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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Iowa

November 8, 2011

THE GOOD 

  • Blake Countess – A few weeks ago I suggested that Blake Countess may be the next in a great history of Michigan cornerbacks.  While I want to go easy on the hyperbole, I don’t recall a freshman corner making this kind of impact as a freshman in quite sometime.  Certainly not since Leon Hall or Marlin Jackson, and maybe not since Charles Woodson.  In just a few short games Countess has emerged as our best cornerback.  Saturday Countess finished with 6 tackles and 1 pass breakup in the statline, but he again showed a knack for always being around the ball.  Even more importantly, though the Iowa receivers made catches, Countess was rarely the guy being targeted.  For a freshman, that’s a huge accomplishment.  I’m very excited about his future.   
  • Mike Martin – I said last week that one of the keys to the defense continuing to play at a high level was the emergence of Mike martin as a disruptive force.  On Saturday, Martin delivered that type of performance.  The stat line credits Martin with 6 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for a loss.  Most importantly, Martin clogged up the middle, allowing the linebackers to roam freely.  Kenny Demens had his best game this year, and a big part of that was Mike Martin creating room for him up the middle.  Iowa found success running to the edge, which may explain why they stayed away from between the tackles running, but it also was the ability of Mike Martin to take that aspect away.
  • Short Yardage Defense – One of the reasons Michigan was able to crawl back into the game and have a shot to tie it up at the end was due to the exceptional ability of the defense to come up with plays on short yardage when they needed to.  Twice in the 4th quarter Iowa faced a 3rd and 1 with a chance to pickup the first down and salt away the game.  And twice Michigan came up with a stop to force a punt.  This is something Michigan has done well all year – come through when their back was against the wall and they needed a play.  They also came up big on 4th and Inches in the first half with Iowa driving and already up 7-0.  Michigan stuffed the QB sneak, got the ball back, and drove for a touchdown to get back in the game.  It’s clear Mattison and Hoke are doing something right in these positions, because the defense continues to step up.   
  • Shotgun Denard – Despite the fumble and the interception, Denard Robinson actually had a pretty decent game on Saturday.  He only finished 17/37 – but he did throw for 194 yards and two touchdowns and he added another 73 yards on the ground.  Not is best day, but not his worst.  I know that Borges and Hoke are trying to make this offense more balanced than just Denard, but looking back at the tape, we were most effective in the 4th quarter.  Not surprisingly, this is when we let Denard be Denard, left Devin Gardner on the sidelines, and operated almost entirely out of the shotgun.  After getting down 24-9, Denard, operating exclusively in the shotgun, led us on an 8 play, 58 yard drive for a touchdown.  Denard was 4/5 on the drive and all 58 yards came from him.  On the next drive Denard went 1/3 for 20 yards before we punted.  And on the final drive, Denard was responsible for 70 of our 80 yards in getting us down to the 2 yard line, and was 6/10 throwing until the final 4 plays which I’m not factoring into the stats because of some incompetence by the refs.  In total, Denard was 11/18 and accounted for 148 yards in the last 11 minutes of the game.  He found his rhythm, and despite not being able to punch in the final touchdown, clearly was more comfortable as a passer and a runner.  He’s not perfect, even in the shotgun, but it is what is most effective for him, and this offense. 

THE BAD

  • Red Zone Offense – For the 2nd straight week, Michigan struggled inside the red zone.  Last week they survived because they were a superior team playing at home.  This week, it cost them the game.  Michigan had 5 drives into the Iowa red zone, and only came away with scores on 3 of them.  And they settled for a field goal on a 3rd drive.  If you consider every trip inside the red zone a potential touchdown, Michigan only came away with 16 of a possible 35 points.  Even worse is that the 2 drives that resulted in no points penetrated inside the Iowa 10 yard line.  The drive that ended in an interception just before the half should have been no worse than a field goal.  And although tacking on a field goal to Michigan’s final score doesn’t change the outcome or the need to score a touchdown on the final drive, it does change the flow of the game, as Michigan would only have trailed by 8 heading into halftime.  Michigan was very successful early in the year scoring in the red zone.  They avoided turnovers, and did a good job of finishing drives with touchdowns.  Now they are struggling in the red zone, and have lost 2 of the last 3.  In fact, Michigan is only scoring on 57% of the trips into the red zone in its two losses, compared with almost 91% in their seven wins.  It isn’t too tough to connect the dots here.
  • Turnovers – The other place Michigan has fallen off recently is in the turnover department.  Early on in the season Michigan was dominating the turnover margin statistic, and was winning games because of it.  In losses to MSU and Iowa, Michigan has given the ball away 3 times and only forced 2 takeaways themselves.  On Saturday, Michigan’s two turnovers played a huge role in the outcome of the game.  Though the defense held Iowa to only 7 yards after Denard’s fumble, it still resulted in a field goal.  And of course Denard’s interception before the half cost us at least 3 points.  Take away both of those turnovers, and instead of trailing by 8 at the end of the game, we’re trailing by only 2 and need just a field goal to win.  The bottom line is that you can’t turn the ball over on the road in the Big Ten.  Michigan did it twice on Saturday, and it cost them the game.
  • Al Borges – While I hailed the genius of Gorgeous Al Borges early this season, he’s struggled the last few games.  As Michigan has found its groove in the I formation, Borges seems to have lost his ability to pull the right levers at the right times.  16 points on the road just isn’t going to cut it, even if turnovers, poor officiating, and poor execution probably cost us 14 points.  There were a lot of funny calls by Borges, but his biggest failure is continuing to take the ball out of Denard’s hands.  I understand that Denard can’t do it all by himself and that establishing a solid running game is essential to winning.  However, between the ill-conceived running plays and the modified platoon QB system, Borges has effectively neutered Denard, and has taken away the flow of the offense.  I know that we are building towards something better in the long run, but given that we had Big 10 title aspirations, I’d like for us to focus on an offense that can work for us now.
  • 2 QB System – As I mentioned above, its clear that Denard Robinson is much more comfortable in the shotgun formation.  He was in a rhythm in the 4th quarter because he was in his element in the shotgun.  The other reason Denard found his groove is because Devin Gardner remained on the bench.  Much like other aspects of Borges’ playcalling, I loved the 2 QB formation early in the season.  Now however, it seems stale, and relatively ineffective.  Gardner hasn’t done anything special with the ball in his hands, and Denard rarely gets the ball in this formation.  So I don’t understand why we run it.  In today’s press conference Hoke alluded to the fact that we just missed receivers and lanes on Saturday out of this formation.  That’s all well and good, but if the player’s can’t execute the package, then why use it?  Denard does best when Denard is allowed to be Denard.  In the 4th quarter on Saturday, we saw him doing that – and it didn’t involve Devin Gardner.  This is no knock on Gardner, as he’s doing what’s he’s been asked to do – but for now, he needs to stay on the sidelines.
  • Big Ten Title Hopes – Heading into Saturday, we knew that we needed a win in Iowa City to maintain pace for the Big Ten Legends division lead.  And even if we won out, we’d need an MSU loss to get into the title game.  If our loss closed the door on the Legends division title, Nebraska’s loss to Northwestern later in the day basically cemented the fact that we won’t play in Indianapolis.  And worse, it made it all the more likely that MSU will.  Michigan’s best chance for the division title was to finish at 6-2 in a 3 way tie with MSU and either Iowa and Nebraska – and win the division on tiebreakers.  Unfortunately, now that Nebraska has its 2nd loss courtesy of Northwestern, a Michigan win over Nebraska would give the Cornhuskers 3 losses and eliminate them from any tiebreak scenario.  Couple that with Michigan’s loss to Iowa, and even if we were to win out to finish 6-2 in the conference and tie with MSU and Iowa, we’d lose the division on tiebreakers since we lost to both teams.  Our only hope now is to win out, and hope that both Iowa loses once more and that MSU loses 2 of its last 3 (possible, but unlikely).  In short, our Big Ten title dreams are on life support.

THE UGLY

  • Pass Only Denard – I’ve been complaining about this since week 2 of the season, and I still can’t figure it out.  It’s not exactly “ugly”, but my response to it is.  For the life of me, I still don’t know why Denard refuses to run the ball when he drops back to pass and doesn’t find an open receiver.  On several occasions on Saturday, the offensive line did a superb job of giving Denard time, and instead of taking off running through one of several running lanes, Denard hung in the pocket and threw downfield.  The most egregious of this cases was on our first touchdown play.  Denard dropped back and had almost 8 seconds to throw the ball.  He eventually found Toussaint open for the touchdown, but he could have run easily run in from the 6 yard line instead of throwing.  There were several other instances where Denard could have used his legs after the linebackers had cleared into coverage downfield, but chose to throw. To be fair, most of the time this resulted in a completion, but as Woody Hayes once said, only 3 things can happen when you throw the all, and two of them are bad.  More importantly, defenses don’t see Denard as a threat to run the ball unless it is a designed run or if he is under pressure.  Instead, they can rush 4, sit back in coverage, and wait for him to throw downfield.  He’s making their job much easier by not running, and it’s hurting our offense.
  • The Referees – Let me start off by saying that the referees did not cause Michigan to lose this game.  Michigan’s inability to score in the redzone and win the turnover battle did.  That being said, the refs sure as heck didn’t help us out.  There were several crucial calls that went against us, and all of them were questionable at best.  The first was a pass interference call against Iowa in the 1st half when Michigan was driving, down 14-6.  The referee threw the flag, and it seemed Michigan would have the ball 1st and 10 at the Iowa 38 after the 15 yard penalty.  Inexplicably, and without explanation, the referee picked up the flag and the penalty was waived off.  Given that the ball looked catchable had receiver Roy Roundtree not been bumped by the Iowa receiver, I don’t understand the call.  Two plays later, Denard Robinson fumbled the ball and Iowa turned that into a field goal and a 17-6 lead.  The second questionable non-call came on the last drive of the first half inside the Iowa 10 yard line, again involving a pass to Roy Roundtree.  Denard Robinson attempted to hit Roundtree on a slant, and it seemed pretty obvious that the Iowa defensive back made contact with Roundtree before the ball got there and caused a deflection which Iowa intercepted.  Instead of Michigan having the ball 1st and 10 at the Iowa 5, Iowa took over and Michigan went into the half down 11.  If either call had been properly made, the tenor of the first half may have been drastically different.  Two other calls also hurt Michigan, both occurring within the last 4 plays with Michigan within 8 points and inside the Iowa 2 yard line trying to tie up the game with a touchdown and two point conversion.  In the first instance, Junior Hemingway appeared to have possession of a pass in bounds, but after discussion (involving the same referee who waved off the Roundtree interference call), it was called a non-catch.  Upon instant replay review, the call was upheld – largely because there was not enough evidence to overrule the ruling on the field.  Had the ref called it a touchdown on the field, it would have stayed as such, and Michigan would have had a chance to tie the game with a 2 point conversion.  Finally, on the last play of the game, Robinson again tried to hit Roundtree on a slant, much like on the interception in the first half.  Again Roundtree was interfered with, this time even more obviously, but no flag was thrown, robbing Michigan of another chance to try to tie up the game.  I’m not claiming a conspiracy, or that the refs cost Michigan the game, or anything of the sort.  All I’m saying is that the referees blew 3-4 crucial calls, and that’s unacceptable.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. richard permalink
    November 10, 2011 12:44 PM

    Andrew, I agree that the referees were not calling pass interference on Iowa’s cornerbacks very physical play on our receivers (several times). My wife, Chris, had to leave the room because of my ranting. I did wonder, though, if the pass that was intercepted near the end of the first half might have been tipped at the line.

  2. November 10, 2011 1:17 PM

    I actually went back and looked at the replay, because that was my thought initially too. It definitely wasn’t tipped. Maybe the ref thought it was, but he still should have thrown the flag and waited for confirmation that the ball was tipped.

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