2017 Top 50 College Football
Based on how I project the regular season to finish.
The Good—This is the most talented roster in the country, by far, and it also may be the most talented offense of the Nick Saban era. I don’t ever remember seeing a team deeper at running back.
The Bad—The only concern in Tuscaloosa is the brain drain/turnover on the coaching staff in the offseason, which could test even the likes of the game’s greatest coach.
The Bottom Line—The 2016 Crimson Tide were literally seconds away from being one of the greatest teams of the current era, which should provide more than ample motivation for 2017.
2. OHIO STATE
The Good—A record-setting senior quarterback, a Hall-of-Fame coach, and a devastating defensive line are usually the ingredients for a national title run.
The Bad—For all the highly-ranked recruiting classes, there really isn’t a proven difference maker at either wide receiver or running back.
The Bottom Line—To topple Alabama you need an Ezekiel Elliott/DeShaun Watson type playmaker. Buckeyes don’t have that – yet – but they are strong up front, and also have a chip on their shoulder because of how last season ended.
3. OKLAHOMA STATE
The Good—A schedule that doesn’t feature an opponent with what’s considered an elite defense, which is good news for what could be the most explosive offense of the Mike Gundy era (and that’s saying something).
The Bad—At some point you have to stop somebody, don’t you? Can you win a shootout every single week?
The Bottom Line—The stars have aligned for a breakthrough season for the Cowboys, who return an experienced team/coaching staff while Texas and Oklahoma both go through coaching changes.
4. FLORIDA STATE
The Good—Last off-season, Jimbo Fisher was telling anyone who would listen that his 2017 team had a better chance to make a national title run than the 2016 edition. And the 2016 edition were Orange Bowl champs and won 10 games.
The Bad—The Seminoles’ porous offensive line tried to get Deondre Francois killed last season, and nearly did. They can’t be that bad again, can they?
The Bottom Line—The roster says national title run. The schedule says games versus Alabama, Clemson, and Florida away from Tallahassee. But this could be the year a two-loss team makes the playoff.
The Good—For almost a month last season, Auburn was playing as well as anyone in the country before injuries did them in. Now those guys are healthy, and the Tigers finally have the quarterback to run Gus Malzahn’s offense.
The Bad—There’s good roster numbers on defense, and a solid defensive coordinator, but what’s lacking is a proven defensive playmaker.
The Bottom Line—The addition of Jarrett Stidham, who shined as a freshman at Baylor, is going to be among the biggest difference-makers in the sport this fall.
The Good—Dynamic standouts abound for the Huskies, who return an All-American/All-Pac 12 caliber player at nearly every position group.
The Bad—The one position group lacking a standout is the secondary, which was a dominant unit last year.
The Bottom Line—The Huskies are in an enviable position. Instead of dealing with preseason expectations the program hasn’t faced in about 15 years, the bandwagon has moved to Southern California as the new hotness. That should give Washington an edge most teams coming off last year’s breakthrough wouldn’t have.
7. PENN STATE
The Good—This could be the most explosive offense in Happy Valley since that legendary 1994 team, and the schedule is manageable, too.
The Bad—Sure, Marcus Allen is a nice player in the secondary, but the program still doesn’t have that one defensive stopper in the front seven.
The Bottom Line—The Nittany Lions benefited from flying under the radar last year. Can they bear the burden of expectations the program hasn’t faced since before the Sandusky scandal? What about James Franklin, who’s never coached a pre-season top-10 team before in his career?
The Good—16 starters return for the Longhorns, and the average improvement in the first year for a team with Tom Herman on its coaching staff is 4.3 wins.
The Bad—We know Herman likes the quarterback run game, and from a physique standpoint Shane Buechele makes Greg Ward look like Vince Young. Can Buechele hold up for an entire season?
The Bottom Line—This is eerily similar to the Harbaugh situation at Michigan. Elite, public university with a proud tradition falls on hard times. Also struggles with a prickly and disliked athletic director, until administration cleans house. Then opens up the checkbook to bring home a favorite son head coach, who inherits a talented but underachieving roster ready to win. Longhorns are gonna make a big leap.
The Good—The list of schools who have recruited better than Michigan the last two years is pretty exclusive company, and few develop talent better than Jim Harbaugh.
The Bad—Is Wilton Speight ready to step up from game manager to game changer at quarterback? Because that could be the difference in what kind of season the Wolverines end up having.
The Bottom Line—This will be the youngest power five team of consequence in the country, which means you better get ‘em this year while you can.
The Good—According to my four-year talent foundation study, this is one of the top-five rosters in the country. And did you notice how dominant Nick Chubb looked in the season opener and bowl game last season, with plenty of time to rest coming off knee surgery? With another year of rehab expect him to return to All-American form.
The Bad—Can Kirby Smart walk the fine line between letting Jake Fromm push Jacob Eason, and pushing an all-out quarterback controversy?
The Bottom Line—It’s time for a lot of highly-recruited players, with light college achievement resumes, to reach their collective potential.
The Good—No team, sans Alabama, will be stronger up front on both sides of the ball. So if games are still won in the trenches, look out.
The Bad—Don’t sleep on how great DeShaun Watson truly was. Even with a ton of offensive firepower sent off to the NFL after 2015, the Tigers won six games – including the national championship – by a touchdown or less last year. He will likely be missed more than any player in the sport this season.
The Bottom Line—You can’t hide your quarterback in college football, and none of the potential replacements lit it up this spring. That’s how some of those close wins become close losses just one season later.
The Good—The Gators are the only SEC team this decade not to average 400 yards of total offense for a season. That’s about to change, because Jim McIlwain finally has some offensive firepower, plus a decent offensive line.
The Bad—Now it’s a defense, which has lost every player of significance in the past two NFL drafts, that has to reload.
The Bottom Line—It comes down to quarterback. Is Malik Zaire the player who burst onto the scene in the 2014 Music City Bowl, or the player Notre Dame passed over in 2016? Can offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier manage Zaire better than he didn’t Devin Gardner when he was at Michigan?
The Good—Sam Darnold is going to be the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft whenever he comes out. This looks like the best defensive line the Trojans have had since the Pete Carroll era.
The Bad—The offensive line is spotty, and there’s all new weapons to rely on at receiver. Plus, the schedule is a gauntlet – again – but this time with no bye weeks between contests.
The Bottom Line—Clay Helton caught lightning in a bottle switching to Darnold last season, which took him from fired to Rose Bowl champion. However, USC’s recent history with lofty preseason expectations isn’t rosy. Since 2007, the Trojans have been a pre-season top-5 team three times, and in only one of those seasons did they finish in the top 20 at the end of the year.
The Good—This is still the most overall talented team in the Big 12, and one of the top 10 most talented rosters in all of college football.
The Bad—Only three years ago, new Coach Lincoln Riley was the offensive coordinator at East Carolina. Now the 33-year old, who’s never been a head coach before, has been handed the keys to one of the sport’s Cadillac programs. There are going to be some growing pains. For example, Bob Stoops is a definite Hall of Famer, and even he didn’t have a season with fewer than two losses since 2004. How is Riley gonna top that?
The Bottom Line—When you don’t have an upper echelon defense – and the Sooners don’t – the margin for error becomes slimmer for championship contention. Especially with such an untested young head coach launching his virgin voyage.
The Good—We know the Tigers have a roster littered with natural resources that would be the envy of at least 90% of college programs.
The Bad—Though it’s a broken record, the song remains the same in Baton Rouge. How is it possible a program of this magnitude’s best option at quarterback is a guy who wasn’t good enough to play at Purdue—again?
The Bottom Line—New coach who already failed once in the SEC, no threat at quarterback, and a schedule with nine bowl teams from a year ago. Frankly, I’m being kind putting them this high.
The Good—There’s a lot of guys back. In fact, this is the most experienced team returning in the Pac-12 depending on how you measure it. And a dynamite recruiting class is being added to the fold, too.
The Bad—Who’s the quarterback? Keller Chryst’s return is uncertain after off-season knee surgery. Ryan Burns didn’t set the world on fire last year, which is why he lost the job to Chryst. Is touted redshirt freshman K.J. Costello ready?
The Bottom Line—There’s a lot of numbers back for the Cardinal, but not a lot of production. So playmakers need to step up, starting at quarterback.
The Good—Arguably the best developmental program in the country returns a lot of talent, and has a schedule tailor-made for a run.
The Bad—Though the volume of losses is minimal, the impact of those departed players is significant. Furthermore, most of them were the best players the Badgers had on their units last year.
The Bottom Line—Playing a hunch that after Wisconsin defied the odds with last year’s brutal schedule, this year’s seemingly softer slate will even things out and be tougher than we thought.
18. KANSAS STATE
The Good—This has the makings of every contending team Bill Snyder has ever had at K-State. Favorable schedule, underrated dual-threat quarterback, and a respectable defense. In fact, his is about the only program in the Big 12 that actually plays any consistent defense whatsoever.
The Bad—An outstanding linebacker corps anchored last year’s defense, and those guys are gone now. So replacements must be found.
The Bottom Line—You get the sense this is the perfect swan-song set-up for Snyder, who could be coaching his final season. Especially with a schedule that includes just one road game against a bowl team from a year ago. If I’m already wondering if I have LSU too high, I’m now wondering if I have K-State too low.
19. SOUTH FLORIDA
The Good—It’s New Year’s Six bowl game or bust for the Bulls, who return the most explosive team in the Group of Five by far.
The Bad—The biggest loss for the Bulls is the overlooked Marlon Mack, who was their bell cow in the backfield last year.
The Bottom Line—They’re favored in every game on their schedule for a reason. Charlie Strong couldn’t have devised a better landing spot to begin rehabilitating his coaching reputation.
The Good—Having the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, the scintillating Lamar Jackson, returning at the most important position on the field is a good place to start. As is having someone on the sidelines like Bobby Petrino, who’s won fewer than eight games in a season only once in his head coaching career.
The Bad—The offensive line was so offensive for the Cardinals down the stretch last season, it should’ve come with its own parental advisory sticker. The losses in the defensive front seven are significant, too.
The Bottom Line—It all comes down to whether Jackson can buck the trend working against returning Heisman Trophy winners by carrying the Cardinals again.
The Good—Clayton Thorson took the next step as a quarterback last year, and he teams with three-time 1,000-yard rusher Justin Jackson to form one of the best offensive backfields in the country.
The Bad—The Wildcats don’t lose a lot, but two of those losses are huge. Austin Carr was the best wide receiver in the Big Ten last season, while Anthony Walker was probably the school’s best inside linebacker since coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The Bottom Line—If there was ever a year for the Wildcats to make it to the Big Ten championship, this is it. Tough to see an unwinnable game on the schedule.
22. MIAMI (FLA.)
The Good—This will be the best defensive front seven the ‘Canes have had in quite a while, and it ranks among the best in the nation. Running back Mark Walton and wide receiver Ahmmon Richards are poised to become stars.
The Bad—The offensive line is still a work in progress, as is the all-important quarterback position with the early departure of Brad Kaaya.
The Bottom Line—Mark Richt looks ready to lead Miami back to national prominence—either this season or next.
23. N.C. STATE
The Good—The Wolfpack are solid where it counts the most. This will be their best defensive line in recent memory, and Ryan Finley came on at quarterback a year ago. In all, nine starters return on what was a top 25 defense nationally in 2016.
The Bad—The entire offense ran through Matthew Dayes last season, so his departure leaves a large void. Plus, the schedule includes a mid-season gauntlet: at Florida State, Louisville, at Pittsburgh, at Notre Dame, and Clemson over a 7-week stretch.
The Bottom Line—The buzz surrounding Raleigh-Durham is legit, but the Wolfpack are in the wrong ACC division.
24. NOTRE DAME
The Good—The Irish were better than their 4-8 record last season. Losing six games by a touchdown or less, and four of those were by a field goal or less. Normally that kind of tough luck has a way of evening out the next year, and this will be an explosive offense for Brian Kelly.
The Bad—You lose a lot of close games when you can’t get key stops, and that was Notre Dame on defense in 2016. In fact, the Irish lost a whopping five games in which they scored at least 28 points.
The Bottom Line—Kelly knows he’s on the hot seat and has attempted to reinvent himself to some degree. I think it will result in a bounce-back autumn.
The Good—The MAC is an offensive league and the Rockets return quarterback Logan Whiteside, who led the NCAA in touchdown passes in 2016. Two of his top-three receivers also return. Though departed running back Kareem Hunt was a stud, his replacements are a former 1,000-yard rusher and a guy that averaged eight yards a carry last season. This will be an explosive offense again.
The Bad—The defensive losses will be tougher to replace. And the only real standout returning on that side of the ball was just a third team all-conference player last year.
The Bottom Line—The Rockets have won at least nine games in five of the last six seasons, but haven’t won the MAC since 2004. That streak is gonna end, especially with a schedule that should see them favored in 11 of their 12 games.
THE NEXT 25:
26. Washington State…Luke Falk is back in that Air Raid offense, and the defensive front seven is actually pretty good.
27. Tennessee…If the Vols were overrated last season, maybe they’re underrated this season? Butch Jones has plenty of talent on hand.
28. Virginia Tech…Bud Foster’s defense will be good, as always, but Justin Fuente must find a quarterback.
29. UCLA…They’ll be better with Josh Rosen healthy, but probably not good enough to save Jim Mora’s job.
30. West Virginia…Remember these two names – Will Grier and Justin Crawford. They’re gonna light up the defenseless Big 12 this fall.
31. BYU…A lot of solid pieces are back, and quarterback Tanner Mangum probably fits better with who they want to be on offense.
32. Oregon…The talent and schedule is there for Willie Taggart to completely reverse last year’s 4-8 slide.
33. TCU…It seems like the Horned Frogs have lost their identity. Not quite as explosive on offense, and not quite as stout on defense.
34. Texas A&M…Is this a roster of prospects or suspects? A lot of highly-recruited players need to develop on the fly to save Kevin Sumlin’s job.
35. Indiana…Granted, it’s a low bar, but this is probably the Hoosiers’ best defensive personnel since the Bill Mallory days a quarter century ago.
36. Utah…Kyle Whittingham is the sport’s most underrated coach, so he’ll make a bunch of guys we’ve never heard of winners this fall.
37. Kentucky…16 starters are back as the Wildcats’ have their best chance to lose fewer than five games in a season for the first time since 1985.
38. Arizona State…There’s enough offensive firepower here for the Sun Devils to bounce back and have a surprisingly decent season.
39. Arkansas…This just seems like a program stuck in a perennial 6-to-8 win rut while trying to compete in the rugged SEC West against teams with better players.
40. Mississippi State…Nick Fitzgerald will put up monster numbers this fall, but he can’t do it all by himself.
41. San Diego State…Still the most talented team in the Mountain West if they can rebuild their offensive line.
42. Boise State…Waiting in the wings in the Mountain West with Brett Rypien, just in case San Diego State can’t rebuild that offensive line.
43. Houston…Tom Herman left behind plenty of talent, and former five-star recruit Kyle Allen should flourish in Major Applewhite’s offense.
44. Ole Miss…Shea Patterson appears to be the truth at quarterback, which is good because the defense looks like it’s anything but.
45. Minnesota…P.J. Fleck inherits 14 starters from a team that won nine games in 2016. Now he just needs to find a quarterback.
46. Navy…They may not have their vintage triple-option threat at quarterback, but they still have Coach Ken Niumatalolo.
47. Middle Tennessee—Brent Stockstill-to-Richie James is the most lethal passing combination you’ve never heard of.
48. North Carolina—Larry Fedora tries to win in Chapel Hill with a different quarterback for the third straight year—this time LSU transfer Brandon Harris.
49. Nebraska—The key for Mike Riley is to win enough games to hold on until next year, when he’ll have a more talented squad.
50. Miami (Ohio)—Ended last season with six straight wins before a narrow, one-point loss to an SEC opponent in the bowl game.
2017 College Football Crystal Ball
Predicting the top 25 things that will or won’t happen this season
1. For the first time ever, a two-loss team will make the college football playoff.
2. No FBS team will finish undefeated this season.
3. Texas will improve by at least 4.3 wins in Tom Herman’s first season, which is the average win improvement of every FBS school he has coached for as an assistant or head coach.
4. Oklahoma will not play in the inaugural Big 12 championship game.
5. Mark Dantonio will “retire” as Michigan State football coach and be replaced by Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi.
6. This will be Bill Snyder’s final season as a college football coach.
7. USC will be preseason top five but will fail to make the college football playoff. Since 2007, the Trojans have been preseason top five three times, and only once finished in the top 20 at the end of the season.
8. Kevin Sumlin will be fired as Texas A&M football coach and replaced by North Carolina coach Larry Fedora.
9. Jim Mora will be fired as UCLA football coach and replaced by former Oregon coach Chip Kelly.
10. Notre Dame will rebound this season under Brian Kelly, and then he will leave to pursue a job in the NFL.
11. Bob Stoops will turn down Notre Dame and all other college coaching overtures. The Irish will hire Maryland’s D.J. Durkin instead.
12. After losing four games in a season only once between 1969 and 2001, Nebraska will lose at least four games for the 14th straight season.
13. Alabama and Washington will be the only repeat Power Five conference champions.
14. Jim Harbaugh will get his first win over Urban Meyer on November 25th.
15. For the 14th consecutive season, the Miami Hurricanes will not win double-digit games in the regular season.
16. The Heisman Trophy finalists will be (in alphabetical order): Saquon Barkley (Penn State), J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), Jake Browning (Washington), Lamar Jackson (Louisville), and Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State).
17, Mason Rudolph will be the first Oklahoma State player to win the Heisman Trophy since Barry Sanders.
18. All three service academies will qualify for bowl games for the second year in a row. That has never happened before.
19. After last year’s banner season for the ACC, Florida State will be the only team in the league to win double-digit games in the regular season.
20. The results of the top five early non-conference games will be:
Alabama over Florida State…These two teams are evenly matched everywhere except in the trenches, where games like these are won.
Ohio State over Oklahoma…New Sooner coach Lincoln Riley gets a baptism-by-fire in Columbus.
Texas over USC…The Trojans have the style but the Longhorns have the substance, and the sport’s next transformational coach.
Michigan over Florida…Wolverines have the edge in coaching and quarterback in a battle of big-name, but very young, power-five brands.
Auburn over Clemson…Huge advantage at quarterback is why Tigers come out of Death Valley alive.
21. Virginia Tech, Tennessee, and Colorado will begin the season ranked in the top 25 but will not finish there.
22. Notre Dame, N.C. State, and Toledo won’t be ranked in the preseason top 25 but will finish there.
23. The following first year coaches will lead their teams to bowl games this season: Tom Allen (Indiana), Major Applewhite (Houston), P.J. Fleck (Minnesota), Tom Herman (Texas), Lane Kiffin (Florida Atlantic), Tim Lester (Western Michigan), Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma), Mike Sanford (Western Kentucky), Charlie Strong (South Florida), and Willie Taggart (Oregon).
24. Liquidate these teams that will win at least two fewer games than they did last season: Clemson, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Temple, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Western Kentucky, and Western Michigan.
25. Invest in these teams that will win at least two more games than they won last season: Auburn, Florida Atlantic, Iowa State, N.C. State, Northwestern, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, and Texas.
The following is the finale of a series of fictional game stories predicting the 2017 Michigan football season.
Third Time’s the Charm
Jim Harbaugh, Wolverines get first win over Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Ann Arbor, Mich. – Make no mistake, this was the biggest win for the Michigan football program since the last time the Wolverines beat a second-ranked Ohio State team in 2003. But in the grand scheme of things for this season, it remains to be seen if it makes all that much of an impact.
It was a Saturday that featured the top two teams in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, and the final undefeated duo, each losing on the road to their bitter rivals. With top-ranked Alabama losing at Auburn in the Iron Bowl, and the 11th-ranked Wolverines upsetting No. 2 Ohio State, 30-24, at Michigan Stadium. The Buckeyes are still bound for Indianapolis for next week’s Big Ten Championship Game versus Wisconsin. And if they win there, they’re likely assured of a spot in the playoff.
But don’t tell Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer losing to Michigan doesn’t make that much of a difference.
“This is arguably the biggest rivalry in the sport, so it’s a game that matters more than most,” Meyer said. “I was really, really disappointed with the way we played in the first half. Proud of the way we came back in the second half. And then not happy with the final result. Thankfully, we took care of business all season up until this point, so all of our season goals are still in front of us. But this one is going to sting.”
Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh joked afterward he had an “excitement unknown to mankind” thanks to the victory.
“This is called ‘the game’ for a reason,” said Harbaugh, who becomes the first coach in Michigan’s storied history to win at least 10 games his first three seasons in Ann Arbor. “The way our team finished this season last week at Wisconsin, and (Saturday) against Ohio State really speaks to the character of our guys. This was a total team victory, and the crowd today was incredible. The atmosphere inside the Big House was really something to behold.”
The Wolverines fed off that energy to get the jump on Ohio State. Jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead, thanks to two big runs from Chris Evans that set up both touchdowns. Ohio State responded with a touchdown drive of its own, but then didn’t score again the rest of the half and trailed, 20-7, at the midway point.
“It was important for us to get off to that start to get some confidence,” said Evans, who became Michigan’s first tailback to rush for a 1,000-yards since 2011.
The Buckeyes came out on fire to start the second half, scoring touchdowns on their opening two possessions with ball control drives. The Wolverines’ only points in the third quarter came on a 46-yard field goal from Quinn Nordin, and Michigan led by just two, 23-21, heading into the final 15 minutes.
“We had the momentum heading into the fourth quarter, but give them credit,” Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett said. “This time they made the plays in crunch time we’ve typically made.”
Two of those winning plays came from Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, who came up with back-to-back sacks to turn back a Buckeye drive that reached inside the 10-yard line. Then Maurice Hurst broke through the line to block the ensuing field goal attempt.
“We just kept telling each other we were gonna make those clutch plays this time,” Hurst said. “We basically had a ‘refuse to lose’ attitude, and went out there and made the plays that needed to be made. We weren’t going to leave it in anyone’s hands but our own this time.”
The Wolverines made it a two-possession game when Wilton Speight hit Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 42-yard touchdown pass with 3 minutes 31 seconds left.
“I just got behind the defense, turned on the speed, and (Speight) threw me an excellent ball,” Peoples-Jones said. “And give our coaches credit for even calling that play and going for it, rather than staying conservative.”
Yet while Michigan had some breathing room, the Wolverines couldn’t breathe easy yet.
The Buckeyes again drove deep into Michigan territory, and even had six plays from inside the 15-yard line thanks to an offside call that wiped out a potential game-clinching interception. But when Michigan linebacker Michael McCray broke up a potential game-winning touchdown pass from Barrett to Marcus Baugh in the end zone, Ohio State had to settle for a field goal and an onside kick.
However, the onside kick attempt sailed out of bounds to give the Wolverines the ball so they could run out the clock. When Speight took a knee for the final play, one of the loudest collective roars you’ll ever hear at Michigan Stadium erupted from the crowd. Almost as if Michigan fans were expelling years of collective frustration in this classic rivalry with one, final burst of emotion.
“I’m just so happy for our fans, coaches and our seniors,” Harbaugh said. “When we came here three years ago, those seniors really had to buy-in. And this year with such a young team, we really needed them to lead. They’ve done an outstanding job in that regard, and set a high bar for future senior classes to follow.”
Michigan’s regular season is now over, and the Wolverines will find out their bowl destination next week. More than likely Michigan will land somewhere in the New Year’s Six for the second consecutive year.
The following is the next in a series of fictional game stories predicting the outcome of Michigan’s 2017 football season.
Body Slamming the Badgers
Vicious hit sparks Wolverines to upset
Madison, Wisc. – The Wolverines looked lackluster, and in need of a spark in the third quarter on Saturday night. Staring down the barrel of consecutive losses for the first time since Jim Harbaugh took over.
Somebody needed to make a play, and that somebody turned out to be Rashan Gary.
A blown blocking assignment by Wisconsin gave Gary a free shot at quarterback Alex Hornibrook, which he took full advantage of with what could end up being the hit of the year in college football. The full force of Gary’s blow didn’t just knock Hornibrook clean off the ground, but out of the game.
That turned the tide, and Michigan rode the momentum shift to a 20-17 upset victory in front of a rowdy crowd at Camp Randall Stadium.
Both teams now have identical 9-2 records. The 15th-ranked Wolverines were eliminated from Big Ten title contention, but did record their first win in Madison since 2001. No. 9 Wisconsin still controls its own destiny in the West Division.
“(Gary’s hit) was the momentum-shifter without a doubt,” said Harbaugh, who got his first road win against a ranked opponent at Michigan. “But give credit to our offense, which put together a couple of solid touchdown drives after that, too.”
The Wolverines trailed, 17-6, prior to Gary’s huge hit. It seemed as if Gary didn’t just put the Badgers to sleep, but woke up the sleepy Michigan offense with his mighty blow. Wilton Speight led two consecutive touchdown drives, and then the Michigan running game ran out the clock on the game’s final possession.
“I really think this is a big win for our program,” said Speight, who was a combined 7-for-9 on Michigan’s two touchdown drives in the second half. “Even with our veteran unit last year, we couldn’t get that big, statement win on the road. Given how young we are this year, you don’t know you can do it until you do. Now we know we can do it.”
As for the Badgers, they’re not so sure the Gary hit was a clean one.
“We’ll send the film to the league office for clarification, because it certainly looked to us like (Gary) led with the crown of his helmet,” Wisconsin Coach Paul Chryst said. “We hope Alex will be good to go next week.”
Targeting wasn’t called on the field following Gary’s big hit, but the replay booth decided to review it before agreeing with the original call.
From there the Badger offense bogged down, never really threatened again, and didn’t look at all like the team that had dominated the game up until that point in time.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s two scoring drives were both culminated by Ty Isaac touchdowns. The first on a screen pass from Speight, and the second was a 3-yard scamper on a toss sweep. Sometimes the forgotten man in Michigan’s backfield this year, Isaac came up big when the Wolverines needed him most.
“Coach is always telling us to be ready because you’re just a play away from being needed,” Isaac said. “When Chris (Evans) tweaked his ankle a bit, I knew I was gonna get the call and I was ready.”
Harbaugh said he could tell Isaac was going to have a big game by the way he practiced throughout the week.
“Some of our guys were down after last week’s loss, but this was Ty’s best week of practice of the season,” Harbaugh said. “His energy really stood out, which you get that with seniors this time of year. The clock is ticking, and they know they’re running out of time to make their mark.”
Michigan will next host second-ranked Ohio State in their annual rivalry game next week. The Buckeyes and top-ranked Alabama are the final two undefeateds remaining. Wisconsin also plays a rivalry game next week on the road at Minnesota, with a berth in Indianapolis and the Big Ten title game on the line.
The following is the next in a series of fictional game stories predicting the outcome of Michigan’s 2017 football season.
Maryland upsets Michigan for biggest victory in years
College Park, Md. – Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said he could sense getting his talented, but young, team focused this week was a challenge. With fans and the media already looking past Maryland, and to the closing games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, that’s usually danger time for a top college football program.
On Saturday the danger became real for the seventh-ranked Wolverines.
The Terrapins pulled off their biggest win in a decade, taking advantage of several Michigan miscues in a 24-20 victory in front of a rare sellout crowd at Byrd Stadium. It’s the first time Maryland has beaten a top 10 team since an upset of then No. 8 Boston College, quarterbacked by Matt Ryan, back in 2007.
“I’m speechless, other than to say I’m so proud of our program and no doubt this is a signature win,” said Maryland Coach D.J. Durkin, who was Jim Harbaugh’s original defensive coordinator at Michigan before getting the job. “I know firsthand how tough it is to beat a Jim Harbaugh-coached team; especially one playing as well as they did the past two weeks.”
The loss doesn’t officially eliminate the Wolverines from the East Division race, but it does severely damage their hopes of finally making it to a Big Ten Championship Game. Michigan no longer controls its own destiny, and needs Ohio State to lose twice and Penn State at least once to even be in a tie-breaker situation if it wins out.
“These are tough lessons young teams need to learn,” Harbaugh said. “We have a talented, resilient team. So I have no doubt they will learn from this and bounce back. But for now, I just want to congratulate D.J. and Maryland for beating us fair and square. Tomorrow we’ll get our guys in the film room and look at the mistakes we made, but today is about giving Maryland’s team the credit they deserve.”
With Harbaugh planning a film session on Michigan’s mistakes, the Wolverines would be wise to prepare for it to last a while.
The Terrapins didn’t really do anything special in the game. They were out-gained, 357-301. They only had one scoring drive of longer than 60 yards. The stat sheet says they looked every bit like the average football team their record would indicate.
However, Maryland was opportunistic on Saturday. And the Wolverines gave them plenty of opportunities.
A poorly shanked punt and a muffed punt return were two mistakes that set up points for the Terps. Michigan kicker Quinn Nordin also missed two field goals in a game for the first time all season, to top off what was a nightmare afternoon for the maize-and-blue special teams.
“Obviously we’ve got to play better on special teams than that,” Harbaugh said.
Michigan only had two turnovers, but they both came at the worst possible time. Wilton Speight was intercepted on the first drive of the game to set up a Maryland touchdown.
“After the way they manhandled us at their place a year ago, we needed a good start and that gave us confidence,” said Maryland defensive lineman Jesse Aniebonam, who terrorized the Wolverines all afternoon. In fact, his pressure on that play is what forced Speight to hurry the throw and led to the pick.
Then, with Michigan poised to score a go-ahead touchdown in the waning moments of the third quarter, Chris Evans took a big hit from blitzing safety Markquese Ball. That forced a fumble to kill the drive.
There were also four holding penalties on the Wolverines. Two of which nullified key third down conversions that eventually forced Michigan to punt. Harbaugh, never shy about sharing his thoughts on the officiating, said he thought they were good calls.
“I mean I’ll let you know out there if I think the officials are blowing it,” Harbaugh said. “Our coaches upstairs said they thought they were all good calls. We just lost our technique at the worst times. That’s a focus issue.”
Speaking of focus, expect the Michigan coaches to be focused this week on the points the Wolverines left unscored on Saturday. At the same time, Harbaugh says he’s not worried about motivating his young team, despite seeing their title hopes take a big hit.
“We’ve still got a lot to play for,” Harbaugh said.
Michigan (8-2) next travels to Camp Randall to face Wisconsin (9-1), which can clinch the Big Ten West Division title with a victory. Maryland (5-5) will be on the hunt for bowl eligibility when it travels to Michigan State.
The following is the next in a series of fictional game stories predicting the outcome of Michigan’s 2017 football season.
The Jug Stays
Michigan overwhelms Golden Gophers
Ann Arbor, Mich. – The records of the two teams coming in said they were pretty evenly matched. But the outcome on the scoreboard on Saturday said otherwise.
The eighth-ranked Wolverines were simply too much for visiting Minnesota, and improved to 8-1 on the season with a 38-17 victory at Michigan Stadium. The win means college football’s most famous rivalry trophy – “the little brown jug” – remains in Schembechler Hall for the time being.
“Very pleased with the overall effort,” Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We beat a good football team today, and improved as a football team in the process.”
Michigan, which still controls its own destiny in the Big Ten East, was led by a balanced offense that finished with over 200 yards passing and rushing.
“Our offensive line just keeps getting better,” Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight said. “Without them, nothing else would be possible. They’re the reason we’re able to execute like this.”
Indeed, it was almost a perfect game for that unit. The Golden Gophers had no sacks or tackles-for-loss on defense.
“That’s the best football team we’ve played so far this season,” said Minnesota Coach P.J. Fleck, whose team fell to 6-3. “Also the most physical team we’ve played as well, and those two things probably aren’t coincidental.”
Oddly enough, Minnesota actually scored first. The Gophers went 80 yards on 11 plays for an impressive opening drive touchdown. But it was all Michigan after that.
The Wolverines scored the next 31 points in a row. Minnesota’s defense was determined not to surrender any big plays, so Michigan’s offense played with efficiency and dominated time of possession. In fact, the Wolverines doubled Minnesota in plays from scrimmage.
Of course, the Michigan defense had something to do with that. At one point it forced four straight three-and-outs for the Minnesota offense, which didn’t score again until kicking a field goal with just over 6 minutes left in the game. The Gophers then recovered the onside kick to set up the final touchdown in the waning moments.
Since the two teams aren’t scheduled to meet again until at least 2020, Fleck said Minnesota has some time to stew about reclaiming the jug.
“Obviously this is a benchmark game for our program and historically in our conference,” Fleck said. “We came up short today, but we’ll keep rowing the boat and make sure we’re ready for whenever we play again. For now, though, our focus is on finishing strong in our division.”
The Wolverines next begin a grueling gauntlet to close out the campaign, starting with the first of consecutive road games at Maryland. Minnesota will attempt to bounce back against Nebraska at home.
Routing Rutgers, Again
Wolverines rebound against meager foe
Ann Arbor, Mich. – Coming off its first loss of the season, Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said at his weekly press conference he was eager to see how his young team would respond.
He shouldn’t have, for the Wolverines were hosting arguably the worst power five team in the country for homecoming. Now, the 2017 meeting wasn’t quite as brutal as last year’s, when the Wolverines scored more touchdowns than Rutgers had first downs. But it was a beat down nevertheless.
The Scarlet Knights actually scored some points this year, seven in fact. So that’s progress, as is the fact they surrendered “only” 58 points to 10th-ranked Michigan *they gave up 78 last year). The Wolverines are now 7-1, and will see where they stand when the initial College Football Playoff rankings released on Tuesday.
“I thought we played angry to start the game,” said Wilton Speight, who returned to his starting quarterback duties after sitting out last week with an undisclosed injury, and threw two touchdown passes in just one half of play. “As Coach Harbaugh says, ‘losing leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and the only mouthwash is winning.’ So we wanted to spit last week out as soon as we could.”
Yes, Speight was smiling when he said that line, in case you were wondering. Although locker room legend here at Michigan says that is an actual Harbaugh quote.
Michigan’s performance was perfectly balanced, scoring four touchdowns apiece on the ground and through the air. Both Speight and Brandon Peters had a pair of touchdown passes. All of the Wolverines rushing touchdowns were scored by different players—Chris Evans, Ty Isaac, Kareem Walker, and Karan Higdon. Maurice Hurst had a sack in the end zone for a safety, so the defense was heard from as well.
Oh, and the special teams thought it also had a touchdown on a Nate Johnson punt return. But it was nullified by a controversial “roughing the snapper” penalty on the Wolverines, which Harbaugh was still fuming about in the post-game.
“We actually had that call go for us a few a times last year, so we’re pretty well versed on what it is and isn’t,” Harbaugh said. “That was such a seamless punt return, too. Great blocking, Nate made one guy miss, and he was gone. From a coaching standpoint, we’ll count that as good as a team when we get together to watch the film. And I’m sending that call to the league office on Monday for clarification.”
That “controversial” call wasn’t the real drama, though, in an overall ho-hum affair. Those remaining in the stands at the end as the rain started to come down wanted to see if the Scarlet Knights could actually score this year.
The Scarlet Knights drove down to Michigan’s 3-yard line, and had a fourth-and-goal with less than 10 seconds left. To his credit, Rutgers Coach Chris Ash elected to go for the touchdown rather than a chip-shot, but tacky, field goal to avoid the goose egg.
It paid off, as Giovanni Rescigno hit Janarioan Grant with a back shoulder fade in the end zone. The Scarlet Knights scored their first points on Michigan since 2014.
“I wanted to send a message to our team that we keep competing until the final whistle,” Ash said.
The Wolverines return to the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium next week to battle Minnesota for the Little Brown Jug. The Golden Gophers fell to 6-2 after an upset loss at Iowa on Saturday.
Undefeated No More
Penn State rebounds to ‘upset’ Wolverines
State College, Penn. – According to the rankings, No. 12 Penn State upset 5th-ranked Michigan at Beaver Stadium on Saturday night, although the seemingly all-knowing oddsmakers said otherwise.
Those fellas in the desert actually had the Nittany Lions favored, and it turns out they were right (as usual). Penn State used the emotion of a raucous “white out” crowd to get off to great start, and then held off a furious comeback to knock the Wolverines from the ranks of the unbeaten.
With its 33-27 victory, Penn State is now back in control of its own destiny in the Big Ten East heading into next week’s trip to Columbus.
“I think the bye week really helped our team refocus after that loss to Northwestern,” said Penn State Coach James Franklin, who notched his first victory over Michigan. “It gave us as coaches time to remind our team how those guys took it to us last year, and that we’re gonna need to be much more physical to take it to them tonight.”
Last season, the Wolverines suffocated Penn State in Ann Arbor. Jumping on the Nittany Lions early and then never letting up. But this season it was Penn State’s turn to set the tone early on. The Nittany Lions jumped out to a 24-6 lead at the half, thanks to a balanced offense that kept Michigan’s defense off-balance. As well as early struggles from Brandon Peters, who was making his first road start at quarterback in place of the injured Wilton Speight.
“We used more of me in the run game tonight then we have all season so far,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said. “We ran a lot of zone read, and we ran a lot of it away from (Rashan) Gary with a check-with-me system. It really surprised them in the first half, and both Saquon (Barkley) and I found some nice running lanes.”
Franklin said he told his coaches during the bye week to simplify things, and that he thought they got caught trying to be too cute in their loss in Evanston.
“Sometimes we as coaches get caught up in preseason hype as well, and when you bring back all the weapons we did you tinker a little too much,” Franklin said. “So instead of adding wrinkles during the bye week we took some away and simplified things. We basically ran the same play about 15 times in the first half, with only a check-with-me based on their pre-snap alignment.”
Peters did lead two scoring drives in the first half, both for field goals. But he also threw an interception and fumbled from the result of a blindside sack. Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh decided his team needed a spark at halftime, so he opened up the playbook and went to more of a spread passing attack.
“They clearly had decided we weren’t going to run the ball on them like we did last year, and we probably stuck with it longer than we should have,” Harbaugh said. “That’s on us as coaches. We tried to protect Brandon in a tough environment, and then in the second half we just decided to let him loose.”
Peters threw three touchdown passes in the second half to Tyrone Wheatley, Tarik Black, and Grant Perry. The latter coming with just over a minute left to bring the Wolverines within four points, but with no timeouts left Michigan was forced to try the onsides kick. The kick went out-of-bounds, and the Nittany Lions went into the victory formation to close it out from there.
“I’m really proud of the way we came back, and as Coach said in the locker room we still control our own destiny,” Michigan offensive lineman Mason Cole said. “But our margin for error is narrower that’s for sure.”
Harbaugh said Speight should be ready for next week’s home game with Rutgers, and whichever quarterback has the best week of practice will start.
The following is the next in a series of fictional game stories predicting the outcome of the 2017 Michigan football season.
Escape from Bloomington
Michigan squeaks by Hoosiers to remain undefeated—barely
Bloomington, Ind. – Yet again the Hoosiers pushed mighty Michigan to the brink, and yet again they lost. So the Big Ten’s longest consecutive streak of futility between conference combatants lives on.
For the third year in a row, Michigan-Indiana came down to the wire. And for the third year in a row the result was the same as it’s been in every meeting since 1987. When Griffin Oakes’ 52-yard field goal as time expired sailed wide right, it allowed the Wolverines to hold on for a 23-21 victory.
No. 4 Michigan remains undefeated, despite overcoming a key injury and a classic “sandwich game” situation. With this road trip to Memorial Stadium nestled between last week’s rivalry game with Michigan State, and just ahead of next week’s showdown at Penn State in State College.
“What a tremendous gut-check for our young team,” said Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh, whose team is now 6-0. “Give Indiana credit, they played so hard and that is a good defense we just faced with a quarterback who’s going to play in the NFL. And we had to win it with our backup quarterback in the game.”
The Wolverines were already struggling to consistently move the ball against a game Indiana defense. Even before Wilton Speight left the game with an undisclosed injury following a vicious hit by Tegray Scales, which the Michigan sideline thought was targeting. When Speight departed, Michigan held a tenuous 16-14 lead.
Enter redshirt freshman Brandon Peters.
Peters’ first pass upon entering the game was a tipped-ball interception, which led to the Hoosiers’ go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. However, Peters and Michigan responded on the very next drive. First, Peters connected with Chris Evans for a 28-yard gain on a screen pass, which seemed to give him some confidence. Then, Karan Higdon burst through for a 17-yard scamper on the ground to get Michigan into the red zone.
Eventually, the Wolverines made it to Indiana’s 2-yard line. But after two Khalid Hill plunges were stuffed, and Peters’ pass to Ian Bunting was batted down, Harbaugh had a decision to make.
“The way their defense was playing, and given the lateness in the game, I wasn’t sure we’d have another shot to get in the end zone,” said Harbaugh, explaining why he made the decision to forego the field goal.
But as pressure-packed as the decision was to go for it, the play to call in that situation was just as crucial. During a timeout, Harbaugh huddled with his offensive coaches and came up with what turned out to be the perfect call—a naked bootleg.
“Coach Harbaugh told us (Indiana) was going to be very aggressive on defense on that play, and we were going to use their aggression against them,” Peters said. “And he was right. So I after I faked the hand-off to Ty (Isaac), I looked up and it was wide open for the touchdown.”
Peters’ touchdown dash put the Wolverines back in front, but they failed on the two-point conversion and their defense still had to hold onto the lead. And the Hoosiers got all the way to the Michigan 29-yard line before their coach made a controversial decision. Instead of running to center the ball for the potential game-winning field goal, Tom Allen elected to try a play-action pass.
He made the wrong decision.
Michigan’s Rashan Gary burst through the line and sacked Richard Lagow on the play, pushing Indiana back another six yards. That might have made the difference in whether Oakes’ kick, on the game’s final play, was successful or not. As it sailed wide right during the final leg of its path.
“I’m just sick to my stomach for our kids,” said Allen, whose team fell to 3-3. “We really didn’t try to get greedy there, because even a 45-yarder into that wind was no gimme. Plus, we had missed one earlier from that distance. But as coaches we took the game out of our players’ hands, and we have to hold ourselves accountable for that.”
Harbaugh was non-committal on Speight’s status for next week’s game at Penn State.
“I’ll huddle with the training staff when we get back to Ann Arbor and know more then,” Harbaugh said.
Pulling Away in Primetime
Wolverines get the better of their instate rival for second straight year
Ann Arbor, Mich. – The 2017 Michigan-Michigan State football game made history, as the first time these two old instate rivals met under the lights. But the game itself played out as it has the majority of time in the rivalry’s history.
Despite the Spartans’ recent run, it’s been a series dominated by Michigan overall. And Saturday night the sixth-ranked Wolverines pulled away in the second half for a 34-20 victory, in front of a near-record crowd at the Big House.
“The atmosphere out there was just electric,” Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I think it fired up both teams in the first half, to be honest. Luckily, we were able to correct some things on defense in the second half and won the game.”
Though it’s the first time in a decade Michigan has beaten the Spartans in consecutive seasons, it still holds a commanding 70-35-5 in the rivalry overall. However, Michigan State looked primed for the upset early.
As Harbaugh indicated, the Spartans came out guns blazing on the ground behind L.J. Scott, who came into the game the leading rusher in the Big Ten. And just as they did last year in East Lansing, ran the ball down the Wolverines’ collective throats to score a touchdown on the game’s opening drive.
“This was the most physical offensive line we’ve played so far, and it took us a little while to adjust to that,” Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said. “Plus, give Scott credit. He’s a great back.”
In fact, Scott became the first back to rush for over 100 yards on Michigan this season, and he did it before halftime. Michigan’s defense was on its heels most of the first half. Michigan State punted only once, and thrice more the Spartans drove the ball into the red zone. Only to be held to field goals twice, before a blitzing Khaleke Hudson forced a Brian Lewerke fumbled recovered by Hurst to turn away the other.
“We’ve got some younger guys who just have seen a lot of different looks already this season,” said Michigan linebacker Michael McCray, who led the Wolverines with 11 tackles. “We’ve played spreads, triple-options, and air raids. The one thing we hadn’t seen was a true power, pro-style attack. So give Michigan State credit, they were well prepared early on before our coaches made some adjustments.”
Luckily for the Wolverines, while their defense was getting their sea legs in the first half their quarterback was dealing. Against a Spartan defense sold out to stop the run, and daring Michigan’s young receivers to beat them, Wilton Speight was downright surgical. He completed passes to 7 different receivers, for almost 200 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone. Speight finished with his first 300-yard passing game of the season, and accounted for all the Wolverines’ touchdowns as well.
“The credit really goes to our offensive line, which gave me plenty of time to throw,” Speight said. “And to our coaches, who when they saw the aggressive fronts Michigan State was playing on defense decided to go to the air.”
Speight scrambled for a score, and hit Khalid Hill, Ian Bunting, and Kekoa Crawford for his three touchdowns through the air.
“That’s Big Ten Player of the Week type stuff,” Harbaugh said. “This was the best game he’s played so far this season, and you can see he’s gaining confidence and timing with his teammates.”
In the second half the Wolverines decided to give Michigan State a taste of its own medicine defensively. Loading the box to stop the run, while playing man-to-man on the on the outside. The adjustment worked. Except for a blown coverage that led to a long Lewerke touchdown pass to Trishton Jackson, the Spartans were scoreless the final two quarters.
“I thought our guys played hard and well, we just came up a little short against a quality opponent,” Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’ve had three physical, tough games in a row now. And without a bye week in there it’s important we maintain our poise and health the rest of the way. We didn’t do that last year, and it’s up to us as coaches to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
The Spartans fall to 2-3 heading into a road game at Minnesota next week. Undefeated Michigan is on the road next week as well at Indiana, which should be fresh coming off a bye week. The Hoosiers (3-2) haven’t beaten the Wolverines in 30 years, but they were a pesky out both times they’ve met since Harbaugh arrived at Michigan.
Michigan Steamrolls Boilermakers
Reloading Wolverines rout rebuilding Purdue
West Lafayette, Ind. – Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium, college football fans learned the difference between a program that’s reloading and one that’s rebuilding.
No. 7 Michigan is reloading, with one of the youngest teams in the country, after sending 19 upperclassmen to NFL training camps from last year’s top 10 squad. But they’re loaded with talent, just lacking experience. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers are rebuilding with a rookie head coach; hoping to eventually recapture past glory.
Except reloading always beats rebuilding, which is why the Wolverines steamrolled Purdue, 48-14, in their first true road game of the season. Michigan is now 4-0 on the season, and also an incredible 45-3 in its Big Ten openers since 1968.
“This was a total team effort, we played well in all three phases of the game, and also got to play our entire travel squad,” Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said. “The challenge for us as coaches is to make sure our kids stay focused, because we are a young team that’s never had to handle success and expectations before. We’ve got a bye week coming up, and that’s a lot of time to hear people say good things about you. Bo used to say that’s when he was the most worried as a coach.”
Indeed, folks should be saying a lot of good things about these young Wolverines. Their balanced offense is averaging over 200 yards a game both passing and running, and the defense again ranks among the top 10 in the nation.
“But we’re only a third of the way through the season,” cautioned quarterback Wilton Speight, who completed 16-of-22 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. “Last year we were just crushing teams early on, including Colorado and Penn State that went on to be really good. But even that team learned things get tougher the deeper we go in the Big Ten. And it’s up to those of us who are team leaders to teach that to these younger guys, who haven’t faced that yet.”
The Wolverines did see their streak of 300-yard rushing games snapped – but still finished with a solid 254 yards on the ground.
“If our offensive line continues playing like this, we’re going to be tough to beat,” Harbaugh said. “But the defenses they’ll face only get better from here.”
Defensively, the Wolverines terrorized a bevy of Purdue quarterbacks all afternoon. Finishing with six sacks, while hurrying several other throws and intercepting two others. Michigan also recovered a fumble to finish plus-3 in turnovers.
“As great as we were on defense last year, the one thing we didn’t do for whatever reason was create a lot of turnovers,” said Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich. “So far this season it seems the turnovers are bouncing our way.”
Perhaps the most electrifying play of the game was a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown by Eddie McDoom, the first for Michigan this season.
“The blocking on that play was so good that I only had to out-run one guy,” said a modest McDoom, who actually out-ran three guys once he hit the open field.
Michigan will put its undefeated record on the line in two weeks when it hosts its instate rival, Michigan State, in Ann Arbor. The Spartans are 2-1 after losing late to Notre Dame on Saturday, and host Iowa next week in their Big Ten opener.
Wolverines ground Air Force
Michigan running game sets tone for offensive explosion
Ann Arbor, Mich. – For the second consecutive week, Michigan rushed for over 300 yards. But this time its passing game finally showed up as well.
The No. 9 Wolverines took advantage of a rebuilding Air Force defense, to amass nearly 600 yards of total offense in a 55-21 rout at Michigan Stadium. Quarterback Wilton Speight easily had his best game of the season, efficiently completing 14-of-18 passes and three touchdowns.
“We had the play-action game rolling and used that to hit some big plays down the field,” Speight said.
Indeed, both of Michigan’s prized freshmen wide receivers – Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones – each nabbed their first career touchdown catches on big plays via the play-action pass.
“That’s hopefully going to be the first of many for those two,” Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said. “But the play-action game only works when you’ve been running the football like we did.”
To that end, Chris Evans had his second consecutive 100-yard effort to again pace a balanced and devastating Michigan rushing attack. It’s the first time the Wolverines have eclipsed the 300-yard rushing barrier in back-to-back games in the 21st century.
“Our offensive line is really playing well right now,” Michigan left tackle Mason Cole said. “Guys have accepted their roles and we’re playing physical. But I’m also warning the young guys we haven’t started Big Ten play yet, so we need to keep improving.”
In fact, the Wolverines open conference play next week at Purdue for their first visit to Ross-Ade Stadium since 2012. The Boilermakers are off to a 1-2 start under rookie head coach Jeff Brohm.
“That’s a tough turnaround for our young defense, to go from a triple-option to an air raid in one week,” Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said. “And you saw today some of young guys got out of position a little bit. I can’t remember the last time we gave up three rushing touchdowns in a game around here.”
The reason Brown can’t remember, is because it’s only happened once since he became Michigan’s defensive coordinator. And it took Ohio State double overtime to do it last year.
“Coaches did a great job of prepping us for what Air Force was going to do, and for the most part we did alright,” said Michigan linebacker Mike McCray, who finished with four tackles-for-loss. “We just had a couple lapses here and there they took advantage of. But thankfully our offense really stepped it up (Saturday).”
Should the Wolverines prevail in West Lafayette next week, and they will be a big favorite to do so, that would make Harbaugh’s record 24-6 for his first 30 games at Michigan. That would be the best 30-game start for a Michigan football since Gary Moeller started 24-5-1 a quarter century ago.
“I honestly wouldn’t have even known that unless you guys told me,” Harbaugh said. “Gary was a great coach, and a tremendous offensive innovator. He was also an outstanding defensive coordinator when I played here, so I’d be honored to be in his company.”
Mauling the Bearcats
Wolverines cruise in their home opener
Ann Arbor, Mich. – The weather was much different Saturday than it was the last time the Wolverines played a game at what’s affectionately known as “the Big House.”
Last November, Michigan closed out the home schedule making snow angels following a victory over Indiana. This time it was cramping, cooling fans, and free hydration stands for the fans, as the 9th-ranked Wolverines overcame near-record heat to topple Cincinnati, 37-17, at Michigan Stadium.
“That’s the hottest weather I’ve ever played in,” said Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight, who only threw the ball 13 times thanks to an overpowering running game. “We wanted to establish the running game early, and that’s exactly what we did. Our offensive line just dominated.”
Michigan rushed for well over 300 yards, including a career-high 136 from Chris Evans. All four of the Wolverines’ touchdowns came on the ground, and seven different players carried the ball.
“Given the heat we knew we needed to use our depth,” Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t do more in the second half, but I think we lost our focus after that big lead. Young teams will do that, and it’s up to us as coaches to make sure it doesn’t become a reoccurring issue.”
In fact, the Bearcats out-scored Michigan in the second half, 14-9.
“I’m really proud of the way our guys kept battling,” first year Cincinnati Coach Luke Fickell said. “A lot of teams could’ve packed it in at halftime, especially given how hot it was. But we fought to the end and then sort of won the second half, and that’s something we can build on going forward.”
Unfortunately for the Bearcats, Michigan so dominated the first half they were just in too big a hole to dig out of. The Wolverines led, 28-3, at the half while amassing over 200 yards on the ground. Including two long touchdown runs by Evans.
“Every running back on this team could’ve exploited those holes our offensive line was opening in the first half,” Evans said. “I’m just fortunate it was my turn to carry the ball while they were doing it.”
But while the Michigan running game got on track after last week’s slugfest with Florida, the passing game still needs some work. Through two games, Speight is completing just 55% of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Backup Brandon Peters got the first meaningful action of his career during second half mop-up time, and both of the drives he was in for ended in field goals by Quinn Nordin. Nevertheless, Harbaugh is adamant there is no quarterback controversy at Michigan.
“There is always a competition for every spot at all times, Harbaugh said. “I like how Brandon looked out there, but Wilton provides our best chance to win. And we wouldn’t have beaten Florida last week without him.”
For his part, Speight is open that he can play better and will.
“We’ve only played two games, and we’re still getting used to playing with each other.” Speight said. “The timing will get there. Plus, our first game was against one of the best defenses in the SEC, and (Saturday) we ran the ball so well it didn’t make any sense to throw it 30 times.”
The second half lethargy also may have revealed a fast, but young, Michigan defense still has some depth to develop.
“We played a lot of guys down the stretch who had never played meaningful college football before,” Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said. “But as Coach Harbaugh says, the only way to get better at football is by playing football. So we’re going to be looking for opportunities to get those guys experience.”
The Wolverines host Air Force next week. The Falcons, with their vaunted triple option offense, are 1-0 and coming off a bye week.
The following is the first in a series of fictional game stories predicting the outcome of Michigan’s 2017 football season.
Just What the Doctor (Blitz) Ordered
Defense leads the way for Michigan in season opener
Arlington, Texas – The defenses were supposed to be the story in Saturday’s season opener between traditional powers from the Big Ten and SEC, and they did not disappoint. However, when one of those defenses faces an inexperienced quarterback in a new offense, it would seem to have the advantage.
And that was the difference as Malik Zaire learned why celebrated Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown earned the nickname “Doctor Blitz.” Franks accounted for two touchdowns, but also committed three costly turnovers as No. 13 Florida fell to the 12th-ranked Wolverines, 21-17, in front of a sellout crowd at Jerry World.
Michigan was plus-2 in turnovers, and that proved to be the difference.
“When you have two evenly matched teams like this, and we’re both playing a lot of young guys, whoever makes the fewest mistakes usually wins,” said Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh, who improved to 2-0 against Florida Coach Jim McIlwain. “Fortunately for us that was Michigan (today).”
The Wolverines weren’t great offensively, gaining 81 yards fewer than they averaged last season. But they won the field position and time of possession battle, as well as the turnover margin.
“I know you guys think it’s coach-speak when we talk about so much about field position and turnovers, but (Saturday) is why we do it,” McIlwain said. “I’m not sure the better team won, but certainly the more deserving team did. I thought we really played well at times, and have a lot to build on going forward. But this one will sting when we watch the film tomorrow, because we’re going to see we often beat ourselves.”
The two-time defending SEC East champions did finish with more total yardage, including a 57-yard touchdown pass from Zaire to Antonio Callaway to open the scoring in the second quarter. But several of the mistakes McIlwain lamented were aided and abetted by the Wolverines.
Michigan finished with six sacks, including a terrific sack-strip-recovery from Rashan Gary in the fourth quarter to set up the eventual winning touchdown. A 6-yard touchdown pass from Wilton Speight to Zach Gentry with less than 6 minutes left.
“That was a such great play by (Gary),” said Speight, who threw for 178 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. “I told the offense in the huddle immediately afterwards we had to follow that up by winning the game right here.”
In fact, other than the opening drive of the second half – a 72-yarder that occupied about half of the third quarter – the Wolverines’ best offense was big plays from their defense. Their only points of the first half were set up by a Tyree Kinnel interception, which resulted in a Speight touchdown pass to Tyrone Wheatley, Jr.
“You win as a team, and you lose as a team, and right now with so many young guys on offense the team needs us to step up on defense,” said Gary, who finished with two-and-a-half sacks, and three quarterback pressures.
The defense was needed to step up one final time for Michigan, as the Gators drove to the red zone in the closing moments of the game. But pressure from Khaleke Hudson forced Franks to throw into double coverage, which Josh Metallus made him pay for with the clinching interception.
“We are a very talented team, but also very young, so we’ve got to learn how to win,” Harbaugh said. “We took a big step today, but it’s just the first step. There’s still a long season to go.”
Michigan’s next step will be the home opener next Saturday against Cincinnati, which defeated Austin Peay in its debut.