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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – UMass

September 22, 2010

THE GOOD

  • Denard – In the first two drives Denard was sacked for the first time all season, bobbled a snap that lead to a penalty, and threw his first interception of the year.  He then proceeded to pass for 241 yards and run for another 104 yards on his way to 345 total yards, and three touchdowns.  While UMass loaded up on the run to keep Denard from running wild, he still managed to break the century mark for the 3rd straight game.  More impressive was his arm, as he showcased his ability to throw a great looking deep ball, hooking with with Kelvin Grady and Daryl Stonum on 40+ yard passes.  When 345 yards and 3 TDs are viewed as par for the course, you know you’ve reached another level.  But what was most important to me is that Denard showed the ability to connect on the long ball, which should terrify defenses.  If they can’t load the box and blitz to stop him because of his ability to throw over the top, he almost becomes unstoppable.  It wasn’t a performance on par with what he did against Notre Dame, but I wouldn’t call it a regression either.
  • Michael Shaw – One of the biggest reasons we saw D-Rob’s numbers decrease this week is the emergence of Shaw as a viable tailback.  Shaw churned out 126 yards on the ground, including a 34 yard TD run, and a 50 yard scamper that set up another touchdown.  I’m still not sold on Shaw as an everydown back, but his presence as a big play threat in any capacity is necessary to keep defenses from just trying to defend D-Rob.  The way the offense functioned yesterday is the ideal scenario in my opinion.  15 carries for Robinson, 240 yards passing, and 175 yards on the ground from the running backs.   Shaw played well enough on Saturdy that future opponents have to respect him as a threat.  I still would like to see another back emerge beyond Shaw and Smith, but given the production Michigan got from the running backs the first two games, this was a much needed improvement.
  • Mike Martin – I won’t go so far as to say Mike Martin was the only player on defense who showed up on Saturday, but that’s because I know that there were 10 other maize and blue jerseys out there each play.  But as far as making an impact, he might as well have been the only one.  I knew Martin was going to be a beast when this season started, but he’s even managed to exceed my expectations.  He’s easily on his way to All-Conference, and I can’t imagine there’s another nose tackle who is playing better than he is anywhere in the country.  His stat line on Saturday wasn’t spectacular, 6 tackles, 2 for a loss, including a sack – until you realize he did it as a nose tackle who was double teamed on every play.  Martin was so disruptive that UMass just gave up on running up the middle (or maybe they kept going outside because our linebackers have no idea what contain means).  Either way, Martin is far and away my favorite player on defense – even when he doesn’t make the play, he’s a disruptive force.  Next time you sit down to watch a game, take a couple of plays and focus on #68 – you won’t be disappointed.
  • A Win is a Win – I know there is a lot of hand wringing about the closeness of this game, but the bottom line is that we won.  Given that its only our 11th win since 2008, I’ll take ’em however we can get ’em.  Sure it raises concerns about the defense moving forward, but what’s important to focus on is that the offense was explosive when it had to be.  This certainly won’t go down in the annals of a Michigan Classic, but most teams lay an egg at least once a year.  In the past 2 years, its usually resulted in a loss – this time it didn’t.  We fought back from a deficit, and hung on for the win.   This is probably a game we would have lost the last two years.  A great performance it was not, but it still counts in the W column.

THE BAD

  • Sloppy Start – Coming into this game, it had all the indicators of a game where we would come out flat.  We were coming off of an emotional win against a big rival; the national media was writing a ton of feelgood stories about us, both inflating our egos, and shifting our focus away from the game; the opponent was supposed to be a “gimme” win; and it was a noon start – on a religious holiday where a chunk of the fanbase couldn’t attend.  Given the lack of interest on this game by the fans and the team, its not hard to see why we came out flat.  But it was even uglier than I  expected.  Missed tackles, turnovers, fumbled snaps, missed blocks, and penalties were rampant in the first half.  Luckily, our offense got itself together before halftime and gave us a boost.  But as Rich Rod always likes to say, “we’re not good enough to play poorly and win”.  Hopefully, this was a lesson the team learned without having to sacrifice a win.
  • Defense – There’s really no sugar coating how bad the defense was on Saturday.  You can talk about how experienced the UMass offense is, or how big their offensive line was for a FCS school, but the bottom line is that the Germans had a harder time moving through France than UMass had moving the ball on us at times.  37 points and 439 yards is embarrassing no matter who you are playing.  When its an FCS school, its an abomination.   Despite their decent showings the first two games the defensive line was only average save for Mike Martin.  The secondary was suspect, and for an opinion on the linebackers you’ll have to reference “The Ugly”.   Teams like MSU, Iowa, Wisconsin and OSU must be licking their chops after looking at our performance this week.  If the defense continues to play like it did on Saturday, Denard Robinson may have to get enough yards to get to the moon and back for us to have a chance to win 8 or 9 games.
  • No Blowout, No backups – Besides a guaranteed win (supposedly) and an extra home game, one of the biggest benefits of playing a team like UMass is the chance to get your backups some playing time.  It allows the younger players to get some game experience, and in some ways serves as a reward for their hardwork during practices helping the starters prepare.  In a proper blowout, everybody gets to play – its great for team morale, and is an effective teaching tool.  Most teams only have 1 or 2 games a year like this on the schedule, so the chance to rest the starters and get the reserves extensive playing time is at a premium.   Unfortunately, that’s not how things worked out on Saturday.  While the rotation on defense gave some new players a shot, for the most part, the reserves stayed on the sideline because the game was never really in hand.  It was a lost learning experience, and a lost chance for the backups to get their name in the paper.  We’ve got another chance to get it right this weekend against Bowling Green, and I hope we take advantage of it.
  • Time of Possession – If there is one stat to keep your eye on this year, its time of possession.  In the first two games, we possessed the ball an average of 36 1/2 minutes in each game.  Not surprisingly, we controlled the tempo, kept our defense off the field, and moved the ball effectively in medium sized chunks.  Saturday, the tables were turned completely on us, as we only had the ball for 22:22 of the 60 minutes.  Not surprisingly, the game was close.  For most teams, a time of possession deficit is a bad sign.  For a team with a suspect defense like Michigan, it can be a death knell.   A TOP deficit means two things for Michigan – one, that the defense is having trouble getting off the field, and two, that the defense, which already has depth issues, is being further worn down.  As we saw on Saturday, when that happens, the opposing team’s offense has little trouble moving the ball.  While our quick strike capability on offense will often keep us from fully dominating TOP, we still need to intersperse long drives to help keep the defense fresh.   Time of Possession will be a telling stat of how this team fares this year – in games where we control the ball, I expect us to win.  When we don’t, we will struggle.

THE UGLY

  • Special Teams – There are 5 facets to special teams – punting, punt returns, kickoffs, kick returns, and field goals.  On Saturday, we showed ineptitude in 3 areas, and were well below average in the other 2.  After the Notre Dame performance, I was hoping it was a fluke, now it starting to look like a trend.  Saturday’s “highlights” included a blocked punt, trying to field a bouncing ball on a punt that turned into a fumble, missing another short field goal and shallow kickoffs and weak kick returns.  About the only thing we did well on special teams was not touch the ball on the onside kick and let it go out of bounds.  Given the way our special teams had performed up until that point, I was virtually certain UMass was going to recover the kick and not us.  The truth is, with as bad as we were on special teams, we were lucky to win the game.  Against good opponents, the inability to kick a field goal is going to come back and haunt us.  The situation is so dire that Rich Rod actually mentioned an open tryout in his weekly press conference.  And if Jeremy Gallon is returning punts again this season, it’s an almost certainty his poor judgment is going to cost us possessions, points, and perhaps a game.  The punting still needs some work, but Will Hagerup has shown the ability to be very good, so we can chalk up his errors to a bad game.  It’s still relatively early, so we may yet get some of these other kinks worked out as well, but it better happen soon, before they cost us a game.
  • Linebackers – On Saturday our linebacking corps consisted of Obi Ezeh, Jonas Mouton, and a combination of Kevin Leach or Craig Roh.  Roh often lined up as a defensive lineman, so I’m not fully grouping him in here.  And Kevin Leach certainly gives it his best, but is probably too  limited physically from being a true force – so I’m going to let him off of the hook a little bit.  But if you play for Michigan, and your name is Obi or Jonas, Saturday was not a good day for you.  In Obi’s case, we knew this day was coming – he’d been average the first two games, but really hadn’t progressed since last season.  Jonas on the other hand was a bit of a surprise, as he looked excellent in the first two games, and seemed to have made, “the leap”.  Against UMass, he leapt again – this time in the completely opposite direction.  UMass had 217 yards rushing, and I’m guessing at least 100 were a direct result of Mouton’s poor play.  The checklist of mistakes is long and distinguished, but mostly consists of missed tackles, failure to keep contain, missed tackles, failure to lay a hit on a QB running for the end zone, and missed tackles.  Jonas missed so many tackles, he wiped out all of the good will he earned in the first two games and earned himself a new moniker – “Tackle No Evil”.  If TNE was responsible for 100 of UMass’ rushing yards, his partner Obi (aka “See No Evil”) was responsible for 75.  Unlike TNE, SNE usually wraps up and makes a tackle, on the rare occasion he finds himself in the right spot.  The premise behind Michigan’s defense is to allow the defensive line occupy the offensive line, and have the linebackers flow to the play and make the tackle.  A fine strategy, provided your middle linebacker is capable of reading where the play is going.  All too often on Saturday, SNE seemed to end up in the wrong spot time after time.  This problem ailed him last year, and I was hoping to see improvement this fall, as of Saturday, I’m still looking.   As it turns out, SNE and TNE are a great pair at linebacker – for all the wrong reasons.  I’m not completely ready to give up on both, but the defense will only improve if they improve.  We will see how things go on Saturday against Bowling Green – if they continue with their stinkbombs from Saturday, I’m of the belief its time to give someone else a shot.  My guess is that TNE will come back with a strong performance.  As far as Obi goes, I just don’t think the light is ever going to go on for him.  He seems to be a nice kid and a hard worker, but his football instincts just aren’t there.  I hope I’m wrong.
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