Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Great (Non-) Debate: Denard vs. Devin

We're seven games in, ranked, and sitting pretty with a 6-1 record. Yet, it wouldn't seem that way after a frustrating loss in East Lansing. Visions of a 10+ win season seemed to become a very real possibility, but those visions were swept away in a maelstrom of trash, timed snaps, and a curious 4th down call. Other than Appalachian State, I can't remember a loss that depressed expectations so significantly and so quickly as much as the game this past weekend. But, at the end of the day, it was just one game, and a good season can still be had, and, to quote Denard, a division title is "out there." The hard part is finding it after any sense of offensive identity, competence, and faith in our leadership were pulverized, the remainder spread about like the ashes of a once formidable offense. 

It's the bye week, and while it's hard to ditch the feeling that maybe it would have served us better if it were the week before the State game, I think it's good to be able to step back and take a look at what we did wrong, use Purdue as a confidence-building game (I hope?). Although I'm firmly in the "it was just one loss, calm down guys" group, that loss revealed a lot of things about the offense's inadequacies, from personnel to--David Letterman collar tug goes here--offensive coaching. Like Brian said, it was definitely a "faith shaking" Saturday, but all is not lost. How Borges reacts to the Denard-Devin dynamic will be the difference between seven wins and ten. 

Let's just get this out of the way...for those who think that Denard should be benched or permanently turned into some sort of Percy Harvin utility player:


Get out of here Toby Flenderson crazy Michigan fan. Yes, it's the bye week...what else is there to talk about right now but this?

Let's get the obvious stuff accounted for first. Not only did Devin just look like a guy who shouldn't be playing right now, from the fumbled snap to the touchdown pass launched from three yards past the line of scrimmage, to the 4th and forever in which he scrambled forever, crossed the LOS, and eventually circled back with what looked like an intention to throw the ball. If I wasn't drinking a cocktail fashioned from the always zesty ingredients of depression, frustration, and anger at the time, I probably would've laughed. 

Of course, the argument for Devin is that he's got a stronger, more accurate arm and just generally looks the part of what Michigan quarterbacks once were and ostensibly will be once Denard graduates. Unfortunately, he wasn't really appreciably better than Denard in the passing department (certainly not in a manner that would make Hoke unseat Denard because of Devin's aforementioned strengths). He missed painfully open receivers--guys so open hand-wavingly open that they could have been castaways waving at a rescue plane up above--and wasn't exactly accurate, in addition to the aforementioned Yakety Sax shenanigans. He went 3/7, and while his deployment seemed to be derived from the name of an esteemed California burger chain, he just did not look like a guy who should be starting, especially if you consider the fact that there isn't really a threat to run the ball much at all with him in the game. He can move but you're not basing a ground game on his ability to run. 

To be clear, this obviously wasn't Denard's first poor performance of the year through the air, so it's not like this was "just one game" in that respect. However, it should be made clear that Denard has the same amount of experience in the current system as Devin does. I'm not making excuses for Denard, but yeah...I kind of am. Was Denard bad against Michigan State (without taking into account that MSU's defense is pretty good)? Yes, period. However, the wind and an offensive gameplan that called for 24 passes and 30 rushes with Denard in the game--with some of these so-called rushes actually being scrambles--should assuage some fears while concurrently magnifying them. That is, Denard's poor performance can be explained away partly by a poor gameplan, but...there was a poor gameplan. 

Michigan's opening touchdown drive? Eight rushes, two passes. You might say that the Smith run and Denard's TD required defensive miscues (i.e., missed tackles in the backfield) to happen, but when you test a defense on the ground like that the opportunity for breakthroughs like that increases, especially against a defense that was the most aggressive one we'd seen since the Gator Bowl in which Manny Diaz blitzed us into oblivion. 

Yes, I understand that State was blitzing from every spot on the field and that they didn't respect the pass in a manner that would've/should've been pretty reckless if Denard could have completed a few more passes. I did hate on the good ol' "Vincent Smith up the gut" play in the game recap but it was an unfair criticism given that our tailbacks only carried the ball ten times. That's just ridiculous. We completely bailed on the run like it was 2003 and we were playing in Autzen Stadium. This was completely indefensible given that there was really no point in the game in which we were completely out of it until the pick 6; it rings somewhat hollow after last Saturday, but with Denard Robinson a two-score deficit is never insurmountable. In short, Borges didn't really put us in a position to win. 

Yes, it's hard to run against stacked fronts and a myriad of blitzes, but it's been done before with a blend of talent, persistence, and ingenuity. It's on Borges to: a) stick with the run considering that it was effective and made sense given the wind and b) smoke and mirror our way down the field in the absence of a power game if necessary. I would have loved to see some more misdirection and/or general attacking of the edges (whether via the speed option or the always reliable Denard power play), but I don't want this to devolve into a critique of Borges, per se. Just like Denard, he's still learning. This bye week is arguably just as important to him as it is the players, if not more so. 


So, what do we do? We will face some tough defenses the rest of the way, although none probably as good as State's. Purdue shouldn't pose too much of a threat on defense, and neither should Iowa, who has been fairly bad on that side of the ball. However, Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio State all have talent in their front sevens, and will be sure to deploy a strategy similar to what Michigan State used (and Mississippi State as well, going back to the bowl game). Some general scattered thoughts on QB usage: 

  • As a general rule, Denard should be on the field at all times unless he is hurt. This of course includes situations in which Devin is on the field. Borges can really earn his money if he is able to put Devin at quarterback and use Denard in a creative way other than a jet sweep. I have no idea what his hands are like, but I can't imagine that he can't catch a bubble screen. Perhaps use Denard as an actual wideout or motion him into the backfield as a traditional back? The possibilities are innumerable. 

  • I think most people abhor the two-QB system, and for good reason. Other than Leak-Tebow (I guess 2007 LSU with Flynn and Perrilloux if you're feeling generous), when has it ever worked? However, while I think that Denard is the unquestioned starter...Devin should get some significant playing time. This is of course where it gets tricky. Do you put him in on passing downs and then take him out like we did against State? I think the answer is plainly "no." There are a great many sports concepts that I don't really care for--namely the effect of "momentum" on a game--but there's something to be said for rhythm. The way Devin was used was not conducive to the development of any sort of rhythm; he is definitely a more accurate passer than Denard (even Hoke explicitly hinted as much in the post-game presser) but it didn't show on Saturday for a number of reasons, the prime one being that he wasn't given a chance to really get going. Putting a percentage on it is meaningless, but if I had to I'd say we should give Devin 20-25% of the snaps at quarterback (again, with Denard also on the field as well for those snaps) against Purdue. 

  • Which brings me to the next exactly do you use him? Hopefully the Purdue game will serve as one big successful chemistry experiment for Borges, but I think you've got to get Devin in for more than a play or two at a time at minimum. I'll say it without beating around the bush: Devin should be allowed to lead a full drive or two against Purdue in non-garbage time (of course, with Denard on the field). Just like Henson and Brady, it's not ideal but the current setup of the entire offensive operation is not ideal. At this point, I have to refer to the excellent connection that Braves & Birds made between Borges vis-a-vis the spread and Breaking Bad. Unless Denard receives a visit from the forces of Nature that endowed Dan Marino, John Elway, and Joe Montana with the ability to throw the football, this offense will effectively have to be split into two distinct iterations. One will feature Denard--everything being business as usual--and the other will utilize both Denard and Devin as we've seen already. 
  • People need to remember that Denard is still learning the new system and that he's really not that experienced anyway. It's not like he's a grizzled veteran like Chad Henne circa 2007. He will likely never have pinpoint accuracy he will learn to make better reads, and hitting open guys will come as he builds upon his body of work. Eventually, you'd hope that certain ,mechanics become committed to muscle memory. I'm not ready to give up on his ability to quarterback this team after one loss. 

  • The first thing we can do to help Denard is RUN THE BALL. I laughed at Brian's point in this week's podcast that it felt strange, as a Michigan fan, to have to think or yell this sentiment, given that it was almost always the opposite in the Carr years. Also, I would like to see Toussaint get more carries than Smith, as he is the better back without accounting for blocking or catching the ball. 
  • Speaking of the tailbacks, but...maybe it's time to give Hopkins one more chance? Maybe? I know that early returns with him have been pretty bad, but a power back for even a mere 4-6 carries a game would be pretty useful and a nice change of pace from our other backs (Denard, Toussaint, Smith, Shaw), all of whom are very definitively finesse players. I doubt he [Hopkins] gets it but if there's a time to give him that chance it's against Purdue. 
  • Continuing with the ground game theme--we need to run Denard. Naturally, we all started out the season saying AHH STOP RUNNING HIM SO MUCH and shifted to RUN HIM MORE in the span of one unfortunate game. The same could also be true for Devin; while he obviously isn't Denard, he can do some things on designed runs, and we will take production on the ground anywhere we can get it. 

  • Eventually, though, things will come down to whether or not Denard can complete the passes that any quarterback should. Nobody is expecting him to zing 20-yard outs like Chad Henne or throw a deep ball like John Navarre, but there are some plays that are reasonable for him to make that he isn't making. Maybe the freshness of the MSU game is affecting my memory of the degree of this inaccuracy, but he can't keep wildly overshooting open guys and expect to find any room when he tries to make something happen with his legs. Ultimately, whether or not Denard can complete these passes will be the difference between an offense that moves the ball with regularity against the remainder of the schedule and one that doesn't. In fact, it's hard to argue against this being the single most important facet of this team going forward. 

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