The weather on the first Saturday of November in Michigan this season was wet and nasty, but the Little Brown Jug stayed dry until the Wolverines pulled it from the case to celebrate another victory against Minnesota.
Michigan not only won, but it was a dominating and record-breaking performance by several players. The young quarterback and a true freshman offensive lineman got their first starts, and the run game looked its best in a long time.
There were still mistakes made, so let's get to it and hand out some position grades in a solid game on both sides.
Jim Harbaugh said earlier last week that Brandon Peters was a “51 percent chance” of making his first collegiate career start, and that happened on Saturday for the redshirt freshman. Michigan ran 50 plays on offense, with 37 of them on the ground. Peters did well overall in his first start, going 8-of-13 for 56 yards and one touchdown. He also met with media Tuesday night.
This was a big confidence boost for Peters, but now he moves forward to his first road game start at Maryland, as Jim Harbaugh confirmed earlier this week. He will need to continue making smart decisions in the pocket if he continues to start in the final two games to give Michigan a chance and not relying mostly on the run game.
Wide receivers/tight ends: B
It was a fairly quiet evening for this group, plus tight end Tyrone Wheatley Jr. and wide receiver Grant Perry did not play due to injuries. Sean McKeon led the group with three catches for 30 yards and one touchdown. Donovan Peoples-Jones also had two catches for 18 yards. With Perry and Wheatley Jr. likely back for the Maryland game, I would like to see a more balanced game, with maybe some Ambry Thomas on offense against a struggling Maryland pass defense.
Running backs: A+
This is by far the easiest grade I've given all season. With Ty Isaac not dressed for the Minnesota game, it did not hold back this group one bit. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans ran for a total of 391 yards and four touchdowns. It was the second game in a row Michigan had two backs rush for over 100 yards. Higdon is on pace to break that 1,000 barrier and would be the first running back since Fitzgerald Toussaint accomplished that in 2011 with 1,081 yards. These two also won Big Ten Co-Offensive Players of the Week. This stat says a lot about how this duo has gained yards after initial contact making it difficult to bring down.
That Michigan rushing attack against Minnesota -— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 6, 2017
Higdon & Evans combined for 391 rushing yards, 199 of which came after contact. pic.twitter.com/TBqx28Ualz
Maryland’s rush defense is No. 77 in the country, but Michigan also will face the No. 105 pass defense, so it gives the receiver/tight end group with Peters some opportunity for development and added momentum before playing Wisconsin.
Offensive line: B
This group is looking better and making positive strides each week. With Michael Onwenu out for the game, Cesar Ruiz got his first start against Minnesota at right guard and had a solid performance. He was excited to hear the news last Friday in meetings and shared that when speaking to the press on Monday. “Excited, (I) wasn't nervous.” He wasn't sure if they were going to play the game with the weather issues, so having to wait made it that much more difficult to calm his nerves.
JBB annihilated his guy.— Due# (@JDue51) November 6, 2017
Good chip by Ruiz, too. pic.twitter.com/fC2zzYSdum
Jim Harbaugh commented earlier this week on how well Ruiz performed in his first collegiate career start. “He looked athletic. Was getting up, chasing the backs down the field and trying to get another block. Very impressive."
Ruiz has lost approximately 30 pounds since he came from IMG Academy as the top rated overall center in the 2017 recruiting class and is not worried about what position he's playing, rather he's able to contribute to the offensive line whenever and however possible. He's practiced at every position on the offensive line except for left tackle.
The line allowed three sacks for 23 yards on the night and one was allowed by Ruiz, which he owned when asked about that play on Monday when asked about it by the media. "It was a mistake, something I know I have to pick up. I got to the sideline; I didn't put my head down. I just told coach 'hey, I messed up, that was my fault.’ (Harbaugh) said, ‘move on from it, we all make mistakes.’”
The line run blocked much better and allowed the backs to do their job. There was even one run where Ruiz got drilled by Higdon and that was a new one for him as he also explained with the media on Monday.
Ruiz is the future of the offensive line and beat out Stephen Spanellis and Jon Runyan Jr. for the starting position, which both also played in the game against Minnesota. I want to see this group continue to develop, no matter who wins the job on the right side with Onwenu likely back this week. This right side of the line has been an issue this season, but with solid performances moving forward and a line working together, it will help keep the games close against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Defensive line: A-
This group held Minnesota to 164 yards total (90 rushing/74 passing) when they had the ball for approximately five more minutes than Michigan (32:25/27:35). Minnesota also ran six more plays overall and only found the end zone once. The defense allowed a few long plays in each of the last several games, but made adjustments after the initial score by Minnesota and eliminated them gaining much after that one drive to the end zone.
Below is one of the highlights when Maurice Hurst got off quick and the sack.
This group will be tested by the Maryland’s No. 56 rated rush offense, and junior running back Ty Johnson is averaging 6.6 yards per carry with five touchdowns. Maryland has struggled keeping a healthy quarterback, as it is one of three teams who has won a game with three different quarterbacks starting, Michigan and Houston being the other two. With Maryland quarterback Max Bortenschlager a game-time decision, it's possible they will play fourth string and walk-on Ryan Brand. The No. 113 offense overall may have a tough day against the No. 3 overall defense coming to town.
We’ve seen what kind of linebacker group Michigan has developed so far that's been performing very well with so many new faces this season. Khaleke Hudson was a player many at the beginning of the year as one of those breakout players, but nobody saw this one coming or in this fashion. He became the first player to have eight tackles for loss in one game and earn a 99.9 grade by Pro Football Focus.
Hudson also had 15 tackles, three sacks, and one forced fumble. His performance also awarded him the Nagurski Trophy National Defensive Player of the Week.
Here are all of his plays from Saturday evening.
More on his performance can be found here in the latest edition of "Inside the Numbers" by Drew Hallett.
This secondary again gets the job done only allowing for 74 passing yards. Tyree Kinnel had a solid night with six tackles and Josh Metellus added three tackles before getting ejected from the game. However, the safeties still need work in the coverage game. Here’s a play where Metellus was beat and Minnesota made a solid play.
Metellus gets beat inside but man, I'll never stop harping on UM ILBs not looking up receivers after a high hat read.— Due# (@JDue51) November 6, 2017
(Look up #2) pic.twitter.com/FmB84GHVbC
Here is the only touchdown on the night for Minnesota, with Michigan’s rush defense not picking up the quarterback run. The secondary doesn’t do its job and gets beat for the score.
CB got caught flat footed by jet motion.— Due# (@JDue51) November 6, 2017
OT gets just enough of ILB
Toughdown go-fairs pic.twitter.com/nGLRVwJeix
These plays are the style of offense where other teams have been able to find success and the endzone against Michigan. It would pay dividends if the secondary can avoid giving up these kinds of big plays and attack the run game, which would then force quarterbacks to test the coverage skills of Lavert Hill and company.
Special teams: C+
The struggles continued for Quinn Nordin with missing another extra point and a field goal, which didn't impact the game result. Brad Robbins kicked well overall with five punts averaging 40.8 yards. Ambry Thomas performed well on kickoff returns with three averaging 20.7 yards per return and a long of 27 yards.
This group must work on eliminating mistakes moving forward, so this week coming up with be another opportunity to develop before the final two matchups when extra points and field goal attempts may make or break the game.
I thought the play calling overall was what we thought based heavily on the run game success. It was not surprising to see Brandon Peters get the start. It was fun to see Alex Malzone enter the game late in the fourth quarter. I know fans are going to rely on smart game plans moving forward and bring out all the stops against the last two opponents. Knowing how they've been conservative on offense with the passing game, the upcoming game against Maryland will allow Peters to get more playing time and experience in a road environment. Partially the reason for this grade is nine penalties for 85 yards on the night for Michigan. Yes, this was the group of refs from last year’s Ohio State game, and don't think Jim Harbaugh forgot about that. This will be a huge factor going forward as well and the staff needs to focus on avoiding big penalties where a drive continues for the opponent because of it.
More about what Jim Harbaugh said on Monday can be found in the presser recap.