Saturday, September 22, 2012

Turnovers, Penalties Kill Wolverines against Irish

Michigan was hit by the turnover bug big time.

Denard Robinson threw four interceptions. Yeah, that's right, four. And if you think that's too much, he threw those four interceptions in the first half alone. There were five turnovers (all interceptions) in the first half, as Vincent Smith also threw an interception on what was supposed to be a red zone trick play.

There were six turnovers (you will read that term a lot more in this article) in all. Michigan obviously limited turnovers significantly in the second half, with the only other turnover being a Denard fumble. Michigan lost to Notre Dame 13-6, and if there was one crystal clear reason why, that was it. You simply cannot win a game when you turn the ball over six times.

Although Denard has been Notre Dame's nemesis for the past three years, that clearly wasn't the case this time. The turnovers completely overshadowed Denard passing Chad Henne in accumulating total yards.

The hero for Notre Dame? Definitely Manti Te'o. The All-American linebacker picked off two of the interceptions Denard threw and was largely responsible for limiting him on the ground. On crucial third down runs, it was usually Te'o who made the stop.

It might be hard to process this, but Michigan's defense actually played pretty well. They limited the Irish to under 200 yards and got two turnovers of their own, forcing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to bench redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson (who many believed would be the difference maker in this game) for veteran quarterback Tommy Rees. Ironically, it was Rees who scored the only touchdown for the Irish, on a goal line quarterback sneak into the endzone.

Michigan holding Notre Dame to 13 points doesn't mean much when you only put up two field goals. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the final score. There will doubtlessly be tons of angry Michigan fans who put all of the blame on offensive coordinator Al Borges for the playcalling. 

Was there bad playcalling? Sure. The would-be trick play by Vincent Smith which turned out to be an interception is certainly worth criticism. It's the type of play, however, that gets you a big pat on the back when it works and a big smack upside the head when it doesn't. I don't fault Borges too much for that.

Nor do I fault the offensive line, which I was worried about most going into this game. They looked surprisingly good and gave Denard all day to throw. The defensive line, too, performed moderately well against the run, up until the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame had all the momentum.

But really, the thing that killed Michigan most was the turnovers. Denard was shredding Notre Dame on his first couple of drives, moving the ball down the field by finding Devin Gardner. One interception quickly became three as Denard threw one on each of his next three passes, killing three straight drives.

I mean, what do you do going into the second half? Do you bench Denard and simply bring in a new quarterback (Bellomy or Gardner)? Or do you just run the football and never pass again? It's a tough call. I don't think you can bench Denard because he's too dangerous with his feet. The running game was sporadic at best, and you can't become predictable when the game is as close as it was.

That's another thing that needs to be considered. It's not like the game was a blowout loss. Michigan, especially their defense, stuck with Notre Dame the entire game. The only time Notre Dame even scored a touchdown was off an interception that Denard threw, putting them inside Michigan's 40. They never crossed the fifty and scored a touchdown on the same drive.

It's tough going forward. The Notre Dame game has so often been a measuring stick for where Michigan is as a program year in and year out. The Alabama game showed us that we're not ready to compete for national championships yet.

What has the Notre Dame game shown us? Our defense can make plays. They can stop the run. Our offensive line can give the quarterback plenty of time to pass. And perhaps most obviously, our quarterback needs work. Denard really needs to adjust his decision-making if we're to have a successful season.

For years I've been wondering when Notre Dame is finally going to break the losing streak against Michigan, and this year, it happened. When a rivalry starts to get lopsided, it puts more pressure on the other team to turn the tide. There was no way Notre Dame was going to overlook this game. Hats off to them, because they made great takeaways when they needed to and capitalized on Michigan's mistakes.

Michigan opens up Big Ten play against Purdue in West Lafayette. The run for the Big Ten championship is still wide open as far as I'm concerned. The only undefeated teams remaining in the Big Ten are Northwestern, Minnesota, and Ohio State, all at 4-0. That's less of a credit to their teams' play and more a credit to their teams' soft non-conference schedules.

Although we lost to Notre Dame (which wasn't completely unexpected), there are two more rivalry games left to play. And Michigan State and Ohio State both look very winnable.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Don't Believe Brian Kelly When He Says There is No "Revenge Factor" for Notre Dame

Two days ago, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly was asked if his team was playing up the "revenge factor" as they prepare for their week four bout against Michigan in South Bend. He said they weren't.

"They don't talk about it," Kelly told the South Bend Tribune. "They just want to win games."

Don't believe him for a second. If there's one game the Irish absolutely want to win this year, it's the one against Michigan. Notre Dame was burned three times in a row, as Michigan won the last three contests by exactly four points within the final minute of the game.

Kelly and co. were desperate coming into Ann Arbor in 2011, after an infuriating loss to South Florida in South Bend. The Wolverines crushed their hopes and dreams of starting 1-1 instead of 0-2 when Denard Robinson threw a touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with only two seconds left on the clock.

The Irish were devastated... just like they were in 2010 when Denard Robinson ran all over them, or in 2009 when true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier tossed a touchdown pass to Greg Matthews in the endzone with less than twelve seconds remaining, upsetting the No. 18-ranked Irish big time.

So, after three devastating losses, are you seriously going tell me that you or your players don't talk about reversing the trend? That you don't talk to them about it? That they don't secretly talk to each other about it?

Okay, sure, Kelly doesn't have the fiery magnitude of pressure that comes from being Notre Dame's head coach right now. The Irish are 3-0 for the first time since Tyrone Willingham's 2002 squad. Kelly's most recent and reassuring win came over No. 10-ranked Michigan State in East Lansing, where Notre Dame prevented the Spartans from scoring a single touchdown, ending the game at 20-3.

The Irish have since risen to the No. 11 ranking, the highest they've been since late 2006 under Charlie Weis. The victory over Michigan State was their first defeat of a Top Ten team in seven years. Ever since 2007, Notre Dame has struggled to stay in the Top 25. There's definitely a lot of optimism pouring out of South Bend after the Irish handily dismantled Michigan State in a game many if not most expected them to lose.

But then again, Notre Dame walloped Michigan State last year, 31-13. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio's only victory over Brian Kelly had to come in a last second overtime fake field goal (the now-infamous "Little Giants" play), and Kelly has handled the Spartans ever since. It could be that Kelly just has Dantonio's number.

Sort of like how Michigan has just had Notre Dame's number for the past three years.

The Irish are vulnerable in their secondary: two starters are true freshmen and one is a converted wide receiver. They're even more vulnerable now that they've lost safety Jamoris Slaughter, the lone veteran, to injury. However, Notre Dame boasts an impressive defensive line and a group of outstanding linebackers led by All-American Manti Teo. Their run defense has been stout.

Michigan State, which typically has relied on a stout running game or the senior leadership of Kirk Cousins, was unable to exploit the Irish secondary. Once Notre Dame stopped the running game and Spartan workhorse Leveon Bell, the primary weapon Michigan State used to win their season opener over Boise State, new MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell was forced to open up the passing game. What showed was Maxwell's inexperience and the inexperience of Michigan State's wide receiving corps.

Purdue was able to hold Notre Dame to a close battle in South Bend by making the Irish one dimensional--stopping their running game and putting more pressure on Irish quarterback Everett Golson to make plays--sort of what Notre Dame did to Michigan State.

Either one of two things comes through from observing Notre Dame's games against Purdue and Michigan State: 1) they're just that good and Purdue is a better team than they expected, or 2) they were able to escape when their weaknesses weren't exploited. This was certainly the case with Michigan State, although you won't find too many Notre Dame fans who feel that way.

Michigan certainly has its problems too. The defensive line is not doing well. In three games against three different opponents of varying talent levels, the Wolverines have not managed to create a consistent and secure pass rush. They've also struggled mightily to stop the run.

This was probably most disturbing against UMass (Massachusetts), a team that isn't even in the same stratosphere as Michigan, but MGoBlog attributes this to Michigan's defense primarily being in the nickel formation, perhaps as a way to practice or experiment, since UMass never posed a threat.

We will obviously learn more about both teams when they face each other in South Bend, in a night game that is being broadcast in prime time. For the first time in six years, Michigan and Notre Dame are playing each other at a time when both teams are in the Top 25. Michigan has managed to disappoint the Irish for three years straight, curiously at a time when both teams were revolving coaches: Rich Rodriguez versus Charlie Weis in 2009, Rich Rodriguez versus Brian Kelly in 2010, and Brian Kelly versus Brady Hoke in 2011.

The Michigan game is by no means one that Notre Dame wants to lose, and when Notre Dame still has aspirations of national championships and BCS bowls, the Wolverines stand firmly in the way of that. The piling losses and heartbreak that Notre Dame has suffered at the hands of the Maize and Blue won't be soon forgotten. So when Kelly says that his team doesn't have revenge on its mind when Michigan visits South Bend...

Don't believe him.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Michigan's Defense Shuts Out UMass in Second Half, While Offense puts up 63 Points

I really have to temper my expectations with this team.

I was hoping to start this recap with the opening line, "Now that's more like it," anticipating that Michigan would hold UMass scoreless--or at least no more than what Indiana allowed: 7 points. I was willing to forgive a single touchdown. It happens. You're playing backups and freshmen in "garbage time," and the over-matched opponent sneaks one by you. You hope to pitch the shutout, but it doesn't always happen.

UMass scored better against Michigan than they did against Indiana--13 points. The sole touchdown was a pick-six from another Denard interception--Are we really surprised by this anymore?--the other six points were two field goals.

You could argue that Michigan's defense didn't allow the Minutemen to score a single touchdown, in either half, so that's something of a victory. You could argue that Michigan utterly shredded the Minutemen on offense, easily covering the spread, and eight different players each scored a touchdown. You could argue that, despite the mistakes in the first half (the Denard interception, allowing UMass in field goal range twice), the defense didn't allow a single point in the second half, and neither Denard nor the offense turned the ball over again. So adjustments were made.

More importantly, you could argue that Michigan won and it shouldn't really matter how they did it--especially when they covered the spread.

You could also argue that the first half was an utter embarrassment. An 0-2 UMass team that could barely stay above water against Indiana and only scored a touchdown when the Hoosiers were tired and complacent came in to Michigan's house and put up almost twice as many points as they did against what could be the worst team in the Big Ten--the Hoosiers just lost to Ball State 41-39.

I was absolutely livid at the end of the first half. I have learned that I do not watch Michigan football well when I have even the slightest amount of optimism about the season. 2010: hopes and dreams crushed. 2011: expecting 6-6 but hoping for 8-4, instead getting 11-2. 2012: expecting 9-3 with Big Ten title, getting two victories that were far closer than I believed they should have been. This might be the understatement of the month, but Michigan is not representing the Big Ten well.

People love it when Denard runs. I don't. I watched this game in a Michigan bar and everyone cheered madly when Denard took off on a scramble for a touchdown, while I'm the only person screaming "No! Run Fitz! You don't need to run Denard against UMass!"

And, of course, everyone looks at me like I'm crazy.

Don't get me wrong: I love Denard's ability to make plays with his feet. He is truly one of the most explosive players in college football today. But I absolutely hate it that he's the staple of our offense, that he racks up more yards than everyone else combined, because to me this means that without Denard our offense would be terribly inept. The last thing I want to see is Denard tear his ACL on a big run against UMass. What a waste.

Thankfully, that didn't happen, and hopefully, it won't. But I have that fear in the back of my mind--no, the front of my mind--whenever he takes off running. Why in God's name is Michigan not running Fitzgerald Toussaint? Last time I checked he racked up over 1,000 yards last year.

Denard should only take off on big runs when he absolutely has to, when there are no receivers open and when there's a wide open space on the field--hopefully by the sideline, so he can step out and not get touched. I must sound terribly pessimistic. Michigan has two healthy 1,000-yard rushers on the roster, and only one of them is getting over 100 rushing yards a game. On any other team that would be the running back.

Toussaint actually got a few more carries and had a great game, but I watched in frustration as Michigan continued to throw the ball and run Denard when they could have easily run the ball down UMass's throat A-Train style with Fitz. Am I missing something here? So, a national championship is no longer possible, but the coaches are attempting a Heisman campaign? Not happening. Name one Heisman quarterback that threw 13 interceptions. At this rate, that's at least how many Denard will have by December.

I think the problem is more with me and less with Michigan. The Wolverines were pretty much at this level last year--making a ton of mistakes, needing to improve on all fronts--and because I didn't expect much out of them, it was pretty easy to keep a level head. I have to see this season at Michigan's attempt at "2011 2.0" instead of "2012: the Next Step."

If you remember, the 2011 Michigan squad was hardly a dominant football team throughout most of September. They were decent but gave up yards and a couple big plays to Western Michigan before thunderstorms ended the match prematurely. They eked out a close one to Notre Dame. They shut down and slapped around Eastern Michigan while still having a few "facepalm" moments. By the time they faced Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska, they were much better than when they played Notre Dame. They had improved.

My mistake was assuming that they wouldn't regress at all. I knew and expected that the Alabama game was going to be rough and painful, but I thought that Air Force and UMass would be cake walks compared to the Crimson Tide. That Michigan has struggled against these significantly less-talented teams means either that the Wolverines are just not that good and 2011 was largely a fluke, or they were so beaten up by Alabama that they are still recovering. Neither one is good for Michigan's season.

I had significantly relaxed by the second half. And it wasn't a "Resignation to Mediocrity" type of relaxing either. It was good to see that Michigan made adjustments, shut out the Minutemen entirely, and managed to dominate on offense with backups and freshmen and Denard watching elatedly from the sidelines.

It was nice to see that other players got to bask in the spotlight for a bit. They wouldn't come anywhere near close to what Denard had done, but what can you do. Justice Hayes, one of the most overlooked Michigan running backs (largely because he seems better suited to Rodriguez's spread), scored a late touchdown with ease at the goal line thanks to Michigan's second string offensive line, composed primarily of walk-ons and true freshmen. That was against UMass's first string. The blowout had gotten to them.

I don't really know what to expect from Michigan this year anymore. In 2010 I let myself believe too strongly that we would win at least ten games. We staggered our way to seven, and in all of the losses the games weren't even close. In 2011 all I wanted to see was improvement. We stumbled sometimes but improved every week and surprised a few people. I seem to be back to that mode of thought from 2010, thinking "We should be good" instead of simply "We could be good."

I have no idea what the future holds. I have no idea if Michigan will go 9-3 or 7-5. The Big Ten conference is doing abysmally. Michigan is 2-1 but they don't exactly inspire confidence when you think about how they'll do against rivals like Notre Dame, Michigan State, or Ohio State. And then you look at Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State, and they don't exactly inspire confidence either.

The Irish shut down Michigan State on the road but squeaked by Purdue at home. For all their talk of a steamrolling rushing attack, the Spartans sure didn't have one against Notre Dame in a prime time matchup with a home crowd to support them, as they failed to score a single touchdown on their home turf for the first time since 2006. Finally, the Buckeyes look amazing when the opponent doesn't fight back. When the opponent does (as Cal, a 5-7 team in 2011, did), they don't look so amazing. I wonder how they'd fare against Nick Saban.

A small part of me thinks that we will not defeat any of those three teams this year. Another part thinks that Michigan will improve enough to pull it off and win at least two. I mean, why not? Part of being a college football fan means realizing that anything can happen. USC, the team everyone picked to produce a Heisman trophy winner and a BCS championship matchup with Alabama, just lost to a Luck-less Stanford. College football is crazy and unpredictable sometimes.

And so is being a Michigan football fan.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Wolverines Survive Fourth Quarter Meltdown against Air Force

Michigan successfully bounced back when they desperately needed to do so, improving to 1-1 after defeating the Air Force Falcons 31-25 in the Big House.

The Falcons, to their credit, made this a much closer game than it should have been. The triple-option offense is clearly difficult to defend and caused as much anxiety for the defensive coaches as it did the Michigan fans watching the game. So, I really don't know what to think of Michigan right now.

The defense as a whole looked decidedly mediocre, having what can only be described as a meltdown at the start of the fourth quarter (more on this later), but if the triple-option is really as migraine-inducing as defensive coaches claim it to be, then maybe we can forgive the defense a little.

Here are some game notes:

  • Thank God there are no more numbers on the helmets. This was probably my biggest "harumph" type of complaint last year when Michigan decided to keep numbers on the helmets from the Minnesota game on through the Big Ten schedule. Needless to say I am thrilled that the numbers are gone. The greatest helmet in college football has returned to its pristine glory.
  • Who says tight end was a weakness of Michigan's offense? The Wolverines didn't look like they missed Kevin Koger too much as Farmington Hills Harrison standout Devin Funchess (pictured) stepped up in a big way. Funchess (6'5", 229 lbs.) caught four balls for 106 yards and a touchdown. (Fun fact: Farmington Hills Harrison is traditionally a Spartan pipeline.)
  • Denard Robinson actually had a pretty good day passing, going 17 for 25, throwing for two touchdowns. He maybe threw two bad passes the entire game, and one of them ended up being picked off (the pass that was too high for Vincent Smith). In usual Denard fashion, Shoelace was electrifying on the ground, harkening back to the 2010 Rodriguez days.
  • Where in the world was Fitzgerald Toussaint? The feature running back who served his one-game suspension during the 41-14 rout from Alabama had a sparse 8 carries for 7 yards (ouch). Denard took much (or all) of the load, with 20 carries for a net 218 yards. I don't understand this. The whole point of getting Fitz back was so he could take some of the pressure off Denard. It really should have been him who got the 20 carries.
  • Elliot Mealer seems to be doing well at center. His shotgun snaps were crisp and right on the money. There was of course that one bobbled snap, but one bad snap amid 50 is acceptable. I was seriously worried that whoever was at center (it was looking like Ricky Barnum for a while there) would have serious trouble getting the snaps off a la Rocko Khoury in the first drive of the Sugar Bowl. For now, that doesn't look to be the case, which is good.
  • Overall I felt the offense was pretty efficient. Denard's big runs aside (still wished there was more Toussaint), the emergence of Devin Funchess and Devin Gardner as big targets have added a new dimension to this offense. Couple this with the fact that both Funchess and Gardner are in their first years at the positions and you're looking at some lethal threats down the road and next year. Seriously, those guys are dangerous.
  • The Meltdown: Michigan gave up several third-down conversations and a fourth-down conversion at the start of the fourth quarter, as well as a touchdown. That touchdown should have never happened. I fully expected Air Force to score a minimum of 10 points, and a maximum of 17, but 25? Michigan had been seeing the option attack all game and by the fourth quarter should have at least made some adjustments to counter it. The huge give-ups on third down, fourth down, and the 2-point conversion were almost certainly the low points of the game.
  • Contrastingly, it was Michigan's defense which effectively sealed the win on the crucial third and fourth down stops on Air Force's final two drives. Jake Ryan was responsible for giving up two touchdowns, but also was the one who batted down Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz's would-be pass on fourth down to seal the victory.
  • I am legitimately concerned about this defense. I am equally concerned about Michigan's chances at making a run for the Big Ten championship. Right now, it's not looking too good. As several Michigan blogs have already noted, a lot of this could simply be that Air Force's option attack is just so tough to defend that we can't tell if Michigan's defense has really gotten any worse or has just played two really tough games (defensively) to start the season.

I watched this game twice (once Live and once on Replay), and while I did feel a little better about the team on the second time around, that fourth quarter was still a nail-biter. A win is a win, but 31-25 felt like a little too close for comfort. As I said previously, this could all be because Air Force is "just one of those teams" that you can't 100% prepare for -- but still, I feel a little uneasy about the Big Ten conference play. Obviously, Michigan didn't exactly start out great in 2011 either. The hope now is that they improve week-to-week just like they did last season. We'll have more definitive estimates once Michigan plays Notre Dame and Michigan State.

Michigan goes on to face Massachusetts at home in what looks like the only cupcake of the schedule, which means that it will be the best chance for the Wolverines to fine tune their gameplan. After that is an early season showdown against Notre Dame in South Bend, followed by the conference opener against Purdue. After thrashing Navy 50-10, the Fighting Irish just squeaked by their game against the Boilermakers, 20-17.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Michigan Must Bounce Back Against Air Force

The Michigan Wolverines will face a test of leadership and resilience after a difficult but expected 41-14 loss to No. 2-ranked Alabama as they go forward to their week two matchup against the Air Force Falcons.

Losing the season opener is always tough for any team, but Michigan has a chance to regain a lot of the momentum lost when they return to Ann Arbor for their first home game of the season. Following the loss to Alabama, there has been a lot of Chicken Little-type reactions (i.e. The sky is falling!) from the Michigan faithful, which isn't surprising. However, we need to remember that 1) the loss to Alabama was expected, 2) it does nothing to affect Michigan's run at a successful season or a Big Ten championship, and 3) Alabama was the most difficult non-conference matchup and possibly even the most difficult opponent on the entire schedule.

The game against Air Force likely won't be a cakewalk, but it should be significantly less challenging than going up against what was probably the No. 1 defense in the entire country, which means that this game is all the more crucial for Michigan to win. They simply cannot allow themselves to fall into the slump of an 0-2 start.

In its 2012 preview of the Michigan football team, written months ago, The Wolverine magazine acknowledged the possibility that Air Force could catch Michigan off guard, coming off the loss to Alabama:

Why Michigan Could Lose: The Maize and Blue are spending all summer focused on a single game -- Alabama in week one -- and who knows what their mindset will be in week two against Air Force if they falter versus the Crimson Tide. The strength of the Air Force attack, meanwhile, could be U-M's Achilles' heel -- the ground game.

This acknowledgement, however, didn't factor into The Wolverine's overall prediction for the Air Force game, which still saw the Maize and Blue winning 35-17:

One way or another, coming off a loss or a big win, Michigan should be motivated to meet the Falcons, and its offense will overwhelm them. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has averaged 324.4 yards of total offense and has accounted for 21 touchdowns in eight starts against non-conference opponents, and he should have another big game.

It won't be easy. Troy Calhoun (pictured) has established a reputation for regularly taking Air Force to bowl games. In the past five years as the Falcons' head coach, he has led them to a bowl game every year (a school record), winning two out of five, and his overall win-loss record currently stands at 42-24.

In 2011, the Falcons went 7-6 and finished 5th in the Mountain West Conference. Lindy's sports magazine on Michigan's upcoming 2012 season summarized the challenge that Calhoun's team has going forward (the second part we quoted in our 2012 Michigan football season predictions):

When looking for successful "mid-majors" in college football, it's hard not to think of Air Force. The Falcons are traditionally consistent -- they have won at least seven games in each of the last five seasons -- despite not having the talent pool of top-tier teams. A big reason for that success is the triple-option offense that opposing teams have trouble preparing for, and a bend-but-don't-break 3-4 defense. This year's Air Force team, however, will have trouble living up to that recent success.

Head coach Troy Calhoun has to replace last year's starting quarterback, running back, top three receivers, four offensive linesmen, three linebackers, the top cornerbacks and best safety. In short, it's a rebuilding year in Colorado Springs.

That didn't stop the Falcons from dismantling Idaho State 49-21 at home in their season opener, so rumors of "rebuilding struggles" were unfounded for at least the first week when most teams struggle, but Michigan is a different animal. Calhoun realizes that when he comes to the Big House his Falcons will be facing a far more talented team than an FCS opponent and, worse, a coach who he has faced before.

While at San Diego State, Brady Hoke matched up against Air Force as members of the Mountain West. Hoke's Aztecs lost to Air Force 26-14 in 2009 (a year when Hoke went 4-8 in his first season as the Aztecs' head coach), but defeated the Falcons (then ranked No. 23) 27-25 in 2010, a year when Hoke went 9-4 and led the Aztecs to a 35-14 Poinsettia Bowl victory over Navy.

By contrast, Air Force has been the only service academy that has gone to a bowl game for each of the past three years consistently. Navy went 9-4 in 2010 (losing to Hoke) and then 5-7 in 2011 -- and recently, the Midshipmen were destroyed 50-10 against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland. After having a rare 7-6 season under Rich Ellerson, Army subsequently went 3-9 in 2011. While Hoke has successfully prepared for Air Force's triple option before, it's fair to say that Air Force may very well be the toughest of the service academies.

The Falcons typically win games on the ground. The triple-option rushing attack has been known to give defensive coordinators (or defensive coaches) headaches. San Diego State head coach Rocky Long (inventor of the 3-3-5) said that the option is "the only offense in the world on the chalkboard you cannot stop." Additionally, former Notre Dame head coach and current New Mexico Lobos head coach Bob Davie said, "I know that in all my years at Notre Dame, without a doubt, not even close, the toughest weeks [of preparation] were the weeks you played [Air Force]."

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison noted that the one the reasons Michigan's defensive line struggled against Alabama was because they failed to use perfect technique, saying, "We're not good enough right now to do anything other than play in perfect technique." So, naturally, when the question of Air Force (a highly-disciplined team the relies foremost on technique) came up, Mattison acknowledged the challenge:

As a coach, I'll be dead honest with you. This is an offense that put [up] 500 yards of rushing. I don't care who you're playing, 500 yards is a lot of yards. ... Playing a wishbone, first of all, makes you be unbelievably sound at technique and assignment, and if [the defensive players] slip up one time, it can be a big play. So, that's a concern. That's what our players understand going into this game. Plus, you're playing an academy. They play extremely hard. I've played against the academies eight or nine times now, and every time you play against them, you just leave with the utmost respect. We're going to have to bring our A-game on defense. There's no question.

So despite the losses to Air Force's personnel from last year, and the notion that Air Force is no where near as challenging as Alabama, Michigan's defensive coaches are still approaching the game with caution and due diligence. Should Michigan fans be worried? Is Air Force possibly better than we think they are?

On the Michigan blog Maize n' Brew, Zach Travis took some time to ask Jeremy Mauss of SB Nation's Mountain West blog about Air Force's option attack and why Air Force continues to run it. Mauss's response:

The main reason service academies use the triple-option or run-option offense is because of size restrictions. At least at the Air Force Academy there is a certain height and weight in order to gain admittance to the school. Which means that the offensive lineman are much smaller and a standard pro style offense with a fullback or I-formation would not be successful. Air Force will have smaller lineman, however that just means they are quicker which means there will be a lot of offensive lineman pulling to aid in an option play. With so few teams running it, that is why teams usually will struggle against that offense.

The main takeaway from that exchange is the note of "undersized linemen," a common occurrence among service academies. Is this a problem? Although the Falcons' option attack and focus on technique and discipline should counter a lot of Michigan's bulldozing rushing attack, imagine Michigan defensive tackle Will Campbell (6'5", 305 lbs.) going up against an undersized lineman from Air Force, especially after he managed to barrel through Alabama's offensive line at least once.

On offense Michigan should be more than capable of making Air Force frustrated. Feature running back Fitzgerald Toussaint is back and ready to go after his one-game suspension, and he should add an element to the Wolverines' offense that was lacking during the Alabama game.

And although there was quite a bit of criticism launched at Al Borges for executing a "failed" gameplan against Alabama, criticism which I felt the need to counter and rally to Borges's defense (i.e. there's just not much you can do against Alabama, guys), there has been a good if not rare amount of optimism coming from Brian Cook at regarding Denard Robinson's passing. In Brian Cook's analysis of Michigan's offense against Alabama upon further review, he came to this conclusion:

In terms of accuracy, Denard had a good day. Maybe very good. Those first two slants are in the receiver's chest. The problem was that [Alabama defensive back Dee] Milliner was also in said chests.
That kid is nasty, and Michigan's wide receivers could not get separation from him unless he fell down. Maybe there was a square foot in which the ball could be caught without Milliner making a play on it… maybe. I doubt it.
Sometimes when it looked like Denard missed, it was his receiver blowing the play.
And then you've got a couple of perfect deep completions plus a third that would have been if not for the Alabama safety coming over and tripping Gardner. He plain missed about as often as [Alabama quarterback A.J.] McCarron. The difference was in the defenses and the wideouts.

This was actually encouraging. Possibly really encouraging.

If Michigan's receivers were capable of getting separation -- or Michigan had manufactured some with play action Denard -- things would have been fine. If Robinson's accuracy continues against mortal defenses he'll have outstanding numbers and Borges will get a gold star.
In a weird way, I'm actually encouraged about Borges long-term since his response to a defense that stacks the box is to throw at it. Once you get the receivers and the line and [Michigan 2013 recruit Shane] Morris in, that stuff is going to work.

This is perhaps most encouraging when looking at the Notre Dame game in week four, considering that the Fighting Irish have serious problems in their secondary that Navy, an run-option offense, did not exploit and possibly could have kept the score closer than 50-10. However, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Michigan is now squarely focused on its first game at home against Air Force. Considering that the Falcons' defense is not quite the same (at least in terms of speed and power) as Alabama's defense, it should give us a good look into Denard's improvement as a passer. However, we should also prepare for the possibility that Michigan will run the ball with Toussaint and Denard far more than they will pass.

If the Wolverines have any hopes of putting together a successful season, matching the success of last year, and making a run at the Big Ten championship, they must bounce back from the loss to Alabama. Aside from the games against the Crimson Tide and Notre Dame, each non-conference game against Air Force and Massachusetts is a must-win for Michigan. We'll see this Saturday just how resilient the Wolverines are. Given that this is Michigan's first home game of the year, they should be motivated.

In a recent press conference, Brady Hoke was asked how the team was recovering from the loss to Alabama and going forward to the game against Air Force.

"You can't let one team beat you twice," he said.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Borges: Offense "Still a Work in Progress"

If there's one thing that's good about losing a single game, it's that it produces a lot of drama. And drama breeds more writing material.

Recently there's been a lot of criticism levied against Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges for sticking with a seemingly ineffective game plan regarding Michigan's 41-14 loss to No. 2-ranked Alabama.

This is largely an argument in his defense.

In Borges's Tuesday press conference--which you can watch here--the first question he was asked was whether or not he would go back and change his game plan. Borges's answer:

Very little would I change. Very little. Almost none. That’s probably hard to grasp because of the way we executed. The game plan didn’t look very effective, but the whole thing was geared to if they loaded the box up, we were going to throw the ball, and if they left the box light, we were going to run it. We ran the ball into a light box twelve times and had +4 runs three times out of the twelve. And we hit two out of ten shots down the field. So, the other alternative is to +1 run with the quarterback. We did some of that, too, but they weren’t going to let you do that. As much as you wanted to give that a shot, that wasn’t going to happen. No one’s done that to them. Look at the numbers in the past. No one’s done that to them.

The question is telling. There seems to be this notion that if we only ran Denard twenty or thirty times, we would have won the game or somehow at least have kept it close.

We can see this criticism best summed up by the post-game reaction by Brian Cook at mgoblog:

At no point did Al Borges deploy the EMP weapon he must have spent the offseason perfecting in lieu of figuring out what Denard Robinson is good at.
At halftime I bellowed "THAT'S BECAUSE YOU'RE NOT RUNNING DENAAAAARD" at the television.
Any hopes you may be harboring that this will all work itself out and Denard's legs will be the primary engine of the offense are looking pretty sickly at the moment. At least we've been here before, and Borges has retreated to plot anew. Usually he comes back with "hey, this guy can run."
The only rationale I can think of that makes any sense is that Borges believed flat-out that Michigan could not run at all and wanted an offense predicated on that.
If Robinson has 30 carries against Air Force I'll again descend into the Walter White [of AMC's Breaking Bad] laugh.

The criticism seems to be based on the precepts that 1) Denard Robinson is the most explosive player in Michigan's offense, 2) Al Borges must run Denard in order to win games, and 3) putting Denard in a spread offense would result in more success. The third one really comes through here:

Would have been nice to see what Robinson could have become in an offense that catered to—or even bothered to use—his primary skill.

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding to the state of our team by some of our fans. Although it was continually lost on Herbstreit and Musberger during the broadcast, the decision by Al Borges to run Denard infrequently was borne more out of necessity than preference.

Denard may very well run the ball twenty times in other games. It wasn't an option against Alabama, as Borges points out:

We’ll play that game by game, but I would not have run Denard Robinson any more than we ran him on Saturday. Absolutely not. No, I know a lot of people think that, but no way. That wasn’t going to happen. But in certain games you’ll run the ball. I mean, it’s just like last year. You’ll see certain games he’ll carry it 25 times. You’ll see other games he’ll carry it 10 to 15 times. You can run him 20 times every game, you'll get nothing left of him by the end of the season, particularly when you’re playing opponents like [Alabama]. That’s already been proven.
In the Alabama game they weren’t going to let you run. Look at their numbers, guys. They’ve never allowed a quarterback to run the football. Not with any significance. They play a front, they play a defense that forces the quarterback to throw the ball. You can run here and there, but if you think you’re going out of there for 150 yards, it’s not going to happen all the time. But in other games -- there will be certain games you’ll see him run a lot more.

What needs to be understood is two things. The first is that the last thing you want is to injure your starting quarterback in the first game of the season when you have 11 more games to play. History says that running Denard twenty to thirty times does not necessarily guarantee success (see 2010 Ohio State, Mississippi State, etc.), and more often than not it means that Denard will not finish the game (see 2010 Bowling Green, Illinois).

Even in an offense that seemingly suited Denard’s skills, there was a greater fear that he’d be injured out of the game instead of throwing an incomplete pass. I’d rather have the latter.

The second thing that needs to be understood was obvious to anyone who watched the game—or at least, it should be obvious to anyone who watched the game: Alabama was not going to let Denard run.

They knew coming in that he was Michigan’s most explosive player and they would be watching him at all times. Given Saban’s aggressive defense, the way that Alabama likely intended to stop Denard Robinson was by knocking his lights out.

So, not only is it imprudent to run Denard thirty times when that’s exactly what the opposing defense is looking for, it’s also exhibits a lack of understanding the opponent’s primary strength in defending the run. It’s not like we were playing Connecticut.

Borges knew that going in. Contrary to the narrative ESPN was pushing in an attempt to hype up the game, Denard was not an "X-Factor" for which Saban's defense would have no answer. And Borges is right: if you look at the stats, dual threat quarterbacks had virtually no success running the ball against Alabama.

Here are a few examples: (links to box scores included)

In Alabama's 2011 regular game against Ole Miss, dual-threat quarterback Randall Mackey had 12 carries for 6 yards.
In Alabama's 2011 regular season game against LSU, dual-threat quarterback Jordan Jefferson had 11 carries for 43 yards.
In the 2012 BCS national championship game, Jordan Jefferson had 14 carries for 15 yards.

Those are two SEC quarterbacks who each didn't manage 100 yards. History does not support the notion that Denard Robinson would have fared any better against the Crimson Tide.

So what was the alternative?

Michigan blog Touch the Banner summed up Borges's challenge nicely:

Michigan wasn't going to be able to run the ball in this game. I predicted that Michigan would rush for fewer than 100 yards; the final tally was 69, despite having one of the most electrifying players in the country at quarterback. Yes, Denard Robinson probably could have run the ball more, especially before he got dinged up. Would it have made much of a difference? Probably not. Where Robinson really could have made a difference was in the passing game.

Exactly. The passing game. If Alabama had any type of weakness (and that's stretching the term a bit), it would be in their inexperienced secondary. Borges's plan to throw the ball when they stacked the box is exactly what you'd want to do to put pressure on those defensive backs. In fact, that's really the only thing you can do.

Maize n Brew's Anthony Mammel took a sort of critical approach with this:

What in the world was Michigan running the ball on first and second down for? Vincent Smith and Thomas Rawls combined for 19 carries and 42 yards! To any other coordinator this means the running game should only be used just enough to keep a defense honest, especially when Alabama is bringing back side edge blitzes like it's the last game they'll ever play. The opportunity for Robinson to take advantage was clear, yet Borges just had to keep on truckin'. Don't do this against Michigan State again.

And later, in the comments:

He [Borges] was calling running plays that were averaging no more than two yards the entire game while Alabama continued to bring the heat. No excuse for that, especially late in the game when we needed points in a hurry.

This is kind of missing the point. One, Michigan's receivers didn't catch all the deep balls thrown their way, which would have forced Alabama to adjust and likely would have changed the entire landscape of the game. Second, Borges had to take some of the pressure off Denard's passing woes by running the ball (with a zone read) when the box was light (i.e. dropped back into coverage).

On many of those reads, Denard chose not to keep the ball. While some believe that Denard keeping the ball would have meant a greater chance of success, the only difference that I think would have happened would be that we'd be now trading sentiments of "Get well soon, Denard" and talking about the season going forward with Russell Bellomy or Devin Gardner as our quarterback.

Yes, Michigan needed points in a hurry, but they weren't making gains on the ground or in the air. In fact, the only two opportunities Michigan had to score came off two deep balls thrown that were actually caught (one by Jeremy Gallon which put Michigan at the one-yard line, and the other by Devin Gardner for a touchdown). Michigan's running game played virtually no part in getting them down the field, and what sucks is that they couldn't even if they wanted to.

Adding Denard Robinson's legs to the mix would have been worse for Michigan than for Alabama. There were a lot of reasons why Michigan lost this game, not the least of which is that Alabama is really, really good. But the game wasn't lost because Al Borges made the correct decision to attack Alabama where they were "weakest" (again, stretching the term) and that was against their secondary.

The biggest thing that we have to understand from this game is that Michigan's offense is, as Borges notes in the press conference, still a work in progress. While Denard is not Borges's prototypical passer, Borges is still working with him, and he is getting better. Against teams that aren't the defending national champions, we should see a noticeable difference.

The other thing that shocks me is how people forget we are still in the process of transitioning to a new offensive system (though, again, utilizing what we have, making decisions based on the situation at hand) and are still recovering from the worst period in Michigan football history. Remember that Michigan has lost worse games than to No. 2-ranked Alabama. I mean, it's like the No. 8 ranking warped everyone's minds and made them think Michigan was somehow a dark horse contender for the national title. No, we still have a long way to go.

"It's the first game, tough opponent," Borges said. "Our kids are resilient, and we've got some good leaders on this team. It's a tough way to start -- for all of us, for the coaches, for the players -- but you've got 11 games. If I'm not mistaken, Oregon played LSU last year. Wasn't it the same game [as ours, Cowboys Classic]? What was the score of that game? It wasn't even close. How did Oregon do ... after the game? I think they won 11 games. So, it's not [lost]. You don't chuck it all. You've got to be resilient. You've got to get back to the basics."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Alabama Throttles Michigan, 41-14

Well, that sucked.

The much-anticipated game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Alabama Crimson Tide quickly became boring as the Tide went up three touchdowns with ease in the first quarter. Michigan was constantly facing an uphill battle and their offense was never able to get anything going against Alabama's incredibly fast and incredibly aggressive defense.

  • The lack of Fitzgerald Toussaint really hurt the offense. I'm not saying that the game would have been won with him in tow, but the Wolverines were clearly missing a huge part of their identity with his absence. Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith attempted to pick up the slack but did not perform well. Michigan only had 69 total rushing yards in the game. Alabama had 232.
  • Blake Countess injuring himself out was also huge. He and J.T. Floyd are arguably Michigan's best cornerback combo, and with Countess out, Michigan looked like it was playing with one hand tied behind its back. Hopefully the injuries to Countess and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan are not serious. We seriously need those guys going forward in the season.
  • Denard pretty much blew any chance of a serious Heisman campaign with two rancid interceptions, both of which were costly, eventually resulting in touchdowns. The first was thrown and a Michigan receiver was nowhere in the vicinity of the pass. The second, I'm guessing Denard just didn't see the linebacker. Denard eventually settled down, going 11-26 and racking up 200 yards. He also banged up his shoulder but was able to get back into the game.
  • The Michigan defense started well on Alabama's opening drive, forcing a three and out, but were pretty much manhandled by the Crimson Tide after that. Alabama scored three touchdowns in the first quarter on three consecutive drives. Michigan's defensive line did get some penetration, forcing Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron to throw the ball away on several occasions, which I suppose is impressive given that the opponent had arguably the best offensive line in the country. Against weaker offensive lines, Michigan should do a lot better.
  • Michigan's offensive coordinator Al Borges learned a lot about what to expect from his team going forward. The speed option does not work against a defense that has stacked the box. Alabama put a man on both the quarterback (Denard) and the pitch man (Thomas Rawls) to tackle for a loss.
  • Devin Gardner needs more time at wide receiver, just to gain experience. He is clearly a gifted athlete, and I can only wonder how much more of a threat he would be if he had been a wideout for the last two years. Some Michigan blogs were expecting miracles from him, but let's keep in mind that this was his first game as a wide receiver. He did manage to catch a pass that scored one of Michigan's two touchdowns in the game.
  • In this game alone, Michigan has put up more points against Alabama than any other Big Ten team did. (Penn State only scored 3 points in 2010, and 11 in 2011. Michigan State only scored 7 points in garbage time.) Michigan also put up more touchdowns than LSU did against Alabama last year.
  • Though the game was largely over by halftime, it's not entirely fair to say that Michigan never had a chance. The Wolverines forced a three and out in Alabama's opening drive, but on Michigan's first drive, the wide receivers (Roundtree and Gardner) dropped easily catches that would have kept it going. This offense relies so much on rhythm and momentum. Things got really ugly when Alabama took that away. And, of course, injuries were killer.

What does it all mean? While this game was quite possibly the worst case scenario (maybe not, Alabama didn't hold Michigan scoreless for the entire game), all it really tells is what we already knew. Michigan just isn't there yet. Keep in mind that only two years ago, the Wolverines were blown out 52-14 by Mississippi State. Imagine how bad this loss would have been if Rich Rodriguez was still in control of the defense. Even though we lost one game, I am still confident Brady Hoke is taking this program in the right direction.

Yes, it sucks to be embarrassed on national television, but no one in their right mind expected Michigan to win, and the Wolverines (like most teams in the country) are just not ready to go toe-to-toe with Alabama, the defending national champions. There are teams even in the SEC who can not keep up with them.

What we can expect now is that Michigan will improve as the season goes on, just like they did last year. The loss to Alabama was not overtly shocking and does nothing to keep Michigan from winning the Big Ten championship. Michigan faces Air Force in week two in the Big House.