Monday, November 7, 2011

Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Michigan 16, Iowa 24
At a certain point in the game, my worldview shifted from one defined by wins and losses to one of practical improvements, of an intellectual inching forward toward something that could be deemed ideal or even not entirely objectionable. It's hard to be mad when you've seen this story over and over again; if you're surprised by the ending then you should probably pay a little closer attention. This is what Michigan has done for years. In the interest of putting a name to it, we'll simply call this the Ben Chappell Theorem; that is, that if Michigan plays a team with multiple glaring weaknesses/an air of general incompetency that has already failed in the face of the opposition of other inferior teams, then, it must necessarily follow, that not only will Michigan not exploit those weaknesses (or what are ostensibly weaknesses, i.e. Michigan State's offensive line) effectively (usually not for lack of some trying, though), they will make certain players look like All-Americans in the process. An enormous shadow of a mouse becomes something much worse in the shifting tectonic plates of light and dark. Just as Michigan made former Indiana QB Ben Chappell look like the greatest thing ever on one afternoon, Michigan continues to make the mediocre look exceptional.

Unfortunately, as nondescript as Iowa football is this year save for a battering ram of a tailback and a receiver with a certain NFL future, it seems that Michigan is probably just as mediocre. Yet, how could we lose to a team that just lost to Minnesota? How could we muster up less yards against Iowa's decidedly mediocre, surprisingly untalented defense than almost every one of Iowa's previous opponents?

Although I figured this would be a loss before the season, I also thought Iowa would've been somewhat decent. There are really no excuses here. At the same time, maybe it's my fault for forgetting about the Chappell Theorem, just like those who touted State's porous offensive line while forgetting that we ourselves boasted a depth-less line with very little high end talent. You could say it's a battle of preconceived notions and reality, a reality which is mostly composed of Big Ten unexceptionalism and crippling mediocrity. We are what we are, which is mostly just as bad as everybody else. If you're expecting a win against Illinois because we are better and this is how things should normally go, you are setting yourself up for failure pursuant to every single clause of the Chappell Theorem.

Even worse than who we lost to and how we lost is the fact that this was a classic Lloyd era loss. We fell behind by two scores then went into "OH CRAP IT'S SHOTGUN TIME" mode, only to advance enough to be able to fall three yards short. We've heard this story before.

The Offense 

I mean, honestly. Michigan had some success in the first half on the ground, with Fitz Toussaint bouncing left and right and bursting through holes such with grace and skill that my little sister made a Mike Hart comparison without even being at all aware of the Fred Jackson hyperbole meme (so, that was a proud moment). Overall, though, Fitz only finished with 58 yards on 16 carries, with most of the yardage coming in the first half. After that it was a series of 0 and 1-yard runs until he was eventually knocked out of the game. It seems that Michigan probably did some sort of work on the power game during the last two weeks of practice in an attempt to "normalize" the offense, and it worked in the first half mostly because Iowa's defensive line is not very big and our line was able to push somebody around for once. However, being predictable eventually nullifies that advantage, and we were predictable.

For the second time in a row, Michigan has gone on the road and Al Borges seemingly has forgotten how to call plays. I'm not quite at the point where saying that "Al Borges: Denard Robinson::Jim Tressel: Terrelle Pryor" but I'm getting close. I get that he's not a spread guy, but I thought we were past the under center experiment? I'm sure it was kind of cool for Borges and Hoke to be able to look like a real BIG TEN OFFENSE in the first half (while putting up 7 points), but man it just seemed like a sham the entire time. This is just not who we are and I don't really understand why Al keeps trying it.

There were problems with the playcalling to be sure...I still don't understand Borges's aversion to the bubble screen, and I don't really remember too many screens in general. The dual-QB set probably needs to die. If getting Gardner snaps comes at the expense of offensive continuity, or makes a winnable game less winnable by any order of magnitude, then he should not be playing. I think Devin is going to be a good player once Denard is gone, but he showed once again that he really isn't doing anything that much better than Denard is, which is worse than it sounds considering that they're both, for all intents and purposes, first year players in this kaleidoscopic invertebrate of an offense.

While there are many things to complain about, a few nice things did happen. On Michigan's first touchdown drive, Denard was doing things like going through progressions and checking down, which, you're darn right that's an improvement. It's pretty bad that your junior starting quarterback is just starting to acquire these skills but this is where we are. Even though Denard went a pretty bad 18/38, a decent number of the incompletions were either drops or hopeless long balls that shouldn't have been thrown in the first place. A good amount of the time that Denard wasn't throwing the ball right at a defensive end's hands or out of bounds 40+ yards down the field, he was looking confident and throwing a decent ball, just like last week against Purdue. Of course, this only happened when Michigan picked up the pace in the comeback effort, getting in the 'gun and running play after play while giving the Iowa defense very little time to rest, and...wait a second. This sounds familiar.

I'm not giving up on Al quite yet; while his move from Auburn to SDSU should've been (and is) somewhat of a red flag, I still believe that he knows enough about offense, generally, that we at the very least won't look like this once we have the types of players in there that the staff is looking for. The worry still exists that this offensive attack is nothing more than an amalgamation of plays rather than an offense, but the only other options (running the RR spread or a straight up plodding I-form based run game), are, well, non-options for obvious reasons.

With that said, while Al has failed to get Michigan going in the last two road efforts, some onus has to fall on the players. As for the last drive, I've though about it and while I was initially upset that Al didn't do this or that, in the end what he did do should have probably worked. It just didn't, and that's just a testament to the fact that even a well-laid plan can be ground to powder by the machinations of reality. The Michigan timeout before Iowa's second to last punt came back to bit us hard in this situation, as we still would have had one in hand, probably changing our entire approach to that set of downs. But, with no timeouts, a limited amount of time left, and a quarterback that often holds onto the ball way too long in the face of a rush (in a situation where a sack=death), the way Borges called it is somewhat understandable. Vanilla, maybe, but one of those attempts should have resulted in a score.

On first and goal, Denard completely misfired on that short-ish fade to Hemingway; given how lost Micah Hyde looked on the next play, if Denard had, you know, not thrown it clear out of the end zone, I'd say that Hemingway stood a good chance of reeling in the TD right then and there. But, Denard being Denard, he throw it out of the end zone and the fact that Hyde looked like he was completely lost in the woods was not taken advantage of.

On second and goal, we know what happened...again, if Denard throws this one just a little bit better, Hemingway doesn't need to make a highlight reel play and we have a shot to tie. He didn't but Hemingway still brought it in...until it was ruled incomplete. The fact that MSU's Hail Mary against Wisconsin is a TD but this wasn't...I just don't know anymore. Indisputable video evidence is often an impossibility at times and an enabler of unadulterated referee pussyfooting. Was it a catch? I hate to say it, but it was not, although I'd love for someone to tell me otherwise. In the flow of the game, though, it was understandably pretty easy to coerce yourself into believing that the ball did not in fact hit the white.

On third and goal, Denard masterfully avoided a completely unblocked blitzer coming up the middle to launch a pass to a diving Vincent Smith. It would have been a difficult play to make for Smith, but it was there and he simply didn't make it. There's nothing else to say.

It was fourth and goal, and, being the last play of the game, you could argue that a run would have been warranted (the timeout called after the Roundtree reception essentially eliminated the choice on first through third down). Honestly, would it have been a lower percentage play than a pass (if any lower at all)? Of course, we passed and Roundtree was mauled by B.J. Lowery in what was not the first uncalled pass interference of the game. The slant was there and it's a fairly high percentage play...I can't really fault any of these calls in and of themselves. In a vacuum, each one was fine, especially if any of them would have worked. You can say that we should've rolled Denard out but that risks taking a sack and/or running off enough clock to eliminate an opportunity. Fourth and goal was really the only time you could call it a running play, but let's be honest, Al wasn't going to do that.

It was an old school Michigan offensive effort in a loss...unimaginative and flailingly effective in a just short last ditch effort. For a team being led by a coordinator that "knows offense" and has spiced things up with 2-QB formations, Michigan was predictable and unimaginative when it mattered, just like the old days. Al going into full on "watch these four verts bro" mode on the last drive leading up to the last four plays didn't exactly help the situation. Iowa's defense practically inherently gives up free completions/large chunks of yardage...when was the last time Denard completed a deep ball that wasn't a jump ball?

The Defense

For all the defense's flaws, a rational person just can't be mad at it. The defense is like a puppy that has rolled around in the mud and then proceeded to jump all over you and your white shirt...OH PUPPY DEFENSE I CAN'T STAY MAD AT YOU. Although, there's something to be said (something bad) about a defense that calls to mind the image of an adorable puppy. So, there's that.

In all seriousness, Iowa's offense was who we thought they were: a team with a Dollar Tree version of Beanie Wells--by no means an insult--paired with a strong-armed quarterback capable of making you pay and a pretty good receiver in McNutt. They didn't even have that middle-of-the-field-eviscerating tight end that they normally do.

At the end of the day, giving up 24 points and only 302 total yards on the road is not bad at all. I can live with that, although the trend of Michigan coming out and looking like a complete sieve on the first drive continues. Plays were made, and perhaps the only significant knock was the inability to force a turnover, which Michigan has relied on for sustenance all year. I can't even get mad about Coker's performance against our was kind of expected. Coker carried the ball 29 times for 132 yards at 4.6 ypc. That's not encouraging or anything--particularly in light of our complete inability to bring him down for no gain despite multiple defenders being draped all over him--but it's not terrible.

Martin, RVB, and Roh came through on several occasions with much-needed TFLs. Heck, even Will Heininger got in there and made a play. It's safe to say that Iowa's line isn't exactly great, but it's still nice to see Martin and Co. knifing through the line and making plays.

As we already know, the depth just isn't there (and, needless to say, is overall quality of talent), and, paired with young and slow linebackers, that's just asking to get gashed. Michigan better get used to it, because there are the next three teams we face will look to run the ball again and again and again. Scheelhaase and Ford next week, then it's Martinez and Burkhead, then it's OSU's stable of talented, capable doesn't get easier.

Back to the linebackers...they are slow. That play on the first drive where Demens pulled up like he got hurt underscored a severe lack of speed and athleticism on his part, a fact only made more apparent after watching the LSU-Alabama defensive slugfest. Even Morgan, who is a clear upgrade over Hawthorne, and Ryan, who has shown some promise, just don't have enough speed to get to the ball at times. It is what it is. We just sort of have to ride with them until the incoming class of linebackers makes their way into the system.

Am I missing something or did Thomas Gordon not even play at all? I understand Woolfolk being on the field (he did a solid job moonlighting as a safety in '09) but did he really deserve to completely usurp the position from him? Unless Gordon was injured and Hoke wasn't saying anything (entirely possible) then I think the answer is no. Other than that, Countess continues to make the case that he's our best cover corner. So, that's nice.

Also, the 3rd & 1 stops on Iowa's last two drives were things of beauty. That is all.

Special Teams 


Despite making his one field goal, the haunting pall of mediocrity looming over everything precludes me from anything representing happiness (e.g. dancing Swanson). Maybe next week. Oh, and there's the botched XP, which didn't really end up mattering because Michigan couldn't score at the end, but was still pretty bad.

Otherwise, Hagerup booted 5 for a total of 197 yards and an average of 39.4 per...he did have a long of 49 but that average is not very good. Hagerup reverting to his old form would be nice, as the defense will take any extra bit of help it can get in the coming weeks. Rounding out the special teams, Michigan defended returns pretty well and the return game the other way continues to not turn the ball over. Odoms did have a nice kick return for the second week in a row that I felt could have almost gone for much more.

Despite a couple slightly better than average returns, Stonum's return next year will provide an enormous boost on kick returns (not to mention his obvious effect on the offense)...I feel like I say this every week.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • Speaking of Odoms...he finally caught his first pass of the season on Michigan's last drive, a clutch catch and run for 13 yards on 3rd and 10. So, even though this year probably hasn't turned out like he might've wanted, there is that. Good for him. 
  • Apparently Delonte Hollowell got in the game f.or the first time this year, notching 1 total tackle. I don't remember when this happened, but it did. I wonder what the motivation for burning his redshirt at this point in the year might be. 
  • Personal foul on Lewan...come on, man. 
  • Understatement alert, but I wish Denard had the sense to know when he should run. I understand the cognitive dissonance of telling a guy "be patient" but also "RUN RUN RUN LIKE YOU'VE NEVER RUN BEFORE" (which is often), but the fact remains that he's still not taking off when it's there, just like last year. It's consistently taking what should be a gain of some amount of yards and turning it into an incompletion, a sack, or a turnover. But, this is what you get when you take an already raw player and make him start all over again. 
  • Just like the State game, Michigan was right there despite looking like garbage for much of the game. The fumble (which led to an Iowa field goal) and the soul-crushing interception in the red zone could very well be the difference in the game. That, and a few questionable pass interference no-calls pushed the win Iowa's way. It always sounds so sour grapesy to complain about the refs, but come on. That last play was a pass interference, period, and to say "oh well we just didn't do enough to win blah blah blah" and entertain notions of "deserving" to win is dumb. The refs did have a negative effect on the outcome of the game. Should Michigan have just not played horrible football and won anyway? Yeah, sure, but a team shouldn't have to overcome the refs to do so, especially when two teams are so evenly matched...I've never really understood the whole "the refs don't matter just play" argument as anything other than a convenient coping mechanism for fans who don't want to think about how their team was just obviously jobbed.  
  • As Brian pointed out on Twitter, Michigan put up less yards against Iowa than this list of glorious champions of football prowess: Minnesota, Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State, Pitt, Iowa State, and Louisiana-Monroe. I am now truly sad having typed that. 
  • The 2-QB system needs to stop, starting this Saturday at Illinois. Gardner is not ready; here's to a great offseason for him and we'll try this thing again next year. As for now, Denard is and should be the guy. When put in the right position, he's proven that he can throw the ball well enough to lead a functioning offense. If they're going to keep doing this, Gardner needs to be on the field for entire drives, not a play here and there. 
  • I'm always hesitant when it comes to saying anything negative about Denard, particularly regarding his speed, but...yeah. He's definitely slower this year. Part of it is definitely the offense, which has him hesitating with the ball in his hands when he'd simply just make people look like buoys floating in Lake Michigan in similar situations last season. I don't know if he's just banged up or if it's the added weight or what, but there's a noticeable difference. 


  1. Pretty much an "amen" to what you wrote. However, Denard couldn't take off and run on pass plays when no one was open because of the defense Iowa was playing. They were not rushing him on passing downs unless they were blitzing. They were just hanging back letting him pass. That is why he had 10+ seconds to find Toussaint in the end zone on the first touchdown play. It seems that defenses either bitz him like crazy or avoid rushing him so he has no lanes to scramble. The only way to get him lanes in this situation is to roll him out. At this point I do not understand the play calling away from home. Much more conservative. Weird. On that last series from the Iowa three I was begging Al for a run/pass option for Denard.

  2. Gardner WAS in for an entire drive on this game while Denard was injured. It was not pretty.

  3. This is true. Obviously he was in there by default, though. I haven't had a chance to rewatch the game but we were obviously playing that drive really conservatively considering the fact that he didn't actually throw a pass until the 6th (and last) play of the drive, so I'm not sure you can glean too much from that one showing. That said, wasn't good (probably wouldn't have gotten the one first down without the offside penalty) either way and the 2-QB thing should probably be shelved until maybe the bowl game.