Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Wilton Speight threw his arms up in the air out in front of his face as another scoring opportunity crumbled at his feet. The usually unflappable Michigan quarterback seemed to be flapping late in the third quarter Saturday while an equally flummoxed home crowd booed the Wolverines offense for the second straight week.
No. 7 Michigan escaped a scare from Air Force 29-13 to stay unbeaten three games into the regular season. The final score belies the fact that the Falcons stayed within striking distance late into the fourth quarter and left the crowd in Ann Arbor concerned for an offense that has lacked creativity, explosive plays and the ability to finish drives. Michigan entered the game dead last among Power 5 schools in the percentage of red-zone trips that ended in touchdowns and was shut out on its four attempts inside the 20 Saturday.
Speight's exasperation showed after a wave of Air Force tacklers swallowed up a handoff to Ty Isaac in the Michigan backfield on a third-down play 8 yards from the end zone. That sent rookie kicker Quinn Nordin trotting from the sideline for the fourth of his record-tying five field goals on the afternoon. Nordin's 10 field goals through three games will probably be the most in college football when the weekend comes to a close. That is not the type of first-place spot that Michigan and an offense that pushed the creative envelope a year ago were hoping to hold as they get set for Big Ten play.
"Obviously, the frustration built up a little bit," Speight said. "But it was one of things where it was like, 'Ah, they fooled us.'"
Speight and coach Jim Harbaugh said Air Force's defense disguised its blitzes well throughout the game, especially in the red zone, to get the better of them on several occasions. Harbaugh said that while of course his team would like to be finishing those drives with touchdowns, he's confident that those will come as they continue to progress.
In the meantime, youth has helped the Wolverines plow ahead. Nordin and the rest of his underclassmen brethren were viewed as a liability this summer, as outsiders wondered how Harbaugh's fresh-faced recruits would handle the pressure of stepping into starring roles. Right now they are carrying the offense through its sluggish start.
Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush led the defense with 11 tackles and on two occasions smothered a rare pass attempt before Air Force's Arion Worthman had a chance to look downfield. Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones scored one of the team's two touchdowns with his effortless 79-yard weaving run on a punt return in the third quarter. He finished the game with 156 all-purpose yards. Then there was Nordin, who comfortably made all five of his kicks, including a 49-yard attempt to give Michigan a 9-6 lead in the closing seconds of the first half.
Speight's performance came under fire last week and will likely draw a fresh batch of criticism. He completed 14 of his 23 attempts for 169 yards through the air, at times overlooking open targets or missing them when he did spot them.
Responsibility for the inconsistency in getting the ball to the Wolverines' young playmakers, though, should fall as much on the coaching staff. Michigan struggled to find any rhythm in its calls. Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton share those duties. While former coordinator Jedd Fisch was breaking out the 11-man "snake" I-formation at his new gig at UCLA, the Wolverines lacked the type of ingenuity that inspired those types of interesting looks and the Big Ten's most productive offense (40.3 points per game) last fall.
Michigan doesn't need to put up 40 points on most weekends to keep its title hopes alive. The defense remains fierce and entertaining -- holding the Falcons to 232 yards and only one touchdown on a busted coverage. That side of the ball has still made as many trips to the end zone as it has allowed this season.
The Wolverines will need to be more opportunistic, though. Trading field goals for would-be touchdowns is enough to beat smaller teams from smaller conferences. It won't be enough to make it through the upcoming Big Ten slate unscathed.
"We'll keep forging ahead, keep making improvements. I like where our team is right now," Harbaugh said. "... Our team is moving the ball. That's a fact. I think the red-zone touchdowns will come."
Harbaugh added: "It's good to be Wilton Speight right now," pointing out that the junior was the quarterback of the No. 7 team in the country with an unbeaten record. Speight's frustrations won't boil away, though, until those touchdowns start to come.
Big things happened in the Big Ten in Week 2, headlined by disappointment at the Horseshoe as No. 2 Ohio State fell to No. 5 Oklahoma in a premier Saturday night clash. The lowlights extended to Northwestern, Nebraska and Rutgers, which allowed a program from the MAC to reach a new high.
Ohio State's loss means Penn State is now secure atop the power rankings after dispatching Pitt, followed by an unclear picture at the next three spots as Wisconsin and Michigan played sluggishly at times in victories on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Maryland and Michigan State held serve. Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois impressed, creating chaos in the bottom half of these rankings. And Iowa provided the most entertaining performance of the week.
1. Penn State (previous ranking: 2): The defending Big Ten champ is back on top after a 33-14 win over bitter rival Pitt in which Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley simply did their thing. Nothing spectacular was necessary in this win, though tight end Mike Gesicki caught a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter and the Nittany Lions benefited from three Pitt turnovers.
2. Wisconsin (3): Visiting Florida Atlantic hung around long enough to keep things interesting before freshman Jonathan Taylor’s third touchdown provided the final margin in a 31-14 win for the Badgers. Taylor rushed for 223 yards and Wisconsin held Lane Kiffin’s Owls to less than 250 yards in total offense.
3. Ohio State (1): The Buckeyes fell apart in the second half at home as Oklahoma rolled to a 31-16 win to avenge last year's loss to Ohio State in Norman. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield used Ohio Stadium as a platform to bolster his Heisman campaign, then planted the OU flag at midfield before the Sooners danced on the vaunted “O.” Ouch. Ohio State’s margin for error in 2017 is all but gone.
4. Michigan (4): The Wolverines led by just a field goal late in the third quarter before a decisive finish cemented a 36-14 win over Cincinnati at the Big House. Ty Isaac gained a career-high 133 yards on the ground, but expect coach Jim Harbaugh to work his team especially hard before a Week 3 visit from Air Force.
5. Maryland (5): There's not much to take away from a 63-17 rout of Towson, the Terps’ highest point total since 1954. If nothing else, they’re taking care of business under second-year coach D.J. Durkin. No letdown here after the upset win to open the season at Texas as freshman QB Kasim Hill played well in his starting debut and D.J. Moore scored three touchdowns.
6. Iowa (6): The Hawkeyes escaped Ames with a thrilling 44-41 overtime win over rival Iowa State. Iowa came back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter for its fourth victory in the past five games of the Cy-Hawk series. Defensive end Parker Hesse came up with a big interception late, and first-year QB Nathan Stanley threw for 333 yards and five scores.
7. Michigan State (9): The Spartans haven’t surrendered an offensive touchdown in eight quarters after a 28-14 win over Western Michigan, which found the end zone in East Lansing on a 67-yard fumble return and a 100-yard kickoff return. Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke threw for 161 yards and rushed for 81. The Spartans, one win from matching their 2016 total, get an open date before hosting Notre Dame in Week 4.
8. Indiana (10): Redshirt freshman QB Peyton Ramsey replaced struggling starter Richard Lagow in the second quarter and completed 16 of 20 passes for 173 yards and two scores as the Hoosiers rolled past host Virginia 34-17. Indiana was solid in all phases, scoring on a punt return by J-Shun Harris and holding the Cavaliers to 314 total yards.
9. Nebraska (8): Future performances will tell us if the Cornhuskers found themselves in the second half, nearly rallying from a 28-point deficit before falling 42-35 at Oregon. Nebraska held the Ducks scoreless after halftime, but Cornhuskers QB Tanner Lee threw the last of his four interceptions with two minutes to play after getting the chance to drive for a touchdown to force overtime.
10. Minnesota (11) The Golden Gophers routed Oregon State 48-14 on the road, an impressive feat despite the Beavers’ status among the worst teams in the Power 5. Minnesota forced three turnovers and rushed for 253 yards, led by Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who combined to run for four touchdowns. In addition, Conor Rhoda appeared to take control of the quarterback spot.
11. Purdue (12): Purdue got a nice 44-21 win -- coach Jeff Brohm’s first with the Boilermakers -- over MAC contender Ohio on Friday night. David Blough took over for Elijah Sindelar at quarterback in the second quarter and led Purdue to points on four consecutive possessions en route to a 558-yard team offensive output.
12. Northwestern (7): Well, the Wildcats’ struggles with Nevada in Week 1 were apparently no fluke. Duke dominated Northwestern in a 41-17 win in Durham behind 305 yards passing and 108 rushing from QB Daniel Jones. The problems appear to run deep for Northwestern as Clayton Thorson threw a pair of interceptions and Justin Jackson rushed for just 18 yards on seven carries.
13. Illinois (14): Progress, for sure, from the Illini, who moved to 2-0 with a 20-7 win over favored Western Kentucky out of Conference USA. Illinois held the high-powered WKU offense, which led the nation in scoring last season, to 244 total yards and got 111 rushing yards from freshman Mike Epstein and an interception returned for a touchdown by Julian Jones.
14. Rutgers (13): If you needed confirmation that the Scarlet Knights aren’t progressing like other programs in the Big Ten, look no further than a 16-13 loss to Eastern Michigan on Saturday -- the Eagles' first win over a Power 5 foe in 59 tries, including 39 against Big Ten competition. EMU took the lead on a 24-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter and staged two defensive stands to secure the win.
The Big Ten enjoyed a successful opening week, with 10 wins in 12 nonconference games, losing by only respectable margins to returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville (Purdue) and 2016 College Football Playoff participant Washington (Rutgers).
The stakes rise a bit in Week 2, headlined, of course, by a visit from Oklahoma to face Ohio State on Saturday night (7:30 ET, ABC) and rivalries are rekindled in Pennsylvania and Iowa.
Visit our college football PickCenter page for additional information on these games and many more. Here’s our forecast for Week 2.
Northwestern at Duke, Saturday, noon, ESPNU
Dan Murphy: Had to pick at least one upset this week, and this is the best candidate. Northwestern looked shaky at times in its opening win over Nevada. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones can go toe-to-toe with Clayton Thorson in what should be a fun one in Durham, North Carolina. Duke 35, Northwestern 31
Mitch Sherman: Don’t put too much stock into the details of an opener. Remember two years ago, when the Wildcats beat Christian McCaffrey and Stanford in early September? Teams change, and they change fast at this time of year. I still believe in the Cats as a serious contender in the Big Ten West. Northwestern 35, Duke 24
Tom VanHaaren: This one is tough because I thought Northwestern was going to surprise a lot of people this season. Week 1 against Nevada was a win, but it wasn’t very convincing. Duke just threw up 60 on N.C. Central and had a relaxing time doing it. I’m George Costanza when it comes to predicting things; the opposite usually happens, but I’m sticking with the Wildcats. Northwestern 31, Duke 24
Iowa at Iowa State, Saturday, noon, ESPN2
Sherman: This series often defies logic. And sometimes it defines seasons, such as in 2012, when Iowa State last played in a bowl game. The Cyclones won that CyHawk thriller 9-6 en route to a magical 6-7 finish, while the Hawkeyes dipped to 4-8. There’s more magic in store for the Cyclones this year. Iowa State 17, Iowa 14
VanHaaren: I underestimated the Hawkeyes' defense in Week 1 and chose Wyoming over Iowa. Hawkeyes fans let me know about it, so I’m not making the same mistake twice. I’ll take Iowa on the road as long as the turnovers are minimal. Iowa 24, Iowa State 13
Murphy: The Hawkeyes' defense showed last week that there is a legitimate reason to believe in Iowa this season. They'll hold the Cyclones to 100 or so yards on the ground and provide plenty of cushion for the offense to bring home a win. Iowa 20, Iowa State 9
Pittsburgh at No. 4 Penn State, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC
Murphy: Nothing in State College feels the same as it did a year ago, when the pitchforks were pointed at James Franklin after a loss to Pitt. The Nittany Lions are now the most entertaining offense in the Big Ten and have the firepower to blow past Pitt. Penn State 42, Pitt 24
VanHaaren: The last three home teams have won this game, and the last three teams with the most rushing yards have also won. Pitt won last season running behind James Conner. This season, it’s the Saquon Barkley show. The Nittany Lions are out to avenge last season’s loss. Penn State 38, Pitt 21
Sherman: Penn State is so much better than it was at this time last year. I have nothing else to add. Penn State 45, Pitt 17
Nebraska at Oregon, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox
Sherman: Nebraska tried to play it safe last week, guarding against the big Arkansas State plays. Do that against the Ducks and Oregon will turn those short receptions into long touchdowns. I think Nebraska coach Bob Diaco’s defense will show up to play, but first-year QB Tanner Lee will wobble at a raucous Autzen Stadium. Oregon 37, Nebraska 27
VanHaaren: Oregon put up 77 on Southern Utah in the first week. I know it’s Southern Utah, but 77 is a lot of points. Nebraska won 43-36 against Arkansas State in its first game, so there are still some kinks to work out. This game is happening too early in the season for Nebraska. Oregon 52, Nebraska 41
Murphy: No need to overthink the math here. Oregon gained more than 700 yards in its season opener. The Huskers gave up 497. Lee won't be able to help them solve that problem. Oregon 44, Nebraska 36
No. 5 Oklahoma at No. 2 Ohio State, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC
VanHaaren: Indiana attacked Ohio State’s corners last week, passing outside the hashes on 86 percent of QB Richard Lagow’s throws. Baker Mayfield ranks first in completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage on throws outside the hashes, but I think Ohio State is going to learn from the first game and win this matchup with Oklahoma. Ohio State 42, Oklahoma 31
Murphy: The Buckeyes won this monster matchup a year ago thanks to their best deep-passing performance of the year. And while that's been a focus all offseason, it will be the uber-athletic front seven that helps them beat the Sooners this time around, doing just enough to contain Mayfield. Ohio State 30, Oklahoma 28
Sherman: The Sooners haven’t lost since Ohio State stormed Norman a year ago. Look for Oklahoma to start strong this time around. You might not see a college game this year that features better play in the trenches, especially when Oklahoma possesses the ball. Watch that matchup. I agree with Dan that the Buckeyes will eventually get to Mayfield. Ohio State 34, Oklahoma 31
- Purdue over Ohio
- Maryland over Towson
- No. 9 Wisconsin over Florida Atlantic
- No. 8 Michigan over Cincinnati
- Michigan State over Western Michigan
- Rutgers over Eastern Michigan
- Indiana over Virginia
- Western Kentucky over Illinois
- Minnesota over Oregon State
There was an air of youthful defiance floating through the Michigan locker room Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after the Wolverines took No. 17 Florida behind one of the world’s fanciest woodsheds and handed them what Jim McElwain declared to be a “whooping.”
McElwain and his team caught the brunt of Michigan’s ire on Saturday, but the Wolverines don’t appear to have exhausted their supply of prove-you-wrong exuberance yet. Michigan’s defense spent an offseason stewing in a broth of doubt. Members of the group took note of questions about their ability to replace 10 starters without taking a step backward. They took note of the pregame slights coming out of Gainesville and talk of Florida’s expectations for the season opener. They took them to heart.
“Being told you’re too young is an insult,” defensive tackle Lawrence Marshall said Monday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I can play college football just like anyone else can play college football. We got to prove on a bigger stage that we’re here, and we are meant to be here.”
Marshall wasn’t the only one who said he felt insulted in the lead-up to Saturday’s debut. He and his teammates turned that into a performance that included as many tackles for loss (11) as Florida had rushing yards. There seemed to be plenty left in the tank to help fuel the early makings of a new identity for a group that shouldn’t have to take a step backward after consecutive 10-win seasons to start Harbaugh’s tenure. This Michigan team may be unseasoned, but it sure is salty.
No fresh face embodied that attitude better than middle linebacker Devin Bush. With a team-high seven tackles and two sacks in his first career start, the sophomore blossomed into a leader on the field despite almost being ejected for targeting on the first play of the game.
“That’s just what I do. If they want to eject me, eject me,” Bush said Saturday night in the clipped tone of someone who still had plenty of adrenaline flowing through him. What did he make of all this talk about his pack of underclassmen not having the goods to take over for the star-studded, veteran group from last year?
“Young don’t mean nothing,” he said.
Part way through August’s camp, a couple of members of Michigan’s famed Fab Five basketball team visited to share some pearls of wisdom. After that day’s practice, Bush said he knew all about what the hoops stars did as freshmen and sophomores even though he wasn't even born when they took college basketball by storm in the early 1990s. He certainly knows how to channel their confidence.
“We’re a confident unit,” Harbaugh said Monday. “We thought we were going to be good, and we were good.”
Exactly how good they can be still is far from answered. Florida’s history of ineptitude on offense makes them an unreliable measuring stick. Don’t confuse that mention of the Fab Five with a comparison. Right now, the only thing the football team has proven it has in common with the legendary Wolverines from a generation ago is that it’s unafraid of its own age.
Harbaugh found plenty of faults to highlight after reviewing the season’s first bit of film. He called the effort by Michigan’s offense to stop two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the second quarter “atrocious.” He addressed some areas that need improvement in the running game and on special teams.
Quinn Nordin, for example, set a school record by kicking two field goals of 50-plus yards in his first college game, yet missed two other attempts. His impressive, imperfect day was a good microcosm for what we know about this team so far.
“I think he responds to the moment and to the pressure. I think he’s got that wonderful quality about him,” Harbaugh said of Nordin before noting the misses. “That’s a bit of a theme that we have. It wasn’t perfect. There are definitely things to coach and we’ll see if we can improve.”
The Wolverines have a little leg room to get better after getting past the lone Power 5 opponent on their nonconference schedule. They are a four-plus-touchdown favorite in their home opener against Cincinnati this weekend and should be laying comfortable point spreads for the next several weeks while working out the kinks of inexperience.
Harbuagh said he’s looking for “a season of increases.” That applies, he said, to everyone on the roster -- the coaching staff, the starting quarterback, players on both sides of the ball and even the rookie kicker who carved a zig-zag pattern into the back of his hair last week as an ode to the closer mentality of Rick Vaughn.
Yes, that would be Charlie Sheen’s heartthrob, fire-throwing, near-sighted ex-con character from "Major League" -- yet another reference that predates the referencer’s existence on this planet. Nordin said he had to show YouTube clips to a couple of his teammates for them to understand what he was going for. When asked Saturday if the similarities between him and Vaughn stretch beyond their hairstyles, Nordin smiled. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. Then he turned and walked back into the locker room.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The youngest team in college football has the goods to defend against some growing pains.
Not one of the 11 defenders who started Michigan’s first game in 2016 was on the field for Saturday’s first snap at AT&T Stadium. The defense’s only returning starter, captain Mike McCray, missed the first series, but he and the rest of the Wolverines’ front seven picked up right where the Big Ten’s best defense left off last year. They held No. 17 Florida to 192 total yards (only 11 on the ground) and kept the Gators' offense from scoring after an opening-drive field goal.
Senior Chase Winovich provided an exclamation point in the final two minutes with Michigan's fifth sack of the day. His hit popped the ball loose from quarterback Malik Zaire's hands, and linebacker Noah Furbush flopped on it in the end zone to cap a 33-17 win for the 11th-ranked Wolverines.
"Young don't mean nothing," said sophomore linebacker Devin Bush, who had a team-high seven tackles and two sacks. "Football is still football."
The limited sample size makes it hard to say whether those ugly numbers should be credited more to a defense that to the naked eye looked maybe even a step faster than last year’s group or to the ineptitude of Florida’s first attempt at offense this year. It might be both.
Beyond a two-play stretch in the second quarter, the Gators never presented a real threat to breaching the goal line -- or the first-down line with any regularity, for that matter. Florida moved the sticks twice in its first three plays, and then only five times until the final drive of the game.
The Gators' offense, as it has many times in recent history, came from the defense. Senior Duke Dawson snatched one ball that deflected off the hands of Michigan receiver Kekoa Crawford and returned it 48 yards for a score -- the third pick-six of his career. Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight overthrew his very next pass and Florida freshman CJ Henderson picked it off and streaked down the sideline for another score.
Speight, like the rest of the Wolverines, took his lumps in Arlington but did enough to establish himself as the clear leader of Michigan’s offense. He finished 11-of-25 with 181 yards and one long touchdown throw to freshman Tarik Black. Along with the interceptions, he also missed Crawford for what should have been an easy touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Florida made its share of opening-day mistakes, too, notably fumbling twice to even up the turnover battle in the third quarter. Both of those were converted into field goals for the Wolverines. The biggest mistakes for the Gators, though, came before they arrived in Texas. Suspensions cost them 10 players for Saturday’s game, including top playmakers Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett. Their absence took the teeth out of Florida’s offense no matter who was under center.
Michigan's youth showed itself at times, but the concerns that it could hold Jim Harbaugh & Co. back from competing with the top tier of the Big Ten this season should be all but quelled. The Wolverines should be at least a touchdown favorite in each of their next five games before heading to Happy Valley in October. By then, promising young receivers and defensive backs should be hitting their stride at the college level and handing out more pain than they're feeling.
One of Jim Harbaugh's very first directives to his new players when he arrived at Michigan was to seek a "battle rhythm." Like many coaches, Harbaugh wanted his players to develop routines that made the grinding demands of college football into daily habits.
"Basically just eat, sleep, football, school, repeat," junior quarterback Wilton Speight said. "It gets repetitive to where your body builds a callus to it, and you get really good at becoming numb to the pain of it."
Speight left out at least one element of the rhythm that he and his fellow quarterbacks especially have developed in the past three years. One that, under the close supervision of their head coach, has become ingrained or implied enough in their daily lives not to really register anymore: constant pressure.
"That’s Coach Harbaugh’s mission, I think," Speight said. "To make sure we feel uncomfortable at all times."
Speight is in the midst of his third preseason quarterback battle under Harbaugh. He was an afterthought in the first, before moving up the depth chart enough to secure a backup position behind Jake Rudock. He was a surprise front-runner alongside John O'Korn the second time through -- ultimately winning the job and his first nine starts in 2016 before a shoulder injury precipitated the Wolverines’ 1-3 finish in their final four games.
This time around O’Korn is the surprise contender. The fifth-year senior has moved past promising youngster Brandon Peters as the primary competition for Speight, according to the only update Harbaugh plans to give before the week of Michigan’s season opener. O’Korn said he has no idea when the coach will declare a winner in this August’s QB competition rematch. At both the macro level of depth chart determinations and the micro level of blitzes and obstacles during passing drills, there aren't many opportunities for either to relax. For now, he and Speight have both seemingly found their bearings while operating in a system designed to keep them guessing.
O’Korn’s college career started far from discomfort. As a true freshman at Houston in 2013, he threw for 3,117 yards and 25 touchdowns en route to winning his league’s Freshman of the Year award. He thrived with the confidence that comes alongside security. The following summer his name landed on lists and in conversations about the sport’s top honors.
Five weeks into his sophomore year, though, he found himself out of the Cougars' lineup and searching for a new home.
“You’re getting talked about for the Heisman Trophy, Davey O’Brien [Award] and a few weeks later you’re benched,” he said. “I felt at times like I was a scapegoat at Houston for a lot of things that were going on in that program. That’ll shake an 18-year-old kid.”
In a season-and-a-half at Michigan -- the first as a scout team transfer and assumed heir to the quarterbacking throne and the second as Speight’s backup -- O’Korn says he rehabbed his confidence. Enough so that he saw Speight’s injury in November as a shot at his Cardale Jones moment, the more contemporary version of the classic Wally Pipp scenario. While O’Korn made a couple of big plays to help Michigan beat Indiana, it was hardly the bombs-away performance Jones had while taking the baton in the final leg of Ohio State’s 2014 national championship season.
Speight took back the reins the following week, and in the spring O’Korn looked to be a distant third on the quarterback depth chart.
“In the spring game I was wondering if I was going to get a chance or not,” he said. “... It was what it was.”
With only one year of eligibility remaining and without an undergraduate degree yet, O’Korn had no FBS football options but to remain at Michigan and try again to unseat Speight. He said he didn’t consider leaving.
O’Korn credited the arrival of new passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton with helping him find a comfort level he hasn’t felt since things fell apart at Houston. He says he’s scrambling less, relying less on his athletic ability to get the offense out of sticky situations, and feeling more in command of the Wolverines' playbook and what’s going on at the line of scrimmage in front of him.
Speight, in one sense, is moving in the opposite direction. He dropped 23 pounds this offseason by eating only "animals and things that grew from the ground" to make himself more mobile. He said he feels lighter on his feet in the pocket and also hopes to be able to pick up more than two or three yards at a clip when he’s forced to improvise. In another sense, he and O’Korn are both charting a similar course: head first into elements of the game that don’t come naturally.
The first two quarterback decisions Harbaugh made at Michigan turned out to be less dramatic than they seemed at the time. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock elevated himself in the original group earlier than anyone in Ann Arbor let on in 2015. Speight admitted last fall that he had a good sense that he’d be under center -- or that someone was going to have to rip the job from his hands -- through most of last year’s training camp.
It’s hard to say if this year’s contest is more earnest than those or another machination of Harbaugh’s core coaching pillar to create competition and unease at every possible opportunity. The participants may not even know for sure.
Speight said Wednesday night that he felt good about the work he’s put in so far this camp, just as he did a year ago at this time. Then again, after a few years in Ann Arbor all of Michigan’s quarterbacks are feeling good in uncomfortable, uncertain territory.
No college football season goes completely as planned. Freak plays, off days and heroic performances are all capable of producing the yearly upsets that make the sport so compelling.
Upsets are, of course, tough to predict by nature. However, the Big Ten harbors plenty of opportunities for unlikely wins and losses this coming season. Let’s take a look at a few matchups that could result in unprecedented victories -- or losses --for the conference's East Division teams.
Darrell K Royal Stadium will be rocking for the debut of the Tom Herman era in Austin. Herman starts his tenure as Texas' coach against another up-and-coming Ohio native -- Maryland coach D.J. Durkin. Can the Terps ruin the party? While they’ll have a virtually unknown entity at quarterback operating a fast-paced offense, they have a well-kept secret: running back Ty Johnson, who averaged more than 9 yards per carry last season.
Texas, currently a three-touchdown favorite, will be playing for the first time under a new staff that is expected to deliver right off the bat. Maybe Herman will have ironed the wrinkles out of a very talented roster prior to kickoff. Then again, maybe not.
No matter how they perform the rest of the season, coach Mark Dantonio’s teams always seem to put up a good fight against Michigan. Last year, the floundering Spartans managed to stay within striking distance of a superior Michigan team despite losing their quarterback to a broken leg in the middle of the game. Given the rivalry with Michigan State, this young Wolverines team can expect to play in front of a revved up Big House crowd. While Michigan State remains well behind coach Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines in the talent department, the Spartans are no strangers to upsetting their Ann Arbor rivals at the Big House.
While Oklahoma, Penn State and Michigan will likely pose problems for the top-ranked Buckeyes, the Cornhuskers might have the best chance at tripping up Ohio State. This mid-October matchup will take place in Lincoln, which should provide Nebraska with a much-needed edge. The game is also scheduled one week before the Buckeyes face Penn State in what is likely to be the biggest Big Ten contest of the year.
The Hoosiers had a strong track record under former coach Kevin Wilson of giving top-10 teams a scare, even if Indiana typically lacked the firepower to come out on top after four quarters. Can new coach Tom Allen change that? His best chance may come against Wisconsin, a team that isn’t expected to win games by putting up a ton of points. Indiana’s defense made a big leap with Allen serving as a defensive coordinator last year, and the unit returns two potential All-Big Ten players. If the Hoosiers can stymie the Badgers' offense and get a few big plays from their talented receiving corps, IU could throw a wrench in the Big Ten standings in early November.
You know when to watch them. You know where to watch them. Now it's time to figure out which Big Ten games are going to be the most important ones to watch in 2017.
The cutthroat East Division has plenty of high-powered matchups slated for the coming fall both in league play and in nonconference games earlier in the season. Let's take a look at the high-stakes battles that will have the most impact on the divisional race in the East, and largely on the college football landscape at large.
Ohio State vs. Penn State, Oct. 28
Let's start with the obvious. The defending conference champions visit the likely preseason No. 1 team in late October. If anyone is going to go toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer's high-powered Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions are a good bet. Penn State will head to the Horseshoe one week after another monster matchup against Michigan.
For the sake of keeping this list from getting too repetitive, let's lump the meetings between those three programs (Michigan plays Ohio State on the final Saturday of the season in a game that is, as usual, one of college football's biggest of the year) together. Whoever comes out of that round robin looking the best will more than likely have a strong case for a slot in the College Football Playoff. The stakes won't get any higher.
Ohio State vs. Oklahoma, Sept. 9
The second week of the season is loaded with intriguing and potentially season-shaping games. None will be a bigger draw than the top-10 rematch in Columbus. Ohio State beat the Sooners last season in Oklahoma with four passing touchdowns. The Buckeyes' tweaked passing attack for 2017 will get a chance to shine in prime time. If it succeeds, a victory would help the Big Ten's reputation as early-season narratives start to pick up steam and provide an early bullet point for Urban Meyer's playoff resume.
Penn State vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 9
A few hours before kickoff in Columbus, the Nittany Lions will be looking for revenge against in-state rival Pitt. The first meeting between these two programs in 16 years provided some drama a year ago when Trace McSorley drove the Penn State offense down to the 30-yard line before he was intercepted in the final minutes of a 42-39 loss. After a season opener against Akron, the Saturday afternoon game in Happy Valley will give McSorley & Co. a chance to prove that they are picking up where they left off at the end of last season.
Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18
If both teams hold their form throughout the regular season, this will be the top cross-divisional game of the year. The Badgers -- favorites in the West -- will get a chance to prove they're worthy competition for the East Division and pick up an eye-catching victory on a schedule that doesn't have many other opponents that rise above pedestrian. Michigan has to make this trip one week before hosting the rival Buckeyes. A win over Wisconsin would give the Wolverines a little more wiggle room in their championship hopes if they end up splitting with Penn State and Ohio State.
It doesn’t take long to think of college football games that hinge on a major special teams play. Whether it’s a last-second field-goal attempt or a field-flipping punt return, a strong third phase is usually the difference that can turn one or two losses into wins. A weak one can quickly turn a couple wins into losses.
In the past two weeks, we’ve reviewed the Big Ten’s cream of the crop at key position groups on both sides of the ball. We wrap up our list of the league’s best units by taking a look at special teams.
Best of the best: According to ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings, only two teams (Stanford and Memphis) were more effective on special teams in 2016 than Michigan. The Wolverines led the Big Ten in several special teams stats. Despite losing do-it-all kicker Kenny Allen and do-it-all returner Jabrill Peppers, they should be a formidable group again this fall.
Quinn Nordin will take over placekicking duties for Allen, and the big-legged sophomore made a good early impression by knocking down a 48-yard field goal with plenty of room to spare during the spring game. A whole host of young athletes are in the running to take over for Peppers in the return game. And as electric as he was, Michigan's best plays while lining up against a kicker came on blocks. The Wolverines blocked a combined seven kicks and punts a year ago – more than any other power five school. This year, special teams coach Chris Partridge said the goal is to focus more on breaking big returns than blocking kicks.
Next in line: Penn State returns a trio of talented specialists in the kicking game. Redshirt senior Tyler Davis tied for the league's best field-goal percentage by hitting 22 of 24 attempts last season, although his longest attempt was only 40 yards out. Blake Gillikin set a freshman school record by averaging 42.8 yards per punt, including 13 attempts that traveled at least 50 yards. And Joey Julius added an extra dimension to the Nittany Lions’ kickoff coverage by being as punishing of a tackler as any kicker in recent memory. With the athletes to make big plays in the return game, Penn State is set up well for all angles of special teams.
Wisconsin is another team to watch, especially as the Badgers expect to get placekicker Rafael Gaglianone back after the Brazilian missed most of 2016 with an injury.
Don’t sleep on: Iowa was among the league’s most efficient special teams units a year ago. Assistant coach LeVar Woods said this spring that he’s had starters lining up outside his office to ask about playing on special teams this offseason. The Hawkeyes have to replace several key figures -- most notably returner Desmond King -- but the focus on that area of the field and the dividends it paid last year bode well for Kirk Ferentz’s team.
In eight of the past nine college football seasons, at least one Big Ten program has held its opponents to less than an average of 100 rushing yards per game. No other league can claim that. Michigan State came up just shy of helping the conference make it nine out of nine when it allowed 100.5 yards per game in 2011. Will another group join the ranks of that elite accomplishment in 2017?
There are certainly some contenders. Last week we reviewed the most promising looking units the Big Ten has to offer on the offensive side of the ball. This week, we’ll examine defense and special teams. That starts with a look at the teams that should have the most success in what most coordinators think is the foundation of a good defense: stopping the run.
Best of the best: Wisconsin has held its opponents’ rushing average below the century mark in each of the past two seasons. The Badgers' front seven is loaded with depth, talent and experience again. The starting defensive line’s two-deep returns intact. There are at least three or four viable starters for the inside linebacker positions as well, including last year’s leading tackler, T.J. Edwards, and Chris Orr, who was expected to do big things before suffering a season-ending injury on the first snap in 2016.
The only questions about the Badgers' ability to build on their run-stopping reputation come from having to replace stars at outside linebacker and defensive coordinator. First-round draft pick T.J. Watt and newly-minted Green Bay Packer Vince Biegel were both game-changing players for the Badgers. New coordinator Jim Leonhard thinks he’ll have some answers at that position, especially with junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel.
Next in line: Ohio State doesn’t sit very far from the top in any phase of the game for 2017. The Buckeyes may end up with the best defensive line in college football, which should help the speed behind them clean up any ball carriers that slip past the line of scrimmage.
Tyquan Lewis is the returning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and there’s a decent chance he’ll be battling for a starting spot with the likes of Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard. Behind them, linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker provide a very athletic second line of defense. Michigan warrants some consideration here as well. The Wolverines lack depth and experience in the front seven, but coaches in Ann Arbor think this group (led by star defensive end Rashan Gary) could be even faster than the unit that allowed a league-best 3.22 yards per carry a year ago.
Don’t sleep on: Minnesota may not have faced offensive juggernauts in the West Division at quite the same frequency as some of those teams on the other side of the conference, but the Gophers allowed more than 200 yards on the ground only once -- against rival Wisconsin. Linebacker is the deepest position on the roster for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. That group has the potential to be one of the best in the league, especially if redshirt senior Cody Poock can stay healthy. There’s depth there, too, with a trio of young players who all saw significant playing time as true freshmen last season.
Lastly, it would be a mistake to talk about Big Ten front-seven strength without mentioning Iowa. The Hawkeyes return star linebacker Josey Jewell for a final season and have plenty of pieces around him to be stout against the run.
The Big Ten may not break its lengthy drought of sending a quarterback into the first round of the NFL draft with this year’s crop, but that doesn’t mean there’s any lack of talent at the position. Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts.
This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. We start the week with a review of the best quarterback depth charts in the conference heading into 2017.
Best of the best: Ohio State returns the most productive quarterback in program history to operate an offense that promises to let him unleash some deeper throws this year. J.T. Barrett has accounted for exactly 100 touchdowns heading into his senior season. New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who previously had to stop Barrett when the Buckeyes played Indiana, said he thought the veteran leader made good strides on hitting longer throws in spring practice.
Barrett is a candidate to be the conference’s top player next season, but it’s Ohio State’s depth at quarterback that nudges them ahead of others to the top of this list. Backups Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins both have the skills to be starters. They threw three touchdown passes each in the spring game in Columbus, setting up what could be the most entertaining backup quarterback battle in college football this year.
Next in line: Penn State and Michigan both deserve mention here. Trace McSorley finished out his first year as a full-time starter with 12 touchdown passes in three games, including a conference title win and a trip to the Rose Bowl. He should have the weapons around him for another record-setting year in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions’ coaching staff also seemed pleased with the level of competition redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens provided as McSorley’s understudy.
The situation isn’t much different in Ann Arbor. Wilton Speight remains the starter after helping lead Michigan and its offense to another 10-win season in 2016. Speight separated himself as the leader of a team that has a lot of pieces to replace next fall and a calm, confident presence on the field. He may not be the most physically talented quarterback on the roster, though. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters showed he has both strength and touch during the spring season.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. The third-year starter made a significant jump forward between his first and second seasons leading the offense. If he can continue his upward trajectory again in 2017, the Wildcats will have as good a chance as any team to unseat Wisconsin as the West Division champions. Thorson threw for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He also showed he has the potential to make plays with his feet, although he took off less often a year ago than during his rookie season. Top target Austin Carr is gone, but Thorson should get some help in replacing him from Oregon transfer Jalen Brown and the rest of a maturing receiver group.
The impact of a recruiting battle isn’t felt until the prospect hits the field for whichever team he chose. The team that missed out is often left with a void that the prospect could have filled and the team that won is left gloating if he pans out.
Since recruiting battles happen all the time within the Big Ten, there will likely be a few big names on the field this season that teams wish they could have landed. Here is a look at past recruiting battles within the conference and who they’re impacting.
RB Karan Higdon, Michigan
Higdon was headed to Iowa in the 2015 recruiting class until Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh swooped in and got him to commit to Michigan. Higdon was at the center of a few battles as Michigan was also pursuing running back Mike Weber, who eventually signed with Ohio State after debating between the Buckeyes and Michigan.
Iowa losing out on Higdon stings because the Hawkeyes ranked 64th in the nation in rushing yards last season and 71st in rushing touchdowns. The Hawkeyes also must replace Leshun Daniels Jr., who rushed for 1,058 yards last season.
Haskins and Jones both decommitted from Maryland and flipped to Ohio State during the 2016 cycle in what ended up being a big sting for the Terps. While Maryland is headed in the right direction, these two would have been huge additions to the roster.
Having Haskins in his second season at quarterback would have been a big help to Walt Bell’s offense and could have accelerated the process. The staff has landed some nice pieces, including ESPN 300 quarterback Kasim Hill in the 2017 class.
The Buckeyes have recruited well at quarterback and will have Haskins in the mix as the backup this season.
WR K.J. Hamler, Penn State
For quite some time in his recruitment, it seemed as though Hamler would be headed to Michigan State. An in-state prospect in the 2017 class, Michigan State was hot on his trail.
Needing receivers and playmakers on offense, Hamler would have been a big addition to the Spartans’ offense, but a late push by the Nittany Lions swung him in their favor.
Penn State coaches put in a lot of work to reel in Hamler and the staff eventually won out. While Michigan State did land a few other receivers in the class, none were as explosive as Hamler.
The shifty receiver sustained an ACL injury his senior high school season, but if he fully recovers, Hamler could be a big playmaker for the Nittany Lions.
WR Tyjon Lindsey, Nebraska
Lindsey’s recruitment in the 2017 cycle was a bit odd, to say the least. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver was committed to Ohio State with Las Vegas (Nevada) Bishop Gorman teammates Haskell Garrett and Tate Martell until Lindsey abruptly decommitted and switched to Nebraska.
By all accounts, Lindsey seemed solid to the Buckeyes for most of his commitment. Nebraska started making a big push as the process got closer to signing day, ultimately leading to his commitment.
Ohio State has options on the roster, but Lindsey would have been a good fit and a big help on new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s offense.
ATH Ambry Thomas, Michigan
Thomas is a dynamic prospect who can play offense or defense and was heavily considering Michigan State as well as Michigan. He ultimately landed with Michigan, but would have been a much-needed addition to the Michigan State roster.
The Spartans could use help on both offense and defense, and Thomas is the type of player who realistically could have had an impact both sides in East Lansing. He is a local prospect and was one of the highest-ranked prospects in the state, so not only did it sting for Michigan State not to get him on the field on their side, but it also meant losing an in-state battle to their top rival.
Urban Meyer waited only a few minutes after his Ohio State team finished its 2016 season to promise the offense would be better next year. After an embarrassing 31-0 shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, Meyer threw some conviction behind the sentiment that his program's passing game had to improve.
"We will become a good passing team, we will," Meyer said at the time. "Next year."
Since then, the Buckeyes have made some tangible progress toward meeting that goal. They’re not alone among their Big Ten brethren either, which should be a scary thought for defensive coordinators in the Midwest and beyond.
Ohio State -- despite an air attack that didn’t live up to the head coach's standards -- scored 66 touchdowns in 2016. Michigan and Penn State each matched their East Division foe with the same number. For the first time in league history, three different Big Ten teams topped 500 total points. There’s reason to believe all three could be more prolific in 2017. Could next fall be a record-setting year for scoring in the Big Ten? If spring ball is any indication, there’s a pretty good chance.
All three quarterbacks from those programs return as seasoned veterans, and all three have some exciting new toys at their disposal.
Trace McSorley and the reigning champion Nittany Lions have a crew of tall, rangy receivers that can keep defenses from loading up too much to stop star running back Saquon Barkley. At the top of that list after the spring was 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson, who was the most improved player on the team according to his coaches and has a chance to be a breakout star next fall.
At Michigan, Wilton Speight raved about the two newest additions to his passing game. He called early enrollees Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black "pretty freaky" and "special" after just a few practices. Peoples-Jones was one of the top 25 high school players in the country last season and should be able to help the Wolverines' depleted two-deep right away. It was Black who turned the most heads this spring, with a touchdown catch in the spring game and an impressive performance in Rome.
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett has a strong cast of receivers, too, but his biggest upgrade comes in the form of new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. The former Indiana coach is working to restore Ohio State's deep-ball threat to the level it reached in 2014 when the Buckeyes scored 672 points (the highest total of any Big Ten team in at least the past 20 years) en route to a national championship.
"There is some enhancement going on now," Meyer told reporters in March. "We're not changing, we're enhancing what we do. If it was broken, we'd have to change it."
Compounding those high scores will be the fact that the most inexperienced groups on some of the league’s best teams are in the secondary. Ohio State has to replace three first-round picks in its defensive backfield. All four of the starters from a Michigan back end that had the best passing defense in the country in 2016 are gone. Penn State’s group suffered a blow this spring when top cornerback John Reid reportedly suffered a potential season-ending injury. The talent is still there, but youth usually leads to some mistakes.
The West Division will still provide some of the defense-first, slugfest-style football that one thinks of when talking about the Big Ten. Wisconsin should be stingy as usual and Northwestern will be able to ride the reliable workhorse Justin Jackson.
Elsewhere, though, some of the conference’s weaker offenses should be able to take some steps toward contributing to an influx of points. Purdue (24.6 points per game in 2016) hired Jeff Brohm after he wrapped up his season in Western Kentucky with the highest-scoring offense in the nation. Maryland (25.8) has the playmakers to make another jump under offensive coordinator Walt Bell and his fast-paced attack. Receiver Mikey Dudek should be able to help Illinois (19.7), too, if he stays healthy for a full season.
The Big Ten climbed back into the conversation as one of college football’s toughest conferences, especially in the East Division, over the past several years by adding speed and innovative coaches. It’s no surprise that the points are starting to stack up, and they could be coming in some unprecedented bunches in 2017.
Michigan's coaching staff was just returning from an Italian dinner -- their final meal as a team in Rome -- in a 17th century Baroque mansion with marble door frames and elaborate chandeliers when their phones started to buzz again. A few thousand miles away, on the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Jets had just selected Jeremy Clark with the 197th pick of the NFL draft. He was the 11th Wolverine to have his name called in Philadelphia, a new school record.
It was likely just a coincidence that the program's most successful NFL draft occurred as those returning to Ann Arbor next fall wrapped up an unprecedented week-long trip to one of Western civilization's oldest cities. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has had crazier recruiting schemes in his two-plus years on the job, though, so who knows.
Intentional or not, Michigan managed to once again head into summer in control of college football headlines and distill a powerful recruiting pitch into a single weekend. Hey, kid, want to play in the NFL? And how about a couple international vacations on us in the meantime? It should be a good month for Harbaugh's staff as they turn back to the recruiting trail.
"I think it's a huge plus. It's an opportunity to experience a different life," said Thomas Wilcher, head coach of Detroit-area high school powerhouse Cass Tech, which produced a couple of this year's draft picks from Michigan. "That just shows the coach is really trying to develop young men. He's trying to let football open a lot of avenues for them in life."
Harbaugh said before leaving Italy that he wanted to take the team to South Africa next spring, or perhaps Brazil. The anonymous donor who helped fund the trip is on board, for now, to help make it an annual spring finale for the football team.
International travel is a new addition to the recruiting pitch. The NFL angle has been around since Harbaugh arrived and brought with him a staff that has plenty of pro level experience. Talking about pro aspirations used to be nearly taboo in the team's practice facility. Now, Michigan's coaches talk in the middle of a season about limiting workloads to avoid long-term wear and tear and have regular conversations with players about getting to the next level.
To be fair, all 11 of the draftees this weekend were sold on Michigan by Brady Hoke's staff in 2013. Hoke stuck to a more traditional recruiting script and still managed to bring in a class of prospects as heralded -- or more heralded -- than any group Harbaugh has compiled since his arrival. It's not unreasonable to assume, though, that playing under the new coaching staff the last two years helped get a few extra players drafted or bumped a couple players into earlier rounds.
There is a counterargument to Michigan's well-timed sales pitch of a week and another way to view the team that produced more NFL talent than any other last year. Just ask Florida State assistant Tim Brewster, who (in Harbaugh parlance) sent a shot across the bow on Twitter this weekend.
Most draft picks doesn't correlate to winning....Just ask Michigan! #OrangeBowlChampions!
— Tim Brewster (@TimBrewster) April 29, 2017
Michigan missed a golden opportunity to win a Big Ten title, if not more, in 2016. Losing three of its last four games in skin-of-your-teeth fashion didn't make that reality any easier to swallow for the Wolverines -- nor does watching so many of the key players from that team get selected in the draft this weekend. There's no way to sugar coat that, and no one on Michigan attempted to do so.
"Winning the offseason" started out as a sign of a bright future for Harbaugh and company in Ann Arbor. Their detractors didn't take long to start pointing out that the in-season results haven't yet matched. If more time passes without at least a divisional title, it won't be long before Harbaugh's unique adventures and NFL success are used as a punch line as often as a sales pitch.
Trying to introduce players to new cultures and innovate within the sport are admirable ventures in their own right, but winning championships remains the ultimate goal. Can enticing experiences and NFL futures help Michigan to get there? So far the results on National Signing Day in February have been good, but they might start to lose some shine on the recruiting trail if the results in November and December don't follow.