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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Notre Dame 2012

September 24, 2012

Denard watches helplessly as his 5th turnover gets away from him…..

THE GOOD

  • Defense – I’ll start this by saying that I still don’t believe the ND offense to be that good.  But any time your defense holds a team to 13 points, less than 250 yards, forces two turnovers and allows the opponent to convert just 3 of 9 3rd downs,  they had a good day.  Factor in that they were thrown back onto the field very quickly several times due to turnovers, and it was a great effort.  In almost any other situation, this defensive performance would have been good enough for not only a win, but a blowout.  If you had told me we’d hold Notre Dame under 100 yards rushing and get two interceptions I would’ve guaranteed a double digit Michigan win.  As always, mancrush Jake Ryan was everywhere – tackles for losses, broken up passes and QB pressure are now the norm for him.  I also thought Desmond Morgan, after an abysmal first 3 weeks that almost cost him his starting spot was very good and his stats bore that out too.  He tied Ryan with a team high 7 tackles.  Finally, Thomas Gordon began to look like the safety was saw last year, with an interception and several solid tackles in run support.  This level of defense can win us the Big Ten Championship, you know, if we stop throwing the ball to the other team.
  • Sudden Change – As noted above, the Michigan offense didn’t do the defense any favors by turning the ball over 6(!) times.  But the Michigan defense did an admirable job in limiting the damage of those turnovers.  Discarding the interception right before the half, of the 5 turnovers Michigan gave up, they forced ND to go three and out twice, resulting in a FG and a punt.  They also held for a 5 play drive and a punt and an interception on two others.  On the 5th instance, they let ND drive a short field for a touchdown, but came within one pass interference penalty of holding that drive to a FG as well.  Overall, ND turned 6 turnovers into only 13 points – a great job by this defense.
  • Conference Front Runner? – The good news is that even though we’re sitting at 2-2 and looking up at the rest of the Legends division, we still may be the best team in the division, if not the conference.  As it turns out, the Big Ten is really, really bad this year.  Not as bad as the Big East, but bad.  Nebraska lost to a mediocre UCLA team and doesn’t appear to have their traditional strong defense this year.  Michigan State returns a solid defense but isn’t able to move the ball across the street, let alone down the field, on offense.  Wisconsin has scraped by the likes of UTEP, Utah State and Northern Iowa, and Iowa lost to Central Michigan.  The best teams in action and on paper so far in the league have been Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern, with Ohio State looking solid but not eligible for postseason play.  What that means is that even at 2-2 and coming off a horrible loss to Notre Dame, Michigan could very well be the best team in a very down year for the Big Ten.  The goal for this season was to win the Big Ten Title – that is very much in reach.
  • Bye Week – Some people don’t like heading to a bye week on a loss.  I don’t mind it so much – especially following a game where Michigan played well but had some obvious things to work on.  Denard needs a week to get his confidence back, and if the injury to Devin Gardner isn’t serious, a week of healing will be very important.  Beyond that, Michigan gets a clear separation between the Big Ten season and the non-conference, and important distinction in year where the focus is almost entirely on the Big Ten Title.  The road game at Purdue will not be a cakewalk, so I like the extra time to prepare and work out some of the kinks.

THE BAD

  • Vincent Smith Play Call – Saturday night I thought to myself that the botched Vincent Smith halfback pass may have cost us the ball game.  Waking up on Sunday, I was even more sure of it. Today, its I find it to be understandable, but nonetheless stupid.  It was a horrible play call at the wrong time.  I don’t mind the trick play, but it wasn’t the right time to use it.  Michigan had just churned through the ND defense on a drive where Denard Robinson was 5/6 for 59 yards.  He had just rushed for 15 yards to setup 1st and Goal from the 10 yard line.  Why would that seem like the most opportune time to take the ball out of your best player’s hand?  Remember at this point, Denard hadn’t thrown an interception yet – in fact he was on fire.  For those that say that the play was there but the execution was poor – that’s exactly the point.  Why trust your 5’6 running back to make a play there when the defense can’t stop one of the best offensive players in the country?  I could even understand the play on 2nd down if nothing worked on 1st down.  But given how well Denard was playing on that drive, it was the wrong move to take the ball out of his hands at that point.  And worse, It was all downhill for Michigan and Denard after that.
  • Karma –  In 2008, Michigan had 6 turnovers in South Bend as well and lost by 18.  For the next three years Michigan won games against the Irish in the closing minutes (or seconds), despite being outplayed most of the game.  Eventually that karma has to even out, which it did on Saturday night.  This wasn’t a luck of the Irish type thing, but rather a nod from the football Gods to remind us that unless you’re paying with cash (cough cough SEC), football has a memory.  For every game that you win that you shouldn’t, you probably give it back along the way.  Saturday night, we did the giving.
  • Devin Gardner Injury – Losing this game was bad enough, but now rumors are circulating about the long term status of wide receiver Devin Gardner, who crashed into the bandstand on the sideline late in the 4th quarter and didn’t return.  He was apparently seen wearing a sling after the game.  It could be a broken wrist, a collarbone, or even a separated/dislocated shoulder.  If it’s any of those things, Gardner could be gone for several games, if not the whole season.  As Michigan’s best receiver so far – and Denard’s favorite target as well, this could be a huge hit for this offense. Also, someone should probably tell Notre Dame to quit putting the visiting band so close to the field. Eventually someone is going to get seriously hurt.
  • Early Christmas Gifts for the Irish – Not to take anything away from Notre Dame, but Michigan gave this game away.  Notre Dame only scored points off of Michigan turnovers, and Michigan kept themselves out of the end zone because of the turnovers.  Beyond that, Michigan had several non-turnover mistakes that helped gift wrap this win for the Irish, like a 5 yard offside penalty against Quinton Washington that gave ND a first down on 3rd and 3.  A Michigan stop would’ve forced a 50 yard ND field goal.  Instead, the penalty plus an additional 6 yards the Irish picked up on the next 3 plays gave ND a very manageable 39 yard field goal, which they made.  On the whole, Michigan just made too many mistakes in a variety of fashions to win this game against a good, but not necessarily great ND team.

THE UGLY

  • Evil Denard Robinson – There is no way to sugar coat it, Denard Robinson played his worst game as a Michigan QB on Saturday  night.  13/24 for 138 yards and 90 yards rushing doesn’t sound that bad, but when you factor in 5 turnovers, including a fumble inside the 10 yard line and 3 interceptions on 3 passes that NEVER should have been thrown, it was a horrible performance.  The problem Saturday night was that Evil Denard Robinson got on the road to South Bend.  You’ll find that often times Evil Denard Robinson makes the road trips while Heisman Trophy Denard Robinson stays in Ann Arbor.  Evil D-Rob gets rattled easily, doesn’t set his feet when he throws, forces passes and overall tries to do too much. He’s the guy who thinks it’s a good idea to throw into double coverage with a defender crashing in on him rather than take the sack.  He means well, but he costs us football games.  Evil D-Rob played the entire 2nd quarter Saturday night, and lost the game for us.  I’m hoping somebody kidnaps him before trips to Columbus, Lincoln, and even West Lafayette.
  • Denard Robinson Part 2 – At this point, its pretty clear what Denard Robinson is – a streaky passer/player who can lead you to great highs but some incredibly frustrating lows.  Though his actual ability as a passer has gotten better, he’s probably not going to get much better with decision making.  He will continue to make 1-2 maddening throws per game.  Saturday night he made closer to 4 or 5.   To be entirely fair, I don’t think Al Borges and Brady Hoke have done him any favors with their playcalling or their molding of him into a QB.  It’s clear that he’s been coached to stay in the pocket and try to make plays with his arm rather than his feet.  For a guy who is barely 6 ft tall and has a tendency to force throws, this is a disaster. Denard is at his best out of the pocket in an offense that encourages him to run.  And moreover, its clear he doesn’t handle pressure well.  Occasionally he makes an amazing play.  Usually, he falls into his worst habits – throwing across his body or off his back foot, hoping a receiver can make the play.  A couple of Saturday nights interceptions could’ve been avoided if Denard had either taken off running or been willing to take the sack and not force a pass.  I get it – he’s a prideful player who is trying to do everything to help his team win.  But he must, must, must learn that his superhero playing style hurts us more than it helps.
  • Red Zone, Red Zone, Red Zone – What’s astonishing that is that as bad as Denard was, if Michigan could’ve just executed slightly better in the Red Zone, they probably would have escaped South Bend with a win.  On Michigan’s five trips to the Red Zone they came away with just 6(!) points, including a missed field goal, a fumble, an interception, and two field goals.   What’s worse is that on their first two drives they had 1st and Goal from the 10 and came away with nothing each time.  Even a 40% conversion rate into touchdown on the 5 drives (which is 24% lower than the 2011 Michigan average) would’ve netted Michigan 14 points and a victory.  Of all the turnovers Denard had in the game, only 1 came in the Red Zone – this was a team wide failure.
  • Al Borges and Denard –  I think that Al Borges is a very good offensive coordinator.  And I think that Denard Robinson is a once in a generation player.  The problem is that they probably aren’t the right fit for each.  Through 17 games with Denard as his QB, what Borges still doesn’t realize is that Denard is more like a basketball player than a football player.  He’s at his best when he finds a rhythm and when he’s hot you KEEP going to him.  The key is to get him a rhythm though –  short passes, designed runs for Denard (even if they only pick up 4-5 yards), and every once in a while you let him throw downfield to keep the defense honest.  For one drive on Saturday Borges nailed it – Denard was 5/6 for 59 yards and had just picked up another 15 yards on a run to the 10.  Then we decided it made more sense to let Vincent Smith throw the ball.  I still have hope that Al and Denard (sounds like a great sitcom) can get on the same page, because they’ve done so in sports (see Nebraska and OSU last year).  The good news is that they don’t have to be a juggernaut in order for us to win the Big Ten.  But it would make things easier.
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