MICHIGAN FOOTBALL 2017-M OVERCOMES ERRORS AND CINCINNATI TO WIN 36 TO 14

Fresh from their pounding of the SEC’s Florida Gators last Saturday, the Wolverines gathered at Michigan Stadium Saturday  to host the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. The Wolverines and Bearcats had never before met, but both have been playing football for a long, long time. The Wolverines started in 1879 and the Bearcats in 1885.

ABOUT THE BEARCATS: The Bearcats of the American Athletic Conference walloped Austin Peay 26 to 14 Saturday before last, under Head Coach Luke Fickell. 

Coach Fickell coached OSU in their loss at Michigan Stadium in 2011 against Brady’s bunch so he was familiar with the Wolverine’s home environs.  They have visited the other five largest Big Ten Stadiums in the past, so a crowd larger than the 40,000 plus they host at home in Nippert Stadium, wasn’t shocking. They are a young and athletic group.

Fickell was a defensive coach at OSU, under Tressel, and then Meyer, but last year jumped to Cincinnati, where he the Bearcats to a 7-7 record last year. 

A  Cincinnati paper reported numerous problems with their winning effort against Austin Peay. They reported the passing game was suspect, the defense allowed too many big plays considering the opponent was Austin Peay, and that the once solid kicking game was shaky.  The paper also said they might be saving something for Michigan. Their top running back Mike Boone had 100-yards and a TD on nineteen carries a week before last. Against the Wolverines he was 5 for 28-yards. 

Still Cincy had a good effort against the Wolverines, never leading, but pushing the Wolverines more than anyone thought possible prior to the game.  I guess that was the surprise.

The Bearcats had 200-yards total.  K. Lewis was 4 for 29-yards and a TD.  The Bearcats had 13 first downs to the Wolverine’s 16.  They totaled 68-yards rushing, and had a combined rushing and passing total of 200-yards.  Not a bad defensive job at all by the Wolverines.  The Wolverines put up a total of 414-yards.

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For what it’s worth, Cincy probably left M Stadium as the proud owners of a moral victory.  I know that in my section of the press box, more than one was disappointed in the Wolverine results. The spark that fueled the Florida victory was missing at times, as in the third quarter, when they needed offensive production that was not consistently obtained. 

Bearcat Quarterback Hadyn Moore had a good game against Austin Peay last week, tossing 17 completions for 151-yards, but the Cincy defense allowed Austin Peay 224-yards rushing. The Bearcats did not fare that well this week against the Wolverine defense.  Moore took a serious beating.

Later in the game, Rashan Gary was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty, which was reviewed for targeting.  The targeting was not called, but the unsportsmanlike call stood.  It seemed to me to be a bogus call, and must have seemed that way to Rashan too.  On the next play, he flattened that QB with a legal hit.  It was a memorable play. 

Sixty eight yards of penalties hurt the cause.  Right tackle Nolan Ulizio was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on a third quarter three yards to go.  Obviously, that stuff kills drives, and if it happens again can cause him to be tossed. I am sure Coach will drive the lesson home.

Against the Wolverines, the Bearcat’s prospered from major Michigan errors. Two fumbles and a punt bounced off a Wolverine back were  recovered by Cincy to help set the stage for more of a struggle than anticipated.

Pre-game odds showed a point spread of 34.5 points. Consider what a win over the Wolverines would have done for Luke’s career, team, etc. Although it is painful, just recall Appalachian State of eleven years ago to recall the horror of such a loss.  The Wolverines did not let that happen.  While we might not like the Wolverine’s  style in this game as much as in the Florida game preceding,  the young team got a another hat full of experience. 

THE STATE OF THE WOLVERINES TWO GAMES INTO THE SEASON: The whole football world now knows that the young Wolverines passed through their first challenge of the year with the magnificent result of whipping Florida at a neutral site. 

The defense was superbly adaptable, switching defenses as the Gators switched quarterbacks, and more.  They allowed the Gator offense 3 points. M’s own offensive errors allowed the other fourteen of the total seventeen.  They even met Harbaugh’s defensive standard.  Coach praised his defense for being “fast”, not faster (which is a comparison, and he doesn’t like comparisons), just fast.

No question of it.  The defense then looked like a well-oiled machine.  They were fast, effective, well positioned, and playing hard all the time. Those maize uniforms were all over the football. By now you have read all the plaudits, but that victory over Florida remains a remarkable performance all around. The defense accomplished more than the offense, but the offense was outstanding none the less. Special teams were very special as  Nordin set Michigan field goal records.

Dr. Blitz, aka Down Brown, formulated a great defensive plan, and schooled his young charges to perfection in their inaugural.

Now that is past. The Wolverines needed to improve each week regardless of an opponent that was considered by many as a pushover

This game against Cincy did not have the same feel or follow the same script.  There were three fumbles before the half, and two miscues were lost by half time.  Even though it was 17-7 at the half there was a sense of unease.

Fortunately, the defense was again on target. Tyree Kinnel had 9 tackles to go with his pick six. The perpetually active Devin Bush had 7. Kaleke Hudson had six tackles. The DL had some great moments, providing a vital three and out when it counted, and sacks galore. Lavert Hill had a pick six, his first.

On offense the receivers and running backs continued to shine.  Ty Isaac rushed for over 100-yards for the second straight game, and Slot Receiver Grant Perry led the receiver corps as he collared a vital TD late in the game.  Kekoa Crawford had 83-yards and a TD on four catches.

THE WOLVERINES GOT OFF TO A GREAT START: They were off and running, looking unbeatable, until the first miscue was lost.

They started with an 80-yard drive culminated in six. Ty Isaac and Kekoa Crawford carried much of the load in that drive.  Kekoa Crawford caught a 14-yarder, and then a 43-yard TD on a Wilton Speight pass.  The offense looked great.

Next came M’s Tyree Kinnel with a snatch of a Cincy pass, which he returned 26-yards for six. It was his first interception.  The offense and defense looked great.

It was 14 zilch, good guys, until a bounced punt hit the ground, and then hit a Michigan Special Teams player in the back.  At the later press conference, Coach Harbaugh said the player receiving the punt was not deciding whether or not to let it go or catch it in a timely fashion, which contributed to the problem. He also said that while blocking, the blocker needs to keep track of the receiver, as difficult as that is. It was, he said, a matter of experience.  A couple of punts later, Grant Perry assumed those duties flawlessly for the balance of the game.  Cincy took it in from the M 38, ran it in for the score from the 1, and it was 14-7.  Donovan People-Jones was showing great promise as a returner.  Lesson learned, I am sure he will get another shot at the spot.

As the second quarter began the Wolverines were on the move again. Perry caught an 18-yarder.  Donovan People-Jones ripped off a 44-yard run. M’s Quinn Nordin nailed a 28-yard FG, and it was 17-7.  Some thought that the expected rout was still in the offing as the half ended, in spite of the fact that the Wolverines had not been as sharp as expected during the first half on offense and special teams.

The Wolverines had a rough third quarter offensively and defensively.  They lost two of 3 fumbles.

Cincy came out storming offensively, as Cincy QB Hayden Moore sliced the Wolverines on a 10-play, 85-yard drive that culminated in a 10-yard TD pass.  It was now a very unsettling 17 to 14. 

An offensive stalemate then occurred for both teams for several series.  That was finally resolved by a late third quarter Wolverine drive as  M’s TE Gentry nabbed a 42-yard pass.  This run by the QB converted to TE was a great a catch and run. It was as needed as timely. A short pass to rising TE Sean McKeon, and a Karan Higdon run, preceded a 33-yard TD snag by Grant Perry.   At 24 to 14, all that was left for the  Wolverines was to put the icing on the cake.

In the fourth quarter, the Wolverines set their final path to victory on a Quinn Nordin field goal of 24-yards via two big plays.  Ty Isaac broke away for rip up the sideline, and Kekoa Crawford caught a 4th and 8 toss for a first down, to enable the subsequent Nordin score. 27-14. Harbaugh later indicated that they were out of field goal range so why not?

The defense forced a punt with a great stand deep in Bearcat territory.  An errant snap sailed through the end zone for a safety (two points). Did they do this on purpose rather than give the ball back to the Wolverines?  Maybe so, but probably not.  It was now 29-14.

Lavert Hill ended the scoring by stepping in front of a Bearcat pass and returning it 24-yards for the scoring capper.  Final:  M-36, C-14.

THIS ONE LEFT SOME SPEIGHT CONCERN FESTERING:  Wilton Speight had a very decent overall performance. He was 17 of 29 for 221-yards.  He threw for a couple of TDs, and mostly evaded the pass rush effectively.  He did not throw an interception.

Yet he again turned the game around in the first half, the wrong way.  This game, it was careless ball handling, not interceptions, but still not to be expected of an experience quarterback.   

Coach Harbaugh said that he was one handing a missed hand off, Wilton said he was getting his feet tangled when rushed.  Maybe it’s some of both.

Wilton is a good representative of the University of Michigan, and at times a very good quarterback.  He has not earned all the nasty vitriol tossed his way. John Nevarre was an example of a victim of undeserved criticism overplayed.

Yet Wilton has earned some concern, and owns it.  His inconsistency has been consistent the last few games reaching back into last season. High throws, pick sixes, an now fumbles are fast becoming a trademark.  It is time he worked out the kinks.

A WIN BY ANY OTHER NAME WOULD SMELL AS SWEET: The Bearcats got a moral victory, but the Wolverines got the real thing, even if they did not earn all the style points for this one that fans and odds makers expected. Also good was the fact that some players got their first experience on the field of play.

A unique battle is coming up against the Air Force Academy.  It will be a battle in predicted good weather.  All the service teams give it all they got, and they usually afford a spectacle.  It will be a battle.  Have fun.

Go Blue!

 

MICHIGAN FOOTBALL 2017- WOLVERINES DOMINATE GATORS 33-17

The fledgling 2017 Wolverine Football team traveled to meet Florida’s Gators in Jerry World for their high profile season kick off on Saturday, September 2nd. Known officially as AT & T Stadium, and by some as Jerry World, it is also known as the Death Star by some rabid Fort Worth (DFW) area fans.

The Gators and Wolverines had met three times prior to this one, and the Wolverines had prevailed each time. Now they needed more of the same. They fought hard to produce the win.

THE HARBAUGH DILEMMA: AP had the Wolverines ranked 11th in the country and the Gators 17th. The outcome of this game has impact on those rankings, and much more. This third season is probably the most crucial season yet for flamboyant Wolverine Coach Jim Harbaugh as the Wolverine’s headman.

Harbaugh has managed an off field scenario that has been an outstanding success as a result of his innovative ideas and outstanding inventiveness. His recent Rome trip was superb, his camps in SEC country have twisted tails there, and aided recruiting in that fertile recruiting region, and the stands are full with waiting lists. Recruiting has been lights out.

If circumstances dictate it necessary, one can actually sell tickets again for what they cost. Wholesale fan enthusiasm has returned. Despite all the Kool Aid that has been dispensed this pre-season, I am firmly on board with this season’s prospects. It seems enhanced athleticism and determination is there, even if the Wolverines and their Head Coach have drawn the short straw on experience.

Yet beginning this third season, his on field record is only one win better than that of Brady Hoke. The Wolverines have not recently prevailed over the team south of the border, and the Wolverines have NEVER participated in the playoffs that determine the Big Ten’s Champion, let alone won it.

This is a season that the off field coaching and performances, and on field coaching and performances have to achieve parity with each other, with on field performance rising to match off field. If they ever match, it will provide quite a ride for coaches, team and fans. The first step was a win over the Gators. The Wolverines dominated the Gators and surmounted their own offensive and special team’s mistakes.

THE VENUE: This world class NFL venue is the home of the Dallas Cowboys. It seats 84,000 and features an electrically operated, retractable roof to close off the elements. Memories of a fans experience, the ambience of the stadium and venue, cannot close off the elements of football defeat for the losing team, and repair the fan morale of the losing side. The fact that it had not rained on fans or that it provided a view of the 24th biggest high definition video screen in captivity (stretching from twenty to twenty on two sides), with 300 more TVs scattered in the venue, provides no solace to the loser. That stuff fades into insignificance when the final minutes tick off the clock, if it permanently records a disappointment. The Wolverines had never experienced a win at this location until now, but there is this one Arlington competition that Wolverine fans can treasure.

THE VOCAL GATORS LIKE TO CHOMP THE OPPOSITION: Their fans emulate a Gator chomp with arms and hands in the stands, and their coach is SEC loud, even if he did not call the Wolverines slow as SEC partisans are prone to do. Their idea was that they would prevail offensively after a fierce three sided QB competition, possibly using three QBs. They only used two.
The Gators imported a talented quarterback graduate transfer from Notre Dame, Malik Zaire, who was noted for his wheels. Luiji Del Rio, from last year, was in the mix as well and noted for his experience. Feliepe Franks has the best arm of the triumvirate, and he was the named the starter. He was also the least experienced before the game, but both are more experienced now as the Wolverines sacked them 6 times. Zaire replaced Franks in the third quarter, and he finished the game.

M DEFENSE DOMINANT: The Gators have a stable of above average running backs, and the Gator offensive line is deep, capable, and experienced. Pre-game it was considered the strength of their team.

The Wolverines played outstanding defense, which dismantled the Gators offense. The Gators had 192-yards of total defense with just 11-yards on the ground.  Devin Bush was outstanding at Line Backer.  He was all over the place and got to the right place.  He had 5 solo tackles and 2 assists.

The Gators had 9 players in the doghouse, and they did not play, but this was still a good litmus test of the Wolverines’ defensive mettle. They played like well-oiled parts. They were outstanding in most respects. They caused three Gator turnovers. One is described later in the Special Assessment Section. Another was caused by a Josh Metellus strip of the ball from Quarterback Franks. The ball was recovered by Lawrence Marshall at the Gator 37. This enabled Nordin to hit another FG.

Later in the game another recovery, this time in the end zone, provided a Wolverine TD. This one salted the game away on a heavy hit by Chase Winovich on QB Zaire. Noah Furbush gathered it in for six to cap the scoring.

While M will get better, they are good now. Fast, agile, and focused. They have an appropriate mean streak. Nonetheless, the Gators were a strong opponent for this season’s richly talented, but significantly inexperienced Wolverines. The best Florida receiver, Anthony Calloway was among the Gator players disciplined.

Like the Wolverines, the Gators seemed a little less confident regarding their defensive backfield as they lost players to the NFL after last season. Like Michigan, the back end of their defense was rebuilding. The Wolverines have had their own bumps and bruises, some of them to the defensive line, but none of them have been season ending, including Saturday’s Mo Hurst was nicked in late fall, and returned healthy to play and outstanding game, where he was nicked again, and watched as the game finished. There is no doubt he could have been in if needed.  Two DBs left the game at the same position.  Injuries didn’t seem too serious.  Brandon Watson  was nicked after replacing the starter at corner, who also left the game. There may be an update at the presser tomorrow.  If there is, I will update this section, if pertinent information is provided at the presser. 

The inexperienced defensive backfield survived their first challenge, but a couple suffered some nicks.

QUARTERBACK COMPETION HEATS UP AGAIN: That Wilton Speight had a terrible first half is a matter of record. After he hit a beautiful 46-yard TD Pass to Taric Black, a couple of subsequent high throws resulted in two pick sixes by the opposition. The first was to Kekoa Crawford. It seemed to me Crawford should have collared it, as he had it hit both hands, but it was deflected and transported forty-eight yards to the end zone by the Gators. The second was to Grant Perry, and was too high. It was returned 46-yards to football’s Promised Land by the Gators, and it put them in the lead.

This was reminiscent of Speight’s performance in last years’ OSU game, and caused considerable worry in the first half.  John O’Korn replaced Wilton for a couple of series, and he completed a nice pass. Wilton returned to start the second half, and used the short passing game along with runs to produce a seventy five yard TD drive.

This Speight performance, while still worth-while, seems to indicate his grasp on the position is not quite as solid as some thought. You can bet that Harbaugh will quash this idea at his earliest opportunity, like on Monday, but if similar circumstances occur again, then the controversy could heat.

Wilton was 11 of 25 for 181-yards, a TD, but threw the two nasty pick sixes. He has to be credited for recovering from the first half by playing a pretty good second half, and coming from behind to engineer a victory away from home, before rabid fans in a bowl like atmosphere.

THE REST OF THE OFFENSE: Offensive Line: The offensive line was not perfect but played a decent game. The left side was strong and much of the rushing yardage occurred there. Mike Onwenu did well at right guard. Nolan Ulizio, the starting right tackle had a couple of false start penalty calls, but did all right. As a unit they are improved, but need to keep working.

RUNNING BACKS: Ty Isaac had his best game as a Wolverine. He was impressive and led all RBs with 11 carries for 114-yards. He ran hard and was difficult to stop. He had a whopping 10.4 yards per carry average. He broke several long runs that facilitated scores, including some of Quinn Nordin’s field goals.

Karan Higdon ran 7 for 28-yards and a TD.

Chris Evans carried 22 times for 78-yards, with a long of 29.

RECEIVERS: Overall Tarik Black was outstanding. He caught the Wolverines’ first TD. He had 2 completions for 83-yards. Tight End Nick Eubanks nabbed 2 for 61-yards with a long of 48. Grand Perry grabbed 4 for 48-yards. It should be noticed that all these receivers made catches for significant yardage.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Special accolades go to Place Kicker Quinn Nordin. Nordin booted four field goals, two 50 yards or more, with his longest being 55-yards. He set a Michigan record with a 50-yarder and one for 55 in the same game. This kid has proved in his Michigan debut that he is an extraordinary asset. He hit 4 of 6 attempts.  I was surprised he missed his last two.

Donovan Peoples-Jones received punts, ran a couple back for short yardage but made some very athletic moves in the process. He easily secured the ball each time. It looks to me that it is just a matter of time before he hits a big one.

Will Hart did not have outstanding punting stats. He hit 3 for 82 yards but secured the snaps.

James Foug did a great job with the kick offs. When the Gators finally did run it back it spelled disaster for them as Freshman Ambry Thomas forced and recovered a fumble putting the ball at the Gator 16-yard line. Nordin then hit a 30-yard FG.

SOME TAKEAWAY: The Wolverines played with fierce intensity, tired out the opposition, and showed skills beyond their years. They were the bigger, stronger, faster team, and yes, the better coached team. I thought it was right for Harbaugh to give Wilton a little time to reflect on the bench, although he will likely paint it that he was going to use John O’Korn anyway.

Still, nice move, something I was surprised wasn’t done against OSU last season when Wilton threw a couple of interceptions against them. Wilton should be credited for stopping the damage, and engineering a win in the second half.

This was a good opener. A great Bowl atmosphere, large crowd, and hard fought game against a ranked foe. All in all a great day for M coaches, players and fans.

The work has just begun for this team. There will be sterner tests down the road, whether in the maize uniforms or the traditional uniforms. I thought the maize looked great, but also love the traditional.

Go Blue!