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Reaction Roundtable: No. 8 Michigan 36, Cincinnati 14

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How much was Michigan’s lackluster win against Cincinnati a cause for concern? Our staff reacts in this week’s Sunday roundtable.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Josh LaFond: Week 2 is in the books fellas! After a surprisingly stressful game, Michigan pulls out a 36-14 victory over Cincinnati. Maybe it was just me, but this game was a lot closer than the scoreboard showed.

There were plenty of ups and downs (to say the least) on both sides of the ball. So with that being said, let's get right into it… what was the biggest takeaway from the game?

Kevin Bunkley: I learned that Michigan can look halfway flat on offense and then miraculously get two pick six touchdowns to make it a comfortable win despite poor quarterback and line play. Wait I just described the likely pattern for the whole rest of the season...crap. At least Grant Perry has some wheels on him which was a surprise, but, where was Eddie McDoom today?

Drew Hallett: It’s too early to say that this will be the pattern for the rest of the season, Kevin, but it’s not that surprising that it’s happening now. As I wrote in my first Inside the Numbers column this season, Michigan will be very inexperienced in the first several weeks, and “[t]his is the year to be hosting a bottom-dwelling MAC program in Week 1, providing the newer Wolverines a massive margin for error while they are still inexperienced and knowing full well that a victory is all but guaranteed.” Cincinnati isn’t in the MAC and this wasn’t Week 1, but this statement very much applied to Michigan’s Week 2 home win against the struggling Bearcats on Saturday.

The box score makes it seem like Michigan dominated in this game: the Wolverines outgained Cincinnati, 414 to 200 (6.3 to 2.9 YPP); Wilton Speight completed 17-of-29 passes (58.6%) for 221 yards (7.6 YPA), two touchdowns, and no interceptions; and Ty Isaac carried the ball 20 times for 133 yards (6.7 YPC), topping 100 rushing yards for the second straight week.

However, for a period of two quarters, spanning from late in the first frame to late in the third frame, Michigan could not stop shooting itself in the foot and started to work its way up its leg. A muffed punt set up a 38-yard touchdown drive for Cincinnati to cut the lead in half (14-7) when the Wolverines were on the verge of blowing the game open. Speight had two poor handoff exchanges which led to fumbles in Cincinnati territory in the second quarter. The Bearcats recovered one, and the other forced the Wolverines to settle for a 28-yard field goal. Michigan kept making mistake after mistake and allowed Cincinnati to hang around and hang around. Then suddenly in the third quarter, it was a three-point game, and Michigan could not find an offensive rhythm or punt the ball straight down the field. Fans were understandably spooked.

A 33-yard touchdown pass from Speight to Grant Perry cushioned the lead and permitted those fans to breathe again, and some shenanigans by Cincinnati’s punt team and quarterback handed Michigan nine non-offensive points in the final minutes to pad the margin of victory.

However, this game was closer than the scoreboard or box score represents. Michigan’s inexperience and Speight’s inconsistency reared its ugly head as the Wolverines had to really fight to put down a Cincinnati team that struggled against Austin Peay, an FCS team who has lost 29 straight games. Michigan ultimately won the game, but now it will be asked whether the Wolverines can clean up those errors and if so, whether it can be done before Penn State.

Josh: Before we dive into some of the lows from this game, let’s talk about one of the ups that you just mentioned, Drew. Man, what a performance from Ty Isaac! For the second week in a row, Isaac has shown Wolverine fans that he can be an every down back, putting up 133 yards on 20 attempts and averaging nearly seven yards per carry, wow!

Combined, Chris Evans and Karan Higdon had nine attempts for 28 yards, clearly showing that Isaac was the every down running back today. So let me ask this: do you think he will continue to be the workhorse throughout the season, or will Evans and Higdon stake their claim for heavy snaps in the rotation?

Drew: Ty Isaac has a firm grip on the starting gig after the first two weeks. After gaining 114 yards on just 11 carries against Florida, Isaac clearly was the staff’s go-to choice on Saturday. He started, ran the ball on Michigan’s first four plays to set the tone, and was given 66.7 percent (20-of-30) of the carries intended for U-M’s running backs in this game. And Isaac rewarded the staff’s decision to shift the workload from Chris Evans to him, setting a career high with 133 yards (6.7 YPC). Evans and Karan Higdon will still receive snaps, but if Isaac continues to perform like this, he will get the most of them. He is running very well right now. We knew that he had great speed once he breaks into the open field, but he had developed a bit of a reputation for being soft. However, that has not been the case so far this season. He has been willing to initiate contact with defenders and power through them to churn out extra yards. This has been a very promising development for him, and if he keeps it up, he’s Michigan’s starter.

Josh: Let's transition from Ty Isaac and the other running backs, so we can expand on the offensive line’s play. Despite Michigan running for a total of 193 yards and averaging 5.2 yards per carry, the offensive line still remains a major question mark going forward.

The pass protection was underwhelming to say the least, and with Michigan sticking with the same starters, that begs the question: will this unit improve or does a change need to be made?

Kevin: Nolan Ulizio has been...not great. He's getting beat around the edge and failing to seal off blocks between the tackles. We should restrain our outrage though until this team has a few more games of experience. The running backs are not struggling to gain yardage, but the bigger concern is Speight not having time to dial in his throws...

Drew: I do not want to pick on Nolan Ulizio, but right tackle has left a lot to be desired thus far. This should not be a surprise, though. Michigan had no clear-cut favorites for the position in fall camp among a group that consisted of underwhelming upperclassmen, lightly-recruited underclassmen, and true freshmen. That Ulizio sprung out of nowhere to win the job was more alarming than promising. However, Ulizio should get at least one more game to figure it out.

The bigger issue for Michigan is that it’s not just Ulizio struggling. The game against Cincinnati was one where I wanted to see the offensive line maul the Bearcats’ defensive front, which does have disruptive defensive tackles. However, Michigan was not able to overpower them and win the line of scrimmage as consistently as it needs to if wants to be able to produce against the likes of Penn State and Ohio State, especially if Wilton Speight continues his ups and downs.

This could be the case where more time, experience, and cohesion is needed before Michigan’s offensive line starts to click on all cylinders, but this was not a great showing against Cincinnati.

Josh: As I said at the outset, this game was filled with highs and lows. One high and a low was the game Wilton Speight had. We kind of alluded to this when we talked about the offensive line, but let's go into this situation a little deeper.

If you looked purely at the box score, it would seem that he had a nice day, statistically speaking, posting a respectable line of 17-for-29, 221 yards, and two touchdowns. But as someone who was in attendance, I can tell you that his performance was very inconsistent, and Speight admitted as much in his postgame presser.

My question is this: can this funk that Speight seems to be in be cured before the gauntlet of Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State or is the inconsistency of anything from 40+ yard touchdown strikes to underthrown passes on a 10-yard curl route going to be something that Wolverine fans cope with throughout the season?

Kevin: There is a certain point that this staff wants to get to with Speight’s development. I doubt that plateau is: occasionally hit a deep ball, airmail open receivers, and get hurried into making a short throw.

The receiving talent Harbaugh has been recruiting is too good to be hampered by inconsistent quarterback play. I don't want to believe this is what we're gonna get out of Speight the rest of the way. If he's still doing it in Week 5, that's a concern.

Drew: At this point, Wilton Speight’s inconsistency has become too routine to say it will be cured forever. Speight has the ability to be great. You can see it in spurts. The ball he threw to Kekoa Crawford for a 43-yard touchdown to open the scoring was perfect. The pocket presence he demonstrated on a third down to evade the pressure, keep his eyes downfield, and find Grant Perry for a first down was superb. But then he will airmail an open receiver, make a poor decision by throwing into double coverage, or be responsible for a costly turnover. Though Speight’s tendency to overthrow his receivers in these first two games is new, his inconsistency seems to be due more to mental lapses. When things start to go wrong, Speight seems to lose confidence in himself to make the play that’s needed. He’s streaky, which is why Speight can show why he is great and make fans pull out their hair wondering why he can’t do it all the time.

Josh: Let’s move to the other side of the ball now, and talk about this elite defense. Lavert Hill and Tyree Kinnel put their stamps on this game with those thrilling pick-sixes. Seeing this Michigan defense force turnovers is exciting, especially since defensive coordinator Don Brown said earlier this offseason that creating turnovers needs to be a focal point of this defense.

Even though they're young, they don't seem to have too much of a beat from where the Wolverines were at this point last season. The secondary in particular continues to quiet the preseason concerns.

What were your takeaways regarding this defense, and what do they need to improve on, if anything?

Kevin: Cincinnati was able to make a couple throws in traffic while Michigan’s front was charging at the quarterback. That's not a bad thing, assuming the middle linebackers are there to clean up the tackle. Problem was, the receivers got past the linebackers. And the quarterback broke into the secondary on that long designed run, forcing the safeties to collapse on him. Khaleke Hudson is the viper spot precisely for the situation, and he was out of position to make a play.

Kinnel and Hill arrived to the party in grand fashion, and Devin Bush again proved he is a sack machine. And how about Brandon Watson making a couple pass breakups? I'm perfectly fine with the secondary continuing to improve in man coverage when it was a huge question mark heading into the season.

Drew: Michigan defense is clearly very good. I mean, the Wolverines have now held each of their first two opponents to no more than 200 total yards. Something is obviously going right.

However, there was a reason after last week that I was still hesitant to call this defense “elite.” Cincinnati exposed at least one chink in the armor, and concerns about the secondary’s pass coverage remain valid. The Bearcats watched their game film this past week and saw how much Don Brown loves to bring the pressure. All the time, all over. So they attacked that by testing the edges with screens, and it worked with moderate success, picking up some big gains on key downs. This was good coaching on the Bearcats’ part, and Brown certainly will adjust.

The bigger issue is Michigan’s coverage. The Wolverines twice should have been burned on deep balls when the outcome was still very much in doubt. One was overthrown, and the other went right through the receiver’s breadbasket. On each of those plays, it was a Michigan safety/VIPER at fault: Jost Metellus and Khaleke Hudson. Further, there were other plays that Cincinnati could have made in the passing game, but Michigan should be thankful that Hayden Moore has quite an erratic arm (15-for-40 for 132 yards). He missed throws he should have made and twice connected with Michigan defenders for key pick-sixes. A better quarterback could have taken advantage of these slipups by the Wolverines and could have beaten this defense. Michigan’s front seven is very nasty, but the secondary is not on that level just yet.

Josh: Alright guys, last thing… the Wolverines will face Air Force, Purdue, Michigan State, and Indiana (with a bye week after the matchup against the Boilermakers) before the first real test on the road, in Happy Valley, against Penn State on October 21st.

So, -- post victory over Cincinnati -- do you guys think Michigan goes into that matchup undefeated, or after today is there a cause for concern for a potential slip up against one of the four teams I mentioned?

Kevin: Air Force is going to run the ball against Michigan. The other teams: who knows? Michigan State will always be prepared for Annual In-state Super Bowl, and Purdue and Indiana have been competitive against power conference opponents (Louisville and Ohio State, respectively). Suddenly, Michigan has a trap-filled four weeks. Based on their play this afternoon...Michigan has got some things to shore up on the execution front. At some point the five-star talent on Michigan’s roster has to overpower weaker opponents but failing to put them away until the fourth quarter is asking for trouble when some opponent is more prepared than Cincinnati. Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez know what happens in those games. Jim Harbaugh doesn't need to know.

Drew: I still think Michigan will be undefeated heading into Penn State, but is there cause for concern about a potential slip-up? Absolutely. This Michigan team is inexperienced at the moment, which means it will have more variance in its performances and be more prone to upsets, especially if the offense gets stuck in neutral. Plus, each game until Penn State has the potential to be a land mine. Air Force’s triple-option attack can give defenses headaches. Purdue suddenly looks like the #CHAOSTEAM in the state of Indiana. Michigan State always saves its best for its in-state rival. And Indiana is the quintessential trap game, presenting a tough defensive challenge for an unreliable offense on the road the week before Penn State. Michigan will be the favorite in each of these (and should win each), but nothing should be taken for granted with a team this inexperienced. Just hope the ups are more severe than the downs.