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.
The Wolverines welcomed Penn State’s Nittany Lions to the Big House Saturday evening. It was a packed house for the first Big Ten game of the season for both adversaries, and also presented the first of nine obstacles that stood between the Wolverines, and achieving their primary season goal, which is capturing their first and only Big Ten East Championship game appearance, and win. The work in progress that is the 137th edition of the Wolverines took another successful step forward Saturday as they decisively whipped the defensively wanting Nittany Lions.
Coach Harbaugh has stressed that each game is now a “Championship Game”. That is accurate, and that is the way the Wolverines approached the game.
The Lions had heretofore usually been a formidable opponent. In the midst of attempting to rebuild their fortunes to a higher, post epic scandal level, Coach James Franklin had the Lions giving their all, but it was not enough. PSU scholarships and bowl eligibility have been restored so the full package of incentives was at hand again for the Lions, but still they struggled to stifle the Wolverines on defense, offense or special teams.
No players had a larger impact on last Saturday’s game than Jabrill Peppers.
The Michigan safety/linebacker/kick returner/running back dazzled fans in attendance at Michigan Stadium and a national television audience leading the Wolverines to a 45-28 victory over Colorado.
His performance launched him into contention for the Heisman Trophy and bagged him dual Big Ten player of week honors for special teams and defense.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh, who has seen his share of great football players described Peppers as “special” during his Monday press conference.
“…I can’t think of another player like Jabrill. I know there’s not another player I’ve coached like him. The unique thing is all the positions– if you start counting them, it’d be safety, it’d be corner, it’d be nickel, it would be outside linebacker, it would be slot receiver, it would be wildcat quarterback, running back, kick returner, punt returner, gunner, hold-up. That’s 11 or 12 right there, and I know there’s others he could do and do well, but those are all the things he’s done already here for us…and that being said, he’s done them all well.”
But Peppers’ most important contribution to Michigan football may have come from not playing.
Flashback to his first season in Ann Arbor. Peppers came to Ann Arbor in 2014 as the center piece of Brady Hoke’s ultimately final recruiting class– one of most highly sought after recruits in the country.
He was compared Michigan great Charles Woodson and expected to be an impact player in every phase of the moment he showed up on campus.
Brady Hoke admitted that Peppers was in the mix to play more than offense– and seeing him play this season it’s not hard to imagine the impact he could have made as a true freshman.
But early season injuries derailed what might have been the difference for Hoke.
Peppers played in three games before being shut down for the season.
Michigan staggered to a 5-7 finish, embroiled in drama on and off the field that caused interim athletic director Jim Hackett to dismiss Hoke after the disappointing season.
To the surprise of many fans Hackett struggled with the decision.
“This was not an easy decision. Everywhere I go, there is zero question about Brady’s values…Brady’s peers, both active and retired coaches, really respect him. His players love playing for him. He’s done a great job of molding these young men and focusing them on success in the classroom and in the community.
“One could make the argument that we have a very young team and that we’re about to pivot next year into being an extraordinary team. It’s about making sure, then, that Brady has received adequate time to exhibit that arc of improvement that would come from his effort. And I believe Brady had enough time to produce results. And they’re just not there today.”
Hackett shocked the national media by convincing Jim Harbaugh to return to Ann Arbor and it’s been a whirlwind of national hype since.
Hoke, exiled to Oregon can look back at his former team and see that his recruits are leading the way during Michigan’s resurgence.
Could a healthy Peppers have made a difference in saving Hoke’s job? We’ll never know for sure.
Peppers absence due to injury helped put into motion Jim Harbaugh’s return and together they’re working to put Michigan back into national title contention.