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Posts Tagged ‘Jonas Mouton’

STAYING THE COURSE: All-In for Rich Rodriguez

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010


As if any more commentary on the current Michigan coaching situation is called for, I need to bring closure to the regular season by injecting my stance into the conversation.

It has been no secret over the course of the past three seasons that I have supported Rich Rodriguez. I have been one of a group that has been declining in number and popularity by the week and I’m not quite ready to give in just yet.

Rodriguez celebrates a comeback win over Wisconsin in 2008 (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

It was our beloved legend Bo Schembechler who once said, “When your team is winning, be ready to be tough, because winning can make you soft; on the other hand, when your team is losing, stick by them. Keep believing.”

I suppose you can support the team but not Rodriguez, and the argument could be made that if you truly want what’s best for the team you should want the coach who has gone 15-21 in the past three seasons gone, but I’m still believing. I’ve never been one to make knee-jerk decisions. I believe in giving people a chance and standing by a decision. I also think a college football coach should be given at least four years, or long enough to field a team full of his own recruits.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way things work these days. We’ve let our fast food mentality permeate our sports expectations to the point that if a coach doesn’t win the national championship in his first season, fans are already calling for his head.

In the case of Rodriguez, the reasons things have gone the way they have gone have been discussed over and over again, so I won’t get into that. Instead, I’ll present my reasoning for wanting to keep him.

To begin with, progress has been made in each of Rodriguez’s first three seasons. In 2008, the team went 3-9; in 2009, it went 5-7; and in 2010, it is currently 7-5 with a chance to make it 8-5 with a New Years Day bowl win over Mississippi State.

The tired, “Yeah but it’s Michigan” meme needs to stop because it’s arrogant and ignorant. I want nothing more than to be winning Big Ten championships and playing in BCS bowls year-after-year, but three years ago we were all clamoring for a change from that. We were the ones unhappy with simply competing for Big Ten titles each year and getting blown out by USC in Rose Bowls. We were the ones excited when Lloyd Carr retired because of the possibility of ushering Michigan football into the modern era.

Then the father of the spread offense came to Ann Arbor and inherited a team full of Carr’s guys, and they weren’t the ones that led the team to those Big Ten titles. They’re now playing on Sundays. He was left with walk-on Nick Sheridan and freshman Steven Three to quarterback his first Michigan team. We all know how year one went: offensive ineptitude at a level Michigan hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

The offense scored just 243 points in that first season, an average of just 20.3 per game, as it struggled to move the ball on anyone other than Minnesota. It lost at home to Toledo, Northwestern, and Purdue and got trounced by Notre Dame, Illinois, Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Those games weren’t even competitive and we all had our egos bruised.

Three-Year Comparison
  2008 2009 2010
Win-Loss 3-9 5-7 7-5
Big Ten 2-6 1-7 3-5
Scoring Offense 20.25 29.5 34.33
Scoring Off. Ranking 98 45 22
Rushing YPG 147.58 186.17 251.08
Rush Off. Ranking 60 27 11
Passing YPG 143.17 198.33 249.83
Pass Off. Ranking 108 81 35
Total Offense 290.75 384.5 500.92
Total Off. Ranking 111 59 6
Scoring Defense 28.92 27.5 33.83
Scoring Def. Ranking 80 79 102
Rush Defense YPG 136.92 171.92 187.67
Rush Def. Ranking 49 92 94
Pass Defense YPG 230.0 221.42 260.25
Pass Def. Ranking 87 69 111
Total Defense 366.92 393.33 447.92
Total Def. Ranking 69 81 108
*Rankings reflect national ranking

Year two saw Rodriguez bring in some of his own guys, his first true recruiting class, and he finally had the anchors of his offense in quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.

Forcier was the quarterback to lead the Wolverines that season and the freshman growing pains were evident but the team showed significant progress. It scored 354 points, an average of 29.5 per game, and stayed competitive for much of the season. It beat Notre Dame, took Michigan State to overtime, and nearly came back to beat Iowa on the road, but still failed to really compete against Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, and lost again to Purdue.

Progress was made, but it was essentially a freshman offense. It’s hard enough to win with a quarterback who was at prom six months ago, let alone when his surrounding cast is made up of youth as well.

This season, enormous strides were made offensively and Michigan improved to one of the best offenses in the nation, scoring 412 points, an average of 34.3 per game. The team turned a lot of heads eraly in the season with the breakout performance of Denard Robinson, who beat out Forcier for the starting spot. Robinson broke the NCAA FBS quarterback rushing record by 149 yards and still has a bowl game to add on to that.

Michigan crushed Connecticut, which won the Big East, outlasted Notre Dame on the road, and won a three-overtime thriller over Illinois, but was still unable to beat the big boys of the Big Ten, which has been the biggest knock on Rodriguez to date.

The critics say that beating up on the Indianas and Purdues of the world don’t mean anything if he can’t beat Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, and most importantly, rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. That’s true, but it depends on whether your definition of improvement consists of a giant leap for mankind or stepping stones. If you expect Rodriguez to be Neil Armstrong, then you’re sorely disappointed. But if you see the slow and steady improvement as reason to believe, then you should be confident that the wins over the big boys are coming soon.

Two years ago, Michigan wasn’t good enough to beat Toledo. Last year, it could beat the MAC, but couldn’t beat Illinois or Purdue. This year, it beat Illinois and handled Purdue on the road, but still couldn’t crack the top dogs. The logical line of progression would be a couple of wins over those guys next season.

I believe it’s coming because the offense is only going to get better with another year of experience and only one departing starter, and the defense only has one way to go: up.

With the offense, let’s take a look at Oregon. Last season, the Ducks went 10-3, averaging 36 points per game. It had the nation’s sixth-best rush offense and 33rd-best total offense. It outscored the majority of its opponents, but lost 19-8 to Boise State and also lost to Stanford and in the Rose Bowl to Ohio State. In short, it was a really good offense, but still waiting to break out.

This season, the Ducks’ offense exploded. It is first in the nation in points per game (49.33), second in total offense, and fourth in rush offense. Most importantly, it’s undefeated and set to face Auburn in the BCS title game on Jan. 10.

I think Michigan’s offense has a chance to blow up next season similar to Oregon this season. Robinson will be in his second season as the starter, all the running backs will return with the addition of big-time recruits Justice Hayes and possibly Dee Hart*, all receivers return from a group that was pretty dynamic this season, including one of the Big Ten’s best in Roy Roundtree, and the majority of the line returns as well. It will be the fourth season in Rodriguez’s system, which will allow the unit to function on a higher level.

Rodriguez speaks at the Michigan football banquet (Photo by the Detroit News)

While the offense has progressed in each of the past three years, the main problem has been the defense which has seemingly gotten worse each year. But despite the decline from allowing 28.9 points per game in 2008 to 33.83 this season, I believe the defense is due to break out like the offense did the past couple of seasons.

It’s no secret that this year’s unit was riddled with injuries and youth. Just as it’s hard to win with a freshman quarterback, it’s even harder to stop anybody with freshmen on defense. One or two freshmen can succeed if surrounded by experienced talent, but when your entire defense is relying on freshmen surrounded by sophomores, you’re begging for trouble.

I’m not trying to make any excuses for the defense, but we knew heading into the season it was going to be rough. Then, the week of the opening game, the senior leader of the unit, Troy Woolfolk suffered a season-ending ankle injury, leaving the defense without its leader.

Next season, Woolfolk returns, and the only defensive players who played prominent roles that Michigan loses are linebackers Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh and lineman Greg Banks. Mouton was hit-or-miss this season. He was Michigan’s best linebacker by default, making some big plays, but he also tended to overpursue and take poor angles, leading to big runs. Ezeh lost his starting spot midway through the season and Banks played well at the end of the season, but his departure will allow Craig Roh to move into the end spot that he should have been in all season.

The one bright spot of playing so many young guys so prominently is the experience they gained. Many people criticized Rodriguez for playing his guys and installing his offense right from the start in 2008, but that has paid off with one of the nation’s best offenses this season. The defense will follow a similar progression in the next couple of years. If it can just improve to average next season, it should be good for another couple of wins.

This season, it’s 102nd in the nation in scoring defense. It doesn’t have to be top ten, but even if you put it at 60th, which is exactly middle-of-the-road, it would have given up 7.5 points less per game. That would have turned many of the losses this season into much closer games and would have given the offense a chance to win them.

The most popular conjecture among Michigan fans right now is that defensive coordinator Greg Robinson should be fired, but I’m not 100 percent sold on that either. The young defense needs consistency above all, since it has had three different coordinators in four years. The only reason I’d be in favor of giving up on Robinson is if Rodriguez can lure West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel away from Morgantown.

Casteel was Rodriguez’s coordinator at WVU and runs the same 3-3-5 defense that Rodriguez has Robinson running at Michigan. Casteel has kept the Mountaineers’ defense ranked highly, and this season it ranks second in the nation, giving up just 12.75 points per game. Michigan would be in the BCS national championship game this season with that defense.

All that to say, I think Rodriguez has the building blocks in place to continue getting better and to warrant another season in Ann Arbor. His players love him, he does some great things off the field, and his speech and actions at last Thursday’s Michigan football bust shows a passion that Michigan fans should revere, not mock.

Jim Harbaugh^ seems to be the flavor of the week right now, just like Rodriguez was three years ago, and he’ll most likely still be at Stanford next season. If I’m wrong, and continued progress isn’t present in 2011, then I may be willing to go after him at that time. I just don’t think the time is right yet.

_________________________________________________________________________________

*There has been some recent speculation of Hart switching his commitment to Alabama, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

^I do like Harbaugh, and if Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon does decide to can Rodriguez and hire Harbaugh, I will fully support him. But like I said above, I’m not ready to give up on Rodriguez yet because I think his best days are ahead.

Forecast Friday: What Michigan Needs to Gain from UMass Game

Friday, September 17th, 2010


Michigan enters Saturday’s matchup with UMass in a position it hasn’t been in very often in the past couple of seasons: the prohibitive favorite. You can go back to the Delaware State game last October 17 for the last time Michigan was a lock to win a game.

 

Michigan vs. UMass
Block M logo Sat. 9/18
12 p.m. ET 
Big Ten Network
UMass logo
2-0 Record 2-0
29.0 Scoring Offense 29.0
287.5 Rushing YPG 223.5
215.0 Passing YPG 258.0
502.5 Total Offense 481.5
17.0 Scoring Defense 15.0
146.0 Rush Defense YPG 76.5
293.0 Pass Defense YPG 195.5
439.0 Total Defense YPG 272.0
4 Takeaways 3
0 Giveaways 1
1/0 Sacks By/Allowed 1/1
49% Third-down Conv. 46%
1/4 Field Goals 1/2
36.1 Net Punt Avg. 24.1

After throttling favored UConn and outlasting Notre Dame in South Bend, Michigan is the talk of college football with electric quarterback Denard Robinson leading the nation in rushing and total offense. The schedule sets up nicely to go 5-0 with UMass, Bowling Green, and Indiana on the slate before rival Michigan State comes to Ann Arbor.

So what does Michigan have to do in the next couple of weeks to get ready for the grind of the Big Ten schedule?

It all starts with staying and getting healthy. The last thing you want to have happen in cakewalk games is an injury to one of your starters.

Robinson will play but certainly won’t need the whopping amount of carries he has had in the past two games. Rodriguez should let him keep his rhythm and build a good lead and then rest him to keep him fresh.

As dynamic as the offense has looked thus far, it’s still missing two players that figured to be big-time playmakers this season, wide receiver Junior Hemingway and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Hemingway has battled injuries his entire career, but when he has been on the field, he has stretched defenses as Michigan’s best deep threat.

Toussaint had a good camp and many considered him to be the best all-around back on the team.

Neither has played yet this season, but may return as soon as this weekend.

On defense, freshman safety Carvin Johnson suffered a knee sprain in the opener, and despite his lack of experience, Michigan needs him back sooner than later, especially given Cam Gordon’s propensity to give up the deep ball.

Secondly, Robinson needs to establish the passing game.

Everybody knows Robinson’s skills on the ground – that was evident from his first collegiate snap. The biggest question mark surrounding Robinson at this point is his passing ability.

He has shown great command of the offense so far this season, completing 69 percent of his passes, but has yet to show he can throw an accurate deep ball.

Rodriguez said the offense will flow depending on how the defense is playing them, so if teams are allowing the run, which is the bread and butter of the spread-n-shred offense, Robinson could keep on running.

But as the season goes along, teams will stack the box to try to stop Robinson, making the passing game all the more important.

Thirdly, find a running game outside of Robinson.

Michigan has a plethora of running backs competing for playing time, but so far Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith have carried the load. They have done okay, but neither has shown much of anything, averaging just 3.0 and 3.2 yards per carry, respectively.

The only other running back to get a carry was freshman Stephen Hopkins who scored from one yard out against Notre Dame.

Michael Cox and Toussaint (if healthy) should at least be given a chance to show what they can do. Michigan desperately needs a back to shoulder some of the load. Shaw, Smith, Hopkins, and receiver Kelvin Grady have combined for 44 carries, compared to Robinson’s 57.

 

Safety Cam Gordon lets ND tight end Kyle Rudolph run right by for a 95-yard TD catch (photo by ESPN.com)

Safety Cam Gordon lets ND tight end Kyle Rudolph run right by for a 95-yard TD catch (photo by ESPN.com)

Finally, Michigan needs to find consistency in the secondary.

 

The defensive line is solid and the linebackers have played well, especially senior Jonas Mouton, but the majority of the big plays given up have been on the thin and inexperienced secondary.

J.T. Floyd and James Rogers have performed admirably on the outside, but safety Cam Gordon has been the culprit for the big plays. It’s not necessarily a reflection on his talent, given that he is a converted wide receiver starting in his first season at safety, but he will only get better with time and experience. The more games he plays, the more he will figure out the position and the more comfortable he will get.

Prediction

UMass has a pretty good running game, with Jonathan Hernandez averaging 101.5 yards per game and John Griffin averaging 77.5 so far, and quarterback Kyle Havens has completed 65 percent of his passes for 516 yards and three touchdowns. But those two games were against Holy Cross and William & Mary.

The Minutemen find invade Ann Arbor ranked 16th in the Football Championship Subdivision, while Michigan finds itself ranked for the first time in a year, at 20th in the big boy division, the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Look for Michigan to set the tone early, jumping out to a comfortable lead by halftime. Robinson will work into the third quarter before giving way to Tate Forcier and Devin Gardner.

Michigan 41 – UMass 21

From their view…

MassLive breaks down what UMass has to do to pull off the upset and also estimates that UMass will bring 2,500 fans to Ann Arbor. The Daily Collegian has UMass coach Kevin Morris declaring, “We’re going to win,” while also talking about how hard it will be to stop Robinson.

The Daily Collegian also features this winner depicting the Minutemen mascot fighting a comic book character with the same name as Michigan’s mascot.

UMass header

Wolverine Wednesday: The Difference a Year Makes

Thursday, September 16th, 2010


Around this time last year, I wrote this, questioning whether it was time to expand Denard Robinson’s role in the offense. Now, just two weeks into the 2010 season, he’s a human Heisman.

Denard doing his Heisman thing, photo by Sam Wolson / The Michigan Daily

Denard doing his best Heisman pose (photo by Sam Wolson / The Michigan Daily)

I’ll be the first to tell you I didn’t expect Robinson’s development to happen this fast, but even in that article after last year’s Iowa loss, it was less about his future as a quarterback, and more about utilizing his athletic ability given where his development was at the time.

Now that he has, to borrow a phrase from the Fab Five, “shocked the world” with his play during the first two weeks of the season, leading the nation in rushing yards and total offense, and vaulting to the top of the list of Heisman Trophy candidates, it seems absolutely ridiculous to think of him anywhere else but lined up behind the center.

While Robinson has captured the attention of the nation, he certainly has his detractors who say there’s no way he can keep it up through the grind of the Big Ten schedule. He’ll end up getting hurt from all the pounding he takes. He still hasn’t proved he can pass.

Those are all legitimate claims and only time will tell whether they ring true or not, but one thing is for certain: Rich Rodriguez has his man.

To be honest, I still haven’t even figured out what happened in South Bend on Saturday.  I think @cjane87 said it best: “I have had every single emotion over the last four hours.”

The game started out ominously with Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist leading the Irish down the field for a touchdown. Michigan responded with a punt. But then instead of Crist coming back out on to the field it was freshman Tommy Rees who proceeded to throw an interception on his second play, and Michigan took advantage with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Robinson to Roy Roundtree. Just like that it was 7-7.

Jonas Mouton's first quarter interception led to Michigan's first touchdown of the game, photo by the Ann Arbor News

Jonas Mouton's first quarter interception led to Michigan's first touchdown of the game (photo by the Ann Arbor News)

From that point through the rest of the half, the inept combination of Rees and fellow freshman Nate Montana allowed Michigan to pull ahead 21-7. At that point, I was feeling good about the way things were going, but knew for sure that Notre Dame was going to come back.

Sure enough, the momentum swung back to the Irish as Crist returned to bring the Irish back, and ultimately hit tight end Kyle Rudolph for a 95-yard touchdown to take the lead with just 3:41 remaining. At that point, I may have sworn at the thought of my wife jumping up and down. She’s a Notre Dame fan, and I was out of town for the weekend on a business trip, thankfully.

In retrospect, the quick strike was a blessing for Michigan and served as fuel for the growing wildfire that is Denard Robinson. Unlike the Iowa game last season when Robinson had the chance to lead the offense down the field for the win, but instead threw this (at 2:12), Robinson was fully in command and marched the Wolverines on a 12-play, 72-yard scoring drive that ate 3:14 off the clock and sealed the Michigan win.

Just three minutes after NBC announcer Tom Hammond proclaimed that Rudolph’s go-ahead touchdown would go down as one of the greats in Notre Dame lore, Robinson created his own history, becoming the first Michigan quarterback to win his first start in South Bend since Jim Harbaugh in 1986.

That list includes Steven Threet in 2008, Chad Henne in 2004, John Navarre in 2002, Tom Brady in 1998, Todd Collins in 1992, Elvis Grbac in 1990, and Michael Taylor in 1988. In other words: most of the best quarterbacks in Michigan history couldn’t do what Robinson did on Saturday.

Robinson proved he has what it takes to lead the team down the field for the win, not just with his feet, but through the air as well. He hit Roundtree with a perfect pass to the two-yard line to set up the winning score. He actually went 5-6 on that drive for 55 yards and only rushed for 17 yards.

Notre Dame fans will always argue that if Crist had played the entire game, Notre Dame would have won. They may have an argument there and I may have to agree with them, but the cruel nature of the game is dealing with injuries, and Michigan has faced its far share of them this season as well.

After a rocky first game, Tate Forcier was in full support of Robinson against Notre Dame (photo by John T. Greilick / the Detroit News)

After a rocky first game, Tate Forcier was in full support of Robinson against Notre Dame (photo by John T. Greilick / the Detroit News)

In the same breath that an ND fan can say that, a Michigan fan can say that Rudolph never would have gotten open down field had Troy Woolfolk not suffered a season-ending ankle injury in fall practice.

The fact of the matter is, Michigan won for the second straight year and fourth time in the past five years.

The schedule sets up perfectly for a 5-0 start before another rival, Michigan State, invades the Big House.

We’ll get a good look at MSU this Saturday night as they host Notre Dame.

An ideal scenario for Michigan this week and next is to jump out to an early lead on UMass and Bowling Green, letting the starters play through the first half and possibly into the third quarter before giving way to the backups.

It would be great to get last year’s Notre Dame hero, Tate Forcier, some playing time, as well as freshman Devin Gardner.

Over/Under

Yeah, so I was wrong with my prediction that Notre Dame would win. Don’t call me a sell-out for picking against the Wolverines. As I said in the pick, I desperately want Michigan to win, but have to put bias aside when making my picks. I was only three off Michigan’s point total, but 13 under Notre Dame’s.

For the season, I’m 10 over for Michigan and 34 over for the opponents. I guess I should start respecting defenses, huh?
I Said What?

“The combination of Michigan’s defense this year and Notre Dame’s offense virtually requires Michigan’s offense to score 35-plus points if it wants to win this game.”

If Crist had played the entire game, maybe, but I was a touchdown too pessimistic. (-1)

“While you can’t look at the time of possession alone to determine the outcome of a game, it can certainly go a long way toward helping you win the game.”

Final time of possession: Michigan 34:09, Notre Dame 25:51. Michigan had the ball for just over eight minutes more than Notre Dame. Part of that was due to the 95-yard touchdown pass from Crist to Rudolph, allowing Michigan to put together a game-winning drive while eating the clock, but nevertheless, Notre Dame had just three drives of more than five plays the entire game. (+1)

“Two years ago in South Bend, Michigan lost four fumbles in the rainy conditions and lost 35-17. The weather forecast calls for similar conditions this Saturday, so whichever team takes better care of the ball could be the one that wins.”

The rain held off, but Michigan protected the ball for the second straight week. The only miscue was a fumble by Robinson in the first quarter, but Michigan recovered. On the flip side, Michigan picked off three Notre Dame passes, one of which directly lead to Michigan’s first touchdown of the game. (+1)

“The defense has to employ the bend-but-don’t-break attitude that it used last week, making Notre Dame work to get the ball down the field, rather than making big plays.”

Eh, not so much. The Crist injury may have contributed to Michigan’s success in the first half, but the big plays certainly did happen: A 37-yard pass at the end of the first half, which should have lead to three points, but Brian Kelly chose to go for the touchdown; a 53-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter; and Rudolph’s 95-yard romp for the go-ahead touchdown. Three big plays that lead to 14 (should have been 17) points. All things considered, that’s a success against one of the most talented passing games Michigan will face all season. (-1)

“Michigan’s lines dominated UConn last week on both sides of the ball. There’s nothing to suggest it can’t do the same this week, as Notre Dame has a very young and inexperienced offensive line.”

Michigan didn’t exactly dominate Notre Dame’s offensive line, getting just one sack, though as MGoBlog points out, when Mike Martin and Craig Roh weren’t being double-teamed, they did this, this, and this.

The offensive line did well to not allow a sack for the second straight game and pave the way for Robinson to run for 258 yards. (+1)

So hey, three out of five isn’t bad.

We Can Always Use More Denard

WolverineWatchDenardvsPryor

A new addition to Maize & Go Blue is the Wolverine Watch, which is housed on the right sidebar. Currently, it features a side-by-side comparison of Robinson and Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, as seen above. It will be updated after every game for the entire season to show where the two stand in comparison.

If other Wolverines break out, they will be added to the Watch next to one of the Big Ten’s best at that position. Right now, the only one I could foresee is Roundtree if he continues his pace from the last few games of last season and has more games like his performance on Saturday (eight catches for 82 yards and a touchdown).

Go Blue!

Forecast Friday: Can Michigan Silence the Echoes in South Bend?

Friday, September 10th, 2010


Notre Dame week has become a tough one for me in the past few years. I grew up hating Notre Dame even more than Ohio State, cheering their every loss and hoping they never awoke the echoes. Then I met my wife. She’s a die-hard Notre Dame fan (and so is her entire family). UM-ND house divided

At first, I tried to bring her over from the dark side, but when that was unsuccessful, I succumbed to just hoping for a Michigan win each year so I can have bragging rights for another year. Fortunately, this year I’ll be watching the game from a work trip in Buffalo while she’ll be at home in New York City, so the contentious moments in the heat of the game will be avoided. I can cheer and sing “The Victors” all I want without hurting her feelings. I can jeer Notre Dame follies and celebrate their mistakes without getting the silent treatment the rest of the day. Ahh, it’s Michigan-Notre Dame.

Both teams made impressive statements last Saturday. Michigan dominated a UConn team that was picked by many to win the Big East this season. Notre Dame stifled an average Purdue team in new head coach Brian Kelly’s first game in South Bend.

Both enter this week’s matchup with a lot of confidence and needing a win to silence the doubters. A Michigan win would set up the Wolverines for a great shot at a 5-0 start. A Notre Dame win would make Irish fans forget about Charlie Weis already. So what does Michigan need to do to win in South Bend on Saturday?

1. Score a lot

Obviously scoring is the name of the game for any team, but the combination of Michigan’s defense this year and Notre Dame’s offense virtually requires Michigan’s offense to score 35-plus points if it wants to win this game.

The defense was bailed out by dropped passes and mistakes against UConn, which it can’t expect Notre Dame’s experienced receivers to make. Make no mistake about it: this defense won’t hold many teams to just 10 points, with the exception of maybe UMass and Bowling Green in the next couple of weeks.

Last year was a shootout, with Michigan scoring the game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds left to beat Notre Dame 38-34. This year should be much the same and the offense is going to have to score often if it wants to keep pace with the Irish.

2. Control the ball

Sophomore RB Vincent Smith has scored touchdowns in each of his last three games dating back to last season

Sophomore RB Vincent Smith has scored touchdowns in each of his last three games dating back to last season

Time of possession doesn’t tell the whole story, but it certainly does help. Last week, Michigan controlled the ball for nearly 37 minutes, the longest since Rich Rodriguez took over at Michigan in 2008.

Denard Robinson, in his first collegiate start, ran 29 times for 197 yards and the offense racked up a total of 287 yards rushing. It put together four drives of 11 plays or more, three of which accounted for a total of over 22 minutes, or a third of the game.

Putting together long drives wears down the opposing defense while keeping your defense off the field. So while you can’t look at the time of possession alone to determine the outcome of a game, it can certainly go a long way toward helping you win the game.

2a. Hold onto the ball

Two years ago in South Bend, Michigan lost four fumbles in the rainy conditions and lost 35-17. The weather forecast calls for similar conditions this Saturday, so whichever team takes better care of the ball could be the one that wins.

Michigan did a great job of taking care of the ball last week, though it did get lucky, recovering a muffed punt by Jeremy Gallon. In theory, rainy conditions should favor Michigan’s running game over Notre Dame’s spread passing offense as long as Michigan holds onto the ball.

3. Don’t give up the big play

Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist is just a sophomore in his first year as a starter, just like Robinson, but he has a very talented group of pass catchers.

Two years ago, Golden Tate caught four passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. Last season, Tate and Michael Floyd torched the Michigan secondary with nine catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns and seven catches for 131 yards and one touchdown, respectively.

Michigan was able to survive the onslaught last season because the offense was able to keep up. Tate is gone to the NFL, but Floyd is still there, as is tight end Kyle Rudolph, which means there’s no guarantee that the Michigan offense will be able to keep up this season. The defense has to employ the bend-but-don’t-break attitude that it used last week, making Notre Dame work to get the ball down the field, rather than making big plays.

With safety Carvin Jonson out three-to-six weeks with a knee injury, the responsibility falls even greater on the defensive line to put pressure on Crist and keep him from settling in. If he does, he will pick the secondary apart.

4. Control the line of scrimmage

Sophomore DE/LB Craig Roh got into the backfield often last week. He needs to pressure Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist this week.

Sophomore DE/LB Craig Roh got into the backfield often last week. He needs to pressure Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist this week.

Michigan’s lines dominated UConn last week on both sides of the ball. There’s nothing to suggest it can’t do the same this week, as Notre Dame has a very young and inexperienced offensive line.

Defensively, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, Greg Banks, and Craig Roh should be able to get to Crist, but linebackers Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton have to keep an eye on Rudolph or else Crist will pick the defense apart over the middle.

Offensively, Michigan faces a 3-4 defense for the first time this season. Notre Dame nose tackle Ian Williams is big and slow and ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore didn’t do much to stop Michigan last season. Michigan’s line opened up holes for Robinson and running backs Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith to run through all game last week and if it can do the same, the offense will be able to put up points.

Overall, I think this is sure to be a shootout. Rodriguez will likely open up the playbook a little more than was needed last week, so don’t expect Robinson to get 29 carries again. Depending on the weather, look for a little bit more from the passing game.

Michigan is 2-8 in its last 10 road openers and 1-4 in its last five games in South Bend. Despite the great performance by Robinson last week, this will be his first start on the road in hostile territory, most likely in poor weather. He’s still unproven when forced to play from behind or use his arm to win the game, and I don’t think Michigan’s defense will be able to slow down Floyd and Rudolph enough to win the game.

Prediction:

I desperately hope I’m proven wrong, but Notre Dame wins at home, 37-31.

Denard Makes His Case for Starting QB Spot; Other Spring Game Observations

Saturday, April 17th, 2010


Starting spots usually aren’t won or lost in spring practice, but young guys get a chance to prove themselves and gain experience while everyone else gets to show how much they developed throughout the winter.

Development was apparent in one key player today, as sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson lived up to the hype he’s been garnering all spring with a fantastic performance in Michigan’s annual spring game.

Robinson led five touchdown drives in Saturday's spring game

Robinson led five touchdown drives in Saturday's spring game

On the first possession of the scrimmage, Robinson guided the first-team offense down the field on a touchdown drive that included a nice bootleg pass to Roy Roundtree. Robinson ran it in from 10 yards out to cap off the drive.

On his next possession, which the offense started on its own three-yard line, Robinson hit Roundtree perfectly in stride about 25 yards downfield and Roundtree did the rest, outrunning the secondary for a 97-yard touchdown.

Later on, Robinson found Roundtree in the end zone again, this time from 12 yards out.

In the overtime drill, which simulates an overtime possession, starting from the opponent’s 25-yard line, Robinson completed a touchdown pass to Martavious Odoms from about 10 yards out. On his next possession, also the overtime drill, he threaded the needle for a 24-yard pass to Terrance Robinson to set up another touchdown.

By my count, Robinson led five drives, two of them overtime possessions, and all five resulted in touchdowns. Some of this can be attributed to playing against the second-team defense, but with the way Robinson was throwing, it wouldn’t have mattered if the first-team defense was out there or not.

One of the quirks about the spring game is that the quarterback is down once he’s touched in an effort to avoid an injury. On many of Robinson’s runs, he would have picked up significantly more yardage if he had to actually be tackled.

Most importantly, he showed poise in the pocket, where last year he would tuck and run after three milliseconds. A few times, he looked through several reads before pulling it down and running. On a couple of plays, he kept his head up while on the move and delivered an accurate strike to an open receiver.

This wouldn’t be all that significant if you hadn’t seen him play last season. While he dazzled Michigan fans with his feet in open space, his accuracy was terrible to the point where Michigan fans would rather him just run it up the middle for five yards even though the defense knew he’d do exactly that, than even attempt to throw a pass.

Robinson, Gardner, and Forcier hope to take a step forward this season, photo by Tony Ding/AP

Robinson, Gardner, and Forcier hope to take a step forward this season, photo by Tony Ding/AP

Today, he looked comfortable running the offense and seemed to be having as much fun out there as any other player in the maize and blue. About the only aspect that looked like it needed some work was a couple of bubble screens that were either underthrown or led the receiver too far.

I wish the coaches would have switched things up to pit Robinson against the first-team defense, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless.

The development and comfort level was evident and showed how dangerous a Robinson-led offense can be when every pass thrown doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

Last year, almost every time he lined up in the shotgun the defense knew he was going to run it. He rarely even ran the zone read, the staple of Rich Rodriguez’s offense.

This year, he should know the offense and be able to effectively run the zone read, and if he can prove he has any kind of accuracy, he would be the ideal quarterback for this offense.

I certainly realize it’s a lot of “ifs” and you can’t really jump to conclusions based on the spring game, but at this point, I would say Robinson is the starting quarterback heading into the summer.

Click here to see highlights of the top 10 plays from the spring game.

Notes:

— Tate Forcier, who started all 12 games as a true freshman last year, looked basically the exact same, although he was working with the second-team offense against the first-team defense.

He made some good plays, scrambling away from pressure and hitting the receiver on the run, but he also made some mistakes.

Tate Forcier didn't show the same developement as Robinson

Tate Forcier didn't show the same developement as Robinson

One pass should have been picked off by linebacker Mike Jones and another was forced into quadruple coverage and somehow wasn’t picked. He also made a bad pitch on an option play, which was recovered by the running back for about a 10 yard loss.

On the bright side, he completed a nice, across-the-body touchdown pass to Je’Ron Stokes in the overtime drill.

—Freshman Devin Gardner started out shaky, fumbling a handoff on his first play and throwing an interception deep in his own territory to Obi Ezeh, but seemed to rebound nicely with a 20-yard seam pass to Brandon Moore.

He looked nimble with his feet, but still has a weird throwing motion that needs to be fixed. He could be great a year or two from now, but I’m glad we don’t have to start another true freshman this season. He’s certainly headed for a redshirt barring a freak injury to Robinson or Forcier.

—Roy Roundtree is the real deal. He played just as he finished last season and looks to be Michigan’s go-to guy this year. He caught deep balls and screens and showed some speed in pulling away from the secondary on the 97-yard touchdown.

—The running back position has a lot of guys vying for playing time and no one really stood out today. With Vincent Smith assumed to be the starter out with a torn ACL, it seems to be a three-horse race between Michael Shaw, Michael Cox, and Fitzgerald Toussaint.

It’s perhaps the most important position that needs someone to step up, at least on the offensive side of the ball, after the departure of Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown, and Kevin Grady.

Cox had a nice touchdown run of about 20 yards against the first-team defense and the other guys didn’t do very much.

Freshman Stephen Hopkins showed some good strength and should see playing time as the short-yardage back this season.

—The defense didn’t show much today in the way of schemes or big plays. Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh got some good pressure on Forcier and William Campbell looks huge in the middle of the line.

Troy Woolfolk sat out the game with a dislocated finger and converted wide receiver James Rogers started in his place, opposite J.T. Floyd. Jordan Kovacs remains the starter at one of the safety spots, at least until Marvin Robinson and Demar Dorsey arrive on campus this summer.

The secondary will continue to be the group in question as the season nears, but linebacker will also be a position to watch. Seniors Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton both have a lot of experience, but lost some playing time last season. They both started today, with Ezeh recording an interception and Mouton looking solid.

Redshirt sophomore Kenny Demens also looked promising and could factor in this season as well.

—The kicking game looked pretty shaky and will probably be so all season. Redshirt freshman kicker Brendan Gibbons figures to be the placekicker, but the lefty sure can’t punt. Two of his three punt attempts were shanked out of bounds off the side of his foot.

The punter role seems to be incoming freshman Will Hagerup’s to lose, but he hasn’t even arrived on campus yet, so he better live up to his high school acclaim.

—The stadium looked a bit more than half full, despite the frigid temperatures. The Big Ten Network announcers placed the attendance around 30,000, but it looked to be slightly more.

I’m looking forward to a couple of years from now when Michigan can have a nationally televised spring game drawing near 100,000 fans like Alabama did today.