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.

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