Monday, September 5, 2011

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall


Michigan 34, Western Michigan 10 

"It was kind of wild," Hoke said. "Wet and wild."

As the rain fell and Brady Hoke patrolled the field as if he'd been around for a while already, as if it was undeniably his field and his program and not one that had just been handed to him only 8 months ago, it was hard not to come away with certain vague feelings of goodness, that something that was more good than bad had just transpired, a feeling of warmth that may or may not be ephemeral. The Era of Good Feelings continues. James Monroe's got nothing on Brady Hoke. 

Every bit of criticism and praise should me measured and cut with reason; however, this is college football we're talking about here, and reason is a mirage in a desert of hyperbolic assertions and chaos. Honestly, I'm okay with a little misguided confidence right now. After the last three years (four if you're willing to lump in Lloyd's "relatively" successful valediction), it's just fine to think that maybe things are different now. Maybe our fundamental flaws have improved to the point that we don't have to watch with our hands covering our eyes, peeking between our fingers. Maybe they haven't yet; in fact, they certainly haven't yet, and the coaches will tell you as much. I do know that, after an agonizing first drive on defense, the game was fun to watch. I saw Alex Carder's helmet come off and roll around on the turf, and smiled.

Then again, Western in 2009 and UCONN last season were fun too. Maybe we just played Western Michigan and did what we were supposed to, which we had done already two seasons ago just as impressively. Regardless, what went into the box was uncertainty, and what came out was a little less uncertainty, and even some reasons for optimism, if you're that sort of person. 

The Offense

After an offseason of Al Borges being asked time after time about what he was going to do, to the point that somebody asking him "HEY YOU KNOW YOU HAVE DENARD ROBINSON RIGHT WHY AREN'T YOU USING HIM, MAN?" wouldn't have been ridiculous but a logical, if not entirely derp-filled, jump in the offseason narrative. Of course, Borges made it known that he was planning on using Denard in a way that would take advantage of his talents without revealing his hand too much, but nobody was going to truly believe him until the Wolverines took the field. After the first play, I breathed a sigh of relief (as did many others, I'm sure):

It's like zone left if zone left had a leather interior, seat warmers, and satellite radio. In any case, it was a final, resounding note in the long, frustrating book titled "Is Al Borges An Idiot?" (Foreword by Derp McGee), and in that chapter Al Borges slayed the dragon that is the menace of Denard under center for the rest of time. So, from a philosophical perspective, that's good, and we can stop talking about it. From Coach Hoke himself:

"There's a comfort level you want him to feel good about," Hoke said. "We blocked it well, and I think he got a first down. I think we were in and out of (a spread look) enough."

I'm surprised that Hoke didn't spontaneously combust upon saying the word "spread."

Even considering the missed quarter of Michigan football that we will never get back, Michigan's offensive sample size is small. Only 36 offensive plays makes it difficult to make any sweeping generalizations or extrapolations of what may or may not come to be, especially given the absence of a starter on the offensive line, a fairly vanilla game plan, and the loss of the TOP battle, 25:18 to 18:15. Personally, I'm not a person who gives much attention to TOP; the point of the game of football is to score and score often. Yes, I know, "but the defense"...the defense's job is to get off the field as quickly as possible. While we never ran the offense with nearly the same pace that Oregon does under RR, the pace was quick, and thus the aforementioned became a legitimate, not so much. I will say that I'd be interested to know how much the time elapsed between snaps differed between Saturday's game and an average RR game. The tradeoff of pace for defensive rest is debatably beneficial but an interesting thing to follow going forward.

From a personnel standpoint, no Barnum (whether to injury or suspension), was a disappointment. I was really looking forward to a starting line of Lewan, Barnum, Molk, Omameh, and Huyge/whoever, but oh well. I'm sure Brian will do the legwork vis a vis Schofield's performance in his offensive UFR later this week, but he seemed to hold his own just fine. Generally, the offensive line looked about as good as you'd expect in this type of game. They were good at the things they were used to doing, less good at the straight up power plays, as expected. It's hard to be unhappy with the running game when Michigan ran for 190 yards on 26 carries in a shortened game and a fourth quarter that was bound to be run-heavy, but the concerns are still there about Michigan's ability to run the power plays that Hoke wants Michigan to run (whether as a part of his philosophical bent or a piece of his grand plan as media puppeteer). Michigan got stuffed more than once, but I guess that's to be expected. Additionally, as Ace noted in his WMU preview, Western did have some serious beef in the middle of their defensive line. As with everything else to be gleaned from this game, it comes with a flashing "this is a work in progress" sign. Michigan's offensive line won't become as big as LSU's or Wisconsin's any time soon, but that's okay for our purposes this season.

The passing game, additionally, merits nothing more than a grade of "incomplete," which, given the result of the game, is fairly apropos. With Denard only attempting 13 passes, we don't have much at all to work with. While it was said that Gallon had passed Odoms on the depth chart, I was skeptical the entire time. I remember reading that the other day and thinking that that wouldn't last, and that it was probably due to Odoms's cast limiting his ability to catch and/or get reps in practice. Is Gallon going to be a permanent fixture going forward? We shall see, but I will say that while I like what Gallon brings to the table (his KO return issues notwithstanding), it would be a shame to see Odoms waste away as a reserve this year after what he's endured the past three years in the form of injuries and the debilitating pall of failure he's had to stoically suffer. I'm sure that Odoms had no such expectations that all of this would fall down upon his head when he decided to come to Michigan all the way from Florida, but I hope that he can make the most of his final year at Michigan.

Otherwise, nobody really had an opportunity to impress. Koger made a nice grab on a ball that Denard forced him to take a hit for, yet another reminder that Koger is the tight end version of Braylon Edwards (which, if it must be spelled out...tough catches=easy, easy catches=tough). Hemingway had the longest play of the day with a 37-yard shot downfield, his only reception of the day. I honestly didn't remember seeing him out there before that point, although I did notice his existence after rewatching the game. I'm not sure if there's anything meaningful to be inferred from this. I picked him to have a pretty big season, so hopefully this is just the result of the rain and a conservative gameplan.

As for the tailbacks, they did well with the carries they were given. Sample size caveat goes here, but the cynic in all of us is applauding the fact that Toussaint and Shaw made it through an entire game three quarters without sustaining an injury. Shaw ran through gaping holes like he's done before, displaying the elite speed we all know he has. Toussaint's performance was a confirmation of his potential, going for 80 yards on 11 carries, with this beauty the highlight of his day:

Shaw capped the drive two plays later with a gallop of his own for a touchdown. Take the aforementioned two runs out and their YPC don't look nearly as good, but the run game passed the eyeball test well enough. It's Western, and even if the holes were big enough for Will Campbell to run through, plays were made and Denard's legs were saved for a later day when they'd be needed. For our current purposes, that's a win.

The Defense 

As a prefatory note, I think that people are right to be excited about what they saw. Michigan started to look better as the game progressed. Guys were looking confused in the first quarter (which I at first thought was just standard defensive tactics i.e., confuse the offense with random spastic movement), but was borne out to be untrue when an out of place Carvin Johnson ran all the way across the field when he realized Courtney Avery was on an island on the other island occupied by two receivers. If there was ever an okay time to make those mistakes, though, it was this past Saturday.

When people said that Greg Mattison would rotate guys in and out liberally, I don't think anybody envisioned the type of participation we saw on Saturday. Guys like Beyer, Ryan, Herron, Brink, Black, Ryan, and yes, Will Campell, all saw significant time in addition to the usual cast of characters (Martin, RVB, Roh, and I guess Heininger). Mike Martin showcased his power and agility on the first play of the game, getting to Carder on a bubble screen after tossing a blocker aside like a rag doll. Other than the fumble recovery, I didn't notice Van Bergen too much (he notched 1 solo tackle, 3 total), which is worrisome but not as worrisome as Craig Roh's complete and total absence. Carder was doing a good job of getting the ball out of his hands fairly quickly (at least early on before Kovacs knocked him into next week), which inevitably mitigates any pass rushing threat. However, like Hemingway, I didn't even really notice him around many plays, and at one point wondered if he was even playing at all. This is something to monitor, but I'm not worried...yet.

The linebackers looked alright, and certainly better than in the recent past. Demens was Demens...he wasn't perfect (he did allow the fullback to lock onto him on the second play of Western's second drive, which lead to a long gain by Drake), but he inspired more confidence than Ezeh ever did. I wish Ezeh well in life, and I'm not one to denigrate Michigan players or coaches who have already left the program, but Demens is clearly an upgrade and our best backer by far. As for the others, there's that Brandon Herron guy. Both of Herron's big plays were class right place at the right time moments, and I don't say that to belittle his accomplishments. In recent years, nobody would have been there to make that play, so Herron's talent level and/or his talent level's responsibility for making the play happen is not at issue here. A play is a play is a play. Simply making them is an improvement, and it's not to see a guy like Herron--who has bounced around all three linebacker positions in a by and large anonymous career--do some things out there. Herron looked lost in coverage more than once, as Carder zipped passed past him as he was still dropping into his zone. MGoBlog user Magnus brings up the valid point that Herron's technique may actually have been taught; that is, he is being instructed to run directly to his spot and only then turn around as opposed to dropping with his head on a swivel. The rationale is that the former gets you to the spot faster, which makes sense; even if you have your head turned and have the quarterback in sight, you can't make the play if you're not there yet. Of course, not everybody teaches it the same way. Maybe somebody who is more familiar with Mattison's coaching can answer this question of whether Herron was just doing what he's been coached to do or not. It would certainly make me feel a lot better to know that Herron wasn't just running around like a chicken with its head cut off as appeared to be the case watching it live.

In the secondary, Avery looked a little vulnerable, unfortunately. As much as this comparison might upset people, Woolfolk reminds me of Morgan Trent: they're both undeniably fast running in a straight line but may not be naturals at the position, and they can also lay the wood from time to time. Hopefully his ankle injury will be cleared up after a week of treatment, because 2010 is evidence enough that he is an irreplaceable piece of this secondary. JT Floyd seemed to do a little better than Avery, but only negligibly so (I still think Avery has more upside). The performance of the safeties was possibly the most encouraging part of the defense. Kovacs had one of his best, if not his best, games as a Wolverine, with some well-timed blitzes leading to Carder's helmet being dislodged, as well as a pass breakup. Thomas Gordon also had a solid effort, coming in with 8 total tackles (1 TFL). I've been a huge proponent of Carvin Johnson's game since the day he committed, but it looks like he was passed up by TG for good reason. The smaller Gordon looked fast and seems like a solid hitter, which we already knew from his brief action last season. Other than Jake Ryan, TG is probably the underclassman I'm most looking forward to watching this season.

Special Teams

This was probably the only facet of Saturday's game in which Michigan was severely deficient. Kickoff coverage was downright bad. With the defense still a work in progress, Michigan cannot afford to let teams start on their own 35 or better. You'd think it would have been better given the symbolic and practical emphasis on special teams (with defensive starters like Woolfolk, Avery, and others participating), but who knows. For the record, I get what Hoke's trying to do by playing those guys on ST, but it still makes me uncomfortable. But, that's why he gets paid the big money and I don't.

Michigan was just about average on returns, with Grady averaging 19.0 per KO return. Wile looked good filling in for Hagerup, booting one for 47 yards. Gibbons had the missed extra point, which is bad. I would have liked to see him get a chance to at least try a field goal so that his first one doesn't have to come in a potentially pressure-packed environment next week against Notre Dame, but oh well. Let's hope it doesn't come down to that. Goodness gracious please don't let it come down to that.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • Be excited about the defense's potential, but remember that Michigan's defense was just as effective against the Broncos out in 2009 (no defensive scores then, though, so there's that). Again, sample size. 
  • As much as I want to see Denard smiling on national television at the Downtown Athletic Club in NYC, I'd rather see him remain in one piece come bowl season. We'll certainly have to lean on him more as the season progresses, but I really hope that the line and tailbacks continue to progress. I can live with Denard's 8 carries in this one. In an average game, 12-15 designed runs is ideal in my humble opinion. 
  • How good does Brady Hoke look compared to Brian Kelly after this weekend? Wow. With the omnipresence of ND football, it's hard to see potential ND recruits not being turned off by this type of behavior. Even at RR's most rage-filled moments, he never got nearly that bad. 
  • At one point in the broadcast they mentioned Gorgeous Al professing to being "out of his comfort" zone for the first time (re: Denard), noting that he recognizes Denard's considerable talents and is excited by the different things Borges will be able to do that he hasn't done before. File this in the now considerably hefty "Borges Knows What He's Doing, Y'all" folder. 
  • Jake Ryan! I figured him to be Cam Gordon's backup, but he came in with a hand in the dirt artificial turf. To be honest, he looked like a natural there. Not only does he look bigger than he did in the spring when he made an impressive showing in the spring game (albeit not against the 1's), he looks quick and agile for a guy his size. His ability to get to Carder was one of the most pleasant surprises of the game. 
  • I wonder if that short yardage look Michigan came out in (with the tailback lined up as a fullback on that 4th&1 on the first drive) is a permanent thing and if it says anything about the fullback situation (i.e., McColgan). 
  • Craig James...still terrible. 
  • Crowd noise sounded pretty solid (although it's admittedly hard to tell on TV half the time, especially with how shoddy Saturday's broadcast was), and hopefully the Big House crowd can bring that same rain-soaked tenacity into the stadium next Saturday night...yes, night. It's still weird to think about. I'll be in attendance and I couldn't be more excited to be a part of that environment. 
  • No Hopkins is a bummer. I really hope he can get out of the doghouse, because Shaw and Toussaint as a one-two, Smith as a change-up/pass catcher third down back type and Hopkins as a short yardage bruiser is one well-rounded groups of backs. 
  • As frustrating as it is, the decision to end the game was the right one, from a safety perspective as well as Alex Carder's (then again, those two probably overlap). This is only underscored by what happened  in Morgantown yesterday, where lightning struck the stadium, and at Notre Dame on Saturday where it was seen striking in close proximity to the stadium. Safety first then teamwork
  • Will Campbell dropping in coverage...oddly majestic. The elusive fat guy touchdown from BWC would make me so unbelievably happy. Please make this happen Greg Mattison. 
  • Dear Mother Nature...chill out. 

No comments:

Post a Comment