Just a note for future reference, when the Buckeyes are playing on the road like they did this past weekend at Penn State, I’m going to have a very difficult time getting Michigan Monday out on a Monday. However, I also reserve the right to have a very difficult time getting Michigan Monday out on a Monday following a home game. Or following a bye week.
Anyway, I didn’t bring you here to make excuses for my late work. I brought you here to tell you how much I feel like I don’t need to actually watch this Michigan team to know what happened in a game right now.
If the offense isn’t scoring points it’s because running back Karan Higdon is having a tough day on the ground and quarterback Shea Patterson isn’t accurate when he’s actually given a chance to throw. Defensively, if Michigan has given up 17 points on the first three drives, that tells me that Northwestern had a terrific opening script and great field position.
But rest assured, I did watch this entire game. And all three hours of commercials.
The Wolverines moved to 4-1 on the season and 2-0 in conference play with the 20-17 win over Northwestern, who fell to 1-3 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten.
Northwestern scored the first 17 points of the game, but they did it so early that it was clear it was never going to be enough. It was also pretty clear throughout the second half that the Wildcats had nothing left to offer.
And it’s not like the first half was pure domination. Yes, Northwestern’s offense had three scoring drives, but they went 56, 32, and 52 yards. After that third drive, however, the Wildcats managed just 87 more yards the rest of the game — and 15 of those yards came on Michigan penalties.
Michigan’s shortest scoring drive was the same distance as Northwestern’s longest scoring drive.
This may have been a 3-point game and a 17-point comeback, but the only point where the outcome felt like it was in doubt was the two or three minutes between Northwestern making it 17-0 and then the Wolverines starting their answering march to make it 17-7. From that point, it just felt like a matter of time for Michigan.
Pat Fitzgerald tried to hold on as best he could, but like the cop said in National Lampoon’s Vacation, “Poor little guy. Probably kept up with you for a mile or so.”
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines rushed for 180 yards on 42 attempts (4.3 avg), with Higdon being responsible for the bulk of that (30-115). Patterson completed 15-of-24 passes for 196 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions.
Patterson had accuracy issues throughout, though I think some of that was due to defensive end Joe Gaziano, who was in the backfield a few times on Saturday.
Sophomore receiver Nico Collins led Michigan with six catches for 73 yards. Donovan Peoples-Jones added two for 14 yards, which now makes it three catches for 24 yards in his last two games. And this is after his breakout performance of four catches for 90 yards and three touchdowns against SMU.
At some point I wonder if the blame should stop going to Jim Harbaugh’s offense and start going to Peoples-Jones for not getting open.
It was good to see tight end Nick Eubanks back and being utilized down the field. He’s not Devin Funchess, but he can stretch the field pretty well for a tight end.
Higdon was held pretty well in check, but Michigan was still able to do enough damage on the ground to move the ball.
I mentioned last week or the week before that it would be interesting to see the development of the running game and that Shea Patterson should begin to run the read-option more, and we saw that this week. He rushed for 31 yards on seven carries, but also had a 20-yarder erased due to a penalty.
After seeing Trace McSorley rush for 175-odd yards against the Buckeyes, I could definitely see Patterson do at least half of that against OSU if Harbaugh wanted.
It was not a great day for the Michigan offensive line, who rarely got much of a push and also had trouble giving Patterson time to throw the ball comfortably. They did manage to establish a running game in the third quarter, and twice went down inside the Northwestern 10-yard line, but it was actually the passing game that failed to punctuate either drive with a touchdown.
This was the second time this season that Michigan was held under 400 yards of total offense. The first time was at Notre Dame. It is probably not a coincidence that both games were on the road and against the two best teams the Wolverines have faced this season.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Northwestern came into this game just days after losing star running back Jeremy Larkin to retirement, so that was going to have both an emotional and physical impact on this game. Emotions only last so long, however, and eventually the physical impact took its toll.
The Wildcats opened up a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, but we’ve all seen this movie before.
It’s the same for all horror movies. A group of teenagers goes and thinks they’re gonna have a real good time at an old family fishing cabin in the woods, and that’s what the first 20 minutes of the movie is. Things are going great and everyone is happy. Then the insane asylum has a breakout and the rest of the movie is Chase Winovich murdering dudes with a pick axe.
Northwestern rushed for 28 yards on 34 carries, which is about an average of two-and-half turkey subs per carry. If you’re not averaging at least 15 turkey subs per carry, you’re going to have a difficult time winning a game.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson was 16-of-27 for 174 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He was sacked six times.
One of those sacks and three of the 10 tackles for loss went to Winovich, who also led the team with nine tackles. He was everywhere, as he usually is.
Even with Winovich’s outstanding day, the best thing about the Michigan defensive line was the production from backups Michael Dwumfour and Kwity Paye. Paye had two sacks and looked like a legitimate Big Ten pass rusher.
I have said for a while now that depth on the defensive line has wrecked Michigan in November over the last few years, but maybe that changes this year as reserves begin to produce and the entire room gets healthier. Of course, I say that as Rashan Gary seems to be dealing with an injury.
Middle linebacker Devin Bush was quiet with only one tackle, but that’s an anomaly.
Overall, however, the Michigan defensive line may be in better shape than it has been in many years, and that’s even considering Gary’s on-going limitations.
In fact, this might be the deepest Michigan defense we’ve ever seen.
There are rotational pieces all over the front seven, and they routinely rotate three cornerbacks.
I’m not saying it’s the best, because I don’t think it is. There are concerns in the secondary, but it’s not easy for a quarterback to just ignore the noise and stand in the pocket and deliver.
There were also some tackling issues on screens, which pops up from time to time with this defense. That’s not unusual, but it is something to keep in mind when you consider how effective the Buckeyes were in the second half with their screen game last week against Penn State.
The Special Teams
Quinn Nordin made both of his field goals on the day, with his long being just 24 yards. Nothing happened in the return game, good or bad.
Will Hart was again outstanding punting the ball, averaging 51.0 yards on his six punts.
It was a very uneventful day in the kicking game.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Michigan went on the road for the second time this season and again trailed by more than two touchdowns in the first half against an offense that isn’t very good.
That’s a concern.
They couldn’t overcome the deficit against Notre Dame and may not be able to do so against four of their final seven opponents.
Michigan has been outscored 38-17 in the first half on the road. At home, that number is 84-28 in favor of the Wolverines. That’s great and all, but Michigan still has road games against Michigan State and Ohio State on the schedule.
(I would also list the road trip to Rutgers here, but we all know that you throw the records out in rivalry games.)
There’s also home games against Wisconsin and Penn State coming up, so we’ll see if it’s the venue or the level of talent that has actually troubled Michigan in the first half this season.
It also means that Jim Harbaugh missed an opportunity to work out the kinks with the passing game. They threw the ball just 18 times against both Western Michigan and SMU, which isn’t how you get chemistry going with your quarterback and receivers (tight ends).
That chemistry was missing against Northwestern and would have definitely come in handy in the red zone.
When Michigan hosts Maryland on Saturday, it will mark 23 months since the Wolverines last put up 500 yards of total offense. That’s a span of 22 games without hitting 500 yards. Brady Hoke’s longest stretch was 11 games — and those just happened to be the final 11 games of his Michigan coaching career.
Even Rich Rodriguez’s streak was “only” 18 such games.
With Michigan’s defense, it’s not like they need to put up 500 yards of total offense on average, but with their defense, why not be more open to it?
Jim Harbaugh doesn’t have to protect his defense like they are constantly on the brink. They are the brink.
This offense could be so much more, and because Harbaugh doesn’t want it to be, this program will always be limited.
Chase Winovich and Devin Bush aren’t going to be here forever. Don’t waste ’em.
The Road To The Game
Sept 1 – at Notre Dame 17-24 (0-1)
Sept 8 – Western Michigan 49-3 (1-1)
Sept 15 – SMU 45-20 (2-1)
Sept 22 – Nebraska 56-10 (3-1, 1-0)
Sept 29 – at Northwestern 20-17 (4-1, 2-0)