And In That Corner … The No. 19 Michigan Wolverines coming off a stinging loss

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Notre Dame does not simply have a rivalry game this weekend. The No. 8 Irish have a top-20 challenge awaiting them at a venue where they have not won since 2005. Going back further than that, Notre Dame has gone 1-7 at Ann Arbor since Lou Holtz left.

Those added stakes means it is appropriate to double-up on Michigan expertise. Orion Sang of the Detroit Free Press and Austin Meek of The Athletic both came in clutch. It’s been a short week on their end.

DF: I appreciate you both making some time. I know these are plum gigs we have and there is no reason to gripe, but I also suspect the back-to-back primetime, top-10 games have you pressed for both time and sleep. With that in mind, I’ll try to keep this brief.

In Brian Kelly’s Monday press conference, I was struck by him specifically praising Michigan’s offensive line improvements. I know about the receivers (we’ll get to them) and the defense (ditto), but that line has been an issue for the better part of two seasons. It was only one sentence, but “obviously playing much better as a unit than they did earlier in the season” hardly served as hedging. Was Kelly simply going out of his way to compliment every piece of the Wolverines roster, or has that line genuinely gotten better of late?

OS: I do think Michigan’s offensive line is playing much better lately. There were some issues earlier in the season; I think lack of cohesion might have played a bit of a role, as fifth-year senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. (first-team All-Big Ten in 2018) missed some time, while redshirt freshman right tackle Jalen Mayfield acclimated to his new role as a starter. They played a very good game against Penn State, which is tied for fourth-best in the nation in sacks.

AM: Michigan’s offensive line has gotten progressively better since early in the season. That’s partly health-related, but I think it’s also a matter of the linemen getting more comfortable with the new offense and going back to some concepts that worked for them last year. With four starters back, there was an expectation Michigan’s offensive line would be able to pick up right where it left off last season. We saw some hiccups early related to the new scheme, but the pass protection and the run blocking have improved significantly since the Wisconsin loss.

If Wolverines receiver Ronnie Bell (middle, on the ground) had held onto this pass, Michigan would have presumably tied Penn State. Instead, Bell’s breakout season was marred by the drop, (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Four receivers come to mind whenever discussing Michigan, led by sophomore Ronnie Bell (25 catches for 443 yards). Aside from dropping the potential tying score at Penn State, how has he broken out this year?

AM: The idea of Collins, Black and Peoples-Jones complementing Ronnie Bell probably would have sent some Michigan fans into hysterics before the season. A big emphasis with Josh Gattis and the new offense was getting the ball to these three NFL-caliber receivers, and Bell was kind of an afterthought in that. He was an under-the-radar recruit who was headed to Missouri State on a basketball scholarship before Michigan got involved. But he had a great preseason camp, and the coaches love his attitude. He’s turned himself into a really nice player who finds ways to get open. 

How do the other receivers — Nico Collins, Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones — complement Bell? Kelly focused on their physicality as a group.

OS: Those are the bigger outside options, whereas Bell is mostly used in the slot, though Peoples-Jones can also play in the slot, too. Collins is their preferred option on deep balls downfield, as he can use his large frame to box out smaller defensive backs, or simply run right past the secondary. Peoples-Jones was hurt earlier this season and still looks like he’s finding his footing. He had a tough game at Penn State with several crucial drops.

Wolverines senior quarterback Shea Patterson had a season-high 11 carries for 45 yards at Penn State, keeping Michigan’s offense moving at points when the Nittany Lions otherwise stymied it. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I am not one to spend much time on senior quarterback Shea Patterson. He is what he is — good, not great. Unless you think I am missing something, I am going to jump to the defense …

OS: The stats might not be very gaudy, but I think he played his best game of the season at Penn State. He made plays in the pocket, stepping up on multiple occasions to deliver nice throws. He also made plays with his feet, which we haven’t seen too often this season; he got out of the pocket or evaded pressure using his feet, which kept quite a few plays alive and from turning into negative plays. I saw it as a clear step forward in what has mostly been an uneven senior campaign.

My question on defense is a broad-ranging one: Don Brown’s unit has given up 14 points per game since the debacle in Madison. I don’t care who you are playing, holding four conference opponents to 14 points per game is notable, especially when two Group of Five teams got into the 20s to start the season. What has changed in the Wolverines’ defense?

AM: Michigan had a bad day against Wisconsin. If you take that game out, the Wolverines have been pretty dominant on defense. Of course, that’s been the rap on Don Brown’s defenses: They tend to have one or two of those bad days every season, usually against the best competition. 

One factor has been the emergence of linebacker Cameron McGrone. He started the season playing behind Josh Ross in the middle, but Ross got hurt and McGrone has played great since getting his opportunity. Michigan has gotten a little healthier on the interior defensive line, which was a weak spot against the Badgers, and I think Brown has tweaked a few things to put the Wolverines in a better position. What we’re seeing now is pretty much what we expected before the season: A defense that’s fast, can get to the quarterback, but is prone to giving up some big plays.

OS: I think Wisconsin might’ve been an outlier (although we’ll see how they fare against Notre Dame and Ohio State). The Badgers just play such a different style of offense from basically any other team in the nation. Michigan has tightened up its run defense and is having more success getting into the backfield. One of the bigger changes this season is Brown’s usage of zone coverage — the Wolverines are playing a lot more zone than they have in previous years. They’re still somewhat susceptible to the occasional big play, but the unit is playing much better than I expected following the offseason departures.

Let’s now move to the macro … Did I read Jim Harbaugh spoke of reviving/continuing this series earlier this week? What sense do you get of that being a likelihood? I know it was him and Kelly that cleared the way for this two-game return.

AM: He gave kind of a generic endorsement of playing Notre Dame but didn’t offer any specifics. Michigan’s non-conference schedule is pretty full for the next seven or eight years with home-and-homes against Washington, UCLA, Oklahoma and Texas. I’d be surprised if the Wolverines want to move any of those games to add Notre Dame, but who knows.

OS: It was hard to get a read on how likely that would be. Harbaugh was asked if he would like to see it renewed, and I’m not sure a weekly news conference would be the place to properly express how he feels about the series. It really depends on how badly the Wolverines want to get it done, as it did with this two-year renewal. (They bought out a series with Arkansas for a hefty price.) I’ve always gotten the sense that Michigan wanted this series more; the last game in 2014 was at Notre Dame, and the series resumed at Notre Dame in the season opener; this year’s matchup is taking place at a weird place in the schedule (right in the middle of the Big Ten slate) and Notre Dame is coming off an idle week.

Michigan has fallen short of double-digit wins just once in Jim Harbaugh’s four seasons as head coach, going 43-16 (including this year), yet many Wolverines fans would not mind seeing Harbaugh depart Ann Arbor. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Speaking of Harbaugh, let’s say Michigan loses both this weekend and against Ohio State in late November. At 8-4, what are Harbaugh’s job prospects moving forward? Would 9-3 quell those concerns, or does he probably need to win both?

AM: Harbaugh’s future is obviously a big topic around here, but I don’t get the sense his job is in jeopardy. Whether the final record is 8-4 or 9-3, people are going to be disappointed. This was supposed to be the year Michigan finally beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten, and neither of those looks very likely right now. That being said, you can do a lot worse than 8-4 or 9-3 with the schedule Michigan’s playing. Unless things completely go off the rails, I would expect Michigan to stay the course and hope there’s a Brian Kelly-like breakthrough somewhere in Harbaugh’s future.

OS: I don’t think there are any ultimatums. I think his job is safe, as it should be. He hasn’t delivered the big wins, but he has stabilized the program and has put together some pretty good teams, with one off year in 2017 (we’ll see how the rest of this season shakes out, but it’s headed that way). Who else would Michigan hire?

On that note, this game is pretty much pegged as a toss-up by the bookmakers. What do you anticipate Saturday night?

OS: I think it’ll be a close game. At home, Michigan’s much less susceptible to spotting an opponent a double-digit lead like they did at Notre Dame last year and at Penn State this past week (off the top of my head, I believe the Wolverines haven’t done that at home since Colorado in 2016, which they eventually won). I don’t really see a marked difference between these two teams, based on the statistical profiles. Really, the home-field difference seems like it could be the biggest difference-maker.

AM: It feels to me like Michigan is backed into a corner and may come out with some fire Saturday night. The Wolverines have heard a lot about their big-game failures, and even though the stakes have been diminished, I think they’re eager to put some of that to rest. If I had to pick it, I’d probably go with the Wolverines in a tight one.