Week 3 is in the books and Michigan’s game against UMass turned out just how everyone predicted: a dominating win for the Wolverines. Going into the game, I was a little concerned that offensive coordinator Al Borges would see this game against a less-talented opponent as an opportunity to work on his pro-style offense. Yes, he did call some of this, but I believe what we mostly saw was the kind of offense which Michigan will need to use throughout the remaining season – the offense which makes for the best utilization of quarterback Denard Robinson’s skill set.
What we saw was a lot of Denard in the shotgun, with running back Fitzgerald Toussaint or one of the other backs next to him, running the zone-read option. Off of that, Michigan ran some quick-hitting pass plays, which got the ball out of Denard’s hands quickly and didn’t force him to sit in the pocket and make to many reads. Borges also called a good amount of play-action off of the zone-read, which kept the defense honest. In reality, the offensive play-calling was nothing more than what Michigan has already shown through three games. No doubt, this was by design. Michigan was going to win this game anyway and why show your future opponents, especially Notre Dame, anything more than they needed to? All Borges needed to do was polish things up for next weekend in South Bend and that’s exactly what they did.
Defensively, things were about the same: standard defensive scheme and coverages, with a blitz everyone once in awhile to change things up. It was a week to work on perfecting technique, from the defensive linemen’s pass rush moves to the linebackers reading their keys to the cornerbacks’ man/zone coverage skills. They even held out linebacker Desmond Morgan with a head injury. Could he have played? Probably. But why risk making the injury worse? Speaking of injuries, there were none other than the usual minor scrapes and bruises, so that’s another positive from Saturday’s game.
Now it’s time to move on from UMass and start looking ahead to Notre Dame. Like any good college football fan, I spent all of Saturday night watching the games on TV. I was most interested in the ND-Michigan State game, although I did enjoy seeing Stanford beat Lane Kiffin and USC! I really wanted to see how ND looked after watching them roll over Navy and then scrape one out against Purdue last week. What I saw was the best ND squad I’ve seen in years. Maybe MSU isn’t as good as I thought, as they haven’t looked impressive in any of their games yet this season. But from what I could tell on TV, ND was faster, stronger, and better prepared as a team than any ND team for the last several years. They certainly aren’t unbeatable, but the game in South Bend next week isn’t going to be an easy one.
Here are some of my takeaways from the ND-MSU game and what Michigan needs to do to win:
Michigan on Offense - Notre Dame’s game plan to win the game against MSU was to load up the box with seven or eight defenders on every play to take away the running game and force MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell to beat them through the air. That makes sense, since MSU’s weakness this season is inexperience at both the QB and receiver positions. MSU also doesn’t spread the field much on offense, allowing the ND defense to pack it in close to the ball and creating favorable matchups for ND. The Irish also brought a heavy pass rush, both from the defensive linemen (which were much faster and more athletic than I was expecting) and from the linebackers. Again, I was surprised at the amount of blitz schemes that were called by ND, as I haven’t seen that in recent years.
Notre Dame’s game plan to stop the Wolverines isn’t likely going to be any different. We saw it last year in the game at the Big House. They are going to try to stop Denard and force him to beat them through the air. However, I like this for Michigan, as long as Borges doesn’t call pass plays which keep Denard in the pocket. If he calls plays like the last two games, where Denard threw the ball off play-action and where he got out on the edge away from the line, then Michigan can have success. This does a couple of things.
First, play-action will keep the linebackers from committing to the run too early, which will give more room for the running backs to run, and secondly, it will allow Denard to make a play with his feet if his first or second throwing option isn’t there when he gets out of the pocket. Michigan has had success throwing the ball this season. No longer do I worry as much when I see Denard throw, as long as he’s not standing in the pocket trying to act like a pro-style QB. This season, the play-calling has been such that Denard has gotten the ball out of his hands quickly, leading to less chance of an interception.
Unlike the MSU offense, Michigan likes to spread the field with multiple receivers, which not only opens up the defense, but also can create favorable matchups for the Michigan offense. For example, we’ve all seen how good tight end Devin Funchess has looked over the last couple of weeks. No doubt he has caught the attention of the coaches as well. His size, at 6’5”, 229 pounds, is a matchup nightmare for linebackers, because they are too slow to keep up with him, and for defensive backs, because they are too small to cover him. Spreading out the ND defense will also limit ND’s ability to bring a lot of pressure. When defenses are forced to spread out to cover multiple receivers and bring pressure, it creates bigger holes for receivers to run to and get open. It’s up to the QB to see this and get the ball into the hands to the receiver who he knows is going to be open where the blitz came from. From what I’ve seen so far this year, I think Denard can handle this.
Finally, the last thing Borges needs to do is get away from the offense which he polished off this past week against UMass – the offense which takes full advantage of Denard’s skill set. Even if Notre Dame begins the game by taking away Denard’s running lanes, there are enough play-calling options that Borges can use to still move the ball until Denard can run again. These include handing the ball to the running back, play-action, roll outs, and throwing to backs out of the backfield. The answer should NOT be to abandon the zone-read and start attempting to chuck the ball all over the field from the pocket!
Michigan on Defense - ND’s offense against MSU was vintage Brian Kelly. The ND head coach loves to spread the defense with three-to-five receivers and put the quarterback in the shotgun with a single running back in the backfield. He also likes to use one or two tight ends in the formation, depending on the down and distance. Tight end Tyler Eifert presents similar problems for defenses as Funchess. ND ran with a good combination of Cierre Wood, who was quicker than I thought he would be, and Theo Riddick. Redshirt freshmen QB Everett Golson also impressed me for being as young as he is. He wasn’t asked to do a whole lot and he didn’t face much pressure from the MSU defense, but he throws a nice ball, makes good decisions, and manages the game well.
First, let’s begin with Golson. His passing has been good, but nothing spectacular, and he has the ability to hurt defenses with his legs, but he’s not asked to do it very often. If not properly played by the Michigan defense, Golson’s ability to scramble and escape pressure could hurt them. Michigan will not beat ND if Golson is not contained within the pocket. You do this by having your defensive linemen stay in their rush lanes as they try to get to the QB. This means moving straight up-field, not moving to where the QB is standing at the time. This will keep Golson from getting outside and picking up yardage on the edge.
At the same time, the Michigan secondary must COVER! This will be their toughest task since playing Alabama. ND doesn’t have one gamebreaker at receiver this year, like they’ve had in the past with Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. However, they have a group who know how to get open and who make the catch when the ball is thrown to them. I still have questions about the Michigan secondary as we go into Week 4, as do most people. The loss of Countess hasn’t been felt over the last two games, but it would be nice to have him against ND. My hope is that Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison have got these guys ready to go for next Saturday. They will have had three weeks to do it, so there isn’t any excuse other than Michigan is just not talented enough.
The trademark of Mattison’s defenses has always been defensive line stunts and a package of blitzes that keep offenses confused about where the pressure will come from on a given play. Michigan hasn’t shown much of that this season, since it didn’t matter against Alabama, they couldn’t do it againstAir Force because of the triple option, and they didn’t need to against UMass. I like that because it creates some unknowns for Brian Kelly as he prepares his game plan. Michigan will need to bring pressure with the blitz and mix up the coverages in the secondary to try to confuse Golson. Remember, although he has been good thus far, he’s still a redshirt freshmen, and guys like that will make mistakes when they get uncomfortable.
Michigan is in for a tough task next Saturday. Notre Dame has lost three straight to the Wolverines, each by four points per game. They will have revenge on their minds after last year’s stunning loss in Ann Arbor after they led 24-7 into the fourth quarter. Add that to the fact that the game will be played under the lights in front of a sell-out crowd. Michigan has the personnel and coaching to win this game, but they are going to need an excellent week of preparation and practice to get ready for a talented ND team.
Come back on Friday and check out my prediction for this game in the Maize and Go Blue Staff Predictions!