Winning feels good. I don't really care that it was Rutgers. I don't really care that it took three overtimes. I don't really care that I had to stay up until midnight to watch the finish. I went to bed feeling . . . maybe not happy, but relieved.
Remember, remember, the 23rd of September . . . On September 23, 2017, quarterback Wilton Speight's back got broken on a dirty hit by Purdue. In stepped backup John O'Korn, who completed 69.2% of his passes for 270 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception for an offense that had been disappointing up to that point. He was the savior! The following week he threw 3 interceptions against Michigan State and would finish with 2 touchdowns and 6 interceptions on the year. The Purdue game was Fool's Gold. So I have that in the back of my mind going into the next section.
Hit the jump for more.
Remember that elephant in the room? I feel bad for Joe Milton, but the writing is on the wall. Season stats:
- 57.2% completions, 4 TD, 4 INT
- 67.4% completions, 5 TD, 0 INT
The first is obviously Milton, and the second is "backup" Cade McNamara. Milton was 5/12 for 89 yards, 0 TD, and 0 INT when he was pulled for McNamara in the second quarter. McNamara was 27/36 for 260 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions the rest of the way. McNamara lacks the wow factor when it comes to arm strength, but accuracy, anticipation, etc. are more important than throwing a ball 80 yards in the air. McNamara said after the game that he felt he should be the starter going forward, and Jim Harbaugh agreed.
What's wrong with Milton? The bad thing is that I feel like Milton has made progress as a passer, especially after week two against Michigan State. It hasn't been a steady climb, but there are positives. Unfortunately, the progress is too slow. People kept saying Milton wasn't the reason Michigan was losing, and they're right. He wasn't the reason. But he was a big chunk of that pie. Milton reminds me of Chad Henne in 2004. The problem is that Henne was a true freshman, and Milton is in his third year of college. Add in that Milton doesn't have a Braylon Edwards (a.k.a. Nico Collins) to chuck the ball up to and save the day on 50/50 balls, and it's not a good recipe. Milton looks like an NFL quarterback in shorts and t-shirt, which is why I took everything Devin Gardner was saying about him in the off-season with a grain of salt. But when the lights come on, anticipation, reading a defense, improvising, etc. all become important, and Milton hasn't shown much in those areas.
What's right with McNamara? McNamara understands the quarterback position as a redshirt freshman better than his slightly older teammate does. It was said multiple times on the broadcast last night, but he's the leading passer in Nevada high school state history with over 12,000 passing yards. The main takeaway from that isn't that he threw for a bunch of yards, but that he got a lot of opportunities to throw the ball. That means he's had to read coverages, read leverage of defenders, identify blitzes, etc. So when Rutgers blitzed or got pressure on Saturday night, McNamara knew where his hot receivers were and figured out ways to sidearm the ball past leaping defenders.
Sidebar. Recently, I was playing some pickup basketball. I was lucky enough to get matched up against the 6'7" former Division I basketball player. I'm used to making entry passes into the post by throwing the ball over the heads of guys who are my size or shorter, so it was in my nature just to do that. The problem was the guy standing in front of me was 6'7". So it took me about 3 tipped passes (it shouldn't have taken me that long) to realize, "Hmm, I'm going to start having to be creative and throw bounce passes, work laterally, etc. or I'm just going to be a turnover machine." Joe Milton is me playing basketball against a 6'7" guy. I either have to figure out how to be crafty and adjust, or I'm just going to have to accept failure.
(Moral of the story: Try not to play against 6'7" guys.)
What's right with Josh Gattis? NOTHING. Okay, okay . . . that's unfairly harsh. But the first quarter of the game with Milton was maddening, and there continued to be occasional maddening things as the night went along. I feel somewhat vindicated after last week, because two of my main points were a) feed Hassan Haskins the ball and b) if you're going to run a short-to-intermediate passing game, get Milton out of there. I already discussed the second point, but as for the first, Haskins averaged 4.4 yards/carry and had the first 100-yard game of the season for Michigan. This is the longest we've had to wait for a 100-yard rusher since at least 2004. Granted, most seasons start with one or two cupcakes in the first three games to pad stats, but still . . . Michigan State, Minnesota, and Indiana are often cupcakes themselves.
The blocking is terrible up front. I don't expect greatness from a line with five new starters (compared to last year) and three new starters (compared to the season opener). Left to right it's: redshirt freshman, redshirt junior, redshirt freshman, true freshman, redshirt junior. And those two redshirt juniors appear to be a default starter (Chuck Filiaga at left guard) and a guy who was injured last year (Andrew Stueber at right tackle). Plus . . .
Fifth year senior tight end Nick Eubanks is pretty useless as a blocker despite being 265 pounds. From my commitment post for Eubanks:
He stands over players who end up on the ground. At one point approximately 2:50 into the video below, he gives a so-so effort at blocking, holds a little bit, and lets his man go; while the guy he’s supposed to be blocking slips off to make the tackle, Eubanks struts toward the sideline while his teammate fights for extra yardage. Eubanks is a body-catcher, so he doesn’t get his hands away from his body. When he settles down into a hitch route (apparently one of the very few routes his team knows), he drifts rather than coming back to the ball. There are at least two plays in which he blocks defenders in the back and deserves a penalty. On several plays he blocks without bending, lowering his hips, and moving his feet well. He does not appear to fight very hard for extra yardage after the catch.
I posted the above on January 28, 2016 (LINK). I'm not 100% on evaluations, but pretty much 100% of that evaluation is spot on five seasons later. Eubanks gave a terrible effort blocking an outside linebacker on a bubble route, and when he was asked to block down on an edge player, he didn't want to do that, either. I do believe he's a decent pass catcher, and he made a nice touchdown catch. Late in the game, he had a chance to run over a defensive back on the sideline . . . and instead stopped his feet, getting blasted out of bounds.
Defensively, it is what it is. I don't think the defense is fixable through scheme. You have to have the guys, and Michigan doesn't have the guys. By the end of last night, here's what the lineup looked like compared to the beginning of the year:
Aidan Hutchinson Carlo Kemp
Carlo Kemp Chris Hinton
NT: Donovan Jeter
Kwity Paye Taylor Upshaw
Viper: Michael Barrett
Cam McGrone Adam Shibley
WILL: Josh Ross
CB: Vincent Gray
CB: Gemon Green
S: Dax Hill
Brad Hawkins Hunter Reynolds
That's five new starters, give or take Kemp switching positions and Ambry Thomas opting out. And while a couple guys have improved, Dax Hill has regressed this season. Maybe it's because safeties coach Bob Shoop isn't, you know, coaching safeties, or maybe it's because he's trying to make up for other people's mistakes. But I thought Hill looked really good through the Indiana game. And the last two weeks, he's been really rough, missing tackles and blowing coverages.
What does this mean going forward? I had Michigan winning 34-27, and I was feeling pretty good about that when Michigan was up 35-27 near the end of regulation. Then of course Rutgers scored, sending it to overtime. I was feeling very pessimistic in overtime when Quinn Nordin missed the field goal, but luckily, Rutgers's kicker missed, too. Then I was feeling very pessimistic when Rutgers scored on a 25-yard throwback screen, and Michigan drove down for a score. But the coaches and players figured out a way to win. I'm expecting more of the same down the stretch, with wild emotional swings - if you're still invested. Hopefully this gives the team a jolt of energy and confidence, because they are more talented than what they've shown. But I expect more of the same swings for the rest of the season. I'm not expecting any coast-to-coast dominations. I'm hoping for miracles, but I expect Michigan to pull out 1 or 2 more close wins before the season wraps.