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MMQ has more questions than answers through two weeks

September 10th, 2012 by Chris

Two weeks are gone and the Michigan football team is right where it should be at 1-1. No one expected this team to beat Alabama and everyone expected them to beat Air Force. So 1-1 is not a surprise. But does anyone else feel like I do – that we don’t really know much about this team? I think there are some major question marks surrounding this team right now. For example, the running game. Does Michigan have one other than Denard Robinson?

Devin Funchess became the first Michigan tight end with a 100-yard game since 1997 (photo by Getty Images)

How about a passing game? Yes, Denard threw the ball better in Week 2 against Air Force, as he was able to complete some passes to his tight ends and receivers using quick hitting passes and play action. But can Denard continue to do that against a defense that actually puts pressure on him and one that isn’t returning only three starters from last season?

And how about the defense? Do we really know anything about the team yet after being totally overmatched against Alabama and then having to lineup against the triple option of Air Force?

The running game, or lack thereof, concerns me the most. I’m not worried about the Alabama game so much. Every team that plays them this year is going to struggle to run against that defensive front seven. I would have liked to see Al Borges call more zone-read plays for Denard out of the shotgun, and some play-action passes off of that, since that is where he is the most dangerous, but I understand. It was Alabama.

What I saw in Week 2 against Air Force has me worried though. Everyone thought that the return of Fitzgerald Toussaint would mean that Michigan’s running game would be back to looking like it did last season. That was not the case. He didn’t do anything. In the few times when Michigan lined up in the I-Formation (or some other pro-style set) and ran the ball, the result was a carry for only a few yards at a time. In fact, it seemed that this was even a concern for Borges, as he rarely called these standard running plays. Michigan did have success running the ball with Denard out of the shotgun, but against an Air Force defensive front that was extremely undersized as compared to the rest of the teams which Michigan will see this year, I expected Toussaint and the other running backs to be more effective. And I’m not blaming this all on the running backs either. On anything except the zone-read, I didn’t see a whole lot of holes open for the backs to run through. Next week against UMass won’t tell us anything either, as they are barely out of Division 1-AA (FCS) and have lost to UConn and Indiana by a combined score of 82-6.

Fitz Toussaint rushed for just seven yards on eight carries (photo by the Ann Arbor News)

Less concerning to me is the Michigan passing game. Denard didn’t have a spectacular game against Alabama, but most quarterbacks don’t. In reality, I think he did the best he probably could while under a lot of pressure and while the receivers were extremely well-covered and forced into poor routes. Week 2 showed us what I’ve said since last season is the best way to utilize Denard’s arm: a short, quick passing game out of the shotgun, using play-action to keep the defenders honest, and throwing to tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. This also allowed Denard to hit some deeper passes once the secondary started to cheat up on the short routes. Borges also got Denard out of the pocket some, allowing him to create with his feet if the receiver wasn’t open. All of this coming against an Air Force defense not known for holding opponents to low scores. What will happen when the Michigan offense needs to pass against the defenses of the Big Ten, which won’t be as good as Alabama, but will certainly be better than Air Force? Will Borges abandon the passing game which has worked over the past two years as it did in Week 2, or will he try throwing from the pocket as is his preference?

The Michigan defense hasn’t really shown anything to anyone yet either. They were gashed by an Alabama offense featuring one of the best offensive lines in the country and a stable of running backs that were extremely talented. Quarterback A.J. McCarron didn’t have much trouble throwing either. In Week 2, they had to defend the Air Force triple option attack. Not an easy task when you never see that offense and when you only have one week to prepare for it.

But there are some bright spots. Jordan Kovacs continues to be the leader and play-maker, and the linebacker corps seems to be doing okay for being so young. The defensive line showed more promise in Week 2 as well, especially Frank Clark, whose name was called often as he made some good plays including a ball batted down at the line of scrimmage.

The concern for me is the secondary and their pass coverage ability. I don’t think we know much about this yet, as Courtney Avery was picked on when he replaced the injured Blake Countess against Alabama. Air Force moved the ball through the air to some degree, although their play-action off the triple option created some headaches for a defense that was not used to seeing it and was more focused on containing the option run. But even against Air Force, Avery and Raymon Taylor split time for much of the game after Avery’s struggles in Week 1. And for being the #1 defensive back on the team, J.T. Floyd has yet to show that he can consistently cover the best receivers on the better teams in the Big Ten.

Raymon Taylor split time with Courtney Avery (AP photo)

So at this point, do we really know anything about how good the secondary will be after the loss of Countess? Alabama passed wherever they wanted and Air Force wasn’t much of a test. So what will happen when they go up against some of the better offenses in the Big Ten? I guess we have to wait to see, but the good thing is that defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has another two weeks of practice to get the secondary ready before they travel to South Bend to take on Notre Dame.

So this is where Michigan is at. The coaches have another game to get the team ready for Notre Dame and the Big Ten. That’s another week to get the offensive line to gel and start opening up some holes for the running backs. And another week to prepare the defense for weekly play in the conference. So while there are still a lot of questions surrounding the Wolverines after two weeks, they have a couple of weeks to smooth things out before what will likely be a challenging game at Notre Dame at night. Brady Hoke and the coaching staff have done a good job of making this team better since their arrival in Ann Arbor. No one on the team can relax. I like their chances of getting things up and running as they should be.