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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – PSU

November 5, 2010

Since it’s been a busy week already,  I’m coming down with a cold, and I’m unmotivated after our 3rd straight loss, I strongly considered posting The Good, The Bad, The Ugly from basically any other week this year.  So far, it’s all the same, so I probably could have gotten away with it.  Denard is Good, the defense is BAD and/or UGLY, we get the picture.  By this point in the season, we are who we are. 

But, the show must go on, and there a few wrinkles this week.  So let’s have at it…

THE GOOD

  • Denard – I know, it’s a broken record, but he’s REALLY, REALLY good.  This week, Denard set the single season rushing record for Big Ten QB’s with a perfectly balanced game, rushing for 191 yards and passing for 190 to go with 4 TD’s.  It probably would have even been more, if it hadn’t been for 3-4 drops by the wide receivers.  While Denard has slowed down his pace a little bit, he’ still on his way to over 4,000 total yards, 33 TD’s, and almost 2,000 yards rushing for the season.  And I’ll remind you once again, he still has 2 more years of eligibility.   
  • Still 4 games to go – After a 3 game skid, concluding with a game most thought Michigan should win easily, its pretty easy to be down on the program right now.  It looks awfully similar to last year, where a 4-0 start gave way to a 1-7 finish.  But the good news is, there are still 4 games to go.  And while our defense isn’t winning any beauty pageants, the offense is still potent enough that with a little luck here or there, we could win any one of the four remaining.  The first two against Illinois and Purdue are 100% winnable and would put us at 7-3 heading into our final games, where we would basically be playing with house money.  At this point, it seems nobody expects us to win another game, but the beauty of college football is that things can change in an instant.   I know I’m eternally optimistic, but in my 30 years of watching Michigan football, we’ve only sucked for 2 of them.  I’m not conditioned to adopt a defeatist attitude. 
  • 

THE BAD

  • Defensive changes – While the defense against MSU and Iowa was by no means stellar, there was some small hints of progress, especially from young players like Cam Gordon.  I looked at the bye week as a chance to get the young guys some more reps, fix the mistakes, and get ready for PSU.  Apparently the defensive staff decided this would be the best time to play musical positions, and try new guys out at several new spots, especially in the defensive backfield.  Cam Gordon moved from deep safety, where he had been a liability, but not awful, to the spur position that Thomas Gordon was just getting the hang of.  Thomas Gordon moved to the bench, and Ray Vinopal, a true freshman, got the start the deep safety.  They also benched James Rogers – the one corner who has looked adequate at times this year – for a combination of freshman.  Much like everything this defensive staff does, it was a complete disaster.  Is there a term for the opposite of a Midas touch?  Instead of everything turning to gold, can everything turn to sewage?  I get that they wanted to try to shake things up – but you do that with guys who aren’t playing hard, not with guys who just can’t play well.  There really aren’t a whole lot of answers on defense because the talent just isn’t there, but clearly shaking things up was not the way to go. 
  • The Defensive Philosophy – Besides a talent deficit and a failure to get the right guys on the field, the defensive philosophy was also terrible on Saturday.  Against a walk-on first time starter, we decided to play a passive defensive set with limited blitzing and no QB pressure.  Basically, we gave McGloin as much time as possible to find his open receivers.  The theory was that we wanted to protect our young secondary by keeping the linebackers and safeties back in coverage, but in reality we just gave Penn State all the time they needed to eventually pass on our busted coverage.   I can recall one all out blitz, and it resulted in a sack.  I’m not advocating blitzing every play, but at least do so enough that A) the offense has to respect it and B) it actually has a chance of causing a turnover.  This passive defense may make the opposing teams take more time to score, but they still score. 
  • The Little Things (again) – As bad as the defense played on Saturday, perhaps the biggest problems were again the littlest of mistakes we made.  There were two HUGE plays that drastically shifted the momentum of the game, both in the first half.  The first was with Michigan trailing 14-10 and Penn State driving in the 2nd quarter.  On 4th and 1, PSU went for it on the Michigan side of the field.  Michigan defended the play perfectly, had several players in position to stop Evan Royster from picking up the first down, and somehow couldn’t wrap him up, despite 2-3 players getting a hand on him.  PSU converted the first down and went on for a TD to take a 21-10 lead.  Instead of a fired up defense making perhaps their first big stop of the season and leaving the field for an offense that had scored on its last two drives, the defense again couldn’t make the play, and conceded the touchdown.  Michigan could have been driving for the go ahead score, instead of trailing by 11.   The other big play was just a minute or so later, when Jeremy Gallon managed to muff the kickoff out-of-bounds, giving Michigan the ball at the 2 yard line.  Had Gallon let the kick go, its likely a touchback.  Instead, Michigan had to resort to conservative playcalling, and gave PSU a short field after the punt, which they promptly took advantage of for a touchdown.   What could have been at worst a 21-10 halftime score, and perhaps closer given our offense, was an 18 point deficit from which we never recovered.  With our offense, if we can stay within a touchdown, we can beat anybody.   Unfortunately these two little things put us in a hole we couldn’t crawl out of. 
  • 

THE UGLY

  • The Defensive Line – I’ll start this out with the caveat that taking Mike Martin away from the defense is akin to MSU losing friendly prosecutors in East Lansing.   Losing him to injury was a huge setback.  However, the defensive line got pushed around and manhandled by a previously inept offensive line.   Coming into the game, PSU was averaging just over 125 yards per game on the ground, yet we gave up 185, including 5.2 yards per carry to Evan Royster.  Our defensive line missed tackles, got pushed around, and in general was a non-factor.  Again, not having Mike Martin was crippling, but we still should have been better than we were.   
  • Tackling – The DL wasn’t the only unit that struggled to tackle.  If you’re a Michigan player who made the participation chart on Saturday on defense, chances are you missed a tackle.  The linebackers were probably the worst culprits (shocking, I know), turning 2-3 yard runs into 7-8 yard runs.  As I mentioned before, the missed tackle on 4th and 1 was devastating, but there were numerous other times when we could have stopped PSU on 3rd down, or forced them into 3rd and long, but instead allowed them to keep drives alive with sloppy tackling.   There will be instances where this defense is not talented enough to be in the right position to make a play.  And there will be instances where they aren’t in the right position because of youth and experience.  But when they get themselves to the right spot, they have to be opportunistic and bring the guy with the ball down.  Tackling is about technique and positioning – it can be taught.  Hopefully we had some good teachers and good learners this week in practice. 
  • An Ugly Loss – Whether Michigan fans want to admit it or not, losing to MSU and Iowa probably should have been expected.  MSU played a great game and was unbeaten until last week.  Iowa, despite some hiccups, throttled a #5 (yet over-ranked) MSU team last week.  They were just better teams.  But losing to Penn State was a bad loss.  Coming into the game, PSU’s signature win was over a 6-2 Temple.  There was rumors that JoePa had lost the team, they were struggling to beat average teams, and they were basically starting Nick Sheridan at QB.  The only thing they had going for them was a night game at home.  I’m proud of the way the team fought back, but it never, ever, should have gotten to that point.  Not only should this have been a win, it should have been a relatively easy one.  The fact that we lost isn’t a condemnation of Rich Rodriguez, but it sure has heck isn’t an endorsement either. 
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