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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Alabama

September 4, 2012

 

 

With Michigan trailing 31-7 at the half of this game, I tried to imagine what Brady Hoke’s halftime remarks to the team were.  I have to imagine they went something like this.  (WARNING -STRONG LANGUAGE)

Sadly, the Michigan Wolverines did not have the type of second half the Texas State Armadillos did and finished with a 41-14 loss.  While the outcome may not have been surprising, the margin was.  Here’s my take…

THE GOOD

Umm…..

  • Special Teams – When the first thing that comes to mind about the positives from a game are the special teams, it’s probably not a good sign for how things went on Saturday.  Sadly, that is the case here too.  But the Michigan special teams were far and away the highlight of Saturday’s game.  Punter Will Hagerup seems to have regained his freshman year mojo, averaging over 50 yards on his 6 punts, including one 62 yard bomb.  Hagerup flipped field position for the Wolverines a couple of times and seemed to regain his old form.  Hopefully we see less of him in the coming weeks.   The other true bright spot was freshman Dennis Northfleet who drew comparisons all summer to former return specialist Steve Breaston.  Northfleet didn’t disappoint, with 8 kick returns for 177 yards (an average of over 22 yards per return).  If it wasn’t for a blocking in the back penalty on one of his best returns, those numbers would have been even higher.  Northfleet is the type of electrifying return man that can change a game in an instant, and I was glad to see he was up to the challenge of the big stage.  Finally on special teams, kicker Matt Wile took advantage of the new kickoff rules and kicked all three of his kickoffs out of the endzone.
  • Denard The Passer – I know, I know – 11/26 for 200 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT including a pick six doesn’t usually qualify you for the good, but hear me out.   Denard still has a long way to go before he’s ready win any NCAA passing awards, but from my vantage point from inside Cowboys Stadium, he made some significant strides as a passer.  Though he didn’t always connect, Denard did two things he has to do in order to be a successful passer – go through his progressions and reads to find the open receiver and throw the ball where only his receiver can catch it.   The interception Alabama returned for the touchdown was a horrible read, but other than that Denard did a good job of finding the open receiver and making a throw that only his receiver could catch.  Several times the receiver cut off his route or ran the wrong one, and other times Alabama’s defensive backs just made good plays.  Overall it wasn’t a stellar performance, but it gave me some reason for optimism that Denard has improved from last year.
  • Wide Receivers named Gallon and Gardner – The truth is, Devin Gardner still has a long way to go as a wide receiver, but he showed some serious potential that will hopefully grow throughout the season.  Gardner has speed and height, he just needs to learn a little more technique in his route running in order to get the separation he needs.  He will be a weapon for us going forward though.  Jeremy Gallon continues to play above his head, making plays and getting open.  Both had some drops and some miscues, but that may have been Alabama’s doing as well.  If Roy Roundtree can find his groove and get back to 100% after his knee injury, I think we’ll have enough at wide receiver to make it work this season.  
  • This Was the Expected Outcome – Yes Michigan lost by more than we expected, and we didn’t cover the spread, but almost everyone expected us to lose, and to lose badly.  I’m one of the most optimistic people out there when it comes to Michigan football, and even I predicted a double digit loss.  The good news is that we’re exactly where most of us expected us to be, 0-1.  And while we might take some extra ribbing from the Spartans, Buckeyes and Domers this week, nothing else has really changed.  And more importantly, our guys saw how far they have to go to become an elite program like Alabama.  That will help them later on this year, and in the coming years.  We weren’t winning the national title this year no matter what, so now we can get back to focusing on Brady Hoke’s stated goal for Team 133, a Big Ten Title.

THE BAD

  • Return of the Shamwow Linebacker – Last week I wrote that I was thankful to have Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and that we’d come a long way since the days of Obi Ezeh.  I may have jumped the gun on that one.  Demens was so bad that he was actually pulled by halftime, with Desmond Morgan moving to the middle linebacker spot and freshman James Ross replacing Morgan.  Overall the linebackers were pretty bad, but unless he was hurt Demens must’ve been the worst.  It’s rare for a senior to get pulled halfway through the first game of the season.  Demens struggled mightily to shed blocks (hence the return of the Shamwow) and by the middle of the second quarter looked scared to tackle the Alabama backs.  This linebacking corps was supposed to be a strength, but through game 1 they are a major concern.
  •  The Rush Defense – Michigan stopped Alabama running back Eric Lacy for a gain of 2 yards on the first play of the game.  And it went downhill after that.  Alabama put up 242 yards on the ground on 42 carries, and average of 5.5 yards per carry.   T.J. Yeldon and Jalston Fowler each averaged over 8 yards per carry on their way to a combined 178 yards on the ground.  Michigan looked overmatched, especially on the defensive line.  Will Campbell, my biggest concern heading into the game actually held his own and played pretty well against the NFL caliber Alabama offensive line.  With Campbell holding his own, Alabama ran directly at and over Craig Roh, who was helpless to stop it.  I don’t have the exact number, but I’d bet that 175 of Alabama’s rushing yards came directly over Roh.  He’s just not big enough to line up against an offensive line that massive.  And what’s worse, when the backs got past the defensive line, the linebackers and secondary weren’t much better, using arm tackles and poor angles of pursuit.  The good news is that Alabama is as good as we’ll face on the ground this year.  It was ugly for sure, but it’s tough to tell if we have a problem, or if we just ran into a buzzsaw. 
  • Playcalling – After Dave Brandon, who has been second guessed nonstop by message board posters for scheduling this game, Gorgeous Al Borges has been Saturday’s main scapegoat.  Most fans, and I think rightfully so, want to know why Denard Robinson, the most dangerous runner in college football, only had 2 carries in the first half of the game.  There are two arguments for why you don’t run Denard if you ask me.  1) You don’t want to get him hurt.  This is a ridiculous idea though – either he’s good enough to be used as a weapon or he’s too frail and shouldn’t be in there.  2) Alabama was stacking the box and spying him with a linebacker or safety, so it wouldn’t have been worth it.  In this case, that’s exactly what Alabama did.  But my problem is that Borges never forced Alabama to make the plays and stop him.  They showed their plan, but we never forced them to act upon it.  If we ran Denard 5 or 6 times with no luck, then we can go to something else.  But I don’t understand why you don’t force Alabama to stop your biggest weapon – Denard’s legs.  Beyond that, I thought the playcalling was relatively bland.  I know that once we got down 31-0 the objectives of the game changed, but I still would’ve liked to see more creativity and more use of Denard.
  • Officiating – Before I start this I want to be incredibly clear – MICHIGAN DID NOT LOSE BECAUSE OF THE REFEREES.  But I think you can make an argument this game would’ve been much closer had the refs not missed some critical calls.  The first questionable call came on Michigan’s first offensive series of the game when Taylor Lewan was called for a facemask despite barely brushing the facemask of an Alabama player.  That turned a 3 and 11 at the Michigan 33 to 3rd and 26 at their 18.  Even if Michigan wouldn’t have converted the first down the penalty helped Alabama start with excellent field position (their own 39) instead of potentially inside their own 20 after Hagerup’s 60+ yard punt.  Bama would go on to score on the ensuing drive.  The second questionable call was with Michigan already down 14-0.   On 1st and 10 at the Michigan 35, Taylor Lewan was called for holding – and even Kirk Herbstreit suggested the more obvious call was a facemask on an Alabama player who grabbed Thomas Rawls’ facemask.  Instead of 1st and 10 near midfield, Michigan faced 2nd and 20 at their own 25.  Two plays later, the worst call of the game occurred, as Roy Roundtree was shoved out of bounds on his route by the Alabama cornerback while the ball was clearly in the air – which should mean an obvious pass interference call.  Instead the referee ignored the penalty, and Dee Milner intercepted the pass and returned it to the Michigan 17 yard line.  3 plays later Alabama was up 21-0.  Had either of those calls been properly made, Michigan may have been in a position to drive deep into Alabama territory and cut down on that 14-0 lead.   There were a couple of other fishy calls as well – including an Alabama pass interference penalty that was waived off with Michigan driving down 34-14 early in the 4th.  None of these calls would have made a difference in anything but the final score – probably.  But especially with the early scores, you never know.  In any case, it felt like the officiating was certainly slanted, at least early on in the game.

THE UGLY

  • Rush Offense – For anyone who expected the suspension of Fitzgerald Toussaint to not mean anything, you were kidding yourselves.  Injured or not, Thomas Rawls just wasn’t ready for this level of play.  And Vincent Smith is a great change of pace weapon, but is not an everydown back.  To be fair, the offensive line did not do a great job of opening up holes, so who knows what Toussaint might have been able to do with that  – but I’m guessing it would’ve been better than 2.4 yards per carry.  And if you take out Vincent Smith’s 22 yard run – the best run of the day for Michigan and the only rush of more than 10 yards, it’s a shocking 1.7 yards per carry.   With Borges’ refusal to run Denard and without Toussaint, its hard to really get a grasp on what this rushing attack is capable of.  Considering the depth of starters returning on the offensive line and the talent in the backfield, I think this is more about Alabama’s defense than Michigan’s offense.  But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful to watch.  
  • Adding Injury to Insult – Prior to this game if you were evaluating possible outcomes I think we can all agree that the best case scenario was a win, followed by a close loss, then a blowout loss, and then a blowout loss that would have an impact on the rest of the season.  Sadly, Michigan whiffed on all four scenarios with the season ending injury to Blake Countess.  Countess tore his ACL on the 4th play of the game, and it was apparent for the rest of the game how much he was missed.  Michigan not only lost its best coverage corner, but its best field corner as well – the guy relied upon to make tackles in the running game.  Courtney Avery already showed he is probably not the right replacement, though he will get the start this week.  I’m hoping that Raymon Taylor will get a look – he’s talented, but inexperienced.    Beyond Countess, Taylor Lewan got banged up, and though it wasn’t discussed, I’m pretty sure Denard was playing hurt to after making a touchdown saving tackle on his interception in the first quarter.  If you asked me the 3 players we could least afford to get injured in this game, it would be Robinson, Lewan and Countess – hopefully Robinson and Lewan will be back near 100% by the time we head to South Bend in a few weeks. 
  • Murphy’s Law – It seemed like that save for the first series of the game, whatever could go wrong for Michigan would go wrong during the first 25 minutes of the game.  In addition to losing Countess for the game and then the season, Michigan was the victim of a couple of questionable penalty calls or lack thereof that I documented above, a slip by Courtney Avery that led to a 51 yard touchdown pass, and even an ill-timed jailbreak blitz into an Alabama screen on 3rd and 18 that allowed them to pickup the first down and extend a drive that resulted in a field goal.  The reason Michigan lost was because Alabama is deeper and more talented.  The reason they lost by 27 points has a lot to do with our own miscues and some bad luck in certain spots.  

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ron permalink
    September 5, 2012 9:25 AM

    I think you are being overly generous to Denard on assessing his passing performance. I saw a QB that still wasn’t technically sound in his passing mechanics–no follow through and a lot of throwing off his back foot However, I agree, the biggest problem was the play-calling. How does an offensive coordinator come up with a strategy like let’s not run our running QB and instead let’s use his weakness skill (passing)?? It’s beyond me how that strategy evolved.

  2. September 5, 2012 9:50 AM

    Perhaps – but remember that we’re grading on a curve. Denard is never going to have the arm strength of Henne or the accuracy of Tom Brady. He did a much better job of going through the progressions and finding the open man. And didn’t see the “happy” feet in the pocket. He was poised and for the most part threw good balls. As for the playcalling, I think Denard passes better when he finds a rhythm running, which he never got the chance to do on Saturday.

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