ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan looked mortal on Saturday. While the offense showed it needs work, the defense dominated after one bad quarter.
Colorado’s football program has been down for years. The 2-0 Buffs who came into Michigan Stadium on Saturday were a good team, senior-loaded and quarterback-led. The Buffaloes walked in with the No. 7 overall total defense in the country and the No. 11 overall total offense. It’s a game that if Michigan wins by 17 – without the scary first quarter – fans and experts alike would be fine with. Nonetheless, Michigan had its backs against the wall early and it won, and that’s a good thing.
After rewatching what happened in Ann Arbor on Saturday when Michigan defeated Colorado 45-28, here’s some insight on what went wrong and what went right.
The first quarter could have ended it all – but it didn’t
It didn’t take Colorado long to look seemingly dominant. The Buffaloes were up 14-0 after one offensive series and a scoop-and-score defensive touchdown. That brings us to the first issue Michigan has to fix.
You can blame the offensive line all you want in football when a quarterback takes a hit. The play where Wilton Speight fumbles the ball on the sack, he doesn’t take his eyes off the left side of the field. The cornerback blitzed, and Speight didn’t even look in his direction. As a quarterback, Speight has to see him coming his way and throw the ball away, hit his check-down receiver or just go down. Instead, he sees nothing, fumbles and Colorado went up 14.
The other facet of the game where Michigan struggled was the same facet it dominated in the week before – pass defense. Against UCF, Michigan gave up only 56 passing yards compared to 275 rushing yards. Against Colorado it flip-flopped as the Wolverines gave up 229 passing yards compared to just 64 rushing yards.
Michigan trailed 21-7 after the first quarter. But the defense adjusted. Minus the one 70-yard touchdown pass to open the second half for Colorado, Michigan gave up only 56 yards for three quarters. And even if you add that 70-yard touchdown, the 126 yards given up is an impressive adjustment after an awful first quarter.
Speight was the first Michigan quarterback to have seven touchdowns in his first two games since John Navarre did that in 2000. But every quarterback is mortal, and we saw Speight’s mortality firsthand on Saturday. Colorado brought a lot of pressure early, and while Speight should pick up on those blitzes and adjust, the protection on the left side has to be better, with left tackle Erik Magnuson not playing his best game. The right side of the line also struggled for the first time.
The poor blocking led to Michigan doing a lot of outside runs. It worked, but Michigan wanted to work in a lot of short, quick throws and Speight couldn’t find anyone in the first half. Known for his great accuracy, all of that seemingly disappeared for most of the game Saturday. He was short-arming throws, didn’t have any zip and lost all the touch he had on deep throws the first two games of the season.
As the game progressed, though, the protection gradually got better, and so did Speight. Despite having two balls in the first half that could have been interceptions, Speight went without one and finished 16-for-30 with 229 yards and a touchdown.
On paper, he had a good-not-great day – but watching the game twice, you can clearly see that a performance like that from Speight will not suffice in East Lansing in a few weeks.
The silver lining is that he looked dominant in the first two weeks, so there’s reason to believe that Speight will bring that type of game again next week and going forward.
Michigan’s safeties were the worst unit on the team Saturday, especially in the first quarter. On the first touchdown, Dymonte Thomas, who had the worst game of his career, got beat deep on one of three Sefo Liufau touchdown passes. Michigan ran a man defense and dropped back zero safeties as Delano Hill ran a spy on Liufau and Thomas went man-to-man with Devin Ross. Thomas gave him a 4-yard cushion but still got beat badly.
It looks like Peppers could have been beat here, but he actually trailed the ball in the air and was as close to making the play as Thomas.
This wasn’t it for Thomas either, as he got beat again at the end of the first quarter on a fade route. Granted, the throw was perfect, but the coverage was soft.
Thomas – again – is forced to chase the receiver in coverage and has no chance of defending the pass here.
The free safety Delano Hill didn’t have his best game either, including giving up the biggest play yardage-wise of the day. The opening drive of the second half went 80 yards for Colorado, but one play provided 70 of those yards. Shay Fields lined up in the slot and ran a post route that Hill couldn’t keep up with on the touchdown strike.
The safeties have to be better in man coverage or this defense may suffer against teams with elite quarterbacks like Iowa and Ohio State.
Defensive line continues to impress, despite two starters injured
The narrative that Michigan’s defense dominated the second half because of Liufau’s absence for the majority of the half makes sense. Saying that it was just one injury that caused him to leave the game – and Michigan “got lucky” — does not make sense. Michigan’s defensive line had eight quarterback hits, four sacks and brought pressure on seemingly every play following the first couple of series in the second quarter.
Linebackers Jabrill Peppers and Ben Gedeon combined for 21 tackles, four for a loss, but the defensive line forced its way through each play. Rashan Gary needs to start until Taco Charlton is healthy. Chase Winovich and Matt Godin should be in the rotation, but Gary’s two quarterback hits, four tackles — 1 1/2 for loss — in a non-starting role is scary.
Because Michigan missed senior starting defensive end Charlton and starting nose tackle Bryan Mone, the defensive line could be unstoppable when fully healthy, which is expected to come true on Oct. 1 against Wisconsin.
Special teams is great, but Kenny Allen’s spot is in question
When you have a punt return for a touchdown, four blocked punts and two field goal blocks, there shouldn’t be any questions about your special teams’ performance. But when you miss two field goals and have no kickoffs go deeper than a yard inside the end zone, then you’ll have questions on special teams.
Everything is perfect for Michigan’s third unit, but kicker/kickoff specialist/punter Kenny Allen has to figure out his field goals. Coach Jim Harbaugh mentioned that holding and snaps are off, and it’s not just Allen’s fault. Whatever it may be, field goals are one of the most important parts of the game, and until Michigan has some confidence in that part of the game it will be forced to go for it on fourth-and-long inside the 40-yard line a lot.
Allen was good last season. He went 18-for-22 on field goals all season and accounted for 100 points on the 13-game campaign.
Maybe he had one bad game, but if he doesn’t figure it out then people will be calling for Harbaugh to burn the redshirt of true freshman Quinn Nordin, the No. 1 kicker from the 2016 class.
- WR Eddie McDoom is really fast and brings another weapon to Michigan’s offense, but this entire offense has gotten faster. Speed has now become a weapon for the Wolverines on that side of the ball, with WR Jehu Chesson (three carries and a touchdown) and freshman RB Chris Evans.
- The linebackers came into the season as an area of concern but are probably the best overall unit – behind the defensive line – on the team. Gedeon, Mike McCray and Peppers combined for 26 tackles, 4.5 for loss and a sack last Saturday.
- Evans had only four carries for 10 yards, and his longest run was 5 yards. He was a feature back in Week 1 when he eclipsed 100 yards with two touchdowns, but the UCF and Colorado defenses didn’t give him any running room. The Penn State defense could be a good matchup for Evans next week, though.
- If you take away the 70-yard pass that Colorado had for a touchdown to start the third quarter, Michigan only allowed 57 yards of offense from the second quarter to the final play of the game. And even if you leave that play in, they only allowed 127 after allowing 199 yards in the first quarter. Talk about adjustments, huh?
- Peppers has 9.5 tackles for loss already this season, which is absurd and if he continues this trend and takes back another punt for a touchdown then there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a top-5 Heisman contender.
- Colorado came in with the No. 7 overall offense and No. 11 overall defense, as noted earlier. Penn State comes into Ann Arbor next week with a loss to Pitt and a near loss to Temple. Penn State’s offense ranks No. 74 in the country and the defense ranks No. 52. The Nittany Lions could be worse than Colorado.
If the first quarter doesn’t exist, then Michigan wins the game 38-7. If Speight doesn’t fumble, then it’s a 45-21 win and Michigan covers the spread. Nevertheless, those plays happened, and in a game where Michigan came out looking like a terrible football team in the first quarter it still managed to win by 17 points.
I do think that Colorado could be a top-3 team in the Pac-12, especially with USC’s early struggles and Oregon losing to Nebraska. If Colorado impresses, then this win ends up looking better as the season goes on.
At the end of the day, Michigan had one bad quarter and three that they won. Speight, the safeties and the offensive line have to be better – but if your team is winning by 17 points against a Pac-12 team, you shouldn’t be too upset.
The Wolverines will face a Penn State offense that is as one-dimensional as they come. Saquon Barkley is a downhill runner, and a running back they have historically been able to defend really well. The Nittany Lions won’t bring a spread offense like Colorado and UCF did, they don’t bring much speed, and their quarterback doesn’t have much chemistry with his offense. It’s a matchup that bodes well for Michigan.
Big Ten ball is here, and should be fun – especially in the East.