Welcome to the Reaction Roundtable, a new feature we are debuting at Maize n Brew. Each Sunday this football season, three of our staff members, Kevin Bunkley, Drew Hallett, and Josh LaFond, will share their instant thoughts, analysis, musings, and (attempted) humor on Michigan’s’ performance the previous day. It will be a free-flowing conversation, like the one you had with your best friend on the couch or the buffoon at the bar yesterday, with no form, rhyme, or reason. And, by the end, we will wrap up what you need to know before the next game week.
Drew Hallett: For the third straight week, Michigan won comfortably against an inferior Big Ten opponent, shelling Maryland on the road, 35-10. However, this was a tale of two halves. The Wolverines seized control during a four-minute stretch early in the second quarter when they capitalized on an unsuccessful fake punt and successful punt block to score three quick touchdowns and extend their lead to 28 points. From there, though, Michigan wasn’t as effective, and Maryland found some success in the second half.
With two heavyweights next on Michigan’s schedule, are you concerned about Michigan’s second half? Or do you think it was Michigan shifting into cruise control?
Josh LaFond: During the game, I became concerned, but my nerves calmed down in large part due to Brandon Peters’ post-game interview with BTN. He essentially admitted Michigan’s goal was to start hot and that they took their foot off the gas.
Like you said, Drew, Michigan now has the two heavyweights of the Big Ten in back-to-back weeks. The less meaningful plays that Michigan puts on film, the better, and that’s why I didn’t have a problem with them taking their foot off of Maryland’s throat.
Drew: That is one aspect of it, but there is more to it as well. But before I dive into it...
Look, I understand, on the surface, why certain fans were annoyed with the second half. They see Maryland outgained Michigan, 228-93, and averaged 6.9 yards per play to Michigan’s 3.7 after halftime. They see Maryland actually ended a possession with a touchdown (oh no!). They expect Michigan to be flawless and beat inferior teams into an oblivion all 60 minutes. They expect and wish for this because it’d indicate U-M is ready for Wisconsin and Ohio State.
But there is a bigger picture, and Jim Harbaugh sees that. As you mentioned, Michigan dialed it back after taking a 28-0 lead. The play calling was more conservative because Maryland was not threatening a serious comeback. Down by four touchdowns in the final minute of the third quarter, the Terrapins chose to kick a 20-yard field goal rather than go for seven. They weren’t trying to win. They were just trying to avoid a shutout. So Michigan kept it plain because there was no need to reveal anything special with the Badgers and Buckeyes on deck. Michigan knew it was walking out with a victory.
Michigan also just wanted the game to end as quickly as possible to limit any further injuries. Karan Higdon departed with an ankle injury, Lavert Hill suffered a concussion, Rashan Gary exited favoring his left arm, and David Long was banged up, too. Those are four pivotal players for the Wolverines, and they will all be needed next week. We should learn more about their status soon, but Michigan couldn’t afford to lose anyone else. So their plan was to consume as much clock as possible before that happened.
Was it a perfect game by Michigan? No. Was the second half concerning? Not really.
Kevin Bunkley: It appeared most of Michigan’s starters were in until the end, but Jim Harbaugh wasn’t going to risk further injury by playing aggressively. Maryland moved the ball because the defense sat in zone coverage and hardly blitzed. The game wrapped up quickly because Michigan wasn’t trying to extend the thing. Glen Mason may have thought Maryland had a chance, but Maryland knew it didn’t have a chance.
Especially when they kicked a pity field goal in the second half.
We’ve seen Michigan be a second half team throughout most of Harbaugh’s three seasons. It’s not a valid criticism to say Michigan looked flat because it had no answer for Maryland’s scheme when the Terps could only score 10 measly points. Michigan’s offense was barely on the field the second half until Chris Evans finally put them in the red zone in garbage time. Their average starting field position was the Maryland 44 (!) yard line, yet the insatiable horde of Michigan fans who never enjoy any margin of victory against weaker opponents wanted more out of a team that has two games against the best two teams in the conference left to close out the year.
Drew: We’re all in agreement that the second half shouldn’t be a concern. So was there anything from this game that concerns you heading into the final two weeks?
Kevin: MIKE. McCray just hasn’t been fast enough at that position. He missed a couple tackles and was out of position on a few of those stretch plays that got Maryland first downs. I don’t think he’s an incapable player. He just doesn’t seem like he’s developed this year versus last. We saw in the Penn State game he kept getting matched up against Saquon Barkley and lost every time. If he’s out there purely for leadership and helping read offenses, then fine, but c’mon dude make a tackle every once and awhile.
Josh: I’m with Kevin on this one, too. Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins are legit, and if Mike McCray matches up on them, you might as well put six on the scoreboard.
Another thing that is worrisome is how the safeties play in coverage. We’ve seen it for three straight weeks now that the safeties, especially Josh Metellus, are a liability in coverage. Is this a scheme thing? Maybe. But if Wisconsin star wideout Jazz Peavy returns and matches up with them next week, it might be ugly. Hopefully Michigan can adjust accordingly with different personnel looks and/or scheme to defend that.
Kevin: Ooh, good point on Metellus. That was my runner-up because he can’t make solo tackles either. He just tries to hit guys like Morgan Trent used to and fails at it.
Drew: I have three concerns, one from each phase of the game. My defensive concern is one that you both just mentioned: safeties in coverage. It’s not as if Michigan has below-average safeties. Both Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus are good players. However, when you are on a defense as stingy and sound as Michigan’s, we tend to nitpick and dive deeper into liabilities. And Kinnel’s and Metellus’ man coverage in the slot is a liability that could re-materialize next weekend against Wisconsin. Without Quintez Cephus and Jazz Peavy (unless the latter returns), the Badgers do not have much of a threat at receiver, but they do have Troy Fumagalli. At tight end, Fumagalli could present a problem in the middle if Metellus and Kinnel are with him in man coverage.
My special teams concern is quite obvious after Saturday: Quinn Nordin’s slump. After hitting a 31-yard try wide right against Maryland, he has missed three straight field goals and has not hit one through the uprights since the October 14th win at Indiana. Further, he’s also missed two extra points in that span, too. The Michigan Insider’s Allen Trieu reported a couple of weeks ago that Nordin was dealing with an injury. I do not know if or how much that is impacting Nordin right now, but Michigan’s placekicking has done a complete 180 from the beginning of the year. Michigan could afford misses in these past several games as the Wolverines were too much for Rutgers, Minnesota, or Maryland to handle. However, Michigan will need every point it can get if it wants to upset Wisconsin or Ohio State, so Nordin needs to break out of this slump promptly.
My offensive concern, at least stemming out of the Maryland result, is how uninvolved Michigan’s wideouts are in the passing game. On Saturday, Brandon Peters completed 9-of-18 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Other than a low completion rate, it’s a very good stat line. However, only one completion went to a wide receiver: Eddie McDoom for two yards. Everything else was a reception by either a tight end (Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon) or a running back (Karan Higdon and Chris Evans), and this has been a trend since Peters was inserted at quarterback. Now, some of this can be attributed to Michigan’s shift in offensive strategy to line up more frequently in 22 personnel (aka two running backs, two tight ends, one receiver). It can be attributed to injuries as Tarik Black, Kekoa Crawford, and Grant Perry have all gone down for some period of time. Against Maryland, it can also be attributed to some obvious defensive pass interference which was not enforced when Peters targeted Donovan Peoples-Jones. However, the presence and impact of Michigan’s wideouts is dwindling each week. Michigan is going to need to hit that deep shot at some point, and though Gentry did get behind Maryland’s defense, the wideouts need to pose a threat, too.
Josh: For all of the concerns there were about the passing game that you posed, Drew, and that I’ve seen elsewhere, I’m actually really happy with where it currently stands.
Who would have thought after the Indiana and Penn State games that this offense would have some life when tossing it through the air?! Brandon Peters has done a really good job making the right reads, and as Jim Harbaugh has said, Peters “has acquitted himself well”. Sure, the majority of throws were to the tight ends instead of the receivers, but the fact that he actually targeted Donovan Peoples-Jones deep TWICE warmed the cockles of my heart (credit the Harbaugh podcast for that quote).
For the first time since the Maryland game last year, I’m not nervous whenever a Michigan quarterback drops back to pass. This offense is gaining steam at the perfect time, and with the weapons they have at both tight end and receiver, I expect them to roll into Madison with a competent enough passing game to knock off the Badgers.
Drew: Brandon Peters has performed fairly well so far. It’s nothing to rave about. It’s nothing to be down about. But the offense has been clicking with him at quarterback even if the majority of the offense is him handing the ball to the running back. Peters made some nice plays against Maryland. In the second quarter, he rolled to his right to evade pressure and found Karan Higdon in the middle of the field before taking a nasty, illegal shot from a Terrapin defender. Higdon then scampered the other way for a 35-yard gain which set up Michigan’s second score. Peters also delivered a perfect touch pass to Zach Gentry up the seam for a 33-yard score to push Michigan’s lead to 21 points. And what Peters also has done is taken care of the football. Michigan has had 31 drives since Peters went under center. Not one has ended with a turnover.
Peters has done well with situational football. He hasn’t taken many risks, nor has he had to because Michigan’s staff has put him in great positions to succeed with manageable reads against overwhelmed defenses. We still don’t know though how he will do when the chips are down, and Michigan needs him to deliver a strike. Those moments are likely to come in the next two weeks, unless Michigan’s run offense can continue to pave the way and stay ahead of schedule against elite defenses. What do you think? Do you think Michigan’s ground game can keep the pressure off of Peters?
Kevin: As long as the offensive line keeps playing like they have, Michigan is in good shape. They’re opening holes, and if they get Michael Onwenu back, that’ll only help.
Josh: I think it does. Karan Higdon has proved the last few weeks that he can create something out of nothing, and that’s just what this offense needed. When you’re going up against the elite defenses of Wisconsin and Ohio State, you’ve got to have some playmakers. This offensive line should be able to open some holes even against these defenses, and with Higdon and Chris Evans’ emergence, the run game will be okay.
A healthy Higdon and Michael Onwenu the next two weeks will only help keep the pressure off of Peters. A clean pocket that keeps Peters on his feet more times than not and holes for the running backs are what’s going to get Michigan to 10-2.
Drew: And even if there isn’t a hole, that won’t stop Captain America:
Until next week, fellas, when Michigan has a shot to grab its first quality win.