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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Purdue

October 10, 2012

The Good

  • Return of Denard – There’s a phrase a lot of people can’t stand hearing “it is what it is”.  I’m not necessarily one of them, but I understand the aversion to it.  Thankfully, Al Borges finally adopted an “it is what it is”, or more importantly, “he is what he is” approach with Denard Robinson.  Denard will never be a pass first QB.  There are times when he is successful at it, but his strength is on the ground.  Borges and Denard took advantage of that strength on Saturday to the tune of 235 yards on the ground for Denard.  And before we just gloss over how impressive that is, 235 yards is the 7th most in a game ever for a Michigan player, at any position.  Sometimes we’ve come to expect the ridiculous from Denard so often that we forget to acknowledge how impressive some of the things he is doing are.  On Saturday he was the ideal Denard – a menace on the ground with enough arm mixed in to keep the defense honest.  Plus, no interceptions.  Sure, would I prefer he run for 125 yards on 15 carries and get the extra 100 yards out of a running back to save the wear and tear on his body?  Absolutely.  But I’ll take what I can get.  And a 340 yard game with a touchdown and a completion percentage above 50% (and should’ve been higher without two drops) is exactly what we need to win the Big Ten.  It’s also important to get Denard back on track after that disastrous Notre Dame game.  And whether or not we believe Purdue to be a good team, this is probably Denard’s best road performance of his career – which hopefully will be a building block for trips to Nebraska and Ohio State later this year.    
  • Greg Mattison, Puppet Master – Last year Greg Mattison took over one of the worst defenses in Michigan history and somehow turned it into a Top 20 defense.  I’m still not sure how he did it, though a veteran offensive line and some experience throughout the secondary probably helped.  This year’s defense presented new challenges, including the loss of All-Conference performers Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, and the surprise loss of Blake Countess on the first series of the year.  Yet somehow Mattison has Michigan ranked in the Top 20 again coming off of a stellar performance against Purdue.  Post Alabama and Air Force, we all had our concerns about this years unit, and rightfully so.  And though I don’t believe Purdue to be an offensive heavyweight, they were averaging almost 43 points coming into the game.  Not only did Michigan hold them to 13 points, but they only gave up 213 yards of total offense, effectively shutting Purdue down in all facets of the game.  Perhaps the best part of Mattison’s defenses is they seem to get better week to week.  
  • The Linebackers? – One of the biggest turnarounds since the 2nd week of the season has been the play of the linebackers.  Post Air-Force, it looked like Desmond Morgan and Kenny Demens had been replaced, potentially permanently, by true freshman James Ross and Joe Bolden.  While both have seen snaps since then, both Demens and Morgan have stepped up significantly the last couple of weeks.  On Saturday Demens was the 2nd best defensive player  and made his mark early with a stop on 3rd and short.  For the first time all season, Demens stood out, something you expect from your starting middle linebacker.  Morgan was good as well, though his stronger games were the two previous games.  All three linebackers had six tackles each to lead the team.  It’s good to feel good about the linebacking corps now that we’re into league play.  
  • Jake Ryan Mancrush – You may have noticed I omitted Jake Ryan from the paragraph above.  That’s because when you play as well as Jake Ryan did on Saturday, you get your own paragraph.  Ryan was everywhere on Saturday, including the defensive highlight of the game, when he buried his helmet into the chest (perhaps lower head area) of Purdue QB Caleb Terbush.   Ryan finished with 6 tackles, including two for a loss.  But most importantly, he’s quickly becoming the face of this defense.  Last year it was Mike Martin and Jordan Kovacs (JKMP!).  This year we’re seeing a lot more of JRMP! – though Ryan does more than that.  His versatility is what is so impressive – he can drop into coverage on one play, stop a run on the next, and be the first guy to the QB on the play after that.  I know I probably write about him more than is appropriate, but he’s as good of a linebacker as I’ve seen in Ann Arbor in quite sometime. I don’t care if he looks like the love child of former Buckeye AJ Hawk and former Trojan Clay Matthews – my mancrush continues in full effect.    
  • 3rd Down – One of the reasons Michigan was so successful on offense and defense was the ability to keep the ball away from Purdue with long drives.  Michigan was 7 of 9 on third down conversions for the first half, an amazing conversion rate.  The key was the ability to run the ball on first and second down, to keep third down manageable.  Two weeks ago against Notre Dame, Michigan was caught in a lot of 2nd and 3rd and long, which allowed the Irish to predict a passing down and pressure Denard into bad decisions.  With short distances to go, Michigan was able to convert, continue drives and most importantly, score points.  
  • Red Zone – Another concern for Michigan’s offense against Notre Dame was the horrible performance in the Red Zone, only coming away with points on 2 of 5 opportunities.  Against Purdue Michigan scored points on all 6 red zone opportunities (3 touchdowns and 3 field goals), a huge improvement.  The nitpicker might say that the 50% touchdown rate needs improving, and it does, but for right now 30 points out of a potential 42 (six touchdowns) isn’t bad.  

THE BAD

  • One Dimensional Offense – As great as the return of Heisman Trophy Caliber Denard was, it creates some challenges offensively.  In the long run, you don’t want one player to account for 83% of your offense.  If he gets injured, it’s basically a death sentence for your team, and when you run into teams that have figured out how to slow him down (like MSU), you end up with a stagnant offense.  As noted below, Michigan needs to get its running game going.  As fun as it is to see Denard continue to break records, we’re a much more balanced team if the 400 yards of offense come from 100 on the ground from him, 150 through the air, and 150 from our running backs.  

THE UGLY

  • Ball Carriers Not Named Denard – As good as Denard was on Saturday, the rest of the running game was abysmal until Thomas Rawls got some meaningless carries late in the game.  Fitzgerald Toussaint just isn’t the same back he was last year at this point.  His 17 carries for 19 yards would be humorous if it wasn’t upsetting.  To be fair to Fitz, Purdue sold out to stop him after his 170 yard outburst last year.  And the Michigan offensive line did struggle at times.  But Fitz spent most of the game running parallel to the line of scrimmage instead of to the sideline.  He danced and juked his way behind the line of scrimmage for most of the day, to no avail.  It seems like he’s more concerned with trying to find the 6, 7, or even 10 yard gain than he is with the 3-4 yards that are there.  Basically he’s trading in the moderate gain for the hopes of the big gain, and ending up with the small gain.  In my opinion it’s hurting him in two ways.  First, he isn’t finding a rhythm on the moderate gains that would allow him to build momentum for a big gain.  Second, he’s wasting a lot of energy for nothing.  As soon as he starts hitting the hole at a thousand miles per hour and just running north/south, I think we’ll see an improvement.  But if it doesn’t happen soon, Thomas Rawls, who will definitely run north/south, may get more meaningful carries.  
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