Friday, September 30, 2011


So I'd like to take a retrospective look at the first four games of the season before we rush headlong into the murderers' row mildly challenging Big Ten slate ahead of us. I'll be doing this after the Homecoming game and then again after The Game to gauge our progress at four game increments. This will be a sort of State of the Union meets a general airing of grievances meets shameless Mattison worship. In any case, I can't believe we're already a third of the way through the regular season. I know we still have eight games and a bowl game to go but before we know it it'll be the offseason and we'll all be groveling pathetically for recruiting info.  Good times, but not really? Why can't it be football season forever?

The Numbers So Far

The most important stat, of course: 4-0. Michigan has trounced two directional schools and a dangerous albeit declawed SDSU team in addition to another win for the ages against the Irish.

Michigan is currently averaging:

  • 156.0 passing yards per game (good for 110th overall)
  • 250.0 rushing yards per game (good for 12th overall)
  • 32.0 points per game (good for 49th overall)
  • 12.8 points against (good for 11th overall...11th!)

Compared to last year (against UCONN, Notre Dame, Bowling Green, and UMASS):

  • 256.8 passing yards per game ('10-11 Δ= -100.8)
  • 306 rushing yards per game (Δ= -56)
  • 41.3 points per game (Δ= -9.3)
  • 23 points against (Δ= -10.2)

I'm not really an advanced stats guy (the above certainly does not qualify as "advanced") or anything but this pretty much confirms what we already know: the offense is worse and the defense is better. I know, the insight! All things considered, the schedule to this point was probably tougher last year with a UCONN team that went to a BCS game (basically by default, yes, but still) and a Notre Dame team that ended up being okay. This year we had a pretty decent Notre Dame team*, a complete scrub in EMU, and two teams with dangerous isolated elements (Jordan White, Ronnie Hillman) but not enough elsewhere to really challenge a talent-deficient iteration of Michigan football. So, nod goes to 2010 but this is basically splitting hairs. 

Michigan is running and passing for about 50 and 100 yards less respectively, of which the latter is probably a much larger concern at this point. In addition, the positive change in points given up has been essentially cancelled out by the negative points for delta. I'll take that every day and twice on Sunday. 

*I still think they're good for 9 wins, FWIW. Learning how to not trip over their own faces would help in reaching that benchmark. How does one go about tripping over his or her own face? Ask the Notre Dame offense, for they are skilled in this particular art. As good as Liam Neeson was at neck chopping bad guys in Taken, Notre Dame is equally good at turning the ball over.

Hoke? Mattison? Borges?

I'll say it: I love Brady Hoke. I supported Rich Rodriguez till the very end but this is turning out to be GOLD JERRY GOLD. Seriously, a lot of the stuff being said about Hoke would cause you to roll your eyes if another fan base was saying it about their guy but the man can do no wrong...that is, until he does, which he will eventually. However, there are a lot of reasons to think that won't happen any time soon. Speaking of Brady Hoke fluff, if any of you haven't seen the BTN "Step Into My Office" featuring him and have 30 minutes to kill, watch it. It's hard to find fault with very many things he's done thus far as the head honcho in Ann Arbor...can you think of any? I'm trying really hard right now and can't think of much. Not pursuing Devin Lucien in the offseason? Not wearing a headset from time to time? Using the word "rusty" instead of rustic? It's okay Brady, sometimes I get words mixed up too. 

In short, I'm really grasping at straws here. The media loves him, the fans love him, the players love him, and recruits seem to like the man. So far so good. The Era of Good Feelings is off to an auspicious start (I'd be worried if it wasn't because of the name and all). Hoke gets an A+, and the only concern is what he does after Borges and Mattison move on, but that is SO far down the road (and represents a hypothetical situation that would ostensibly be preceded by some above average level of success, i.e., Hoke wins enough to survive the past 3/4 years) that it doesn't even matter. 

As for the coordinators...Greg Mattison might as well have fell to us on a cloud from above because having a defense is kind of awesome. Yes, I know that whole 11th in the country thing won't stand but it's still awesome to look at. Somebody should probably get a screenshot of that before it changes. Beyond the numbers, even the layman can see that things are different. There's something there now that wasn't there before that has nothing to do with talent. One offseason is certainly not enough to improve a defense through S&C or an infusion of new talent, so the only thing we could have logically done is worked with what we have (really, that was our only option). Remember when Jordan Kovacsvis a vis other dudes of his ilk (Tyler Sash, Jim Leonhard, other gritty white guys, etc.) but he's definitely not a liability, and for us that might as well mean All-American. In any case, we haven't had a dependable duo at safety since the Adams-Englemon duo of '07 (and even then, Englemon only got the position because of the pic fail that was Stevie Brown at safety). That pairing wasn't that athletic either (watching Englemon get out-angled by Northwestern's Omar Conteh in '07 was painful), but the encouraging thing is the Kovacs-Gordon pairing actually has a good bit of eligibility left. If blood=defensive competence and this here turnip=the defense than Greg Mattison has managed to squeeze every bit of blood out of this turnip as possible. Some early concerns about Craig Roh have started to dissipate, Mike Martin is doing his manbearpig thing, and we are getting a non-zero contribution from Will Campbell. The linebackers need work but there's some definite potential there with both Hawthorne and Ryan despite each being somewhat limited (Hawthorne is too small and Ryan too inexperienced), and that's not even mentioning a corps including Cam Gordon at some point in the hopefully not too distant future. At this point the most cynical folks among us can say that the absurd turnover margin and points against figure won't stand and that we haven't really played anybody yet, but it's all relative. We are not a "good" defense by any absolute, objective sense...yet. We are, though, definitely better than last year. 

Gorgeous Al's case is a little more convoluted because it is his side of the ball that has seen a statistical decline. Borges has the unenviable task of beginning the installation of a non-spread offense (pro-style, West Coast, whatever you want to call it) while also taking advantage of the elements of the offense that made Denard what he was last year...most of which do not overlap with the aforementioned "non-spread" offense. It seems that most are empathetic with Gorgeous Al's plight, and I hope that he can parlay that empathy into not looking so startled all the time.  

I stumbled upon a pretty interesting Braves & Birds post comparing Borges to Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad (which, if you're not watching it then you probably should posthaste). B&B writes

When Jesse explains this development to "Mr. White," he makes the obvious point that he knows how to run the cooking process from start to finish, but he doesn't understand the chemistry involved like White does.  He has a superficial understanding, but he doesn't know how the parts of the process fit together and therefore, would struggle to answer questions about it.
So yes, RR is Walter White (don't let Rosenberg get wind of this) and Borges is erratic Jesse Pinkman. This harkens back to an article I read in the offseason about the offensive situation at Oklahoma State re: the departure of Dana Holgorsen. I can't remember where I read it, but the general gist was that Brandon Weeden was basically teaching the offense to new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. If that sounds awkward and bound to produce less than the previous iteration, that's because it is awkward and bound to produce less. Borges is trying to run an offense that he doesn't know, that is a faithful imitation at best. Obviously Denard will still run for 200 yards out of sheer raison d'etre but there's a certain verve that's clearly missing that Al Borges probably won't ever be able to replicate completely. I remember doing an imitation exercise in English 325: we had to read a bunch of passages by several authors--Hemingway, Faulkner, Woolf, etc.--and try to imitate their style in a paragraph or so of our own. The request was inherently impossible, but even I--someone who reads and loves Hemingway and Faulkner and those types and often try to imitate them whenever I write things here and elsewhere--knew that even if I produced something similar, it was never going to be exactly the same and it definitely wouldn't be as good. The above numbers bear that out, but as we all know it isn't always about the numbers. 

It might be too small of a sample size or generally unrepresentative of the average quality of defenses we'll face this year, but going a perfect 13/13 in the red zone is to be commended. Let's keep doing that. 

How Is That Meaningless Preseason Prediction Doing?

So I had us pegged for 3-1, with a loss to Notre Dame. I will say that I did switch to the good side after ND fell to USF, for posterity's sake I'll just say I was off in my initial prediction. For what it's worth, I had us at 8-4 to end the season, with losses to ND, Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois, which would of course mean wins against Michigan State and Ohio State. 

How do those predictions look now? Well, let's just say the MSU and OSU predictions look far less ridiculous now than they did then. MSU is like the Chicago Bears of the Big Ten (although as a Bears fan, I think I would honestly switch receiving corps with the Spartans, straight up): solid defense, solid skill players, and a ghastly offensive line. In Yost I believe they would refer to the offensive line as a "sieve." If the pre-Bryzgalov Flyers netminders all came together and performed some sort of strange voodoo to turn themselves into an offensive line, they'd become the offensive line of the Michigan State Spartans. Our defensive line is going to look the the New York Giants line when we come to East Lansing. And I'll end this here before it becomes even more mixed metaphor-y. 

Ohio State, on the other hand, is not as hopeless a cause as State is. OSU is young but still very talented on defense and at the quarterback and wide receiver positions. After seven more games worth of experience, I think the Buckeyes will be a team to be concerned about. If they played right now, Michigan would win. Unfortunately, they are not, and Posey, Herron, and Adams will be back. On that note, I've kind of slacked on the "Keep Your Enemies Closer" feature, which I'm sure all of 2 Michigan fans read. After doing the Akron and Toledo games but skipping the next two, I may or may not choose to continue it now that we're in the Big Ten schedule and we're playing for keeps. 

The Next Four?

No changes from my preseason predictions. Michigan should roll this Saturday; Minnesota is a complete mess right now. Given Minnesota's coaching situation I'm sure Hoke will call off the dogs, which hopefully means we'll see a lot of Devin Gardner. We should beat Northwestern too, Persa or no Persa. State is a team we should be able to beat, and Purdue is just a touch above Minnesota in quality. So that means...8-0? 


Five Things to Watch For In The Next Four

  • Blake Countess--Was his above average performance against SDSU a mirage, or can we expect that to continue? A NU passing attack led by a possibly still hurting Persa and an MSU attack with above average receivers but shoddy line play is about the extent of the quality our secondary will face in the next month, so we might not find out in earnest. Then again, we might not even find out all year depending on how highly you think of Iowa's James Vanderberg. 
  • Jake Ryan--Can he learn how to keep contain? That would be cool. 
  • Denard Robinson--Obvious, but can Borges continue to find the balance between too many carries and too few, while also getting Denard in any semblance of a rhythm throwing the ball. I mean, man...even Taylor Martinez is putting up better numbers than Denard and he throws like Tim Tebow would if Tim Tebow was making fun of the inefficiency of his own throwing motion. That needs to change. Jeff at MaizePages suggests that somewhere around 21 carries is the "sweet spot" re: Denard carrying the ball in a given game. I kind of agree but even that makes me nervous that he'll get hurt. That's another big question that I hate to even ask: can Denard stay healthy? Three of these next four games can probably be won without Denard going all roadrunner on defenses...let's save him for when it counts if possible. 
  • If the under center offense continues to stumble against the likes of Minnesota and Purdue, does Borges just completely scrap it before we enter the actually somewhat tough part of our schedule? Does he even try to run from under center against State's front? 
  • Can Fitzgerald Toussaint do enough with his carries to become the undisputed man? A few soft defenses lie ahead of us but Fitz will need to pitch in about 70-80 yards if we want to win in a non-ridiculous fashion for once (i.e., not like '09/'10 ND, '07 MSU, etc.). Our running backs haven't been this meh since that weird "BJ Askew as tailback" era, so it would be really nice if Fitz could break out here pretty soon. I'll even take a 100+ yard game against Minnesota as a sign; I'm not picky. 
The Music to Michigan's Season Thus Far

Okay, this is basically just Notre Dame but still...apathetic, uninspired beginnings and then a crescendo building up to the miraculous. 

The Defining Moment

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