I’m not even sure really where to start.
Maybe I’ll start with a timeout like Michigan did.
The Wolverines got the ball first in their 28-21 loss at Penn State Saturday night, but had to call a timeout before their first snap in order to avoid a delay of game penalty. If that’s not a sign of the times up north, such a thing does not exist.
The first play of a game should actually be called on Wednesday or Thursday, not Saturday in the 25 seconds before the first snap. What the hell were they practicing all week?
Most teams enter a game with a plan of attack, especially on the road. Michigan’s plan of attack was everybody looking at each other saying, “Is this what we’re doing? Are you sure? Should…should we hurry?”
Matters only worsened from there, as Penn State built a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter before Michigan finally began to mount a defense. And an offense.
Credit Michigan for fighting back and not simply rolling over. The Wolverines actually drove for the tying score in the fourth quarter, but a fourth down pass to receiver Ronnie Bell was dropped in the end zone.
It was a devastating drop by Bell, but it was his first of the game. Donovan Peoples-Jones had two drops earlier in the game and Nico Collins had a drop as well.
Bell has been getting all of the support he deserves following that play. He didn’t lose the game for the Wolverines. He’s been their most consistent player on offense this season.
And that drop didn’t lose the game for the Wolverines. Penn State would still have had 2:01 to play.
Plus, Jim Harbaugh would have gone for two and Shea Patterson’s sprint out pass to Bell would have been out of his reach anyway.
And it’s not like Ronnie Bell was the one defending Penn State slot receiver KJ Hamler during his two touchdowns for the Nittany Lions, though if he had been, he would have done a better job than safety Josh Metellus.
If you look at the box score and ignore the part that says “28-21,” the numbers look like a Michigan win. The Wolverines controlled the clock and won the rushing battle. What they lost, however, was the battle of explosive plays, and those carry more weight than just about anything else.
Penn State had four plays of 25 or more yards, and each of the four contributed to the Nittany Lions’ four touchdown drives. Two of them — catches of 53 and 25 yards by Hamler — were actual touchdowns, and a 37-yard reception by Jahan Dotson and a 44-yard run by Ricky Slade did the bulk of the damage on the other two touchdown drives.
Michigan had two plays of over 25 yards and both came on drives that ended in touchdowns. They did have a deep completion to Nico Collins negated by a terrible offensive pass interference, so that would have obviously been nice to have.
There is a bit of irony here in that this was one of those games where we actually got to see some of Michigan’s speed in space, and it was effective. Quarterback Shea Patterson threw some quick passes out wide to receivers who ran for 12 or 13 yards and a first down. Things were working to a point.
Penn State’s speed in space, however, was faster and less bound by the constrictions of gravity.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Michigan rushed for 141 yards on 41 attempts (3.4 ypc). I was surprised they had as much success on the ground as they did — not that 3.4 yards per carry is good. I think Shea Patterson running the ball (12-34-1 TD) always makes the running game better, and that was the case in this one.
Oddly, or evenly, the 41 attempts for 141 yards is exactly what this offense managed against Rutgers as well. Does that mean things are improving? Maybe.
An area that still confuses me is the usage of freshman Zach Charbonnet, who is clearly the team’s best running back. Charbonnet led the team with 81 yards rushing on 15 attempts (5.4 ypc) and two touchdowns. Despite the fact that he leads the team in rushing by a considerable margin, he was playing behind redshirt freshman Hassan Haskins in this one.
Haskins finished with 13 carries for 28 yards (2.2 ypc). Why was Haskins in front of Charbonnet this week? Probably because of his 12 rushes for 125 yards last week against Illinois. However, if you base anything off of an outing against Illinois, you aren’t actually staying in the plane of reality.
Would this outcome have been any different if Charbonnet had 25 carries instead of 15? I don’t know. What I do know is that giving Charbonnet only 15 carries was a losing plan.
On the positive side, Shea Patterson had one of his best games throwing the ball, completing 24-of-41 passes for 276 yards with zero touchdowns and one interception.
That doesn’t mean he had a good game, however.
His interception came a couple of plays after the deep completion to Nico Collins was called back. It was a screen pass to a running back, but rather than wait to see if his back could actually clear the scrum, Patterson simply threw the ball where he thought the back would be. Penn State stepped in and picked it off, thereby making the blown call by the refs on the offensive pass interference even bigger.
There are little things about Patterson that will never allow him to be a trustworthy quarterback. That interception is one of them — if you can call that kind of decision making a “little thing.” Additionally, the Speed in Space thing needs a quarterback who can consistently put the ball in front of his receivers so that they can continue their forward momentum. Twice in this game, he threw screen passes behind his receivers, forcing them to completely halt their speed in space and turn around to catch the ball and then try to get fast again. It didn’t work. The simple placement of a football on a quick screen out wide could be the difference between seven points and a seven-yard loss.
The details just don’t matter as much as they should, and when the talent is equated, Michigan doesn’t have the execution to put themselves over the edge.
And they’re also not getting much help from the play calling.
For instance, Michigan — down 7-0 late in the first quarter — had a third-and-3 at the Penn State 36-yard line. They had driven from their own 14-yard line and were moving the ball pretty well. So what did they do on third-and-3? They had Shea Patterson line up under the left guard and the center snapped the ball to Charbonnet at tailback for no gain.
Patterson carried out his fake, and like a Woody Allen theatrical release, nobody went to see it. Because Penn State has played football before, they knew where the ball was and who the center was and not a single defender bought whatever it was that Michigan was trying to sell.
They then failed to pick up the fourth down.
I am all for Jim Harbaugh trying to win games through play calling, but if he thinks that’s what that was, he couldn’t be more wrong. I want to see him be aggressive, but this wasn’t aggression, it was egregious.
And besides, we know he isn’t aggressive. He showed that on the very first drive of the game when he had a fourth-and-1 at the Penn State 47-yard line. After picking up no yards on third and 1 with Hassan Haskins, he elected to punt the ball. The punt went into the end zone for a touchback, which is punter Will Hart’s specialty.
I am not opposed to punting in that situation, but when my punter puts as many punts into the end zone as Hart, I am going to consider that just as much as I’d consider going for it on fourth down in field goal range with a shaky field goal kicker.
I understand you don’t want to get stopped on fourth down and give Penn State momentum right at the start of the game, but here’s the thing — they already have the momentum at the start of the game and punting isn’t going to take it away.
You never know, sometimes if you play for the win, you just might get it.
And when you are searching for answers, doing more of the same probably isn’t going to get you anywhere.
When Michigan Was On Defense
The Michigan defense held Penn State to 182 yards passing and 101 yards rushing. Frustratingly, 125 of those passing yards came on three plays and 44 of those rushing yards came on one play.
Those four plays for 169 yards — out of a total 283 given up — were the story of this game and negate what could have been an outstanding defensive effort by the Wolverines.
This wasn’t Penn State’s least-productive day on the ground, that belongs to their 45-13 win over Buffalo back in early September when they managed just 78 yards on 24 attempts. And it wasn’t their worst day through the air — that came one week earlier when quarterback Sean Clifford managed just 117 yards passing against Iowa.
The point being that Michigan did fairly well against an offense that isn’t all that great, but they got beat by the one guy that you can’t let beat you — slot receiver KJ Hamler.
Hamler caught six passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns, and it could have been even worse if Clifford had a bigger arm.
Despite rotating three cornerbacks in this game and throughout the season, defensive coordinator Don Brown believed his safeties could handle KJ Hamler.
He was wrong.
What was one of his answers when it came to helping his safeties? He sent rush end/outside linebacker Josh Uche screaming down the middle of the field to provide deep support. The one time it actually worked, but that was only because Clifford completely underthrew the ball.
Michigan’s safeties have had trouble with the deep ball for a very long time, so I’m not sure why Brown thought they would be able to handle arguably the Big Ten’s quickest and fastest receiver.
Freshman safety Daxton Hill may one day be able to handle somebody like Hamler, but current starters Josh Metellus and Brad Hawkins had no chance, and it wasn’t a secret. Don Brown’s entire approach was that he believed his defense could get to Clifford before Clifford could get the ball off.
They sacked him twice. He hit Hamler for two touchdowns. This isn’t an area where batting .500 works out for the defense and it never will be.
A couple of weeks ago, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said everything they do on defense, from installing plays to technique to design, is done to limit explosive plays. If they love a particular blitz, but it leaves them vulnerable to a big shot, they won’t put it in.
What kind of results has that thought process brought to Columbus?
Ohio State’s defense is ninth nationally in plays of 10+ yards allowed, third in 20+ yards, first in 30+ yards, seventh in 40+ yards, and eighth in 50+ yards.
The Wolverines have allowed 11 plays of 30 yards or more this season, compared to Ohio State’s four. The good news for Michigan is that’s about right at their pace from last season.
This is a defense that is finding itself and growing together, and redshirt freshman middle linebacker Cameron McGrone is like football calcium. He finished with six tackles and a team-high 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.0 sacks.
The defense is getting more active, but the secondary is going to have to step things up or else nothing happening in front of them will even matter.
The Michigan Special Teams
Faced with a fourth-and-6 at the Penn State 41-yard line in the final minute of the first half, Jim Harbaugh decided to attempt a 58-yard field goal. Jake Moody, of course, missed the field goal. It wasn’t close. He had no chance. Penn State took over at their own 41-yard line with 51 seconds to play. Fortunately for Michigan, the Nittany Lions couldn’t take advantage of this gaffe from Harbaugh.
Think about it, rather than go for it on fourth-and-6 — and rather than punting it — Harbaugh decided to attempt a field goal that was never going to be made. Or at the very least, only get made one out of 10 chances. How many times are they going to pick up a fourth-and-6 out of 10 tries? Five?
Instead, Harbaugh tried the impossible, knowing Penn State would likely end up with the football in good field position with plenty of time to add to their 21-7 lead.
I don’t understand the thought process in kicking there, which may not seem like that big of a deal, but it gives you a peek behind the curtain and makes you wonder how many other decisions are completely and shamefully wrong that you never get to see.
This one happened on the football field, but does it also happen on the recruiting trail? Does he make these same kinds of mistakes in talent evaluation? Or talent development?
It was just one play, but it feels like so much more.
What Does It All Mean?
It means Michigan the team is playing better, but Michigan the program still isn’t in a place where it can overcome a couple of mistakes or a couple of poor coaching decisions against teams with as much talent as they have.
The Wolverines can beat up on less-talented teams, but when it comes to fair fights, they have trouble creating enough breaks to overcome mistakes.
An imperfect team is being asked to play a near-perfect game, and this is how you start out 3-2 in Big Ten play.
It also means they are plenty good enough to win this weekend against Notre Dame — provided the coaches don’t lose it for them first.
There is still plenty of season to play and finishing with wins over Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State would make this year a success.
Actually, at this point, just winning that last game would make it a success. Anything else would be gravy.
The Road to The Game
Aug. 31 — Michigan 40 – Middle Tennessee 21 (1-0)
Sept. 7 — Michigan 24 – Army 21 (2-0)
Sept. 21 — Wisconsin 35 – Michigan 14 (2-1, 0-1)
Sept. 28 — Michigan 52 – Rutgers 0 (3-1, 1-1)
Oct. 5 — Michigan 10 – Iowa 3 (4-1, 2-1)
Oct. 12 — Michigan 42 – Illinois 25 (5-1, 3-1)
Oct. 19 — Penn State 28 – Michigan 21 (5-2, 3-2)
Oct. 26 — Notre Dame
Nov. 2 — at Maryland
Nov. 16 — Michigan State
Nov. 23 — at Indiana
Nov. 30 — Ohio State