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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Minnesota

October 8, 2013

Devin Funchess

THE GOOD 

  • Sugar Free Devin Gardner Kool-Aid – Prior to Saturday we had seen two different Devin Gardner’s this season.  The first wore a cape and tights and led us to impressive victories over CMU and Notre Dame.  The second looked like he had kryptonite in his shoulder pads and threw the ball to the opponent more than he did his own receivers.  The one thing they both had in common was that their performance directly impacted how Michigan as a whole looked.  Saturday we saw a different Gardner and frankly the one I’ve been looking for.  On Saturday Gardner was more of a game manager who didn’t look to take the entire offense on his back and carry them.  This allowed him to enjoy his first turnover free game as a starter, complete 76% of his passes, and still contribute 250 yards of offense and two touchdowns.  Maybe this game won’t get him on any Heisman lists, but for Michigan it will help them win the Big Ten.  And Gardner still had 4-5 plays during the game where his talent and physical abilities were necessary to help move the chains or score a touchdown – which is exactly what his strength should be.  Unlike Denard, whose talent and skillset required us to maximize him on almost every play, Gardner can be the backbreaker who puts together the highlight play out of nowhere to help put teams away.  I like this version of DG much better. 
  • The Funchise – If you had asked me last week whether or not it made sense to move Devin Funchess to wide receiver I would’ve opined that while there is value in that, he’s a bigger mismatch at tight end where he can’t be covered by linebackers and he gives us a different dimension across the middle in the passing game.  Clearly I’m an idiot.  Funchess finished with 7 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown, and was easily our offensive MVP for the game.  He was a matchup nightmare for safeties and cornerbacks given his size, and his speed held up well against them as well.  Kudos to Al Borges for having the guts to move him.  As a side note, the emergence of freshman Jake Butt and the return to health of AJ Williams and Jordan Paskorz gave us the flexibility to flex Devin out at wide receiver.  Funchess won’t have this much success in the future as teams will be prepared to scheme against it, but the upside of that is that it should once again open up more opportunities for Jeremy Gallon too.  I expect Funchess to continue to line up at both WR and TE, which will be a nightmare for defenses to prepare for.
  • Taylor Lewan Extreme Right Tackle – As you may have noticed, on Saturday Michigan tried a different alignment a couple of times, lining Taylor Lewan up at tight end, outside the right tackle.  I prefer to call this position extreme right tackle.  I loved this for two reasons.  First, it’s a ton of fun to see a tiny linebacker or safety just move out of the way when Taylor approaches them rather than get steamrolled.  Second, it was a great bye week adjustment by the coaches who were sick and tired of teams stacking the box with 9 guys and forcing us to run into it or check into a pass.  The reason it works so well is because even against a 9 man front it forces the defense to overcompensate to one side, which eventually will allow us to exploit the side that they undercover, with a bootleg or misdirection.  And in the meantime, it opened some nice holes on the ground.  
  • Ground Game – Speaking of the run game, though it wasn’t a vintage Michigan performance, there were some positive signs.  Twice during the game Michigan had drives where they exclusively ran the ball out of the I formation and drove the field for touchdowns. That is something that probably hasn’t happened in 6 seasons.  Though there were still some missed blocks and missed running lanes, the line as a whole looked better, as did the running backs.  I’ll take 4.6 yards per carry from Fitz Toussaint all day long.  I also thought that even though his stats weren’t great, the ability to get Derrick Green 10 carries was helpful to both balance Toussaint’s workload and to show a different look to the defense.  Green looked great on one first half run, though was rather “meh” the rest of the day.  
  • Efficient Consistent Offense – Though many fans and critics still have reservations about the offense, I’m starting to think we may just have unrealistic expectations.  Here are the stats from Saturday.  8 drives, 5 touchdowns, 5 for 5 from inside the red zone, no turnovers, 6.6 yards per play, and three 2nd half drives of 75, 75, and 69 – all resulting in touchdowns.  Of course Minnesota isn’t a great defense, but we moved the ball effectively and did it in a lot of different ways.  It certainly wasn’t a Point a Minute offense, but we’ll win a lot of games if we can continue this kind of output. 
  • Consistent Defense – Like the offense, I think a lot of people are asking a little too much of the defense and are focusing on individual portions of the game instead of looking at the big picture.  Yes that 16 play, 75 yard touchdown drive by Minnesota was painful to watch.  But outside of that Minnesota gained 206 total yards and didn’t sniff the end zone again on their way to only 6 more points.  The defense forced two turnovers, and never really felt threatened.  Plus, Minnesota’s longest play from scrimmage was only 18 yards.  Again, it wasn’t a dominant shutdown defensive effort, but it was consistent and efficient, and meshed nicely with what the offense did.  

THE BAD 

  • Tackling – Though the defense only allowed 13 points, we still aren’t tackling as well as we need to be.  Guys continue to fall forward for extra yards, and we regularly saw what should’ve been stops for no gains turn into 3 or 4 yard pickups.  That goes a long way to helping opponent continue drives, especially when it happens on 3rd down (which I’ll get to in a moment).  I still see a lot of arm tackling, and a lot of guys looking for the knockout hit rather than the sure tackle.  We actually seem to do a better job bringing down guys in space, but struggle in traffic.  Regardless, a great defense protects every yard and every inch, and as of yet we haven’t been able to do that.  
  • 3rd Down Conversions – For a period of about 17 minutes of game time during the 1st and 2nd quarters, Minnesota possessed the ball for 15 minutes of those approximately 17 minutes.  They ran 25 plays to our 3, and scored their lone touchdown.  They were also a painful 7 for 7 on 3rd down conversions before we mercifully stopped them on a 3rd and 9.   For the game they finished 8 of 15, so we clearly got better as the game wore on.  That being said – this is an area we have to get better at.  With 5 chances to stop the Gophers on their touchdown drive, we couldn’t get one stop.  Against a good opponent, that won’t just happen for one drive, it will happen for several and we’ll find ourselves on the Win/Loss column.  I’m hopeful that as Jake Ryan improves, so will this area.    
  • Football Gods who hate Michigan ACL’s – In the last 2 years, Michigan has lost six(!) players to ACL injuries.  Those six are Jake Ryan, Blake Countess, Russell Bellomy, Drake Johnson, Chris Wormley, and as of Saturday afternoon DT Ondre Pipkins.  The loss of Pipkins is significant, but not devastating.  Pipkins was starting to come on and live up to his recruiting ranking, but he wasn’t even a fulltime starter yet with Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black playing over him.  However, his loss does reduce some depth and much-needed development for him.  Willie Henry will likely get the majority of the snaps that would’ve been Pipkins had he stayed healthy.  On a macro level….what the hell is going on with our ACL’s?  That just seems like a lot of guys to go down with is a somewhat rare injury.  I hope Michigan as a program is examining if there is any connection. 

THE UGLY 

  • The Drive – When you win by 29 points, even against lowly Minnesota, its tough to find fault.  The one thing that seems to have made everyone uncomfortable though was the Gophers  aforementioned 16 play, 75 yard touchdown drive that chewed up almost 10 minutes of game clock and set the tone for the first half.  In short, it was an ugly drive for our defense, as they were nickel and dimed down the field, and though they had 5 chances to get off the field on 3rd down, were unable to.  They also were unable to get a stop on 3rd and Goal from the 7, allowing a touchdown pass.  If that pass gets broken up and the Gophers settle for a field goal, we all feel a lot better about it.  Further, if we stop either of the Gopher’s 3rd and 1 rushes for no gain or a loss, as we’ve seemed to do so many times in the past, we all feel a lot better about this.  The good news is that it didn’t happen again.  The bad news is that it further demonstrated that while we are a good defense, we are not yet a dominant defense.  
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