Free Press sports writer Nick Baumgardner breaks down what happened in Michigan football’s 41-15 loss to Florida in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29, 2018.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
Michigan football won 10 games in a row and looked terrific doing it.
It lost the season opener and final two games of the year and looked pretty darn bad doing that.
There wasn’t much middle ground in 2018, which makes this a hard year to grade overall. There was progress in plenty of areas, but not enough. There were points left on the field and adjustments that never happened.
The disasters at Ohio State and against Florida don’t speak for the whole season, even if they’re yelling pretty loudly right now.
In the end, Michigan hit double-digits in wins again but ultimately squandered the best title opportunity this program has had in years.
If you read my work all year, you saw time and time again that it would likely take some time for Shea Patterson to adjust to a new system. That him winning the Heisman Trophy was wishful thinking. And that it was going to take more than one person to fix this football team. Patterson was not perfect in 2018, but considering what Michigan asked of him, he fit in as well as anyone could’ve reasonably hoped for this season.
He finished the year with 2,600 yards, 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 64.6 percent completion rate. No, he wasn’t the savior some unrealistically hoped he would be, but Patterson was very efficient all year for Jim Harbaugh and Co. without a ton of prep time coming in.
There are things to work on: Downfield accuracy, staying ready in the pocket and stepping into throws rather than fading away. But it’s hard to ignore that Michigan didn’t use all of its options. There wasn’t much run-pass option this year. There weren’t nearly enough QB run calls. He’s coming back and he has a solid body of work to build on.
Final grade: B+
When he played, Karan Higdon was great. It was easy to see how much Michigan missed his presence in the Peach Bowl. The Wolverines’ performance in that bowl raises a few questions about how the running back corps will look heading into 2019, but Higdon improved his game in just about every area this season and became Harbaugh’s first big-play hammer at Michigan.
Chris Evans was hampered by a hamstring all year and never quite looked like the guy we saw as a freshman in 2016 and early in 2017. He has one more shot, but he’ll need a big offseason. True freshman Christian Turner showed some burst on one run in the Peach Bowl. The staff really likes him; he’ll get a shot, too. Tru Wilson is a steady pass blocker who will be in the rotation. It’s hard to imagine Michigan not using incoming freshman Zach Charbonnet, given the overall lack of depth.
Final grade: B
Wide receivers/tight ends
What a difference a year makes. Michigan’s top wide receivers, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins, went from looking lost at times as freshmen to budding game-breakers as sophomores. Michigan didn’t have Tarik Black for most of the season due to a foot injury, but the promise is there for the future. Peoples-Jones caught 47 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns and Collins had 632 yards and six scores. Zach Gentry and Nick Eubanks made plays in the pass game and Sean McKeon was used as a two-way tight end.
Next year, though, Collins, Peoples-Jones and Black have to be the centerpiece of Michigan’s offense. Period. They’re the three most talented players on the roster. The coaching staff has to give them more opportunities. It can’t go into 2019 as it did in 2018, starting with a conservative approach before ultimately trying to shift to something else mid-year. Still, there was plenty of growth in 2018.
Final grade: A-
This group improved greatly, even if it struggled with consistency against more athletic teams. Michigan’s offensive line was terrific during the team’s 10-game winning streak, keeping Patterson clean and creating creases on inside zones, pin-pulls and quarterback reads. The line got faster in 2018 and smarter, thanks in large part to Ed Warinner.
The linemen weren’t perfect, though. Michigan struggled with protections against the toughest teams — Notre Dame, Ohio State, Florida — on the schedule. Four of the five starters are expected back and there’s room to grow. Still, it might be the most improved unit on the team.
Final grade: B+
Michigan missed NFL draftee Maurice Hurst. A lot. The Wolverines got relentless production from Chase Winovich on the edge. Kwity Paye and Josh Uche were nice surprises. Rashan Gary was banged up for most of the year and never really found another gear when he was in games. But the interior of the line was nowhere near as disruptive as it had been with Hurst, and Ryan Glasgow before him.
It’s hard to ding these guys too much; they were good for most of the season. But injuries and an apparent lack of depth, left the line to struggle against good football teams. Greg Mattison’s been one of the best defensive line coaches in America over the past few years and he has had some dominant lines. This was, at times, a solid line. But not dominant, at least by Mattison’s standards.
Final grade: B-
Devin Bush Jr. was an All-American and probably Michigan’s best player for all 12 games. His presence in the middle of Michigan’s defense consistently made up for mistakes elsewhere. He was elite for two seasons and Michigan doesn’t really have a comparable replacement. Khaleke Hudson didn’t have the type of year most thought he might after a breakout sophomore campaign. He did play well, though, in the bowl game.
Devin Gil had good and bad plays. Josh Ross looked like an up-and-comer. Both will have to make big leaps moving into 2019. In short, this unit was like most of Michigan’s defense: Good against bad teams, but not against the good ones.
Final grade: B+
More than any other unit, Michigan’s secondary looked outstanding against bad teams and exposed against better passing attacks. It’s hard to reconcile this season’s final numbers — 147.8 yards per game allowed, No. 2 nationally — with the 9.6 yards per attempt and eight touchdowns allowed to Notre Dame, Ohio State and Florida.
When faced with athletic receivers in man-to-man coverage, this group failed far too often. The several great performances — most coming against bad or injured quarterbacks — make this a difficult grade. But when it mattered most, the secondary wasn’t elite.
Final grade: B-
Will Hart had an outstanding season and wound up as the Big Ten Punter of the Year while averaging nearly 47 yards a kick. Michigan might have also found a kicker in true freshman Jake Moody, who took over for an inconsistent Quinn Nordin midseason and made 10 of 11 on field-goal attempts.
Ambry Thomas returned a kickoff for a score. Peoples-Jones brought a punt back. Michigan also blocked three kicks. A fine season.
Final grade: B+
Michigan’s season boils down to this: Good, not great. Good at home, against lesser teams. Bad against the elite. Michigan’s roster is limited in areas, but most of them appear to be accentuated by the way the Wolverines want to play football. Grinding teams up with a slow pace and a physical defense only works when you’re more talented than the opponent.
We saw that against three top-10 teams when Michigan kept its predictable approach and got handled. There was progress made this season. But this staff has got to be better when the lights are the brightest. Because the three games that defined this season were ultimately huge whiffs and most of that blame falls on the game plan. This was a solid year, but nowhere near what was wanted, given the opportunity this program had.
The Wolverines were not championship level. And in year four, they should’ve been.
Final grade: B-
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NickBaumgardner.