Sadly, another Michigan football season has come to an end. It ended with a tough, last-second loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. As with any game, there were areas of Michigan’s performance which can be looked at as both positives and negatives as we start looking ahead to next season.
As has been pointed out by a number of folks during the past week, the Wolverines played pretty well overall but were hurt throughout the game by the big chunk plays which South Carolina was able to get on offense. Michigan dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for 15 minutes more than the other side. Also, the running game, although it didn’t look like Michigan’s traditional style, was effective in keeping the South Carolina defense off-balance. Because of this, the passing game opened up some and quarterback Devin Gardner was able to hit some big passes, including three touchdowns. Lastly, the Wolverines converted all five of their opportunities in the red zone into points.
Let’s be honest. The offense MUST find a running game next season. Michigan will not be bailed out by Denard Robinson any longer just because the running backs aren’t running the ball effectively. And using Devin Gardner as a running threat will not be part of the offensive play-calling as Al Borges moves back toward his more traditional style of offense. My first hope is that Fitz Toussaint is able to both physically and mentally recover from last season and return to the form of the 2011 season. If not, the running game could rest on the back of a true freshman (Derrick Green?!) and sophomore Justice Hayes.
While some may be worried that the loss of Denard Robinson to graduation will be a major blow to the Michigan offense, I choose to look at it in a more positive light. Yes, Denard was a force which defenses had to prepare for every week. However, the injury which he sustained to his elbow midway through the season may have been a blessing in disguise when it comes to 2013. Had he not been injured, neither the coaches nor the fans would have seen the offensive possibilities of Gardner at quarterback. Most had assumed that Gardner would continue to play wide receiver for the rest of his career with incoming freshmen quarterback Shane Morris set to arrive in Ann Arbor next season. Now, after seeing the possibilities, it would be foolish to move Gardner back to receiver. Yes, Michigan is set to be thin at that position next season. But as we saw early in the year, he wasn’t as much of a threat when he had to rely on the quarterback to get him the ball before he could do anything. And he certainly isn’t likely to be a threat when a true freshman (Morris) is lining up under center. I know Morris is good and all, but freshmen are rarely able to come into major college football and make a major impact right off the bat. Unless, of course, you are Johnny Manziel, which Morris is not. With Gardner likely to receive a fifth year of eligibility from the NCAA, that means two more seasons of Gardner at QB. That also means that Morris can redshirt for a year and by the time it’s his time to play, he will still have three years of eligibility. Michigan is looking good at quarterback for the near future.
A moment ago I touched on Borges and his play-calling. Over the last two seasons, we have all been frustrated at times with his inability to use Denard in ways which would take advantage of his unique skill set. Well, with Denard not a consideration any longer, Borges won’t have to spend time building a game plan each week for Denard. Instead, Borges can use his time to game plan only one offensive style. Not multiple. Being an offensive coordinator at a major college football program is not an easy job I’m sure. But if Borges is able to spend less time on something that wasn’t really in his nature to use anyway, the Michigan offense may be better off. In no way am I advocating that the loss of Denard is a good thing, just saying that it may be better for a coordinator like Al Borges. Only time will tell.
The biggest holes that will need to be filled this offseason are at receiver and on the offensive line. Since it is often easy for young players to make an impact at receiver, the bigger worry for me is the line. This season, the line wasn’t great, even with Taylor Lewan. With his departure for the NFL, Michigan loses three starters that will likely be replaced with younger players. Guys like Kyle Kalis, Blake Bars, and any one of the five or six incoming freshmen will have to step up and play well for the Michigan offense next season.
How about the other side of the ball? For the past two seasons, the defense has been consistently good, due in large part to the schemes of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. In 2012, according to the numbers, its strength was its pass defense. They were weaker while trying to defend the run due to less talent on the defensive line. Throughout the season, I wasn’t convinced that the Michigan defense was truly a Top 5 pass defense. I think those numbers were due in large part to the competition they were playing. All but one of their opponents this season (Alabama) ran a run-first offense, and even Alabama ran a very balanced attack. The Outback Bowl proved this to be true. South Carolina gashed the Wolverines through the air, consistently getting behind the deepest level of the secondary and finding the open holes in the defense.
The bottom line is that Michigan must get faster in the secondary. Losing J.T. Floyd due to suspension because he cared more about doing drugs than being there for his team didn’t make a difference. He wasn’t that good anyway. And Jordan Kovacs, while an important leader for the team as a whole, was not a coverage guy. He thrived playing at the line of scrimmage and aiding in the run defense. More speed in the secondary, and the continued development of guys like Courtney Avery, Raymon Taylor, and the incoming group of freshmen will help. Certainly, the return of Blake Countess will be a huge plus as well.
With the loss of only William Campbell and Craig Roh, the defensive line should be as good or better next season. Guys such as Frank Clark, Quinton Washington, Ondre Pipkins, and Jibreel Black all made impacts this year. There are also a number quality defensive line recruits from the last two seasons who have been waiting for their opportunity to play, including Tom Strobel and Chris Wormley.
We all know that the linebacking corps is the strength of the defense. Jake Ryan, Joe Bolden, and Desmond Morgan are the leaders. The loss of Kenny Demens will be felt somewhat, but in comes guys like Cam Gordon, Royce Jenkins-Stone, and James Ross to earn the privilege of playing for the Michigan defense.
The prospects for 2013 are bright. Head Coach Brady Hoke has this team headed in the right direction and the Top 10 recruiting classes which he has managed to bring in will keep that momentum going. Next season should be an exciting one, as Michigan will be in a better position to play for the Big Ten title. Go Blue!
Archive for the ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ Category
It has been already been said by a number of people, so I won’t spend a lot of time on this. Something about losing to Ohio State doesn’t make me real interested in talking Michigan football. But I suppose it’s necessary to some degree, so here we go.
In my opinion, the Michigan coaching staff’s record against OSU is as follows: Brady Hoke and everyone except Al Borges: 1-0; Al Borges: 0-1. There is no explanation for the kind of play-calling skill (or lack thereof) that he displayed in the second half of the game on Saturday. For the first two quarters of the game, Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner played on the field together. The Michigan offense got the ball out to players on the edge and forced the OSU defense to make tackles in space. Sometimes they made the tackle. More often they didn’t, and Michigan gained an extra 4-6 yards per reception/carry. The result was 219 yards and three touchdowns.
In the first half, Denard as an individual was spectacular. Officially, he had 10 carries for 122 yards, including a huge touchdown right at the end of the first half which put Michigan in a position to go up by 11 points had they converted a touchdown on the first possession of the second half. The smile on my face at the thought of this must have gone from ear to ear. Even without the extra seven points after halftime, I was still happy at the momentum that Denard had sucked from the mouths of every fan in that stadium and planted in the Michigan locker room and sideline. On the plays when Denard wasn’t touching the ball, OSU was forced to account for him, which opened up other options for the offense, such as Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon.
But Al Borges, in his infinite wisdom, took Denard off the field in the second half. The result: Denard had four carries for -2 yards; Michigan offense had 60 total yards and no points. I hope, I hope, that Denard sustained an injury that I don’t know about because there is absolutely NO EXCUSE for taking the BEST PLAYER on the team off the football field. The OSU coaches and players must have been loving life at that decision.
Not only was it a horrendous call to keep Denard off the field, but once the Michigan offense started facing some adversity in the second half, Borges went back to his “I’m afraid to make a call, so I’m just going to play it safe” approach. This is called ‘playing not to lose’ and Borges has displayed this tendency in the past. Playing this way is not how you win big college football games. It is much more acceptable for a team to lose if they were aggressive in the process. Yes, maybe a kid will make a mistake once in awhile, but at least the offense is out there trying to dictate to the defense how things are going to happen.
And no, aggressive is not going for a 4th-and-2 at midfield on your first drive of the second half. That was stupidity. The head coach is the one who makes this call, so the blame falls on Hoke. The correct call was to play field position and punt the ball deep and let the defense hold the opponent to their end of the football field. It was MUCH too early for a move like that. But let’s pretend that move was actually a good call. What kind of play did Borges call? An inside run with Robinson smack dab into the strength of the OSU defense, where they have been strong all season and don’t miss tackles. Why?! Why not call something outside, where you’ve been picking up good yardage all game?? Michigan hasn’t run the ball well inside all season. So all of a sudden, in the last week of the season, against your biggest rival, an inside run is the call? That’s not how it works. That play changed everything about the game. It was never the same again. And even though Michigan still had a chance to win on the last drive of the game, they lost all of the momentum they had and never got it back.
Some folks who are reading this may point out that it was the second half turnovers which cost Michigan the game. The players and coaches certainly, but what are they going to do, rip their offensive coordinator to the media? The turnovers were created because of the ultra-conservative play-calling which became predictable without the addition of Denard on the field. Without the defense playing on their heels and keeping an eye on the whereabouts of Denard, they were able to crash the pocket and force the offense into mistakes.
Ultimately, I didn’t expect Michigan to win the game. My prediction was 26-23 OSU. But I did think that Michigan had a good chance of coming away with a victory if they ran the offense that had been established in the Iowa game. They did this in the first half and won 21-20. They did not in the second half and lost 6-0. That’s all it took as OSU has now won eight of the last nine in the series.
One quick note on the Michigan defense: for the most part, I thought they did a good job of forcing the OSU offense into field goal opportunities instead of allowing touchdown – especially on several occasions on a short field. I said coming in that the Michigan defense was going to have to stop the run to win. On Saturday, OSU ran for a total of 207 yards. Not a recipe for victory. But I do give the defense credit for stepping up when it mattered and not giving up big points and keeping the team in the game.
I guess Michigan fans can take solace in the fact that OSU’s season is done. Their season is over and they have already begun handing in their equipment. As OSU fans gave a standing ovation to the man that put the program on probation and is the reason for which this 2012 team cannot play for any of the aforementioned honors, we don’t have to hear about a Big Ten Championship and maybe even a BCS National Championship coming to Columbus. Michigan will get an extra month of practice to improve before playing in their bowl game and another offseason to bring in a Top 10 recruiting class. The future of Michigan football is still bright and this team will be even better next season.
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.
Let me guess. Denard goes down with an injury and it’s announced during pre-game warm-ups that he is out of the game. In comes the 2011 backup quarterback, Devin Gardner, in place of 2012 second string quarterback Russell Bellomy. Gardner puts up numbers that look like the following: 12-of-18 for 234 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, 10 carries for 21 yards and a rushing touchdown. Not only that, but on a day when the offensive line sometimes looked like swiss cheese against arguably one of the worst defensive lines in the Big Ten, Gardner ran around avoiding sacks and making plays until he found the open receiver.
I bet you think he should be the starting quarterback, right? Why shouldn’t he? If he can play like that and throw the ball like he did, he should be the guy behind center on Saturdays! Well, you’re wrong.
First of all, and most importantly, Denard Robinson is the heart and soul of this team. He is the undisputed leader of the ball club. The guy who has been there, working his butt off day in and day out to become a better player, all so he could try and lead this team to a championship. Denard was the guy who came to Michigan as Rich Rod’s dream quarterback. He stuck with the program through all of the losses and heartache, when Michigan football lost its identity because a coach was hired who didn’t understand what Michigan football was all about. You can’t replace leadership like Denard brings and no coach who wanted to keep their job would bench a player who represents everything that Michigan is at this time.
But look how well Gardner played, you say? Okay, let’s take a look at that. It’s not like Denard has never had a game like Gardner did against Minnesota. See Air Force and UMass this year. And Notre Dame and Nebraska last season. Speaking of last season, here’s Denard’s stat line for last year’s game: 15-fo-19 for 169 yards, two touchdowns, six carries for 51 yards and a touchdown. Eerily similar to Gardner’s. And that was against a Minnesota defense which had seven of the top eight back on the defensive line, their top six linebackers returning, and two of four starters back in the secondary. Devin Gardner didn’t do anything that Denard Robinson isn’t capable of. He simply stepped up when his team needed someone to fill in for Denard while he gets his elbow healed up. Speaking of stepping up, Michigan’s wide receiver corps had its best game of the season on Saturday. They did a great job of aiding Gardner in his efforts by making some big catches when it mattered.
Look, Gardner is an outstanding athlete who needs to be on the field. I thought the coaches were wise when, over the offseason, they started working Gardner in at receiver. Early in the season, it looked as if Michigan was going to be thin at the receiver position. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case at this point in the season, but that doesn’t change the fact that Gardner still needed to have a place on the field – alongside Denard, not instead of Denard. The coaches experimented with the two-quarterback system last year and it failed, so that wasn’t an option. A spot at receiver for Gardner was the answer.
If anything, what this situation has made clear is that Michigan’s offense has potential following Denard’s departure after this season. The second half of the Nebraska game had everyone worrying about whether or not Michigan could even be in contention in the Big Ten next season without Denard. Bellomy certainly wasn’t giving anyone any confidence. The next option might have been incoming freshman Shane Morris, a five-star, and the No. 2 rated quarterback in the nation, according to Rivals. But true freshmen QBs have growing pains too, even when they enter college as highly-touted prep stars. So even with Morris behind center, the Wolverines were looking at one, maybe two, years of a so-so offense behind a true freshman QB and an offensive which still needs work.
I submit that Gardner’s performance on Saturday did not answer the question ‘What does Michigan do at QB for the rest of this season?’ Instead, it answered, ‘What does Michigan do at QB next season?’ Gardner will be a senior next year, which means that Brady Hoke and Al Borges will be able to redshirt Morris. This means one year of practice to get up to speed with the complexity of the college game as compared to high school. It also means that Morris will have four more years of eligibility, making him even more valuable to the Michigan offense. And if Hoke can continue to bring in top recruiting classes, the pieces will be in the place for both Gardner next season and Morris in the future, especially if he can add LaQuan Treadwell, the nation’s top rated receiver.
Denard is statistically one of the best quarterbacks in Michigan football history. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Denard may not have the career passing numbers of a Chad Henne or a John Navarre. Nor does he have the win-loss record of some of Michigan’s best from the past. But he is the guy who stuck with the program through all of the ups and downs through the Rich Rod era and the guy who Michigan fans, and college football fans for that matter, have come to know as the face of Michigan football. He was a reason to be excited about Michigan football through these lean years because he gave Michigan a chance to win every Saturday. He is the undisputed starting quarterback for this football team as long as he’s healthy enough to play.
Aside from the way that Greg Mattison’s defense played and some good kicking by Brendan Gibbons, there weren’t a lot of positives to take away from Saturday’s game against Nebraska. The offense without Denard was stale at best and made a much-maligned Nebraska defense look like the Blackshirts of old. Even before Denard went out with an elbow injury, the offensive line looked slow and unable to block effectively against Nebraska’s front seven. Again, as has often been the case this season, there was no running threat aside from Denard in the Wolverine backfield.
Denard’s injury was unfortunate, especially given the timing. We all knew that losing Denard would have major impacts on the effectiveness of the offense. With the lack of any other major offensive threats on the team, we all got a taste of reality while watching Russell Bellomy struggle through the second half. The reality is that there is still a lot of work to be done to get this Michigan offense back where it needs to be to compete for championships every year.
Quickly, let me say that I don’t fault Bellomy for anything. Yes, he made some poor decisions, but the guy is a redshirt freshman who had thrown all of a handful of passes prior to entering for Denard on Saturday. Also, the Nebraska coaches turned the dogs loose once they saw the wide-eyed Bellomy come in.
Offensive Coordinator Al Borges didn’t do Bellomy any favors either. When the defense is bringing pressure every play, the offense is required to adapt. This means slowing down that pressure through the use of screens and draws and passes to the backs out of the backfield. And no, I don’t mean wide receiver screens. The play must be run to where the pressure is coming from. Nebraska was bringing the blitz from the linebackers, so a screen to Fitz Toussaint or Vincent Smith would have worked. Or how about this? Remember that impressive tight end Michigan has named Devin Funchess – the guy who has barely touched the ball the last few games after looking like a real weapon in the beginning of the season? How about a screen to him right in the spot where the linebackers just vacated? At a time when Bellomy was obviously in over his head, some simple play calls like this would at least have moved the ball and have given Bellomy some confidence. If not in this game, but in future games.
So where does that leave Team 133 in their hopes for a Big Ten Championship? The simple answer is, not in a good spot. In the Legends division, they are now tied with Nebraska with one loss in the conference. However, Nebraska now holds the tiebreaker over Michigan, which means Michigan must win out and hope that Nebraska loses another game.
Nebraska has four more Big Ten games. This coming week’s game at Michigan State may be the best chance for Nebraska to get tripped up. Following that, they have two homes games against Penn State and Minnesota and finish the season at Iowa.
Michigan’s road is tougher. The Wolverines travel to Minnesota for a rivalry game in the battle for the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota may not be much on paper and they are not in the conference title race, but it’s a rivalry and teams play tough in trophy games. Plus, Minnesota is looking for bowl elgibility, so they can’t take this one lightly. After that, come two home games against Northwestern and Iowa. Northwestern is a team who is still in the title hunt with two losses, but they need Nebraska to lose two more. Iowa has had a poor season, yet because of the lack of quality in the Big Ten, they too are still in the title hunt with two losses. And as mentioned above, they still have games against the three teams in front of them: Northwestern (this weekend), Michigan, and Nebraska. Then the Wolverines travel to the all-important Big Game in Columbus. Unlike what I did this past weekend when I changed my preseason pick and called for a Michigan win, I won’t be changing my Ohio State pick. With the way that both teams are playing, and given the fact that this will be OSU’s bowl game, I think Michigan loses by two touchdowns.
So this past weekend’s game was a bad loss. It hurt to witness a Michigan offense without Denard. It hurt to lose ugly. It hurt to lose a big game, one which would have set up the Wolverines nicely in their run for the Big Ten championship. Michigan’s key this weekend will be to not let last week’s opponent beat them twice. The road to Indianapolis begins again this weekend against Minnesota and the team must be focused on winning each of their last four games, one at a time.
Well, it wasn’t pretty, but Michigan got the victory against its in-state rival in what can best be summed up as a defensive battle. The stat lines were essentially the same for each team. Michigan was extremely balanced offensively, rushing and passing for 163 yards apiece (326 total), but probably not because it wanted to be. If you asked the coaches, they would likely tell you that if they could have more yards on the ground, they would have been ecstatic. MSU totaled 304 yards behind a good performance from quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who was 21-of-34 for 192 yards, one touchdown and an interception. The similarity in statistics goes even further: each team had the same number of first downs (16), same number of turnovers (one), same number of punts (seven), and almost the same number of penalties (six versus seven) and time of possession (28 minutes to 31).
So what we saw on Saturday were two pretty evenly matched teams. Michigan came out looking to contain MSU running back Le’Veon Bell, which it did to the tune of only 2.6 yards per carry, matching his lowest of the season. The plan was to force Maxwell to throw the ball to a group of young receivers and pressure Maxwell into making mistakes.
The MSU defensive game plan was similar – contain quarterback Denard Robinson and keep him from making big plays with his feet, and put pressure on Denard while keeping him in the pocket, hoping that he would throw some bad passes which the MSU defense could capitalize on. If you remember, this is what MSU head coach Mark Dantonio did last year. And the year before that. It’s also what he tried to do this season against Ohio State sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, except Miller threw the ball well that day. In fact, if you look at Miller’s passing stats from that game (16-of-23 for 179 yards, a touchdown and an interception), they almost mirror Denard’s on Saturday (14-of-29 for 163 yards and an interception).
So what is the point? While it didn’t appear to the average fan as if Denard played that well yesterday (because he wasn’t running all over the field at will like he did in every game besides the Alabama game against below average defenses), he did what he needed to do to direct the offense down the field against the second best defense Michigan has seen this season. Denard’s only turnover was a meaningless interception on the last play of the first half. He did a nice job of not getting frustrated when the read-option didn’t open up for most of the game. A younger, less mature Denard would have tried to make a play himself by keeping it even when the read said that he shouldn’t. The less-polished passer in the Denard of even a year ago would have rushed his throws or not carried out a quality fake on the play-action passes which Michigan had success with. MSU wanted Denard to lose the game for his team, but that is not the type of guy who is behind center for this Michigan team. Give credit to offensive coordinator Al Borges for not giving up on the game plan and staying with the offense that he has had success with all season. Unlike last year, Borges stayed with Denard and his abilities and called the plays that complimented Denard’s skills.
Earlier in the year, I talked about Denard’s improvements as a quarterback and how hard he worked to become the player that he is today. Games like the one against MSU are why we can be thankful that Denard is the way he is: a leader, a worker, and a quarterback. Over the last four years since Denard’s arrival, in a time when Michigan football experienced one of its worst periods in history, Denard provided a reason for Michigan fans to be excited about Saturdays. He’s not ever going to be compared to the great Michigan quarterbacks of old for the number of touchdowns he threw or the number of yards he passed for. What he should be remembered for is how he led this team threw the adversity. Adversity like the Wolverines faced this weekend. Denard didn’t do anything real flashy, but he made plays when he needed to and kept his team in the game the entire time. One guy who is happy that he won’t have to face Denard again is Dantonio, who said after the game, “I’m glad he’s gone.”
Denard and the Wolverines will face more adversity next weekend in a night game in Lincoln, Neb. The infamous ‘Blackshirt’ defense is no longer what it was in the 1980s and 90s, as the Cornhuskers are giving up almost 28 points per game and have been hurt by athletic quarterbacks this season (see OSU and Northwestern). Denard’s leadership this week will be important as the team gets ready. Not because Nebraska presents an impossible challenge, but because they have to go on the road into a hostile environment after winning an emotional game against their second biggest rival. It’s a classic ‘let-down game’ scenario and one in which Denard and the team will need to avoid falling prey to if they want to keep their hopes alive for a Big Ten championship.
Another game, another win for the Michigan Wolverines. On Saturday, it looked to me like the team played its best all-around game this season – maybe even since Brady Hoke arrived in Ann Arbor. While it was obvious that Illinois was way overmatched in this game, the effort that the Wolverines displayed on both sides of the ball was impressive.
Denard Robinson ran the offense with perfection, as he continues to move closer to setting the NCAA career rushing record for a quarterback. He ran the ball effectively and also passed it well, as offensive coordinator Al Borges called a nice game, establishing the run early and passing at opportune times. Like I’ve pointed out in the past, when Denard throws less than 20 times per game, we are likely going to see the Wolverines adding a victory to the win column.
More impressive to me than Denard’s play was the emergence of an actual running game from the running back position. For the first time this season, Michigan was able to move the ball on the ground with someone other than Denard. This came in the form of a platoon-style attack, using the abilities of three different backs in Thomas Rawls, Justice Hayes, and Fitz Toussaint. At first, I was a little skeptical on how this would work out. But after I saw how Borges used each player, I realized that this is going to be the best way for the offense to run the ball for the rest of the season (minus the times that Denard keeps the ball himself).
The use of a corps of running backs in college football, and even the NFL, is not a foreign concept in the game the way that it is played today. It used to be that teams had one running back that got all of the carries, similar to what we saw at Michigan in the days of Mike Hart or Anthony Thomas. But as offenses have evolved, and as defenses have adapted to the new styles of offense, the need for multiple backs has become evident. Offensive-minded coaches have made it a point to run as many plays in a game as possible, figuring that the more plays you run, the more chances to score you will have. To do this, the use of the no-huddle, not only in a two-minute offense situation, has become a method that teams use. See the Oregon Ducks if you have any questions about this. Naturally, fatigue can become a factor and one running back can’t stay fresh enough for an entire drive down the field when they are running play after play without coming to the huddle. So teams will substitute one or two other backs in at any given time and rotate these guys throughout the course of the game.
What I like about Michigan’s situation is that the three guys they have each display different talents which make it tough for defenses to defend. Rawls is more of a power back because of his size, but he also has good speed. Toussaint is the faster playmaker. And Justice, while inexperienced, has shown the ability to find the hole and pick up good yardage, especially when Rawls and Toussaint aren’t in the game.
So far this season, Toussaint has been ineffective when he has been in the backfield as the primary running back. The coaches needed to try something else and the game against Illinois presented the perfect opportunity to try it out. The coaches have made it apparent that they still believe in Toussaint and I believe that they aren’t just saying this to keep his head up. He is a good running back, but I think the off-field distractions early in the season may have affected him. He just hasn’t seemed to gel with the offense yet. And I disagree with others in the media who have said that opposing defenses have been coming out to try and stop Toussaint. That just doesn’t make sense. Why would a defense force the best player on the field (Denard) to keep the ball? In the games which Michigan lost, it wasn’t because Denard had the ball more often.
The coaches realized that something needed to be done. An offense where Denard is the only running threat is no offense at all. With this new platoon of running backs, defenses will face multiple threats. If Michigan wants to pound with Rawls, it can. If they want some speed on the field, they can go with Toussaint or Hayes. Add to that the match-up nightmare which is Devin Funchess and the play-making ability of guys on the outside like Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, and Roy Roundtree, and you have an offense that is tough to contain. Nice job by the coaches to earn their pay and find a way to get the most out of the players they have.
One quick note about the defense and special teams play on Saturday. Nice job! I know that the Illinois offense wasn’t very good and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was knocked out of the game early, but I thought the defense was flying to the ball on every play and it looked as if every player had prepared well for this game. Also, nice job by the punting unit as it downed all four punts inside the Illinois 20-yard line and allowed no return yardage. Also, is anyone else interested in seeing Dennis Norfleet return more punts?? As good of a kick returner that he is, I’ve wondered why we don’t see him return more punts. Maybe we will see more of that in the future.
Michigan’s last two games against Purdue and Illinois were not games to use as measuring sticks for how good this Michigan team really is. But they were games where the coaches could work on some things, try some new personnel packages, and get things tuned up for what will be the toughest part of the 2012 season. Michigan State comes to Ann Arbor this week looking for a win that will validate what has been a tough season so far. Then the Wolverines head to Lincoln for a night game against a Nebraska team which can be tough if they ever decide to play an entire game. Overall, things are looking good right now in all aspects, but things are going to be different from here on out in the Big Ten schedule. The Wolverines just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing and not allow other teams to dictate to them what they can and cannot do.
I love when I sit down to write this Monday Morning Quarterback segment and there’s not much to say. Usually that means that the Wolverines played well over the weekend and likely won their game rather easily. That’s exactly what happened this past Saturday as Michigan traveled to Purdue and came away with a 44-13 victory.
Before we go any further, I have to say that going into the weekend I was surprised at how many writers and commentators in the media doubted the Wolverines against Purdue. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit not only predicted Purdue to beat the Wolverines, but he’s also calling for Purdue to win the Leaders Division and also the Big Ten Championship! Now, if you have been watching College Gameday as long as I have, you know that sometimes Kirk has a way of making his predictions in a manner that will fire up certain teams to win. For example, he may make a pick on a game one way, but say it in a way that will light a fire under the players on the opposing team. As if he’s trying to give them extra motivation to go out there and play harder. Are the players on that team actually watching Game Day? Maybe, especially if the game is a later afternoon or night game.
As for me, in the two weeks leading up to the Purdue game, I never once thought that Michigan would walk away without a win. It seems that a lot of people had either forgotten about or dismissed the Wolverines as a team that wasn’t that good. Yeah, they’re not going to win a National Championship this year. But who actually thought that was going to happen anyway? Who out there really thought that Michigan would be able to compete with the elite teams like Alabama, Oregon, etc? The truth is, they are exactly where most people who really know Michigan football thought they were going to be. A win against Alabama would have been a miracle, and one against Notre Dame was a question mark at best, especially in South Bend at night. At 3-2, and more importantly 1-0 in the Big Ten, Michigan is still in the hunt for a conference championship and a BCS bowl berth.
Quickly, let’s talk about the Purdue game. Overall, I thought Michigan looked well prepared and ready for this game. It was obvious that the coaches had the players focused to start their Big Ten schedule following their week off. I thought the play-calling was good and took advantage of the skills which Denard possess as a quarterback/athlete. I was happy to see the offense put more emphasis on establishing the run early, which helped open up some of the passing lanes for Denard. His stats line of 8-for-16 for 105 yards and a touchdown is exactly the amount of passing that he should be doing in a game (when they establish the run first). Certainly no more than 25 attempts per game. The receivers did a decent job, although I did see a few poor routes and a couple drops of some catchable passes. Lastly, you want to talk about red zone efficiency? The offense was 6-for-6 in scoring.
Defensively, I really liked the effort. Coming into the game, Purdue looked like world-beaters if one only looked at their stats on paper. Putting up eye-popping stats in wins against the likes of Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, and Marshall wasn’t a challenge. Maybe this is why so many in the media thought there was a chance that Michigan could lose this game? But the defense looked rested, healthy, and ready to stop anything that Purdue threw at them. Had the offense not turned the ball over at its own 36-yard line, I don’t think they would have given up a touchdown all game. Purdue certainly wasn’t going to put any long drives together. Even the kicking game looked good, as Brendan Gibbons missed from 44 yards, but hit field goals of 29, 42, and 27 yards. Also, Matt Wile hit a nice 57-yard punt in the third quarter.
After the game, I am still more than a little concerned about the lack of a productive runner other than Denard. Fitz Toussaint has been ineffective in every game he’s played this season, and I don’t think that this falls on the shoulders of the offensive line. To me, Fitz has looked slow and has lacked the explosiveness which he had last season when he complemented Denard in the read-option. And it’s not like defenses have been coming out to stop him either. Everyone knows the key to beating Michigan is limiting Denard’s ability to make big plays, not keeping Toussaint from racking up yardage on the ground. The coaches are going to need to find a more viable second running threat soon before they start taking on some better defenses later in the season.
So, moving on, here is what I see. Michigan stays home this week against an Illinois team which has not been impressive this year. However, after this weekend, the Wolverines have Michigan State at home and Nebraska on the road. This is a classic look-ahead weekend for Michigan. They can’t get caught looking ahead to those other games before they take care of business against Illinois. Do I think they’ll lose? No. I’m just saying they need to be careful. MSU has looked vulnerable (see last week’s effort against Indiana) and Nebraska hasn’t put together two good halves of football yet this season.
After that, Michigan faces a “let-down game” situation at Minnesota before home contests against Northwestern and Iowa. And then the Big Game in Columbus. If the team and the coaches can maintain their “one game at a time” mentality for the rest of the season, I believe that Michigan can go into the game against Ohio State with only the two losses which they already have. If that happens, we’ll be watching the Wolverines play in the Big Ten championship on the first weekend of December and the team will have accomplished its goal of winning a conference championship and playing in a BCS game.
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?
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.
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.
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.
[Ed.: Chris has returned to provide expert analysis in his regular Monday Morning Quarterback feature this season. He's a former Air Force quarterback, so he knows a thing or two about the game - especially the quarterback position. He assures us he'll be rooting for Michigan on Sept. 8]
If you’re anything like me, and you probably are since you’re taking the time to read this, you have been counting down the days until the Wolverines take the field again.
With just over two weeks remaining until the season opener, I’d like to take a look at some of the improvements that I’m hoping to see in quarterback Denard Robinson in his final season in the maize and blue. As you can see in the table to the right, nearly all of his numbers were down in 2011, but I believe that can be explained by a more productive running game and an overall better scheme called by offensive coordinator Al Borges.
While the numbers from 2011 don’t show improvement, Robinson did what he needed to do to help the Michigan offense move the ball and put points on the board. Some of his intangibles which don’t show up in his stats, such as leadership in the huddle and on the sideline, also contributed to the team’s success. Overall, Borges and Brady Hoke did a great job of bringing in a new offensive philosophy, while at the same time still keeping in mind Denard’s strengths as an athlete.
All of us who watched Denard throughout the season in 2011 had our moments when we cringed watching him throw a pass off his back foot, or late down the middle of the field. Of course, it’s easy for us to do so while we sit in the comfort of our living rooms. Meanwhile, Denard has to make split-second decisions with 300-pound defensive linemen closing in on him. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not going to crush Denard for making the decisions that he does. Ultimately, the guy is just out there trying to make plays and help his team win.
Decision making at the quarterback position is really a matter of the coaching that he’s getting anyway. The better that coaching is, the better decisions Denard will make during a game. During the offseason, this takes place most often in the film room watching tape and in front of a grease board drawing up plays. This is where quarterbacks learn to read defensive schemes and secondary coverages by looking at their keys, and make pre-snap reads.
By studying on film how a defense lines up against a certain formation and how they react when the ball is snapped, a quarterback is better able to visualize which of his receivers are most likely to be open on a given play. During the quarterback’s dropback, he just has to make a read of what the defender(s) are doing and throw to the correct receiver. This is much easier said than done, especially during a real game, but that’s how it supposed to work.
What I am hoping to see in terms of improvement from Denard this season has more to do with his mechanics. Denard already does a lot of things very well from a mechanics perspective. As you can see from the picture to the right, he holds the ball high and to his chest and keeps his eyes looking downfield while in the pocket. This is the starting place for all throws. If the ball is down, say by the quarterback’s waist, he has to bring the ball up high on his chest to start the throwing motion. If the ball is already there, as Denard does it, then he is able to get the ball out of his hands quicker. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the split second in which it takes the QB to bring the ball up to the proper throwing position is often the difference between a completed pass and an interception.
Also, a QB who keeps his eyes looking downfield is one who is reading the defense and will find receivers when they come open. This is something that Denard has done well over the last couple of years. Often times, QBs who are good athletes and good at running out of the pocket will bring their eyes down to look at the pass rush while they look for an open hole to run through. Denard has been able to avoid that pitfall thus far.
Something that Denard has struggled with in the past has been not setting his feet to throw and not pointing his non-throwing shoulder at his intended target. Take a look at the picture to the left from last year’s game against Eastern Michigan. This is obviously a picture of Denard not properly getting his feet set. Yes, I can see the defender right there in his face and Denard is trying to make a play. But a better choice would have been to pull the ball down, take a few quick steps away from the defender, re-set his feet, and throw the ball to the open receiver. Maybe this ball was completed, but more often than not, throws like this result in balls that don’t have much on them and end up getting floated to the receiver instead of thrown with some power, thus making it more likely that the pass is thrown incomplete, or worse yet, intercepted by the defense.
At right is a picture of Denard from last year’s Notre Dame game that shows proper footwork. In terms of setting up to throw, I like the way that he has set up with his feet underneath him and he is stepping into the throw with his lead foot. I’d like to see his left foot pointed a little more toward the target, but the angle from which the picture was taken makes it difficult to know where exactly the receiver is. I’ll give Denard the benefit of the doubt and say that this was most likely a good pass.
At left is a good example of Denard getting his feet under him to make a throw. This picture was taken as Denard was on the run, stepping up into the pocket. You can see how his feet are underneath him and not too spread apart. His arm is cocked back and ready to come forward to make the throw and his left foot is about to come off the ground as he steps into the throw and releases the ball. This resulted in a 20-yard completion to a wide open Kevin Koger. In my opinion, Denard has improved in his ability to throw on the move throughout the last three-plus years. This is especially
important, as his athleticism gives him the ability to escape bad situations in the pocket and make throws while moving outside the pocket.
One thing that you and I are all too familiar with is those moments in the game where we see Denard throwing off his back foot while leaning backward and away from his receiver. As if you needed to see it again, the picture to the right from last year’s Northwestern game illustrates what I’m talking about. This may even be one of those jump passes like I spoke about earlier. Either way, unless the receiver is WIDE open or he is throwing the ball away, there is no reason to throw the ball like this. Passes like this get intercepted, or best case, get knocked down. I don’t think I need to say anything more about that given the number of times we’ve seen that over the last three years. Has he gotten better? Yes. But as a senior quarterback and this being his third year as a starter, there’s no way this should be happening this season.
The good thing, however, is that these things can be corrected over time with footwork and throwing drills. These are simple drills which reinforce proper feet and shoulder alignment when throwing to a target.
For example, we have seen a number of times when Denard is forced out of the pocket and he is scrambling for his life while looking downfield for an open receiver. Finally, with the defense hot on his heels, Denard finds the tight end open near the sideline and quickly throws the ball to him. However, the ball sails out of his hand and flies out of bounds 10 feet above the receiver’s head. Or, in some cases, the ball is thrown low and hits the ground hear the receiver’s feet.
This doesn’t happen because Denard is purposely throwing it there. It happens because Denard didn’t properly set his feet to throw or, in the case where he was throwing on the run, didn’t get his shoulders properly turned toward the target. There are a number of drills that can reinforce these basic quarterback fundamentals, which I am confident that Borges had all of his quarterbacks working on during the offseason.
Between the off-field coaching and quarterback drills which Denard took part in as part of his offseason routine this summer, my hope is that come September 1 in Dallas we will all see a more polished quarterback leading the Michigan offense. The less he has to think about his mechanics, the more time he can spend on reading the defense and making quality throws to open receivers.
Denard certainly has the ability to be a great quarterback and have a sensational senior year. Here’s to hoping that he put in the work over the offseason to make that happen. Knowing what I do about Denard Robinson and his work ethic, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. Happy football season! GO BLUE!!