Panic Meter: How worried should you be about this team?
If there’s ever been a better timed week three bye, you’d be hard-pressed to find it.
By the skin of its teeth, the Michigan football team emerged victorious on Saturday against Army. That has done little to deter criticism in its aftermath. The Wolverines enter their first of two bye weeks, with more questions than answers.
How much of that cynicism is warranted? Let the official Michigan Daily Panic Meter assess those worries.
Offensive line: 6.3/10
Facing a team without a defensive player over 300 pounds, and only a handful over 250, Michigan’s offensive line allowed pressure in pass protection and got pushed around at times in run blocking. The Wolverines ran the ball 45 times (more on that later) at just 2.4 yards per carry including sacks, 3.3 yards per carry excluding them. It was an alarming figure against a team Michigan’s offensive line, frankly, should have mauled at will.
Ryan Hayes, in particular, struggled in pass protection after a laudatory week for the redshirt freshman. After the game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said 2018 first team All-Big Ten left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. appears set to return against Wisconsin. That would be a boon.
“Jon was just really on the verge of being ready to play,” Harbaugh said. “He could have played … He looked good in practice, but we just felt like we would give him another week to make sure this isn’t something that’s a season ongoing problem.”
Is he going to play in two weeks?
“Can I say that now? Most likely,” he added.
Where does that leave everything, two weeks into a year that portended the offensive line as an offensive pillar?
Wisconsin will be the ultimate test here. If Runyan returns to stabilize the left side and the interior cuts down on some miscues, this ship could find its level pretty quickly. But the offensive line being a strength seemed a foregone conclusion two weeks ago. If it ends up a liability — or even merely average — that severely hampers the ceiling of a unit that needs to be one of the nation’s best if it wants to win the Big Ten.
The sheer volume might have been overwhelming, but Michigan held Army’s triple-option attack to 3.8 yards per carry on the day. And most importantly, it came up with plays when it needed to. Lavert Hill snagged an interception near the goal line at the end of the first half, and Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson teamed up for the play of the afternoon — forcing a fumble in overtime to narrowly escape.
“That was a gem of a defensive performance, no doubt about it,” Harbaugh said after the game. “You can talk about the last play, that last defensive series, just the entire football game. We made mistakes offensively; penalties, turnovers and turnovers on downs that the defense was not in the best position.”
While much of the concerns feel warped into the offensive struggles, there are still reasons to be (slightly) concerned about this defense.
An upper-echelon Big Ten defensive line should be able to win at the line of scrimmage against Army 10 out of 10 times. At times, the Wolverines struggled to do so. Some of that is anchored in the lack of depth along the interior. With Wisconsin looming, finding a run defense capable of holding up against maybe the nation’s most bruising rushing attack is priority No. 1, 2 and 3. It is tantamount to any hope Michigan has of emerging from Madison victorious. We’ll soon learn if the Wolverines have the personnel to do so.
Run/pass play-calling distribution is often overblown. Game context dictates those decisions more than anything else, and so, deducing concerns about play-calling down to the 45/31 split we saw on Saturday misses the point.
But when a reporter approached Ben Bredeson and asked where the “speed in space” was, it was an entirely valid question (though not really Bredeson’s domain). It wasn’t that Michigan ran the ball 45 times yesterday, it was that each one seemed to be an inside zone without any legitimate quarterback read. It wasn’t that the Wolverines didn’t run as many RPOs, it was that their best offensive weapon, Nico Collins, had three targets in a close game in overtime.
Far be it from us to understand all the nuance involved in play-calling, there are clear tenets of what the Wolverines' trying to do missing from the field. They are not getting the ball to their best players. They are not finding creative ways to utilize talent. And they are not getting premier speed in space.
Until (if?) that changes, this offense will be handicapped by itself.
To be fair, had Army’s field goal at the end of regulation drifted inches further and left, the entire tone of this story would be cranked up several notches. A loss to Army ostensibly ruins Michigan’s most lofty goal, the College Football Playoff. A near-loss to Army obviously doesn’t.
But the concerns that put Michigan in such a tenuous position don’t seem easily amenable. And that’s where the panic should concentrate. The presumptive returns of Runyan and Donovan Peoples-Jones will help, no doubt. That will not fix the depth issues on the defense. It will not make the scheme more assured nor the play-calling less aggravating. It might help Shea Patterson take care of the ball and play more efficiently, but it will not be a magic bullet.
We are two weeks into the season, and the Wolverines have performed significantly worse than expectations. Given the nature of their opponents, they can afford to use those two games as wake-up calls to help right the ship without a season-altering loss. But if it sustains beyond this bye week, that record won’t stay unscathed much longer.