Michigan Season Review: Disappointing end to a good season

January 9, 2019

For most fan bases across the country, a 10-3 season and tying for first in the division would be considered a success. Most fan bases haven’t experienced both extremely high expectations and massive disappointments. Michigan fans expect their team to win or contend for the Big Ten title every year, and though they’ve won 10 games in three of Jim Harbaugh’s first four seasons, the Wolverines have lost to Ohio State in each of the last four years and have only won three times since 2000. They haven’t made the Big Ten championship game or the College Football Playoff, largely because of the annual loss to Ohio State.

 

2018 was no different. After a close opening weekend loss to Notre Dame, Michigan won nine games straight, including a dominant three-game stretch over Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State, called the “Revenge Tour,” where they avenged three of their four regular season losses from 2017. The defense began to show cracks against Indiana and was fully destroyed against Ohio State in a 62-39 loss in Columbus. After falling to 8-1 in the Big Ten, they missed the Big Ten title game and finished ranked seventh in the College Football Playoff rankings. They earned a bid in the Peach Bowl against Florida, but with four key starters sitting out and a continuation of the bad momentum from the Ohio State game, they lost 41-15, ending the season 10-3 for the third time under Harbaugh and lost the last two games for the second time in four years.

 

Offense:

Michigan’s offense certainly contains talented players and has bright spots in it. At quarterback, Shea Patterson was a drastic improvement from Wilton Speight, John O’Korn, and Brandon Peters from 2017. He completed 64.6% of his passes for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns. He threw seven interceptions, two in the Peach Bowl against Florida. Michigan saw an improvement with Patterson in his ability to extend plays with his legs, provide a legitimate rushing threat, and more accurate passing, something Michigan lacked in 2017. Patterson ended the year with third team all-Big Ten honors from the coaches and was an honorable mention for the media’s all-Big Ten team.

 

The running game was the foundation of Michigan’s offense, and Karan Higdon led the charge. The senior ran for 1,178 yards on 224 carries in 11 games, missing the SMU game with an injury. He scored 10 touchdowns and ran for more than 100 yards in 8 games. Behind Higdon were Chris Evans and Tru Wilson, who played well, but failed to provide the same consistency on the ground. Evans ran for 423 yards and 4 touchdowns, his lowest output in his three years at Michigan. Wilson, a former walk on, gained 364 yards and scored one touchdown in his first season seeing significant action. Before the season, he had one career carry for one yard in 2016. Fullback Ben Mason was an asset in short yardage situations. He only gained 80 yards on 33 carries, but scored 7 touchdowns. He routinely converted first downs on third or fourth and short. Higdon was named a first team all-Big Ten running back by both the coaches and media.

 

Michigan’s receivers were led by sophomores Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones. They each eclipsed 600 receiving yards, with Collins leading the way with 632 and six touchdowns. Peoples-Jones earned 612 yards and eight touchdowns and were two of the most consistent players on Michigan’s offense. Neither passed 100 yards, but Collins had his best two games in the last two, getting 91 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State and 80 yards against Florida. Peoples-Jones had his best day against SMU, when he caught four passes for 90 yards and three touchdowns. He got 64 yards against Ohio State and 71 and a touchdown against Florida.

 

Tight end Zach Gentry was one of Michigan’s best receivers in 2018. The six foot eight converted quarterback crossed 500 receiving yards and scored two touchdowns. He exceeded 100 yards against Maryland with 112 and was close against SMU with 95. Tight ends Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon were solid targets for Patterson, and slot receivers Ronnie Bell, Grant Perry, and Oliver Martin provided solid outlets as well. Sophomore receiver Tarik Black returned in the Michigan State game after breaking his foot during fall camp, the second broken foot of his career. Three games into his freshman year, he looked like the best receiver on the team before he broke his foot, and his road back to the field was long in 2018. He caught at least one pass in each of the final three games and ended with 4 receptions for 35 yards. He had a 50 yard touchdown against Penn State called back due to a holding penalty. Peoples-Jones and Gentry were both named third team all-Big Ten players by the coaches and honorable mentions by the media. Nico Collins was named an honorable mention by the coaches, and Sean McKeon was named an honorable mention by the media.

 

The offensive line saw maybe the biggest improvement of the 2018 season. Under new offensive line coach Ed Warinner, the group grew over the course of the season. They began the year with a rough performance against Notre Dame, and the offense wasn’t able to get anything going as a result. The tackles were the biggest area of concern, as left tackle Jon Runyan and right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty were thought to be liabilities by most. The interior was solid, led by left guard Ben Bredeson and center Cesar Ruiz. Right guard Michael Onwenu was experienced as well, and that experience helped the unit to grow. By the end of the season, Runyan grew into a solid blocker. Bushell-Beatty improved, but was injured for the last few games and was replaced by Andrew Stueber. Runyan was named a first team all-Big Ten tackle by the coaches and a second team by the media. Bredeson earned second team honors by both the coaches and the media. Cesar Ruiz and Michael Onwenu were both named third team all-Big Ten linemen by the coaches and honorable mentions by the media, while Bushell-Beatty was named an honorable mention by both the coaches and media.

 

There were many positives to the Michigan offense, but they also had their shortcomings. In general, Michigan failed to fully utilize the talent they had at their disposal and instead decided to commit to a pro style offense. They finally had a quarterback who is more capable of running a modern offense than anyone they’ve had since Denard Robinson, and they seemed to waste their talent. They wanted to establish the line of scrimmage in every game by running the ball for at least most of the first quarter. They found themselves able to run over lesser opponents, but specifically in the Ohio State and Florida games, they were unable to get any sort of traction in the run game. When they decided to spread the offense out, speed up, and throw the ball, the saw much better results, but they did not use that strategy often.

 

There were issues outside of coaching as well; the players failed to perform in some of the biggest moments. The offensive line had documented struggles against Notre Dame, but also began to fall apart in the last two games of the year. Ohio State and Florida were able to get all sorts of pressure on Patterson and the run game wasn’t able to develop in those games. This is part of the reason Karan Higdon disappeared, but he still needed to help take over those games more than he did. He sat out the Florida game, but was relatively non-existent in the Ohio State game.

 

The passing game struggled when it needed to come up big. Patterson seemed to have a tendency to underthrow receivers, especially on deep routes, and Michigan missed out on big plays as a result. Zach Gentry had key drops in the Ohio State game that led, including two missed touchdowns, one that saw the drive end in a field goal, and a drop on third down before the blocked punt for an Ohio State touchdown, an 18 point swing. Nico Collins is the one receiver that I don’t really have too many complaints about. He doesn’t have the speed of Donovan Peoples-Jones, but he didn’t drop a pass all year, and came up with tough catches in big moments of the Ohio State and Florida games, scoring two touchdowns against Ohio State.

 

Defense:

For much of the season, Michigan had one of the most dominating defenses in the country. Led by a talented defensive line, they were able to shut down offenses across the Big Ten. Leading that line were defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. Gary was an anchor on the end, driving his man back on almost every play and either getting to the quarterback or allowing another man to get there. He sat out for three games due to injury and sat out of the Peach Bowl to prep for the draft, but he ended up with 3.5 sacks on the year. His best game was against Indiana when he got nine total tackles and 1.5 sacks. Winovich was the heart and soul of the line, bringing high energy to every snap, and he had the stats to back up his motor. He got 4.5 sacks on the year and recovered a fumble against Penn State. His best game was against Northwestern when he got 9 tackles and a sack as he helped lead Michigan back from a 17-0 deficit to win 20-17 on the road.

 

The defensive tackle spot was rough for Michigan in 2018, as injuries prevented their best option, Aubrey Solomon, from playing for most of the year. Michael Dwumfour played in his place, and got three sacks on the year. He didn’t play in the Wisconsin or Ohio State games, but did get an interception against Indiana. Solomon only played in a few games, and got three tackles on the season. Carlo Kemp was one of the main guys in the middle, and had an up and down year. He never got more than three tackles in a year, and got his only sack against SMU. Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall also played at defensive tackle, and Mone got a sack against SMU. Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson played as backup defensive ends, and Paye was the replacement for Gary during his injury. Paye got two sacks against Northwestern and forced a fumble against Indiana in a solid season for a backup. Hutchinson, a true freshman, played in every game but didn’t get the type of minutes other ends got. He did force a safety against Nebraska and grew as a pass rusher as the season wore on. Winovich was named a first team all-Big Ten defensive end by both the coaches and the media. He was also named an All-American by three outlets, either to the second or third team. Gary was also named to the first team by the coaches, but was named to the second team by the media. Mone was named an honorable mention by the coaches, while Paye was named an honorable mention by the media.

 

The linebackers were a solid unit for Michigan in 2018. Devin Bush led the charge, flying all over the field and ending up with five sacks on the year. He was a headache for offenses all year, and he saw his best game come against Indiana, getting 11 tackles and 0.5 sacks. Khaleke Hudson played the Viper position for Michigan in 2018, and was one of their best linebackers. He ended the year with two sacks, and saw his best two games come in the Peach Bowl. He had 7 tackles come against Florida as he filled in for Devin Bush, who was both injured and preparing for the NFL Draft. Josh Ross was another solid addition to Michigan’s linebackers this season. He played mostly as a backup, but was on another level in the last two games of the year, his best games. He got 11 tackles and his only sack of the year against Florida and got 7 tackles against Ohio State. Devin Gil filled the starting spot at the same position Ross played, and was solid all year for Michigan. Like Ross, he had his two best games in the last two games of the year, with six tackles and a sack against Florida and four tackles against Ohio State.

Josh Uche wasn’t an every down linebacker, but still made his impact felt. He mostly played on third downs specifically to rush the passer as a rush end, and ended the year with seven sacks. His best game was against Northwestern when he got two sacks, including one on the last play to secure a 20-17 win. Noah Furbush didn’t play often, but the senior got an interception against Western Michigan and had four tackles in the Ohio State game. Bush was the most decorated player on the Michigan team, earning first team all-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media. He was also voted the Big Ten’s Linebacker of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, in addition to being a consensus all-American, and a first team all-American by most outlets other than the Associated Press, who named him to the second team. Ross was named an honorable mention by the coaches, and Uche and Hudson were named honorable mentions by both the coaches and media.

 

Michigan’s secondary was good for much of the season, and helped propel this team to a 10-3 record. The secondary was led by cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill, whose impact to the team can’t be shown solely on the stat sheet. Long was a lockdown cornerback all season, so much so that the guy he was covering was rarely targeted. He only had one interception, against Penn State, and never got more than three tackles in a game, but was one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the country. Hill’s story is similar to Long’s, as he had at most one tackle in each game except for the Western Michigan game, when he had four. He only had one interception, but it was a pick six against Wisconsin. He was another lockdown corner for Michigan, helping to shutdown opponents all year. Brandon Watson was the third of Michigan’s three starting corners, but his stats may be the flashiest of anyone in that secondary. He had more tackles than Hill and Long, and he had three interceptions on the year. After his pick against Notre Dame, he had two pick sixes, one against Maryland and another against Penn State. He was more ignored than Hill and Long, but made the most of his opportunities. Ambry Thomas played limited minutes and was more of a special team player, but he did get an interception against Rutgers.

 

Michigan’s safeties were solid in 2018, but their value was in run support instead of pass coverage. Tyree Kinnel saw some of his highest tackle totals come against Notre Dame and Ohio State, when he got eight in each. He was all over the field getting tackles for the entire season. Josh Metellus did much of the same, but provided an advantage in pass coverage. He got three interceptions this season, including a pick six against SMU. Brad Hawkins saw some time at safety, and got six tackles against Notre Dame when he filled in for Metellus after a targeting call. J’Marick Woods and Jaylen Kelly-Powell saw some time at safety as well, getting some tackles. Hill was a first team all-Big Ten cornerback as voted by both the coaches and media, and the AP named him a third team all-American. Long was named a first team all-Big Ten corner by the coaches and to the third team by the media. Metellus was a second team all-Big Ten defensive back on both the coaches and media ballots. Kinnel was named an honorable mention by both the coaches and media.

 

Michigan’s defense had some holes, exposed by Ohio State and Florida. In those games, what could go wrong did go wrong. The defensive line failed to get a push, the linebackers struggled both in coverage and on blitzes, and the secondary slipped up in coverage. Michigan’s biggest struggle in the Ohio State game was the failure to properly defend against crossing routes. Michigan’s dependence on man coverage and blitzes ultimately led to their struggles at the end of the year, and is something they’ll need to fix in 2019.

 

Special Teams:

Michigan was pretty good on special teams all year. Punter Will Hart was a star, averaging 47 yards per punt on 43 punts. Kicker Quinn Nordin was the primary placekicker for the season, and made 11 of 16 field goals for a long of 50 yards and missed one extra point, going 45/46. Nordin was replaced by kickoff specialist Jake Moody in the Indiana game after Nordin was sick, and went 6 for 6 on field goals. He made both of his attempts against Ohio State and missed a 52 yarder against Florida, ending the year 10/11 with a long of 39 yards. He was perfect on extra points, making all five of his attempts. Ambry Thomas was Michigan’s primary kick returner. He got 412 return yards, an average of 20.6 yards per return and scored a touchdown in the season opener against Notre Dame. Donovan Peoples-Jones handled punt returns and scored a touchdown against Nebraska. He average 10 yards a return on 25 attempts, good for 250 yards for the season. The punt block unit was also strong, getting to Florida twice in the Peach Bowl.

 

There were some issues on special teams at different points of the season. Nordin struggled with accuracy, which ultimately led to his removal as kicker. There were issues on the snap sometimes, and it cost Michigan points against Notre Dame. Hart sometimes got too much power on the ball, causing it to go into the endzone for a touchback instead of pinning teams deep. Hart was named the Big Ten’s Punter of the Year and earned first team all-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and media. He was also named a second team all-American punter by Sports Illustrated. Donovan Peoples-Jones was named a third team all-Big Ten returner by both the coaches and media.

 

Michigan wasn’t a bad team in 2018, and their 10-3 record shows it. They dominated for a long stretch of games this season, but ultimately tripped up when they needed to step up and win a big game. They have big shoes to fill with Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, Devin Bush, David Long, Karan Higdon, and Aubrey Solomon all leaving. Luckily for Michigan, most of their offense returns in 2019, and they will have some of the best weapons in the conference. If Harbaugh can figure out how to use them properly, Michigan can contend for a Big Ten title and beat Ohio State, but the won’t do any of those things until change occurs. They have talent on the both sides of the ball, and those guys will need to step up, otherwise a season like 2018 is the ceiling for Michigan, and that’s simply not good enough in Ann Arbor.

 

Final AP Ranking (Preseason): 14 (14)

Final Coaches Poll Ranking (Preseason): 14 (14)

Offensive MVP: Karan Higdon

Defensive MVP: Devin Bush

 

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