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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Eastern Michigan

September 21, 2011

THE GOOD

  • Denard Robinson’s Legs – Though he was effective in the run game the first two weeks of the season, Saturday’s game was a throwback to last season in which Denard Robinson regularly torched opposing defenses with his legs. Though I’m sure the 26 times Denard carried the ball were more than Al Borges would have liked, he has to be pleased with the output.  198 yards with an average of 7.6 yards per carry is a stellar number.   That’s the 3rd highest total rushing yards in a game for his career.  The think I liked best about Robinson’s running on Saturday was that it wasn’t forced, and that most of it came on decent chunks of yards, with only a few big plays sprinkled in.  Additionally, we finally saw his strong grasp of the zone read – something he was decent at least year, but never excelled at.  On Saturday, we ran the zone read almost at will, and its one of the reasons Denard ended up with so many carries.  His “read” told him to keep the ball, and most of the time he was right.
  • Running Game – Even though Denard is the engine that makes the running game go, Michigan’s running backs rebounded nicely after failing to show up against Notre Dame.  Fitzgerald Toussaint had a solid day, picking up a TD, and 46 yards on 11 carries.  But the star of the day was 3rd down specialist Vincent Smith, who is looking to make himself the every down back.  Smith picked up 118 yards on only 9 carries, and showed both the ability to get it done between the tackles and on the outside.  Due to his size, he’s probably not durable enough to get the 25 carries a game that Borges and Hoke would like.  He’s also so valuable on 3rd down that I’m sure Borges would prefer for another every down back to emerge.  But given his performance last week, Smith has vaulted to #1 on the depth chart for at least this week.
  • Red Zone Defense – For the 2nd straight week, Michigan’s bend don’t break defense held fast in the red zone when it really counted. EMU only made it inside Michigan’s 20 twice, but in both instances Michigan tightened up the defense.  First stopping EMU on 4th and Goal from the 1, and then forcing a field goal after EMU returned a short punt for good field position.  With the offense sputtering early on, the defense’s ability to keep Eastern out of the end zone helped keep momentum on Michigan’s side.  For the season, Michigan’s defense has only allowed 4 TD’s from inside the red zone on 10 visits.  That’s a great ratio, and one that will win games if they can continue to force turnovers and field goals.
  • Jordan Kovacs Makes Plays! – Speaking of tightening the defense in the red zone – Jordan Kovacs again came up with a stellar play when it mattered most.  This time it was on the aforementioned 4th and Goal from the 1 yard line.  Kovacs blitzed around end and not only got a piece of the running back, but wrapped up both of his legs so the back couldn’t dive over the pile into the end zone.  It was a play that required great timing, speed, and tackling ability.  JKMP appears to be here to stay.
  • Return of Craig Roh – While there haven’t been many bright spots on defense in the last couple of years, one player who appeared to be progressing nicely was linebacker/defensive end Craig Roh. Roh had 77 tackles his first two years as he was ferried back and forth between DE and LB, and was going to be counted on to contribute heavily as an upperclassmen.  Through the first two games, he was virtually non-existent, as he didn’t even register 1 tackle.   Beyond missing tackles, Roh was responsible for almost no QB pressure, and I hardly ever noticed him on the field.  The Roh who had shown so much promise the last 2 years finally returned on Saturday, registering 5 tackles and his first sack of the year.  Not an All-American performance, but the workman like performance we’ll need from him going forward. Hopefully this level of play is here to stay.
  • Thomas Gordon – If we’re throwing out shoutouts to players finally showing up, Thomas Gordon is a guy who struggled in the first couple of games but really made some solid strides on Saturday.  I was starting to wonder if he belonged on the field.  But after Saturday where he recovered a fumble and made an incredible one-handed over the shoulder interception on a trick play, he’s getting a reprieve from me.  He still needs to bring it every week, but this was a solid start. 
  • Long Drives – With the final score only 31-3 in this game, one could surmise that the Michigan offense didn’t perform as well as one would expect against a middling MAC team like Eastern.  And to be fair, early on, the offense sputtered.  But one of the great things we saw on Saturday that is in stark contrast to teams the last 3 years were sustained drives that ate up huge chunks of time.  Brady Hoke’s philosophy is that if you have the ball, the other team can’t score.  That was in full effect on Saturday, with Michigan churning out three 11+ play 2nd half drives.  Each drive went for at least 75 yards, each lasted more than 5:40, and most importantly, each resulted in points.  With a combined total possession of 17:50 for those 3 drives, Michigan made it virtually impossible for Eastern to find the field on offense, let alone create any offensive rhythm.   Given our limitations on defense, it is the perfect remedy to a lack of depth on defense – keep our guys rested and on the sidelines.  Whether or not we can duplicate those sort of drives against better defenses remains to be seen.

THE BAD

  • Slow Starts – For the 3rd week in a row, Michigan came out flat early on.  In some ways after last week’s epic win against Notre Dame, it was to be expected.  But since it’s the 3rd week in a row it’s happened, its turning into a bad habit.  In fairness, the defensive philosophy may regularly create a slow start, as Greg Mattison prefers to feel out what opposing offense are going to do and then adjust accordingly.  The defense has actually done an excellent job of limiting the amount of early points scored in both the Eastern and Western games.  The offense on the other hand again got off to a slow start on Saturday – mostly due to Denard Robinson’s inability to throw the ball well (more on that later).   As good as Michigan was in the 2nd half at sustaining drives, they went 3 and out on 3 of the first 5 drives of the game.  Against Eastern, the defense kept them in the game.  Against better opponents Michigan is going to find themselves in some pretty big holes if they don’t figure out a way to get things going both offensively and defensively in the 1st half.
  • Field Position – One of the biggest fears coming into the season was how the special teams units, especially kick coverage and punting, would factor into the field position game.  So far, its been pretty poor results.  Saturday was no different, as Michigan’s average field position starting point was their own 18 yard line.   Eastern on the other hand had 5 of 10 drives start out past their own 40 yard line including 2 drives that started in Michigan territory.   Part of the problem was Michigan’s inability to put a kickoff into the endzone and cover the kickoff itself.  That problem may not go away very soon.  The other problem was that Matt Wile only averaged 35 yards per punt.  With Will Hagerup returning from suspension after the San Diego State game, the punt coverage average should improve significantly.  
  • No Garbage Time – Much like the Western Michigan game, this week’s game against Eastern was supposed to be a chance for the starters to put up a big number early, and get the backups some valuable experience.  While Michigan eventually won by 4 touchdowns, it took them awhile to truly pull away, and so the starters played the majority of the snaps.  In particular, sophomore Devin Gardner only saw a handful of snaps, which included only 1 run for Gardner, and no passes.  The hope is that there will be a couple of other opportunities for Gardner to get reps during a game, but looking at the schedule, its doubtful.  With Denard having another year of eligibility, it’s not an emergency situation – but given how many hits Robinson takes, it would be nice to have an experienced QB who can step in and play should Denard get injured.   
  • Defensive Line Pressure – We’re only 1/4 through the season, but it’s looking like the defensive line could be a real concern going forward.  Despite Craig Roh’s improved play this week, the line was still ineffective and getting any quarterback pressure.  Eastern only threw the ball 6 times, but even in those instances their QBs were rarely pressured.  From a statistical standpoint, the defensive line is tough to measure, as often times their job is to keep blockers off of the linebackers who make the tackles.  But from an empirical evaluation, they just aren’t getting the job done.  As I mentioned last week, teams like Iowa and Nebraska will have a field day with our defensive line if they don’t find a way to generate more pressure. 

THE UGLY

  • Denard’s Arm – As good as Denard’s legs were on Saturday, his arm was equally as bad.  Unlike last week where some great catches could cover up for some poor throws and reads, Denard’s passing numbers were downright ugly on Saturday.  7/18 for 95 yards and 1 interception is awful – even if he did manage to throw for 2 touchdowns.  It is clear that Denard is not comfortable yet in this new offense and is trying to find his way.  My guess is that Al Borges has encouraged him to stay in the pocket and go through his progressions.  I have no problem with that, except it appears that Denard locks onto his first read, and if isn’t there, rarely goes through the progressions.  And when he does, and still doesn’t find anyone open, he forces a pass.  As much as he has improved throwing the ball, his legs are still his best asset.  I’ve yet to see Denard take off running on a designed passing play this year.  And several times, there has been ample room to run.  Again, I’m all for turning him into a better passer – but he also needs to remember that part of his read is to see if there is an opportunity to run.  And when he does that, it’s going to open more passing lanes for him.  The other thing Denard needs to work on is finding the shorter read in the passing game.  He’s fallen in love with the long ball, and eschewed several 10 yard gains on Saturday in favor of the 25+ yard pass.  He needs to remember to take what the defense gives him.  As we move along I expect him to find his comfort zone. But it could take a while.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Bill Costello permalink
    September 22, 2011 6:59 AM

    Another insightful post Andrew

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