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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Illinois

November 15, 2011

THE GOOD

  • Anybody Who Played Defense – Saturday’s defensive game was easily the best defensive performance I’ve seen from a Michigan defense since 2006, and everyone on defense deserves a shout out for the effort.  Illinois came into the game averaging over 400 yards per game on offense, but could only muster 214 yards total, including only 37 rushing yards.  And most of those yards came once Michigan had already built a 17-0 lead – Illinois only had 37 total yards through 36 minutes of play.  We’ve been waiting all year for the defense to win a game for us all by themselves, and that’s what we got on Saturday.  While the offense sputtered after the first two drives, the defense kept the pressure on.  Even with Michigan up 17-7 heading into the 4th and momentum tilting towards the Illini I felt confident that the Illinois offense wasn’t going to be able move the ball enough to win the game.  That’s a feeling I haven’t had about a Michigan defense in a long time.  Everybody on defense deserves a game ball.  In addition to the guys named below, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknoweldge several instances of JKMP! and a handful of Jake Ryan Mancrush sightings.
  • Mike Martin – It took him awhile to get going this season, but Mike Martin finally looks like the guy we expected him to be.  He’s been an absolute monster the last 3 weeks, and yesterday may have been his best game of the season.  Martin finished with 9 tackles, including 1/2 a sack, but was the key man in clogging up the middle and forcing Illinois to run to the edge.  He along with Van Bergen seemed to have the Illinois offensive line on roller skates, continually pushing them backwards and disrupting the offense. He also seemed to be wherever Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase was.  I said on Friday he needed to be one of our best players, and he was.
  • Ryan Van Bergen – As good as Martin was, he was overshadowed by his fellow senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen.  Like Martin, Van Bergen has really come on in the last few week – but Saturday was clearly his breakout game.  Van Bergen was an absolute terror, finishing with 7 tackles, including 3 tackles for a loss. His 2.5 sacks were the most from a Michigan defender since Brandon Graham’s dominating performance against MSU in 2009.  Nathan Scheelhaase and Jason Ford are going to have nightmares of #53 in their sleep after the job he did on Saturday.  Van Bergen may not be the most athletic of guys, but he’s the epitome of a senior who has perfected his technique and has a motor that won’t stop.   He’s been a nice surprise for me this season, and if he can continue to play like this for the last 3 games, he’ll hear his name called at the NFL Draft in April.
  • JT Floyd – For the last few weeks I’ve gone on and on about how great Blake Countess is going to be.  Meanwhile, JT Floyd has become an afterthought at cornerback.  Saturday he reminded us all that he’s still a pretty good football player himself.  The redshirt junior had the task of covering Illinois’ best receiver AJ Jenkins, and he did a great job.  Jenkins still managed 100 yards, but Floyd never let him nail a big play.  Floyd finished with 4 tackles and 2 pass break-ups, but his play of the day was a 4th quarter interception with Illinois driving but only down 17-7.  Floyd jumped the route and returned the interception inside the Illinois 25 yard line, setting up a TD that allowed Michigan to salt the game away.  Sometimes experience does matter, and it was great to see Floyd’s instincts and experience help him make that play.
  • Fitzgerald Toussaint – Two weeks ago Fitzgerald Toussaint staked his claim to the starting running back job with a 175 yard, 2 touchdown game performance against Purdue.  On Saturday, Fitz made it clear he is the back of the present and the future.  His 27 carry, 192 yard performance  was the highlight of a rather pedestrian day for the Michigan offense.  Like against Purdue, Fitz showed vision, speed, and the ability to move the pile forward.  His 65 yard run on the 2nd play of the game set the tone for the afternoon, and gave the Michigan offense the lift it needed early on. I love everything about what Fitz did on Saturday, and he reminded me of the vintage running backs Michigan has had in the past.
  • Jeremy Gallon – Although Gallon has fulfilled his main duty as a punt returner this fall by not fumbling the ball, Saturday was the first game he consistently appeared to be a threat to break a return.  Gallon picked up 62 return yards on 4 punts, but that included a 32 yard return that probably could have gone further if he had just cut right instead of cutting left once he broke into the open.  What he showed though was the speed and ability to be a homerun threat back there if given the right opportunity.  It’s a nice addition to have in our arsenal, and a the very least it helps to flip field position every now and again.  But don’t be surprised if he breaks one in the last 2 weeks of the season – he’s been very close a couple of times already and is due.
  • Officially Better Than Last Year – With our 8th win yesterday, we are officially better than last year.  Anyone who has watched this team all year knows that this team had already achieved that based on how they looked on the field, but it’s nice to get statistical verification as well.   This is actually  exactly where I thought we’d be heading into the final two weeks of the season – sitting at 8-2 with two home games remaining and a chance at 10 wins.  A split in the final 2 games would be fine as it would put us at 9-3 in a solid New Year’s Day bowl game.  Win both and though we’re unlikely to play for the Big Ten Title (more on that later), we’d be 10-2, have beaten OSU, and could very well end up in a BCS game – an incredible season considering how far we’ve come.  If we lose both, we’re still at 8-4, though it would be a huge letdown after the way things have started out.  Right now though it’s nice to celebrate that we’ve achieved more than we did last year, and still have the chance to fight for more.

THE BAD

  • Quarterbacks – For as much improvement as we’ve seen on the defensive side of the ball, the regression of the offense, in particular the quarterbacks, has been stunning.  Last year Denard Robinson was the most electric player in college football, racking up yards and touchdowns like he was a self created player on PlayStation.  And now there is legitimate discussion about whether or not he should be benched.  The problem is, his backup Devin Gardner, though full of promise, hasn’t shown himself to be that much better.  The combined passing statline for D&D on Saturday was a lackluster 8/15, 139 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. They also rushed 14 times for 39 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Denard was 6/10 for 92 yards and the pick, and he also lost 2 fumbles.  But he was responsible for the 2 touchdowns rushing.  At times, he looked like the Denard we remember from 2010, picking up first downs, targeted passing, and diving for the end zone.  At other times he looked the Denard from 2009 – the guy who was a walking turnover machine.  Gardner threw one very nice touchdown pass to Odoms ice the game, but otherwise looked overwhelmed and not in control of the offense.  Though he led 3 scoring drives, each started in Illinois territory, and he only accounted for 56 yards of offense.  At this point I don’t really know what to make of it.  It’s clear that Denard has lost his mojo, and for that I blame Al Borges.  Though I thought the game plan was much better suited to Denard this week, it still wasn’t perfect.  Little things like calling a QB draw where the QB waits a beat before taking off instead of just a QB Iso where Denard takes the direct snap and takes off immediately seem to make Denard uncomfortable.  All of that being said, if Denard had managed to keep his foot in bounds on a 3rd and Goal scramble midway through the 2nd quarter, Michigan would have scored touchdowns on 3 of its first 5 drives, and Denard would have had 3 touchdowns in the first 20 minutes of the game.  Instead, a bad snap led to Michigan being stopped on 4th and Goal from the 1, and on the next series Denard turned the ball over for the 2nd time.  After that he wasn’t the same.  We’ll need better QB play in the next couple of games – thankfully we’ll be at home, where Denard has played much better.
  • 2nd and 3rd Quarter Offense – Speaking of that near touchdown by Denard, it was after that play that the Michigan offense went from high performance to junker.  Michigan lost 4 yards on the next play (a 4th down), and then 17 yards and a fumble on the series after that.  The next drives consisted of 21 yards and missed field goal and then 2 yards and a punt.  Michigan did manage a 62 yard drive in the 3rd quarter that resulted in a field goal, but followed that up with a 4 play, 2 yard drive to start the 4th quarter.  Michigan put up 240 yards in the first 5 drives of the game, and then 43 yards on the next 6 drives.  I’m not sure what happened, other than the fact that the Illinois defense stepped up, and Michigan seemed to lose momentum.  As usual, we only go as far as Denard can take us on offense, even if Fitz is leading the way on the ground.  Denard got out of rhythm, and suddenly we couldn’t move the ball.  Thankfully JT Floyd picked off a pass to flip the momentum back to us, and we were able to finish the drive off from the 27 yard line.  To win games with those kind of offensive droughts means were going to have to rely on our defense even more.  I hope they are up to it.
  • The Iowa Loss – In the hindsight of how well Michigan played defensively on Saturday, and MSU heading into Iowa City and dominating the Hawkeyes, last week’s loss looks worse and worse.  Like I said last week, Iowa is 60-12 (now 13) over the last 10 years at home, so there is no shame in losing that game.  Except that it’s a clearly now a game we lost to a team we are better than.  In the long run, I don’t think it will matter that much as I think MSU will win out and win the division.  But if we finish 6-2 and MSU drops one of its last two games to Indiana or Northwestern, we’ll be kicking ourselves knowing that the loss to Iowa cost us a chance at the Big Ten title game.
  • Big Ten Hopes Are 99.9% Done – Along those same lines, with MSU’s win in Iowa yesterday, our shot at a Big Ten title is basically over.  We are currently a game back of MSU, but they hold the tiebreaker over us, so for us to win the division, we’d have to win out and MSU would have to lose their last two games.  MSU’s last two games are at home to Indiana and at Northwestern.  Indiana is awful, and an MSU loss to them would be shocking.  The Spartans could lose to Northwestern, but that won’t matter.  Since Iowa already has 3 losses and Nebraska has 2 (and hopefully 3 after next week as well), there will be no 3-way tie for the conference.  The only way MSU doesn’t win the division is if Nebraska wins out and MSU drops 1 of the last 2.  Possible, but clearly not the scenario a Michigan fan prefers.  I said this last week and I’ll say it again – if we get to 10-2, good things will happen for us, even if it’s not the Big Ten title.

THE UGLY

  • Red Zone Offense – Michigan’s Red Zone offense has gotten progressively worse ever since the Michigan State game 4 weeks.  Saturday’s effort against Illinois may have been the worst yet however.  Officially, Michigan was 3/6 in the Red Zone for a paltry 50%.  Even worse, one of those was a field goal, meaning Michigan only scored touchdowns 33% of the time.  To add further insult, Michigan again got stopped on four downs inside the opponents 5 yard line and ended up with no points. And when they got the ball back inside the 20 yard line just one play later, they went backwards on 3 straight plays, the last of which resulted in a turnover.  Not exactly setting the world on fire when given the opportunity.  A big part of the problem is of course the execution.  Of the 7 plays we ran in that sequence, only once did the offensive line do their job, and that was the pass protection that let Robinson scramble to the 1 yard line on 3rd down.  The other 6 plays the offensive line got owned.  But part of the blame also has to go to the playcalling.  After the first two drives resulted in short Denard Robinson touchdown runs, I don’t understand why when after the ball got down to the 2 yard line, we ran Toussaint twice in a row, both for losses.  I know Fitz was having a good game, but Denard has a knack for finding the end zone from that distance.  Even on the 4th down play, Denard would have made it but he was slowed by Molk’s poor snap.  I also question why Michael Shaw was in the 2nd time we got the ball back on that sequence instead of Toussaint.  Shaw’s 8 yard loss made 3rd down an awful down and distance situation.   As for the other blown red zone chance, had Robinson had one more split second to throw, he wouldn’t have overthrown Odoms in the end zone – so again the execution caught up to us.  Especially on the next play when Gibbons missed a relatively easy field goal.  Overall I think the message here is that in the red zone, especially inside the 5 yard line, don’t take the ball out of Denard’s hands.  I also think we need to work on being mentally stronger in those situations – instead of assuming that the defense is going to roll over since we’re close to scoring, we need to realize that’s when it gets tougher.  We were one of the best red zone teams in the country early in the season, and now we are one of the worst.  To beat Nebraska and Wisconsin we need to figure out the disconnect.
  • Ron Zook – I rarely take the time to criticize the opponent on here, but Ron Zook’s clock management was perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen in a game.  It’s like he thought it was still the 1st half when it was the 4th quarter.  After Michigan took a 24-7 lead with 10:52, Illinois responded with a touchdown of their own.  Unfortunately for them, that drive was an 18 play, 80 yard drive, that took over 6:40 off the clock which meant that when Illinois went for the onside kick, they still trailed by 10 with 3:12 to go.  The drive was impressive, but from Michigan’s standpoint, they were happy to bleed clock in exchange for 7 points.  Illinois NEVER went to a hurry up offense during the drive, and was content to treat the game like it was tied.  Then, after Michigan recovered the onside kick, Illinois chose not to use its timeouts, though Michigan didn’t give them much of a chance, scoring in 2 plays.  And finally, though down 31-14, I thought it was ridiculous for Illinois to punt with 1 minute to go in the game.  I know they were inside their own 20, but if they didn’t convert, Michigan would have just taken a knee, like they did after receiving the punt.  In short, down 17 points with almost 11 minutes to go, Ron Zook gave up on his team.  And even when they cut the lead to 10, he continued to give up on them.  I think Ron realized there was very little chance his team could come back, but you still don’t give up like that.  I felt bad for the Illinois players, though I didn’t see too many of them complaining, so maybe they were ready to throw in the towel too.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Kref permalink
    November 16, 2011 9:52 PM

    U hit the nail on the head with this one. GO BLUE!

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