Monday, September 19, 2011

Freaking Out And Yawning At The Same Time

Ron English still scares me.
Coming off 114,000+ simultaneously dropping E last weekend, Eastern Michigan was built up to come down from the high. The odd natures of Western and Notre Dame--weather-shortened game and absolute hysteria--made the first two games of the season seem not real. You got the sense what you were watching was neither indicative of who this team really is nor predictive of how this team will perform in the future. Eastern, though more on the level of Baby Seal U, was supposed to bring back some normalcy: return to the base offense, more vanilla defense, getting healthy, etc. Not so much. Michigan gained 32 yards in the 1st quarter, including an interception and back-to-back 3-and-out's. Then as if a switch was flipped, Thomas Gordon's interception steered the team back on course. "On course", however, turned out to be Denard carrying the ball 26 times and the zone read, used only 3 times against ND, heavily relied on circa... 2008? This is our new normalcy. Denard is doing his best Holden Caulfield.

Shortest leap celebration ever.
From afar, there's nothing particularly noteworthy from the final score yet the box score has Rodriguez's footprint all over it: Denard threw for under 100 yards and ran for nearly 200. That disconnect between final score and box score embodies this year's awkward transition: this strange hybrid between Hoke's consistency with Rodriguez's explosiveness, Mattison's maximization of talent with GERG's general incompetence, freaking out at the end of the 1st quarter with yawning at the end of the 4th. We are a mixed-race child--the one that looks like an alien instead of hot and exotic. Michigan may have opened with another slow start but deep down inside, up 14-3 at the half, you felt like the game would be at hand instead of upset alert. It resembled any one of Carr's non-conference games and none of Rodriguez's. Somehow this team brings nervousness and comfort at the same time. And I suspect this feeling won't go away for the rest of the season. We are about to play 12 season-openers because each week I learn everything and nothing from this team.

Bold first sentences and verbose comments:

This was the first time Michigan held a team to a FG or less since... you guessed it: 2007 Notre Dame (38-0). Even Infant Seal U, Delaware State, managed 6 on Rodriguez. While Michigan had a slow start, it's more important that they finish strong--something noticeably absent the last 3 years because we were constantly behind. Is it just sluggish starts or good adjustments? Probably a little bit of both. But it's also Eastern so 45 minutes of football won't win many games come B1G season.

Not exactly sound fundamentals.
Denard's passing struggles. 7/18, 95 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT. That's a completion percentage of 46%. Combine that with Notre Dame's numbers and it gets lowered to 43% with 4 picks. There's some dropped balls sprinkled in there but there's also wide-open receivers on 2nd or 3rd reads completely ignored. But here's the thing: Denard was in shot most of Western and under center most of Notre Dame so the answer is far from where he takes the snap. When you roll out to the right without a defender within 10 yards of you, plant your feet and overthrow Junior by 5-8 yards when he has 2 steps on his man, it makes no difference whether you got to that position from the I-Form or Shotgun. It's the arm, not the scheme.

But Denard can still run!
Yes, he can. 26 carries for 198 yards and 1 TD, averaging 7.6 YPC. And this is why I support using the zone read as the base offense with Pro-Form plays as wrinkles, not the other way around. Not surprisingly, this continues to be the big debate among Michigan fans: short-term vs. long-term success. Now granted, 3 2.75 games is a small sample size and way too early to judge, I agree, but it is indisputable which system Denard is more comfortable in. The more relevant question is whether you feel Denard will EVER be comfortable in the Pro-Form and whether the risk is worth the reward in his remaining 1.5 years to get him there? For now, my answer to both is no.

Here's why: We've seen Denard just do about everything on a football field. But the dude simply can't pass consistently and especially not deep. There's no evidence for me to believe that he will develop that part of his game this year--maybe next year after a ton of off-season work. People claim he just needs to calm his feet and have better footwork, but does his cancer-curing smile and screams of "AHHHHH" suggest he ever will? I'm being serious. At some point, we have to accept Denard for who he is instead of dreaming who he can become in a system we're, not he's, more comfortable with. Denard was an improved passer under Rodriguez's system but still not tremendous. It was the mere thought of him taking off for the end zone that produced open receivers by 15 yards; safeties completely abandoning their coverage responsibility to crash a B gap when the ball is already headed towards Roundtree's seam route. The quick hitches, slants and flats--these were rhythm passes set up to make sure even Denard wouldn't overthrow something so wide open. The "wrinkles" that Borges has been using--the shotgun playaction completion to Koger, the fake run pass to Dileo, the fake run pass to Toussaint--ended up being 2 TDs and an incompletion that should have been 20 yards. I would argue that running these type of plays as the base offense and sprinkling in Pro-Form--Fitz at fullback depth, the I-Form playaction to Robot McColgan or the misdirection plays for V. Smith--would make both styles more effective. If Denard has trouble passing in either system, you might as well use the system he runs most comfortably in.

OK, Now I'm tired.
That should have been a separate post.

The backs. V. Smith had a great game--9 carries for 118 yards--and looks to be moving away from the 3rd down back, specialist role and more towards the 2 in Michigan's 1-2 punch. Fitz staying healthy is the key to this running game; we're even seeing him used as a fullback over Hopkins and sometimes McColgan. With V. Smith's versatility, I'd be happy with that combination moving forward. On a side note, with Rawls making an appearance (and red-shirt burned), it seems Hopkins and Cox will be buried in the depth chart for the rest of the season. Shaw, like Fitz, needs to stay healthy but he has an upward climb ahead of him if he wants to break into the rotation again.

Welcome to the 2011 season, Craig Roh. After 2 games without recording a single tackle, Roh got his first tackle in a form of a TFL sack. Having said that, I still didn't see much production coming out of his position with Black earning more time during rotations. I said last week, way prematurely, that Black would start over Roh for the rest of the year--not even close to being true. But I do believe Roh will take a diminished role for the rest of the year. Hopefully, the sack is a nice boost of confidence for him to get him going for B1G season.

Will Campbell watch. Even if against Eastern's offensive line, Will Campbell looked serviceable coming in for Martin. He had a few plays where he ate up 2 blockers to free up a LB, like Hawthorne, to come in for a tackle close to the LOS. He even blew back defenders a couple of yards on some plays. Campbell may lack the technique but the talent is definitely there. His presence helps out the D-line rotation tremendously. Somebody just needs to get him jacked up on Mountain Dew before each game and we're good.

Gordon pick was sweet but somewhat lucky. Eastern came out overloading quads on the far side while Michigan was still setting up the defense. It was 4 on 3 at the snap with Kovacs running to recover. The entire defense looked lost except for Gordon, which thank god, because he immediately recognized the 1 receiver with zero interest in blocking, picked him up and made an athletic pick.

Special teams moving towards the mean. A ball went through the uprights for 3 points. Michigan is officially 100% on FGs for the year. This is amazing. We still can't cover or return kicks for the life of us but at least we are HOLDING ON TO THE DAMN BALL and not giving up anything past the 50 (ugh what a baseline). Also, is Jeremy Gallon seriously becoming a threat on punt returns? Ricardo Miller doesn't think so.

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