Monday, September 19, 2011

Wolverines Defeat Eagles Handily, but Must Continue to Improve

Hopefully, for Ron English's sake, last Saturday's game will be the last time that Eastern Michigan plays the Wolverines. English has a tough enough time getting wins without scheduling Michigan to boot. There is small upside for Eastern Michigan, however: the payout. EMU's athletic department gets $465,000 for playing Michigan in the Big House.

For the Wolverines, there is little one can analyze from a win that was realistically expected. Although the team got off to another rough start, something which has become a recent trend, Michigan eventually played how it was supposed to and finished 31-3. There should be some praise for the defense, which prevented Eastern Michigan from scoring a single touchdown, but Eastern Michigan is a MAC team. Michigan's offense has struggled to find a rhythm in the beginning. Including all three first games, Michigan has been outscored by opponents 21-0 in the first quarter. (Last week, Notre Dame scored two unanswered touchdowns, and in the first week, Western Michigan scored one.) Michigan's offense has yet to score a single touchdown in the first quarter in any given game this season.

When Michigan's offense found its rhythm, it was effective, but there are some concerns. Offensive coordinator Al Borges seems unafraid to utilize speedy quarterback Denard Robinson's legs when the need arises, and the offense's halfback play has shown that the need arises quite often. The tailbacks do take a great deal of the load off of Denard, but the Wolverines have yet to establish a consistent running game utilizing them.

Across the Michigan fanbase, some people don't feel this is necessarily a bad thing when you have Denard as a threat. In fact, MGoBlog argues that the offense ought to be based on Denard's legs (i.e. his ability to run). However, personally, I get nervous whenever I see Denard take off on a designed run up the middle, because of the chance that Denard will fumble—which he did in the Eastern game—or that he'll get injured.

Michigan simply cannot get away with running Denard so much when the Big Ten schedule hits. I cringed numerous times when Denard ran into Eastern's defensive line and when he got stuffed on several runs. I'm not saying that I think Denard should never run. He is deadliest on the quarterback scramble, when he must create something out of nothing. On those plays, I am significantly less nervous, because Denard frequently gets to the outside, picks up enough yards for a first down or close to it, and then he steps out of bounds before he gets hit. This, I think, is the best use of his athletic ability, whereas having him run up the middle as though he were a halfback is asking for trouble. Michigan is dividing the carrying load between multiple running backs: Fitzgerald Toussiant, Michael Shaw, Vincent Smith, and for the last part of the game, freshman Thomas Rawls. Smith in particular seems the most improved out of all the running backs, although Toussaint and Shaw can consistently pick up good yardage. This is a good sign but it must be tempered with notion that Michigan hasn't hit the meat of the Big Ten schedule, where Michigan's running game will be harshly tested. 

The running backs scarcely put up yards against Notre Dame in the second week, which forced Al Borges to focus more on Denard's running and passing. It was clearly a priority to Borges and Brady Hoke to return some of the focus to Michigan's running backs, but Eastern Michigan, despite how well they may have been prepared under Ron English, cannot be seen as a truly adequate test.

Don't knock the Eagles, however. English has established a good running attack that gave Michigan some trouble in the first half, and it will carry over to the MAC, where they will be more successful. There is an even better indication that the Eastern Michigan program is turning around under Ron English's guidance. They have gained confidence with two wins to start the season, and although they lost to Michigan and play Penn State next week in Happy Valley, the Eagles start their conference play at home against Akron. It will be a far better year for EMU, who have a very good chance of going 4-8 or even 5-7. When the Eagles faced Michigan, they made a game of it. English should be proud of the signs of improvement seen in his team.

And despite the Wolverines winning 31-3 against Eastern Michigan, they'll need to continue to make improvements as well. Play on the field was hardly perfect. Denard Robinson's accuracy in the first quarter was frustrating to watch, as he missed most of his passes and threw an interception. Like against Notre Dame and Western Michigan, he seemed to make better reads and throws as the game progressed, and he racked up a few touchdowns with passes to tight end Kevin Koger and wide receiver Drew Dileo. Denard finished the game with a total of 293 yards, 198 rushing and 95 passing.

Michigan's defense didn't have its bearings early, but eventually they got settled and remained stout. They forced a fumble on EMU's Javonti Greene and recovered it. Michigan safety Thomas Gordon also made a one-handed inception. Jordan Kovacs and Brandin Hawthrone led the team in tackles, and Craig Roh achieved a sack for six yards. Finally, in what was perhaps the most relief for Michigan, placekicker Brendon Gibbons made a 21-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. The special teams unit has largely been a question mark for the Wolverines, and it's clear Brady Hoke is taking his time with them. You can check out highlights of the game here.

It was a good win for Michigan, but the Wolverines must improve week to week if they expect to be competitive against the upcoming Big Ten teams. Michigan's last remaining non-conference game is against Hoke's previous coaching job before Michigan, San Diego State. The Aztecs have continued the winning ways that Hoke established, and they are now 3-0 after an impressive win over Army and an even more impressive one over Washington State, who previously demolished its last two opponents with its seemingly unstoppable spread offensive attack. When asked about the upcoming game against his former Aztecs, Hoke indicated it wouldn't be easy. "I tell ya, we got our hands full," he said.

San Diego State is stout in its offensive and defensive lines, and it has great weapons in quarterback Ryan Lindley (an effective passer) and tailback Ronnie Hillman, who was named a Freshman All-American last year. With these players Hoke was able to lead the Aztecs to the Poinsettia Bowl in 2010 and win it. When Hoke departed for Michigan, Aztec defensive coordinator Rocky Long took over and has kept the continuity and consistency of Hoke's "toughness-oriented" program. Watching Long's press conferences, you'd think he took over a program that was struggling. He frequently makes sobering statements about the Aztecs' upcoming games, yet the Aztecs continue to win. Long had said that Washington State's offense genuinely "scared" him, because the only offenses his team had faced for the past three games were the triple option, and WSU's spread is the furthest thing from that. He wasn't sure how the team would handle it, but then San Diego State came out and beat WSU 42-24 at home. Long's strategy seems to underplay the upcoming opponent as much as he can before the Aztecs go out and beat them anyway. He has said that Michigan has a "huge advantage" over them because of Brady Hoke's knowledge of the San Diego State team.

That could be true, but if there is in fact a strategy to Long's words, we could be in for an upset. I was already a little nervous about San Diego State coming to Ann Arbor, urging Michigan fans not to expect an easy win in any capacity. Hoke established a program at San Diego State that could easily make it to a bowl game this year, and if Rocky Long continues what Hoke started, they could even contend for the Mountain West Conference title. They'll need to knock off TCU and Boise State to do that, but Hoke came very close to beating them last year, and if the game against Baylor is any indication, TCU may have a tendency to underestimate opponents.

San Diego State's game against Michigan does nothing for their conference play. It will simply be a feel-good win for either team. A win for the Aztecs will make them feel great that Hoke built their program essentially good enough to defeat Rich Rodriguez's, and it may even make them feel better about Hoke leaving. Will it be poetic justice for Hoke's departure? Some Aztec fans will say yes, but Hoke's separation from San Diego was no where near as messy as Rodriguez's was from West Virginia. In fact, most Aztec fans weren't surprised when Hoke left: he had said, after all, that Michigan was his dream job.

The circumstances indicate that a loss to San Diego State should not be humiliating considering how much Hoke has developed the Aztecs. Michigan fans may feel disappointed if they lose to Hoke's old team, but it shouldn't be all that painful. It won't affect Michigan's standing in the Big Ten, nor will it indicate that Hoke has his team moving in the wrong direction. If anything, a loss to San Diego State could bring a begrudging amount of comfort to the Michigan faithful: Hoke built a team that could beat Michigan. If he did that, imagine what he could do for the Wolverines. Contrastingly, a loss for San Diego State should not be damning to their program. They will have to contend against and somehow contain Michigan's Denard Robinson, and Michigan's defense is improving slowly but surely. Neither team will be a push-over. It will be interesting to see how the game plays out.

The Aztecs' offensive line and Ronnie Hillman will prove a good test for Michigan's run defense, which needs to substantially improve if it wishes to withstand the Big Ten. Pass defense isn't great either, but with Michigan's coaches focusing intensely on fundamentals, the Wolverines could do better against the Big Ten this year than they did in 2010. Michigan's first Big Ten match-up shouldn't be too hefty of a challenge as they start with Minnesota at home. The Golden Gophers have struggled but are not incapable, and they admittedly aren't exactly excited about Big Ten play. Michigan goes to Northwestern as their first road test. If they improve week to week, the Wolverines will be ready for Michigan State and, eventually, Ohio State.

Both rivals suffered losses in Week 3, prompting an array of question marks in certain areas. The Spartans' offensive line seems to be experiencing what Michigan's did last year and the year before, and their loss to Notre Dame sent the MSU fanbase into a predictable meltdown. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes' defense is still strong as ever, but they are understandably worried about their situation at quarterback. MSU's and OSU's eventual match-ups with Michigan are as close to as uncertain as possible at this point.

For the Big Ten, the 2011 season is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing. Nebraska, despite starting 3-0, might not be as dominant as we all thought, and Illinois could surprise everyone and become a contender. Michigan, of course, could be one as well. There is no such thing as a sure thing this year.

As much fun as looking at opponents' problems is, the Wolverines need to focus on what they need to do, and that means improvement. Brady Hoke seems to be developing a sense of depth on both sides of the ball, as there doesn't appear to be any egregious weaknesses at any position. Even Denard Robinson, who is considered both dangerously threatening and dangerously problematic, could improve by the time he leads the team into the Big Ten conference.

In 1969, Bo Schembechler was in his first year at Michigan and hit some bumps in the road as his Wolverines lost to No. 9 ranked Missouri and then to Michigan State. Yet he developed the team as the season went on, and when they faced No. 1 ranked Ohio State, they pulled out a spectacular upset that the Maize and Blue still cherish today. Admittedly, Brady Hoke may not be the next Bo Schembechler, but a good indicator of what Hoke can do will be seeing how his team improves. Rodriguez's teams actually seemed to get worse as the season went on—to frustrating and disappointing results. Michigan would start strong in games but then teetered off. Now, they appear to stumble in the beginning before staging a minor comeback and finishing strong. The Wolverines weren't the second-half team under Rodriguez that they appear to be today. This could mean that Hoke is definitively changing Michigan into a better program.

If he is, and if the Wolverines get better with each passing week, it'll make for an interesting season. Moreover, it could make 2011 feel like 1969.

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