Michigan improved to 3-0 on the season with a 45-28 win over previously undefeated Colorado. It wasn’t easy, however, as the Buffs led 21-7 in the first quarter and even had the ball at the Michigan 11-yard line with that lead early in the second quarter (which, by the way, is exactly when I tweeted “Michigan by 17”).
But as programs that are accustomed to losing do, Colorado found a way to lose this one. Michigan scored two special teams touchdowns and knocked Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau out of the game, which also ended any hopes that the Buffaloes had in this one.
Even when the Wolverines were about to be trailing 24-7 or 28-7, it never felt to me like they weren’t going to get back into it. They aren’t just an offensive scoring team, they also have the ability to score in other ways, which makes a comeback like theirs easier to accomplish.
The Wolverines regained the lead by halftime and it didn’t take long after that before the game was officially out of Colorado’s hands. It was a valiant effort by the Buffs, but once they lost their quarterback they lost the ability to have any ability.
Don’t mistake this as me saying the Colorado would have won if they hadn’t lost their quarterback. That’s not how football works. Defenses should get credit for eliminating a starter in the course of clean play. You’ll never hear an Ohio State fan who wants OSU to give a trophy back because of Willis McGahee’s eradicated knee.
And anyway, Jabrill Peppers was never going to let this team lose.
When Michigan Was on Offense
Colorado came into this game with one of the nation’s top-ranked defenses thanks to a schedule that consisted of Colorado State and Idaho State. Still, they weren’t exactly pushovers in this game. The Wolverines managed 397 yards of total offense, with 229 yards through the air and 168 yards on the ground.
It was their worst total offense day by 50 yards. I don’t know if it’s a trend or anything yet, but they started the season with 512 yards against Hawaii, then went down to 447 yards against UCF, and then 397 against Colorado.
Quarterback Wilton Speight completed 16-of-30 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times and was not very accurate on the day. The accuracy was likely an issue caused by a vicious sack and fumble that led to Colorado’s second touchdown of the day. Speight looked pretty uncomfortable throughout the game after that hit.
Actually, he did look comfortable throwing to tight end Jake Butt, who caught seven passes for 87 yards. Colorado rarely had an answer for him dragging across the middle. For such a big dude, he’s easy for defenses to lose track of.
Perhaps because of Speight’s arm and lack of accuracy, wide receiver Jehu Chesson actually went without a catch, though he did have three rushes for 25 yards and a touchdown.
Overall, Speight was not great on the move and when pressured he would struggle to get his feet set before throwing the ball. He was 9-of-21 passing in the first half. Over the course of the game I think Colorado dropped four potential interceptions.
It was a decent day — relatively speaking — for the Wolverines on the ground, rushing for 168 yards on 41 carries (4.1 ypc). De’Veon Smith rushed for 87 yards on 11 carries and was never stopped in the backfield. He had a 42-yard touchdown run on a toss play that didn’t see him get touched by a defender until he was at the 1-yard line. Interestingly, it was the outside linebacker who was lined up on the line of scrimmage on the opposite side of the play who eventually caught up with Smith to get a hand on him.
This was the best game this year for Smith in terms of displaying vision and finding the holes. If he was stopped for no gain or a short gain it’s because there was nowhere to go.
Ty Isaac carried the ball 10 times for just 18 yards and Chris Evans carried it four times for 10 yards. Peppers rushed for a career-high 24 yards on two carries.
Despite the pedestrian average, the Michigan offensive line didn’t allow any tackles for loss in the running game. The only yards lost by a running back came on a miscommunication between Speight and Isaac.
Last week I mentioned that the Michigan running backs have not been great with pass protection and that struck again when Speight was sacked and fumbled and CU picked up the fumble and returned it for a touchdown. There was an outside blitz and fullback Khalid Hill ran by it to run a pattern into the flats and De’Veon Smith stayed inside to help out up the middle. I don’t know who was responsible for it, but it’s not been uncommon this season. It also got Speight hurt.
One interesting wrinkle that was interesting because it seemed to be pure Jim Harbaugh was letting Shane Morris in to run a toss play on which Morris was also a lead blocker. He didn’t really block anybody, but it was interesting. John O’Korn also got time early. Harbaugh would later say that he wanted opponents to know that they have several quarterbacks who have specific skills and defenses needed to be aware of those abilities. So, yeah, opponents better be aware of Shane Morris’ ability to run a toss sweep and stick his helmet into a defender if he happens to run into one. That’s just what you want from a guy with a concussion history.
When Michigan Was on Defense
Just to give you an idea of the shocking nature of the first quarter, quarterback Sefo Liufau completed 9-of-11 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns in the game’s first 15 minutes. He finished the half with 167 yards passing. He injured his foot on the first series of the second half and would have to leave the game, but not before completing a 70-yard touchdown pass to receiver Shay Fields. That score gave Colorado the 28-24 lead…which would also be the last time they’d score.
Redshirt freshman backup quarterback Steven Montez came into the game at that point and completed exactly zero of his seven pass attempts. A couple of them were dropped, including one that came from a flea flicker and found an open receiver in the end zone. For the most part, however, Montez looked more terrified than John L. Smith during a two-minute drill.
It was not a good day for the Wolverine safeties, as they were mostly responsible for allowing completions of 37, 50, and 70 yards. The first score of the game was the 37-yard touchdown to receiver Devin Ross. He was in the slot and matched up with safety Dymonte Thomas. Jabrill Peppers was supposed to be the help safety on this one, but his eyes were stuck in the backfield. The other safety — Delano Hill — ran towards the line of scrimmage. I’m not sure if he was spying or what, because he stopped before he got there.
I’m not sure how many years I’ve written this, but Dymonte Thomas is not the guy you want defending any receiver in a one-on-one situation, especially a slot receiver with no safety help. And I realize that Peppers was supposed to be there, but that’s one of the reasons why is no longer a full-time defensive back. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has to know his personnel better.
Thomas also gave up a 6-yard touchdown reception on a fade pass when he was again defending Devin Ross in the slot. Ross easily ran by him despite the close quarters. This time Delano Hill went on a blitz and was instantly neutralized. It just seems to me that Thomas is the guy you want blitzing and Hill is the guy you want defending a receiver one-on-one, if you must.
The 50-yard reception went to Bryce Bobo and also came from the slot as ran his slant behind Peppers, who was again keeping his eyes in the backfield. Bobo then ran around for about 45 yards before he was finally tackled.
The 70-yarder was again from the slot as receiver Shay Fields found himself matched up with Delano Hill, who was about 15 yards away and still ended up getting beaten badly on a route over the middle of the field.
The Wolverines are now the only team in the Big Ten to have given up two passes of 50 yards or more this season.
As far as Colorado’s running game was concerned, there wasn’t any. The Buffs rushed for 64 yards on 33 carries (1.9 ypc) and rarely had room to maneuver. Running back Phillip Lindsay did average 4.2 yards per carry on his 12 attempts, but if he was truly that effective he would have carried it a whole lot more.
Despite his difficulty in pass coverage beyond the line of scrimmage in this game, I don’t know if there is anybody better at defending passes behind the line of scrimmage than Peppers. If you want a screen to die a bloody death, throw it towards his side of the field. He can get under blockers or completely around them. He isn’t denied in the backfield. If a screen has been called to his side of the field and your quarterback doesn’t change the play, just call a timeout.
Peppers finished with nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. He now has 9.5 tackles for loss this season, which leads the nation. Middle linebacker Ben Gedeon led the team with 12 tackles. This was not the best game for linebacker Mike McCray. He sometimes lacks the speed to get to the edges on wide plays.
The defensive line was again disruptive. Freshman defensive end Rashan Gary didn’t have any sacks, but he hurried the quarterback a couple of times and had 1.5 tackles for loss. He is only getting better. Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst continues to be a problem for offenses. Defensive end Taco Charlton is still out with an injury, as is defensive tackle Bryan Mone.
Cornerback Jourdan Lewis was out again, but he could be back next week against Penn State. They need him back because without him their nickel defense is a liability. Nickel back Brandon Watson isn’t yet ready for what he is being asked to do.
The Michigan Special Teams
There was some good, some great, some amazing, and some bad. Let’s get the bad out of the way quickly — Kenny Allen missed two of his three field goal attempts (37, 44). He punted seven times for just a 39.3-yard average and only put one of his punts inside the 20 (while putting two into the end zone). Allen is asked to do a lot for this team and I wonder if at some point it’s possible for fatigue to set in for a kicker. Or pressure. Or whatever affects kickers so often.
Now the good. Jabrill Peppers had a 55-yard kickoff return and averaged 40.5 yards on his returns. The great? He also had a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown and averaged 25 yards on his four punt returns.
The amazing? Michigan blocked two more punts in this game, returning one of them for a touchdown. Although, to be fair, one of those blocked punts was a rugby kick that went off of a Colorado player.
They say your chances of winning go way, way up when you block a punt. I bet your chances of winning go way, way down when you block your own.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Wilton Speight still isn’t going to scare a talented defense. Colorado was a step up in competition for Speight and the quarterback ended up being a step behind for most of the game.
We can chalk up this performance to injury, but if his teammates don’t start picking up blitzes better this won’t be the last time he gets banged up.
It also means that while Don Brown hates it when people call his defense “high risk”, it has proven to be “high reward” with some offenses. He needs to protect his players better. I’m imagining Ohio State matching up their slot receivers like Curtis Samuel against Michigan’s safeties — or linebackers — and it’s not something that will end well for the Wolverines.
I’d be interested to see what this game would have looked like with a healthy Sefo Liufau because I would like to see this defense tested for a full 60 minutes. I want to see how they respond and how they get better as they meet challenges in difficult situations. Basically, I want to see how far they can go.
Most importantly, however, it means that Michigan is 3-0 and they finally got to face some adversity. They didn’t buckle. They needed a bit of a struggle and they’re better for it. Now they are ready for Big Ten play. Fortunately for them they have a tune-up game against Penn State before a remarkably-overrated Wisconsin comes to town.
The Road to The Game
Michigan 63 – Hawaii 3
Michigan 51 – UCF 14
Michigan 45 – Colorado 28
Michigan vs. Penn State
Michigan vs. Wisconsin
Michigan at Rutgers
Michigan vs. Illinois
Michigan at Michigan State
Michigan vs. Maryland
Michigan at Iowa
Michigan vs. Indiana
Michigan at Ohio State