On a day when the Big Ten took a big hit, Michigan’s 45-20 victory over SMU seemed like a bigger win than the game flow. Here is what we learned from Saturday’s contest.
What We Learned: Not everything always goes as planned. After a 46-point win over Western Michigan a week ago, Michigan was installed as a 35.5-point favorite over Southern Methodist, and that seemed about right.
The Wolverines were expected to cover by the end of the first half, and put themselves in position to play their second-string offensive line and quarterback for much of the second half. In fact, there was even the intention to get backup tackles Jaylen Mayfield and James Hudson into game action with the first unit to better gauge what type of contribution they could make when the game mattered.
We never saw Mayfield or Hudson, or No. 2 quarterback Dylan McCaffrey, or any walk-ons because this was a game in which the offense didn’t click early and the defense didn’t click consistently, U-M pulling away only in the final eight minutes, when Michigan opened 18- and then 25-point leads.
We don’t yet know if the lack of playing time for the reserves will hurt Michigan – the Maize and Blue second string did get some run against Western – but it certainly seems like a missed opportunity with Mayfield and Hudson.
What We’re Asking: Is Jim Harbaugh the best offensive coordinator for this team? While some are still asking who is the OC on Michigan, it has been and continues to be Harbaugh that makes the final call, and who is most responsible for setting the philosophy the offense will employ every Saturday.
Against SMU, that plan of attack in the first quarter was severely underwhelming. Michigan ran the ball more than twice as much as it passed (14 to six), including six first-down runs compared to only two pass attempts. That would have been OK except the Wolverines had just 45 yards rushing to show for their commitment to the ground (3.2 yards per carry).
Meanwhile, junior quarterback Shea Patterson was already gashing the Mustangs through the air, with gains of 19 and 32 yards among the 58 passing yards he had in the first quarter.
That stubbornness persisted early in the second quarter as Michigan needed 11 plays to go 57 yards before scoring on a one-yard touchdown plunge. U-M ran on nine of the series’ plays, gaining 19 yards (2.1 yards per rush) while a pair of completions went for 24 and 12 yards.
Michigan’s blocking up front wasn’t as crisp as it had been against the Broncos in Week 2, but SMU – a team that had been surrendering better than 300 yards passing per game – was also crashing the line of scrimmage hard with its linebackers, daring the Maize and Blue to throw.
Twenty-three of Michigan’s first 31 offensive plays were runs (74.2 percent), with U-M racking up 160 yards and seven points. The Wolverines threw the ball on eight of their next 15 plays (53.3 percent). The results: 163 yards and 21 offensive points.
When Michigan returned to the ground attack leading 35-20, it found the SMU front seven much softer, rushing 11 times for 116 yards (10.5 yards per attempt) and a touchdown.
U-M used the pass to set up the run, but it took 15 scoreless minutes for Harbaugh to drop his stubborn commitment to a game plan that wasn’t working.
What We Learned: Michigan’s defense is not invincible. In a performance reminiscent of Notre Dame from earlier this year, and the Wisconsin, Ohio State and South Carolina games last year, Michigan’s defense could not get stops when its offense created positive momentum.
The Wolverines yielded touchdown drives three times after U-M had scored TDs, ceding scores after Michigan had seemingly taken command of the game, at 28-7 and 35-13.
Michigan again was susceptible to a dual-threat QB, surrendering 48 yards rushing to backup signal-caller William Brown, including 25 yards on a 3rd-and-16 that set up SMU’s third touchdown. Another glaring weakness from last year – U-M’s ability to cover the slot receiver with a safety -- was problematic Saturday, as SMU completed 5 of 8 slant-pattern passes (for three first downs), doing so on four occasions against a Michigan safety.
Big Ten coaches will attack Michigan’s safeties, and mobile QBs like Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke, Penn State’s Trace McSorely and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins figure to be major issues for the Maize and Blue going forward.
What We’re Asking: How quickly can Karan Higdon return? I’ve been clamoring for more touches for junior tailback Chris Evans, but on Saturday, he had the lead-back role all to himself with Higdon on the shelf, and it was not Evans’ finest afternoon.
Save a 35-yard run in the fourth quarter in which Evans came up lame, grasping at his left hamstring, the junior ball carrier averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. In nine situations where Michigan faced three yards or less to pick up a first down, Evans averaged 1.3 yards per attempt.
Admittedly, he didn’t get a lot of help from an OL that whiffed on too many blocks, but Evans does not hit the hole with the same level of ferocity that Higdon does, and his dancing behind the line of scrimmage cost U-M some yardage.
Harbaugh didn’t have a concrete update on Higdon, who dressed but was ruled out in pre-game warm-ups, but let’s hope he’s back in time for the Nebraska game.
What We Learned: Donovan Peoples-Jones might be a five-star after all. The most heralded of the four-receiver class in 2018, Peoples-Jones is the lone five-star wide receiver for Michigan in the Rivals.com/Scout.com/247Sports.com era (since 2001) and was the fifth-highest rated player U-M has ever landed (No. 12 nationally).
He had a pretty ho-hum freshman season, with 22 receptions for 277 yards, a single catch over 20 yards. This year, however, he’s been U-M’s best receiver, leading the team in catches (14), yards (159) and touchdowns (four).
When he caught TD passes on his first three receptions Saturday – on plays of 35, seven and 41 yards – Peoples-Jones was on the verge of becoming just the second player in Michigan history to have a three-touchdown game without catching a fourth ball (Derrick Alexander did it at Northwestern in 1992) but U-M ruined it by giving him a short completion late in the game!
All joking aside, it was a spectacular showing for Peoples-Jones, who scored in three different ways: the first was a yards-after-catch of about 20 yards; the second was a jump ball in the corner of the end zone; and the third was a deep bomb in which he got behind the defense.
Definitely, five-star material.
What We’re Asking: Will referees punish Michigan’s secondary physicality consistently?
The Wolverines were flagged for four pass-interference penalties, including three to defensive backs. Michigan has routinely gotten away with physical man-to-man coverage (one could argue U-M should have been called once or twice against both Notre Dame and WMU), and this is the first time in awhile (I couldn’t think of the last time) we saw an officiating crew hold the Wolverines accountable for their physical play.
Most concerning – it was a Big Ten crew. If this is the way Michigan will be called going forward, opponents will have a very favorable game plan of throwing at U-M’s safeties and attacking the outside with the hopes of getting a call.