Monday, October 17, 2011

Punch Drunk

Michigan 14, Brahs 28

As Michigan left the fittingly trash-laden Spartan Stadium on Saturday, my immediate reaction was obviously one of disappointment. It's not that I felt so sure that we were going to win (I pretty much convinced myself of every possible score being possible in the days leading up to the game), but once they start playing you convince yourself that the bad things you hoped wouldn't happen actually wouldn't end up happening. You thought that maybe Denard wouldn't come out throwing passes into the sun for once, or maybe the running game via Fitz or Smith would be good for a decent gain here and there, that maybe the defense wouldn't get gashed by an ostensibly mediocre offensive line. Unfortunately, all of those things happened. It was like flipping over what looked like a perfectly stable, solid log only to find hordes of termites crawling all over the place. This thing is flawed, and a 6-0 start consisting of wins against Notre Dame and five other mediocre to downright horrid teams didn't change that. 

Last week I gave Mark Dantonio some flak (more on that in a bit), but I will say this: I never said he was a bad coach (I never even said MSU was a bad team). He is good at getting his team up for the Michigan game (obviously), and while the jury's still out on whether or not seasons like 2010 can happen on a regular or semi-regular basis, he is a good coach, period. His teams are bland by the standards of the modern landscape of college football--Cover 2 4-3s and a pro-style, downhill running game with a pocket passer--but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you do the things that you do well (after all, the two best teams in the currently are basically MSU with much better talent). He's capable of sprinkling in some panache here and there when necessary (e.g., Little Giants) like good coaches do (this year's ND game is the exception). As a football tactician and motivator, he's just about as good of a guy as MSU could've expected to have post-JLS. 

Normally I spend the time in the beginning of these recaps to talk about the game in a more general sense, like what it means going forward and whether certain trends are being corroborated or destroyed by the newest data point. What does this game mean for Michigan? Well, it depends on what your expectations were to begin with. I think 8 wins is certainly still in reach, but if you were expecting 10--either before the season or after the Northwestern game--then you might be a little bit disappointed. Otherwise, this isn't an entirely unexpected outcome. I'm sure this would be different if I was in Michigan right now, but I'm more upset at how we lost than the fact that we lost to Michigan State. In these types of games, you just have to tip your hat to the guy across the sidelines and say "well done, you win." This game isn't Michigan's season, and there is still a chance to do something of significance this season. Of course,we know how the last couple seasons have gone after that first loss.

Normally, I would do this. I want to say that MSU just straight up beat us, with no qualifiers. We didn't help ourselves at all, but, at the end of the day, we weren't playing against air. They played a solid game (admittedly not a great one), but more importantly, they played a better game than we did. The refs made some questionable calls, but they didn't force our lines to get handled for most of the contest.

I say I would normally do this only to emphasize that I'm not doing it now. I'm sure MSU fans will somehow find this and be all HURR DURR Y U NO RESPECT but honestly, if you can watch that game and condone some of the things that were going on out there then, to quote Rooster Cogburn, "I ain't do nothin' for ya son." I mean, really? Gholston's play was absolutely despicable, and to see guys like him get talked to by the head coach, only to be out there on the next play, drive, in the game again at all...says a lot. To see Marcus Rush get an obvious personal foul penalty then pace up and down the sidelines cussing up a storm as if he didn't do anything wrong, getting high-fived, even, was classic. I don't need to run through each one; we all saw it. As a Michigan fan--if the script was flipped--would you feel okay about this game? Sure, you'd have the win, but is that really all that matters? The answer is a definitive and resounding no. No no a million times no. I was furious when Greg Mathews kicked that Oregon DB and Mouton gave that ND offensive lineman a little upper cut, as were most other Michigan fans. This is why I do not respect Mark Dantonio, and probably never will. It's not like those penalties were the "defender leaves his feet and can't pull up" variety; they were intentional, dirty plays. That type of stuff comes from somewhere.

That's what we try to do. Sixty minutes of unnecessary roughness. 

That's MSU DC Pat Narduzzi. It's not even covert.

If there was ever a more "this is why we're not them" moment, it was the Gholston punch. It would almost be funny if it wasn't so ridiculous. Lewan almost appeared to be helping Gholston up, only to get socked in the face in the middle of what was supposedly a football game*. How was this spotted by the refs and given a flag but no ejection? How is this even possible? The fact that that happened and Gholston was in on the next drive tells me all I need to know about Mark Dantonio.

If there's anything to be truly frustrated about, it's that we lost to a team that plays like this, to a coach that silently condones this type of behavior on and off the field. Of course, it should be made clear that we did not lose because of these penalties. So, then, what happened, exactly?

*I can imagine thousands of Sparty brahs trying to wallpaper their places with pictures of Gholston's Falcon Punch, and I can't even begin to imagine the number of message board signatures that will inevitably feature this picture. SICK SIG BRAH.

The Offense

We all came in with the understanding that MSU's defense was good, and obviously we weren't going to move the ball like we did against Northwestern. How good was the question, and while I vacillated between "pretty darn good but a touch stat-padded" and "solid but somewhat paper tigerish," it was obvious that Michigan State is fielding a pretty good defense, which is especially remarkable given the youth at the end positions and what was lost at linebacker. Even the secondary wasn't the generic medley of mediocrity that MSU has put out there in the past.

It pains me to say this, but this game was eerily reminiscent of the Mississippi State game. MSU wasn't quite as blitz-mad as Diaz's insane defense, but Narduzzi brought the heat all day from various points on the field. They brought the corner blitz (most notably on the infamous 4th & derp), they crashed the backers up the middle, and generally did everything they could to send more guys than we could block. I mean, if you were trying to defend Denard, wouldn't you? Obviously you run the risk of Denard slipping out and running for large chunks of yardage, but that didn't happen for a number of reasons. For some reason, Denard continues to not run on passing plays when it seems clear that he probably should. I understand the desire to make him be a little more patient, but this is something that needs to change. The mental process that goes with deciding whether to run or pass on a given play for a talent like Denard is admittedly pretty delicate; that is, once you starting running once or twice then the offense risks becoming one-read-and-go. Not only does Denard not run, but he takes too long to recognize when pressure is coming/when he should get rid of it if need be. On top of this, when he did throw while being chased by blitzers, he was generally wildly erratic throwing the ball. If I'm an opposing DC, I watch both MSU (Bulldogs and Spartans) games for tape of how to completely stop this offense. The blueprint should be pretty obvious at this point.

Like the Mississippi State game, Michigan came out with a nice initial punch. The only problem is that once MSU started punching back, we had no answer. Despite this showing, I still have a general confidence in Borges's ability to call an offense, but it's hard for even the most trustworthy of fans to say that their confidence meter didn't tick down a notch or two. Trust the coaches and whatnot, but as far as I could tell we very rarely (if at all), checked out of any plays in which a blitz was clearly imminent. Honestly, as a Bears fan, it kind of reminded me of the Lions game last Monday; you knew the pressure was coming and that nothing would be done to impede the progress of at least one rusher. I'd have to watch the game again to notice (I'll probably have to pass on this one), but not having a back in to play--particularly one with Smith's blocking prowess--on a number of occasions was frankly a little curious. The 4th&1 was obviously just a dreadful call in general, but Moore was blocking a nice patch of air while a MSU corner zoomed behind him, and on the interception that ended it, a blitzer came straight up the middle untouched. The second play I have to fault Smith somewhat for not being aware of the hot route situation. Either way, you're not in a good situation as a quarterback when you have to get the snap and fling it almost immediately when you don't really want to.

In general, though, we were pushed around. As reductive as it is, games are won and lost in the trenches, and we seemed to lose that battle much more often than we won it. We ran Smith up the middle time and time again out of the shotgun only to get anywhere from a loss of a a couple to maybe two yards (after the initial drive). We kept plowing into the line and I kept hoping that maybe this was a set-up for something else, that maybe some sort of counter was coming (kind of like the play in the first half where Michigan ran to the opposite side from the shuffling fullback, which isn't so much a counter as it is breaking a historical tendency). It never came, and even that ridiculously awesome pull on the fourth down that Michigan converted wasn't a counter but a simple case of just making the right read.

Obviously, MSU has a good defense, but they were supposedly a 4-3 cover 2 that didn't blitz much (i.e., Iowa); of course, that was not the case. As good as they were, there is always a counterpunch to be had, and failing to find that counterpunch can either be the fault of a lack of execution or poor playcalling. Unfortunately, I think we had a bad case of both. Denard is not a great passer (or even a good one), but he can be good enough to get the job done if used correctly. There's nothing Borges can do about Denard zinging passes way over open receiver's heads (e.g., that one pass to Roundtree in the middle after which Denard looked strangely upset at Roundtree for some reason), but there has to be something to get Denard in a rhythm. This isn't anything new. Where were the screens? Running back screens, tight end screens, wide receiver screens, hitches, slants, curls, something. Why does it seem like everything is deep? I raised this question earlier this year about us throwing deep way too much and came to the conclusion that sometimes that's just what the defense is giving you, and if that means going deep then you do it and hope you connect on one to back them off. That's just not working.

This is not an easy fix. If Denard continues to be wildly inaccurate on passes that even your fairly average D1 college football then, really, what can we do? We can't run the ball at all, and for an offensive line that we all had some hopes for despite the change in schemes (from the spread to a hodgepodge of random incoherent nothingness), they are looking pretty bad. They didn't look great against Northwestern either, but I forgave that because the Wildcats were obviously selling out pretty heavily on the run. Notre Dame, the only other team of note on Michigan's schedule thus far, also completely owned the LOS when Michigan had the ball. This is a disturbing trend that probably won't change because we're stuck with the personnel we're stuck with. Lewan had his usual game (as far as I could tell) and seemed to generally control Gholston except for when he was getting punched in the face, but Schofield and Huyge are just average, and Molk and Omameh just can't seem to get enough push against the bigger guys. It might not be until 2014 until we see what a Brady Hoke offensive line is supposed to look like, all the way from the type of personnel to scheme.

Even with the lack of scheme-specific talent and execution, this one was just bad in every way for Borges. I figured the 2-QB formation would be used a decent amount, but I never thought Denard would be off the field completely in so many different situations. As bad as Denard was, there's no reason to do that unless he's injured. Despite it all, we were right there in the end until the derpiest 4th&1 call of all time. I know every OC dreams of making that amazing call, but this was just pure foolishness, particularly if you go back and look at the space available for Denard to sneak through. Just...why? That phrase should be the lasting memory of the offensive gameplan for this game: Just, why?

The Defense

At the beginning of the game I kept saying how I was actually more worried about the offense. I was right, but it left a hollow sense correctness given the circumstances. In my preview of the game I did express some concern that we were relying on MSU's OL not being very good a little too much, and that I had a feeling that stopping them wouldn't be as easy as we thought it would be. How many times have we been torn up by mediocre at best players in the past? Exhibit A: Ben Chappell. BEN CHAPPELL. That right there should be enough to never take any part of any team lightly for the rest of time.

Let's be honest, our defensive line has some talent on it, but at the end of the day is still pretty average. Craig Roh began to show some signs of life the last few weeks against weak competition, but he was once again pretty much a non-factor it seemed. RVB was around some plays--including a couple QB hurries--doing well to chase and make some tackles down the field that a lot of linemen wouldn't be able to make (e.g., the tracking down of Hillman--and fumble--in the SDSU game), but he has trouble holding up at times. Again, I'd have to watch the game again to notice but Mike Martin didn't seem to have any obvious impact. However, I always hate criticizing Martin in any way because it seems like he's getting doubled all the time and nobody else is really beating their single blocking with any sort of regularity, if at all (looking at you, Heininger*). I don't know if the reality on the ground is that simple, but I suspect that it is.

The Spartans got at least four yards per carry without fail, ending up with an average of 5.5 ypc. That's bad. Baker had the hot hand for MSU today, as the Spartans rode him for 26 carries and 167 yards. Michigan held Bell in check pretty well but given Baker's numbers it obviously didn't matter. The first drive in particular was just another reminder (as if we needed any more after last year's Wisconsin game) that Michigan is still a long way to go from being anywhere close to being able to stop power rushing attacks like this. Somehow, though, Michigan held MSU to 7 in the first half, and MSU only scored 14 more offensive points in the second. Despite getting mauled for much of the game, that's actually pretty good. Michigan's defense still has some glaring deficiencies that no number of Mattison adjustments will be able to fix, and I think that as the Big Ten schedule goes on some of those will continue to rear their ugly heads. The 6-0 start was nice, sure, but it didn't change the fact that this defense is still very talent-deficient, not very deep, not particularly athletic at certain spots, and lacking defensive speed in general. Like the offensive line, this will only ameliorate with time, coaching, and recruiting.

Michigan didn't really get close to Cousins very often, but MSU only passed 24 times, and a number of those were pretty quick releases. MSU didn't even need to pass to move the ball, but when they did Cousins generally wasn't all that impressive to be honest. On more than one occasion a play unfolded in which Cousins just needed to make a fairly reasonable play in the face of some slight pressure and he just didn't do it. Drops didn't help him though, and there were two pretty egregious ones by Cunningham and the other one early on that would've been a touchdown (was that Martin?). So, Cousins was 13/24 for 120 yards and 2 TDs. Nobody really killed us, and both Martin touchdowns featured some atrocious tackling.

Here and there we were reacquainted with the good ol' 10-yard cushion on 3rd&6, but overall the secondary wasn't noticeably terrible except for Woolfolk. I hate to say it, but it's pretty obvious that all the "wait till we get Woolfolk" chatter was just a touch misguided. Woolfolk is just not that good; Floyd and Countess are clearly our two best corners. It's good that Countess has shown the ability to get on the field as a true freshman, but, you know, it's also kind of bad.

*Looking at the box score, Heininger apparently notched a pair of TFLs, so at least he did something. I don't remember these plays at all because the game is now a monolithic depression-inducing blur, but the box score says it happened.

Special Teams


No Gibbons this week so no Swanson. Should Michigan have kicked a field goal instead of going for it on that fourth down? No, no they shouldn't have.

Otherwise, not much of note here. Hagerup had plenty of opportunities to work on his somewhat mediocre numbers since his return and he did manage to pin MSU deep more than once. Not going to lie, the straight line rocket punt into the stands was kind of hilarious. Michigan won the field position game most of the time but unfortunately was not able to do anything with it in the first half.

Michigan continues to be completely unimpressive in the return game. Of course, everybody but us can get to the 30 with ease. We are really missing Stonum in the kickoff return department. As long as we continue to hold on to the ball, though, this will continue to be a phase of the game that doesn't help or hurt us, which is an improvement from recent years.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • Never has a dirty stadium been so apropos. 
  • The spot on the reception right before the 4th & derp absolutely deserved to be looked certainly was close enough to merit a second look. 
  • Maybe I'm imagining this, but right before they cut away from the game a bunch of Spartan players gave somebody a Gatorade shower...only thing is, I'm pretty sure it wasn't Dantonio, because the guy definitely turned around and looked at them with an amusingly confused look. Not only is a Gatorade shower for a game that really doesn't determine anything completely a Sparty thing to do, but they couldn't even get the right guy. Did anybody else see this or am I just imagining it?
  • In the game preview I said that something would have to give re: Michigan's sterling third down conversion rate and MSU's equally impressive third down prevention percentage...and boy did it. Michigan went 3/15 on third down. Seven punts in a row after the opening drive=absolutely no offensive rhythm. 
  • On the plus side, the defense continued the 2011 Turnover Collection Tour, adding two more recovered fumbles to the already impressive body of work. 
  • Gardner looked slightly better than Denard throwing the ball, which honestly doesn't speak to Devin's game too much given how Denard played. Devin will be a good player for us, but the time is not now. Denard should be the starter for Purdue without question unless he is seriously injured. However, I am starting to get more open to the idea of seeing Devin on the field. How this will be done is the tricky part. 
  • I haven't heard an explanation yet for the Lewis pick 6 taunting no-call. I'm not saying it would have mattered in the end, but after a week in which the rule was actually used (in the LSU game last week), you'd think the refs would be aware and ready to call it. It's not like it wasn't an obvious taunt or anything. Speaking of the refs, what about the backwards pass? What about the review on the Denard TD but not the Martin TD (Martin's TD was in fact a TD, but still...consistency, please). What about the play where Martin just barely stepped out but the play was confirmed after review? Am I crazy or did he not definitely step out? What about all the missed holding calls in the first quarter? None of these really directly contributed to the loss, but they're all still pretty irritating. 
  • Michigan did go to the option a couple times but I wish they'd gone to it a little more. I wish they'd try to do something different in the running game from time to time. While it didn't really work, at least it gets Denard in space and gives you the opportunity to do something other than pointlessly bash tiny Vincent Smith into a wall of enormous human beings for an at best 2-yard gain when the middle of the defensive line obviously isn't going anywhere. 
  • This kind of goes without saying but the uniforms were awful. So much for tradition, Dave. Soon we'll have t-shirt cannons and FREEEE PIZZAAAAA in the Big House. 
  • I'm glad I'm done writing this. It's time to move on and worry about Purdue. Enjoy the bye week. 

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