Well here we are, one day until #4 Michigan visits Rutgers for the first time since they lost at High Point Solutions Stadium two seasons ago. However, Michigan is Michigan again under head coach Jim Harbaugh and tomorrow is major challenge. Rutgers is limping home after being beaten badly by Ohio State and face their third top 5 opponent of the season. Tomorrow could be another ugly result.
To find out more about the current state of Michigan, I was fortunate to speak with Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) from SB Nation’s Michigan site Maize n Brew (@MaizenBrew). Drew gives insight on the future of Harbaugh at Michigan, how good their defense really is, and that Harbaugh’s recruiting approach to Rutgers is no different than other schools. Let’s get into that and more here.
What were the expectations for this team from the fan base before the season and have they changed at all? Is it Big Ten title and a college playoff berth or bust?
Essentially. Michigan and Ohio State were considered the favorites to win the Big Ten and represent the conference in the College Football Playoff. Ohio State was given that respect because Urban Meyer gets the benefit of the doubt and had elite talent waiting to soak up the spotlight after there was a mass exodus of Buckeyes to the NFL. On the other hand, Michigan returned an experienced, skilled roster with NFL talent at multiple key positions from a 10-3 team. If anything, the Wolverines' experience and known talent gave them the edge over Ohio State because it's not a guarantee that recruiting stars materialize into college football stars. The question, though, was whether Michigan could get through three tough road games against Michigan State, Iowa, and, yes, Ohio State. Would that be too much to overcome?
So far, it looks like we're heading towards a Michigan-Ohio State showdown. The Wolverines are 5-0 with four wins by double digits and a top-10 victory over Wisconsin, and, with Michigan State and Iowa underwhelming, the road to 11-0 looks smoother than ever. In fact, it's very possible that Michigan will be a double-digit favorite in each its next six games, even though the Wolverines still should not take Michigan State or Iowa lightly because the Spartans always play their best against their in-state rival and Hawkeye Stadium is a dangerous venue at night. And those young Buckeyes did not need a learning curve. They have blown off the doors of everyone who has opposed them, and a road date with the Badgers appears to be their only real impediment to an 11-0 start. Because The Game will be set in Columbus, the odds have shifted in Ohio State's favor to win the division and the conference. However, this is still a Big Ten title or bust situation for Michigan because, unlike the Buckeyes, the Wolverines will lose 15 or 16 starters after this year. This could be their best chance to win a conference championship in the next few seasons. They must take advantage and win now.
What are your thoughts on Harbaugh long term at Michigan? Have the fan base fully embraced his zaniness or is just strategic behavior by him? Is he in it for the long haul or do you see him jumping back into the NFL in a couple of years?
I do not expect Jim Harbaugh to jump back into the NFL anytime soon. I will not declare that he will finish his career at Michigan, but he's not leaving in the next five years either. Could things change after that? Sure. Maybe after achieving certain success at Michigan, he will get the itch to win a Super Bowl and leave his alma mater. But I believe that anyone who throws Harbaugh's name into the NFL coaching carousel right now is doing so for attention. And, as long as Harbaugh is Michigan's head coach and, importantly, winning, fans will fully embrace what you call his "zaniness" or what others call his "enthusiasm unknown to mankind." They embrace it because it is his unquenchable desire to compete and win, which trickles down to his players and permeates the culture of the program. Some of it is crazy fun that steals headlines in the offseason, but Harbaugh also uses it strategically. When the media writes stories about his antics, it keeps the spotlight off his players. Further, some antics are actually Harbaugh finding loopholes that give Michigan an advantage on and off the field. Simply, he will work harder than almost anyone to win. Fans always will embrace that.
First time starter Wilton Speight has played well at quarterback this season. How has the offense improved with him under center and how much should we expect to see a change of pace with Shane Morris this week?
The biggest improvement from Michigan's offense last season to this season has been turnovers. In the first five games of 2015, the Wolverines turned over the football nine times with six interceptions. In the first five games of 2016, they have turned over the football three times with two interceptions. Plus, not only has Wilton Speight taken better care of the ball than Jake Rudock in the early stages, he has been better converting third downs (1st in 3rd Down S&P+) and capitalizing on scoring opportunities (15th in S&P+'s Finishing Drives). Other than that, though, this offense still is very similar to last season's unit. DeVeon Smith runs hard and bruises tacklers, but there is not too much explosion (Chris Evans has his moments) and it can sputter at times. Speight likes to find his receivers on underneath routes (63.0 cmp%, 6.6 YPA), but his accuracy can be shaky when he takes his shots down the field -- the 46-yard touchdown winner to Amara Darboh against Wisconsin notwithstanding. Also, at 6-foot-6, Speight is tough to take down in the pocket, which has its pros and cons. The pros are that he can shed sacks and keep plays alive. The cons are that he gets nervous when he feels the pressure and tosses some dangerous throws. It hasn't bitten him in the behind ... yet. Michigan's offense won't be one that impresses you with how it moves the football. But it scores points and gets the job done.
The Shane Morris package has been used sparingly this season. Maybe it will be used once. That's about it.
How special is Jabrill Peppers and where will he ultimately land among the all-time Michigan greats?
Jabrill Peppers is one of the best players in college football and the closest clone Michigan has had to Charles Woodson since the former Heisman winner was in Ann Arbor. Peppers excels in all three phases of the game and makes a valuable contribution to each one. Where he is most valuable is on defense. On any given snap, he can play linebacker, cornerback, nickel, or safety. I just dub it as SAM/nickel or "hybrid-space player." He shows off his speed and agility by being nearly unblockable in space, shooting by blockers to blow up screens and make tackles for loss. He also is a ferocious hitter that brings a pop behind his pads, particularly on blitzes. He covers receivers well, too, but that is where he can be exploited because he misapplies his jam on slot receivers from time to time. Peppers is being used more on offense each week. Last week, he earned some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback, running an inside zone read option and waiting for the defensive end to crash. However, even when Peppers doesn't have the ball in his hands and bursting up the field, his presence always grabs the defense's attention. They will overplay Peppers, and it opens up space for other Wolverines. And Peppers always is a threat to take one to the house when he lines up as a kick or punt returner. I don't know where Peppers will land among the all-time greats because it's likely he'll only play two full seasons as a Wolverine and it'll depend on Michigan's success this season, but there is no question that Peppers is an special, special talent.
The Michigan defense was stout last season with DJ Durkin as coordinator. After starting strong this year under new coordinator Don Brown, has he changed any principles or philosophies? Is he using Peppers any differently and what type of impact has Rashan Gary made?
Yes, Don Brown added his own flavor to Michigan's defense. Under D.J. Durkin, Michigan's defense relied on lots of press man coverage with lots of stunts and twists. Durkin basically declared that we're going to play you one on one and beat you. On the other hand, Brown has implemented more zone and trap coverages and fired up more blitzes. The zones help disguise Michigan's coverage and bait the quarterback into making more mistakes. And the blitzes come from all over, risking the big play to put on the pressure. So far, it has worked because Michigan is first in Defensive S&P+.
As for Michigan's two key defensive contributors from New Jersey, Jabrill Peppers has been used differently and Rashan Gary seemingly gets better each week. Last season, Peppers mostly was a strong safety that played some boundary corner and nickel. This season, Brown places Peppers in more spots around the line of scrimmage, so he can provide run support and make more of an impact behind the line of scrimmage (9.5 TFL). Gary has had a solid presence as a strongside defensive end, tallying 15 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and an assisted sack. Because Michigan is loaded on the defensive line, Gary is not asked to handle lots of reps. He rotates in and out as the line remains fresh. This limits the number of stats that Gary can accumulate on the field. Nonetheless, his per-snap impact has been noticeable. He still will make mistakes occasionally and get over eager in his pursuit, but he looks like he will be the real deal in little time.
Is there any concern with the recent decommittment’s Michigan has had with recruiting? Is it just part of the reality of college football recruiting or is there a deeper issue?
There is little to no concern. It's just part of the reality of college football recruiting. Most of Michigan's decommitments have been in the 2018 class, which won't sign its letters of intent for another 16 months, and the common theme from those have been that the staff had not communicated with them much recently. It indicates that Michigan is not surprised by them. The one that did hurt Michigan was the decommitment of 2017 four-star defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon. Otherwise, this isn't out of the ordinary. It just seems that way because Jim Harbaugh gets more attention and scrutiny.
Harbaugh and assistant coach Chris Partridge made a big impact recruiting New Jersey last cycle, including landing Gary, the top recruit in the country. They even went as far to mock Rutgers new slogan of "Fence The Garden" by creating "Harvest the Garden". Do you think it's a bit odd for Michigan to even acknowledge/take a shot at Rutgers in recruiting or is this just part of the Harbaugh way?
I didn't think it was that odd, and, to be honest, I had forgotten about that tweet until I read this question. Jim Harbaugh and his recruiting staff have not been afraid to be confrontational with their social media presence, graphics, and edits. Throughout the offseason, Harbaugh responded via Twitter to comments about Michigan made by various coaches, such as Georgia's Kirby Smart or Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze. This is part of the Harbaugh way. New Jersey has been very good to Michigan in recent seasons. The Wolverines landed Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary among a group of excellent prospects from the Garden State, and, with Chris Ash placing more emphasis on trying to retain that talent (We'll see. There seems to be improvement there in the 2017 class), Michigan likely just wanted to put a reminder out there to where the best talent in New Jersey has committed.
But I have a question that I would like you and your readers to address in the comments. Rutgers and its fans have directed so much of its attention and vitriol to Michigan over "Harvest the Garden" and the satellite camps. That's fine. What I do not understand is why Rutgers invited Ohio State to do the same thing. Why would Rutgers want to unite with Ohio State and host a satellite camp in New Jersey? To me, by doing so, Rutgers mocked its own slogan because the Buckeyes are 3-0 against Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014, winning by a combined score of 163-24. Why give Ohio State more face time in New Jersey when Urban Meyer will show no mercy?
What are your thoughts and prediction for Saturday's game?
Rutgers is overmatched, particularly when its offense comes onto the field. The Scarlet Knights mustered just seven points in their first two conference games and accumulated only 107 total yards against Ohio State last week. Now they must face the nation's best defense in Michigan according to S&P+. The Wolverines' defense has been excellent on a down-to-down basis thanks to a dominating defensive line, Jabrill Peppers, and shutdown cornerbacks, but, because of its aggressive nature, the defense does allow the occasional big play. That would have made Janarion Grant a huge threat in this game if deployed properly. However, with Grant out for the season, Rutgers does not have anyone explosive enough to reel off chunk plays and put the Scarlet Knights in a scoring situation. Unless Rutgers gathers some takeaways or wins the field position battle on special teams, I do not see how it will score points against this Michigan defense. It will be a real struggle for the Scarlet Knights. Add in that Jim Harbaugh may want to run up the score given what happened between the two programs in the offseason, and this looks to be a big-time blowout.
Michigan 52, Rutgers 3
Thanks again to Drew for giving us such great insight on Michigan ahead of tomorrow night’s game. You can follow Drew on twitter here and for more on Michigan football, visit Maize n Brew. To read my answers to Drew’s questions on Rutgers, click here.