Well, that wasn’t how Michigan was supposed to start the year.
To continue with our newer format, just, talk it out...things you saw, things that ticked you off.
Kevin: I did not believe my eyes were seeing a level of offensive line play that bad. It could’ve been worse, but after all the things the coaches said in public, and to a degree the players, it was a real faceplant. One could argue though, it wasn’t as much of a train wreck as some of the games we watched last season. Shea had some time to throw and wasn’t sacked on every dang drop back or scramble. Baby steps, I guess?
Sam: One of the things that surprised me during film review was that it wasn’t really just a Runyan problem. Lots of blame was levelled at the 6-foot-3 senior left tackle, but Cesar Ruiz struggled with coordinating the rest of the line for blitz/stunt pickups. Seeing as it’s his first start, the cohesion of the line will improve. Runyan, and certainly Juwann Bushell-Beatty, are not your ideal options to man the edges, but I’ll reference my Ed Warinner coaching spotlight.
I wrote about how he inherited some wonky pieces at Ohio State in 2014, particularly converted defensive tackle Billy Price and 2-to-3-star lineman Pat Elflein. They barely treaded water against Navy in the opener and flopped hard against Virginia Tech. Remarkably, by the end of the year, they were dominating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. I won’t predict similar things, but I will guarantee improvement.
Dan A: We know the offensive line won’t be good. It hasn’t been in any of the years Harbaugh has been year besides maybe 2015 where it was pretty good in pass protection. But the run game sputtered against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Utah, and at this point I couldn’t care less about what they do against Western this weekend. If they don’t look like an elite force of nature, it’ll be a failure. Western’s rush defense stinks and anything short of a spectacular performance should be accepted. Grading on a curve, “moderate improvement” when the talent drop is so vast would be a cause for concern. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say improvement on the ground is completely meaningless and the only thing that matters is if Michigan shows something through the air. How many times have we seen monster rushing games one week turn into 3.2 ypc performances the next? Too many.
Josh: I think we all — for the most part we’re cautiously optimistic that the tackles would tread water. Well, we were wrong. The fact that the starting left tackle is a converted guard should’ve been something we all didn’t just look past.
You’ve got a new starting center (as Dan just said) a new starting left tackle, and new o-line coach. This was always going to take time to gel, and unfortunately when you open up with a quality opponent on the road like they did, it’s not super ideal.
I’m with Sam, though. I guarantee that this offensive line will be much improved by the end of the year. Whether or not the starting tackles are the same throughout the year remains to be seen, but I know without a shadow of a doubt this line will tread water and keep the offense on track sooner rather than later.
Sam: This team was never going to the College Football Playoff. I picked a range of 9-3 to 10-2, with the success of the year depending on wins in the five big games (ND, Wisconsin, MSU, PSU and OSU). All things considered, with Michigan leaving nine to 13 points on the field last Saturday, a road loss at night against a rival in the opener isn’t the worst crime. Let’s watch how the team improves leading up to a visit to Northwestern.
Dan A: Sam, I’ve got to push back some on the “let’s watch how the team improves” line at the end. I get that’s all we really can do, but this is like groundhog day. We said the same thing after the Utah loss in ‘15 before getting tricked into thinking things were fixed before Michigan State corrected us. ‘16 saw the offense sputter in big moments again, and we said this Every. Single. Week. last season. “The offense is too bland, the offensive line stinks.” The same holes in the program against Utah are the same ones that showed up against Notre Dame. Let me clarify that I don’t want to get rid of Harbaugh nor do I view him as on the hotseat. BUT, I’m at the point where my expectations in big games are 0 and will continue to be so until proven otherwise or the offensive staff brings in people who realize they’re not coaching the early 2000’s NFL.
Andrew V: Saying this team was never going to the College Football Playoff is taking the easy way out. Sure, Michigan plays a tough schedule and we knew there were a couple issues entering the season, but this team has the talent and coaching staff to reach the playoff, or at minimum win the East Division. I didn’t feel like Notre Dame was the superior team in that game, it felt like Michigan just played that poorly. The offensive play-calling was puzzling at best, game management was sub-par and there were far too many penalties.
Josh: I disagree with you, Sam. There’s ZERO reason this team isn’t a playoff contender and Big Ten title threat all year. The defense is still championship level and they have their best QB talent since Chad Henne.
As I’ve been saying on twitter and in some discussions behind closed doors is that we won’t truly know anything until after the Wisconsin game in a few short weeks. This team is still loaded at just about every position outside of the offensive line and I would not be shocked at all if the defense and offense were both operating cohesively and were rolling by the time the Badgers pull into town.
Sam: The only looming dread I feel is that if Michigan goes 8-5 again, the program will really resemble teams like Northwestern and Iowa more than OSU. After two 10-win years and a NY6 bowl berth in the first two years, you can’t cut Michigan down to Northwestern’s level yet. Another mediocre year, and it might feel like it.
Kevin: Scanning over some of the reader comments from last week before the game, the general theme was OL play concerns and Don Brown sometimes being too eager or anxious to pressure the QB and not rely on his secondary in coverage. I imagine most of us would agree with those, but, yikes it was such a wildly underwhelming performance, particularly in the first half. Of course there were some lucky receptions and some very dumb penalties to help dig the hole faster for Michigan, but — and I hate to utter this phrase — I fear the offense has fallen back into that predictable mode again.
Dan A: I’ll never fault Brown for aggressiveness. I’ve had to watch Lovie Smith and Mike Smith defenses with the Bucs for too long, so aggressive will always be more my speed. On the offense, I completely agree. I discussed it in the Kaepernick article earlier in the week, but this team and the current college game just do not match what Harbaugh wants to do. Everyone is getting faster and using misdirection while we celebrate the appearance of a veer in week 7. I’m so tired of this offense and every pro-style sticky finger that’s touched it. Clear house, hire Kliff Kingsbury as the OC when Pep inevitably gets fired (KIDDING, maybe, kinda, why the hell not?!?!?). No quarterback can fix an offense that’s stuck in 1997.
Josh: That’s a bold take, Dan. I’ll say this and duck…
Michigan’s offense CAN work at a high level like we saw in 15’ and 16’. That production is predicated on at least average or slightly above average play from the offensive line. The play calling (aside from the play action from the 2yd line) against ND was pretty good, the line just has to give the offense time to work.
Of course, you can always scheme around your lack of push up front — just like Penn State did under Joe Morehead’s offensive tutelage. But changing everything over to a spread/air raid isn’t going to fix a dang thing. They just need consistent play up front and with the inside of the line working so far, they can now focus on finding and developing the tackle position over the next few games.
Kevin: Also guys, what in the wide world of sports was going on with getting a delay of game for the first play of the second half!?!? That is unheard of, but leave it to Michigan to do something completely self-defeating. I’m not a Division one football coach, but, isn’t it customary to call the first play in the locker room so that it is ready to go? What is happening to these brilliant football minds on our coaching staff...did they mistakenly grab the NFL rulebook on their bookshelf or what.
Andrew V: That was mind-blowing. No high school team should ever have that happen to them, let alone a team like Michigan. To be frank, it was embarrassing and was on the Jim Caldwell level of game management.
Josh: A new starting center, a new starting quarterback and a “revamped scheme”, is no excuse for that delay of game. But that, and the crowd noise certainly didn’t do them any favors.
Dan A: Let’s end on a positive. The offense looked competent at times last week and the defense anchored down in the second half. What are expectations this week, and what do you want to see? Anything short of a parade of points would disappoint me. This is a bad Western defense that just got run over. I expect a big game from Higdon or Evans, but I’d love a coming out party for one of the receivers. Based on last week, Nico Collins is the deep threat, so I’ll lay my chips on him. If the line holds up better this week - they should - I expect a decent amount of shots down field. This passing game desperately needs reps in situations that aren’t “down 14 on the road”. GET THEM NOW.
Andrew V: I think we see a good game from the running backs. It’d be nice to see more of Chris Evans as well. Recording 250 yards rushing as a team seems like an attainable goal. I also want to see Michigan’s defense get more pressure from up the middle. Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary got into the backfield a number of times, but the push from the defensive tackles seemed weak. A cleaner game in the penalty department would put fans more at ease too.
Josh: Yeah I agree with you Andrew, and Dan. I think this offense — and entire team for that matter bounce back after last week’s let down.
Chris Evans will be involved in the passing game and I predict we see him take a couple screen passes deep into enemy territory. Karan Higdon finds some holes and hits them for a couple long gains, and we see Jim Harbaugh turn Shea loose (for the most part) and take advantage of the weak Bronco pass-d.
On defense, I think Brown and Mattison will have the interior d-line problems of last week fixed by either rotating personnel around, or pounding home the points of emphasis. Rashan gets himself on ESPN with a few highlight sacks, and Chase Winovich doesn’t get hit with a dumb roughing the passer penalty.
A hot take that I’ll end my thoughts on… Brad Hawkins plays split snaps with Metellus and shows us why he deserves to start at the rover.
Dan P.: I’m really interested to see how our defense plays on Saturday. Western Michigan is no Notre Dame, but they put up over 600 yards of offense last week. That’s explosive even if it is just against the Cuse. If they can’t find a way to slow them down this could end up being a shootout and who knows what that would look like with our offense…
I think Metellus definitely shot himself in the foot on the targeting play last week. I expect him to be in a very short leash at this point.
Hopefully the offensive line can gain some confidence against a must weaker pass rush then the one they faced last week. If they perform poorly, this could be a massive indicator for how they will play across the season.
Also can we talk about how well Nico Collins and Oliver Martin played on Saturday?! What a huge step up after the loss of Black.
Something we didn’t point out that you’d like us to discuss or were hoping we’d pick up on? Let it be known in the comment thread.