The bye week is finally here, so it seemed like as good a time as any to take stock of Michigan’s season so far. We’ll also have plenty to say about the defensive side, but for now, let’s tackle the offense. Enjoy.
Nick: Well, that was a pretty good send-off, I think - Michigan’s offense put up as many touchdowns in one game as Rutgers has put up all year on offense. What did you think, Garrett?
Garrett: It was, officially, the FBS beat down of the millennium. I think it’s worth noting too that Michigan only threw the ball THREE TIMES in the second half. Michigan’s runners, if they even needed it, should have a ton of confidence moving forward.
Nick: Yeah, this team is getting more confident every week, it seems. I feel like Harbaugh hasn’t gotten enough credit for building up the psychology of this team - a group whose leaders came up during some losing seasons under Hoke.
Harbaugh keeps saying, ‘treat every game like it’s a title game,’ and I think this team has done that. Every week’s been a pressure-packed, important week, and we’ve started to see the little mistakes go away as a result.
So, let’s dive into the offense a little more. What have you seen from the quarterback position so far that you’ve liked? What have you seen that’s worried you?
Garrett: Wilton Speight has shown steady evolution as a quarterback week to week, which I think is promising and important, regardless of how much it’s expected with Harbaugh guiding the process. His patience and pocket presence has improved from inexperienced against Hawaii to something like Game Manager currently. If we continue to see that growth in his ability and decision making, he could be a dangerous quarterback against Ohio State and into the postseason.
That being said, I still have major (I’m nitpicking) concerns about Speight as a quarterback. He lacks consistent accuracy throwing the ball deep, and he doesn’t throw his receivers open. The most successful part of Michigan’s passing game so far has been their ability to hit targets four to eight yards downfield and let them make big plays with their legs. Or they’ve relied on the speed of Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh to get downfield on screen passes. We saw against Colorado, and Wisconsin especially, how much Michigan’s offense can be slowed when this part of the game is taken away.
I’m going to let you chip in here before I get too deep into a rant.
Nick: Hey, man, that’s what this is all for. You know, I think Speight’s relationship with his receivers is definitely an interesting topic that hasn’t gotten a lot of conversation so far, and we all know they have the athleticism to do a lot more than help Speight manage a game.
I think Jehu Chesson has been the biggest victim so far of Speight’s lack of comfort with the deep passing game. Plus, Eddie McDoom has largely taken away the jet sweeps that Chesson executed so well last year, even before Jake Rudock started throwing lights out. Chesson’s bound to break out in the second half of the season, isn’t he? And, as Speight continues to grow, do you think there’s somebody else who might make a giant leap in performance?
Garrett: With Butt, Darboh, Chesson, Perry, and McDoom Michigan has one of the most dangerous and talented receiving corps in the B1G. And, truthfully, probably the entire country. So far it’s underwhelming. I still have some lingering frustrations from the Devin Funchess era, who I think could have been our best wideout since Braylon Edwards but all his talents were squandered under a, more or less, dumpster-fire administration (I’m referring mostly to what Dave Brandon piloted, though coaching staffs require some blame as well). So if I seem worried about talent going to waste it just because, well, I am.
I think the chances of Chesson (and Darboh as well, I guess) breaking out in the next half of the season have to be high. The timing has gotten better, Speight just needs to develop his accuracy and deep ball placement. He’s showing week to week improvement in that facet, so I’m hopeful.
If that happens, we’ll see big numbers from Jake Butt and Grant Perry. Butt we’ve come to expect to get 11 catch 100+ yard games occasionally, and I think a lot of people thought he’d be more dominant at this point in the season. Defenses, however, are mostly keying in on him, which is easy when that deep threat is essentially non-existent. Perry has been open and overlooked more than a few times this season, and targeted as a sort of last ditch receiver when he’s tightly or double covered. If defenses have to start respecting Speight’s downfield throwing, I expect those two guys to have a few big games.
Furthermore, and I know this isn’t much of a Hot Take, but if all that comes true, I think we can expect a couple of huge games out of Chris Evans. He gets up to top speed in one or two steps and we’ve seen what he can do in space. At the moment he’s probably undersized, and still a freshman. But if he gets a chance to run against a defense that’s scared of Michigan’s passing game, Evans can make 30 yard runs routinely.
Nick: Yeah, I see what you mean, but I disagree a little on Evans’ size; 5’11” and 200 pounds is only small when you’re on a roster like Michigan or Alabama. If he were 5’7” and 180, that’d be different, but even guys like that will make the NFL from time to time.
I remember thinking before the season that Evans would be deadliest as a slot receiver, but I’m really happy to be dead wrong about that - he’s been fantastic as a runner, and actually leads the team in rushing yards halfway through the year. (Who would have predicted that?) And besides, Harbaugh hasn’t really been using the slot this season anyway.
Still, I agree about Evans having some more great games ahead of him, and I think he might start showing that he can catch the ball as well. Evans could break out a whole other dimension to his game by doing that. De’Veon Smith and Ty Isaac haven’t shown that they can consistently catch the football.
One last thought about Evans: there were times last year when Michigan’s offense needed to use Jabrill Peppers to find a real spark from the running game. Evans is able to fill that role now, and he can chip in 10-15 carries while only gaining experience and getting better. That’s very valuable.
Garrett: I would like to see Michigan find a reliable receiving threat out of the backfield. A lot of passing downs they’re busy picking up blitzes, but that’s more of an indication that defenses aren’t worried about using an extra lineman or linebacker in a blitz package and sacrificing double coverage somewhere down field. We’ll see how that develops. Isaac and Smith really don’t have great hands.
Everything I think Michigan’s offense can be comes back to their need to develop that deep threat.
You’re absolutely right about Michigan needing Peppers to spark the offense last year, and so far that’s not the case this season. I think that could be a big difference in Michigan’s ability to control games down the stretch. Whenever Peppers is on the field he has the chance to do something exciting and change the game (not just offensively I should add). That Michigan doesn’t need him so much to keep drives going means they can hopefully use him as more of the X-Factor I think they envisioned last year when they thought their running game would be better.
Speaking of which, is there any other team in the country better at getting one yard on the ground than Michigan? To me, that’s been their most impressive part of the running attack this season.
Nick: Well, maybe Alabama, but that’s a topic for another day. Harbaugh has done a sneaky good job of building up an outstanding group of weapons who are perfect for converting those third-and-short or goal-line situations - guys like Khalid Hill, Eddie McDoom, and Jabrill are all X-factors in their own ways, and Michigan has a few tight ends who are easy to forget about and haven’t been used a lot yet. And Jake Butt is an All-American.
Plus, you’ve got De’Veon Smith, Ty Isaac, and Chris Evans who can run the ball, and each of those guys is becoming an All-Big Ten caliber player. Basically, I don’t think Michigan has gone through a tenth of their playbook yet when it comes to those high-pressure moments where you need a few yards to stay on the field. If Michigan isn’t the best in the country, they’re right up there.
As for the offensive line, we’ll see if they can stay healthy and even get a little bit stronger over the course of the year. I feel a lot better about the depth than I used to, but things can change quickly if there are too many more injuries. There’s a chance we might see some good things, though, out of Michael Onwenu and Ben Bredeson in the second half.
Garrett: We saw what happened to the defensive line last year after it was wrecked by injury.
Nick: That is very true. So much depends on Michigan staying healthy. If we can’t do that, it’s hard to say we can win a title.
Anything else you want to hit on offense?
Garrett: I just want to briefly praise the genius of Harbaugh’s single file queue formation. The defense basically has to roll the dice on the strong side/weak side of the offense, and if you snap the ball quickly (like Michigan did), there’s a good chance to exploit a huge mismatch and make a big play.
Nick: Harbaugh never misses a trick, does he. He’s been incredible to watch.
Garrett: He has. I’m really interested in cracking the code about why he goes for two, up four scores. That was at least the third time he’s done it in his career.
Nick: We shall never know.