[Ed: Welcome to a new column titled The Rear View Mirror, in which we will periodically reflect on certain aspects of Michigan's play, whether in the previous game or the season as a whole, and apply it to the bigger picture. The aim is to not just recap or preview a game, but to put everything into a bigger context.]
With the non-conference portion of the schedule out of the way, and Michigan heading into the meat of the schedule, let’s take a look back at what we’ve seen so far and what that means going forward. Yes, I’m aware that Minnesota is a Big Ten team, but since it’s not the 1960s anymore, the Gophers might as well hop on the conference expansion bandwagon and join the MAC.
Anyway, to start with, we all finally got what we’ve been asking for the past two-plus seasons: Denard in the backfield. Offensive Coordinator Al Borges broke out a diamond formation on Saturday against Minnesota with Devin Gardner at quarterback and Denard offset behind him. He ran a variety of plays out of the formation, some working better than others, but all felt like crack to Michigan football junkies.
Even if the formation isn’t used the rest of the season, it at the very least gives opponents more looks to prepare for. If it is used, the options are endless (no pun intended). Options, pitches, halfback passes, reverses, throwbacks; you name it, it’s possible with two freak athletes like Robinson and Gardner on the field at the same time. Obviously, you don’t want to base your entire offense around it, but when used as a special package a few plays a game, it can be deadly.
The offensive playcalling seemed suspect in the first few games of the season, and I’ll admit to being unimpressed at the way the offense was run in the Eastern Michigan game, but I think we haven’t given Borges enough credit. He’s just getting started.
Against Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, there was no reason to break out more than what was needed. Against Notre Dame, the traditional offense wasn’t working so he turned it into the Denard show in the fourth quarter. Against San Diego State, Michigan put it away early enough that it didn’t need to show off anything else, likely because of Borges’ familiarity with the Aztec defense. For the most part, Borges has been able to keep the playbook vanilla enough to get the job done, all the while adapting to the situation at hand. Unlike Rich Rodriguez, he’s willing to change when things aren’t working. He’s willing to change up the offense based on the opponent.
Yesterday, with the Big Ten schedule looming, Borges decided it was time to put some new formations to work. The team had reportedly been practicing it all season; it was just a matter of when it would be used.
When asked about it after the game, Robinson said “We’ve been doing that in practice. We’ve been working on it. Coach said he’d throw it at us, and just be ready. And he called it, so we were ready.”
That’s the sign of a good coach, keeping his players ready for anything he throws at them. Even though the plays had never been run in a game situation before, Robinson, Gardner, et al. were prepared.
The first play went for a short loss, but it set up the next one which went for a good gain. The beauty of the formation is that it allows for so many variations that even though one play may not gain any yards, it sets up the next one.
In addition to the diamond set, Borges broke out the halfback pass with Vincent Smith tossing it to Drew Dileo for an easy touchdown. It was perhaps the most beautiful half of Michiagn football we’ve seen in quite a while.
The offensive scoring pace is slightly lower than last season’s at this point, but that’s a good thing. One of the main problems with last year’s offense was that it sometimes scored too quickly, leaving the exhausted defense on the field far too often. Of course, it’s a delicate balance because you want to score every time you have the ball, but you want to give your defense a rest by putting together long scoring drives.
The offense is averaging nearly a play more per drive this season compared to this point last season and the drives are on average five yards shorter. That means Michigan eats up a little bit more time on scoring drives than it did last season, which helps the defense.
Speaking of the defense, the improvement thus far has been enormous. Hiring Greg Mattison away from the Baltimore Ravens may have been the greatest move Brady Hoke ever made. The defense has seemed to improve in each game this season and is much more fundamentally sound than it was the previous three years. Gone are the missed tackles, the blown coverages, and the general lack of fundamentals. In place is a good pass rush, players in the right place (for the most part), and competent safety play.
The emergence of Thomas Gordon at safety has kept opponents from being able to beat Michigan over the top, which seemed to happen with regularity the past couple seasons. Getting Troy Woolfolk back from injury and solid coverage from J.T.Floyd and Courtney Avery allows the front seven more time to get to the quarterback. Yes, opponents have scored, but no defensive back has been beaten badly for a score yet this season, and that’s a major improvement.
Freshman lineman/linebacker Jake Ryan has emerged as a good pass rusher and Craig Roh has returned to form after suffering from the effects of a respiratory infection.
The most important improvement brought about by Hoke and Mattison is one that sort of marked the Lloyd Carr tenure, at least until the last year or two. Michigan won’t get blown out. Go back and look at the scores of Carr’s losses. Until the last year or two of his career, all of Michigan’s losses were within a few points. Even in defeat, the Wolverines always fought to the end, and that will be a staple of this coaching staff as well.
Under Rich Rodriguez, when things started going south, they kept going…and going…and going. Look at the Ohio State game last year or the Gator Bowl loss to Mississippi State. Whether it was not enough coaching focus on the defense, too little hitting in practice, or a lack of a killer mentality, his teams were rarely able to overcome adversity. When the scales started tipping, they overflowed.
Michigan will likely lose some games the rest of the season, but whether it’s Michigan State, Illinois, Nebraska, or Ohio, Michigan will be in the game until the end. The embarrassing blowout losses that plagued the past few seasons are gone. This is a staff that knows not only how to coach but how to coach sound fundamentals and how to manage the situation.
You may be saying, “You’re pretty optimistic for beating Minnesota,” however no one watching that came can come away unimpressed with every facet of the game. Even the vaunted defense from the 1997 National Championship team gave up a Minnesota field goal, and the 2006 Michigan defense allowed 14 points to the Gophers. While this defense is nowhere near that caliber just yet, it’s headed in the right direction and that’s a nice change from allowing the most points in school history the past few seasons.
Going back to the offense, Michigan finally found its go-to backs to take the pressure off of Denard. Fitz Toussaint and Vincent Smith provide a great change-of-pace to Denard. Where Denard is fast and slippery, Toussaint is able to run north-south, break tackles and hit the hole hard, while Smith is shifty and a great pass-catcher out of the backfield. This is a three-headed monster that has the potential to be great for the balance of the season and beyond. Toussaint is averaging 6.5 yards per carry and Smith a whopping 7.9.
With the running game chugging along, the offense starting to click and expand, and the defense actually playing defense, this is a Michigan team that could be looking at nine or 10 wins this season. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Northwestern is next and it’s the first road game of the season. How will the team handle being outside the friendly confines of the Big House? Honestly, I’m glad its sets up this way since it provides a good buffer and trial run before the big matchup two weeks from now in East Lansing.
Many are raising the caution flags on this good start, reminding us of the hot starts of the past few seasons that fizzled in Big Ten play. However, this is different. Of course Michigan won’t go undefeated this year, but the wheels won’t fall off either. It has a coaching staff that “gets it.” It has a junior quarterback who isn’t a first-year starter. It has stable of experienced running backs, receivers, and offensive linemen. It has a competent defense with a genius coordinating it. In short, this is a different Michigan team than we have seen over the past three years. Rodriguez planted the seeds, but Hoke and Co. are plowing, watering, and harvesting the crop.