This week’s game against Northwestern was about what I expected: a close game for three quarters before Michigan pulled away for the win. All in all, Michigan completely dominated the second half. In fact, the defense didn’t give up a single point and came up with two big turnovers, and the offense scored almost every time it touched the football.
It was really a tale of two halves. In the first half, the Michigan offense seemed to get away from the things it had been successful with in the first five games: Denard Robinson in the shotgun, running the zone-read and using that to help set up the play-action pass. Not deep passes, but short, quick passes which gave Denard the ability to get rid of the ball quickly and not force him to sit in the pocket while trying to look down field to make a read.
We especially saw this in the Minnesota game. That was the best the Michigan offense had looked all season up to that point. Then, Michigan went to Northwestern and started trying to pound the ball out of a two-back set with Denard under center. There were very few called zone-read plays from the shotgun. In the passing game, Michigan went back to dropping Denard straight back in the pocket. WHY!?!? All that did was surround Denard with pass rushers, which led to three interceptions, all of which were a result of the pressure causing Denard to forget about his fundamentals and throw the ball off of his back foot.
Defensively, the secondary was tested just as predicted and the Michigan front seven put very little pressure on Northwestern quarterbacks, Dan Persa and Kain Colter. Michigan could not stop the option and failed to adjust its defensive alignment for the entire first half. A simple shift of the defensive line or linebackers would have fixed the problem.
I vividly remember sitting in my living room saying, “They’re going to run it left, they’re going to run it left.” And what happened? THEY RAN IT LEFT! This happened multiple times, including on Northwestern’s touchdown drives. It’s really pretty easy. All Northwestern was doing was running the ball, especially the option, to the side of the defense where they either outnumbered Michigan or were even with Michigan in terms of blockers vs defenders.
The 2nd half was totally different. Yes, Michigan outscored Northwestern 28-0 and looked like an entirely different team. It didn’t happen because all of a sudden the Michigan players woke up and started playing football again. It was because of the adjustments made by the Michigan coaching staff at halftime. I give Head Coach Brady Hoke, Offensive Coordinator Al Borges, and Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison a lot of credit. They did a great job of realizing what it was that Northwestern was doing to beat them, and making the changes necessary to stop it.
On offense, Borges stopped calling so many two-back sets which have netted the Michigan offense so little yardage all year, especially against better defenses. The running game came from Denard running the zone-read and also the QB Lead play (which I am not a big fan of because Denard takes so many hits whenever he runs it). Even more so, Michigan won the second half with the pass. I don’t know what Denard’s best single-game passing performance is, but against Northwestern he threw for 337 yards. About half of that total came in each half, but it was the way he did it that helped Michigan be so successful on offense.
Instead of throwing the ball deep downfield as Michigan tried to do in the first half, which led to Denard’s three interceptions, Michigan ran a much more methodical passing attack involving play-action. Play calls which got the ball out of Denard’s hands quicker, shorter routes, and less reads for Denard led to just as many passing yards as in the 1st half…minus the interceptions! What a concept!
On defense, Mattison shifted the Michigan front seven to take away the option and turned up the pressure on Persa, which led to some key sacks and two takeaways. True, the defense was on the field a lot less in the second half because the offense controlled the clock and wasn’t turning the ball over every possession, so Northwestern’s opportunities to score were less. But, the simple adjustments made by Mattison kept the Northwestern offense out of the end zone for the entire half.
The thing that came to mind for me as the game was ending on Saturday night was this: If this game had happened at any time over the past three years, would Michigan have won?? I submit that it would not have. Under the previous coaching staff, adjustments on offense and defense to what the other team was trying to do was almost a foreign concept. Last year in this same situation, Northwestern would have continued to score during the second half due to no adjustments by the Michigan defense. The offense would have kept trying to run Denard left and right, hoping that he would eventually break one for a score. Not anymore. Not with this coaching staff.
The players have improved, I’ll agree with that. They are a year older and more experienced. But players still have to be put in positions to succeed, which is what the Michigan coaches did in the second half against Northwestern. As a Michigan football fan, I couldn’t be happier with Brady Hoke and his staff running the show. Good things are on the horizon for this program!