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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Connecticut

September 9, 2010

With a 20 point win over UConn, this weeks The Good, The Bad and The Ugly will certainly be skewed towards The Good.  But if the last 2 seasons have taught us anything, The Bad and The Ugly are always lurking nearby…

THE GOOD

  • DenardI feel foolish trying to find the accurate superlative to discuss Shoelace’s starting debut on Saturday, so I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.  197 yards rushing, 186 yards passing, 19/22 completions, and no turnovers.  The 19/22 completions was just one completed pass shy of setting the record for highest completion percentage in a game by a Michigan QB.  The 197 yards rushing are the new benchmark for rushing yards by a Michigan QB.  And this isn’t official, but I’m pretty sure also set records for “most people jumping on the Heisman Trophy bandwagon in a single afternoon” and “human being most likely to outrun a cheetah”.   It was a record setting, eye opening, and frankly once in a career performance.  My only concern is that he’s set the bar so high, that when undoubtedly falls short of these numbers in weeks to come, we are going to wonder what’s wrong.  There’s no doubt Shoelace caught UConn a little bit by surprise, and there will be times he struggles this season…BUT….he is the most exciting player in the Big Ten, and maybe the country.  If he can continue to be that efficient passing the ball (a big if), this offense will be unstoppable, because the only way to defend Denard is to force him to pass.  He’s that good.
  • Offensive Line – I think I was pretty emphatic in my previews and predictions that I was very high on this offensive line.  Through one game, they’ve proven me to very prophetic.  Although Keith Jackson only did the voiceover for the stadium re-dedication, he would have been very proud of the Michigan “hog mollies” in this one.  While it wasn’t perfect, I’ll take 287 yards rushing any day.  There were holes and cutback lanes for the running backs, and the downfield blocking also helped spring a couple of longer runs.  With the exception of the heart attack I almost had when David Molk didn’t get up after one play, it was a very solid debut.  The best part is that Rich Rod didn’t think the offensive line played that well, if that’s the case, I can’t wait until they have a good game!
  • Wide Receiver Blocking – Speaking of blocking, I was very impressed by how well all of the wide receivers contributed in the running game.  When you only throw the ball to wide receivers 13 times during a game, they tend to get frustrated and give up on blocking.  What I saw on Saturday was an entire team dedicated to getting a helmet on someone.  Several of the longer runs by Smith, Shaw and Robinson were directly attributable to solid blocking on the second and even third level by wide receivers.  If the guys with the ball had cut in the right direction a couple of times, we would have had several 30-40 yard gains.  Even so, the wide receivers did a great job helping turn 5 yard runs into 10 yard runs. this area was a bit of concern under RR in Year 1, but saw improvement last year.  Its great to see its on the right track again this year. 
  • Defense – By the time I’m done discussing the defense, it may sound like they belong under The Bad, but bear with me.  The most important thing to remember about defense is that their job is to keep the other team from scoring – and in this case they only gave up 10 points.  Considering we’ve only held 5 teams under 20 points in the last two years (Western Michigan, Delaware State, Miami of Ohio, Toledo and Minnesota), that’s a huge accomplishment.  Yes, you read that right, we’ve only held 1 BCS conference team under 20 points the last two years.  The defense made plays when it had to – like forcing a fumble when UConn had the ball inside our 5 yard line.  More importantly, we only gave up one big play, which was an incredible catch that was bobbled and then caught 3-4 times.   But I’m still not convinced this defense is suddenly much more than average.  To begin with, UConn missed on a lot of passes, either because of poor routes or the wind.  They also still managed to put up 343 total yards of offense.  Finally, unlike in past years, when the offense could never help the defense out by sustaining a drive, we dominated the time of possession, which kept the defense off the field.  All of that being said, the defense still gets a gold star, because you’ll win most games holding the other team to 10 points, no matter how you do it. 
  • National Press – One of the best part about Sunday and Monday was tuning into SportsCenter, College GameDay, ESPN.com, and CBSSports.com and seeing them all lead with the Michigan victory.  While we certainly got our fair of good press last season after beating Notre Dame, this felt a little bit different.  Pundits, writers, and fans all seemed excited about the future holds, and I’m happy to welcome them to the bandwagon.  I’m hoping a couple of you jump all the way on too!  This isn’t just about me enjoying my Monday morning though.  Recruits, their families, and voters all tune into these sites and shows, and the more they hear that “Michigan is back” (true or untrue), the more they believe it. 
  • Pomp and Circumstance –  For those who were lucky enough to attend, its my understanding that the pomp and circumstance on Saturday was truly a special experience.  From the video tribute with Keith Jackson’s voiceover, to the multiple fly-overs, to the ribbon cutting, to the fireworks, it sounds like the Michigan Athletic Department went all out to re-dedicated the Big House.  As a school that tends to shy away from letting big events stand out too much, I’m glad to see us embrace all of this.  And finally, the story of Brock Mealer and watching him lead the team out under the banner was truly the icing on the cake.  For those who missed the pre-game festivities, you can check out the Keith Jackson intro video here and the full 10 minute pre-game ceremony, including Brock Mealer’s inspiring walk, the flyover and the ribbon cutting here.

THE BAD

  • Coaching Decisions – Its clear by the results that Rich Rodriguez had a great gameplan on Saturday, had the team prepared, and overall made good decisions throughout the game.  Its tough to nitpick when a coach wins 30-10.  But I’m going to do so anyways.  In particular, there are 3 decisions that just left me scratching my head.
    • The first one came in the middle of the 2nd quarter, with Michigan ahead 14-0.  On 4th and 6, we attempted a 43 yard field goal with a rookie kicker with a swirling wind.    Up to that point, our offense had sliced through the UConn defense like a chainsaw through hot butter.  I don’t get the logic of kicking in this situation.  If you miss it – a likely scenario given the rookie kicker and the wind, you’re giving them the ball and the momentum back.  If its blocked, another possible scenario, you’re definitely giving momentum back to them.  On the other hand, if you go for it and make it, a definite possiblity given the short down and distance, and our ability to move the ball up to that point, you probably go in for a touchdown and effectively put you on the path to a blowout with a 21 point lead.  If I told you we had a rookie kicker kicking a 40+ yard field goal in swirling wind, there’s no way you would think we’d make it.  So I have no idea why Rich thought we would.  Even if you’re confident in your kicker,  I’d rather go for the jugular early on in the game.  Rich decided to play it safe, and although it worked out in the end as we did eventually stretch the lead to 21-0, it could have happened sooner. 
    • The second and more egregious error came with just under a minute to play in the 2nd Quarter.  UConn had a 3rd and Goal from about our 5 yard line.  They ran the ball on 3rd down, and were stopped about the 2 yard line.  Rather than huddle up and call another play, or kick the field goal, they hurried to the line and caught Michigan off-guard.  They ran the ball into the end zone very easily, as 50% of the defense wasn’t even in position.  Adding injury to insult, safety Carvin Johnson was injured on the play and is doubtful for this week.  What’s so frustating about this is that all Michigan had to do was call a timeout (of which they had 2 left) to regroup and get the defense set.  If they had called a timeout UConn either changes its mind and kicks a field goal, or goes for it, but this time against a Michigan defense actually in position.  While this didn’t end up costing us the game, it could have been a huge momentum swing.  We could have, and frankly should have, had a 21-3 or 21-6 lead at the half.  Instead, it was 21-10, not a bad start for a team only favored by a few points, but when you consider we were up 21-0, its a pretty bad way to end the half.  Again, just a simple timeout changes this outcome.  It didn’t cost us this time, but in the future we can’t get caught with our pants down like this. 
    • The final place where I think Rich Rod dropped the ball is when Denard got hurt and he had to send in a backup.  I understand that Tate Forcier has had his ups and downs, and that Devin Gardner is The Future, but I’m sure it was pretty embarrassing for Tate to think he was going in, only to realize Devin was getting the nod.  Nevermind burning Devin’s redshirt year for a couple of snaps (that was happening anyways), my problem is that although Denard knew he was starting, its obvious both Devin and Tate thought they were the #2 QB.  If Devin is the #2 guy, that’s fine, but its probably best communicated before the game.  As I’ll address below, the way Tate handled it wasn’t good, but given the circumstances, a part of me understands.
  • Too Much, Too Soon? – I know its ridiculous to say that a 20 point win is no way to start a season, but I’m concerned we’ve set the expectations too high.  From a national media standpoint, I kind of wished we’d stayed under the radar a little bit more with this win.  Remember, this is a team that many experts thought would be lucky to go 7-5.  There are still huge holes on defense, and with injuries, they are getting bigger.  And despite holding UConn to only 10 points, it wasn’t a dominant performance.  The offense gives us plenty of reason for optimism, but anyone who expects us to hold most teams to 10 poitns a game is kidding themselves.  You can mask holes on defense for a game or two, but eventually, those deficiences come out.  The good news is that we’ll find out this weekend if we’re really any good at all.  If we come up with a similar performance against ND, then its time to start talking about New Year’s Day Bowl games.   But for now, let’s remember this team hasn’t won a road game since November of 2008, and has won 3 Big Ten games in the last 2 years.  There’s a long way to go.
  • Injuries – If there was one place we could ill afford an injury, it was in the defensive secondary.  Its no surprise, given our luck, that is exactly what happened.  True frosh Carvin Johnson, our starter at safety, sprained his MCL and is questionable for this week, and will probably be pretty banged up for awhile.  Considering he was a true frosh and was our best option at that position, I’m terrified of who is going to replace him.  The likely candidate is Thomas Gordon.  The other significant injury is to wide receiver Roy Roundtree, who appears to have some internal injuries after taking a nasty hit on Saturday.  While receiver is one position where we have depth, Roundtree was our leading receiver a year ago.  He’s questionable for this week, but I’m optimistic this won’t be a long term nagging injury.

THE UGLY

  • Tate and the QB Situation – As I mentioned above, I’m actually pretty concerned about how this QB situation is going to play out.  Althougth I believe that The Future (Gardner) will be great one day, my prefernce would be to redshirt him this year, and let Tate and Robinson play the next 3 years.  It will not only give Gardner time to get used to playing, but give him 2 years of eligibility when they are done.  As has been clear by Rich Rod’s statements, and the fact that Devin played on Saturday, that’s not going to happen.    Beyond the redshirt issue, I’m extremely concerned about how both Rich and Tate handled the QB rotation situation on Saturday.  To begin, let me say that no matter what the coach does, you don’t pout or make a public scene, no matter how upset you are with your coach.  Tate’s antics reflected poorly on him and the team, and it gave the announcers, who were looking for something to talk about in the midst of a blowout, the chance to question his commitment, and start transfer rumors swirling.  Tate has to know by now that his actions are always being watched, and something like this will always get blown out of proportion.  As far as Rich Rod is concerned, he ALSO has to know that this is a possiblity.  Its clear to me that when Denard got hurt, Tate thought he was going in, and when he didn’t, he was both embarrassed and upset.  There are several reasons Rich Rod could have had for not putting Tate in – 1) He’s still wants to send a message to Tate about his lack of hard work this summer; 2) He wanted to see how Devin responded when he threw him into the fire; or 3) He just has Devin listed higher on the depth chart than Tate right now.  Any of those reasons are acceptable, and even without those reasons, Rich Rod is the coach, he doesn’t need a reason!  But, he needs to be smart enough to communicate to his players beforehand what the expectation is.  While I’m not taking the blame off of Tate entirely, if you were the starting QB in 2009, and found out on national TV in front of a huge audience that you were suddenly the #3 QB in 2010, I can see how you would be very embarrassed and upset.  He should have handled it better, but Rich should have explained his thought process from the get go.  By not being clear of his intentions, he helped create all of this mess.  Beyond the PR problem, if Tate does indeed transfer (though it doesn’t seem like that’s what will happen), we’re working our way back to our problems in 2008 and 2009, where there isn’t enough depth at QB.  I still stand by my point that at somepoint this year Denard will get hurt, and Devin will struggle, and Tate will be the guy we look too.  For that to happen, he needs to be on the team.
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