Confidence or Concern – Inaugural Edition
Each week, Michael Spath from WTKA’s Inside the Huddle, and I will be discussing the subjects, situations, struggles and successes, which give us cause for confidence or concern as the season unfolds.
To set the scene, Michigan is now 4-1 after an opening 7-point loss to Notre Dame on the road. Notre Dame is currently the 6th best team in the nation (AP). Most recently, Michigan went into Evanston as 15.5 point favorites and narrowly escaped with a 3 point win after falling behind 17-0 early. Sandwiched between those games were blowouts of WMU and Nebraska and a 20 point win over SMU, where the Wolverines were favored by 25.
Now that we have a general idea of the lay of the land, we can get into the mountains and molehills.
Michael, let’s first start with the concerns that we have, that way we can end with the confidence builders preventing us from self-destruction. You go first, what gives you concern or what should concern the fans? We can focus primarily on the takeaways from the Northwestern game but everything from the season up to this point is fair game.
Michael: I think almost every Michigan fan is on the same page here – the slow starts on the road, which I know you’ll get into more. We can talk numbers: U-M has been outscored 24-0 in the first quarter of its contests at Notre Dame and Northwestern, and outgained 244-90. The Wolverines were able to rally against the Wildcats but if the Maize and Blue put themselves in holes against Michigan State and Ohio State on the road, you can chalk those up as losses.
I’ve been asked many times why Michigan starts slow. I’m not smart enough to answer that. Wouldn’t we all love to be a fly on the wall inside the pre-game locker room to see how Jim Harbaugh motivates his guys!
Devin Gardner joins me on Mondays for our MMQB and his explanation was that both Notre Dame and Northwestern had reasons to be jacked for those games. ND was playing at home, on national television, and was out to prove last season’s 10-3 mark was a step towards a college football playoff berth this year. The Irish also know that without a conference and a conference championship game, they’re handicapped in the race for a semifinals berth and cannot afford a single loss, perhaps.
Northwestern had a bye, playing at home, facing a possible 1-3 record and had the rallying cry of losing one of its best players, RB Jeremy Larkin, to a career-ending injury. In other words, they also had plenty of motivation.
I get it, but then, it leads to the question: didn’t Michigan have equal motivation? Didn’t the Wolverines have a lot to prove in the opener after an 8-5 campaign and an offseason spent overly criticizing everything about Harbaugh and his program? Didn’t they have reason to match the emotion of the Wildcats, knowing that this road black cloud was still hanging over them?
That makes me concerned, as it should all of us because East Lansing and Columbus loom.
We could nitpick individual performances – junior tight end Sean McKeon is having a rough start and sophomore Nico Collins had a very up-and-down game against Northwestern – but the nature of football is young players will have good days and bad, and this team is still relatively young across the board (17 starters in either their third or second year).
No, my concern is with the lack of turnovers forced – a byproduct of defensive backs that have lost most of the 50-50 battles this year – and red-zone TD percentage. Michigan ranks 97th nationally with just five TOs this season (admittedly, two huge picks by safety Josh Metellus) and sits 55th in red-zone TD efficiency, with 14 touchdowns on 21 chances (66.7 percent).
U-M settled for two field goals against Northwestern in a game that could have been 28-17 at the end (instead NW had a chance to tie or take the lead with a final possession) while Michigan left 11 points on the board against the Irish with a field goal and a field-goal try when reaching the red zone. The inability to utilize the Wolverines’ best players – could we see a fade to either the 6-8 tight end or the 6-4 wide receiver, please???? — cost Michigan a potential win at ND and almost cost them the Northwestern game too.
Slow starts on the road, a lack of turnovers, settling for field goals in the red zone … if those persist the rest of the year, we’re looking at two, three or four more losses.
Derrick (me): It’s been a bit of a roller coaster in terms of the ups and downs of my level of concern and confidence with this team. Starting with Northwestern and working backwards it goes a little something like this. Going into the NW game, this felt like it should be a blowout similar to the previous week against Nebraska. On paper and without their star running back, Northwestern just didn’t seem like a very good team. They didn’t seem like a bad team, just not that much better than Nebraska. Granted it was a road game, and if I let my brain do my preview last week, rather than some of the emotion, I’d probably have left out the stuff about Michigan shredding them. It seems like the Wildcats find a way to play Michigan close almost every time they play. Pat Fitzgerald teams are always ready to play and typically do not make mistakes to beat themselves. So what gave me concern in that game even while Michigan eventually won? Falling behind 17-0, for starters. Especially on the road where over the last decade, Michigan has struggled to muster wins, let alone comeback wins. The Wolverines are 0-16 since 2006 against Top 25 teams on the road. Northwestern isn’t one of those at this juncture but it emphasizes the road struggles.
There is this narrative that starts to build, that Michigan isn’t a good road team. This, even though they are 10-6 under Harbaugh when playing away from the Big House, and are outscoring opponents by 129 total points (450-321), and on average by over a touchdown per game (8.1 PPG Differential). Now 10-6 isn’t great, but in losses, they are only losing by 10.2 points on average where the Penn State and Wisconsin games are the only double digit loses and really skew the numbers. if you take those out, it’s only a 4.5 point differential on average. So, it’s the inability to come out firing, typically, in these games that gives concern. The Northwestern game last week, seemed like it was going to be another one of these lackluster losses where NW came out and seemed like they wanted it more, early. There are 2 more HUGE road games this year, so road performance as a whole is a big concern for me.
Also with the Northwestern game we saw a ton of penalties, I believe the offense had 8 of them (one of which was on a ghost), and the defense had 3. Michigan is now almost dead last (120/128) in penalties while averaging over 9 per game. This is bad. This is probably the single biggest concern I have. It’s also one of the most controllable concerns as long as refs aren’t throwing phantom calls. Unless there really is a conspiracy (maybe?), those should be anomalies. The coaches simply have to improve technique and create more discipline among players.
My last concern is the inconsistency in the run game that seems to be appearing which then causes games to be a bit closer as a result. In the loss to ND, combined with the Northwestern game, being that those were the closest games of the season, Michigan averaged 3.2 yards per carry. Comparing that with the 6.5 yards per carry in all other games this year, it’s a growing trend that if you stop or slow down the run, the Wolverines will struggle. This even appeared to be the case early as they repeatedly fought to establish the run against SMU and seemed to be banging their head into a brick wall before accumulating nearly 200 yards on the ground. But I mean, it’s not rocket science. If you look at Harbaugh’s teams over the years, he’s typically a 60/40 run to pass guy so it would then make sense that if you stop the run, you seemingly stop 60% of the offense. My fear, however, is that Shea Patterson isn’t getting enough or didn’t get enough throws, roll-outs, drop-backs, etc. in live game action during the early blowouts to best prepare for when times get tough and we rely on him to get it done through the air. I definitely see the value in protecting him though, so that he doesn’t take a shot in meaningless times that puts his health in jeopardy. He has also demonstrated the ability to get it done so far this season as well as during his time, when healthy at Ole Miss.
Injuries are also a concern. Rashan Gary, Chris Evans and a few others have been working through stuff. Would love to get everyone healthy before the Wisconsin game or the MSU game at the latest. Would also love to see Tarik Black come back sooner rather than later, but he too needs to be 100% first.
Now let’s look at the reverse side of things, what gives us confidence? Why should fans be confident? And this doesn’t mean things are sunshine and rainbows but there are clearly some positives we can take away from the season so far as well. I’ll go first this time since you went first last time, Mr. Spath.
Derrick (me): There are things to be concerned about as we discussed but to feel like the sky is falling at this point seems silly. The team is 4-1 and still has all of its goals in front of it. For me, what was a concern last week also gives reason for confidence. Sure the team started slow but how can that resilience not give you at least somewhat of a positive feeling about the program in its current state? Falling back 17-0 to any team is dangerous, especially on the road, and this marked the second best comeback Michigan has ever accomplished in its storied history. That’s saying a lot.
I feel strongly that put in the same situation last year, the team would not have been able to fight all the way back and likely would have lost that game. Not this team though. There never seemed to be a moment of panic, there was no quit, and the team did what it had to do to get it done. This started with the defense clamping down. My favorite thing this week was watching Don Brown address the slant coverage. When pressed about how his team will improve coverage on slant passes, he clapped back with “They were 3-for-5 in the first half for 23-yards, they were 2-for-4 in the second half for 22. I’m not going to say a whole lot about it. I thought Thorson was pretty good. He’s going to end up graduating, I would bet, he’s one of the Top-25 throwers probably in the history of the Big Ten. There are two of his catches where the guy is catching the ball like this, we’re like this, and he puts it into a window about this big. I’m not going to stand here and say, jeez, we did a great job. They completed 3-of-5 in the first half for 23-yards, 2-of-4 in the second half for 22-yards in the second half. In the second half, we kind of tweaked it a little bit and delivered a couple of shots there to the slant. It is what it is.
He went on to explain that they aren’t going to give up deep passes on vertical routes and also won’t just concede the underneath stuff like some quarters teams would do. Each defense will have its weaknesses, Don Brown is simply working hard to hide his team’s.
With the defense doing its part it allowed one of the other confidence builders to show himself, Shea Patterson. Statistically this may not have been his best game of the season, at 62.5% it was his lowest completion percentage of the season. He didn’t throw any touchdowns and didn’t run for any either. But when it mattered, he put the team on his back and willed them to victory. It was in the 3rd quarter, I was watching and saw this fire in his eyes, like he just wasn’t going to let this team lose. He got loose with his feet a couple of times. 7 rushes for 31 yards was the most running we’ve seen from him this year and it seemed those 31 yards came at some of the most crucial times in the comeback attempt, where it helped keep drives alive and helped the team eventually put points on the board. He would have had 20+ more yards if not for that phantom call.
Patterson also protected the ball; no lost fumbles, no interceptions. While the stat sheet may not be too flashy, if you watched that game you saw a leader literally taking a game over. This has been absent from the offensive side of the ball for a few years now and it gives me all the confidence in the world that Michigan now has a quarterback that they can count on in crunch time.
Looking back at the season as a whole so far, this is the most dynamic the offense has looked in Harbaugh’s 3.5 years leading the Wolverines. There are more weapons available than have ever been available offensively and this team keeps true to pro-style concepts while also slowly working in spread concepts. I’m loving the balance myself even while many other fans complain about play calling constantly. It’s funny how play calling complaints only happen when plays don’t work. Harbaugh could call a run on 2nd and 10 in one series, Higdon gets the first down and it’s a great call. He can do it 5 series later and get stuffed but now all of a sudden it’s “why are we running on 2nd and 10???”
I love that Harbaugh looks to establish the run early, no matter what. Now that every team and team’s fan in the nation knows this, he can open up with play action like he did against Nebraska and catch you off-guard. Last week he started with a pass which went to DPJ for 5 yards. We won’t talk about the rest of that drive, but you get the point.
The last thing I’ll mention in terms of what has built confidence for me in watching this team is the offensive line improvement. Through 5 weeks, Michigan is the 6th highest rated O-Line in the B1G. Now this isn’t spectacular, but if you’d have told me that was the case last year, I’d have fallen out of my chair. Even if it were true I wouldn’t have believed you. According to PFF, “Michigan ranks second in the conference with a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 92.9, having allowed just 19 total pressures from 148 pass-blocking snaps so far this season. They have found much more success as pass-blockers than run-blockers in 2018, with guards Michael Onwenu and Ben Bredeson, and right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty producing PFF pass-blocking grades of 80.0 or higher. Onwenu has been their best pass-blocker and has yet to allow a sack, hit or hurry this season. Their issue has been in the running game as just two starters hold a PFF run-blocking grade above 60.0, and their running backs see an average of just 2.4 yards before contact per carry.”
So now the Maize and Blue are a good pass protecting team but are not so hot at run blocking? The run game seems to be working decently for the most part, I mean I’ll take almost 3 yards before contact on average. Could it be better? Sure it could. But coming off the previous couple of years where it seemed the offensive line was one of the clear weaknesses, having an improving O-Line that is currently sixth in the conference and looks to be trending up, is something I’m taking to the confidence bank 10 times out of 10.
Michael: I agree wholeheartedly that the sky isn’t falling. This week, we had a caller to the show that said he’s worried Harbaugh will not put Michigan over the top in games against Wisconsin, MSU, Penn State and Ohio State, and that the season will be lost. I chuckled a little bit – I mean, let’s at least allow the guy and the team to play those games before we start saying they’re not getting the job done!
This is a critically important year, not because it’s year 4, but because of the talent that U-M has assembled that might be out the door after this season. Rashan Gary is almost certainly headed to the NFL, and Devin Bush with him. Players like Lavert Hill, Khaleke Hudson, David Long, Zach Gentry, Shea Patterson and Ben Bredeson could also entertain the idea (though only Long and Gentry have showcased themselves in the best light so far this year).
The good news is there is a great recruiting class being put together for 2019, and they will replace much of the talent that will go out the door when this 2016 class departs. But this season is a litmus test because with the 2016-17 classes in key roles, the Wolverines have the talent to compete with the best teams in the country – per 247Sports.com, Michigan is the 8th most talented team nationally, ahead of Penn State and well ahead of the Spartans and Badgers. The time to win is now.
No one was happy about that first quarter in Evanston or the loss to Notre Dame, but I have seen plenty of reason for optimism: 1) a quarterback that is, by far, the best Harbaugh has ever had at Michigan 2) a running game that finds a way, sometimes to our chagrin, but nevertheless has been instrumental to keeping teams off-balance 3) more high-end skill players than we’ve seen since probably 2007 4) Don Brown and the defense.
I agree with you that Michigan probably doesn’t win that game against Northwestern a year ago. I don’t think U-M wins it without Patterson. He willed that offense when players around him were making mistakes, utilizing both his legs and his fearlessness with his arm to make big-time plays for the Maize and Blue. That swagger has been missing since the end of the 2015 season offensively, but it’s coming back, thanks to Patterson and players like Karan Higdon and Gentry.
The stubbornness of the coaches early in games may drive us a bit batty, but in every game, save ND, we have been able to see the cause-and-effect, and that’s a play-action passing attack that has taken advantage of linebackers and safeties with their eyes in the backfield. The determination to run the ball up front too is creating a culture with this offensive line that “we will find a way.” It may not be the most fun process – especially watching from the crowd – but it’s important for the line to know that success begins and ends with them, and they will overcome.
Defensively, if this team can eliminate the penalties in the back end, it has everything it needs to shut down top teams. A ferocious pass rush, linebackers as good as I can remember since David Harris, Prescott Burgess and Shawn Crable in 2006, and strong cover guys. They need to make more plays on the ball – I mean, come on, our 2017 goat Josh Metellus is leading the team with interceptions (this is meant tongue-in-cheek, he’s bounced back from last season and the ND game to play the best football of his career. Mad props to him for that) — but there is no one better than Brown to game plan and to adjust his players in-game.
The fun thing about the next four games is we’ll know. If this is to be a special season, Michigan will be at least 3-1 in those contests. If not, 2-2, 1-3, and all of our concerns will have reared their heads, and then this weekly column will certainly take on a different slant. But I’m hopeful. I want it to be a great year, and I’m willing to give Harbaugh the season to convince me all is right in Ann Arbor. God, I hope all is right in Ann Arbor!