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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Michigan vs. San Diego State

September 26, 2011

                                       

THE GOOD

  • Fast Start – Heading into this game Michigan had been outscored 21-0 by opponents in the first quarter. I lamented last week that eventually our slow starts would catch up to us.  Apparently Michigan was listening, as we started about as picture perfect as we could have on Saturday.  A defensive three and out followed by a touchdown drive is exactly how you want to start a game.  Following that up with a turnover and downs and another touchdown didn’t hurt either.  Against upstart teams like SDSU, you have to get up on them early, or they will just hang around.  We didn’t do a great job of building that lead to become insurmountable, but I’ll take a 14-0 first quarter in any game.
  • Defensive Line – Apparently the slow starts to games weren’t the only thing that Michigan was listening to me about, as my other repeated criticism about the defensive line was answered.  The tone was set on the third play from scrimmage when Craig Roh fought of a block and stoned Ronnie Hillman in the backfield on 3rd and 1.  From there, the defensive line continued to dominate.  Mike Martin was a menace all afternoon long – and while he didn’t show up in the stat sheet for tackles, he was continually in the SDSU backfield, and drew several holding calls.  Roh continued to be solid throughout the game, and Ryan Van Bergen had his best game of the season as well – forcing a fumble, and picking up 2 tackles for losses, including our only sack.  Michigan’s defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the afternoon, allowing the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.  It was the kind of performance that was expected from this veteran group.  I’m glad they finally decided to show up this year.
  • Jake Ryan ManCrush – I alluded to it earlier the season that I expected big things from redshirt freshman Jake Ryan.  After Saturday, I’m no longer ashamed to admit that my mancrush is in full effect – hence the pictures up top.  Ryan celebrated his first collegiate start by filling up the stat sheet with 5 tackles, 2 for losses, and recovering 2 fumbles.  He always seems to be around the ball, whether it’s at the line of scrimmage or 30 yards downfield.  He is a solid tackler, gets off of blocks, and is a playmaker.  I feel slightly bad for Cam Gordon, who is out with an injury, because I don’t think Ryan has any plans of relinquishing the starting job anytime soon. But I’m thrilled at the prospect of Ryan wreaking havoc in the Big Ten the next 3 years.
  • Denard’s Legs – 200 yards rushing, 3 touchdowns.  Ho Hum.  Just another day at the office for Shoelace.  I hate the idea of running Denard 20+ times a game, but when he produces like that, how can you not?  He finished with almost 10 yards a carry, and did it both in medium-sized chunks and a couple of huge runs as well.  For the 3rd straight week, the announcers called him the most electrifying player in college football.  I’ll agree with that, and add my own caveat.  He is the most effective player in college football.  Up 14-0 and near midfield, Brady Hoke elected to go for it on 4th and 2.  And as long as he continues to call the play he did – a designed run for Denard – I’ll support that every time.  Denard’s ability to accelerate means he’s at the line of scrimmage faster than the linebackers, even those that are blitzing.  Barring a spectacular play by a lineman or linebacker knifing through the line, Denard is going to get his 2 yards everytime.
  • Running Game – For the 2nd straight week, Denard wasn’t the only guy moving the chains on the ground.  Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith accounted for 120 yards themselves.  Smith ran very well between the tackles, using his low center of gravity to keep his balance and turn good gains into great gains.  His 4th quarter touchdown run was especially impressive.  Toussaint continues to improve, and I’ve noticed that he hits the hole incredibly well.  His vision is also getting better as he is staring to make the cuts that turn 4 yard gains into 1o yard gains.  It’s clear that Smith and Toussaint are the top two backs, though Michael Shaw may still get some carries.  With his second fumble in as many carries (the last was against Notre Dame), I doubt we see too much more of Stephen Hopkins this fall.  He’s a good runner, but if he can’t keep from fumbling, he can’t play.
  • Michigan’s Next Great Corner? – As we all know, Michigan has a great tradition of cornerbacks, including Ty Law, Charles Woodson, Marlin Jackson, and Leon Hall.  Donovan Warren was supposed to be the next great thing – and may have been had he not had Tony Gibson as his position coach.  On Saturday, freshman Blake Countess showed why many think he is next in-line to be mentioned among that group.  Stepping in for an injured Troy Woolfolk, Countess was targeted often by SDSU QB Ryan Lindley.  And while Countess wasn’t perfect, he didn’t allow a big play, tackled the receiver almost immediately after the catch, and even broke up a couple of passes.  He also showed skills in run support, finishing with a total of 7 tackles.  Its way too early to anoint Blake as the next great thing – and their will be ups and downs – but it was a solid debut.
  • Four and Oh –  For the 3rd straight year, Michigan has started the season 4-0, something that hasn’t been done since the 1995-1997 seasons.  Considering how the last 2 seasons have finished, I’m trying to stay level-headed about this, but given that most thought we’d be 3-1, and some even had us at 2-2, I’m thrilled to be at 4-0.  There are only a handful of teams in the country that can say they are 4-0.  OSU isn’t.  Neither is MSU.  Notre Dame? Nope.  Only four Big 10 teams (Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin) came through the non-conference schedule unscathed, and we’re one of them.  And according to the Sagarin Index, only Penn State has played a tougher schedule than we have among Big Ten teams.  We still have 2/3 of the season to go, but it is a nice way to start. 
  • Defense??? – If you haven’t noticed, three of the above “good” items are about the defense.  And frankly, I could have found more.  At times on Saturday, the defense was actually the strength of this team while the offense sputtered.  Three turnovers gave SDSU great field position on Saturday, and the defense only gave up 7 points on short fields.  They also forced 3 turnovers of their own.  Through 4 games, the Michigan defense is ranked #13 in the country in scoring defense (would be #7 if they were counting the Western Michigan stats).  We’re still only #71 in total defense, but since they count yards instead of points, we have to be thrilled with what we’ve accomplished so far in terms of keeping opponents off of the scoreboard.  To give you a comparison, last year through 4 games we had given up 23.oo pts a game and were 64 out of 120 teams.  And by the end of the year we were ranked 108 and have given up 35+ points a game.  To only be giving up 13.75 points right now is a HUGE improvement.  Still a lot of football to be played, but we’re clearly headed in the right direction. 

THE BAD

  • One Dimensional Offense – For as good as the running game was (and 330 yards is exceptional) this offense has some serious flaws.  To begin with, the passing game continues to look anemic.  But besides that, the offense is still mostly Denard.  As I said above, its tough not to continue to go to Denard when he is picking up almost 10 yards a carry, but eventually his body is going to break down or we’re going to run into a defense that can contain him.  The most effective rushing offense is still the zone read and iso QB draws from last year.  We’re not getting a good enough push up front to run out of the I formation and I’m starting to lose hope that will happen for us at all this year.  Throw in the fact that Denard’s passing ability has gone the way of the do-do and this offense is completely one-dimensional.  Among middling teams, that won’t be a problem.  Among good teams it’s a huge problem.  At this point defenses are just going to line up 8 men in the box, spy a linebacker (or two) on Denard, and force us to throw.  The option look was a nice wrinkle that worked well for us this week.  I’m hoping Al Borges has more tricks up his sleeve that will help this offense become more than Denard Left and Denard Right.
  • Field Goal Kicking Still a ? – In what has become a familiar theme for Michigan football, Brendan Gibbons missed a makeable 40 yard field goal on Saturday.  In truth, it wasn’t that bad of a miss, as he just pushed it a little bit.  And it was a kick on the right hashmark – always a tougher kick for a lefty to make.  But it speaks to a bigger problem.  Michigan is one-third through the season and it still doesn’t know if it has a reliable kicker or not.  Gibbons has only attempted 2 kicks all year – and he only made the easy one.  His confidence, and frankly Hoke’s confidence in him, can’t be sky-high right now.  Is Brendan Gibbons a better kicker than he was last year?  Perhaps.  What I don’t like is that none of us really know right now.  Hopefully we don’t have to wait until a crucial moment to find out.
  • Turnovers – Michigan did an excellent job of not turning the ball over the first 3 weeks of the season.  They weren’t perfect, but they won the turnover battle each time.  Saturday, despite 3 forced turnovers by the defense, Michigan lost the turnover battle with 4 turnovers.  2 of those came courtesy of Denard Robinson mis-reading the defense and trying to fit passes into tight spaces.  Thankfully in both cases the defense did a great job stepping up in a sudden change situation and held San Diego State scoreless.  The other two turnovers were fumbles by Vincent Smith and Stephen Hopkins, and both were at crucial moments.  Smith’s 2nd quarter fumble came with Michigan driving towards with what looked to be a 3 touchdown lead.  The fumble stopped Michigan’s momentum, and frankly the offense sputtered much of the afternoon after that.  Michigan still managed to build that 3 touchdown lead, but they could have put this game away much earlier.  Hopkins fumble was just as bad because it set up SDSU’s only touchdown of the game.  Beyond robbing the defense of a well-earned shutout, Hopkins fumble in the 3rd quarter gave SDSU life in a game they had been beaten in all day long.  Thankfully Michigan responded with a touchdown of their own to build the lead back up to 21 points, but for a few minutes it looked like Michigan was going to be in for a dogfight down the stretch.  The bottom line is that turnovers can have a huge impact on momentum and how an entire game plays out.  Michigan won’t win too many games this year by turning the ball over 4 times.

THE UGLY

  • Denard Robinson’s Passing Numbers (and Throws) – For the 2nd straight week, Michigan failed to throw for 100 yards, and Denard Robinson had a completion percentage below 50%.  On the season, Denard is 35-72 for 624 yards with 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.  If you take out the Notre Dame game (where many of his yards were thanks to great plays by his receivers) his numbers are even worse:  24-48, 286 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.  That’s 8 completions and less than 100 yards a game. It’s not time for a full-out panic, but we’re getting there. Denard looks hurried and uncomfortable on even the easiest of throws.  I’m not sure if he can’t see over the line to see his receivers, doesn’t feel comfortable with the offense, or just has the yips, but something isn’t right.  We’ve got one more easy game in Minnesota for him to find his passing mojo.  Otherwise the 2nd half of the season could get ugly. However, if Denard does start to find a rhythm in the passing game, I may struggle to find something to put under The Ugly. 
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Dr William Costello permalink
    September 26, 2011 6:27 PM

    Could it be that Brendan and Denard are just struggling through a down phase in their games? Athletes do occasionally run hot and cold. Let’s hope that this is the case with these two key players.

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