Tale of Two Halves: Michigan @ Wisconsin Recap

Saturday’s only matchup of ranked teams lived up to its billing for the first half. Both defenses, ranked in the top five in yards allowed per game, were duking it out and not giving up an inch.

Wisconsin struck first with an impressive punt return TD by Nick Nelson. They took that 7-0 lead into the second quarter when Michigan answered back with a 1-yard plunge by fullback Ben Mason. The Wolverines would’ve seized momentum even more with a chance to go up 14-7, but a nice play by the Badger defense caused QB Brandon Peters to fumble near the end zone.

This led to the teams heading into the second half all squared up at 7-7. Michigan led the total yards battle 169-99 and had to feel pretty good heading into the third quarter. The defense was also doing more than holding their own against the stellar young running back, Jonathan Taylor, holding him to 45 yards on the ground through two quarters.

The second half started off pretty favorably for the Wolverines as well as they took a 10-7 lead on a 39 yard field goal by Quinn Nordin halfway through the quarter. But the Badgers responded, led by quarterback Alex Hornibrook, on a 24 yard TD strike to A.J. Taylor to take a 14-10 lead.

Then on the next drive, Peters went down with an injury and Michigan looked lost and out of sync, both offensively and defensively. The Badgers next drive after the injury to U of M’s QB resulted in another TD and a 21-10 lead. Backup quarterback John O’Korn completed only two passes out of eight attempts and the ground game was no help. Chris Evans was the leading rusher with 25 yards on 11 totes.

Once the Badgers took the lead, it allowed them to feed Taylor to eat up clock and he ended the game with 132 yard rushing on 19 carries. The Badgers ended up kicking another field goal to end the game 24-10.

As for the implications this game had for both teams, the Wisconsin Badgers ran their record to 11-0 and a battle with Minnesota for Paul Bunyan’s Axe next week in Minneapolis. The Wolverines dropped to 8-3 and return to Ann Arbor for The Game against Ohio State.

The Badgers added a quality win to their resume and are still in line for the College Football Playoff if they beat the Golden Gophers next week and the Buckeyes in Indianapolis in the Big Ten Championship game.

The Wolverines head into next week trying to beat their biggest rival at home and will be trying to reach ten wins if they can beat OSU and win their bowl game.

A tale of two halves and a tale of two different seasons for these Big Ten foes.

 

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Can Michigan Win Their Next Two?

Jim Harbaugh’s 8-2 Michigan Wolverines are currently on a three-game win streak (Rutgers, Minnesota, Maryland), all in which they beat by two or more possessions. Redshirt freshman QB, Brandon Peters, has seen the start in two of the last three games, but was given significant playing time against Rutgers after struggles from John O’Korn.

Peters through three games: (28 for 46, 329 yards, 4 touchdowns, 60.9 completion percentage, 7.15 yards per attempt, long: 35).

The run game has also been lifted since Peters stepped under center; the two biggest contributors to the latest emergence of the rushing attack are both sophomores, Karan Higdon and Chris Evans.

Higdon this season: (129 attempts, 854 yards, 6.6 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns, long: 77); Evans this season: (104 attempts, 569 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 6 touchdowns, long: 67)

The quality of defenses in the past three games haven’t exactly been A-list, but it’s nice to finally see Michigan establish the identity they’ve been looking for. This is just what this team needs before playing in this two-game skid against top teams, undefeated Wisconsin and an Ohio State team coming off an absolute rout over Michigan State.

There were concerns in the 2nd half of the Maryland matchup on Saturday; despite winning in convincing fashion, 35-10, the Terps were able to outgain Michigan in total yards (340-305). It was evident that Michigan took their foot off the gas coming out of the locker room into the 3rd quarter. Maryland was also able to outscore the Wolverines in the 2nd half, 10-7, went on a 10-0 run deep into the fourth quarter.

Should Michigan fans worry about their incapability to put a stake in Maryland yesterday, or are they simply over thinking it?

Either way, the schedule faces its most difficult consecutive weeks to date. Michigan still has a sliver of a chance to win the East, but I’d imagine the realistic goal for this team is what’s in front of them, finishing the regular season 10-2.

Since 2006, Michigan is 0-15 against top 25 ranked teams in road match-ups. The last two top ten ranked teams that Michigan has beaten? Both were against Wisconsin at home (2008, 2016).

This Saturday, Michigan will play the only undefeated team left in the conference, top 5 ranked Wisconsin. As of today, the Wolverines are just an 8.5 point spread underdog, which is awfully generous in my opinion. The Big Ten West front-runners have convincingly handled every team put in front of them this season, top wins over Northwestern and Iowa, who both cracked the CFP top 25 in week 11.

The following Saturday, November 25th, Michigan will host Ohio State in the Big House. The last time Michigan beat their rival was November 26th, 2011 in Ann Arbor when current Cincinnati head coach, Luke Fickell, was the interim head coach for the Buckeyes. The 21st century has not been a kind one for Michigan in regards to this rivalry, and if we’re being honest, it hasn’t been kind to Michigan for multiple reasons. Despite already having two losses with two more games left to play in the regular season, Ohio State has looked good for the most part this season and Michigan simply hasn’t.

The S&P probability is giving Michigan just an 8.7 percent chance to win the next two, a 41.6 percent chance to win just one of the next two, and a 49.7 percent chance to lose both and finish 8-4 on the regular season.

Michigan’s offense has been primarily executing, most especially in the run game, which is an important key for success in their next two games. Very crucial for this unit to build off the recent success and to stick with a similar game-plan which is a run-first, pass conservatively scheme, nothing too fancy.

There’s nothing that could lift a young quarterback’s confidence like coming off the bench and assisting in running the table for a Michigan team that was facing offensive struggles prior to him seeing the field. Brandon Peters is the more favorable candidate for the starting job in 2018, will likely have a competition against a likely healthy Wilton Speight. Win or lose the next two, Peters will gain experience and get a better feel for what type of intensity college football has to offer.

Don Brown’s defense has done their job in just about every week except for the Penn State game that displayed multiple schematic issues. Khaleke Hudson has been a significant play-maker for this unit in replacing Jabrill Peppers at the viper position. A young secondary that initially had some communication issues seems to now be hitting their stride, defensive backs like sophomores David Long and Lavert Hill are making names for themselves as of late.

There isn’t a whole lot of reason for odds-makers in Vegas to put any confidence into Michigan in the next two weeks. They’re underdogs this Saturday, and will surely be underdogs next week for the Ohio State game, the odds will be stacked against them.

As for a fan-base who has had quite the emotional roller-coaster with their beloved head coach, they crave these potential signature wins over Wisconsin on the road, and beating Ohio State at home. These wins would not only make Michigan fans believe in Harbaugh again, but it should also silence his doubters. One of the biggest issues that fans and anaylysts have had over Jim Harbaugh is his poor record against rivals thus far at Michigan, which is 1-4.

Winning out would lift Jim Harbaugh to his third consecutive ten win season at his alma mater and would be entering 2018 with a talented team and a confident, sophomore quarterback who has 6 games of experience under his belt. Even though Michigan’s chance at the Big Ten is highly an unlikely one, there’s still a lot at stake for the remainder of the season.

 

Michigan’s Narrow Chance for the Big Ten East

Don’t look now, but it looks as if the Michigan offense might have found an identity to roll with from here on out. I know it’s only Rutgers and Minnesota, but it just feels like from the moment (RS) freshman quarterback, Brandon Peters, came off the bench, it’s given new life to this offense despite leaning heavily on the run game against Minnesota.

This type of offensive emergence gives this team their best chance to defy Vegas odds, and run the regular season table to win ten games for the third straight season.

Suffering losses from two in-division foes has already nearly sealed any chance of a Big Ten Championship game apperance for the Wolverines. There’s still a slight chance, so don’t completely count out the unranked 7-2 Michigan squad, but have I expressed how slight their chances truly are? Let me break it down:

  • Michigan needs to win out, beating Maryland (lost to Rutgers), undefeated no. 8 Wisconsin, and no. 13 Ohio State (whom is coming off a 55-24 loss to Iowa on the road which brought them down 7 spots in the CFP rankings).
  • No. 13 Ohio State will need to beat no. 12 Michigan State in Columbus.
  • No. 12 Michigan State will need to lose to either Maryland, or Rutgers (not very likely).
  • No. 14 Penn State will need to lose to Rutgers, Nebraska, or Maryland (again, doesn’t seem likely).

This is the one, sole, unlikely series of events that will need to unfold in order for Michigan to win their first Big Ten East division title. It’s asking for a complete miracle for this program and for this fan base; just know that in college football, anything really is possible.

What’s important for Jim Harbaugh and his team: focus on what they can control, which is to win out, one game at a time. Maryland is on this team’s mind as of this week, Wisconsin is on deck.

May the odds of this ill-probable shot at a 2017 Big Ten Championship forever be in favor of the youthful Michigan Wolverines.

For the fans who are currently complaining about a 7-2 Michigan team being snubbed of a ranking in the week 11 CFP poll: I have to ask what is there to be bitter about? Looking at it from a realistic fan/observer’s standpoint, Michigan lacks a win over an above .500 team, in other words they do not deserve to be ranked at this point in time. They have two games coming up where they’ll have the opportunity to earn wins which will almost certainly earn them a top 25 spot.

It’s Time to Start Brandon Peters

Last Saturday, Michigan was humiliated on national television in prime-time. Penn State beat up on the now unranked Wolverines 42-13 in Happy Valley, a loss was a probable prediction, just surprising to see it in blowout fashion. Sitting at 5-2, Michigan’s hopes for a division title are all but officially crushed. Outside of two touchdown scoring drives, the offense remained lifeless and was shutout in the 2nd half.

Meet Brandon Peters: 6’4 gunslinger redshirt freshman, Michigan’s backup quarterback, former no. 1 overall recruit in the state of Indiana, the favorable candidate for the starting job in 2018, was in the conversation to win the starting job for this season.

Peters went 9-17, threw for 160 yards, and added a score in the Spring Game earlier in 2017.

A large portion of the Michigan fan-base wanted the redshirt freshman to be the starter this season after seeing him in the Spring Game. Harbaugh ultimately decided to stick with the experience, putting two veterans ahead of Peters on the depth chart, Speight and O’Korn. Which was reasonable and predictable in my mind, an inexperienced team usually can benefit from having a veteran QB, right?

The offense is as bad as it’s been in years for Michigan, the quarterback play hasn’t been flawless, but it hasn’t been the primary issue. The pocket collapses too quickly, not good separation thus far from young receivers, run-game very inconsistent, play-calling has been questionable and they’ve displayed overall bad communication throughout the unit as a whole.

This season was expected, by many, to be a transitional season considering the amount of talent departing from the program a season ago, graduating over 40 seniors, losing 11 to the NFL draft, and being faced with the task of retooling a very youthful team. Michigan fans, of course, are going to expect a lot, it’s in their nature and they crave a championship (haven’t won a conference title since ’04).

Harbaugh’s seat is not hot, if he keeps losing big games then it’ll definitely get there, but that’s a conversation for another day. Michigan is currently 5-2, both in-division losses, likely crushing any hopes to win the Big Ten yet again for the Wolverines. The reality of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure is that there’s now legitimate pressure to win big games, and championships for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. The only goals in front of Michigan for this regular season are to win 10 games, spoil Ohio State’s season, and win a bowl game.

Prior to Saturday, I was in support for the idea of keeping the guy with the most experience under-center, safest bet for the specific circumstances. It’s officially time to bench John O’Korn for Brandon Peters. It’s a distasteful decision if you have empathy towards O’Korn’s situation, but even he has to understand what’s best for the program. Like I said before, quarterbacks are not the issue with this offense, but he’s just not the future, his eligibility will expire at the end of 2017, Peters has the rest of this season, and three entire seasons left in Ann Arbor.

If I’m Jim Harbaugh, I want a ready-to-go, experienced quarterback for 2018. Wilton Speight will have a remaining season of eligibility but that’s not promising — we don’t know if Speight will ever be able to play football again, vertebrae injuries aren’t a joke. Harbaugh was asked about Speight following the Penn State game and had this to say about his situation: “Get healthy – that’s where most of his efforts are being concentrated. He’s at practice. I know he’s chomping at the bit. His bones (are) healing back together. It takes time. He’s been a good teammate. I know he’s chomping at the bit.”

Michigan’s remaining schedule consists of: Rutgers, Minnesota, @ Maryland, @ no. 5 Wisconsin, and no. 6 Ohio State. The Rutgers game this Saturday is an ideal matchup for a debut start where Peters can hit the ground running, build some confidence, have his home crowd behind him while he’d likely earn his first win as a starter for Michigan.

Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland are games that Michigan should win and I believe they’ll handle all three teams somewhat convincingly, all good opportunities for Brandon Peters to get his feel for Big Ten football, create a rhythm, and grow with an also young offense.

With three favorable match-ups under Peters’ belt, he should appear collected and confident heading into the Wisconsin, and Ohio State games. These two games will give Peters an even better feel for college football intensity, playing Wisconsin on the road, and then playing in the arguably biggest rivalry in American sports are both opportunities which a lot of quarterbacks strive to get.

Do I think Michigan can win at least one of these marquee November games, or potentially both? Nothing surprises me in college football today, it’s a crazy game. If a Brandon Peters led offense is able to host a likely top ten ranked Ohio State team, and pull off a win? Think about the confidence that’ll give the young quarterback headed into the 2018 season.

I don’t have faith that Jim Harbaugh starts Brandon Peters from here on out, as I believe he should, but I do have faith that he’ll have more than one opportunity to see an increased amount of playing time, most especially in the next three weeks. A championship team more times than not features an, at least, competent quarterback, and we need to prepare the young buck for the spotlight.

Harbaugh was asked about the possibility of Peters seeing more snaps/playing time and said: “Just going along the process of readying him to play. The backup quarterback always needs to be ready to play.” Still referring to him as the backup behind O’Korn.

What does this team have to lose at this point? The Brandon Peters era needs to begin, the fan-base craves it, and Michigan needs the Indiana native to be ready. Sorry John O’Korn, but college football is a business which revolves around winning, and you’re 2-2 (3-2 if you count Purdue, played three-quarters) as a starter, 0-2 in big games.

 

 

 

Harbaugh, Michigan in Control of their Own Destiny

This one’s for all of the Michigan fans out there hanging onto, what seems to be, an unlikely scenario for their favorite football team.

Can Jim Harbaugh’s third Michigan Football team run the table and crack the playoffs? I wouldn’t put my money on it considering what we’ve seen on the offensive side of the ball this season (98th total offense, 101st passing offense, through 6 games for Michigan). The run game appears to be the only hope for Michigan at this point in the schedule, Karan Higdon broke out last Saturday with 25 touches, 200 yards, and 3 scores.

I’m not counting out the Wolverines yet, they have a great opportunity on Saturday night to make a statement as they’re headed to Happy Valley to play no. 2 Penn State on national television. The pressure for Harbaugh to win this one is as big as it gets; win tomorrow night, then they’re back in the playoff conversation, but if they lose, they’ll likely be unranked for the first time since the BYU game in 2015.

After the upset loss to MSU, lot of the fan-base has thrown in the towel for the season, and began focusing on what Michigan will do in 2018. This is wrong because the reality of the current state of the season is that they’re sitting at 5-1, coming off a conference road-win, and they’re about to play the no. 2 team in the nation.

Michigan’s recipe for a potential playoff berth is as simple as it gets: win out. If the no. 19 ranked Wolverines are capable of winning the games they’re supposed to win (Rutgers, Minnesota, Maryland), and pull off wins against currently ranked top ten teams (no. 2 Penn State, no. 5 Wisconsin, no. 6 Ohio State), then they’re in. This scenario would only work out under an assumption that MSU drops another game or two to fall short of the East division title.

I don’t realistically expect Michigan to pull off the unlikely run to crack the playoffs, I personally believe that they lack the offense competence to do so. Do I think it’s crazy to think that Harbaugh has enough tricks up his sleeve to sneak a win or two out of the three marquee games remaining this season? Absolutely not, Harbaugh is a wild-card and he’s managed to win games that his teams have had no business winning.

I hope I’m wrong, I hope the offense comes to life against Penn State, and a newfound momentum propels this young team to new heights. After all, this is college football, crazy things have happened and they’ll definitely continue to happen — anything is possible.  It’s up to them to do it, and it starts tomorrow night with all odds stacked against them, backs against the wall.