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Monday Morning Quarterback: Let Denard do His Thing

September 12th, 2011 by Chris

[Ed: Please welcome Chris to the Maize and Go Blue team. This is the first installment of his Monday Morning Quarterback feature. Also, please click here to see this week’s Michigan Man 5-Spot Challenge results and here for the overall standings. Congratulations to this week’s winner, BoMoHo]

This week I will be debuting the first edition of the Monday Morning Quarterback segment.  This feature will be dedicated to an analysis of some portion of the previous week’s game.  As a former Division 1 football player, I will do this through the lens of a player/coach, not just analyzing the game and talking about what happened, but discussing ways in which I believe the Wolverine coaches and/or players could be doing things better.  Of course, I don’t want this writing to always be negative in nature.  It’s easy to sit here at a computer and write my opinion instead of being on the field in the heat of the moment, so I will also write about some of the positive things that I see the Michigan team doing.  With all that being said, let’s get started.

After watching the entire Michigan-Notre Dame game on Saturday night, most of you will probably agree that it took almost an entire three quarters for the Michigan offense to get things going.  Other than a 43-yard TD pass from Denard Robinson to Junior Hemingway in the second quarter, it was the Michigan defense that kept the game within reach for the Wolverines, coming up with three turnovers.  During this time, I do not feel that offensive coordinator Al Borges did a good job of calling plays that would be successful against the Notre Dame defense.

Denard struggled as a pocket passer but shined in the fourth quarter (photo by the Ann Arbor News)

From where I was sitting, I saw the offense attempt to be a full-time power running team, drop Robinson straight back in the pocket to pass, and even thought I was watching a Rich Rodriguez-called game when I saw three plays in a row go: 1. Robinson Right, 2.Robinson Left, 3. Robinson Right, all out of the shotgun.

I think that it’s evident that the Notre Dame defensive front was not going to allow Michigan to line up and run a power attack at them and be successful.  Michigan tried that for three quarters, never getting more than a short gain.  Michigan just couldn’t match up O-line vs. D-line like they did against Western Michigan last week or like they will against Eastern Michigan next week.

While I do think that Robinson has improved in the passing game, it was very obvious that he still is not best suited to be throwing from the pocket.  With no pressure and given the time to set his feet before making the throw, he does okay.  However, that generally was not the case against the Notre Dame pass rush.  On plays in which Robinson dropped back to pass, Notre Dame brought pressure from the outside to keep him inside the pocket and rushed hard from the middle to close the pocket quickly.  This forced Robinson to either rush the throw, which usually went into double-coverage, or throw off his  back foot, which caused the ball to be overthrown, landing either in the hands of a defender or yards away from the intended receiver.

In terms of the Rich Rod playcalling, which only happened a few times throughout the game, I think this was more of a “Well, this play isn’t working, so let’s try this” type of play call.  That’s fine to do when you’re grasping at straws, trying to find something that will work, but let’s be honest, the QB Sweep is not the best play in football, even with Denard Robinson in your backfield.  Robinson is much more effective when he can run the ball out of the zone-read option, which freezes the defense and forces it to respect the fake to the running back before committing to the QB.  I believe that the development of a quality running back at Michigan will make this play even more effective in the future, but that’s a topic for another day.

At the end of the third quarter, Borges finally started calling a game which took advantage of the skills of his All-American quarterback.  No more drop-back passing, no more QB Sweep.  In the running game, Michigan still ran some power run, but they mixed it in with some zone-read plays for Robinson.  This kept the Notre Dame defense more off balance and allowed Robinson to keep the ball in his hands longer so he could make a play, which he did when he broke some big runs.

As this mix became more effective, Michigan then started running play-action pass off of it, getting Robinson out of the pocket instead of keeping him surrounded by the oncoming Notre Dame pass rush.

Denard is more effective when running the zone read (photo by the Ann Arbor News)

To be successful and take full advantage of Robinson’s skill set, this is what Michigan needs to do to win.  When Robinson got out on the edge with a run-pass option, it allowed him to better find the open receiver and also kept the defense from committing to tackling him because they still had to respect the pass.  The Michigan offense scored 28 points in one quarter doing this, as compared to the seven points through three quarters which they put up running the other stuff.  Even still, those seven points were more a result of poor defensive play by the Notre Dame defense as opposed to quality offensive play by the Michigan offense.

Now, you are probably saying to yourself, “How can you criticize Robinson’s passing when he was 11-24, 338 yds and 4 TD, including an outstanding game-winning last-minute drive?!” Obviously I was thrilled with the way that Robinson engineered that last drive, but it never would have happened if the Notre Dame defense, again, would not have blown the coverage on Jeremy Gallon, allowing him to gain 64 yards to get to the ND 16-yard line.  Furthermore, when one sees a stat line like Robinson’s, it must be realized that the majority of the yards came from deep passes, not from being accurate and hitting pass after pass.  Against a better secondary, those passes will be intercepted more often in the future.

For Michigan to be successful on offense, Borges and head coach Brady Hoke need to take advantage of Robinson’s skills and stop trying to make him something that he isn’t, all for the sake of running a more “traditional” Michigan offense.  I’m not saying to run the offense that we saw over the past three years.  We all know that Robinson cannot take the pounding of an eight-game Big Ten schedule without sustaining an injury.  Use bits and pieces of the traditional offense with a fullback and the power run, but get him out of the pocket on passing plays.  He is not, and never will be, a drop back passer.  Robinson is still the best player on the team, and as he goes, Michigan goes.

When Hoke arrived in Ann Arbor, he said that he would run an offense designed to take full advantage of the talent that he had in Denard Robinson while at the same time keeping him healthy by calling less designed runs strictly for him.  Let’s see it.