How Michigan Can Beat Ohio State Next Weekend

It’s been somewhat of a disappointing year for the Michigan Wolverines. Sure, 8-3 looks good from the outside, but most of those wins have been piled up against lackluster competition. We saw Michigan lay an egg at home against the Spartans, get absolutely demolished at Penn State, and come up short last week against Wisconsin. This is a proud program with championship aspirations, and they didn’t make Jim Harbaugh one of the highest paid coaches in College Football to be just good. Michigan was 10-3 the last two seasons under Harbaugh, and they will likely finish this year at 9-4 or 8-5. Overall, that’s a pretty good record for a coach’s first three years, but unfortunately for Harbaugh, Michigan’s inability to beat their Big 10 rivals is nothing new. Michigan finished 3rd in the Big Ten East at the end of the 2015 and 2016 seasons. They also fell out of the CFP rankings twice this year and will likely be out again this week. In fairness to Harbaugh, Michigan did lose their starting QB, Wilton Speight, during the first game of the season, and they lost just about their entire defense to the NFL last year. Still, this game is about results, and considering what Harbaugh is being paid, it’s no wonder Michigan fans are beginning to grow restless with him. Michigan fans want to see this team get over the hump and represent the Big Ten over the likes of Penn State and Ohio State, and so far, we haven’t seen that.

With their 24-10 loss to Wisconsin last week, Michigan all but gave away their chances of representing the Big Ten East in the Big Ten Championship Game. That spot will now be occupied by Ohio State, who will face Wisconsin in the Championship two weeks from now. Coming off the loss to Wisconsin, Michigan will now have to face an Ohio State team that, at their best, is one of the more potent offenses in College Football. Ohio State is currently ranked at 9 in the CFP rankings, and they’re hoping to find a way into the College Football Playoff, which is very much still a possibility.

All in all, it’s tough to have too much confidence in this Michigan team going into this game. Earlier in the year, this matchup looked like a great way to wrap up the season and determine the Big Ten East Champion. But at this point, it’s certainly looking pretty tilted in Ohio State’s favor. However, this game will be hosted by Michigan at The Big House, and anything can happen in a rivalry game, especially a rivalry as heated as this one. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Michigan can end the season on a high note and pull of the upset at home.

1) Run The Ball

It certainly hurt Michigan to have their starting QB, Wilton Speight, injured during the first game of the year, and Michigan fans are definitely upset about backup Brandon Peters getting hurt last week. However, regardless of who’s starting at Quarterback, the Wolverines want to be a run first team. That’s who Harbaugh is. It’s who he was in the NFL, and it’s who Michigan has been with him at the helm. Michigan plays their best when they’re running the football well.

We’ve seen Michigan have some absolutely huge games on the ground this year, yet in their losses, the run seems to have mostly gone away. It is imperative that Michigan stay committed to the run in this game. If they put the game in the hands of Quarterback O’Korn, they’re going to lose. They need to stay stubborn with the run, even if they’re struggling. Karan Higdon has been their best back and I would stick with him if I were Harbaugh, but Chris Evans and Ty Isaac have been capable as well. It’s easy to go into a game against a tough opponent and think that you won’t be able to run the ball, or that you need to throw constantly to keep pace. But Michigan’s identity is tight I-Formations and a run heavy offense. That’s who they’ve been in all of their wins, and you can’t change your identity just because of who you’re playing. Furthermore, Michigan has to stay ahead in down and distance. They can’t drop back on 2nd and 3rd and long in this game and expect to win. Neither their pass protection nor their Quarterback is good enough. If Michigan wants to win, they need to run the ball and do it well. Even if they’re not scoring on every drive, if they can move the ball a bit, take up time of possession, stay ahead of down and distance, and win with field position, they’ll have a shot. But if you’re giving the Ohio State offense possession after possession, they’re going to capitalize, and you’re not going to be able to keep up.

2) Don’t Turn the Ball Over

You can’t give this Ohio State offense extra opportunities. They’re too potent. Since this is unlikely to be an explosive game for Michigan, it has to be a mistake free game. O’Korn probably won’t have a huge game, but the one thing he cannot do is turn the ball over. Michigan had some dumb and costly turnovers last week against Wisconsin, and turnovers have been a problem at times for O’Korn this season. Play safe, and play smart. Don’t give the game away. Make them earn every yard.

3) Don’t Give up Big Plays on Defense

This Ohio State offense is about as explosive as it gets. But the Michigan D has been, for the most part, pretty darn good this year, especially considering how little help they’ve gotten from the offense. Nonetheless, there have been times where they’ve given up big plays. At Penn State, they looked overwhelmed by the pace of the Nittany Lions’ spread offense and gave up some pretty big plays to RB Saquon Barkley. Last week against Wisconsin, they were mostly pretty solid. But you did see a few long runs from Jonathan Taylor. Michigan played a pretty aggressive game on defense and blitzed a lot. At times, Wisconsin was able to block it up quickly on some gap scheme plays and once Taylor got through to the secondary, there was no one left to tackle him.

I’m not saying Michigan shouldn’t blitz, but they need to understand that if they’re going to win this game, it’s going to be on defense. Perhaps they’ve known this all year, and it’s caused them to press a bit on D. Nonetheless, just one or two big plays can change a game. For this Michigan D, you have to be sound, disciplined, and patient. Keep everything in front of you, and make them earn every yard. Don’t feel the need to make the game changing play on every play, and don’t get impatient. As Bill Belichick would say, “do your job”, and the rest will come naturally.

4) Get Something out of the Passing Game

John O’Korn probably isn’t going to throw for 300 yards. In fact, I would hope that he doesn’t, because if he does, it probably means that Michigan got behind early and had to play catch-up. But what O’Korn does need to do is give Michigan at least something in the passing game to help them move the ball and keep the defense honest.

I heard a lot of people upset when Michigan QB Brandon Peters left the game with a head injury last week. Many pundits said that Michigan seemed to give up after he left. Is there some truth to this? Maybe. But let’s not overplay it. Peters certainly seemed to give the offense a spark when Harbaugh pulled O’Korn for him earlier in the year. And when people say that, what it usually means is that the team played better when he was under center, not necessarily that he was the driving force behind the team playing better. And this remains true for Michigan. Peters made some good throws here and there. He seemed more willing to throw down the field than O’Korn was, and he certainly was able to avoid the turnovers in a way that O’Korn wasn’t.

However, the truth of the matter is that for the games Peters played in, Michigan just didn’t ask him to do that much. He didn’t break 20 attempts or 160 yards passing in any of the games he played. Maybe he would have played better than O’Korn did, but can we really say for sure that the losses to the Spartans and Nittany Lions under O’Korn would have been wins if Peters had played? Of course we can’t. The Spartans game, you could maybbbeee make an argument. The Nittany Lions game I watched from start to end, and actually thought O’Korn threw the ball okay. But the offensive line was completely overwhelmed, and Penn State got up big early. With the energy they showed at that stadium (it was the whiteout night in the crowd), it was pretty clear that wasn’t Michigan’s game to win. Peters got the easier part of Michigan’s schedule, outside of the beginning of last week’s Wisconsin game.

Michigan did have a short period of time when they looked good last week with Peters under center. He hit a nice big play to end the half that led to a TD. It was a seven step drop post route on first down, a basic shot play, yet the kind of play out of the passing game that has been missing from Michigan’s offense and their bottled up air attack. For a little bit in that game, Michigan looked like they were gaining momentum.

But there were two key series early in the second half that Michigan failed to take advantage of: The first they had a short field off of a punt when Wisconsin was backed up (they didn’t get anything out of it), and the second was after they intercepted Wisconsin’s QB but only were able to kick a field goal instead of cashing in for six. Shortly after that, Wisconsin took the momentum back. Peters also had some costly mistakes early in the first half, including a bad fumble while trying to dive for a TD. The point being, while O’Korn certainly did nothing to inspire anyone once he replaced the injured Peters, Michigan was missing opportunities and struggling under Peters in that game as well, despite the promise that he did show.

None of this is to knock Peters or prop up O’Korn. We just have to remember that Peters was a freshman who wasn’t asked to do much in limited game action, and that regardless of who Michigan’s Quarterback is, they’re not going to be the driving force behind this offense. The point being, Michigan can’t fall into the trap of thinking this game is over and they have no chance just because Peters is injured, because while it’s unfortunate, it’s simply not that big a deal. Next man up. Go out there, lift your head up, and play offense.

Having said that, O’Korn can’t do nothing and expect to win this game. You’re not going to win this game with under 100 yards passing. He needs to convert some 3rd downs, complete the passes that are there, and maybe hit a shot play or two. Nothing big, but we need something from him.

5) Be in the Moment and Take Advantage of the Atmosphere

Forget Harbaugh, the money, the record, the standings, everything we talked about earlier. This is the last game of the season before your bowl. This is Ohio State vs Michigan at the Big House. The crowd, hopefully, will be packed and roaring, and there will be energy and excitement in the atmosphere. This is a one game season. Go out there and show everyone what it means to be a Michigan Wolverine. This is a heated and intense rivalry, and for the Wolverines, there’s only one thing that matters next Saturday, only one thing that should be on your mind: Kicking the shit out of Ohio State. Go in and play with that mindset, and a win won’t be far off.

Conclusion

It certainly hasn’t been the year many expected for the Mason Blue. This year we learned that while they’re a good team, they just weren’t quite ready to compete with the big boys yet.

Certainly the questions have begun and will continue to be asked. The pundits are already getting their typewriters warmed up for what will likely be a long offseason of questions about Harbaugh and if he’s up for this job. If he’s good enough to compete with the top class of the Big Ten.

But man, wouldn’t it be something to end the season with an upset win over No 9 Ohio State? To get a win over a rival despite all the odds, to show the country that you can compete in the Big Ten and that you’re not destined to keep losing to the likes of Ohio State? That certainly would end the season on a high note and quiet the whispers, if only for just a bit.

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Why are we still talking about Colin Kaepernick?

The offseason is a slow and painful time to be an NFL fan, and every year the league needs something to clog the airwaves to fill the time. This year, it seems that that thing has been Colin Kaepernick and his inability to find a team. And it shocks me that we’re still talking about it, because it simply shouldn’t be that big of a story.

Colin Kaepernick is the Most Overhyped Story of the Offseason.

Can you remember the last time a Quarterback of a 2-14 team (1-11 under Kaepernick) created this much press over not being signed? This shouldn’t be that surprising, yet it seems there’s a new headline every week about someone pondering why Kaepernick has yet to get a job. Kaepernick made a lot of headlines this past season over his decision to kneel during the national anthem–something that people are apparently very sensitive towards–in protest of police brutality. Many are speculating how this decision has, either fairly of unfairly, affected his prospects of getting signed in the future. But Kaepernick’s decision to kneel and the hoopla it has created has almost entirely overshadowed the fact that Kaepernick simply isn’t that good of a Quarterback, and hasn’t been for a long time.

If Aaron Rodgers were kneeling, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Everyone has an opinion on the kneeling, so I’ll give mine very quickly just to get it out of the way. Kaepernick has always had a bit of a hipster personality, so when he first announced his decision to kneel, I kind of rolled my eyes. It seemed like something he was doing to get attention, and given the fact that he was also likely to be cut at the beginning of last year (due to a mix of his poor play, his lack of interest in the team, and the new coaching staff in place), it seemed to me like something he could use once he was cut to claim that his firing was unjust.

But Kaepernick was never cut and actually went on to be the starter midway through the season after Blaine Gabbert was benched. What also proceeded to happen is that NFL fans decided to have a collective heart attack over Kaepernick’s supposed “disrespect” for our flag and our country, and many threatened to stop watching the NFL. The press also made it a much bigger issue than I felt it needed to be. Watching this utterly misguided reaction–which fit in very well with the general craziness of our politics over the past year–made me support Kaepernick more than I had initially. His protest was about police brutality, a very real issue, and the fact that people couldn’t even see or acknowledge that without freaking out and spewing faux-patriotism bullshit, to me was an indication that protests like his and the conversations they create were only more necessary in our society, not less so.

Still, the owner of the Giants, John Mara, gave a very illuminating explanation for the scope of this issue when explaining that, for fans, kneeling during the anthem is something that is a very emotional topic. Hearing this from an owner showed me that whether or not the reaction from fans is justified is besides the point. If owners feel that signing Kaepernick is going to stop fans from coming to games, they won’t do it, regardless of if Kaepernick was in the right or if the fans’ anger is justified.

However, I still believe that Kaepernick’s protest and whatever doubts it may give owners is truly secondary to his play on the field. Andy Benoit of the MMQB, when discussing Kaepernick on his podcast, explained that if someone like Aaron Rodgers were to do this, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, and I wholeheartedly believe that. Talent and ability trumps just about everything else in the NFL, and if Kaepernick were good enough to be a starter right now, his protest, even if it upset people, wouldn’t matter enough to put his job in jeopardy. Instead, we’re at the point where whatever upside Kaepernick may offer just isn’t enough to trump the attention and backlash that may come with signing him. Andy compared this idea to the Tebow situation after he was cut and couldn’t find a team, in that Tebow’s talent wasn’t enough to overcome the circus that he would bring, but I think this justification is even more applicable here than it was with Tebow. Obviously Kaepernick is a more talented thrower than Tebow, but Kaepernick also has given us enough of a sample size that we have a pretty good idea of who he is and what he offers. Additionally, whereas Tebow was coming off a playoff year with the Broncos after he was cut, Kaepernick is coming off of a 2-14 season. Tebow was going into his 3rd year; Kaepernick is going into his 7th. Obviously, Kaep at his prime was better than Tebow at his prime; I’m not saying he wasn’t. But the point is that we’ve seen enough of Kaepernick at this point to know who he is, and his play on the field and his play alone, is enough to explain his lack of interest from teams. We shouldn’t have to look elsewhere for explanations.

Politics aside, Kaepernick just isn’t that good.

As I have mentioned twice already, the 49ers were 2-14 last year. Wins aren’t everything, but they are something. Rarely do good Quarterbacks lead their team to that kind of record. Let’s also not forget that Kaepernick lost the QB battle to Blaine freakin Gabbert last offseason, this after being benched for Gabbert at around midseason of the prior year.

Kaepernick’s numbers from last year are, on the surface, respectable. He threw 16 TD to just 4 INT with a 90.7 passer rating, and also rushed for 468 yards and 2 TDs. But while TD/INT is the sexiest number to look at (and passer rating is largely influenced by TD/INT ratio), the rest of his numbers aren’t too great. He only completed 59.2% of his passes for 6.8 yards per attempt, and he also took 36 sacks in 12 games.

What’s also worth mentioning is that, even though his surrounding cast wasn’t too great, Kaepernick played in the Chip Kelly offense. Many people probably think Chip Kelly is a joke at this point, and while his overall coaching ability, game management, and player management are all questionable, his offense has been proven to put up numbers. Let’s not forget that Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez both put up their best numbers by a long shot playing under Kelly. The mix of his route concepts and the pressure that the offensive pace puts on a defense usually leaves the primary receiver open and simplifies things for the Quarterback. Kelly also does a very good job improving a team’s run game, as the niners ranked 4th in the league in rushing yards per game last year. This will always help a Quarterback. The main reason that Kelly’s scheme hasn’t translated to wins at this point is because the fast pace that the offense goes at does not allow the defense ample time to rest, which is why Kelly has never had good enough defenses in the NFL. This wasn’t a problem for him in college because you can rotate a lot more players in and out of the lineup on gameday in college than you can in the NFL. Shootouts are also generally a lot more common in college.

But the point is that Kaepernick’s numbers should at least be partially attributed to Chip Kelly, as we’ve seen what his offense does for Quarterbacks in the past. It’s naive to think Kaepernick will put up similar numbers to his 2016 season with Kelly gone. And it’s not inconsistent to say that Kelly’s overall coaching abilities are questionable, but that his offense has been proven to be effective in putting up numbers. Claiming the latter doesn’t undermine the former, and vice versa.

“But Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl in 2012!”

Yes he did, but this was five years ago. That’s an eternity in NFL time. Back then, Matt Schaub was coming off a 4000+ yard playoff bound season, and I certainly don’t see anyone suggesting he get signed.

Playoff wins do tend to buy a lot of time for guys and leave them immune to criticism, so perhaps that’s what this is all about. We see the same thing time and again with Mark Sanchez. Sanchez had some success in the playoffs early in his career, so people continue to think that he’s a capable player, even though he never was.

But in no way, shape or form, should Kaepernick’s 2012 season be used as justification for his signing currently, as he simply hasn’t developed the way a QB should since then. If anything, he’s regressed.

When Kaepernick was named the starter in 2012, he lit the league on fire with his dynamic passing and rushing abilities. He expanded the offense in ways that the limited Alex Smith could not, and he put together a fantastic run, ultimately culminating in a tight Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

2012 was a big year for option QBs (it was also RG3’s one good year, although I never thought it was as good as people made it out to be), and Kaepernick was the beneficiary of this without a doubt. But he also showed a ton of promise playing from the pocket. The ways the 49ers schemed the offense around his running certainly helped, and the expectation was that Kaepernick would continue to develop and strengthen his play from the pocket as the years went by.

This didn’t happen. What did happen was that defenses got better defending the option, but Kaepernick’s play from the pocket only got worse. In 2013 the team as a whole had a good year, but Kaepernick himself struggled and had some very bad games. He came on somewhat late in the season, but they weren’t really asking him to do a ton. But nonetheless the 49ers made the playoffs, and Kaepernick led a game winning drive against Green Bay and almost led one against the Seahawks. He had some bad turnovers in that game that ultimately doomed them, but also made some tremendous plays. The year overall didn’t show the type of progression you would expect, but with a playoff run, all was forgiven.

2014 was where things really started to unwind. The ownership started creating drama surrounding Harbaugh’s job security, ultimately firing him for no good reason at the end of the season, other than the fact that they seemed to feel threatened by him and his leadership style (take notes, this is what losing teams and bad ownerships do). Kaepernick himself really regressed and no matter how much they simplified things for him, he could not run their offense at all really. He would break down almost immediately in the pocket and would not pull the trigger on one-read, open throws. It was tough to watch. This continued into 2015 until he was benched for Gabbert.

2016 was a pleasant surprise for Kaepernick, but it was really only this because he had set the bar so low the prior two years, that any ability to efficiently run the offense at all was looked at as an improvement. Still, it was by no means a great year. And film gurus like Greg Cosell of NFL Films and Andy Benoit of the MMQB confirmed that Kaepernick still struggled with the same things he had in the past. He was still, for the most part, a one speed thrower and he still would leave plays on the field and break down in the pocket when his first read wasn’t open. When his first read was open, which Kelly is very good at making happen, he’s able to throw it well, as he’s always had an arm. But you’re never going to always have your first read open in the NFL. Never.

None of this is to say that Kaepernick is the worst QB in the league. He’s not. It’s just to say that because of what he’s shown us up to this point, the lack of interest among teams shouldn’t be surprising.

And I think that’s especially the case for a backup QB. Not only should they not be a distraction, but the backup QB is usually someone whose physical traits are limited but can step in and run the offense, just hold the ship down and not lose the game until the starter is better. Think Matt Hasselbeck (retired now), Matt Moore, Brian Hoyer, Matt Cassel, Shaun Hill, etc. People see these guys like these get signed and think there has got to be something wrong if they’re getting picked over Kaepernick. And they also get upset when people suggest Kaepernick is somehow worse than guys like those. But all those guys are predictable. They’re not going to run for 90 yard TD’s, but they will throw a quick slant on time on 1st and 10 to make it 2nd and 4. Those plays may not seem like much, but they’re what keep the offense on schedule. You have to make the plays that are there. Kaepernick’s playing style, on the other hand, is pretty random. He’s more likely to hold the ball and run around. In the previous example, that may mean 2nd and 10 instead of 2nd and 4. That’s not usually what a team wants in their backup. The backup needs to play it safe and not lose games. And Kaep really hasn’t shown why anyone should trust him as a starter because he hasn’t shown the necessary level of consistency or skill. There are guys that are good enough to play randomly and get away with it because a) they’re super talented, and b) they have enough pocket skills to be able to play that way when they need to. Think Russell Wilson, Brett Favre, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers. But you have to be able to play from the pocket as well, and they all can do that. Kaep hasn’t shown us that he can consistently.

Then there’s also the fact that Kaepernick’s new vegan diet seems to have changed his body type and made him thinner, which will only make him less durable as a runner, one of his main appeals as a player. This just further lessens Kaep’s value.

To be clear, all of this is not to say we can’t find individual plays where Kaep goes through progressions or throws on time or any of that. Just that it’s not his overall style.

Time to take a knee and move on from Kaep.

I get that he’s unsigned. I get that he’s an exciting player and an eccentric personality. I get that he went to the Super Bowl. I get that he did a bold thing (although I really don’t see why it should be…) with the protest and that it’s polarizing. And I get that the offseason is boring.

But the NFL season is upon us (preseason started last week with the HOF game), and there’s really no need to milk this story any further. We don’t need to bring it up every day until he’s signed. We don’t need to bring it up every time another QB gets signed, like many did when the Dolphins signed Jay Cutler. And we don’t need to keep asking people what they think and keep speculating on why he’s unsigned.

He had a good run in 2012. It was exciting. He was a good player then. He’s not now. And his upside is not anywhere near large enough to overcome the potential drama that would come with signing him. That’s why he’s unsigned.

If he hadn’t taken a knee but had the same season he had last year, would he still be unsigned? Obviously there’s no way of knowing for sure. But it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone or be a controversy that he can’t find a team now.

Kaepernick is unsigned, and the main reason he’s unsigned is that he just isn’t that good. Certainly not good enough to risk any controversy–justified or not–that might come with signing him. Let’s accept that and move on. We don’t have to make this any more complicated than it needs to be.

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