Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

Brady Hoke, master of doing nothing while doing everything...pretty sure he's secretly a Jedi 

Michigan 28, San Diego State 7

Another week has come and gone and Michigan is 4-0 once again. This is where our collective guard should go up. The last two years, the bridge covering the distance between us and Big Ten glory (or, let's be honest, the Capital One Bowl) dropped out from underneath us, leaving us to the voracious appetite of our conference foes and various reptilian media personalities who shall go unnamed in this space. I'm not going to argue whether or not this time is different because I don't even know what that really means. Does it mean that Michigan will finish the season with more wins? Does it mean that we will be more competitive against the Big Ten schedule (primarily against OSU and MSU)? Does it mean we'll reach some benchmark of improvement , whether vague or statistically specific, that we can at a certain point say that we are doing the opposite of what we were ostensibly doing last season (i.e., regressing)? Does it mean all of these things at once? I'm not really sure. The Big Ten is certifiably pathetic this year (Rittenberg ranked us 3rd--THIRD!--in the conference), and an extra win or two against teams that have replaced PSU and Wisconsin on the schedule, while nice, isn't a reason start making arrangements to cordon off State St. for the biggest pre-Capital One Bowl parade of all time.

With that Debbie Downer bit out of the way, I will say that it feels good to be 4-0 once again even if it could all very well be a mirage, even if we've played only one team (a team whose offense can best be described as Malfunctioning Eddie from Futurama) with a pulse. I'll take it, and with 6-0 looking like a distinct possibility if not an inevitability then all I have to say is let's let the Era of Good Feelings continue.

The Offense

So I think it's safe to say that we're starting to get an idea for what this offense can and can't do as we sit on the precipice of the Big Ten schedule. Watching Denard throw the ball has been an adventure to say the least, and I'm pretty sure the way I feel as Denard is about to release the ball is exactly how I felt in 2009 whenever he'd appear in games. I'm not interested in ridiculous buzz words like "regression" but things don't look good. How long can you pin Denard's lack of accuracy on nerves or unfamiliarity with the schemes or whatever other reason has been conjured up? I believe that Denard gets too hyped up before games, I really do, but at a certain point you've got to learn to harness that excitability and unleash it when you're streaking down the field and trying to destroy the safety's angle with pure, unadulterated speed.

In any case, Denard had yet another Denardian game--are we at the point yet that Denard's performances merit an eponymous adjective, like Kafkaesque but scary in a different way?--passing for a sub-100 amount and running for an amount that would make Forrest Gump tired just thinking about it. Denard's already over halfway to a 1,000 yards rushing this year, a stat which of course includes the rain-shortened Western game where he only had 46. It's hard to complain, but Denard carrying the ball 22 times (of course, only some were by design, but still) compared to Fitz+Smith's 21 is...right? An equitable division of carries? Horrible because because Denard is gonna break, man? I don't know. Maybe we can just keep running Denard all day and he doesn't get hurt at all, but I just find that highly unlikely. If we're running him 26 and 21 times against EMU and SDSU respectively, what does that say about his workload throughout the Big Ten schedule? Once again, thank you 2011 schedule for kind of taking it easy on us. Notre Dame didn't impress all that much against Pitt, but there's an outside shot that ND could end up being the best team we'll have faced all year. Think about that. Notre Dame. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but if it does then this season will be pretty awesome even if it exists only in some mirage-like Matrix world. Denard might not be able to hit an open receiver, but he's still basically Neo with the ball in his hands. If only he could could sit in that chair and receive a training module on how to pass, life would be so much easier.

In non-Denard news, the tailbacks were once again their standard selves. Smith had a pretty poor game minus the one beast mode touchdown and the 32-yarder; any questions about who should start can pretty much be shot into the sun at this point. Toussaint is better, and while he's probably not going to join the pantheon of elite Michigan running backs (sorry, Fred) but he's more than good enough for our purposes. Thirteen carries for 67 yards is an unspectacular but very solid day. He is an agile back with enough quicks to navigate his way to the right hole and occasionally blow through it as he did against Western. Unfortunately, the offensive line has had somewhat of a tough time thus far this year, but it's still early and Michigan will get plenty of chances to hone their ground game in the coming weeks (not to mention in practice).

It's become clear that Hemingway et al are going to fall painfully short of the lofty pre-season expectations that many--including myself--had for him/them. Their numbers just have to go up as the season goes on. As great as Denard doing his thing is, we have way too much talent on the outside to waste. Insert last week's post-EMU general call for hitches, bubble screens, and any other manner of getting the ball from Denard to a receiver for confidence-building and, you know, the actual completion of passes. That'd be nice. Get Denard and Borges in the training room of the Nebuchadnezzar, ASAP.

The Defense

All things considered, the defense is...not a disaster? There are even things to be optimistic about, which is a foreign feeling and makes me uncomfortable even though I know it's a good thing. Of course, Marqueis Gray will run for 900 yards next week and I'll just think yeah, that sounds about right. 

Michigan did get a lot of help from Ryan Lindley, who was about as accurate as Denard except that he threw it a whopping 48 times. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, many of Lindley's passes fell nowhere near their intended target, whether due to miscommunication, pressure, or just bad accuracy. Our secondary is giving us reasons to be excited, but they're not at the point where they can subsist completely on the magnitude of their own talents. Lindley only completed 23 of 48 passes for 253 yards, many completed to Tacopants. Michigan did a fine job (as they've done all season) of bringing pressure right up the middle (think back to Demens coming up the middle against Western three times in a row). After doing some amateur scouting of Lindley's performance against TCU last season as part of a general look at the Borges offense, I pegged him [Lindley] as a guy to be pretty worried about, especially when paired with a legitimately above average tailback like Hillman. Lindley disappointed--some of which can be attributed to Michigan's defensive performance--but you also can't deny that the loss of SDSU's top 4 receivers, either to the NFL or injuries, was too much for them to overcome. Other than Escobar and maybe Lockett, SDSU just didn't have the weapons to challenge Michigan's secondary. I guess it's a good thing Michigan's secondary held up pretty well, because if they didn't then that would've meant getting burnt by a receiving corps full of noobs.

On a serious note, can we go ahead and just admit that JT Floyd and not Woolfolk is probably our top corner? Woolfolk taking Hemingway's place as the team injury magnet hasn't helped, but Woolfolk was beaten on a couple of occasions whereas Floyd held his ground nearly every time, with a PBU and just generally good coverage a majority of the time. I used to think of him as a Grant Mason-y type, but he's definitely proven himself to be a little more serviceable than that. Absence makes the heart grow fonder re: Woolfolk, but, he's still a good player and a leader and a more than solid #2 guy at this point in Michigan's rebuild of the defense.

Elsewhere, Martin, RVB, and even Roh were fairly active in this one, and Campbell continued to be not definitively bad, which in Michigan fan terms might as well mean All-American status. Seriously, though, Campbell...he's learning. They can rebuild it...maybe they did? I'll hold off on excessive hype until he starts to prove it against Big Ten teams (not that any of the offensive lines he'll face in October are anything to write home about). After a week where I foolishly thought "so where has Mike Martin?" he showed up time and again, blowing up the middle of the line and getting in Lindley's face. I'm sorry for even thinking about questioning you, Mike. It'll never happen again. So yeah, he's still good but getting doubled over and over again kind of mitigates your impact on the stat sheet. Got it.

Jake Ryan got is first official start and looked pretty good despite getting rocked on that one play that Floyd got temporarily hurt on. I would really love to see Cam Gordon return but at this point I'm just kind of ignoring everything that Brady Hoke says about him, and if he [Cam] returns then I'll treat it like a pleasant surprise. For the time being, though, Jake Ryan is someone to get really excited about. He plays like a freshman at times but he's going to be good when all is said and done.

Contain is still an enormous issue for this defense, but then again containing Ronnie Hillman is difficult for even an experienced, edge-conscious team. Generally, this is further proof that Michigan's defensive speed is not even close to up to snuff; that issue will be rectified in time through S&C and recruiting. For now, we'll have to hope that the team continues to pick up what Mattison is dropping. It definitely looks like they're making some plays that haven't been made in the past few years.

From a statistical perspective, giving up only 7 points (in addition to 10 and 3 against the Michigan direction schools) is nothing to scoff at. Yes, part of this has certainly been luck, and yes, not all of Michigan's turnovers have been forced. Michigan's current turnover rate is unsustainable but that's hopefully okay because Michigan will (ostensibly) be better on both sides of the ball as the season goes on. In any case, holding a back like Hillman to only 109 yards (well below his average) is pretty encouraging. That guy is good, and he'll go on to have many more 100+ yard games this season.

I'm not going to say anything about the safeties because talking about safeties usually means something bad happened, and...nothing bad happened, really. Our safeties are competent, if not good. There, I said it. OUR SAFETIES ARE GOOD, Y'ALL.

The Special Teams


Also, Matt Wile had a nice game punting the ball, but the assumption is that Hagerup--assuming there isn't any residual post-suspension doghouse stuff going on--should get the starting nod going forward.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • I'll admit it, I definitely thought and said "punt" on that 4th down from our 48. I'm not proud of it, but we all make mistakes. Maybe my brief meeting with Lloyd is to blame for this instance of philosophical and mathematical derpitude? Probably.
  • Jake Ryan is doing things on the reg now so I'm replacing the "Jake Ryan!" bullet with "Blake Countess!" Yes, let the hype train pick up speed. Seriously, we have actual depth in the secondary this year, and it is glorious. Countess pretty much blanketed his guy despite the fact that Lindley was looking to target him specifically. He honestly might have had a better game than both Avery and Woolfolk. 
  • Hopkins needs to not play for a long time...it should be Smith and Fitz almost exclusively the rest of the way, with Shaw getting the scraps. Hopkins was about to finish off a pretty nice run before he fumbled, which makes it even more frustrating. Some guys just have problems holding onto the ball for whatever reason (it's not like it was an exceptional defensive play or anything), and unfortunately Hopkins is one of those people. 
  • So it looks like I was completely wrong to think that Avery>Floyd in the preseason. I still have high hopes for Avery but he's still young; the lone SDSU touchdown was completed on him. 
  • I'd like to see linebackers and not defensive backs lead the team in tackles in any given game but  I guess that comes with the territory of a "bend but don't break." 
  • Okay I'm done. But seriously, stop it. 
  • I'm not 100% sure what the injury situation is regarding Woolfolk and Barnum (and even Cam Gordon), but if there's any doubt about their ability to play then they should sit against the Gophers. Also, if Denard carries the ball any more than 15 times next week (rather, if we need him to) then I might start to get a little frustrated with the state of the offense. 
  • I don't care if this is a mirage or not real or whatever; it's great to be 4-0 once again. 

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