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Michigan Monday: Wolverines Finally Win With Defense

Michigan Monday

Sorry for the lateness of this week’s Michigan Monday. I was almost debating just waiting until next week and releasing it as a double album, but knowing me, next week’s could be late as well. Anyway, better late than even later, I guess.

Michigan (2-0) hosted the Cincinnati Bearcats (1-1) this past Saturday and despite a bit of a worrisome effort at times, the Wolverines pulled away late for a 36-14 win.

Michigan led just 17-14 late in the third before making this one a laugher. Though, to be fair, some of it was nervous laughter.

The Wolverines won this game because of their defense, which returned two interceptions for touchdowns. The special teams also secured a safety following a botched punt snap.

And for the second week in a row, they ran the ball well.

There wasn’t much pretty about this, unless you’re into inaccurate quarterbacks, heavy punting, and third down failures. If that’s you’re thing, then you’ve come to the right website because I write about two of those kinds of teams!

When Michigan Was On Offense

As I mentioned above, the Wolverines ran the ball well again this week, or at least Ty Isaac did. Michigan rushed for 193 yards on 37 carries (5.2 ypc), but it was Isaac’s 133 yards on 20 carries (6.7 ypc) that was the difference. The other 17 carries went for just 60 yards (3.5 ypc).

Isaac’s first 17 carries went for positive yards, which seems like something that hasn’t happened since Mike Hart was running around. I don’t have the numbers to back it up because that would be way too much research just to prove a point that nobody is going to set out to disprove anyway. Suffice it to say that Isaac has looked very good so far this season.

Isaac had a 53-yard run in this one that could have been an 87-yard touchdown run, but he just doesn’t have the top-end speed to go the distance very often. He may not be a home-run hitter, but he is getting on base constantly and is certainly capable of a bases-clearing triple. And even though Isaac isn’t a speedy guy, he hits the hole fast when he needs to. He is also patient and he’s showing the best vision out of a Michigan running back in a long time. He has been outstanding in 2017 so far, averaging 7.9 yards per carry.

I still want to see him do it consistently and against a defensive line that slows him down at the point of attack, but so far all of my doubts are based solely on previous years. Of his first 31 carries this season, only two have lost yards, and those two came in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati when the Bearcats knew the run was coming. For a comparison which may be meaningless, De’Veon Smith had twice that number of negative carries in his first 31 carries last season.

I was disappointed in Chris Evans this week. Isaac got the start, so Evans came off the bench and carried the ball five times for 15 yards. Combined with his 22 carries for 78 yards against Florida in week one, Evans is now averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. He is the kind of runner who needs to pad his average with big hits, but it’s going to be hard for him to get those yards if he goes down as easily as he did in this game.

I don’t know if it’s a situation where maybe Evans is upset about losing his job and has to regain focus on being a change-of-pace guy or what. He is the home-run hitter that Isaac isn’t, but he has to be able to get into the second level first and that didn’t happen in this one.

The running backs outside of Isaac carried the ball 10 times for just 33 yards. Interestingly, true freshman O’Maury Samuels got a carry at the end of the game, likely burning his redshirt. Redshirt freshman Kareem Walker did not dress due to who-knows-what, likely some type of an injury. Regardless, if they are burning Samuels’ redshirt, then that would seemingly put Walker at fifth in the rotation. Playing Samuels at this point makes me think that they’d like to get him involved down the road in some fashion. Maybe Jim Harbaugh is like Urban Meyer in that he’d prefer not to redshirt players if he can help it.

The other big hit in the running game came via freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones on a jet sweep. His lone carry was 44 yards. Peoples-Jones hasn’t yet done much in the receiving game, but it’s only a matter of time. Having DPJ in the slot allows him these opportunities to run the ball, but it also matches him up against lesser defenders in the passing game.

Speaking of the passing game, quarterback Wilton Speight went the distance in this one and didn’t throw any pick sixes. In fact, he didn’t throw any interceptions at all. Of course, there were opportunities, but the Bearcat defense couldn’t capitalize. Having ping pong paddles for hands will do that for a defense.

Speight finished the game 17-of-29 passing for 221 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked just once. To make up for his lack of interceptions, he did fumble twice, losing one. To be fair, the fumble that was lost was on a jet sweep exchange with receiver Kekoa Crawford, so there was more than just Speight at play here.

What is more concerning is that Speight showed zero touch inside the red zone, missing both of his throws down there. He finished 2-of-7 on throws inside the Cincinnati 35-yard line. One of his completions was a slant that Grant Perry took 33 yards for a touchdown and the other was a pass down the seam to Crawford for 20 yards on fourth down.

Speight also threw a couple of deep passes into double coverage and got away with it.

All told, however, he still completed 17-of-29 passes for over 200 yards with a couple of touchdowns, so there were definitely some positives. A better defense would have made things a little more interesting.

I was impressed by Michigan’s receivers once again this week. Kekoa Crawford led the team with four receptions for 83 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown reception. I still think there are some consistency issues with Crawford, but as long as he continues running free like he did on his 43-yarder, things should work out.

I was also surprised by Grant Perry’s speed on his 33-yard catch-and-run touchdown. He zipped through the UC defense with ease. Freshman Tarik Black was mostly used on screens and drags, though they did throw deep to him once in double coverage. Tight end Zach Gentry caught a 36-yard pass in this one. Michigan has so many tight ends and most of them are basically the same guy — which is a good thing.

The offensive line had some trouble here and there with stunts. They could also stand to get more push in the running game. Right tackle Nolan Ulizio was called for a 15-yard penalty. He and right guard Michael Onwenu had some nice moments together, and also a couple of snaps that showed their youth.

When Michigan Was On Defense

There was a point early in this game where Don Brown was getting ready to call a play and the camera shows Greg Mattison staring at him intently, and in my head all I can hear Mattison thinking is, “Forget about the curveball, Ricky. Give him the heater.” And then Brown calls the play and Mattison happily nods at the carnage that is about to take place.

Michigan held Cincinnati to 200 yards of total offense, with 68 coming on the ground and 132 via the pass. Bearcats quarterback Hayden Moore was extremely inaccurate in this one, missing receivers and throwing high all game long. A non-bad performance would have forced the Wolverine defense to work much harder than they had to.

Moore finished 15-of-40 passing for 132 yards with two interceptions and a touchdown. He also had some drops, so it wasn’t all on him.

Safety Tyree Kinnel had the first pick six in the first quarter after a high throw from Moore. Kinnel returned it 28 yards for the score. The second came late in the fourth when cornerback Lavert Hill took an errant pass back 24 yards for the touchdown.

Kinnel and Hill have continued to impress me this season. Kinnel is very good in run support and is a hitter. Hill is a consistent defensive back and he and the other corners are getting more confident each week. Hill did have a pass interference in the end zone, though he didn’t do anything that other corners haven’t gotten away with forever. I came into this season thinking that the secondary could be the weak link of the defense, but they have played well this season. Cincinnati had opportunities to make plays, but they didn’t capitalize on any of them.

Safety Josh Metellus is thankful for at least one of those blown opportunities because he was beaten deep in this game, but UC could only throw an incompletion against him.

The linebackers were again present in the backfield. Khaleke Hudson had a pair of sacks and middle linebacker Devin Bush added another. They can run for days. Mike McCray still has trouble getting outside, which makes Michigan’s defense somewhat vulnerable to his wide side, but we’re only talking about an 11-yard gain or something like that.

Michigan only had 1.5 TFLs from their defensive line in this one, which isn’t nearly enough. Defensive end Rashan Gary is still looking for his first full TFL or sack.

The Wolverine front seven did have some trouble with tunnel screens and jailbreaks, but the secondary did a nice job of limiting what could have been some very big gains. I was reminded of some of the issues Michigan had with screens to athletes against Maryland last year. For some offenses, attacking Don Brown’s defense with screens is the best plan of attack. It’s almost like attacking a maniacal stabber by maniacally stabbing right back at him. It could be something to watch this season.

The Bearcats didn’t have the personnel on offense to put a test to Michigan, or any type of coordination to actuate it, but they were technically still in the game well into the second half, which is kind of a concern.

The Michigan Special Teams

I’ve said in the past that I love Donovan Peoples-Jones’ aggression when it comes to fielding punts, and I still stand by that 100%. I’ve also said that it will cost Michigan some turnovers on muffed punts. That didn’t happen this week, but the Wolverines did lose possession of a punt when it bounced off a blocker and Cincinnati recovered. DPJ was then replaced by Grant Perry on subsequent punts because he apparently didn’t make enough noise to his blockers that the ball was in the neighborhood. He’ll be back soon, though, I assume.

Michigan gave up six yards on three punt returns and seven yards on a kickoff return, which is very good.

What Does It All Mean?

It means that despite having 10 new starters, Michigan can still win a game with defense, and win it going away.

The Wolverine offense put up just 20 points and yet they won the game by 22 points. That’s not easy to do when you’re also turning the ball over twice. Credit the defense for wreaking their customary havoc on an opposing offense.

Of course, it helps to have Don Brown in situations like this. He’s like an evil scientist who never quite lost his sense of wonder and desire to be annoying. Unlike most evil scientists, however, he’s not trying to take over the world, he’s just trying to be really freaking annoying for three-and-a-half hours every Saturday. I bet if they patched into his headset, he’s probably singing Sweet Caroline at the top of his lungs during plays as well.

It also means that Michigan appears to have a viable and consistent running threat at tailback for just the second time (Fitzgerald Tousssaint, 2011) in the last decade. That should be both encouraging and disheartening for Michigan fans.

The point, however, is that if the Wolverines have a workhorse running back they can rely on, that will take some of the pressure off of Speight to make every throw. Instead, if he can simply make the easy throws and then dial up some play-action deep balls a few times per game, then this offense could be difficult to handle.

With the continued use of DPJ in the various calls, the growing consistency of Grant Perry, and the dual deep threats of Kekoa Crawford and Tarik Black, Speight has players who can make him look pretty good. He also has the ability to make himself look good as well, but it’s always easier with help, just ask J.T. Barrett.

10 Responses

  1. Interesting to note the crowd was booing — the players or the coaches, I don’t know. Looks like they are frustrated like we Buckeye fans are.

  2. You don’t burn a redshirt by playing one snap in game 2. You have to play after the third game to do so. Let’s do some fact checking fellas.

  3. The “Don Brown Calling Plays” video and description is amazing.

  4. We are on to you and that rational, level-headed analysis and we aren’t falling for it!

  5. Tony – As a Michigan man I enjoy your columns. Fair and balanced!

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