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: No. 24 Michigan went to No. 5 Wisconsin with much at stake. Though the Wolverines were still technically in the hunt for the Big Ten East crown, this was more about making a statement about the program moving forward. They were 8-2, but had yet to earn a quality win. They had not won as an underdog since 2013. They had not beaten a ranked opponent on the road since 2006. They had not beaten Wisconsin in Madison since 2001, though much of that can be attributed to Big Ten scheduling.
This was an opportunity for this Michigan team to be heard, to be taken seriously, and to have others reflect on the 2017 season fondly rather than sourly, and for the first 40 minutes of the game, Michigan could not be ignored. They were outplaying Wisconsin and had a 10-7 lead after a Quinn Nordin field goal midway through the third quarter.
But then, Alex Hornibrook heated up, Brandon Peters went down, and everything crumbled around Michigan before the Wolverines fell to the Badgers, 24-10.
We’ll get to the big picture stuff soon. For now, let’s focus on this result. What do you think was the biggest reason the Wolverines let this game slip through their hands?
Josh LaFond: I’ll get straight to the point. The offense had moved the ball — for the most part — at a successful rate. The defense had shut down just about everything aside from a big play or two. It really felt like the Wolverines had a great shot to win.
Then Peters went down.
Watching Peters’ injury live, you could see how much this team really cares about him. As our Maize n’ Brew colleague Von Lozon mentioned to me, even the defensive players left their station next to Don Brown to see to Peters. So when the Wolverine defenders returned to the field absolutely needing a stop, it looked like the wind had been taken out of their sails. As I said at the start, Michigan was humming before Peters’ injury, and then once it happened, it looked like it took the fight right out of them.
Kevin Bunkley: We can raise hell about the lack of a penalty flag on the hit that knocked out Peters. We can point to the review on Donovan Peoples-Jones’ catch as another example of the incompetence that the Big Ten allows on their payroll for officiating. But Michigan isn’t going to lean on those very valid things as a reason for losing. Michigan isn’t good, even with Peters slinging balls deep down the field. The running backs vanished. The secondary let several long third down passes find their target because a guy was out of position. John O’Korn again demonstrated that he doesn’t grasp the situation when failing to convert a 4th & 2 and, prior to that, making a dumb decision to lower his head and take a hit when he couldn’t find anyone open.
When Karan Higdon, Chris Evans, and Kareem Walker account for under 50 yards rushing, of course Michigan is going to be forced to throw more and endanger a young quarterback. Michigan showed some promise offensively again, but the systemic issues were always going to show up because that glimmer of promise isn’t sustainable with so many missing pieces. Peters’ exit merely expedited the inevitable.
Drew: There are various reasons that can be considered, and you both touched on many of them. First, Michigan’s rushing attack, which had flourished the past three games against below average defenses as U-M transitioned to power and gap, hit a brick wall against Wisconsin. Though the offensive line generated push in the first few series, there was no room for Michigan’s backs to run thereafter as the Wolverines finished with only 76 rushing yards and 2.2 YPC after sacks are removed. To be successful, Michigan needed to have a consistent running game that could pick up four- to six-yard chunks and keep Peters out of obvious passing downs where Wisconsin’s defense thrives. However, Michigan could not get bodies on Wisconsin’s penetrating linebackers, and Michigan’s backs could not stay on the field as Ty Isaac and Higdon exited on back-to-back plays with apparent injuries. The result was that Michigan’s offense suddenly had to rely on Peters to move the ball and get points. This was a major shift from what Michigan had done recently to be successful offensively.
Second, Michigan’s safeties let the Wolverines down in one of the biggest moments of the game. Michigan had just taken the lead late in the third quarter, and Michigan’s defense had absolutely shut down Wisconsin. The Badgers’ only points until that moment came on a short punt return, and they had accumulated just 99 yards on 28 plays (3.5 YPP) after Hornibrook threw a costly interception. Wisconsin was spinning its wheels. However, on successive 3rd & Longs, Hornibrook connected with A.J. Taylor to burn Michigan’s secondary. The first one was over the top of Jaylen Kelly-Powell for 51 yards, and the second one split Khaleke Hudson and Josh Metellus for a 24-yard touchdown. In a sudden flash, Michigan’s defense went from dominating to down.
Third, the bad calls and bad breaks can’t be ignored. On review, it was indisputable that Peoples-Jones’ left foot landed in the end zone prior to his right foot landing out of bounds. It wasn’t simultaneous, and it should have been overturned for a touchdown. But it wasn’t, and Peters fumbled on the next play lunging for the goal line. The pass interference called on Tyree Kinnel on third down that extended Wisconsin’s game-winning drive was questionable at best. There was little contact initiated by Kinnel, and the pass appeared to be out of bounds and uncatchable. The penalty gave Wisconsin new life, and that life fueled Hornibrook on his next two third down throws. Wisconsin got away with numerous holding calls, none more egregious than the one that prevented Brandon Watson from filling the lane to stop Jonathan Taylor’s 52-yard sprint. And the Badgers scored their first points on a 50-yard punt return only when the returner picked up the ball after it bounced because Michigan’s gunner either was pushed in the back or incidentally tripped, which prevented him from downing the ball. All of this had a significant impact on the outcome and reduced U-M’s chances to win.
However, it was not the reason Michigan lost, and it’s hard to say that it was when, by the time the game had ended, Wisconsin had been statistically superior to Michigan.
The main reason, as Josh said, was Peters’ injury. He -- and Michigan’s staunch defense until his exit -- was why U-M had the lead. Peters displayed lots of poise in his first matchup against an excellent pass defense with a superb pass rush. He was stepping up in the pocket and evading pressure while keeping his eyes downfield. By doing so, he found Chris Evans on a checkdown to convert a third down that led to Michigan’s only touchdown. Earlier on that drive, he (finally) connected on a deep post to Peoples-Jones for a 48-yard bomb. Though he made some mistakes, such as under throwing Zach Gentry for what likely would have been a touchdown, he was the reason that Michigan’s offense was finding some success and staying afloat against Wisconsin.
And once Peters went out, it felt like all hope was lost, and Michigan knew it, too.
We will learn more about Peters’s head injury and status this week. What was your take on Peters’s performance in his first big game against a great defense on the road?
Kevin: I’m torn on his fumble at the goal line. I appreciate the effort, but it was still sorta dumb. He made a few nice throws and escaped some defenders on other plays, but I can’t help but see a skinny John Navarre in the pocket, especially when he got pummeled on those sacks. He does appear to be reading coverage, and I was encouraged when he took a timeout because he knew Grant Perry wasn’t lined up correctly.
Josh: I was pleasantly surprised. I am going to disagree with Kevin on this one. I really liked what Peters did and how he responded to the pressure and adversity. He showed a great deal of poise, as Drew mentioned earlier, and I really liked how he avoided the rush with the nifty spin move or even scrambled around to keep the play alive while keeping his eyes downfield.
The bad news? You only have to utilize that nifty little spin move and use those legs in the pocket every play when the offensive line can’t block, and that’s exactly what happened. The line wasn’t opening up any sort of holes for the running backs, which allowed the Badgers to bring the heat on passing downs. When the pressure was brought, the offensive line didn’t do much to hold it off. It was an unpleasant sight.
Drew: It was indeed. Michigan’s biggest weakness offensively has been its pass protection. Michigan was 121st in adjusted sack rate entering Saturday, and it looked like it against a ferocious Wisconsin pass rush. The Wolverines have not been able to shore that up at right tackle whether it has been Juwann Bushell-Beatty or Nolan Ulizio, and the interior linemen have struggled with picking up generic stunts and twists. This has been a big reason for the disruption in Michigan’s passing game. The quarterbacks do not have faith that they will be given sufficient time to survey the field and find an open receiver. It is most evident when O’Korn is in there because he looks ready to flee the pocket before he checks his first read. And it should not be that surprising when Michigan’s inability to stop the pass rush has now led to two Michigan quarterbacks being taken to the hospital. First, Wilton Speight at Purdue, and now Peters at Wisconsin. As much as we would like to say Michigan has endured bad injury luck at quarterback, it’s more about the line’s inability to keep them on their feet.
I mean, does anyone here have faith that this offensive line will be able to withstand the absolute monsters that Ohio State will have lined across from them on Saturday?
Josh: I am fluent in Spanish, so allow me to answer in that beautiful language: no.
Drew: Right. And because of that and the current presumption that Michigan will be starting O’Korn against Ohio State, it seems likely that Michigan will finish 8-4.
And at this point, we may as well bring up the big picture.
This season likely will end up as a disappointment. This Michigan team is a top-25ish team that will likely have an 8-4 record, which would be one fewer win than most projected (myself included) at the beginning of this season. This season will not be a disappointment because Michigan severely underachieved. Michigan is close to where it expected to be considering it lost 16 starters from the 2016 team and is still enduring the recruiting transition that occurred in 2014-15. Plus, significant injuries to Speight, Tarik Black (Michigan’s best WR), and now Peters are hard to overcome.
What makes this season disappointing is that, despite being a top-25ish team and having what would be reasonable losses to Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, Michigan likely will finish with no quality wins and a bad home loss to Michigan State where U-M vomited over itself as the heavens opened up the floodgates. If Michigan had beaten MSU, the perception of this season would have been entirely different. Michigan would have been on schedule, defeated the rival it was supposed to, and been expected to make the leap in 2018. Instead, if Michigan loses to Ohio State, the conversation all offseason will be that Jim Harbaugh is 1-5 vs. Michigan’s rivals and can’t win big games. I disagree that Harbaugh can’t win big games (did everyone forget Michigan beat #8 Wisconsin in 2016?), but he needs to win more of these games soon.
2018 will be that year. Yes, there are valid concerns, particularly along the offensive line, but Michigan will return 17 starters from a very young team. They will have another year of experience under their belts, and they should be ready to make a push for a Big Ten championship. There will be no more excuses. It will be Harbaugh’s fourth year at Michigan. He will have brought in three full recruiting classes. This will be his team, and that Michigan has to face Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State all on the road next year will not be an excuse either. Michigan needs to start winning those games, and Harbaugh should have a team capable of winning all three of them. If Michigan is not able to win them, I will start to have real concerns about U-M’s ceiling.
But it’s too early to have those concerns now. I understand the frustration with the losses, especially to rivals, but if you’re looking at the big picture, seeing what Harbaugh had to face when he came to Ann Arbor, Michigan is still on the right track.
What do you guys think? Agree or disagree?
Josh: I agree with you 110%. Before the season, I was in the “optimistic” crowd. I projected Michigan at 11-1 with the lone loss being to Penn State. Clearly, I was wrong. I overvalued this young talent and underestimated how long it was going to take to develop them into a truly formidable opponent. I’ll take that on the chin.
When Harbaugh was hired, the national media and college football fans for the most part expected a four-year rebuild with some struggles along the way. The fact that Harbaugh beat those odds, defied perceived logic, and changed the expectations speaks to how good of a coach he is. Heck, as I said, it changed my expectations too.
I told the fans that I know and came across that, when Year 4 rolled around, Michigan be the team to beat in the Big Ten. I stand by that. The majority of the team will be back, and those who depart will be replaced by upgraded talent for the most part.
I’m tired of hearing about how Harbaugh and Michigan can’t win big games either. In 2018, there are no excuses. There’s no youth issue, no “these are Hoke’s players” excuse, no “blame the coordinators” talk. It’s put up or shut up time. And I for one think they get it done.
Kevin: Harbaugh and his staff knew exactly what they had going into this season. They know 2018 is the Flip Year. Losing to Wisconsin amidst a season filled with bad luck and other bad losses is inconsequential. But go ahead, College Football Playoff committee, put Big Ten West Cruise Control in a matchup against Alabama and see how that goes.
And one last thing: we should not just surrender that Michigan will lose to Ohio State.
It’s The Game. Anything can happen.
Unless John O’Neill is the head referee. #AvengeTheSpot