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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Northwestern

October 10, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GOOD

  • Bowl Eligible – With the win over Northwestern, Michigan is officially bowl eligible for this year.  3 years ago, this wouldn’t have been something to mention, let alone celebrate.  But given where we’ve been, its worth noting.  We won 3 games in 2008, 5 games in 2009, and though we got to 7 wins in 2010, it was a struggle.  It took until our 9th game to get win #6, and that was a game we BARELY won against Illinois.  And had we lost that one, who knows what would have happened the following week against Purdue.  Getting to 6 wins is not the goal, but it is a step along the way of where we want to be.  And there is something special about Michigan teams that start 6-0, but more on that later.
  • 2nd Half Adjustments – Saturday was clearly a tale of two halves with Michigan falling behind 24-14 in the first half, and roaring back to outscore the Wildcats 28-0 nothing in the 2nd half, thanks to several key halftime adjustments.  The first adjustment was to defensively switch from a nickel package with only 2 linebackers to a traditional 4-3 set.  Northwestern was doing a great job attacking the edges with the bubble screen and the option, and the presence of an additional linebacker allowed Michigan to slow that attack down in the 2nd half.  So much so that Northwestern only ran 6 offensive plays in the 3rd quarter, and by the time they had made adjustments of their own, Michigan was up 35-24.  The other key adjustment was on offense, where Al Borges realized that Fitzgerald Toussaint wasn’t picking up many yards between the tackles, so he inserted the faster Michael Shaw into the lineup and began running towards the outside.  Shaw wasn’t great, but the outside runs did open up the middle of the field a little more.  Both adjustments made a world of difference in the 2nd half.
  • 2nd Half Denard – The other reason we were so successful in the 2nd half is that Denard Robinson settled down and had a nearly perfect 2nd half.  Statistically, Denard was 7 of 8 for 149 yards, his only miss was an overthrow on a deep ball.  He also ran the ball for 69 yards and two touchdowns in the 2nd half as well.  Denard was dangerous in the first half too, throwing for almost 200 yards and two touchdowns, but he missed several throws and had some costly interceptions too.  The Denard Robinson we saw in the second half – patient, on target, and decisive – is a thought that must terrify defensive coordinators.  If you load up to stop Denard in the running game, and he can still pass that well, you simply can’t beat Michigan.
  • 3rd Down – One of the reasons Michigan was able to rack up an astounding 541 yards of offense on Saturday was our incredible third down conversion rate.  We picked up a first down (or scored a touchdown) on an astounding 14/17 of third downs.  To me, converting on third down is crucial for two reasons.  First, it is obviously something you have to do to continue to possess the ball and drive the field.  But almost as important, it becomes demoralizing for a defense when they can’t get you off the field.  For a Michigan team that previously was converting a respectable 49% of third down conversions, this was a huge jump up.
  • Time of Possession – Much like the public address announcer often says when the band is on the field regarding the Hawaiian War Chant and Temptation, “you can’t have one without the other”, applies here too.  When you’re converting third downs, you’re also going to win the time of possession.  Big Time.  In Michigan’s case, they possessed the ball for almost 38 minutes compared to 22 minutes for Northwestern.  The defense gets a half credit on this, especially in the 3rd quarter when they twice got off the field in 4 plays or less.  But the offense had several very long time consuming drives that were responsible for most of this.  Michigan had 3 drives of 70 yards or more, and 4 drives that each chewed up at least 4 minutes off the clock.  If you’ve got the ball, the other team can’t score, something Northwestern was painfully aware of in the 2nd half.
  • JKMP – Though he’s been on the field and doing his job, Jordan Kovacs hasn’t been making headlines the last couple of weeks. On Saturday, he was back to doing what he does best – making plays!  Kovacs finished with 7 tackles on the day, including two HUGE ones at crucial points in the game.  The first came in the 2nd quarter with Northwestern driving already up 14-7.  On 4th and 1 from the Michigan 33, Kovacs made a great tackles in space of Northwestern running back Adonis Smith for no gain.  Michigan took over on downs and promptly drove the field to tie the score at 14.  Though they would still fall behind by 10, who knows what would have happened if Northwestern had gotten that two touchdown lead.  The other big time play came in the 4th quarter with Michigan leading by 11 but the Wildcats on the move.  On 4th and 5, a perfectly timed Kovacs blitz gave him an open lane to Northwestern QB Dan Persa.  Persa seemed to avoid the tackle, but lost his helmet in the process as Kovacs ripped it off.  Under NCAA rules, the play was immediately ruled dead and counted as a sack for Kovacs.  The video replay was inconclusive as to whether or not Kovacs grabbed Persa’s facemask on the play, but the common theme is still the same – when Jordan Kovacs is around the ball, good things happen.
  • QB Rotation – While the offense can be frustrating at times, one thing I’ve really enjoyed over the last several weeks is the use of Devin Gardner in certain packages. On Saturday, Gardner was given several situations to come in and contribute, and he performed nicely.  Anyone who is calling for Gardner to take over for Denard full-time still belongs on the funny farm, but I like the way they are using him as a passer, runner, and decoy setup for Denard.  As the players get more comfortable with the mixed sets, I expect to see even more of this.
  • The Power of 6 – There is still a lot of football to be played, and we have a lot of flaws on this team.  But there is one stat you should all be aware of, just in case.  Since the beginning of time, or at least since the beginning of Michigan football, no Michigan team that has started off 6-0 has gone on to lose more than 2 games the rest of the season.  If the last 3 years have taught us anything, nothing is certain.  BUT…it’s a nice stat to have on our side.  I want to get through Michigan State this weekend before making any grandiose predictions, but getting to 6-0 clearly bodes well, especially when many of you didn’t think we’d win 6 games all year.

THE BAD

  • 1st Half Denard – If Superman wears Denard Robinson PJs to bed, then I think its fair to say that Denard looked more like Clark Kent in the first half on Saturday.  Although he threw for almost 200 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half, he also had 3 horrible interceptions.  Overall, he was 10/18 in the half, but when 3 of those incompletions actually end up in the hands of the other team, and 2 of those throws were turnovers inside the 10 yard line, it’s a bad first half.  It was pretty easy to diagnose Denard’s 1st half problems, especially after watching the 2nd half.  When he’s patient, uses proper footwork, and doesn’t throw off of his back foot, he can be deadly.  But when he hurries, throws on the run, and doesn’t go through his progressions, he’s pretty bad.  The good news is that he sorted out the kinks in the 2nd half.  The bad news is that we’ve seen the misreads and poor throws before, and we’ll see them again.  He’s just not a polished enough passer to not make those mistakes.  Northwestern is an above average team, but not an upper tier Big Ten team, so he was able to overcome those mistakes.  He cannot make those mistakes against MSU this week.
  • Options and Bubble Screens – If Saturday’s first half gave you flashbacks to last year’s defense, you weren’t alone.  For the first 30 minutes, it looked like all the progress we had made was just “smoke and mirrors” as Kirk Herbstreit had opined early this week.  We reverted back to poor tackling poor positioning, and bad coverage.  The good news as I mentioned above, is that we now have coaches in place who can make adjustments on the fly.  A couple of minor tweaks here and there and we went from giving up 24 points to giving up zero points.  The bad news is that our secondary is a tenuous as we probably thought early in the season, and our linebackers still need some work making plays in space.  The option gave us a lot of trouble as we didn’t pay attention to our assignments. Luckily for us this week, we won’t see a lot of that from MSU, though they will run bubble screens against us.  Northwestern was able to exploit our weaknesses, and I expect others to try to do the same.
  • Running Game – Our non-Denard rushing attack has been a case of two steps forward, one step back all year.  Though we ran all over Minnesota last week, the running backs again struggled this week.  To be fair, Northwestern sold out to stop the run and was daring Denard to throw the ball.  But, it doesn’t change the fact that our offensive line was losing the battle at the line of scrimmage on a regular basis and our backs weren’t making the proper cuts even when the holes were there.  Michael Shaw looked better running to the edges in the 2nd half, but a 3.6 yards per carry for the game isn’t going to cut it.   Al Borges would like to have an every-down back by this point, but it doesn’t look like its going to happen.  One week Vincent Smith was the best back, the next Fitz Toussaint, and this week it was Michael Shaw, and he was only decent, not good.  If we need to pick up 2 yards to get a first down, it’s still going to be Denard with the ball.

THE UGLY

  • Referees – If both fanbases are complaining about the referees, it usually means they did a good job calling a balanced game.  I think that applies to Saturday night, but it doesn’t mean they called a good game.  I was shocked at how many calls the refs missed last night.  In the first half, it seemed like Northwestern was holding on every play they ran to the edge, effectively turning 3 yard gains into 7 yard gains for the Wildcats.  Additionally, they had several bogus holding and pass interference calls on Michigan.  In the 2nd half, the referees were kinder to Michigan, but not necessarily better at their job.  Both of Northwestern’s turnovers, a fumble and an interception, were close calls that were not overturnable on replay.  As for the fumble, I think they got it right.  As for the interception, well let’s just say sometimes its better to be lucky than good.  Beyond that, Michigan benefitted hugely from the aforementioned tackle by Jordan Kovacs on 4th down.  Whether or not it was a facemask was tough to tell on replay, but helmets rarely come off like that without one.  Pat Fitzgerald had every right to blow a gasket.  Overall, not a pretty day for the zebras.
  • Special Teams – 6 games in and I’m starting to feel pretty good about our defense.  And the offense, though inconsistent, is still averaging almost 39 points a game.  Sadly though, the special teams are still a big concern.  The return of Will Hagerup at punter hasn’t been the boost we had hoped for – he only punted once last night, but it was just a 38 yarder.  The field goal kicking looked much better a week ago against Minnesota, but Brendan Gibbons had a 47 yarder blocked yesterday which means we still don’t know if he can make anything longer than 40 yards.  And though the kickoffs were better yesterday, we still had one go out-of-bounds giving Northwestern the ball at their own 40.  And there were 2 more that Northwestern probably should have let go out-of-bounds.  Finally, our own kick and punt return units have been reliable, but unspectacular.  Individually, each of these units is no worse than average.  Collectively, its a concern about a unit that effectively represents 1/3 of the game.  At some point, it is going to cost us.
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