Monday, November 21, 2011

Wolverines Capitalize on Nebraska's Mistakes in 45-17 Win

Did anyone see this win coming? Well, I certainly didn't.

Speculation in college football is often a cruel mistress. We often try to make bold predictions and at other times still be skeptical. We look at games on the schedule and where we are as a team and think, "There's no way we can win that one." Well, after Michigan defeated Nebraska in a 45-17 rout, I looked pretty silly for saying before the season that the Wolverines only a 17% chance of winning. I also said that Michigan wasn't a dominating team. Both appear to be wrong.

Well, sort of: I still won't say that Michigan is a dominating team, but I will say that they are significantly improved. Significantly. It almost looks like a completely different squad out there. That's what's so baffling: these are by and large the same players that Rich Rodriguez had during the 2010 season, where Michigan went 7-5 and lost those seven games (as well as a sixth in the Gator Bowl) in the most embarrassing way possible. Last year, Michigan was ranked 112th in yards allowed. Now they're ranked 14th in total defense. There is no question you can ask except: What the hell happened?!

A lot of it is Brady Hoke, and the rest of it is Greg Mattison. (Also, side props to defensive backs coach Curt Mallory.) To change a defense so dramatically in the span of one year is beyond remarkable. I'm still blown away by it. During the game against Nebraska, former Florida head coach and current ESPN color commenter Urban Meyer said that Michigan had "the most improved defense in America." He is certainly right.

The reason why the Wolverines beat Nebraska so convincingly is largely because of three words: time of possession. Michigan had the ball for roughly 42-43 minutes of the entire game, while Nebraska had it for 17-18 minutes. That's the defense keeping Nebraska off the field—the Cornhuskers didn't convert a third down until the fourth quarter—and the Michigan offense maintaining control of the ball and wearing the Nebraska defense down. Fans saw what happens when Michigan is able to establish a running game: Fitzgerald Toussaint powered his way over Nebraska, and quarterback Denard Robinson had a good game on the ground too. That threat, combined with Denard's good passing game (he had a beautiful touchdown pass to wide receiver Martavious Odoms at the fifty to the endzone), was too much for Nebraska to handle.

Michigan still faced its share of challenges. The power had gone out in Michigan Stadium and players were unable to see the play clock. The officials used hand signals to show when it was counting down. At least one time Denard Robinson suffered a delay of game penalty because he had watched the umpire instead of the official hand-signaling the countdown. Brady Hoke, however, took the blame for the mistake. "The first one, the penalty we had, that's on me," he said. "I should have called a timeout. For me not to do that, that's bad coaching." (The Michigan fan base later helped Denard out by vocally counting down the play clock. The power was eventually restored to Michigan Stadium.)

Detroit News writer Bob Wojnowski, who had called for the firing of Rich Rodriguez last November after the loss to Ohio State, says that Brady Hoke has brought Michigan back to prominence. "They pounded with power and attacked with animosity," Wojnowski wrote of the Michigan-Nebraska game in his weekly column. "On a chilly November afternoon, you could see it again, and you finally can say it again. Michigan's football identity is back, quicker than expected. And also just in time. This wasn't the final piece of evidence, but it certainly was the most compelling. What happened Saturday in Michigan Stadium is what used to happen. A big, physical foe rolled into town and ran smack into a wall of pads. The Wolverines' 45-17 rout of the Cornhuskers was their best game of the year, by far, and the loudest statement of the Brady Hoke era, by far."

Was this game a statement? Yes, it was. Michigan showed a full Big House against Nebraska exactly what they would have been if they had capitalized on the mistakes of Iowa and Michigan State. They would have easily won. They established a running game and stopped Nebraska from running the ball. It seems like an old, tired adage, but right now it feels like nothing could be closer to the truth. The tougher team usually wins.

Make no mistake: Nebraska had a tough team against Michigan. Quarterback Taylor Martinez ran effectively several times, showing the speed that put him in Heisman talks early in the season, and when he saw a receiver run past Michigan's safeties, he threw a touchdown. However, Nebraska lost because it committed too many errors on special teams and could not offset Michigan's seemingly magical ability to force turnovers. (The Cornhuskers had five turnovers, while the Wolverines had one.) It was a welcome game between two teams who argue over who was the true National Champion in 1997. If this game was the decider, Michigan won.

During the entire game, Chris Spielman and Urban Meyer talked about how much of a threat Denard Robinson is when he is allowed to run. "He is a runner first and a passer second," Meyer said. They were also critical of the games when Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges decided to limit Robinson's carries, despite the reasoning that the coaches didn't want him to get injured. "If I'm the opposing coach," Spielman said, "I'm happy to see Devin Gardner come out."

Denard was mainly allowed to cut loose because it is that time of the season. Granted, he didn't carry the entire offense on his back as he did under Rich Rodriguez—and he'll be thanking Fitzgerald Toussiant for bearing the majority of the load—but Denard did get a lot of carries in this game largely because Michigan doesn't really have anything to lose. They won't be playing in the Big Ten championship, and the only regular-season game following this one is Ohio State, so why hold back? The trepidation that Denard Robinson will get injured before the game against the Buckeyes is now gone, and that means look out.

As much as this game was a satisfying victory, I think the main reason why it feels so good is because it's a sign of things to come. Spielman and Meyer also talked at length about the freshmen that are on the field on defense (Brennan Beyer, Blake Countess, Desmond Morgan, in particular) and how they're making impact plays. 

"When you have three true freshmen that are big time players and contributors on your defense, that kind of shows where a little bit of their talent might have been depleted on the defensive side over the years, and that shows what Brady Hoke is doing as far as recruiting," Spielman said. "And once they get the talent that they need at Michigan—they're a Michigan defense now—they'll really be a Michigan defense when that talent starts rolling in."

It's certainly an encouraging thought. It was an even better win—and, for these players, after everything they've been through, it was even more deserved. Michigan now stands at 9-2.

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