That was uglier than expected. And frankly, it was uglier than it should have been. For all the talk of Jim Harbaugh being a master motivator, most of the team laid an egg on Saturday. I suggested on Twitter that maybe Michigan should have hired Brady Hoke as a special consultant for Ohio State week. Obviously, that was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but Hoke took worse teams and went 1-3 against the Buckeyes, including a couple close losses and some exciting performances from Devin Gardner. We knew that Ohio State would run tempo, which would be a problem for Michigan’s defense, which was already missing two starting linemen and a key backup. The immediately concerning thing was that Ohio State was making plays early in the game. An unblocked inside linebacker facing a quarterback in the hole is a win for the defense – and normally a dream come true for a linebacker – but Joe Bolden whiffed and J.T. Barrett scored a touchdown. If you can’t make that play when you’re fresh, then it’s going to be a long day against a team that runs tempo.
Hit the jump for the rest of the game recap.
What else does Michigan have at linebacker going forward? Defensively, the most glaring issue has been Michigan’s linebacker play. The scary thing is that Michigan’s top four linebackers in the rotation are seniors. The only non-senior to play a lot of snaps this year is junior Ben Gedeon. Michigan made the questionable decision to move redshirt freshman Chase Winovich to tight end; I heard good things about that move in the off-season, and then he didn’t play at all this year on that side of the ball. Redshirt freshman Noah Furbush became a special teams standout late in the year, and redshirt junior Allen Gant saw some time on defense and special teams without doing anything noteworthy. Toss in redshirt freshman Jared Wangler – who I didn’t see on the field at all this year – and the injured Mike McCray II, and that’s your 2016 linebacker crew, everybody. Get ready for walk-ons and freshmen.
Speaking of Joe Bolden. I am always hesitant to pull out the d-word when it comes to players, because after all, they’re amateurs. And sometimes players develop late in their careers. But I’ll say it here: I’m disappointed in Bolden. He was an Under Armour All-American, the #2 inside linebacker, and the #75 overall player in the 2012 class. He has been playing heavy minutes since his true freshman year. He has generally had good defensive linemen in front of him, and his position coaches have been well regarded defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and D.J. Durkin. His troubles with tackling and pass coverage are somewhat inexcusable for a senior captain. It’s hard to think back on his career and see more than one or two impact plays. A four-year contributor and two-year starter at inside linebacker should have more than 5 sacks, 2 pass breakups, and 1 fumble recovery to show for his time, and a log of his missed tackles would be quite extensive. I don’t know if Michigan will be better post-Bolden, but I certainly expected a lot more from him by this point.
Freshmen will be freshmen. In the modern game of football, it is necessary to play freshmen. You can’t recruit if you won’t play freshmen, and with scholarship limits, you’re lacking athleticism at certain places if you redshirt every single one of them. At the same time, I worked with a high school coach at one time who said, “For every freshman or sophomore you start on varsity, you lose one game.” Inexperienced players just aren’t mentally equipped to play the game at a high level, in big games, etc. (Of course, as the paragraph about Joe Bolden points out above, sometimes seniors aren’t equipped, either.) There are numerous examples, not least of which was the roughing-the-punter penalty against freshman safety Tyree Kinnel. Early in the game, Ohio State was punting from its own endzone, and Kinnel made an ill-advised dive toward the punter; he missed the ball, took out the punter’s leg, and rightfully deserved the penalty. It was a good call. Instead of Michigan receiving the ball in plus territory, Ohio State kept it and scored a touchdown on the drive. Later in the game, Jabrill Peppers caught a screen pass and made most of Ohio State’s defense miss while cutting across the field; freshman wide receiver Grant Perry decided not to block the nearest defender, and Peppers was tripped up by the resulting shoestring tackle attempt, taking away a possible touchdown. I guess you have to live with these types of mistakes, but they can be momentum-changers. I would be naive to think that either play was the difference in a 42-13 ballgame, but there’s a tiny chance that the outcome is different if Michigan doesn’t rough the punter. A few years back, freshman fullback Sione Houma was on the field in the bowl game with a chance to tackle South Carolina punt returner Ace Sanders, but a freshman fullback is no match for a slot receiver in the open field (note: Houma was replacing senior linebacker Brandin Hawthorne on the punt team after Hawthorne got himself suspended for the game).
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. De’Veon Smith is Michigan’s hammer. He is a hammer. Every defender looks like a nail. He ends the regular season with 4.15 rushing yards/carry. Certain people will say that the offensive line is not doing its job up front, but there are holes and plays to be made. Smith missed a couple gaping holes yesterday and ran into a pile of bodies instead. Based on chatter I’ve heard and the running back rotations after the last several weeks, I would not be surprised if both Derrick Green and Ty Isaac are elsewhere next year. Michigan needs to recruit as many running backs as possible in the 2016 class in the hopes that one of them can pan out. Unfortunately, Matt Falcon and his ACL issues take one bullet out of the chamber, but Chris Evans and Kiante Enis both deserve a look at running back, and hopefully Michigan can pull in Kareem Walker, too. I wouldn’t be opposed to Michigan continuing to look at additional options, either.
Michigan’s receivers aren’t so bad after all. The receiver position was the big question mark early in the year, but they came on as the year went along. The Jake Rudock-to-Jehu Chesson connection was fun to watch over the past several weeks, and Amara Darboh made some amazing catches, including a diving long ball against Ohio State. Chesson caught 8 passes for 111 yards and 1 touchdown, while Darboh caught 4 passes for 68 yards. Both of them return next year, along with Jake Butt (5 catches, 54 yards). If solid quarterback play can show its face next year . . .
Jake Rudock love. It’s a little disappointing that Rudock doesn’t have another year of eligibility, because it clearly took him half the year to get in sync with Michigan’s offense. But he bridged the gap so we didn’t have more growing pains, while the Wolverines have successfully redshirted Shane Morris for the year (barring something weird happening in the bowl game). I never understood Iowa fans’ consternation over him as a quarterback, even though things worked out for them in their 12-0 regular season. I also didn’t understand why some Michigan people didn’t want Rudock. A comparison of stats between 2015 Rudock at Michigan and 2015 C.J. Beathard at Iowa:
Rudock: 64% completions, 2,739 yards, 7.7 yards/attempt, 17 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 138.88 PER
Beathard: 60.7% completions, 2,354 yards, 7.8 yards/attempt, 14 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 139.26 PER
Keeping in mind that Iowa played only one ranked team (Northwestern) and missed three of the top defensive teams in the conference (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State), I’d say that’s a pretty good indication that the Hawkeyes would have been just fine with Rudock, too. Toss in the fact that Iowa was #32 in the country in rushing and had a 4.83 yards/carry average (Michigan was #93 and had 4.12 yards/carry), and that takes a lot of pressure off the QB. The quarterback wasn’t the issue – injuries and coaching were the problems.
Early favorite for the 2016 quarterback job? John O’Korn.
Overall, it was a good year. It was not a great one. Michigan lost to Ohio State in a blowout and to Michigan State in a heartbreaker, but I had the Wolverines at 8-4 going into the year. You could say that Michigan was a dropped punt snap away from being 10-2, but you could also say they were a few inches away from being 8-4 or even 7-5 (losses to Minnesota and Indiana were possible). Ultimately, you get what you earn, and Michigan earned a 9-3 record. We saw development at most positions, with the possible exceptions being running back and linebacker. Michigan had three straight shutouts, and for a while, the Wolverines were the top defense in the country. Jake Rudock set a school record for passing yardage in a single game, Jehu Chesson tied a school record with 4 TD catches in one game, and Chesson caught 8 touchdowns in a five-game span. (Looking at historical stats, that’s the best scoring stretch from a receiver over five games since Derrick Alexander caught 8 touchdowns over four games in 1992.)
What’s next? We might see a rematch of the 2011 Gator Bowl matchup. Michigan vs. Mississippi State is a very real possibility in the Outback Bowl this year.
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