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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Illinois

November 11, 2010

It’s Wednesday, and I’m still emotionally drained from that game.  As Dave Brandon said to Rich Rod after the game – last week was a good week.  Between the NCAA agreeing with our self imposed sanctions, and Michigan getting the bowl eligibility monkey off of its back, it certainly was a good week.  It’s not what were used to in Ann Arbor, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what we’ve dealt with the last two years.  So I’ll take it.

THE GOOD

  • The Offense – If I can brag a little, I stated from the outset of the season that I expected this offense to be special.  But I’d be lying if I said I thought it was capable of this.  While this offense has been very good against several mediocre defenses this year, it had yet to really excel against a top level defense.  On Saturday, Michigan laid waste to an Illinois defense that came into this game 15th in the country in total defense and 12th in the country in scoring defense.  Our 676 (601 in regulation) yards were more than double their season average.  Our 45 points was almost triple the 16.7 that Illinois was allowing coming into the game.  And that all occurred with Michigan turning the ball over 5 times.  If we had protected the football a little better, who knows how much more ridiculous the numbers would have gotten.  Oh, and one more thing – we played most of the last quarter and overtime with our “backup” QB.  There are plenty of concerns on special teams and defense, but anyone who tried to suggest this offense couldn’t work in the Big Ten hasn’t been paying attention.  We had success moving the ball against Iowa and MSU, the other good defenses we’ve faced this year, but struggled to put up points.  On Saturday, despite the 5 turnovers, we finished our drives, and we saw what this offense was capable of.  Every defensive coordinator in the Big Ten will lose sleep over this offense at some point later this season, or early next fall.
  • Tate Forcier – Some of have suggested that the reason this offense is so prolific is because of Denard Robinson.  But it seems most have forgotten that Tate Forcier had a much less experienced team averaging almost 30 points a game last year.  Despite two mind-boggling mistakes on Saturday, he again showed why he’s an integral part to whatever success we’ve had, and will have in the future.  Sure, his freakishly small hands fumbled away the ball on his first series, leading to the go-ahead score for Illinois.  But he responded by leading Michigan on a 12 play, 80 yard drive to tie the game with less than 2 minutes to go.  He then proceeded to lead us on 3 straight scoring drives, and the two-point conversion, in overtime.  The final stats weren’t gaudy – 12/19 for 114 yards and 2 TDs – but Tate led us to 4 TD’s on 7 drives.  And with the exception of an interception on a desperation drive at the end of the game, he was 4/4 on TD’s when it mattered.  I said earlier in the year at some point he’d save our hide in a game we needed, and it turned out that was Saturday.
  • Wide Receivers – While some might argue the day belonged to Tate and Denard, the real heroes were the wide receiving core – particularly Hemingway, Stonum and Roundtree.  They all had huge contributions on Saturday.  The leader was Roy Roundtree, who now sits atop the record book with the most prolific receiving game in Michigan history.  I’ll still contend that Braylon’s MSU game was more historic, but Roundtree’s 9 catches for 246 yards and 2 TD’s has to go down as 1B on the list.  Roundtree went 75 yards for a TD on the first play from scrimmage, and never looked back.    But Roundtree wasn’t the only guy making plays.  Junior Hemingway made perhaps the two biggest plays of the day, both TD’s.  The first was a routine 15 yard catch for a first down that Junior turned into a 45 yard touchdown by avoiding several Illini defenders.   Without the second, this game may be remembered very differently.  Trailing by a TD in the 2nd overtime, Forcier’s 3rd down pass to Hemingway was tipped by an Illini defender at the goal line, but Junior kept the ball in his sights, made the grab, and tied the game.  Facing a 4th and 8 with the game on the line is something I’m glad I didn’t have to live through.  Daryl Stonum had a less prolific day, with only 1 TD and four catches, but his touchdown was a clutch grab that tied the game with just under 2 minutes to go.  There is no question that Tate and Denard threw the ball well on Saturday, but the receiving corps made them look like superstars.
  • Offensive Line – When you put up 676 yards and 67 points, you can’t do it without a solid offensive line.  Illinois came into the game with one of the best defensive lines in the conference.  While they did manage to slow down our running game a little, they got very little pressure on our QBs, and only 1 sack.  Considering we attempted 39 passes, that indicates a solid job by the offensive line.  Couple that with a 257 yard rushing attack, and its fair to say our offensive line manhandled the Illinois defense.
  • Young Guys on Defense – One of my biggest complaints about this defense, beyond the sheer number of yards and points it allowed, was the lack of playmakers.  While we’re still nowhere near where we need to be, I saw several glimpses from young players on Saturday that gave me a glimmer of hope for the future.  While true freshmen Ray Vinopal and Courtney Avery were by no means perfect, both had several nice plays at critical junctures.  Avery made key open field tackle which forced Illinois to attempt a field goal on 4th and 1, which they missed.  Avery also had another solid open field tackle in overtime.  He’s still undersized, but he’s a fighter and has natural instincts.  He’ll be good, he’s just not there yet.  Vinopal also had a key stop at the end of regulation on 3rd and short where he stuffed LeShoure at the line of scrimmage and prevented him from picking up a first down and forcing a punt.  Vinopal had some ugly moments too, but he’s usually in the right place, and that’s a big improvement over anyone else we’ve had at safety the last couple of years.   The other newcomer who has been making a big contribution is Kenny Demens.  Seriously, isn’t there some crime we can charge Greg Robinson with for waiting until the 8th week of the season to start Demens?  At the very least I should be able to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Demens isn’t just better than Ezeh, he’s better than him by about 2 touchdowns.  Three things I saw Demens do on Saturday that I loved; 1) he shed a block and made a tackle 2) he attacked the line of scrimmage and met a running back head on 3) he dropped into coverage and deflected a pass instead of just making the tackle after the catch.  He still isn’t perfect, but as only a sophomore, I’m very excited about the future for young Mr. Demens.
  • Placekicking – Sure we missed a makeable field goal, but given our kicking woes this year, I’ll happily take 8/8 on extra points and a made field goal.  It’s not sexy, but it gets the job done.  It looks like Seth Broekhuizen has solidified himself as the #1 kicker, which I suppose is better than having nobody.  I’ve upgraded the kicking situation from sheer terror to severely concerning.

THE BAD

  • Turnovers – As I mentioned, our epic offensive performance could have been even better if not for 5 turnovers.  I’ll give Tate a bit of a pass on the last pick, as he was forcing it to try to make something happen.  But the other turnovers were just ridiculous.  Denard’s two picks were just bad passes that he could have thrown better had he just slowed down a little bit.  Though I’m not sure one of them wasn’t the fault of the TE for not turning towards the ball.  Jeremy Gallon’s fumble on the kickoff was ridiculous, as it happened as he was fighting for more yards.  Hey Jeremy – you weigh 175 lbs and had three guys already holding you – its okay to go down and live to fight another down.  And Tate’s fumble was the definition of an unforced error.  Dropping the ball while trying to throw it is something that happens to 4 year olds and animals without opposable thumbs.  Luckily, our defense stepped up several times and held Illinois to field goals, punts or forced a turnover themselves.  Ultimately Illinois ended up with 17 points off of the 5 turnovers, but when you consider that 4 of those drives started inside the Michigan 45, that’s actually not a terrible job by the Michigan defense.  We got away with our turnovers on Saturday – it probably won’t happen again.  And though we forced our first fumble recovery since the Indiana game, we’re still at a 12-1 disadvantage in turnovers over the last 4 games.
  • Penalties – Once again, Michigan shot themselves in the foot with inopportune penalties courtesy of Taylor Lewan.  Lewan brings a lot of good to the table, so I hate to single him out, but his bad penalties are killing us.  The first was a false start on 3rd and 1 at the Illinois 25.  Instead of a very makeable 3rd down, we faced 3rd and 6, and couldn’t convert the first down on the next two plays and turned the ball over on downs.  Trailing 21-14, this was a crucial drive that we ended up with no points on, despite our penetration deep into Illinois territory.  The second gaffe by Lewan appeared to be even bigger when he committed a holding penalty on 3rd and 8 with Michigan trailing 45-38.  On the play, in which Lewan had no reason to hold, Forcier completed a 35 yard  pass to Jeremy Gallon down to the Illinois 1.  Instead of first and goal and a chance to tie the game, we failed to convert on 3rd and 18 and were forced to punt.  Ultimately, these plays didn’t change the outcome of the game, but in both instances you could argue they cost us points, something we can ill afford to do in close games going forward.

THE UGLY

  • Kickoffs – While the placekicking may have improved, the kickoffs are still abysmal.  Michigan kicked off to Illinois 8 times.  Of those 8 times, Illinois returned the ball out past the 30 yard line 6 times, and out past the 40 yard line 4 times.  That means 4 times we would have been better off just kicking the ball out-of-bounds.  In fact, that’s exactly what we did on one occasion.  What’s interesting is that there seems to be a decent correlation between the field position and the scoring opportunity for Illinois.  On the two drives starting between the 30 and 40 yard line, Illinois ended up with field goals.  On 2 of the 4 drives that started past the 40 yard line, Illinois scored touchdowns.  And on the 2 drives that started inside their own 30, Illinois punted.  It’s not tough to see how much our kicking game hurt us on Saturday.  We already have a suspect defense – giving them only 60 yards to work with behind them makes their job that much tougher.   We need to do everything we can to protect this defense, and it starts by limiting the field position of the other team.
  • The Throwback Pass – There were plenty of ugly moments for the defense on Saturday.  That tends to happen when you give up 65 points.  There are several nominees for worst play of the day.  If it weren’t for our winner, the most comical might have been the triple option Illinois ran for a 60 yard TD.  On that play, our linebacker Jonas Mouton completely whiffed on a block, our cornerback Courtney Avery fell down trying to evade a block, and our safety Ray Vinopal, the only guy with a chance to save the touchdown 50 yards downfield, managed to get turned around and fell flat on his face while changing direction.  It’s a valiant effort for the worst play, but a distant second to the throwback play to the running back running the wheel route out of the backfield.  This play wouldn’t have been so ugly had Illinois only run it once successfully.  But to run the same exact play, with the same exact result, a touchdown, deserves special mention.   I know all 111,000 Michigan fans groaned the second time it happened in OT.  It’s embarrassing enough to give up that many points and yards, but its even worse when they get the same guy wide open for a TD after they’ve already showed you their hand!  If that play alone doesn’t force Greg Robinson to dust off his resume, I don’t know what will.
  • The Numbers – As great as the offensive numbers were, the defensive numbers were worse.  65 points is more than any team has scored on Michigan since pre-1955.  The 45 points in regulation was nearly 20 points more than Illinois season average.  The 561 yards were well above Illinois 337 season average, as was the 315 yards rushing.   Michigan also let the 111 ranked passing attack in the country throw for almost 250 yards and 3 TDs.  The numbers are absolutely staggering.  While its important to celebrate the win, had we lost I’m sure all anyone would have talked about is the defense.  And that’s fair given these numbers.

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