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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Indiana

October 6, 2010

It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped, but they all count as W’s.  Plenty of highlights, and several lowlights this week…

THE GOOD

  • Denard, Denard, Denard – Telling you that Denard Robinson is good is like telling someone that water is wet.  At this point, everyone has run out of superlatives as he’s made the ridiculous seem routine.  Saturday was just another day at the office for Denard, as he went 72 yards for a touchdown on his first carry of the day, on his way to 217 yards rushing, 277 yards passing, and 5 total touchdowns.  It’s the second time D-Rob has put himself in the prestigious 200/200 club, something only accomplished by one other player – Vince Young.  Denard is the first person to have 2 regular season games in the 200/200 club, and oh by the way, its only his 5th start.  Since we all know how great he is, here are two other fun stats to look at:

Denard Passing:
67 of 96 (69.8%) for 1008 yards and 7 tds – 180.0 Efficiency

Greg McElroy (Alabama QB) Passing:
72 of 103 (69.9%) for 983 and 7 tds – 166.7 Efficiency

Denard Rushing
98 carries, 905 yards, 9.2 ypc, 8 tds

Trent Richardson AND Mark Ingram (Alabama running backs) Rushing:
102 carries, 774 yards, 7.6 ypc, 10 tds.

Denard has matched the output of the quarterback of the number 1 team in the country. Denard has exceeded the output of the running back tandem on the number 1 team in the country, which includes the reigning Heisman Trophy Winner.

And….

Denard is on pace to have the following stats at the end of the season:

255 carries, 2,353 yards, 21 TD’s
174/250, 2,621 yards, 18 TD’s, 3 INT’s

Let’s say he ends up with an extra 26 yards rushing or passing – that’s 5,000 + yards, and 39 TD’s.  We’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.

  • 5-0 – Believe it or not, this is only the 4th time since 1987 that Michigan has started the season 5-0 (the other years were 2006, 1999, and 1995).   While its clear we still have issues on defense, and we’re all aware that the wheels can still come off as they did last year, the team should be recognized for this solid start.  Many people were predicting a 3-2 to start, or even worse, and many would have been thrilled with 4-1.   So we as fans should be elated with 5-0.  While the competition hasn’t been stellar, we’ve still beaten 3 BCS teams, including two on the road.  Considering we were 8-16 the last two years, this is a gigantic step in the right direction.  If we win every other game from here on out, we’d finish 9-3 and play on New Year’s Day.  It hasn’t been pretty at times, but no matter how bad the defense is (and we’ll get to that later), the only stats that matter are the ones in the wins and loss column.  And right now, we’ve got 5 of the former and none of the latter – and nothing tops perfection.
  • 2nd Half Defense – By all accounts, this was a bad defensive performance.  Anytime the opposing QB racks up 480 passing yards, and the defense gives up 568 yards in total, there’s not much to write home about.  But we did appear to get better as the game went on.  In the 2nd half, we forced Indiana to punt or stopped them on downs on 4 of 6 drives, including 3 straight possessions while holding on to a 35-28 lead.   Although the defense eventually wore down on Indiana’s final drive, they made stops when they absolutely had to for 3 straight drives.  If our offense had continued what they were doing in the first 3 quarters in the 4th quarter, we would have salted this game away long before the final drive.
  • Junior Hemingway – It seems like every week there is a different wide receiver stepping up to be the hero.  Roy Roundtree and Daryl Stonum had both already been the featured receiver at some point this season, but on Saturday it was Junior Hemingway’s turn.  Junior finished with only 3 catches, but he chalked up 129 yards, including a 70 yard touchdown.  He also did his best Braylon Edwards/Mario Manningham impersonation on the final drive, snagging a 42 yard jump ball that set up Michigan’s winning touchdown.  Hemingway has been hampered by injuries the last couple of years, but when healthy, he’s a dangerous receiver with both speed and size.  Having him back among our arsenal of weapons makes our wide receivers nearly impossible to stop.

THE BAD

  • Defensive Scheme – I’m not a football expert.  I’ve never coached a football team, and my playing experience includes 3 years of high school football in which the most complicated defensive scheme we ran was a 6-2 with occasional LB blitz’s.   But even I can see that this defensive scheme isn’t working.   The basic premise of our version of the 3-3-5 defense is to force the offense to be perfect.  We’re relatively effective against the run, and our goal is to force the QB to be deadly accurate on the short and intermediate passing game.  A patient and accurate QB can carve us up, but the belief is that most QB’s won’t be patient or accurate enough to do that.  Eventually, college QB’s make mistakes.  While I’m not opposed to this theory, once its clear the opposing QB is meeting the challenge you’ve put before him, its time to try something different.   I know that this passive defense is supposed to limit the big play, but wouldn’t it make sense to occasionally switch it up by playing some press coverage, or rushing 4 or 5 guys, especially on 3rd and long?   This defense lacks talent in the secondary, which we can’t do anything about.   It also lacks experience, which we can’t create without time.  But we can change the predictability of the defense by not always playing zone, and not always blitzing with Jonas Mouton.  I know the coaches want to keep it simple, but when it’s painfully obvious to the most casual observer what the defense is running, it’s a good bet the opposing coaches, who get paid to notice these things, will probably pick up on it too!  I’m usually willing to say “the coaches know better”, but after our inability to change up our scheme even a little bit from week to week, I’m finding it harder to convince myself the coaches are right.  I’ve moved on to the theory that they are saving our complex schemes for the big games, like MSU.  We’ll find out this week.
  • Red Zone Defense – One of the beliefs of the “bend don’t break” defense that we apparently employ is that when the offense gets close to our red zone, the defense tightens up and forces field goals or turnovers.  Unfortunately that is one part of the “bend don’t break” approach that we cannot seem to grasp.  Of the 19 times opponents have worked their way into the red zone, they’ve managed to score on 16 of those occasions, good enough for a conversion rate of 84%.  Out of 120 teams, our red zone defense is ranked #73.  Hardly an accomplishment.  But it gets even worse when you look at how often we manage to hold teams to field goals.  Of the 16 scores opponents have managed inside the red zone, 13 have been touchdowns, a 68% conversion rate.   Out of 120 teams, were ranked #98.  A great homage to Tom Harmon, but a terrible conversion rate.  On Saturday, Indiana converted 4 of 5 red zone trips into scores, all of them touchdowns.  If we manage to hold Indiana to a field goal on just one of those other 4 trips, we’re sitting on an 11 point lead as they drove late in the game, not a 7 point lead.  This is an area we have to be better on.  Because our offense is so prolific, most teams will be forced to score as much as possible to keep up.  We clearly have had little trouble finding the end zone  on a regular basis,  so anytime we can hold the other team to a field goal is a victory.  This year’s defense will never be a shut-down defense, they probably won’t even be  an average defense.  But if we can figure out a way to be above average in the red zone, our offense will provide the cushion necessary to win.

THE UGLY

  • 3 and Outs – We all know the defense is struggling, and I’ve outlined a couple of places above where things are particularly bad.  But one of the biggest culprits is our continued inability to force 3 and outs for the opposing offense.  On Saturday, we only kept Indiana without a first down once, and that was on the 2nd series of the game.   After that, every drive chewed up clock and allowed Indiana to move the ball.  While our quick strike offense contributed largely to the disparity in time of possession, our defense’s inability to get off of the field also played a large role.  It’s no secret that with our offense, the more opportunities we have to score, the better the end result is going to be.  The good news is that defensively we forced 19 3rd downs.  But we only held on 3rd down on 8 of those chances.  Even worse, 4 of those times, Indiana went for it on 4th down, and converted twice.  So of the 19 chances we had to stop Indiana and force them to punt or turn the ball over on downs, we only stopped them 6 times.  That’s a terrible percentage, and one we can’t afford going forward.  Getting off the field is something the defense struggled with mightily in 2008, but was better at in 2009.  This year we’ve regressed, and other than a depleted secondary, there’s no real explanation.  Every team looks at 3rd down conversions as a way to measure the success of the defense.  If the defense wins on 3rd down, the other team has to punt – so its an important stat.  For Michigan, we’ve got to be better on the 3rd down.  A hold percentage of less than 33% just wont cut it in Big Ten play.
  • Pass Defense – Our pass defense is awful.  This does not fall entirely on the players, as the scheme is largely responsible.  But currently our pass defense is ranked 120th in the country.  Unfortunately, there is only 120 teams.  That’s right, the pass defense is dead last.  Sure some of those numbers are skewed because of Indiana’s huge day, but we’re bad no matter how you slice it.  We’re #90 in yards per completion allowed, #77 in completion percentage, #80 in opponents QB rating and #120 in yards per game and total yards allowed.  Our rushing defense is ranked #38, but our passing defense is so bad, that our overall defense is #102 out of #120 teams. Even prior to the Indiana game, our pass defense was giving up 264 yards a game, which would have had us ranked #106 out of #120.  It’s tough to single out particular players here, because nobody has been good, and everyone has been suspect at one time or another.  The truth is, J.T. Floyd and James Rogers should never have been in the mix at cornerback this year.  And Cam Gordon shouldn’t have been starting at safety.  Throwing them into roles they aren’t prepared for has forced us to play a very conservative defense that so far hasn’t shown any ability to shut down a passing attack.  As they get more comfortable in their roles, it may improve.  But I wouldn’t count on it.
  • Missing Bodies on Defense – It’s tough to play the “what could have been” game, because in sports, especially college sports, nothing is certain.  But instead of having a secondary filled with unproven underclassmen and converted receivers, the current Michigan roster should include the following:  5 star cornerback and 3 year starter Donovan Warren (currently an undrafted NFL rookie still hoping to catch on with a team), 4 star cornerback and returning starter Boubocar Cissoko (currently in jail awaiting robbery and drug charges), 4 star safety/cornerback and 2 year starter Troy Woolfolk (out for the year with a broken ankle), 4 star cornerback recruit Demar Dorsey (never qualified academically), would be sophomore cornerback recruit Adrian Witty (never qualified academically), and 4 star cornerback and would be sophomore JT Turner (transferred to West Virginia).  That’s a lot of bad luck at the cornerback position.  Throw in Vlad Emilien, who tore his ACL and never fully recovered before transferring, and there are 7 players we are missing from our defensive backfield.  Instead of a secondary depth chart with converted wide receivers James Rogers and Cam Gordon starting at corner and safety, we should have 3-4 highly touted and experienced corners playing for us.   I still don’t believe the scheme does us any favors, but it is designed to protect a frighteningly weak secondary, and keep teams from throwing 80 yard touchdowns.  Given what we’re dealing with talent wise, I’m not sure there is a better alternative.
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