Monday, October 10, 2011

Winning Ugly

It was halftime and I couldn't help but start to imagine all the things I would do if Michigan had lost. All week, I told myself (and others) that this would be a close game, even taking into account a hobbled Persa and an out of commission Trumpy. It was good while it lasted, I thought. After the last three years--games like last year's Penn State and Michigan State games, and, of course, many others--I'd grown accustomed to a Michigan that always did the opposite of what you wanted. There was a time when you could believe that Michigan would make a comeback and it wouldn't be a ridiculous notion, you truly believed it would happen each and every time. History bore that out time and time again, but the last three years have eroded that ocean of faith and turned us all into Eeyorish cynics. 

This win, the first on the road in the Brady Hoke Era, was the second drop in the bucket of faith (with ND being the first, obviously). Northwestern is not a great team, but they're a dangerous team with a very good quarterback, and it's not hard to imagine Michigan losing this game if this was 2010 or 2009. 

This game was more than just a win, it was an affirmation of some things we've begun to believe in but aren't quite ready to commit to as a part of our reality and/or understanding of this team. This team's resilience, the halftime adjustments, the not collapsing after being 5-0. I'm glad that Michigan is 6-0, but, in the long run, the aforementioned things mean so much more. Almost every single postgame interview mentioned something along the lines of "Michigan football not being played" in the first half; if the second half was Michigan football then this is going to be a fun second half of the season. 

The Offense 

I haven't had a chance to rewatch the game in its entirety just yet but I will say that I'm not as worried about Denard as some might be.Were those interceptions reminiscent of some of Denard's more Jacory Harris-esque throws in the past? Yes, and I won't like when I say that it's frustrating. It's frustrating because Denard clearly has the ability to be a good college passer--whether in RR's spread or Borges's buffet style little-bit-of-everything system--and he makes some throws that are honest to goodness great throws for any quarterback. Throws that would be nice throws for Chad Hene, Drew Henson, etc. Obviously Denard is not and will never be that type of passer, he can make a lot of the throws those guys did, just not on a consistent basis. Thankfully for Denard, we don't need to do that because we have Sonic the Hedgehog playing quarterback. A couple throws in particular that I thought to be fairly praise-worthy: 

And this one:

The first one looks a lot better in the replay: Denard fit that one in between a triangle of Northwestern defensive backs and the sideline after rolling to his right and setting his feet. The second throw later in the game was equally impressive, with Denard buying some time off play action (PA on 3rd&9 no less...hilarious). Those are nice throws, period. When opposing fans call this a "jump ball offense" I just have to roll my eyes because it is anything but that. 

Which brings me to another point: the "jump ball." Two more big ones--one to Hemingway and one to Roundtree--in this one, both in single coverage down the middle of the field against a hapless DB who had no intention of turning around. Why is the jump ball considered a "cheap" or an entirely irreproducible mode of moving the ball? First of all, if you do it a few times a game then it's by definition not a huge part of  your offense (even if a large percentage of your big plays come from that particular thing), and so calling this a "jump ball offense" is incredibly reductive and any person that does this probably thinks that movies like "Real Steel" are really awesome. 

From a competition standpoint, this is college football, not the NFL; more often that not, we should be able to  complete these types of single coverage plays as long as Denard gives our guy any sort of a shot, especially against a team like Northwestern and their troupe of anonymous defensive backs. Other than Ohio State and Nebraska, there aren't really any teams on our schedule with exceptional cache vis-a-vis secondary quality. If it keeps working and people can't stop it, why not keep trying it a few times a game? The people who disparage Michigan for "depending" on the jump ball are probably the same people who thought Shaquille O'Neal was a completely unfair basketball entity that wasn't skilled so much as he was just way bigger and way stronger than everyone that tried to check him (obviously those people are misguided). 

In short, breathe easy...for now. The interceptions are still a legitimate concern, but all three of them coming in the first half continues to lend credence to the "Denard gets too excited in the first half" theory. In any case, shield your eyes from the ominous glow coming from the "3 INTs" on Denard's stat line and you'll see 17/26 for 337 yards and 2 TDs. 

Otherwise, the only other concern is the running game as whole; this will be an issue next week. Toussaint, Smith, and Shaw (who seems to be reappearing after a brief absence) really had nowhere to go. I'm sure this week's Offensive UFR at MGBlog will reveal a lot of stunts and run blitzes kind of messing things up for us, but either way this is not good and will hurt us at some point. 

Otherwise, this offense is GOLD JERRY GOLD. Can you imagine this offense with Darryl Stonum on the field? I know. Regardless, Roundtree and Hemingway are starting to pick things up a bit as Denard does the same. Let's hope this continues. 

The Defense 

What can you say? It seems to be the same thing every week: struggle for a certain period of time then absolutely crush all comers in the second half. Michigan will have to start to get their act together earlier in games, but for now this'll do. That 4th&1 stop on the option play was a thing of beauty; last year's Michigan would've seen that play go by them for a 20-yard gain. To make this completely nerdy, these safeties continue to remind me of the moment when Gandalf rides down to Helm's Deep, engulfing everything in a bright, shining light. That bright shining light is the competent safety play of two wizards known as Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon. 

Yes, Michigan got gashed in the first half to the tune of 24 points and a lot of yards. But, I think the second half is closer to what Michigan can be as a unit. Michigan got a different look this week with the spread-based offense, and it showed. We weren't ready to combat the bubble, as a number of players--particularly Craig Roh--mentioned as a real problem for the defense in the first half. Part of that is alignment and part of that is just overall defensive speed, which sadly to say if not quite up to par. Again, though, what we've got is certainly good for now. Did anybody really think Brandin Hawthorne would become a regular fixture let alone a guy who makes play on any sort of basis? Did anybody expect much of anything from Jake Ryan, or even Will Campbell, who was supposedly passed up by walk-ons in August? Blake Countess? All of these have emerged from the land of zero expectations to become good players, or at least average contributors who pitch in a big play or two a game. I'll take that at this stage in the game. 

There's really not a whole lot to say. The first half was really bad, the second half was what Michigan used to do to teams like Northwestern. Michigan continues to hunker down when they need to, whether it's on their own side of the field or on third down in general. Michigan held Northwestern to 4/11 on third downs. Think of all the times Michigan has imploded on third down in the last three years and think of this as one big payback. 

The offense definitely did its part in the second half by keeping the D off the field. As Hoke said after the game, we play real good defense when we're on the sideline. They sure do, Brady. Michigan's defense was on the field for 2:32 in the third quarter, which is kind of ridiculous. 

Demens and Hawthorne led the way with ten and nine total tackles each, respectively, with a sack and an interception to their collective names. All the linebackers, including Demens, still need work, but these guys are getting better each week. Ryan was a little quiet in this one compared to some of his previous outings but with a lot of quick passes you'd expect the pass rush to be mitigated somewhat. I still think that Cam should be given the opportunity to get his job back, whenever he is deemed ready to go: he dressed but didn't go on Saturday. I'm not sure that this is the week to throw Cam in there to do anything but spot duty (assuming he's healthy, of course), but Purdue sounds like it would be a good thing to experiment with the lineup. 

The Special Teams


No stoic Swanson face staring into your soul this can't honestly expect him (or most college kickers, really) to make a 48-yarder. Michigan probably could've gone for it at that point but in retrospect it didn't turn out to mean much. 

Hagerup only punted once on the day, so the sample size remains too small, athough early returns are kind of meh verging on not good. 

The return game remains unspectacular but nothing egregious happened in kick coverage so I guess it's a wash. I will say it was nice to see Odoms return a couple, including one nice 25-yard KO return. Here's to him catching a pass at some point (I mean, if Watson can get one...). 

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • Brady definitely likes him some coachspeak, but when he said Gardner was very "quarterback-like," I nodded my head in agreement. Devin Gardner will be a really good player once Denard graduates. That bootleg was shades of Drew Henson. 
  • Woolfolk continues to be banged up as often as Sick Boy is sick in Van Wilder. That's okay because, wait for it...Blake Countess!
  • Once again, it was encouraging to see Koger getting involved in the passing game. Despite some pretty horrible drops in his career, he is a talented player that needs to see the ball at least three or four times a game. If anything, he can be the cure to Denard's ills by being that big target that every quarterback loves to have. I'd love to see some plays specifically for Koger in the gameplan going into East Lansing.
  • That forced fumble by Gordon was a thing of beauty. That's practice, man. Practice.  
  • The two-QB experiment continues, and I hope we do actually use it next week. It would be a pretty huge tease if he didn't, especially since it has been a net positive so far IMO. At least it will give Pat Narduzzi something to think about as he stays up at night all week thinking about how to contain Denard Robinson. 
  • Michigan is currently tied for 15th in the country in forced turnovers with 14, the same number as LSU. To quote Peggy Hill, "ho-yeah!" They are also 39th in total defense, which, thus far, greatly exceeds my preseason hope that we'd be a top 70 defense. Who is #1, you ask? Well, you know, those guys we're playing this week. 

1 comment:

  1. Funny thing about the offense is that during the games when we struggle I do not worry about it too much. Because on any single play Denard can score from anywhere on the field. Another thing about the offense, I hope everyone appreciates watching Denard and what a special player we have. Every Defensive coordinator has to plan around 1 player and I am amazed that even when our plays are not working how open our receivers are. If Denard ever puts together an entire game on a good opponent, I can see us going all Boise St. or Oregon on someone.