that would’ve seen Bunting waltz into the end zone. On review it looks to me like Speight is rushing these throws ever so much and not setting his feet, certainly an addressable issue.
– There were not many looks down-the-field to our wideouts, much of that appears to have been by design in that we didn’t need to stretch the field to move the ball on this team, but some of the separation questions from the Colorado game remain.
Defense: This will be short. Penn State gained 50 yards total in the first half, with negative seven rushing yards and a total of three first downs. They netted just 12 first downs on the day, a full 25% of which came about thanks to penalty. On third down the Nittany Lions converted just two of their 12 opportunities. The talented Saquon Barkley was limited to 59 yards on 15 rushes including a 33 yard burst, sans that run Barkley’s 14 other rushes netted an average of 1.85 yards per attempt. For the first time this year the defense prevented the one play scoring drive and as a result the Penn State offense was stagnant and unable to give McSorely any time to go down the field. Michigan penalties (7 on the day for 80 yards) netted PSU it’s lone TD drive of the day.
This was an outstanding effort overall. The return of Jourdan Lewis helped to alleviate some of the major issues the defense had been having with pop-slant routes from the slot. At one point in the second quarter Todd McShay proclaimed “I don’t know what you do” in response to the broadcast team talking about Penn State needing “to get something going”. I’d be hard pressed to sum it up much better than that. It was really interesting to see Michigan vary their looks at the line after hearing Don Brown discuss how PSU’s OC was a “high freeze guy”. There were many instances where the offense either wasn’t getting the look they wanted or had no idea what they were getting on the other side of the ball.
The major negative obviously was losing Jeremy Clark to what appears to be a season ending knee injury on a kickoff return in the second half, Clark had been steadily turning in a great season to date and leaves some very large shoes to fill for one of the younger guys on the roster. Based on what we know so far I would think we are looking at one of three guys who will grab the majority of the snaps in that role: David Long who came in for lots of acclaim in fall camp, Brandon Watson has seen some limited action thus far at nickel while Lewis was out, and Lavert Hill.
Special Teams: I don’t necessarily think that the 4th down attempts were a result of recent struggles by our field goal unit, most of those were reasonable opportunities to go for conversion in positions where field goals weren’t necessarily assured. The lone outlier there was the 4th and 7 where Wilton Sleight picked up the first down and re-enacted Tom Brady’s slowest-QB-draw-for-a-touchdown-ever run in Happy Valley; a decision that was a statement from Harbaugh both to his team as well as Franklin’s. The offense punted once. Peppers continues to be giggle-inducing on punt returns. Penn State’s punter should be their MLB this upcoming week.
What does it mean going forward? Michigan was supposed to win this game at home, the 18 point spread may have been the largest in the history of the series, but the team more than doubled it on the field. The offense was consistent and efficient on the ground and the defense looked much better with Jourdan Lewis returning to the secondary. It is extremely encouraging to see the week to week progress like we did last year, and this week’s matchup with Wisconsin provides an early opportunity to really set the tone heading into the rest of the conference slate.