Worst: A Wasted Column
I try not to write these columns prematurely; I'm weirdly superstitious about such things, and I am always scared that if I start to assume the future, I'll have upset the Karma gods. And yet, I couldn't help but feel like the perfect coda to this year would be Michigan, the better team through 11 weeks of the season, beating a disjointed Ohio State, coming off a shoulda-been OT loss to Maryland, on the road. Michigan had come agonizingly close 2 years before, and that was with arguably a worst team going against a better version of OSU than the one that took the field Saturday. And so, the lede to this diary was supposed to be about release.
One of the YouTube rabbit holes I found myself falling into recently is chiropractic videos, particularly those featuring major adjustments. Some of it is surely visceral; to hear these pockets of air just, well, "crack" or watch people with debilitating injuries be able to start healing is hard to beat. But the bigger reason is that the sense of relief, of being able to fight back against the unrelenting drumbeat of life that is trying to squeeze you into tense little ball, feels both real and appropriate. I've got a comfortable life; I've got a good job that lets me work on projects that interest me, I've got a healthy and (largely) content family, and I've never wanted for basic necessities. Even during a week featuring Thanksgiving at my in-laws, probably the biggest stress was watching this football game, played by people I don't know for stakes that won't affect me one iota in a place hundreds of miles away. But you better believe that I still hoped, I yearned for a chance to see Michigan beat the Buckeyes. Because honestly, this hasn't been a rivalry in a long time. Ohio State has been the consistently better team than Michigan for going on 2 decades now. Michigan has beaten OSU 4 times since 1997; Purdue (5), MSU (5), PSU (5), and Wisconsin (5) all have more, and teams like Illinois (3) and Iowa (2) that have played them a hell of lot less frequently have nearly as many wins over that span. And that futility wears on you as a fan and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. I remember a time when Michigan and Ohio State played these sorts of games and both fanbases had reasonable expectations of winning. But now, every time I see Michigan play against OSU I'm hoping for a win, a subtle difference that makes every second feel like a lifetime and every heart-breaker that much more excrutiating because it gives that small voice in the back of your head saying "maybe that was their best shot" some more credence.
But this year felt different, not just because Michigan once again sported a top-ranked defense and an above-average offense, but because OSU just looked so damn beatable. Now, this is OSU we're talking about, so "beatable" is a relative term; they were a top-10 team with a world-beating passing offense. But they were a very mediocre running team and had the type of defense that broke a lot more often than they planned to bend, and that all led to a series of underwhelming performances against mediocre teams. Plus, OSU had been such a train-wreck off the field, if there was a year for Michigan to pull out a win, 2018 felt like it. And with it, an entire fanbase would be able to finally, finally feel that the field was leveling out. That the promise of the past 2 close games were a sign of Michigan's continued ascension back to the top of major college football and, if not a drop, at least a plateau for the Buckeyes.
But that didn't happen. 62 points happened, and it could have been more. That's more points than Notre Dame, MSU, PSU, and Wisconsin scored combined (51) against Michigan this season. 567 yards was almost 200 yards worse than the next-closest performance by this defense (against IU, which I guess was more of an harbinger than it was given at the time). Michigan didn't pick up a sack and only had 4 TFLs, well below their season averages of 3 and 8, respectively. The fear that OSU would just double Gary and Winovich because they could single-block the tackles came to pass; there was absolutely no pressure inside and so on the rare occasion when Michigan could push the OSU pocket a bit, Haskins had easy escapes. And that's the key, as they barely got any pressure on Haskins, who's a sniper in the pocket and a loose cannon on the run. And without that pressure, Michigan just got chewed up on crossing patterns and little pick routes, where OSU receivers were able to get a head of steam and catch these little passes in-stride and run for the YAC that has been the linchpin of their offense all year. Then the injuries mounted, Brandon Watson was picked on mercilessly, linebackers were getting crossed up, the safeties and corners were just borking plays left and right, and an OSU offensive line that was decidedly mediocre all year found ways to hold on just long enough to keep the machine running smoothly.
And on the other side of the ball, Michigan's offense was...fine. It scored 39 points, 32 during what I'd charitably refer to as the "competitive" part of the game. It was reasonably efficient on the ground (4 ypc), especially early on, and the passing game found some holes in the OSU secondary. But Michigan was scoring FGs where OSU was scoring TDs, and Michigan suffered a number of big drops (including a couple from Gentry, who was scuttling a bit coming into the game) in the red zone that left points on the field. And all the while, OSU just kept coming. And even when Michigan pulled to within a score to end the half thanks to some terrible OSU special teams play, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was PSU 2017 all over again. Michigan was hanging by a thread for so long, hoping the damn wouldn't burst, and that's no way to beat a team like Ohio State on the road. I don't blame the playcalling as much as some in this game; equating "big play" with "passing" isn't a given, and OSU came into the game sandwiched between Texas Tech and Oklahoma in terms of yards allowed per game and, on a per-rush basis, in the vicinity of such defensive heavyweights as Pittsburgh, UCLA, and Nebraska. A 30-yard TD run takes about as much time as a 30-yard pass one, and the game was just close enough to keep that option open. But at some point Michigan needed a plan B, and running Tru Wilson down 41-19 probably wasn't it.
Now, I reject the notion that Michigan didn't have the athletes to win this game. If Maryland, Nebraska, PSU, Minnesota, and MSU can all give Ohio State varying degrees of fits on both sides of the ball, it's not about raw talent. Nor do I think it's purely about schemes, though Don Brown has yet to figure out a way to really slow down a Haskins-led OSU offense. Again, if PSU and MSU can hold them under 5.5 yards per play, I doubt they have some secret defensive playbook that eludes Michigan's staff. It's just...I don't know. I guess this just sometimes happens to teams. Ohio State was run off the field by 6-6 Purdue this year, and was blown out 55-24 by 8-5 Iowa last year. All year, everyone kept saying OSU was terrifying if it could piece together 4 consistent quarters of football, and in this game they did. There's a non-zero chance they shit the bed against NW, with Haskins throwing a couple of interceptions, their running game continuing to struggle, and we all look back and wonder what the hell happened this weekend.
But at some point, even the most homer of Michigan fans (like myself) probably just has to accept this is the rivalry for the foreseeable future, at least as long as Meyer is upright. This isn't the UM-MSU rivalry, which felt like a shift the minute Harbaugh arrived and MSU has since been running on bullshit fumes to a couple of sneaky wins. No, OSU is a better team and, despite fielding a mediocre defense and a one-dimensional offense while dealing with a metric ton of self-inflicted stupidity, they just waxed one of the better Michigan teams we've seen. Play this game a dozen more times it's probably closer, but Michigan is a really good team stuck in the same division with a team that can scrape greatness out of its ass when it feels like it. If I'm an OSU fan I'd be a bit pissed that my coach probably wasted 2 playoff-caliber teams sleep-walking through swaths of the past 2 seasons, but I don't know when Michigan will get back to beating OSU semi-consistently, to say nothing of turning the ass-kicking tide we've seen for years now. And every year, the pressure to do so is going to become even greater. And yeah, I'm sure Michigan will beat OSU soon enough, just because of the vagaries of a game played with a pointy ball by college-aged men. But I don't know how this gets fixed.
This might get a little political. Sue me (please don't sue me).
This is a pathological desire in society (I'll speak for America out of experience, but my guess is it exists everywhere) to build a narrative around an event, to divine deeper meaning around something that occurs because we haven't figured out a way to stop the river of time. It isn't good or bad, not a healthy outlet for providing logic and cohesion to chaos nor an insidious attempt to impose a very particular sense of morality onto what is a series of zero-sum situations. You see it in politics, religion, natural disasters, financial markets, technology, you name it. We want winners and losers, heroes to cheer and heels to jeer. Vince McMahon is a billionaire because of it, Disney is printing money because of it, wars are fought (and then re-fought in the history books) because of it, and cable news basically exists because of it.
But sports have always occupied a particularly comfortable niche for this sermonizing. We joke about cheering for clothes, but it's pretty on the mark to say that sports give you color-coded heroes and villains upon which we shower praise and scorn. It removes the humanity from the equation and replaces it with a Pavlovian response to a name and a uniform. And when it's just laundry, it's soooo easy to then douse your fandom with the gasoline of class-ism, provincialism, and moral relativism that turns normal, semi-intelligent people into, well, cheap-seat NFL fans. And I'm as guilty as anyone - I still find myself occasionally getting really mad at college students who attend other schools than a college I graduated from damn near 20 years ago, forgetting that (a) many of them were also recruited by Michigan and, in a slightly different universe than this one, could be donning the Maize and Blue, and (b) I'm twice the age of some of these guys and maybe I should stop being such an idiot about sports. But we do it because it's a release, a way to feel like you're on the right side of something that feels black and white when the whole damn world is just one big splotch of gray. Someone is going to score more points than the other, and while that really should be it, a contest wherein one team performed better than the other according to the governing rules of the game, it never is.
The "Revenge Tour" always contained a bit of a self-own insomuch as Michigan had to seek revenge on 4 or 5 (depending on your view of Notre Dame) teams because they recently lost to them. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, etc. don't have "revenge tours" because usually they're, at most, 1 or 2 stops, and more times than not it's in championship contests. But it was mostly a harmless gesture by a team that had suffered through a rough season on the field and was trying to make amends for a misstep after two solid seasons of substantial improvement. And while I'm sure fans from other programs could take a different view on the merits of it, ultimately all it did was add another layer of motivation to a football game that already had those stakes. At its core it was "I want to beat you even more than I already do, in this sanctioned football game, because you beat my team last year" that fit nicely on some merch. It's a harmless ploy that makes for an easy story, especially when a team like Michigan is steamrolling major opponents with ruthless aggression. It was Michigan trying yet again to be capital "E" elite, to fulfill the hope that Jim Harbaugh's arrival brought to a program that, even before the Horror, hadn't been a consistent national player for well over a decade. I'm not saying there should have been such a narrative; Jim Harbaugh is making millions of dollars to coach a bunch of highly-ranked student-athletes at one of the best colleges in the world. This isn't David vs. Goliath; if anything, it's Goliath's snobbier brother facing off against his OTHER slightly more country cousin.
But on OSU's side, there wasn't something as benignly interesting as a team trying to bounce back from on-field struggles. No, OSU's season has absolutely been a roller-coaster, but that's largely been both their own doing and, at least before the year, due to some really unsavory off-the-field transgressions. Feel free to Google the Zach Smith saga if you want, but regardless of how you want to spin it basically Urban Meyer knew (or if you want to be perhaps unfairly-charitable to Meyer, had strong reason to believe) Smith had physically assaulted his wife on a number of occasions, yet kept him around due to some Omerta he had stemming from Smith being the grandson of Earle Bruce. He then was evasive throughout an investigation by OSU that ultimately led to him being suspended for the first three games of the season, a punishment that Meyer reportedly did not take well at all and took a couple of tries to generate some semblance of contrition. The team itself struggled all year defensively, especially once all-world Nick Bosa went down with a season-ending injury against TCU and then left the team completely to prepare for the NFL draft. They were still a buzz-saw on offense, but they had already been blown off the field by 6-6 Purdue and had really close shaves against teams like PSU, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Maryland. There wasn't really a feel-good story surrounding the 2018 Buckeyes, or at least not one that settled neatly into a glossy 10-minute spot on College Gameday, and that's totally fine. Nobody expected that; sometimes seasons just...happen...and especially when a number of your issues are self-inflicted, it's probably best not to shine a light it.
Apparently, though, this wasn't communicated to Gus Johnson, the manic pixie dream announcer who has one trick that he hopes will distract viewers from the fact he consistently gets players' names wrong, doesn't quite seem to know the rules of various sports he calls, and how migraines work. So as OSU began their extended curb-stomping of the Wolverines, Johnson kept hammering home what I can only assume was a hastily-scribbled talking point about the "redemption" of Urban Meyer, because "he's been through such a tough season." Which I guess is factually correct in the same way that Plaxico Burress had a tough go of it making his comeback to football after shooting himself in the leg at a club. And this isn't the first time Johnson has tried this completely tone-deaf re-writing of history; during PSU's Rose Bowl run two years ago he repeatedly spoke about how each win was a chance for the Penn State family to heal and recover from all of their turmoil and struggles, said "struggles" being the systemic cover-up of a child rapist for over a decade and the rather limp punishment ultimately handed down by the NCAA.
And this is all because society loves the comeback story, even if the person mounting the comeback doesn't deserve the praise. Louis C.K. admitted to repeatedly masturbating in front of multiple women without their consent and less than a year later he was back performing on comedy stages. Lance Armstrong was caught cheating at cycling from the jump, proceeded to constantly attack anyone who pointed it out, and a mere 6 years after he was banned from the sport forever was already trying to drum up sympathy on his podcast while decrying a former teammate who had the temerity to call on Armstrong to admit he was doping. Last year MSU got the "comeback" treatment because they had gone 3-9 and overcome a "rough" off-season that featured multiple players being booted from the team due to sexual assaults, including Auston Robertson ultimately pleading guilty to assaulting a female classmate, a similar offense to one he had in high school and which MSU totally knew about but tried real hard not to find out because they needed defensive ends. D. J. Durkin will one day coach at another football program, and we will inevitably hear about his long road back from...promoting a culture that allowed a college student to die during practice.
And trying to pivot to a discussion about the "fans" is also hollow, because as an entity we, the people who root for the laundry, are simplistic front-runners, turning on players and teams the minute they don't meet our expectations. I saw a number of people giving Shea Patterson the Brandon Peters Memorial "maybe he shouldn't come back, I'm confident in X" talk after this game, despite ample evidence he wasn't close to a major reason why OSU beat Michigan to a pulp. Hell, Devin Gardner, one of the nicest guys to don the Michigan uniform in recent memory, was ragged on repeatedly for not winning enough games despite playing behind some of the worst offensive lines I've seen. OSU fans would still find it in their hearts to root for OSU without Meyer at the helm.
Now, I get that people should not be cast out from society once they serve their dues; I thought the punishment for Urban Meyer was laughably weak, but he still lost a couple of paychecks and was publicly admonished for being a terrible boss and, at best, a dispassionate human being. But that doesn't mean your slate is wiped clean. Urban Meyer is still the highest-paid public employee in Ohio; nobody is going to take more of that away from him. But the world doesn't have to forget what he did with Smith, and if that tiny bit of added pressure makes it harder for him to sleep at night, so be it. Urban Meyer and OSU won yesterday because they were the better team on the day. Period. End of story. Nobody was redeemed in this football game, certainly not the head coach at OSU, and by gawd we need to stop letting lazy announcers try to manipulate the story that way.
Best: The Offense Is Fine
I don't expect there to be an UFR for this game any time soon; beyond the fact that Brian has a long-standing penchant of not analyzing losses to OSU, I don't know how many times you need to read "that didn't work on offense" and "that certainly didn't work on defense" when 62-39 does a pretty damn good job telling you the story. But if you had told me coming into this game that Michigan would score 39 points against OSU, I'd have been ecstatic. Michigan scored points on 6 of 13 meaningful drives in this game, including 4 TDs. Patterson threw for 3 of them, and when not getting sacked was able to pick up some yards with his legs and generally keep the offense moving. It wasn't rosy by any means, as he averaged only 5.5 ypa and a shade under 60% completion with a WTF pick thrown in there, but he provided competent QB performance, and in the past 2 games that would have been enough to get Michigan the win.
But Michigan couldn't run the ball with any consistency once OSU got rolling, which led to them being behind the chains far more often, and in longer distances, than was optimal. Yes, Michigan has one of the best 3rd-down conversion percentages in the country, but that is largely due to them being in manageable situations. In this game Michigan was looking at an average third down of 7.5 yards to go, which is decidedly "not good" for any offense. And while Michigan has the athletes to throw the ball, doing so without conscience both goes against the strengths of the team and puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line to hold up under a rush, something they are probably okay at, at best. Ed Warinner has done a great job cobbling together a pretty solid unit (36th in sack rate, 30th in stuff rate), but this offense isn't designed to wing it 40 times a game and keep it's QB upright.
Still, this was a team that scored about 37 points per game. In terms of the delta betweens points scored and points allowed, Michigan is currently 8th in the nation with a +231 points; the national leaders are Alabama and Clemson (423 and 380, respectively), with Georgia close by. Once you sort of excise your really good G5 programs (Utah St., App St., UCF, Fresno St., etc.) that get to feast on a ton of bad teams, Michigan is one of the best teams in the country at keeping teams out of the endzone while putting some points on the scoreboard. Could the offense be more dynamic? Absolutely. But people clamoring for Kliff Kingsbury-style offensive shift at Michigan are just reacting to a shiny object in front of them. I don't honestly know if Pep Hamilton should be out; I feel like a lot of the complaints about him stem from people being mad at someone and him being a popular target divorced from context; same with McElwain getting a lot of negative press despite the fact that Michigan's WRs looked demonstrably better this year than last.
There will absolutely be changes to the staff this off-season, if for no other reason than coaches always move around as jobs open up. But barring a collapse in the bowl game, I don't see this offense being in dire need of a makeover, especially if the premise behind any move is to be more like Ohio State.
Worst: The Defense Picked the Wrong Day
So yeah, I don't know what the hell happened here. Yes, OSU counter-punched Michigan's aggressiveness with screens and slants. Don Brown responded with some more zone, though it was a bit janky. And then stuff just sort of fell apart. I went into this game assuming Ohio State would break some big plays; that's practically inevitable. But they didn't break out a ton of new stuff, as far as I could tell. They are a short-passing offense that relies on superior athletes to beat you for yards; they did that with aplomb. But Michigan knew that coming into the game; hell, I knew that coming into the game, and I barely pay attention during parts of games. And for all the hand-wringing about Indiana "exposing" Michigan last week, the Hoosiers barely cracked 5 yards per play in that game; they averaged almost a whole yard more against OSU (5.1 to 5.8).
Now, massive credit to OSU for exploiting issues in coverage. Brandon Watson was picked on so blatantly that the announcers were talking about it, while the linebackers all struggled to stay with guys coming out of the OSU backfield. OSU had a blindingly-wide open TD in the first half due to every safety on the roster just letting the receiver run past him, and OSU had a couple of other dropped balls that should have been bigger pickups. Michigan looked a step slow not so much because they couldn't run with the OSU players from an athletic standpoint but because said OSU players were able to get Michigan's defenders off-balance far more frequently than we've seen all year. Haskins posed some threat running the ball, but I thought Michigan largely bottled him up. But that lack of pressure let him set his feet more times than not, and when he did it was over. In fact, one of the few times he got flushed from the pocket he nearly threw a pick that bounced off of I believe Long and just past Bush. This game probably looks a lot different if that happens a half-dozen more times.
So I don't know what happens next. I want to provide some more biting insights. But this just feels like an outlier, a snowball that is already rolling down the hill that picks up so much speed nothing can stand in the way. Parris Campbell is fast, but that jet sweep should have been held to a first, at worst. Michigan's defense, previously great at batting away short balls or tackling for minimal gain, suddenly can't get around or are dragged for 5-6 yards after the catch. OSU had a gameplan that should have netted them 30-ish points, but a perfect storm left to the other 30. Part of it is Michigan having trouble defending a certain type of offense like OSU's, where a step slow in coverage can lead to huge gains because there is little help coming from the backfield. But at the same time, this also felt like OSU just played out of their minds. Per S&P+, OSU's offense played at a 97th-percentile; the only better game this year was a 98 against Tulane. Had Michigan gotten even a season-average offensive game from the Buckeyes, this is a much closer game and maybe some breaks go Michigan's way. I honestly don't know.
Again, with more time and energy I'd dig deeper into individual units. But right now, it's all just a blur and I'm not going to lose too much sleep over measuring the level of ass-kicking.
- I don't think this team has a red zone offense issue, but on those first couple of FG drives Michigan desperately needed to score more than 3 points. The ball to Gentry absolutely should have been a catch, while the ball to DPJ needed to be a couple of yards past the marker, not before it. In a game where it became painfully clear Michigan was going to need to at least keep up in a foot race, only getting 6 points instead of 14 set them fighting uphill all afternoon.
- I have no idea if Patterson returns next year, but whomever starts at QB next season is going to have to be integrated more into the running game. I get the desire to keep a QB healthy, but Michigan's offense continues to look best when they can pose a threat outside the pocket. There were a couple of instances in this game when a timely Patterson run would have gotten them some yards on first or second down, but instead they tried to power through the middle of the OSU defense to limited success.
One More Game
Michigan should face a pretty good team in a major bowl; it might be the Rose Bowl against Washington if OSU goes to the playoffs, or in the Fiesta against LSU or WSU if not. Those all seem like reasonable opponents and good games overall. I'll be back writing a diary for that game whenever it happens, where I'll have some final takes on the state of Michigan football. But for now, I'm going to try to get back into the groove of life.