In the week leading up to the Indiana game, Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez said that he would like to get to the point where the team could play poorly and still win. On Saturday, he got his wish.
Michigan, at times, looked like last year’s Michigan team, not taking care of the ball, picking up penalties and failing to take advantage of opportunities.
In the end, however, Michigan was able to pull out a win in its first Big Ten conference battle of the season to keep its unbeaten record intact.
But how did Michigan pull out a win in a game in which it was out-gained by nearly 100 total yards, lost the turnover battle, and was held well below its per-game rushing average?
First of all, the play of Michigan’s special teams went a long way towards helping secure the win.
Zoltan Mesko showed why he began the season on everyone’s Ray Guy Award watch list. The senior punter booted seven punts for an average of 48.1 yards per punt (46.6 net average).
Four of Mesko’s punts sailed past 50 yards and two were downed inside the 20, including one that pinned Indiana at its own two-yard line early in the third quarter.
In comparison, Indiana punter Chris Hagerup averaged just 37 yards per punt (36 net), or a difference of 10 yards per change of possession.
In addition to Mesko’s punts, sophomore receiver Darryl Stonum did an admirable job of returning kicks, constantly giving Michigan good field position to start drives.
Michigan’s average starting field position following kickoffs was its own 36-yard line. Conversely, Indiana’s was its own 27 – a difference of nine yards.
That shouldn’t be overlooked, since many of Stonum’s returns were brought out of the end zone from a few yards deep. Had he taken a knee, Michigan would have had a much longer field to work with.
Secondly, Michigan’s defense stepped up in the second half, keeping Indiana out of the end zone except for an 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
This has become a trend so far this season, and I think it says a lot about the coaching staff’s ability to make halftime adjustments.
In Week 2, Notre Dame moved the ball at will in the first half, racking up 295 yards and 20 points. That included scoring drives of 10 plays, 69 yards (missed field goal); eight plays, 56 yards; seven plays, 76 yards; and seven plays 69 yards.
In the second half Notre Dame had just one long scoring drive (14 plays, 80 yards). The other touchdown came as a result of a short field, following an interception at the Michigan 36.
The next week, Eastern Michigan moved the ball pretty well in the first half. Scoring drives of eight plays, 49 yards and 11 plays, 79 yards allowed EMU to hang with Michigan at the half.
In the second half, Michigan’s defense stiffened, allowing just one long drive (15 plays, 55 yards), which Michigan stopped on downs at its five-yard line.
This past week, against Indiana, Michigan allowed 270 yards and 23 points in the first half. In the second, Indiana still gained 224 yards, but 85 came on one long touchdown run. The main thing is that Michigan kept Indiana out of the end zone, with the exception of that one run.
The Hoosiers had a drive of 12 plays, 72 yards that resulted in a field goal and a drive of 11 plays, 52 yards resulting in a missed field goal. Other than that, Michigan forced two three-and-outs and picked off a pass to seal the game.
In the past three games, it seems that Michigan’s defense hasn’t been able to stop anybody in the first half, but has been able to make the necessary adjustments at halftime.
After the Eastern Michigan game, Donovan Warren and Ryan Van Bergen both mentioned that opponents have shown some looks that they hadn’t seen on film, which explains why Michigan has had some trouble getting stops in the first half.
Once the coaches have time to regroup at halftime, they are able to make the necessary adjustments to make the difference in the second half.
Finally, the offense has shown a propensity for fast starts and clutch play down the stretch.
In all four games so far, Michigan has scored at least 10 points in the first quarter. In three of the four, Michigan scored on its first possession (two touchdowns and a field goal).
In the only game in which Michigan didn’t, against Notre Dame, it scored on its second possession and returned a kickoff for a touchdown the next time it got the ball.
Fast starts have allowed Michigan to stay in the game until halftime when the coaches can make their defensive adjustments.
In the second half, while Michigan’s defense has been able to slow down opposing offenses, its own offense has started slowly, but made big plays when it needed to.
Against Notre Dame, Michigan trailed 20-17 at halftime. The defense shut down Notre Dame in the third quarter, while the offense took a 31-20 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Notre Dame’s potent offense battled back to pull ahead 34-31. But then freshman quarterback Tate Forcier led the offense down the field on a nine play, 57-yard touchdown drive to seal the win.
The next week, against Eastern Michigan, Michigan led 24-17 at halftime. In the second half, the defense shut down Eastern while the offense got off to a slow start with two punts. Then, Michigan scored on three of its next four possessions to pull away.
Against Indiana, the offense came through in the clutch once again, using fourth quarter touchdown drives of 13 plays, 75 yards and eight plays, 52 yards to out-gun the Hoosiers.
Two game-winning drives in final minutes in four games. Can Michigan keep it up?
Following Sunday’s Jets-Titans game, Vic Carucci of NFL.com asked Jets safety Kerry Rhodes if he thought the Jets’ style of play was sustainable. Rhodes replied that he thought it was because having such a good defense allows rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez to make some mistakes.
Unfortunately, that won’t exactly translate to Michigan. While I think Michigan’s offense is further along in its development than Sanchez’s Jets offense, relatively speaking, Michigan hasn’t faced its toughest opponents yet.
Notre Dame had one of the best offenses Michigan will face all season, but its defense ranks 94th in total defense through four games.
Forcier has won the hearts of Michigan fans across the country with his poise and game-winning drives, but he is also starting to show his true freshman side. He threw an interception against Indiana that never should have been thrown.
He also suffered a shoulder sprain against Indiana. Rodriguez said Forcier will be ready to go this weekend, but he could be one hard hit or one bad fall away from wearing street clothes on the sidelines.
I’m not trying to be a downer, but I do think expectations should be tempered. As great as it is to have a 4-0 record and be ranked No. 22 in the nation, we have to realize that the meat of the schedule starts now.
This week is the first road test for the young guns, and Michigan State will be hungry to avenge its disappointing 1-3 start.
If Forcier’s shoulder can’t hold up, and you can bet Michigan State defenders will be gunning for him, Denard Robinson will find himself in sole possession of the offense.
Robinson has played well in limited time, but hasn’t truly been in control of the offense yet this season. He led the team down the field on a touchdown drive against Indiana, but most of what he’s been asked to do is run the ball.
Don’t get me wrong, his quickness and elusiveness is fun to watch and tough to stop, but can it sustain the offense for an entire game?
Should Michigan get by Michigan State, it faces what could be its biggest test of the season when it travels to Iowa City for a prime-time battle with Iowa. The Hawkeyes entered the AP Top 25 at No. 13 this week after upsetting No. 4 Penn State on Saturday.
Delaware State the following week will be the final breather before Michigan finishes with No. 15 Penn State, at Illinois, home against Purdue, at 4-0 Wisconsin, and then back home to battle No. 9 Ohio State.
The road only gets tougher from here and in the coming weeks, we’re going to get a good look at how far along this team really is.
Nevertheless, Michigan stands at 4-0 (1-0 in the Big Ten) and is well on its way to getting back to national prominence.