Evan: I was shocked to be honest. Between Heisman dark horse Brian Lewerke, All-American level linebacker Joe Bachie, future All-Pro receiver Felton Davis (I feel genuinely terrible for Davis; torn achilles are among the most painful injuries and most difficult to recover from), and all-world coach Mark Dantonio, I was sure MSU would dominate Michigan once again. Right? That’s what all their writers and fans have said for the last 6 months… What was I supposed to expect? The better team to win? The most dominant defense in college football to embarrass Dave Warner and Brian Lewerke? 5-star quarterback Shea Patterson to hit 5-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones in stride for a 79 yard touchdown (the Gus-gasm of the year so far)? Jim Harbaugh and this Michigan team to continue the revenge tour and eliminate one more demon? Pshhh. No way. That would never happen. Not in this rivalry. Oh wait… I guess it’s time to wait for basketball season:
Evan: I’m sorry, I know you’re being serious, but can I just point out the fact that MSU gained less yards from their actual offense than they did from Michigan penalties? I wouldn’t even call them a little brother after this game. Usually, big brothers cede just a little to their younger siblings when a game is that much of a beat down. MSU was more like the annoying kid down the street that talks and pushes you to the point of no return (@markdantonio and his pregame walk (which video evidence confirmed *cue “That’s BS” video*)) that you finally get your hands on and literally beat into the ground. That’s what this game was. I still don’t know where this edge came from, but for the last month, this team is play angry. This is Michigan. I’ve waited my whole football fan life for this team to play this way. That is all. Back to the Xs and Os.
Alex: Well now that we got that out of the way, let’s move onto the main topic: looking at this team compared to 2016. That 2016 Michigan team was a group that came so close to the dreams that the 2018 squad is trying to accomplish and since they were literally inches away, they serve as a good watermark for looking at this year’s collection of talent. Let’s start with the offense. What is your opinion of the comparison between 2018 and 2016?
Evan: The backfield is better. Shea Patterson’s playmaking ability far exceeds that of Wilton Speight, and although Deveon Smith was a very solid back, Karan Higdon is still better. Ben Mason probably isn’t quite as good at converting 3rd/4th and short as Khalid Hill was, but he provides more of an every down presence than Hill.
The offensive line isn’t as experienced or as seasoned, but they are much, much, much better coached this year. They’ve improved every week, whereas that 2016 line was just consistent from start to finish.
Jake Butt is one of the great tight ends in Michigan history, and none of the current tight ends come close to his production. But Zach Gentry, Sean McKeon, and Nick Eubanks have all proven valuable in different manners and capacities. Harbaugh loves his tight ends, and he will continue to use and develop this group.
The receivers are young, but extremely talented. Those 2016 receivers (Chesson and Darboh) were absolute studs, but also were seniors. DPJ, Collins, Martin, and potentially Tarik Black have much higher ceilings, but I’d argue they are close to the same level as Chesson and Darboh played at. Also, 2018 Grant Perry is even smarter and more valuable than 2016 Grant Perry. He just sees the field less because of the plethora of tight ends and receivers right now.
Alex: Let’s take this one step at a time. I agree that Shea Patterson’s legs are very important to this offense but even just his passing has been better than Speight. When consulting MGoBlog’s Downfield Success Rate “DSR” stat, Patterson has averaged a 75.7 this season (not including MSU), while Speight averaged 69.4 in 2016 (which didn’t include the OSU/FSU games, which probably would bring down his number). Patterson still has a few hurdles left to clear, but he’s been the better QB. At the receivers, I think the biggest thing I take away from this comparison is the depth Michigan now has. In 2016, Darboh and Chesson were leaned on for basically everything. Yeah Grant Perry played a bit and so did Eddie McDoom, but Darboh and Chesson were the guys 90+% of the time. This year, Michigan has used DPJ, Collins, Perry, Martin, Bell, and may soon have Tarik Black back. Same thing with the Tight Ends. Jake Butt played nearly every single play of the important games in 2016, with Ian Bunting and Devin Asiasi used sparingly. In 2018, Michigan uses all of McKeon, Gentry, and Eubanks each game, rotating them based on situations. While running back also has more depth having a “the guy” at that position is a big boost, as Higdon has proved to be a top 3 RB in the Big Ten this season.
As for the offensive line, I have some more stats if you want them.
Evan: I want them.
Alex: Drawing on the Upon Further Review stats once again, the 2018 line is averaging a 74.71% in pass protection. Through the Iowa game in 2016, that line averaged a 72.36% in pass protection. But in rushing, it’s 70% vs 63% in favor of the 2018 line. The last hurdle to clear will be Ohio State and it would certainly be interesting if Michigan made the playoff and were matched up with Clemson or Alabama. But at this point in time, the magic of Ed Warinner’s coaching and the strength of JBB and the interior on the ground is getting it done for Michigan and giving 2018’s line the edge over 2016, and that’s manifested in other metrics. For example, the 2016 rushing game was 49th in the country per S&P+, whereas the 2018 unit is 12th. That’s a big deal.
Evan: One question that I have in response to the improvement in rushing yards is, how much of that is attributable to Ed Warriner and the offensive line, and how much of it is Karan Higdon just being really, really good? I think it’s definitely something to consider, but that isn’t meant to take anything away from this group. Tim Drevno may have set the offense back in a lot of ways, but Warriner is doing a phenomenal job of expediting the recovery process.
Alex: The rushing and pass pro % are blocking specific, but you bring up a good point in Higdon being a clear upgrade over Smith. One thing I will say is that the whole rushing thing is really important in terms of winning games because consider some things that went down in 2016. Not to open the sores of that season too much, but against Iowa, Michigan had the ball with 2 minutes to go, up 2 points. One first down would have won the game. Instead they ran twice for one yard each, threw an incomplete pass, and punted. Iowa would kick the game winning field goal on the next drive. Against OSU, the Wolverines had three fourth quarter possessions when they were up 3 points where they could have put the game away if they simply could have run the ball and ground out the clock. Instead they ran it 5 times for 14 yards and punted on all three possessions, allowing the Buckeyes to tie the game and go to OT.
Evan: Stop. I don’t need this. I’m still enjoying what happened this weekend. I know Michigan lost to Iowa and OSU in 2016 because they couldn’t run the ball to ice the game. Karan Higdon’s development into a top running back is as important as having a top quarterback.
But you’re right. If Michigan could have run the ball under pressure at the end of 2016, they would’ve won the B1G Ten. This time doesn’t appear to have that problem. I’m sure you want to discuss the defense, but another big factor for this year’s team vs 2016 is how much worse Ohio State is. I can only imagine an OSU student radio comparison of 2016 Ohio State vs 2018 Ohio State, but it ain’t pretty.
Alex: JT Barrett > Dwayne Haskins. That is all.
Onto the defense. These units are pretty darn similar in terms of their metrics being top of the nation. Do you want to go group by group, DLine, LB, and secondary?
Evan: Sure. The DLine depth is not close to what Michigan had in 2016. Winovich, Gary, and Hurst were all backups on that team. Let that sink in for a second. This team has dealt with injuries to Gary and Aubrey Solomon (who was supposed to be the top defensive end), but the young players have stepped up. Josh Uche has been an excellent pass rusher, Kwity Paye has filled in for Gary quite often, and Michael Dwumfour (who also got injured during the Maryland game) has grown up before our eyes. The line isn’t the strength of this defense like years past, but they’re certainly a stellar group and if they get healthy for the stretch run, watch out.
Alex: I’ve always thought that trying to compare depth is hard because we look back on the 2016 team and realize it had a lot of depth, not so much at the time. If Josh Uche follows a similar trajectory to Winovich or Dwumfour fully breaks out, there’s the chance we could look back and say this had similar depth. Not likely, but in terms of impact players, I think 2018 > 2016 on the ends and 2016 > 2018 in the middle.
At linebacker, I think I prefer this year’s team. While 2016 had a lot of seasoned players, Khaleke Hudson is a better defensive player than Jabrill Peppers and I’ll take the athleticism of Devin Bush and Devin Gil over the wily experience of Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray.
Evan: The linebackers are much stronger. And that isn’t a dig at Peppers, Gedeon, or McCray, it just speaks to how incredible Bush, Hudson, and Gil have been. Devin Bush is so athletic and Devin Gil has done the one thing McCray couldn’t: cover sideline to sideline. Hudson isn’t a better football player or athlete than Jabril Peppers, but man if he wasn’t made for the Viper position, I don’t know who was.
Alex: Finally at secondary, I think it’s largely a wash. That group in 2016 was incredible and this group is… well downright incredible. It’s really a coin-flip over who I’d rather take. Hard to go wrong when comparing Jourdan Lewis to LaVert Hill or David Long, etc.
Overall I’d say that 2018’s defense is less fine tuned. It’s absolutely improved over last year’s tendency to give up big plays but it still hasn’t had the consistency that 2016 had. There’s still been the occasional bad stretch (Northwestern first half, for example). But still it’s really nitpicking. You’re comparing two excellent defenses, and two defenses that were/are absolutely good enough to win the Big Ten and make the college football playoff. Any last words on the overall comparisons of the two teams?
Evan: Don Brown’s secondarys consistently grade out as the top in the country. That’s all I have to say on that.
This Michigan team is more complete than 2016. We didn’t cover special teams but Will Hart is the best Michigan punter since Zolton Mesko. And Quinn Nordin might not be consistent, but he has the biggest leg of any Michigan kicker I can remember. But the biggest difference for this team is the quarterback. Shea Patterson is simply a better playmaker than Wilton Speight, and that will be the difference for this team in November, December, and January. As long as the offensive line keeps improving and Michigan can manage the clock, this defense is good enough for the Wolverines to beat anybody. Let’s see if they can complete the Revenge Tour and get the chance.
Alex: I agree. Right now it seems like this team has the tools to be a winning team more than 2016 did. It has the ability to grind out games on the ground and its smothering defense looks good enough to capture the Big Ten title. Only time will tell, but it’s hard not to like Michigan’s spot right now.