Last week against Iowa, the Michigan coaching staff revealed a twist to the offense which had never been seen before in the capacity that it was used: Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner on the field at the same time, with Gardner under center instead of Denard. Last year, Gardner did get some playing time at quarterback while Denard ran some plays at wide receiver or running back. However, those were mostly Denard as a decoy or a handoff to Denard on a fly sweep. In the Iowa game, Gardner maintained his role as the starting quarterback, which he’s had since Denard’s elbow injury, and Denard played primarily as a running back. The result of this move was outstanding offensive production from both players. Gardner threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns while also scoring three touchdowns on the ground. Meanwhile, Denard ran for almost 100 yards of his own and caught a couple passes on 15 touches. All in all, the Michigan offense had 513 total yards, which was one of its best days in years.
After seeing what this offense can do, I believe that the dynamic of The Game this weekend against Ohio has changed. A few weeks ago, if you would have asked me whether Michigan was going to win in Columbus, I would have said no. I thought they were going to lose by two touchdowns. But things look and feel different now. Ever since Gardner’s move to quarterback, the offense has a legitimate passing threat. Gardner can flat out throw the ball and usually throws it pretty well. To go along with that, the receivers seem to have taken a liking to Gardner’s passing as he generally throws a good ball and puts it where his receivers can not only make the catch, but continue moving downfield afterwards. In addition, Gardner has some speed and is a very definite threat to run the ball when his number is called or when the protection breaks down and he has to leave the pocket.
The dual-threat nature of Gardner’s game is a scary prospect for opposing defenses. I imagine it to be somewhat like how defenses have felt playing against quarterback Braxton Miller of Ohio (although I think Gardner is a better passer and equal in terms of running ability) or Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. When a defense prepares for a true dual-threat QB like these guys, they are forced to think differently about how to defend against them. They can’t play close to the line of scrimmage because he will throw it over their heads. They can’t play back because then the defense gives up the run. Also, pass rushers can’t make a beeline for the quarterback when he drops to pass in the pocket. If they do, a dual-threat QB will step aside and either get outside of the rush or run the ball up the middle. Instead, the defensive line has to rush in their lanes straight up-field in order to keep contain. This is hard for aggressive defenses. See the Texas A&M versus Alabama game from a couple weeks ago if you want to see why rushing directly at a dual-threat QB doesn’t work.
Now add to this offensive concept a speedy running threat like Denard Robinson who not only can line up in the backfield as a running back, but as a slot receiver or as a wide receiver out on the edge. What I envision Al Borges doing (or what he should be doing) is using Denard in a multi-purpose role to create match-ups against defenders which he can exploit with his quickness and speed. This means moving him all over the field so the defense doesn’t know where he will be from one play to the next. It also means putting him in motion. Not every play has to go Denard’s way either. Sometimes he can act as a decoy. He has earned enough respect with his playmaking ability that defenses must account for him at all times, meaning Denard can be just as effective without the ball in his hands.
If the Ohio defense keys on Denard only, that opens the door for guys like Roy Roundtree, Drew Dileo, Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess to work their way into the mix. And Ohio’s defense hasn’t exactly been great against teams that spread them out and get the ball out of the QB’s hands quickly. They have been vulnerable all season to screen passes of all kinds, especially those out on the edge. The Ohio defense is built to stop teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin which will try to pound the ball with the run, not offenses with multiple threats like Michigan, Cal, or any SEC team they have ever faced.
Showing the new offense to the Ohio coaching staff the week before the game was a great move! The fact that the move worked so well was an added bonus. Some might say that they would have been better to wait until game day to show it. I disagree. First off, it gave the Michigan coaches a chance to use the offense and personnel in a game situation. Those are reps that you can’t get in practice against the scout team. Secondly, I like the mind game that Hoke is playing with the Ohio coaches. They thought they would have 11 game tapes and a week to prepare for a pretty vanilla Michigan offense. Oh yeah, and the bye week that Ohio had two weeks ago before the Wisconsin game, where not only did Ohio practice for Wisconsin but also spent the time preparing for Michigan. Wasted. Now that they’ve seen it, Ohio only has one week to prepare and the coaches are spending all of their time figuring out what to do as opposed to perfecting what they had already prepared during the bye.
This Saturday’s annual installment of The Game already had some interesting storylines. Ohio is coming in undefeated and the folks around Columbus can only ask “What if…” at the thought of what could have been had the school and team not cheated and firmly planted themselves in the category of a Miami or North Carolina. Because of the scandal, this will also be Ohio’s last game of the season. So it’s like a de facto bowl game for the players and fans and also the last time any of the Ohio seniors will wear the uniform and play in the stadium. Lastly, every coach wants to win their first game against the school’s big rival and the same is true of Urban Meyer. While not feeling any real pressure from stepping into Jim Tressel’s shoes after his forced resignation/firing, Meyer knows that despite Tressel’s decision to cover up his player’s misconduct, he had an almost perfect record against Michigan. This is something that is not lost on the Columbus natives, who, because of his record, still believe that Tressel should be the coach of their beloved team. If you don’t believe me, listen for the roar from the crowd when his name is announced as they honor the 2002 national championship team prior to the game.
This Michigan team also has some motivation entering this game. They are still eligible for the Big Ten championship should Iowa grow a pair and knock off Nebraska at home on Friday. And aside from winning back-to-back games against their hated rival, the Wolverines will be looking to erase the possibility of Ohio having an undefeated season. If for no other reason than to shut the mouth of every annoying Ohio fan that you or I have ever met who will tell you that “Ohio was the real Big Ten champs” or “Ohio should be playing for the national championship.” We all know one of them.
Saturday’s game will certainly be an exciting game full of passion, hate, and good old fashioned, hard-hitting football. I can’t wait! Stay tuned this Friday for my weekly prediction for the game.