Take a deep breath. Take a deep breath. It’s hard after that game not to be very frustrated with the state of Michigan football, but I’ll say the same thing I said toward the end of the regular season: This was not going to be a great season from the beginning. Michigan lost almost everyone on defense from 2016, lost a bunch of production on offense, and lost three offensive line starters. They also didn’t get back their starting LT who got injured from last year, got their best WR hurt, and lost their starting four games into the year. If you’re an objective observer, you can probably admit that those are some huge, huge hurdles to overcome.
Hit the jump for the rest of the game discussion.
Bowl game discipline and injuries drive me nuts. I don’t know what happens between the regular season and the bowl game, but something always goes awry with personnel. Whether it’s injuries or knuckleheads getting in trouble, someone always manages not to participate. Last year it was Jabrill Peppers, who pulled a hamstring before the Orange Bowl against Florida State. Going back to the 2013 Outback Bowl against South Carolina, both J.T. Floyd (a starting corernback) and Brandin Hawthorne (a backup linebacker and key special teamer) engaged in some “extracurricular activities. Aside from the injuries and losses mentioned in the above section, here are several other personnel losses:
- LG Ben Bredeson was injured and replaced by part-time starting RG Michael Onwenu
- C Patrick Kugler was replaced by Stephen Spanellis, either due to injury or ineffectiveness
- RG Cesar Ruiz was playing in place of Onwenu already, due to both injury and ineffectiveness
- RT Juwann Bushell-Beatty was rumored to have been involved in some “extracurricular activities” this year and did not play, and he was replaced by Jon Runyan, Jr.
- FB Khalid Hill played sparingly for some undisclosed reason
- RB Ty Isaac was unavailable due to injury
- RB Kareem Walker was also not at the game, like Bushell-Beatty
Depending on your view of Isaac and Walker, that’s anywhere from 5-7 key pieces missing from Michigan’s already anemic offense. That’s bordering on preposterous. Just for fun, I want to take a look at the depth chart from game one to game thirteen:
Wilton Speight John O’KornBrandon Peters John O’Korn
Chris EvansKaran Higdon Chris Evans Ty Isaac Kareem WalkerChris Evans
Khalid HillHenry Poggi Ben Mason
Tarik BlackDonovan Peoples-Jones
- WR: Kekoa Crawford
Grant Perry Eddie McDoomNico Collins Nate Schoenle
- TE: Sean McKeon Zach Gentry Ian Bunting Tyrone Wheatley
- LT: Mason Cole
Ben BredesonMichael Onwenu
Patrick KuglerStephen Spanellis
Michael OnwenuCesar Ruiz
Nolan Ulizio Juwann Bushell-BeattyJon Runyan, Jr.
That chart above is virtually preposterous. The only positions not to be radically affected in this game was one wide receiver spot (Kekoa Crawford, probably the least effective pass catcher), tight end, and left tackle. Whether that’s coaching, strength and conditioning, just pure luck, or some combination, it boggles the mind.
Lack of personnel affects play calling. As much as I was annoyed by the offensive play calling in this game, the lack of consistency on the offensive side of the ball affects your ability to throw in new wrinkles, change formations, run trick plays, etc. Peters looks like the best quarterback on Michigan’s roster, but he only had a couple starts under his belt. Nico Collins started this game, and he barely even played all year long. Spanellis probably played more snaps as a short yardage fullback than as an actual offensive lineman. How tricky can you get when you’re just trying to make sure your new starters know your base formations and plays?
But the play calling sucked. Yes. Yes, it did. You have to find a balance between breaking tendencies and perfecting vanilla plays, but Michigan totally abandoned tricks and misdirection. They tried an end around to Donovan Peoples-Jones (stuffed for a loss) and a misdirection pitch to Karan Higdon (which he almost turned into a TD). That’s it. No “Train” formation, no halfback pass, no flea flicker, no hook and ladder, no misdirection screen. There were even opportunities for Brandon Peters to keep on a couple zone reads, and he never did.
Oh, yeah, except for that one trick. Michigan did try a boneheaded handoff to tight end Sean McKeon on 3rd-and-1. McKeon had zero career carries coming into this game. And he still has zero. Because he fumbled. I was nervous a couple years ago when Michigan decided to move Khalid Hill from tight end to fullback, because he had never taken handoffs before, but he had an entire offseason to perfect it. McKeon never attempted to carry the ball until the Outback Bowl, and he looked exactly like one would expected a tight end to look on a fullback dive. Michigan has been excellent with Hill, Ben Mason, and Henry Poggi carrying the ball on short yardage, so why hand off to McKeon? It doesn’t make any sense. You’re taking a strength and making it a weakness, or at least an unknown. Just give it to your fullbacks, who are 240-260 lbs., and watch them gain 1-2 yards every time. (UPDATE: According to The Michigan Daily, McKeon wasn’t supposed to be in the game at that time, but Peters and the coaching staff didn’t call a timeout or correct the issue.)
On that note, fire the offensive coordinator(s). I don’t see how Pep Hamilton and/or Tim Drevno aren’t let go in the off-season. Harbaugh has already let one head roll, exchanging S&C coach Kevin Tolbert for Ben Herbert. But that’s not enough. Harbaugh needs to light a fire under the team and hold someone accountable, for the program itself and for the fans to feel some renewed energy going into 2018. The play calling has been uninspired all season, and the Ohio State game seemed to be the only one in which Michigan tried to keep teams off balance. Otherwise, it was just the guys in the winged helmets thinking they could execute better than every other team. Former Michigan State and Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos is supposed to join Michigan’s staff soon, but the capacity is unknown. Will he be the 10th assistant coach, or will he replace Drevno/Hamilton? Will he coach running backs and move Jay Harbaugh back to tight ends, since Greg Frey is leaving for Florida State? There are going to be a fair number of moving parts in the offseason.
Karan Higdon made a critical error. Michigan was up 19-3 when Higdon fumbled at the 4-yard line going in to score. From that point forward, South Carolina scored 23 unanswered points. I remember some outrage flung in the direction of Ty Isaac when his fumble changed momentum against Michigan State, but I didn’t see the same response on Twitter toward Higdon. Higdon, who lost 2 fumbles this year, lost some time on the next drive to Chris Evans and then re-entered the game. Ty Isaac played sparingly after the fumble (27 carries, 183 yards, 1 TD) before getting injured against Rutgers and essentially missing the remainder of the year. Of course, with Isaac and Walker out for this game, Michigan didn’t have much of a choice to totally bench Higdon, but I find it curious how the players are viewed differently.
The defense is good, but there are flaws. I have a really hard time blaming the defense. It’s tough to be good at defense when the offense is bad. Not only is there a lack of continued momentum, but you end up with poor field position and you’re on the field longer than you should be. Michigan has some excellent defensive players, and the weak spot – the safety positions – can be exposed. It’s not perfect, but there are other teams where it’s not only the safeties, but the pass rush. Or it’s the safeties and the corners. Or it’s most of the defensive line and a couple linebackers. Don Brown gets heat for playing man-to-man, putting safeties on slot receivers, putting Mike McCray on running backs, etc. Live by the sword, die by the sword. South Carolina never gets a chance to make some of those offensive plays if the offense didn’t give them 5 turnovers in the second half, including two in the redzone and a muffed punt that bounced off of Donovan Peoples-Jones’s facemask.
Freshmen aren’t ideal. I touched on the lack of experience above, but it’s hard not to shrug my shoulders when it comes to all the mistakes being made. Freshmen make a ton of mistakes in high school football, and the same thing often happens in college. The pressure, the speed, the intricacies of the game, they all mount. Peoples-Jones has shown great hands all year long on punt returns, and he picked a terrible time and place to let the ball hit his facemask. Redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters hadn’t faced a defense that good since he was knocked out of the Wisconsin game (also, he hadn’t seen any defense since then), and he was trying to connect with freshman wideouts in Peoples-Jones and Collins. Peters was overwhelmed, and he seemed to be shying away from contact; whether it was the concussion or just this game, there are questions in the back of my mind about the steel in his spine. Peoples-Jones was behind Black to start the year, and Collins wasn’t even on the radar. It was like throwing out a JV team against a varsity squad. South Carolina has its own issues, which is one reason why they’re also not great on offense. But at least Jake Bentley is a returning starter at QB, and they have a TE who’s leaving early for the NFL after catching 48 balls last season.
Jim Harbaugh needs to produce. I don’t want to say Jim Harbaugh is on the hot seat, but it kind of feels like he’s on the hot seat. Will Michigan fire him if he goes 8-5 next season? I can’t really see that happening. Maybe it depends on if he wins against the right people. There are too many variables. If he goes 8-5 with wins against Michigan State and Ohio State, then enough people will probably be satisfied. But he’s 1-2 against Michigan State, 0-3 against Ohio State, and 1-2 in bowl games. That’s not great. For everyone’s sake – Michigan’s, Harbaugh’s, the players’, the fans’ – I hope we don’t get to a point where we’re seriously talking about firing a former great Michigan player and truly a high-quality coach. I think Harbaugh is good for Michigan and for college football overall. It’s a great story, the hometown guy coming back to coach his college team. I hate to see those marriages end badly anywhere. Harbaugh has talked about spending the rest of his career at Michigan, but if he doesn’t, I hope he has a couple big seasons in Ann Arbor before returning to the NFL.
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