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Monday Morning Quarterback Needs Denard to Stay Healthy

September 19th, 2011 by Chris


[Ed: Congratulations to deucebig for winning this week’s Michigan Man 5-Spot Challenge. Click here for the results and here for the updated overall standings. This week’s questions should be posted by tomorrow morning, so be sure to check back then].

Well, it wasn’t pretty, but it was exactly what I predicted in my Friday Pick’em prediction.  Actually, I shouldn’t say it wasn’t pretty, because the Michigan offense was a lot crisper than it was in the first two games.  But shouldn’t that be expected?  This was the third game of the year and it was against Eastern Michigan.

The Michigan offense did a lot of good things on Saturday, including establishing a running game using the zone-read as a base play, using play-action pass off of the run, and at some times getting Denard Robinson out of the pocket and allowing him to create plays with his feet.

Michigan's running game has been more effective with the zone read (photo by the Ann Arbor News)

Defensively, once the team settled in and some adjustments were made to how EMU was attacking it with the power run, the team seemed to be flying to the ball a lot better and gang-tackling, and also playing better coverage during the few plays in which EMU actually threw the ball.  But again, this secondary, which last year was the biggest weakness on the team and this year has proven to be better but is still a question mark in a lot of people’s minds, was not tested during this game.

Michigan’s struggles in the beginning of the game were a combination of a few things: sluggishness stemming from last week’s thrilling victory over Notre Dame, playing a “weaker” opponent in EMU, and the noon kickoff time.  From where I was sitting, it looked like Michigan came out trying to establish the run from the I-formation.  EMU stacked the box with eight defenders and took that away quickly, forcing Michigan to spread out the offense and run the ball from the shotgun.

In the passing game, Michigan tried to run some straight dropback passes, however Robinson continued to look uncomfortable on those plays, not setting his feet and often overthrowing his receiver and throwing an interception.  I think that Hoke and Co. started getting a little uncomfortable too, when at the beginning of the second quarter Michigan hadn’t scored a point yet after three drives resulting in an interception and two punts.

At this point, they went back to running the offense with Robinson as the focal point, using the zone read play and running Robinson a lot on the ground with some designed run plays.  I can’t help but be bothered by the fact that Michigan was forced to go back to running Robinson so much after a Mid-American Conference defense stopped it from running the ball using a two-back set.  But this is the type of offensive talent that Michigan has, isn’t it?  As we saw in this game, Michigan ran the ball at will from the second quarter on, using Robinson and the two-headed running back tandem of Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint.  Off of that, Borges called high percentage play-action passes to keep the defense honest.

It should have been evident to everyone watching this game that the Michigan offense was much better with this type of play-calling scheme.  Yes, playing the talent level of EMU has something to do with it, but the offensive scheme used by Borges made a lot more sense than what he did against Notre Dame, where he kept forcing Robinson to throw from the pocket and running the ball from the I-formation against an eight-man front.

Don’t get me wrong.  Robinson did make some good plays from the pocket and Michigan did get some good production out of the two-back set, but it is obvious that this offense is going to be successful with Robinson out of the spread.  Hopefully, Borges will continue to mix in some two-back sets, both for variety and because there are going to be times when Michigan is absolutely going to need to be able to pick up a 3rd-and-2 or a 3rd-and-goal at the three, and it would be nice to have the option of going after it with a downhill power running game instead of starting Robinson in the shotgun four or five yards from the line of scrimmage.

With Denard getting so many carries, Devin Gardner needs to be ready in case Robinson goes down (photo by MGoBlue.com)

Now that we know this is what Michigan needs to do to run an effective offense and put points on the board, the question remains is how will Hoke protect Robinson from injury?  I think the answer is in establishing the running backs early in the game out of the zone read and mixing in some power run.  Also, when running the zone read, the more Borges can spread out the defense, the larger the running lanes will be, which will allow Robinson to get out into space and keep him from taking big hits inside. Some additional coaching (Robinson did run out of bounds more often this game than he did last year) on avoiding the big hit should also happen.

In the passing game, as I called for last week, getting Robinson out on the edge and out of the pocket not only opened up the passing game, but limited the reads for Robinson and gave him the ability to create when a receiver wasn’t open (almost scored a touchdown on a play like this).

Since the likelihood of Robinson getting hurt in an offense like this is high, the coaching staff needs to keep backup quarterback Devin Gardner as spun up on the offense as Robinson is.  They should be mentally preparing him to be the starter at any time so the offense doesn’t miss a beat when he comes into the game.  No, I’m not calling for a two-QB system, especially with a quarterback like Robinson who thrives when he gets into a rhythm.  I would have liked to see Gardner get a couple series in the EMU game, but I understand what the coaching staff did in keeping Robinson in the game.  He needs as many game snaps as he can get for the sake of getting this offense to establish an identity.

We will see how things look next week against a better San Diego State team.  Hoke and Borges left behind a potent offense at SDSU, so the Michigan offense is going to have to control the ball and the clock by having quality offensive possessions.  Michigan’s best defense will be keeping its offense on the field.  Look for next week’s game to be a shootout.  Come back at the end of the week to see my Friday Pick’em prediction!