Monday, October 31, 2011

Sweet Homecoming

Best adjective for Al Borges's physique...lumpy? Wave field-esque? Buxom?
(HT: Mike DeSimone)

Michigan 36, Purdue 14

Michigan has seven wins in hand having played two less games than they did at the seven win mark last season (coincidentally, both wins against Purdue). At this point, Michigan is grabbing wins like items at an Old Country Buffet; these things might not be of high quality, but this is America and MORE is better than anything else. Yes, I am comparing the quality of Big Ten competition to the lukewarm comestibles of a buffet chain. 

There's not much to say other than that this one was vaguely reminiscent of conference blowouts of old. Despite beating Illinois (which, at this point, might not even have been an "upset") last weekend in the friendly confines of Ross-Ade, I didn't have that sinking feeling about this game that I had before Northwestern. Michigan is a decidedly better team than Purdue and Saturday bore that out from start to finish, a small blip at the onset notwithstanding. It was a cool and comfortable victory, and maybe this is more a commentary on the state of football at Purdue but the entire thing felt like it occupied a level of hype just a touch above that of your average non-conference game. If you looked at the relative emptiness of the student section at any point, you would've almost imagined that maybe Eastern Michigan or Delaware State was standing on the sidelines across the way. 

But, even things like that can't really bother you when Michigan is 7-1 and additional wins are not exactly difficult to rationally assimilate into your worldview. Despite not being "home" for Homecoming, what I saw on TV this past Saturday left me in a decidedly familiar and comfortable place. 

The Offense

After an abysmal showing in East Lansing, the offense came to play this weekend at home. Michigan put up a healthy 36 points but if things had ever gotten serious they easily could've put up more. A lot of people should come in for praise this weekend: Denard, Borges, Toussaint, the offensive line. Denard looked sharp throwing the ball on a number of intermediate routes, even zinging a few that would be considered nice tosses for a true pro-style guy (e.g., the the 10-yard completion to Hemingway on the first drive). This is encouraging. While I don't think that the MSU game was necessarily an outlier, Denard can throw the ball adequately once he builds up some confidence early in games. He has the arm, and anybody who says otherwise is clueless. Backed up near our own goal line to start the second quarter, Denard launched one that wasn't quite Vick-esque (in that Vick probably wouldn't have had Roundtree pull up much at all) but was still supremely impressive because he felt the Purdue lineman and stepped back into a nice pocket where he set his feet and threw. This might be expected or an ordinary series of events for most quarterbacks, but for Denard it was an encouraging development. 

Otherwise, the one interception from Denard was what it was. If Denard can limit himself to one turnover a game then I think most people would be pretty happy. Devin's pick looked like a case of miscommunication, and I guess you can afford to take these kinds of things when you're blowing out Purdue. 

Other than Denard's solid bounceback performance, the running game was obviously superb and the number one thing to feel good about. Here's a kind of terrifying statistic: Fitz's 20 carries made him the first non-Denard back to get 20+ carries in a game since Carlos Brown in 2009 against Illinois (yes, that game). That is truly unbelievable (it really shouldn't be given the dependence on Denard in the running game, but for some reason it's still really surprising). Now, Fitz probably won't find that much room against Nebraska and Ohio State (and probably not even Iowa or Illinois), but it was nice to see someone other than Denard carrying the load. This is how it should be. Denard carried 15 times (for 63 yards), which is more than I thought he did but isn't exactly horrible. The failure on 4th and goal was probably the only thing you can complain about re: the ground money as that play is, it was bound to get stopped eventually (especially with our relatively small line). 

Having watched a lot of Auburn in the Malzahn Era, I've always sort of been jealous of a running game that is creative in the ways it sets plays up, from pre-snap motion to who is carrying to the ball to ways of delivering the ball to the ball carrier. While we haven't quite gotten to that level of creativity yet, we're getting there. The dual-QB formation is starting to figure itself out. I think that Denard is still good for an effective jet sweep about once or twice a game, but I think it's clear that Borges will make his money by playing off of Denard in that set-up. It did of course help that Purdue is just not that good, but either way I'd have to say that this was probably my favorite game thus far from a play-calling perspective. Then again, everything looks nice when it works.

After the game Purdue LB Joe Holland said (emphasis mine):

They ran a couple of things that we hadn't seen them run all year and they had two weeks to prepare an offensive game plan.
Well, isn't that nice. So is this:

Purdue's backers completely overrun this but Fitz exploits this like a good back should; when you force relatively untalented players to defend in space, this is what happens. This wrinkle has the potential to do, well...what it did. After giving it to Denard on the jet once or twice, Fitz will have acres of green to work with on the other side. Obviously this won't always go for a TD, but it's just another example of many "smoke and mirrors" type plays that we will need to get the running game going in the absence of the ability to run traditional power plays (other than Denard Power).

The Defense 

After hearing rumors of a knee injury to the Bringer of Light/Competency that is Jordan Kovacs (and then confirmation of said rumors), I was a little worried that Michigan would immediately revert to the sieve-like state it had held since time immemorial. After that initial Purdue touchdown, I'm sure every Michigan fan was all: 


After that, things calmed down and Michigan finished with another solid performance, relinquishing the aforementioned 7 points and then another TD in garbage time when dudes like Beyer and Clark were on the field. Purdue couldn't do much on the ground, rushing for a mere 89 yards on 29 attempts (3.1 YPC) and passed for 222 yards on 27 attempts, with 48 yards coming on the aforementioned breakdown and 48 more coming in the last drive with under two minutes to go. So, while Michigan is obviously no Alabama or LSU, I think we can safely say that we have a good defense. Every time I think about some of the things that might be wrong with this defense, I think of last year in Bloomington, where I was present as we made Ben Chappell look like Peyton Manning. It's a pretty easy transition from the aforementioned to "man, Greg Mattison is the smartest person of all time next to Greg Robinson" given the results thus far. We'll see how Mattison does without Martin and RVB next year, but that's a worry for another day. 

Mike Martin was his usual Hulk self, consistently blowing up double teams and notching two sacks along the way. The lack of a consistent space-clogging nose to free him up will continue to be frustrating, but Martin should still be able to make hay against the remaining lines on the schedule. Countess continues to be the precocious freshman that he is (although not without mistakes), and Woolfolk's return to safety was not completely disastrous. Hoke saying that he would like Troy to be more physical at times is pretty valid and not just Hokespeak. On the long TD, both Countess and Woolfolk allowed themselves to get slowed down by pathetic, flailing blocks (Countess by the slot and Woolfolk by a clumsy OL), giving Bush the chance to turn what should've been maybe a 10-15 yard gain at most into a long touchdown. Given the nature of the play itself, I can't decide whether to be more or less upset than I am (which is not that upset anyway, FWIW);  it was a screen that is ostensibly pretty easy to diagnose from Woolfolk's position on the field. Okay, so Countess gets sort of slowed up and then whiffs at the ball carrier's feet. It's a mistake but I can live with that so long as the help shows up as it should. Unfortunately, Woolfolk is very un-physical here, as the big guy blocking him does the standard big guy blocking a small guy act (also known as "engage for about a second and then do a Lunogoesque flop") but still manages to slow Troy enough. Another unfortunate aspect of the play is the fact that Floyd isn't quite able to track Bush down from the backside despite seeming to have the angle for a second. I guess that's just something we'll have to live with with him on the field (otherwise he's been about as good as you can expect him to be). 

Special Teams 

So, special teams were kind of good in general this week, in perhaps one of the best all-around performances of the season. First of all, though...Gibbons? 


Gibbons was 2/2 on the day, knocking in 22 and 37-yarders. I still admittedly don't have enormous confidence in him making a field goal in a tight situation on the road but you could probably say that about 80% of college kickers anyway. Elsewhere, Hagerup had a quiet but solid day, booting two for an average of 40.5 (and a long of 49). 

However, the kick return game was probably the most notable development in this phase, with Odoms returning three for a total of 81 yards, including a long of 33 that was very close to getting broken for much more. I'm not sure if  we'll see this type of production consistently but you've got to think that we'll break a meaningful return at some point this season, and what better time to do it than now as we enter the stretch run. 

Speaking of Odoms on returns against Purdue, doesn't that TD in 2008 feel like it happened ages ago? Time flies. 

Miscellaneous Minutiae 

  • I don't think Shaw is anything more than a niche player at this point but he was surprisingly effective this week. With Devin at quarterback and Shaw, Denard, and even Gallon all being threats to carry the ball at any given time, I'd have to think this forces teams to be overly edge-conscious, maybe leaving things open for an attack of the middle? Either way, 5 for 56 yards and a TD is not bad for your #3 ball carrier in a given game. 
  • Again, Michigan stifled the opposing offense on third down: Purdue converted a paltry 3/13 on third down. This puts Michigan barely in the top 40 at #39 in third down prevention percentage (36.21%), putting us a couple of spots behind Notre Dame, six behind PSU, and 21 behind MSU (Illinois and Ohio State are also in the top 25 in this department). This is easily the most endearing quantifiable aspect of the defensive turnaround (other than points allowed, obviously). It's hard not to be excited given that we're doing all of this without great depth or even talent at most positions. 
  • Toussaint...Hart with speed? HART WITH SPEED. But seriously, Toussaint is the #1 guy despite Hoke's non-commital Hokespeak on the matter. 
  • Lewan has been: 1) WWE-style arm-barred 2) punched in the face and 3) dinged up in general as a result of the last two games, yet he keeps coming back for more. I think it's fair to say that Lewan is playing with mansome TOUGHNESS. 
  • I just have to, but man...really guy who is in charge of playing piped-in music? At the risk of sounding all ND Nationy, but Seven Nation Army does not need to be played a million times a game. The more indistinguishable the Michigan gameday experience gets vis a vis your average college venue, the sadder I get. I'm not against piped-in music at all (other than certain songs which are terrible coughSweetCarolinecough) but there has to be a certain aspect of moderation to the whole thing. This is of course not even mentioning the fact that it seems like literally everybody else in the conference does it now (I mean, even the Lions did it fergodsakes). 
  • Mike Martin notched Michigan's first safety since the 2003 Houston game...good times. The only thing I really remember about that game is that we destroyed them and the students chanted "Houston's better" after the annihilation of ND the next week. 
  • Michigan's been pretty lucky thus far re: the injury bug, but with Kovacs looking like he's out for at least one more and both Barnum and Lewan looking like they're at least definitely not 100%, Michigan will have to dip into the shallow talent pool for reinforcements. Michigan should be okay without Barnum if necessary (Schofield seems to have been about as good) but Lewan would be an irreplaceable loss. 


  1. Funny both you and Brian complained about the music, but I noticed it less this week. Plus they didn't play "In the Big House" before the team ran out from the tunnel. They played it after warmups when the team was returning to the dressing room. It seems like its getting a bit better. I am 51 years old and it doesn't bother me much. My buddy and I talk between plays so I think we tune the music out somewhat.

  2. I wasn't there so maybe I just noticed it more for whatever reason...I don't know, maybe I'm exaggerating. I'm 22 and playing piped-in music doesn't really bother me in and of itself, but I think 7NA was definitely played WAY more than it was in any other game this year. I'm planning on making it out for the Nebraska game so it'll be interesting to see if there's a difference vis a vis the games I've been to this year (ND and SDSU).

    At the end of the day, if this is the thing we're sort of complaining about then I'd say this has been a pretty successful season thus far.