Bowl Game (and Season) Disappointment

The Outback Bowl did not go as planned for the Michigan Wolverines. They lost to South Carolina 26-19 after being up 19-3. Blowing that big of a lead is never good, especially when you were up sixteen near the end of the third quarter.

There were multiple reasons that U of M ended up losing this game, but the most glaring reason had to be the turnovers. After playing a clean, error free first half, the offense (and special teams) just imploded in the third and fourth quarters with five turnovers.

This Tim Drevno/Pep Hamilton led offense, especially the air attack, looked horrendous. They couldn’t capitalize in the red zone with five trips resulting in two field goals, a touchdown and two turnovers (one fumble by Karan Higdon and an interception thrown by Brandon Peters). Field goals aren’t ideal inside your opponents 20, but if the Wolverines would’ve came away from these five trips with four field goals and a TD instead of those two turnovers, this is a completely different ballgame.

Another reason for their disappointing loss was the play of quarterback Brandon Peters. The redshirt freshman had a chance to impress the coaches and give himself an edge in the QB battle heading into the spring and, if anything, made things even more muddled than they already were. He completed an atrocious 45% of his passes (20-44) and threw for just 186 yards with two interceptions. Those stats are unacceptable and showed that Peters is probably not the guy heading into next season.

But Peters wasn’t alone in the Wolverines playing an awful game. Besides that fumble near the goal line, Karan Higdon couldn’t get anything going on the ground. He had 17 carries for 65 yards. His backfield mate, Chris Evans, had nine touches for 24 yards. And while Donovan Peoples-Jones had six receptions for 58 yards, he was responsible for a crucial fumble on a punt return near the end of the game that nearly sealed the win for the Gamecocks.

The last takeaway that this bowl game showed involves Jim Harbaugh. This loss dropped U of M to 1-2 in bowl games under his leadership. It looked like his team wasn’t prepared for this game with the offense looking stagnant throughout, even when they were up 19-3. The five turnovers in one half, especially the second half, is alarming and needs to be cleaned up. And, for being a so-called QB whisperer, Brandon Peters looked like a deer in head lights, even with a month to prepare.

Hopefully this game provides a much-needed boost to this team heading into next year. The 2017 campaign was disappointing before this bowl game and it ended on an even more unpleasant note. 8-5 is not what Michigan fans envisioned or were hoping for when Harbaugh was hired in three years ago. There were grumblings of him being on the hot seat before this game and a loss to a less talented (or at least I thought) South Carolina squad with the same record as your team just made it hotter.

Next year needs to be the year that this team finally shows improvement under Harbaugh, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The play of the quarterback, whether it’s Peters, Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, Dylan McCaffrey or whomever, needs to be improved if this team wants to compete with the Big Ten’s elite.

Here’s to hoping this embarrassment of a bowl loss opens the eyes of the players and coaching staff and next season doesn’t end in disappointing fashion like it did for 2017-18.

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Michigan Football: A Quarterback Away from a Championship?

Jim Harbaugh’s third season at Michigan suffered through what some might call growing pains while regressing from two consecutive 10-3 seasons to an 8-4 regular season prior the bowl game. The season is being looked at as a disappointment to say the least; failing to beat a team with an above .500 record, with an 0-2 record against chief rivals isn’t what Michigan pays Harbaugh $9 million a year to do.

Despite the perception of Harbaugh having “quarterback guru” characteristics, the QB position was arguably the weakest for the Michigan offense in 2017. Losing a starter, Wilton Speight, in September to a vertebrae injury didn’t help the situation by any means. There’s also an argument to question Harbaugh’s hindsight when (RS) freshman, Brandon Peters, took the field against Rutgers and was evidently the best quarterback on the roster.

Why wasn’t he the starter from week one?

Why didn’t he start over O’Korn once Speight went down?

Why wasn’t he ready to play?

In our mindset, as observers of this program, it doesn’t make sense to not have Brandon Peters starting against Florida for week one. Before we critique how the quarterback situation was handled, something we must keep in mind is that we don’t know what was going on at the practice field. Peters may have not been ready in the eyes of his coaches and I think that Jim Harbaugh, Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton know a little more about football than a lot of us, including myself, do.

In Michigan’s four losses this season, some would suggest that three out of those four losses could have potentially been avoided had there been, at least, average quarterback play.

Against Michigan State, the monsoon was a noticeable factor that effected offensive play for both teams, but John O’Korn’s three interceptions were definitely difference makers in favor of the Spartans that helped result in a 14-10 heart-breaker.

There wasn’t a lot that could be been done for this team to beat Penn State in the White Out game in Happy Valley. They were the better team and they were playing their best brand of football while Michigan was playing their worst. Sure, a better quarterback may have put some more points on the board and made it somewhat of a game at least, but they straight up lost that game, got outplayed, outcoached and it was ugly.

Against Wisconsin, Brandon Peters was holding his own on the day, leading an offense that was moving the ball prior to a concussion in the 2nd half. The score was 14-10 Wisconsin’s lead at the point of losing Peters. John O’Korn came in and then Michigan’s chances for the win were gone. 24-10 final score in Madison.

Against Ohio State, John O’Korn defined his distasteful legacy at Michigan. The offensive play-calling and the game-plan was very well put together. It allowed O’Korn to consistently rely on check-down routes and for most of the game, they were able to move the ball. Michigan was faced with a 24-20 deficit coming off a short Buckeye field goal attempt, with just 2:47 left in the game that gave the O’Korn led offense a chance to control their own destiny and go up 27-24. On the first play of the drive with all the hope in the world on Michigan’s sideline, John O’Korn misses multiple open targets and throws a downfield pass to virtually no one in the area and it was intercepted and the rest was history for a 6th consecutive win in the series for Urban Meyer.

I will not say that quarterbacks were the reason for three of the losses, but I will say that they may have been a difference. Michigan had an arguable championship caliber defense, a solid backfield and young, talented receivers that were starting to create separation with their route running in late November. Is Michigan just a quarterback away from elite status? Some, including myself, believe that a top-tier quarterback play is the one missing ingredient for Jim Harbaugh’s signature season.

Brandon Peters is currently the QB1 in bowl game preparation and will be the starter for the Outback Bowl against South Carolina come New Year’s Day.

Prior to today’s official announcement, it seemed like a sure thing for Brandon Peters to be the starter for the 2018 season. Over the past few weeks, rumors and speculations became a reality when former Ole Miss sophomore quarterback, Shea Patterson, announced his decision to transfer to Michigan following his visit over the weekend.

Suddenly, this quarterback battle for 2018 just got very interesting. Let’s look at career statistics for both Brandon Peters and Shea Patterson:

Peters through 4 games: (37-64, 486 yards, 4 TDs, 57.8 completion percentage)

Patterson through 10 games: (238-392, 3,139 yds, 23 TDs, 60.7 completion percentage)

The Michigan fan base will likely have no issue with whoever wins the battle between these two, both come off as fan favorites as of late. Of course you can’t forget the sleeper candidates on the depth chart in (RS) freshman, Dylan McCaffery and true freshman Joe Milton, who will more than likely redshirt the 2018 season.

Three out of these four quarterbacks all possess the ability to extend a play with their legs; Brandon Peters has shown glimpses of good ability inside the pocket to step up and make tough throws under pressure. Shea Patterson is similar player to Johnny Manziel with a better arm, but a lesser scramble ability.

Patterson, in my guess, will be favored to be the starter in South Bend for week one. Brandon Peters’ only advantage is his prior relationship with the coaching staff and he already knows the offense. Also, Peters will get a golden opportunity in the upcoming bowl game to ball out against an 8-win SEC team and make his case for his coaches and to remind the fan base to not forget about number 18.

Jim Harbaugh’s offense doesn’t require you to be a Tom Brady, just make the simple, routine throws and don’t miss open downfield targets. Brandon Peters overthrew Donovan Peoples-Jones on what would’ve been a lengthy go-ahead touchdown pass against Wisconsin, one of the very few mistakes Peters made for Michigan.

Don Brown will return a defense with more than half of his starters from the 2017 unit. This offense, that struggled heavily in 2017, will have the hopeful return of tackle, Grant Newsome, this will help an offensive line in need of improvement, youthful receivers with talent and then a solid backfield with two shifty runningbacks, Karan Higdon and Chris Evans, at the helm. Now you have four talented quarterbacks to work with, three four stars and one five star coming out of high school. Pick the one who gives this team the best chance for a championship and roll with him.

Excuses are out, you have the experience, you’ve recruited the talent, you’ve brought in outside talent from the SEC and you’ve had three seasons with the program, it’s time to beat your rivals and contest for a championship. We’ll find out what Jim Harbaugh is made of come 2018. This is poised to be, yet another, typical Harbaugh quarterback battle which will be heavily storied and documented on throughout the offseason, and per usual: we won’t know who the starter is until the first snap of the season.

 

 

Where Have You Gone Open Receivers?

by Mark Edwards

We’ve all heard it before when the 20/20 hindsight groups breakdown Michigan’s 2017 passing game.  The blame started with Wilton Speight, then moved to the offensive line and then the lack of a dominant run game which eliminated quality play action passing.  The honest, blunt truth is that the Michigan passing game has held back this team all season.

Sure, there have been flashes of efficiency like Florida’s Tarik Black deep ball and Chris Evans running wheel routes out of the backfield.  Those are good things to see but the Michigan attack has been far too inconsistent this season.  But if we just stop at the 20/20 view that Michigan is struggling to throw the ball, we are selling ourselves short of true analysis.

Whether it be Big Ten Network, the local newspaper writers or the ESPN staff, none of them have dug deeper to see how the passing game has changed from year one of Harbaugh to year three of Har-ball.  When Jim Harbaugh replaced Brady Hoke, he brought Jedd Fisch on board as the passing game coordinator.  We were impressed by Fisch’s credentials of having worked for Steve Spurrier to the Jacksonville Jaguars.  If 2017 has proven anything, I think those credentials continue to impress so many followers of college football.

When Fisch left for UCLA, Jim Harbaugh went to the NFL and hired Pep Hamilton as his passing game coordinator.  Due to the playcalling style of the offensive staff, we have to believe that Hamilton is in the same exact position that Fisch held in 2015 & 2016.

So what’s the difference?

2015 & 2016 – It was always something new and unique

In the first two years of the Harbaugh Era, film study shows us a great propensity to throw the ball downfield and a premium was placed on creative play design.  I acknowledge that Michigan had two NFL rostered wide receivers and the best tight end in college football who will at some point make his NFL debut.  With that being said, Michigan didn’t just say, “Go win the 1-on-1 matchup.”  That was not the approach of the Fisch-led passing game.

I have pulled two clips to show you that by mid-season of 2015, Michigan was running pass schemes that broke keys for defensive teams.  Defenses “key” up what Michigan has shown them by assigning different defenders to react based on movements from the Michigan offensive personnel.

In our first example, Fisch against BYU knows that the Cougar linebackers are keying the running back movements.  While there are many ways to combat this offensively, Fisch designed a double-screen look while letting Tight End (and now Fullback) Khalid Hill to basically be “left alone.”

It’s not just the execution of the play, it’s how the design turned the defensive coaching staff at BYU into liars for their players…albeit just for one play.  Fisch was showing new wrinkles weekly and it made Michigan really difficult to prepare for.

In the second example, you see Michigan run play action to the left and Rudock boots back to his right.  It is very similar to Brian Griese in 1997.  The intricacy of the design is that the TE starts his customary drag across the field.  As the Northwestern secondary recognizes the movement, Jake Butt plants his foot and redirects to the left which is not some the Wildcats had seen.

Why was the play so successful?  Was it scheme or athletes?  I would argue that it’s 100% scheme and that has to go to Fisch.  When you design pass routes to break “keys”, you will find open space for receivers (even tight ends) to work in.

2017 – A NFL Approach

With the addition of Pep Hamilton, Michigan’s 2017 passing game is well-grounded in solid football theory.  Anyone who argues that it’s not is just plain goofy and deserves to be on the C’mon Man segment before Monday Night Football.  However, as you look at this year’s passing game, there is a CLEAR philosophical difference between that of the former passing coordinator.

Pep Hamilton came to Michigan from the Cleveland Browns.  He is a really good coach and I believe he is a good teacher of the game.  The NFL game is so different because there is parity in the talent around the league.  Any team can win on any given Sunday…even the Browns (I think).  The NFL passing game comes down to one thing.  Match ups.  Where the 2015-16 offense had great players AND an evolving week-to-week scheme, the 2017 offense is built on winning the match up.

The problem is that Michigan isn’t ready to win the 1-on-1 match up.  Their best option to win that match up is TE Zach Gentry versus a linebacker.  However, that has not shown up in a down-the-field manner.  So we can deduce that the short-range design of the NFL passing schemes is what we see from 2017 Michigan.

In our first example, you see a TD pass from Speight to Grant Perry vs. Cincinnati on a “Layers” concept.  The route is a shallow cross out of a four-wide set.  How is this NFL like?  Substitute Julian Edelman for Perry and it looks like the Patriots.  Does Perry win the route?  Yes.  Have we seen it since?  No.  It’s not a design-based play, it’s a player A vs. player B play.  Michigan wins a few of those but the victories have been very infrequent.

You can see that Hamilton puts Perry and Donovan Peoples-Jones mirror each other across the field horizontally.  This allows the tight ends to play outside/deeper down th efield and is a staple of the ’12 personnel.’

In this second example from last week’s game, you see a classic “Mesh” concept.  Two receivers run shallow crosses with a 10-yard dig behind it.  This is where you see Michigan with Gentry and McKeon play a lot of snaps in the passing game.  However, if you substitute NFL caliber tight ends and slots for the Michigan personnel, now it’s about who can beat the defender.

Michigan is very successful with the “Mesh” concept and actually used three tight ends.  Michigan actually forced Maryland to bust a zone coverage.  But once again, match ups dictate the day.

In conclusion, the major differences are the coaching philosophy of how to scheme a collegiate passing game.  Fisch believed in the scheme exacerbating the defensive personnel while Hamilton has said, “Get great athletes in space and they will be defenders who aren’t quite as fast.”

For Michigan to win the final two regular season games of 2017, I think the nuances of 2015-16 will need to appear because I am not convinced that you will see multiple match ups that Michigan will win consistently.