Five games into the season and clearly there are some things to be happy about and some things that cause disappointment, as we reflect on the season thus far. The Michigan fan-base is a divided mess, which is not uncommon, as even John U. Bacon has been quoted as saying “Michigan fans aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy” and he too sees things to be unhappy about. This tweet came during the Purdue game a few weeks ago:
I often say many Michigan fans aren’t happy unless they’re not happy. This Purdue game is giving them much to be legitimately unhappy about.
— John U. Bacon (@Johnubacon) September 23, 2017
We all do. But for this piece Tyler Warner and I (Derrick Ryan) will talk about the disappointments and also the things that we should be happy about, especially as we look forward to the rest of this season and beyond.
Let’s get the disappointing things out of the way and be done with them.
Ty, what are your thoughts on the troubling things we’ve seen so far this year?
Tyler Warner: I think the disappointments of this team are very apparent. It’s the offense. Every other area to me has been spot on up to this point. However, since week one, the inability to move the ball has been maddening. Against a very average Florida defense, who now, mind you, ranks 49th nationally in total defense was alarming. But as fans, I think we all just chocked that one up to a week one, big neutral site game. Complete with all the jitters and nerves alike so for that, week one I gave the team a pass.
Let’s move on to week 2 shall we? We were going up against the Cincinnati Bearcats, who at the time struggled heavily to a terrible FCS team in Austin Peay. The mighty Michigan Wolverines should have had something to prove, while they ran it up to prove to the rest of the nation that our offense is good and just getting started. Well that is what we all had hoped for, but instead we got a much closer game that was the beginnings of the real eye opener. With Michigan only scoring two offensive touchdowns against the nation’s now 107th team in total defense, that’s honestly a sad stat right there for many obvious reasons.
Then in another home game against Air Force, again the offense fell flat all in all, heavily relying on stellar kicker Quinn Nordin. After it was all said and done, Michigan only came away with 1 touchdown in total garbage time, just want you to keep in mind that this Air Force team is currently 1-4 and their lone win coming against Virginia Military Institute in a 62-0 beat down. So put another check in the box for a red flag.
Then came Purdue, and more of the same; inept on the offense as a whole, mostly on the offensive line, as they saw starting Quarterback Wilton Speight get mangled until he received a nasty hit that broke 3 vertebrae. While Jim Harbaugh is playing it coy Wilton’s season should be over. That’s not an injury that you rush back from.
However the silver lining in this game was the emergence of senior quarterback John O’Korn. O’Korn actually led the offense and looked very capable of doing a decent job, posting a solid 270 yards and 1 touchdown. Most Michigan fans, myself included, were all fooled into thinking that this issue had been fixed. I will use one word for this. Bamboozled, we were all seriously fooled, not like that was the intention but we were expecting a fresh well oiled machine in Ann Arbor on October 7th. Instead what we got was, dare I say it, the worst offensive football game Michigan has played since the M00N game that featured two amazing (Not in the good way either) offenses in Northwestern and the Wolverines back in 2014. I have provided the link here feel free to skip through and see just how bad this offense played in Hoke’s last season.
Maybe the reason why this game is so relevant to me is because I recently watched the “highlights” for it but when I was watching Michigan tread water last Saturday (*sigh* literally) it brought back visions of this game and most of the 2014 season for that matter. Maybe I should have forgotten it the first time, but I’m a sadist apparently. Nonetheless watching Michigan fall flat on its face again on a national stage, this time a night game at home is no shortage of alarming and quite frankly embarrassing. So obviously the disappointment is very apparent. I’m not going to go in-depth and target every single area of the offense that I see having issues or this article would take the time to read it takes to read a Lord of the Rings novel. So I want to keep the negatives broad and go more in detail on the positives of this team and where we could be in the future going forward.
Derrick Ryan: Well said, Tyler. I agree, the majority of the disappointing things have occurred on the offensive side of the ball. The strange thing to me is that as the season started, many of us thought with the play-makers being brought in on the Offensive side of the ball, a returning and hopefully healthy Wilton Speight, and with the Pep Hamilton hype, that our offense would be ahead of the defense, where the defense may take some time to gel. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I sort of saw this coming. I knew the defense would reload and had the potential to be better than it was last year. It has proven that to be the case so far. I also thought it may take some time to get the offense in order with some new elements being brought in, scheme wise.
What I didn’t anticipate is for the offensive line to struggle as much as it has. I had assumed they would continue to improve especially with veteran Mason Cole and budding star Ben Bredeson as part of the unit. If I had looked a bit deeper, as I’ve done lately, I would have realized that including 5th year Kugler, who has only played sparingly in his career over those 5 years until this point, the rest of the line was very inexperienced. Have you every tried to hold water in your hand, like, cupped your hand and held water? If you have you’d know that it takes all 5 fingers to hold that water. If just one finger moves out of place, you have a leak. Have another finger out of place and you have a very fast leak. It’s no different with an offensive line. All five need to be in unison, all nailing their assignments or plays will break down.
If I step back, I’m not too disappointed with the season thus far, simply because I know the future is bright and I trust the coaches to make the best of the rest of the season in the short term. I do think that several things need to improve, some with the players and some with the coaches. But I think the biggest fault for disappointment, is our own expectations as fans. Somehow we got to the point where we expected perfection (not like no mistakes ever perfection) but like “this is year 3 for coach Harbaugh, we should be better than this and should only keep getting better and better”. It’s hard for us to accept that perhaps this team isn’t as good overall, as we thought it would be, at least at this juncture. Eventually you have to look at this offense and start to wonder, if it is what it is.
I think there are definitely things that the staff can do to simplify concepts for these young men. Harbaugh is known to run an NFL scheme, and with Pep Hamilton in there as well now, along with Drevno, certainly the staff is asking these kids to do NFL type things. Maybe they need to crawl before they walk a bit. Find out with specificity what each player is good at, find common ground and make them better at executing to their strengths. To do this, perhaps go back to the basics in practice somewhat and watch previous game film – toss out the stuff that consistently doesn’t work (running up the middle into a loaded box, throwing fade route after fade route to the outside) and focus on really getting good at the stuff that has worked or is right on the cusp of working, save a thing here or there (dropped passes that are wide open, vertical routes in the middle of the field, crossing routes, roll out passes, off tackle runs, and all the quick passes).
Enough on the disappointing things, we are beating a dead horse with some of this. What about the positives? What are we seeing that gives us hope for not only the future, but also the near future as this season continues?
Tyler Warner: Let’s just clear the air. Jim Harbaugh is good for Michigan football. Don’t listen to Paul Finebaum or anyone saying he won’t be here past next year, because that’s just absurd. So to every fan that is calling for him to be fired over his record vs. rivals, play calling woes or anything else needs to just calm down. Now that I got that out of the way, let’s continue. It’s been established that where he goes, he wins, and that same rule applies here at Michigan. He took a team that finished 5-7 and didn’t make a bowl game while enduring embarrassing losses to the likes of Maryland and Rutgers. He still took that team over the top winning 10 games in 2015.
That in itself is extremely impressive because his first year at Stanford he took a team that was a dreadful 1-11 in 2006 and he went 4-8, while pulling out one of the biggest upsets in college football that year with beating powerhouse USC, who was almost guaranteed a spot in the BCS title game so long as they won out. In 2007 Stanford finished in the recruiting rankings 51st nationally (Via 24/7 recruiting). The next season, 2008, he went 5-7 while finishing 47th in recruiting but the main silver lining there is that this was the class where he ultimately got Andrew Luck. By Harbaugh’s last season with the Cardinals he went 11-1 with a massacre win over the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Orange bowl.
Now with what he already has started at Michigan, if history does in fact repeat itself, then Michigan at this point might already be ahead of that curve. These offensive struggles could just be the growing pains. That being said people are still waiting on us to get our Andrew Luck and in all fairness so am I. Next season could very well feature a 5 man race for quarterback with Wilton Speight (assuming his injury isn’t career threatening) Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey, and 4 star quarterbacks Joe Milton and Kevin Doyle. Realistically the freshmen would red-shirt leaving Speight, Peters, and McCaffrey. Now personally whoever wins that battle I will trust. But that is looking ahead to a quarterback battle for next season and beyond, there is still a lot of football to be had this season and I believe that Harbaugh will right the ship. But it may help to remember, his teams don’t really make a drastic up-swing for the better until year 4 when looking at history.
To me it starts with the offensive line getting right, I think this upcoming week against Indiana should be the week to do that. It is crucial for this team to build cohesion like Ohio State in 2014 or Penn State in 2016, and maybe this loss was the kick in the pants it needed. As for Indiana’s defense they have an average defense that ranks 54th in rush defense and that may be Michigan’s ticket to getting back on track. If the Wolverines can get the lineman blocking downhill and get a rhythm with your ground game, in turn the passing attack should open up beautifully and the offense should be running crisp with the key word being should. But all of that is if the offensive line gets shifted around or something gets figured out where we can get some momentum started; every other area of the offense should come together if the line can hold up. The outlook for the rest of the season shouldn’t be negative at all. This team and program are way ahead of schedule and if things do go south this season. Don’t panic just remember the 2018 class and all the help that they potentially brings in plus another year of growth, another off-season of training has me fairly certain that Michigan football is in good hands with Harbaugh at the helm for the future. Go Blue.
Derrick Ryan: Thanks Ty. While I don’t disagree with your points above, I’m going to go a bit deeper with what should give fans optimism and I’ll do so for the short term and then for the long term.
For the rest of this season, fans can draw the most optimism by simply tempering expectations a bit an simply hoping for the best. This offense has been on display for 5 games now and many of the same issues are still there. Look for the small improvements and gain confidence in watching the team grow. We’ve harped on the right side of the line every week to this point, but did you know that Mike Onwenu was the lone offensive Wolverine listed as a top performer in week 6 by PFF:
— Michigan Sports News (@SportsGuyMI) October 10, 2017
This has to give us some positive vibes. Also, Michigan currently ranks 118 in sacks given up per game at 3.2 per game allowed. There really is nowhere to go from here except up. I’ll be watching this stat to see if it improves but there is much that goes into improvement in that area. QB must get rid of the ball (on time), Line must protect long enough for him to do so, QB should know when to give up on a play and simply throw it away. However, improvement in this number will be an indication or improvement in how the line is playing.
Michigan may need to establish itself as simply a game managing team, with smash-mouth running, more running, and not really ever giving up on running. It may also want to incorporate more intermediate routes and really cut down on the deep passes. Jim is good at this, he got the most out of Alex Smith in resurrecting Smith’s career at San Francisco. He got the most out of Jake Rudock while he was at Michigan with a similar approach. Lastly, Harbaugh and son may want to do away with the RB by rotation, or at least cut back on the amount of rotation – it’s pretty clear who has the hot hand after a series or two, let’s just stick with what is working.
So offensively, these are the things I will be watching for and looking forward to in the short term and if the wheels continue to fall off, I’ll be happy hopefully watching some of the younger guys cut their teeth.
Defensively, there is plenty to be entertained by. This unit plays fast! They play fast because the scheme is semi-simple, yet looks more complex than it is and causes tons of confusion for the offense facing it. This will not change and believe it or not, there is room for them to improve too. There are bouts of busted coverage here and there, missed tackles at times, and this team still can fall victim to over-pursuit while facing teams that use a lot of misdirection, getting the defense moving one way only to throw back to the vacated side of the field. Can you imagine this defense if it improved? Wow…
Moving towards the longer term – Ty, as you mentioned, this team is still coached by Jim Harbaugh. Jim is a great coach and fans are happy to have him here. I don’t know of a better coach for this program, period, and definitely not one who is or will be available anytime soon. Frankly, most true Michigan fans wouldn’t want any other coach to be in charge at Michigan. It will be interesting to see what happens with the staff going forward, and the results of this year may help to make some of those decisions. But I know this, no matter how the staff shakes out, they will be committed to making this team the best it possibly can be. This team still is partially made up of the 4th overall recruiting class in 2017. On top of that 2016 brought Michigan the #8 class. The talent is there but unfortunately these guys are all Freshmen and Sophomores currently.
2015, Harbaugh’s first cycle, which was a partial cycle, the Wolverines ranked 37th and only had 14 recruits come in that cycle. These are your Juniors and the top recruit from that class is gone from the team (Brian Cole). Also notable, stalwart OT Grant Newsome is injured (that hurts bad right now), CB Keith Washington filed his transfer papers, Shelton Johnson is gone from the team, and K Andrew David transferred to TCU. That leaves 9 players from that class who can contribute this year and QB Alex Malzone, a Hoke holdover, who is buried in the QB depth chart makes it feel like 8.
The good news is, that natural attrition from graduation and NFL drafting of Juniors and Seniors, should not hurt the team as much as it did this past year. There just isn’t as much, in numbers, to lose and as the current Freshman and Sophomores continue to grow, they should be able to step in and go to work. We also know that the defense is primed to never skip a beat so long as Don “Dr. Blitz” Brown is in charge of the unit.
Offensively, based on the performance to this point this year, it can’t get much worse and to believe things won’t eventually improve both this year and long term, is extremely pessimistic. We have the fact that Harbaugh is touted as an offensive guy and QB guru to give hope to Michigan fans. We also have these juicy bits. In 2007 when Harbaugh took over the Stanford Cardinal, they ranked 84th in FEI Total Offense while going 4-8. The following year they jumped to 31 but only improved to 5-7, record wise. In 2009, Stanford jumped to number 4, Nationally in FEI total offense, and improved to 8-5. Finally, in 2010 – the Cardinal offense ranked number 1 and improved to 11-1 overall. So there is no reason to believe that Harbaugh won’t improve this offense, short of the fact that he doesn’t have David Shaw at the moment. Fans should have every reason to believe that if it doesn’t work out with his current staff, changes will be made, and he will find his new Shaw just as he did with Don Brown on defense. Heck, after “rumored” turmoil among the staff on the offensive side of the ball, last year going into this year, changes were made but the verdict is out on whether those were largely successful changes – it appears not with a small 5 game sample size. The fact remains, he will get it right and it is not solely dependent on getting his Andrew Luck. Luck didn’t start until 2009 and while the major jumps continued with him at the helm, the offense jumped 53 spots from 2007 to 2008 without him.
To sum everything up – of course there is reason for disappointment so far this year, and there may be some disappointing times yet to endure as Michigan works its way through this season. Instead of wasting all of your energy critiquing every flaw, while there is plenty to critique, you’ll drive yourself crazy doing so; use this approach instead. Take solace in the fact that there are much brighter times ahead and in the fact that this season is not over. All goals are still there to be achieved, it’s just a matter of reaching them. My best advice is just to enjoy supporting the team for better or worse, hope for the best and cheer for the team with enthusiasm unknown to mankind!