Michigan Wolverines Football Roundtable: New Expectations, Next Year & More
Michigan hasn't met expectations this year, sitting at 1-3 heading into a game with Rutgers. There has been some good play from individuals, but not enough, and there have been puzzling developments, as well.
We tackle some of the hot button questions in this week's roundtable.
With Michigan already at 1-3 and no hope of a good season, does this Rutgers game really matter in the grand scheme of things? Why or why not?
CHRIS BALAS: Yes and no. We said before the season began this was going to be an “asterisk year,” and we’ve already seen why with opt-outs, injuries and cancellations. One team’s winning record isn’t going to be as impressive head-to-head given who was or wasn’t available when teams played, which of their gamed were cancelled, etc.
But people (including recruits) are watching to see what Michigan will do and if head coach Jim Harbaugh hasn’t lost his team. This group seemed to be disinterested in stretches of each of the last three games, unacceptable at a place like Michigan.
Losing to Rutgers would only continue the “Harbaugh can’t get it done” drumbeat.
AUSTIN FOX: Absolutely. Every game in college football matters, otherwise they wouldn’t be played. Those saying tomorrow’s game doesn’t matter will continue proclaiming that sentiment if Michigan wins, but then throw a temper tantrum if U-M loses. It’s meaningful any time a Michigan football team takes the field, regardless of opponent, record, season trajectory, etc.
Tomorrow’s game is also important for the coaching staff and their journey to correcting this team’s mistakes. Significant progress tomorrow night would at least provide hope once again the coaching staff knows how to diagnose and correct U-M’s deficiencies.
CLAYTON SAYFIE: It matters a lot for this season and the future of the program. The pressure is increasing by the week from the outside voices, and a loss to Rutgers could mean the coaches lose the team (if they haven't already). All bets would be off should the Wolverines lose as double-digit favorites in Piscataway.
Win the game and quiet some of the voices for at least a week, get the momentum back and try to piece together a decent finish to the year.
What’s the one thing you most want to see from Michigan in this game that will prove they’re making strides?
CHRIS BALAS: Fight to the whistle on every play. There hasn’t been enough of that this year — not even close — and it’s been hard to watch.
We were field level in the late 1990s watching Michigan play Penn State with middle guard Rob Renes in the trenches. It was the fourth quarter and he was absolutely gassed when head coach Lloyd Carr called out to him before he lined up on a snap.
“Rob!” he yelled with a stern look on his face, shaking his fists. “Let’s GO!”
Renes responded on that play and for the rest of the series by dominating his position. THAT’s what’s expected. We need to see better play from both lines, a “push you around” confidence that’s been lacking.
AUSTIN FOX: A win. A victory would mean U-M played with more intensity and passion, because it isn’t good enough to beat any Big Ten team right now playing the way it has been the last few weeks. A win in Piscataway would also likely mean the coaches made a few schematic changes that needed to be made, because again, Michigan isn’t good enough to come out victorious at Rutgers employing the same dismal game plans it has been using lately.
There are no moral victories here; Michigan needs to win this game to ensure progress (however small it may be) is being made.
CLAYTON SAYFIE: That the pass defense is, in fact, improving. We saw more out of redshirt sophomore corner Vincent Gray last week, and we'd like to see strides again this week. But the main reason why the pass defense has to be at least adequate is that they're facing a lousy passing offense, with Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral having thrown seven interceptions against five touchdowns thus far.
We also want to see more out of the offensive line's run blocking.
Who is Michigan’s MVP at the midpoint of the season on offense? On defense? And why?
CHRIS BALAS: Receiver Ronnie Bell has been one of the Wolverines’ bright spots on offense. He plays with passion on every snap, and though he’s dropped a couple balls, he still brings it on every play. He’s racked up 325 yards and his 18 per catch is fourth in the Big Ten, and he’s by far the Wolverines’ best blocker at his position.
Senior end Kwity Paye missed last game due to injury, but he was dominant in the opener and drew added attention against Michigan State and Indiana. Still, sophomore safety Daxton Hill is right there with him, and he’d probably get the nod. He is one of the few players in the secondary who can be counted on to stick with a receiver, and he’s done it well.
AUSTIN FOX: Ronnie Bell on offense, by default. Not only does he have the stats to back it up (his 325 yards are the sixth most in the Big Ten and his 18 yards per catch is fourth), but he’s also one of the few players who looks like he cares out there. Bell’s heart and enthusiasm have never been questioned, and those two aspects go a long way in a season where not many players on the team seem to have those attributes.
Daxton Hill gets the nod on defense. The case could be made he’s U-M’s best all-around player on that side of the ball. He has also been one of the few bright spots on a defensive unit that hasn’t had many in 2020. Hill has clearly become Michigan’s best cover man in the secondary and has played a significant factor against the run as well, with his 28 tackles currently checking in fourth on the team.
CLAYTON SAYFIE: Offensively, it would have to be Ronnie Bell, considering he's picked up where he left off after leading the club in receiving a year ago. He also shows the passion and emotion we're looking for.
Defensively, it's Daxton Hill and it's not close. Kwity Paye would be in the discussion, but he is injured and his status is unknown. Hill has excelled despite being on a bad defense and is showing he truly is one of the nation's top safeties.
How much more leash does this coaching staff get because of the unique circumstances this year (COVID, injuries etc.?)
CHRIS BALAS: Not much. Everyone was in the same boat — in fact, programs like Michigan State and Wisconsin were shut down for long stretches while U-M continued to practice — and head coach Jim Harbaugh couldn’t say enough good things about his team. Instead, it appears as though he’s lost this team and is struggling to get them to play hard.
We get that losing Ambry Thomas and Nico Collins was a huge blow, two of the areas the Wolverines could least afford. But perhaps they come back if the culture is a bit better?
Regardless, Harbaugh is responsible for the product on the field. Right now, it’s a mess.
AUSTIN FOX: They should get very little to no extra leash, though the University doesn’t seem to see it that way. Every school in the country has dealt with the same off-the-field distractions Michigan has dealt with in regards to the virus, so any blame put on that for this season’s struggles is nothing but an excuse.
On top of that, U-M has not had any significant contributors miss time due to the virus. There is no excuse for how poor of a job U-M’s coaches and players have done this season.
CLAYTON SAYFIE: I think the head coach will get quite a bit of leash because of it. The Wolverines have been dealt a tough hand with the opt outs and injuries. That being said, these games matter, and they've revealed some weaknesses within the program on both sides of the ball. That could lead to a shakeup of the assistant coaching staff come the offseason.
What’s the biggest concern you have about this team going into next year based on what you’ve seen this year?
CHRIS BALAS: If Jim Harbaugh is going to return — and will he bring the jackhammer with him?
The program is at a crossroads. Six years ago, Michigan seemed to hit the jackpot in convincing Harbaugh to come home after incredibly successful stints at San Diego, Stanford and San Francisco in the NFL. He doesn’t seem like the same guy anymore, and we just don’t know why.
There’s some good, young talent on this team, but it’s clear they need to go in a different direction in some areas. There are things that aren’t working, and fresh approaches are necessary. If it doesn’t happen, this program could be spinning its wheels.
AUSTIN FOX: It’s nothing from a talent/personnel standpoint, but instead involves Jim Harbaugh and how he’s seemingly lost his way as a head coach. This year’s team doesn’t even resemble the past Harbaugh-coached teams we became accustomed to seeing during his early years at U-M and with Stanford and the 49ers, with mistakes, poor game plans and a lack of adjustments now being commonplace.
A few warning signs were present prior to this season, but the bottom has completely fallen out. He looks like a head coach on a downward trajectory late in his career (even though he’s only 56), and that’s both scary and sad for this Michigan program moving forward.
CLAYTON SAYFIE: The talent overall on defense, especially on the line. If Aidan Hutchinson goes pro, the Wolverines may be in big trouble up front. We've seen enough of Taylor Upshaw and Luiji Vilain to say they won't be as good as the ends that came before them (the aforementioned Hutchinson and Paye, Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary, etc.), and it's confusing why the coaching staff hasn't been able to restock with more talent.
Position coach Shaun Nua had a reputation of being a plus recruiter when he came to Ann Arbor but has failed to close on some big-time prospects. If some of the young talent doesn't develop quickly, Michigan could have a hard time getting high-level production on the defensive line for years to come.
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