Friday, October 28, 2011

Preview: Purdue

West Lafayette: where ACLs go to die.
Though Bye weeks help our sanity too, I'm still ultimately glad when they are over. Watching college football on Saturday without the Maize & Blue on the field just isn't the same. It's feels unnatural, like entering bowl season knowing Michigan won't be playing a la 2008, 2009. Too soon? Too soon. 

Tomorrow, Michigan faces Purdue to kickoff the unofficial second half of their season. The Boilermakers are a welcomed opponent as the players are eager to prove their performance against State was not representative of what this team is capable of. Michigan was bound to fall at some point this season--it's too bad it had to be against an in-state rival--but as I've said before, it will be how they respond that will truly differentiate this year from seasons' past. And that's what Hoke's first year is really all about: not being Rodriguez. Or more specifically, taking the few good parts of Rodriguez, namely the offense, and trashing the rest. It's generally worked with some mixed results in certain quarters/halves, and that's to be expected. But each week is a chance to improve and this team has done that. These next 5 games really boil down to preparing for November 26th, in my opinion.

THE OFFENSIVE MATCHUP I'M WATCHING IS... Denard vs. fans' opinions. I was going to write a dedicated post about this but the timing had passed after people began to let State go. After MSU, many people were calling for Devin to start at QB and using Denard as a RB/WR in a Percy Harvin-like situation--something that has been suggested since Hoke took over. I am in the shrinking minority who believes Denard should stay at QB, though Devin has earned considerable snaps anyway, and addressing the dual-QB stuff in the off-season. To me, this has been the first real point of conflict among fans since Hoke took over. It's important to remember, however, that we see the good and bad of Denard at QB on the field, but the coaches see the good and bad of Devin at QB in practice. Denard may have been shaky, even in some of the wins, but he's the QB that ultimately got us to 6-1. State, not great--that's obvious. But a bounce back game with a Minnesota-like passing performance should help alleviate fans' growing anxiety about taking the most explosive player in college football away from his natural position. Also, not throwing anywhere in the direction of CB Ricardo Allen would be great.

THE DEFENSIVE MATCHUP I'M WATCHING IS... Michigan linebackers vs. wrapping up Ralph Bolden. Purdue is a team that's perfectly content running between the tackles 3 times in a row at 3-4 ypc. And that will be the difference: 3 or 4 ypc. That difference will be determined by how the front 7, specifically Michigan's backers, hit RB Ralph Bolden at the point of attack and now allowing him to stretch runs into extra yards. Purdue likes to play ahead of the downs and distances--who doesn't--but they really break down under 3rd-and-long situations. It'll be how Michigan defends the run on 2nd down that will win this game defensively. 

IF I HAD ONE WISH ON SPECIAL TEAMS IT'D BE... Not to play in a trash storm. Oh the game isn't in East Lansing? Good. Hagerup had some of his best punts against Purdue, including a 72-yard bomb last year. Michigan should be able to control the game offensively against Purdue but it's nice to know we can switch the field on them, if need be, on Hagerup's leg.

I AM WORRIED ABOUT...
TerBush on the edge. Purdue will likely babysit the playcalling down to TerBush's comfort level, much like how Borges tries to establish a rhythm for Denard. When short, quick passes aren't available, broken plays will have TerBush on the outside with a minor threat to run. Michigan's inability to contain on the edge has been well-documented. It will be frustrating if TerBush can extend plays on this defense. I will freak out of an OLB jumps on a pump fake; tackle him or make him throw into the secondary.

I AM COMFORTABLE WITH... Nothing after last week. Getting Purdue at home, despite their impressive win against the Illini last week, is what this team needs. Take care of business on the field, get over the mental hump, and feel good about 7-1 heading on the road. Nothing fancy. Nothing more.

I AM EXCITED ABOUT...
Blitzing. I think this defense comes out hungry. Furthermore, I think Mattison comes out angry. Now Mattison is too goofy looking to picture actually being visibly mad but he shows it through his playcalling. Michigan is usually pretty conservative their first 1-2 drives to feel out the offense's gameplan but I think the defense comes out aggressive to prove a point.

BOLD PREDICTION... Fitz with over 100 yards, including a break out run. This could just be wishful thinking. The backs, especially Fitz, started off the season strong before tapering off and being essentially non-existent against State. The emphasis will and should remain on a balanced running attack and I think (hope) Fitz proves to be that guy for the second half of the season.

ALMOST FORGOT... Purdue's win last week against the Illini, despite not scoring in the second half, should have earned our undivided attention. They Boilermakers have now played 2 solid halves against decent opponents: the 2nd half against ND and the 1st half against Illini. They could put it together. This is a game, not a blowover. More reason we need this game.

GAME PREDICTION... Mattison blitzes the hell out of Purdue and earns Michigan a fast start from the get-go. A Denard pick and offensive stalling via crazy formations lets Purdue back into the game, but never really within striking distance. Denard finishes with average numbers and the debate continues on whether he's our main signal caller going on the road. Michigan wins just comfortably enough to feel good about the game. Michigan 38-17.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happy Halloween

Howdy everyone. A quick post today due to life and I can't get the damn photo thing to work. (I was going to put a picture of Mike Leach in a pirate out fit, us this instead.) Not that anyone is to worried about it. Enjoy the Holiday.

Michigan St at Nebraska Noon EST- As much as I want to pick Nebraska, after watching that whole Hail Mary thing, its hard not to see MSU at least making it to the Big Ten title game. Plus Martinez is a less talented Denard. MSU 27-21.

Missouri at Texas A&M Noon EST- Soon to be coming to you from the SEC. These two schools will laugh at the Big XII and then take one look at the SEC and maybe they will think twice. Everyone except whoever is in charge of the money. They can't wait to get to the SEC. Texas A&M 41-31

Baylor at Oklahoma St 3:30 EST- The Big XII may have trouble staying together but their football sure is entertaining. Defense is optional. The RGIII Heisman campaign is all about gone but he can keep it alive with a stunner. Doubtful though. Okie St 48-31.

Florida vs Georgia 3:30 EST- I expect a lot of drinking at this game. That and the save Mark Richt's job tour continues. I think UGA will continue to get it done despite the fact Florida owns this series. Richt has to make it to the SEC Title game. That is his destiny. UGA 24-16.

Illinois at PSU 3:30 EST- How does Illinois keep getting the 3:30 slot? I live in Illinois and people here don't even care. People do love Joe Pa though. I love him too. And I love how Tom Bradley keeps PSU relevant with defense. PSU 20-13.

Oklahoma at Kansas St 3:30 EST- Come on Oklahoma. Not only did you lose last weekend but you stole the thunder from the Kansas St revival show. It is too bad because Stoops always coaches better when his team has a little edge. Oklahoma 41-27.

WVU at Rutgers 3:30 EST- This is your random pick of the week to remind you the Big East still exists. I want to say WVU is clearly favored but I mean come on, the team everyone picked to win this conference (USF) doesn't have a win in the league yet. I can't wait until this conference is just basketball. WVU 26-20.

Clemson at Georgia Tech 8 EST- The shine has come off this match up with the Yellow Jackets coming back down to earth. Everyone expects the Clemson collapse to hit but their offense just won't stop scoring points. I think we have to wait a bit for the Tigers to lose. Clemson 45-31.

Wisconsin at Ohio St 8 EST- Brett Beilema looked like he saw his dog get run over in the press conference last week after the Sparty game. I expect Wisconsin to come out flat and proceed to keep it real close because of OSU's defense. I can't believe I am picking the Buckeyes. OSU 20-17.

Stanford at USC 8 EST- ESPN will start the hype for next April's NFL draft with this matchup. Barkley and Luck will throw it everywhere but I think Stanford is better top to bottom. Plus Stanford knows they have to win impressively in order to catch up in the BCS. Sadly no Carroll/Harbaugh exchange at midfield. Stanford 48-28.

Have a great holiday. Go Blue. (This is Michigan- Hoke voice.)

Bye Weeks Are For Us Too

The other day, a buddy of mine interrupted me at the bar during one of several Michigan-related thoughts I was rambling about when he was clearly trying to watch the World Series. He laughed and pointed out that I kept referring to Michigan as "we": "Don't you mean 'they'?", he corrected, "You're not on the field". I didn't realize I was interchanging my pronouns when discussing Michigan. It just felt so natural to include me as part of the team. "No, I don't", I responded as I continued to talk about the need for Blake Countess to emerge as our #2 corner in order for us to succeed during the 2nd half of the season. My friend went back to ignoring me. He didn't care. I didn't care that he didn't care so I finished my thought. Sometimes I wonder how I have (non-Michigan) friends.

I haven't been posting much and part of that was intentional because of the bye. When you watch enough Michigan football--and I know those who read this blog do--you sometimes need to get away from it all. Week after week, most of us rewatch games 2-3 times, read up on analysis, dissect plays, scour the message boards and scout the next opponent. The days and weeks fly by and before you know it, Friday Previews are up and you are gearing yourself up to do it all over again. Times moves in weird ways during college football season. As a fan, you feel there aren't enough days in the week to mentally prepare for the next game. Imagine what it's actually like for the players or coaches.
Fans need to rest too. Mike brought up the point to me the other day that this year's bye was particularly weird because of how much energy was invested in last year's bye before Penn State--the turning point for whoever was still left on the Rodriguez boat. Fans wanted that game so badly. It was a make or break moment: win that game and a load comes off Rodriguez's, and the program's, shoulders. With so many comparisons and arguments on why this year is not years' past, this bye week proved to be another unsettling time. Purdue's unexpected win over Illinois certainly perked our ears up enough to remind us that this is still the Big Ten. We are part of the middle-meddling mush. And our season can just as easily slip into a Rodriguez-like 1-4 finish as it can shoot up to a Hokemania-like 4-1. Who knew @Iowa, outside of November 26th, could define our season?

So are byes actually helpful? Logic tells us the extra rest and preparation time should theoretically give players and coaches coming off a bye week an added advantage. Yet the stats tell us otherwise; bye weeks seem to hurt teams more than they help: "From 2002-2010, Big Ten teams are a combined 17-32 when coming off of a bye.  This is good for a 0.35 win pct." Last week's loss against State doesn't make us feel any better but the statistic remains true. Do teams intentionally schedule tough opponents after a bye that ultimately skews the statistic? Perhaps. LSU and Alabama both have byes this week before their showdown on November 5th. I bet Saban and Miles welcome the extra time.

But what about us? In our minds, the bye is an opportunity for us to take a break too, whether it be actually paying attention to a fall wedding, shopping for winter clothes you had ignored all season, or--as last year's epic Bye week preview, "WifeDay 2010" by Six Zero pointed out--spending time with your significant other/wife. But does it throw us into a funk? Are we more or less prepared to handle the rest of the season? We, just like players and coaches, are creatures of habit. And whether the extra time is actually helpful or not, I wonder if we are better or worse fans after a bye?

Part of the reason I think Penn State was such a turning point last year was because the bye amplified the meaning of the game in fans' minds, not necessarily the team's. Ask any fan sulking on their walk back from a Halloween party that night and their first gripe was probably about the inability for Rodriguez and his staff to properly prepare for the Lions with an extra week. Forget that it was on the road and Rodriguez's teams never responded to pressure. The added pressure also came from fans; losing the game after a bye is just as demoralizing for us as it is for the team. We were fully rested for that game too.
This year, if I had to pick any scenario of the last 5 opponents for our post-bye week game, it'd be Purdue at home. It gives the team, and us, the best chance to win convincingly and wipe the bitter taste of State from our mouths, re-right the ship heading into back-to-back road games against Iowa and Illinois. The bye week was good for me. I did stuff. Like Other stuff. But now I am refocused on Michigan Football and finishing this season strong. Excuse me. We are refocused on Michigan Football and finishing this season strong. Go Blue.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

My Phil Steele Impression


With Michigan's bye week I get to try and be Phil Steele this Saturday. To the left is what Steele actually has in his home office. I just take one look at that and drool. It is enough to make even Michael Peterson jealous.

This bye week couldn't have come at a better time for both the Michigan players but our fans as well. We have spent the past few months in the cloud as Hoke has put together the Big Ten's best recruiting class and got the team off to a 6-0 start.

For the first time this past week I saw something on the message boards I had forgotten about, criticism of the coaching. Ever since Hoke and staff have taken off on the recruiting trail it has been all lollipops and gumdrops. While it sucks to lose to MSU again, at least it lets us look at the final few weeks of the season with a level head.

I said before the season, Hoke's first year will be judged by the last four weeks of the season. He must show progress where RRod could not. Now each of those four games looks more winnable. A few wins, including a win over hated OSU and Hoke and company might shoot us right back into the clouds. (Which Alabama and Saban will bring us back down next September but we will worry about that when we get there.)

So lets all kick back, relax, and watch a few other teams slug it out this weekend...

Friday- West Virginia at Syracuse 8PM- I forgot the Big East even existed to be honest with you. I was looking over the standings for each conference and I saw that Rutgers was tied with WVU for first in the conference. If the Big East wants to keep their automatic bid then they should probably not let Rutgers get to a BCS game. Good luck WVU, the future of the confernce is in your hands. WVU 35-17.

Illinois at Purdue Noon- I call this game the scouting future Michigan opponents game. I have watched Illinois but I have seen very little of Purdue. I want to see if Illinois can run the ball and I want to see if Purdue can do anything. I expect a close one. Illinois 24-19.

North Carolina at Clemson Noon- Every week people expect the Clemson collapse and every week Sammy Watkins pulls them closer to the finish line. If this game was at Chapel Hill I would go with the upset but Death Valley can taste a special season. Clemson 38-21.

Oklahoma St at Missouri Noon- The Cowboys will also be an upset alert when they travel to Missouri. The Tigers can move the ball no problem but so can OSU. OSU 45-38.

Auburn at LSU 3:30 PM- This game got interesting when LSU suspended three players. And by interesting I mean it will be interesting how long these three are suspended. Alabama and LSU each has a bye next week so get ready for two weeks of suspension segments on Sportscenter. It will be like the NBA lockout stories only you may actually pay attention. Suck it NBA. LSU 31-10.

Georgia Tech at Miami 3:30 PM- Each of these teams reversed their early season trends last week. The Yellowjackets looked human and Miami looked like a real football team. Specifically, Jacory Harris isn't terrible. Which makes me wonder. He has to revert to his inner Stephen Garcia soon, right? I think so. Georgia Tech 27-20.

USC at Notre Dame 7:30 PM- Pat Haden stated the obvious this week when he said the players don't care that much about this rivalry. This is especially true because just as Notre Dame is starting to get its feet under itself, USC is about to hit some down times with sanctions and Kiffin steering the ship. Notre Dame can flip this rivalry with a win and USC can add to the highlight reel of Barkley and Woods. Notre Dame 38-28.

Texas Tech at Oklahoma 8 PM- Too bad this game isn't on earlier because I love watching that OU passing attack. It will get lost in the shuffle with all the good games. OU 45-21.

Washington at Stanford 8 PM- Another game that might get lost in the shuffle Saturday night. Andrew Luck will do work against a porous Husky secondary but I want to see the Cardinal defense. Stanford has been locking everyone down but they also have yet to play anyone. QB Keith Price is making everyone forget about Locker. Not enough to make people to forget about Luck though. Stanford 45-17.

Wisconsin at Michigan St 8 PM- Hey Sparty. What have you been up to? Really? You shouldn't have. Seriously, all eyes will be on Russell Wilson to see if he can move the Badgers. I expect a close one but a Heisman moment is in order. Wisconsin 28-23.

Enjoy your day off everyone. You have earned it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I AM CALM

You can often gauge the severity of the loss through the type and tone of texts in the hours following. After State, I received no messages from Michigan grads--nothing needed to be said--but got a few from others who know me best as "the dude who really likes college football; Michigan's his team I think". Questions regarding my level of inebriation or general concern for my safety seemed over the top at first, though understandable since most have seen me on fall Saturdays between 2008-2010, but I was surprisingly reserved. It was the kind of loss that brought me full circle: strangely, barely and perhaps scarily silent. I texted back "I AM CALM" and went about the rest of my day about how that text suggests.

After my second viewing yesterday, I am officially lower-case calm. Yes, there's plenty to complain about--the dirty play, Borges' playcalling, the lack of run defense against a grab bag offensive line--but the simple truth is Michigan got outplayed and outcoached on the road by a, I hate to say it, better team. That it happened against an in-state rival makes it difficult to swallow, perhaps even unacceptable to some. But take a step back and realize that this Michigan team has shown itself different from years past; it can and will compete with a chance to win all of the remaining 5 games of the season, Nebraska included. Take another step back and Michigan sits at 6-1 (2-1) going into their bye when majority of preseason predictions had us at 5-2 and worst-cases at 4-3. This is not an excuse for the game. But it is the truth for the season.

It's funny--and by funny I mean stupid--how perception changes so quickly after a loss. The immediate regression and subsequent weekly improvement of Denard's passing game was never a panicked issue so long as we won. Now people are calling for Devin. Yes, let's knee-jerk and remove the most explosive player in college football from his natural position that got us to 6-0 just 72 hours ago. It is his fault he was asked to throw 24 times in a tornado and turn his back from the LOS on 4th-and-inches. In a game where Denard's strengths as a quarterback were least used, whether it be due to injury or frequent formation changes, and resulted in a loss, why would you want less of him? On the offensive line, few talked about the lack of depth, even when Barnum went down, so long as Michigan backs recorded a few 100-yard games. Now it seems much more of an urgent issue that we have 6 total offensive linemen followed by air. Schofield, who has replaced Barnum at LG for a few games now, also served as the backup LT, RG and RT. If Lewan goes down, we are 7-5 and that is not a joke. No wonder Hoke is pressing for a 6th and possibly 7th OL in the 2012 class.

If Minnesota raised the bar, Michigan State pulled at our heels. The game was winnable; you could convince yourself of that without sounding like an Indiana fan doing the same about Wisconsin. But just as the 6-0 start doesn't automatically prove this year is not last, neither does the State loss, which has marked the start of the free fall over the last 3 years. Michigan had the tools to stay within striking distance of a legitimate division contender. Whatever the reason--the weather, the early injuries, the timing--it just never clicked. And then we spiraled as teams do. That doesn't necessarily lower the bar. But it does mean the magical season we all had secretly hoped for is not happening. Hey, remember when we were all talking pragmatically about how reasonable it would be for a first-year head coach attempting to instill a wildly different football philosophy to perhaps not earn a BCS bowl game in his inaugural season?

It's amazing how differently teams look through different lens and light: under the glistening sun on a beautiful fall day in Ann Arbor against Minnesota or swept up in a trash cyclone in East Lansing against Michigan State. Likewise, as Brian has already pointed out, so can the perception of Borges' playcalling. While I am less harsh on Borges in terms of lizard brain, I do believe he freaked out to some degree. 30-yard routes and playactions without an established run game spells trouble for any offense, much more on one led by a running quarterback. But in some ways, Borges did the opposite of reverting back to his West Coast offense; he stayed static in his insistence on using creativity to outscheme opponents. And in doing so, he outschemed himself. The point of adding packages with 5 or 6 different plays running out of the same set is so when 1 play gets stuffed, the defense reacts the same way when they see the formation again. Then, you pull the string. But if the defense doesn't defend it properly on the first go, run it again! I get the sense Borges somehow adjusted into the hands of Sparty's defense for the sake of change. At some point, if you add too many wrinkles, you lose sight of the base offense you are supposed to be operating out of. What is Michigan's base offensive set? Denard in shot with twin WRs and twin TEs? If you have to ask yourself that, you probably don't have one.

I'm starting to babble incoherently. Back to my main point: the loss is disappointing--there's no way around that--especially given some of the external circumstances. The Gholston replays and subsequent silence out of East Lansing--Dantonio actually listed Gholston as a started against Wisconsin--speak for itself. Hoke, his staff and the players are doing the right thing by taking the high road and not commenting about the game's obvious dirty play. But remove those subjective factors and Michigan lost to a decent team. It has a bye to rest up physically--Denard looks to be at his mid-season breaking point of random injuries popping up that will hamper him for the rest of the year--and refocus on how to finish this season strong. The weather conditions will worse. They road tests will be tougher. Michigan will be challenged again and as I've said before, it's how they respond that will prove why they are a different team.

They will. Stay calm. I am.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Vincent Smith BANG BANG

3rd post in 2 hours; I'm on a roll. Recently added Maize and Blue Nation to the mix on the Michigan blog left sidebar (reminder: any blogs that want to be added, just let me know). Anyway, best .gif of the week from them here:


Who's ready for tomorrow? Go Blue.

Preview: Michigan State

Being an East Coast native, I could never really submerge myself in all the fun that is Sparty week. I was an outsider to an in-state rivalry but always had a strong appreciation for the passion given the way my other Michigan friends freaked out during this week. Whether it be parents or siblings or high school friends, they always had somebody to text and taunt. I knew it meant a lot to them. I knew it meant a lot to the team. And therefore, as a fan, damn it it means a lot to me.

My main source of hatred for Michigan State comes not from childhood connections but rather from the team itself, most notably their coach. There's plenty of reasons not to like Mark Dantonio--his comments after the '07 game in response to Hart, his connections with Ohio State, the way he threw Winston and Rucker right back on the field after they had both spent IN-SEASON TIME IN JAIL--but the thing I hate most about him is the way he hides behind his faith to justify certain actions. Maybe it's because I'm not particularly religious. We all know there's a fine line on how coaches teach their players a lesson but Dantonio too often points to his religion for "guidance" on several questionable decisions. He defends that he's protecting his players by not cutting them loose and making sure they receive support from their teammates on the football field. A noble and conveniently self-serving cause if you ask me, shrewdly hidden behind a sensitive topic difficult for people to criticize. It's not surprising that Dantonio came from Tressel's coaching tree; Tressel at times, even during his demise, was actually praised for being a loyal coach to his players, too loyal some said. Yes, these men have TOO much moral fiber. That's right. Neither taught perhaps the most fundamental lesson in football: playing is a privilege, not a right. Academics, community service, basic decency and respect--these apparently come second to seeing the field.

ANYWAY, to the actual game:

THE OFFENSIVE MATCHUP I'M WATCHING IS... Denard/Shaw on the edge vs. Sparty OLBs. One of the nice takeaways from NW was Borges' willingness, again, to make adjustments and go with what works. When Fitz/Smith continued to get stuffed inside, him and Fred Jackson decided to switch it up with Shaw, who brought good speed to the edge when he bounced to the outside. DT Jerel Worthy will likely make it another frustrating day running between the tackles. Look for Borges to continue being creative and spreading the defense out horizontally. I'd love to see more of the speed option from Minnesota. Will Denard actually make the pitch?

THE DEFENSIVE MATCHUP I'M WATCHING IS... Edge blitzes vs. Sparty tackles. The injuries on Michigan State's offensive line have been well-documented. They are not good. But that doesn't automatically mean an easy day for our line. The defensive line, as a unit, has improved with each game but the pass rush, especially getting pressure with only 4, is still a concern. Mattison will be his creative self with various blitzes but Michigan will need to capitalize on them to not let Cousins ever settle. Look for Kovacs/Ryan/Roh (white trio!) when they overload on one side and test Sparty's inexperienced and young tackles.

IF I HAD ONE WISH ON SPECIAL TEAMS IT'D BE... No more 40+ yard FG attempts. Don't push your luck, Hoke. Gibbons hitting consistently under 40 yards is already a vast improvement from what we're used to. Anything 4th-and-reasonable that is at would-be 40-50 yard FG distance I'd like to see us go for.

I AM WORRIED ABOUT...
Denard's footwork, particularly throwing off his back foot. This is pretty much all I worry about. I try to avoid putting this here on a weekly basis but after NW, it deserves another shoutout. I've said it before: Denard's picks are the only thing that can put this team is a really bad spot. I rather have him throw for 100 yards and 0 INTs than 300 yards and 2 INTs any day.

I AM COMFORTABLE WITH... Roundtree. Welcome back to the offense, kid. And welcome back to the Shortest Group Of Receivers: Hemingway (6'1"), Roundtree (6'0"), Gallon (5'8") and Dileo (5'10"). Hemingway is clearly our most reliable receiver and biggest threat but adding Roundtree to the mix will be a nice boost to unexpectedly high production out of Gallon and Dileo.

I AM EXCITED ABOUT...
Hoke shaking Dantanio's hand at midfield after a win and whispering in his year "we're baaaaaack".

BOLD PREDICTION... Shaw will have a big day. What we saw from Shaw in the 2nd half against NW, we should see early on in the 1st half against Michigan State. He will be a midfield horse: not necessarily in the goaline packages but an 8-12 carry, 50-80 yard day, grinding down and frustrating the defense so that the base offense can operate.

ALMOST FORGOT... If we run any sort of special teams fake play successfully, it will almost have to be called "Big Giants". Also, no matter what question the on-field reporter asks Hoke after the game, even if it's about how he felt the defensive line performed, he will answer "THAT PLAY IS CALLED BIG GIANTS", double-point at the sky and run off the field.

GAME PREDICTION... The countdown clock resets. Michigan comes out hot and sustains a 10-point-ish lead for most of the game. Sparty mounts a semi-late 4th quarterback comeback before a Cousins' turnover seals the deal. Several closeups of Dantonio's face in the last 2 minutes please. The only way to end a 3-year losing streak against an in-state rival is doing it in heartbreak fashion. I hate the Paul Bunyon trophy but I want it. Michigan 31-27.

obligatory

114-21

So it's clearly been a busy week for me. Not only did I not have time to write my usual post-game but also skipped the analysis I typically scramble together during the weekdays, including the "Air Denard" series. As Mike points out in his weekly picks, I'm not sure if it's because we're winning or what, but the weeks are flying by. I still feel preseason-like nervous, then remind myself we are ACTUALLY 6-0 and it's already Sparty week. Winning consistently has been such a foreign concept to me. I have become incapable of understanding what is happening before my eyes every Saturday. I like it though.

Anyway, there's nothing I can say about NW that hasn't either already been said or is just no longer relevant anymore but I will make a few points. The post's title refers to a stat many of you probably recognize: the margin by which Michigan has outscored their opponents in the 2nd half this year. Through all the analysis I've read about the halfway point of the season, after all the times I've rewatched each of the first 6 games, this is what stands out to me most. This is obviously a team accomplishment that requires the efforts of both the offense and defense, but the 21 really sticks out; score one for the Mattison hire as the jumpstart of Hokeamania. Michigan is strangely a 2nd half team--something you couldn't say at all during the RichRod era or even towards the end of Carr. Not that I ever want to enter 2nd halves down but having Mattison warms my heart infinitely more than Greg Robinson. When the opposing head coach specifically drops your defensive coordinator's name during an on-field halftime interview, worrying about his adjustments, you know you're going to get some stops. And therefore, have a chance to win that game.

Without getting into the nitty gritty of the game, the way NW played out proved 2 things about this team to me. 1) We are actually pretty good. Not competing for a Big Ten championship good but good enough to be considered among the upper half of the conference, excluding any qualifiers about the strength of the Big Ten this year. Which leads me to 2) We are also overachieving in what can only be described, as I have done here before, as a perfect scheduling RPS +3. Mike and I have discussed this over the phone before but it should be said on the Internet too: we will have a better record this year than next year despite having a better team next year. In a bizarre Hokeamania twist, the timing of our opponents, particularly considering their injuries, have either helped our weaknesses or played to our strengths: Notre Dame would beat us right now, we drew a 70% Persa, I could be Sparty's starting RT, Ron Zook still coaches Illinois, Jared Crick just went down, we don't play Wisconsin, and Ohio State can't get a first down. Michigan has certainly earned their 6-0 start--and we'll be in the driver's seat for the division if we beat Sparty to go 7-0 heading into the bye--but you also can't not look at our schedule and do your best Mr. Burns. I am officially not scared of anybody in the Big Ten (it used to be only Nebraska as the auto-loss but Crick's injury changes that for me); Michigan has a chance to win every game on their schedule. I repeat: Michigan has a chance to win every game on their schedule.

Not to step back too much, since we're all still in a midseason mindset, but it still amazes me how much the Hoke hire has changed this program so much so fast. Winning helps, yes, but the positive energy is just uncontrollably oozing out of the fans, the players, the coaches and the athletic department. Fergodsakes, Dave Brandon is chest bumping players. Knowing all that could have gone wrong with this team so far, especially for a first-year head coach transitioning and our collective experience of the last 3 years, Hoke has done a, wait for it, tremendous job. This team has responded to adversity, performed under pressure and that starts and ends with the head coach. Credit must be given. It will be interesting to see how Hoke and this team deals with a loss this year. It will happen at some point (just being realistic). We'll see a more vulnerable side that will truly test their will when the team comes out the following week.

Let that experience not be this week though. Michigan State preview to come in... 30 minutes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

13.1

Welcome to the halfway point everyone. It is funny, when things are going well, the season just flies by. As we Michigan fans have learned, September and early October can be a breeze but from here on out is where it gets tough.

This season seems to follow a similar path to what is happening to me in the real world. This summer, for some reason, I agreed to run a Marathon this coming December 4th. I have ran three half marathons before but I am by no means the model of being healthy and in shape. If you need an idea of what it might look like to see me run just imagine the KSU mascot (left) lumbering down the road but with bloody nipples. (I learned the hard way, you have to use Vaseline on the nips. Take note people!)

This past Sunday, after watching the game in Evanston the night before, I went for a training run that just happened to be 13.1 miles. I didn't realize how this aligned with the football season until this Monday when reading all the halfway point stories. I actually ran a half decent time, 2 hours and 20 minutes, but much like Michigan the hard part lies ahead. Those long 20 mile runs will happen the same weekends as some big clashes and the light fall breeze will turn into a cold stiff November wind. Unlike the past few seasons, I think this team is tough enough to face that challenge. I hope I can say the same about myself. On with the picks...

Thursday- USC at Cal 9 PM EST- This game will be played at AT&T Park which I guess is pretty neat. There really is only two reasons to watch this game and that is wide receivers Kennan Allen of Cal and Robert Woods of USC. Both of these sophomores have lived up to their 5 star billing. The Trojans will try to get a boost in the backfield when they take the redshirt off frosh George Farmer. How many 5 star running backs does one school need to get a running game going? USC 37-28.

Baylor at Texas A&M Noon EST- I hope both teams are awake because this game could be a shoot out. Neither team has stopped anyone and RGIII must continue to keep Baylor relvant. Another A&M collapse perhaps? We will see. Baylor 41-37.

LSU at Tennessee 3:30 EST- LSU gets another sacrificial lamb at QB this week with Tyler Bray out for the Vols. I hope no one gets hurt. LSU 35-10

Ohio St at Illinois 3:30 EST. Ah yes, the beloved Illibuck Trophy. There is nothing quite like a nut shelled turtle. Illinois always plays OSU tough, even when they have sucked so I expect this to be a close game. The Illini should win this game but then again they are still coached by Ron Zook. OSU 20-17.

Oklahoma St at Texas 3:30 EST- Justin Blackmon must be looking at last weeks film from the Red River Rivalry and be drooling. Texas had no answer for Broyles/Stills. I doubt they will have answer for the Cowboys. Ok St 51-20.

Florida at Auburn 7 EST- These two teams have taken some hits the past few weeks and it will be interesting to see how Florida's struggling offense does vs Auburn's horrible defense. I am going with Auburn because the Gators are relying on 2 true frosh QBs. Auburn 31-21.

Kansas St at Texas Tech 7 EST- The Wildcats are my team of the first half because they came out of nowhere. I mean seriously, who is on their team besides the castoff Brown brothers? Is El Roberson still there? What did Bill Snyder do with his time off? Did he realize there is nothing to do when you retire in Kansas? How many more questions can I ask? Kansas St 27-24.

Northwestern at Iowa 7 EST- I don't have much to say here. I guess we want Northwestern right? One problem though is they don't have much outside of Persa. Iowa 24-17.

Stanford at Washington St 7:30 EST- Those poor Cougs. All they needed to do was hold off UCLA last week and College Gameday was going to be in Pullman this week for this big game. The guys wanted to give props to Wazzu for having representation every week. O well. The plus side is that no one will watch them get dismantled by Luck. Stanford 48-20.

Arizona St at Oregon 10:15 EST- I am not sure if LaMichael will play and if it matters if he plays. The Sun Devils are the best team in the South but that isn't saying much. It will be fun to see if Burfict comes after Thomas. Ducks 33-23.

Enjoy the weekend as the fall weather blows in. Go Blue.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Preview: Northwestern

Important Author Side Note: Is "persa" a word? Or a type of cat? Because if you Google Image Search without the "Dan", like I just accidentally did, you get a bunch of cats. So here's the first one I found:

Michigan walks into Evanston tomorrow night with a chance to prove a lot: can they hold up in their first road test?; is the secondary for real?; can Denard throw consistently?; can they live up to their rankings?; And above all, why this year is different? Hoke has all but skipped down a gold brick road to 5-0 but with Michigan's history in mind, he knows what a big hurdle it would be to clear, even if mentally, to reach 6-0. Michigan hasn't experienced such a start since 2006. And though I'm not quite up to heading-to-Ohio-at-11-and-0-level expectations, their performance thus far has definitely warranted raising the bar.

Don't let the 2-2 fool you: Northwestern is a much better team than their play and record suggests. With Persa back, their 106th ranking in passing offense doesn't mean squat. Having said that, a road loss against Army, with or without Persa, does say something about the rest of the team. Persa elevates the Wildcats from a poor to good team, not a good to great team. Michigan, despite the 58-0 bludgeoning of Minnesota, isn't exactly flirting with greatness either so it should be a good matchup tomorrow night. With Northwestern finally coming off the road and back to Ryan Field--3 of their first 4 games were away--you can bet they'll be fired up to play under the lights (side note: NW's home schedule this year is us next year: Eastern Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, Rice, Minnesota, Michigan State. Ew. They went on the road for BC, Illinois, will go on the road for Iowa, Nebraska, and don't draw Ohio State or Wisconsin).

THE OFFENSIVE MATCHUP I'M WATCHING IS... Vince Browne vs. Lewan/Hugye/Koger. Keep an eye out for #94, the Wildcats' 6'5", 265lb senior DE. He's their Craig Roh--quick to get upfield for TFLs, sometimes sacks and sound in run support. I imagine a lot of the carries will be coming his way on Lewan's side; he needs to pick up his game from last week and make sure he seals Browne. Lewan--knock on wood--has been penalty-free this year. If we don't hear his or Browne's name tomorrow, it should be a good day on the ground.

THE DEFENSIVE MATCHUP I'M WATCHING IS... Where Michigan defenders will be coached to follow at the mesh point during zone reads. While I don't think it's safe to assume Persa is not 100%, I do believe that Michigan come out testing his foot injury and daring him to keep the ball and run. It'll give Mattison a chance to see a) how fast he is with his Achilles' injury and b) if he's willing to take the risk of getting hit. By stuffing the RB (starting RB Mike Trumpy injured last week and out for the season) consistently, it will change the dynamic of how Northwestern calls the ground game. Or force them to go air altogether.

IF I HAD ONE WISH ON SPECIAL TEAMS IT'D BE... Nothing past the 35 on kickoff coverage. Michigan's return coverage has been an increasingly worrisome issue over the last few weeks. If there was any dark spot during Minnesota, it was consistently poor coverage, including one return-for-TD that was luckily called back by a flag. Hagerup will do his thing. Even Gibbons might do his thing. But Michigan needs to improve on return coverage to give their defense as much bend-but-don't-break room as possible.

I AM WORRIED ABOUT...
Michigan's run game. I know, the last thing I should be worried about probably. But I think people underestimate Northwestern's front 7. I know they rank 10th in the Big Ten in rushing defense at 175 yards/game, but they still return a core group of experienced starters. Michigan will be able to move the ball on the ground but it won't be met without resistance. Borges must make sure Michigan stays ahead of the downs and keeps the chains moving. Will he be so daring as to allow Denard to throw on 1st-and-10s again? Probably less so against the Wildcats. While it's important to build a rhythm for Denard's arm, this offense is predicated on rhythm in the run game; it'll be up to Fitz and Smith to maintain a balanced attack.

I AM COMFORTABLE WITH... Nothing. I am a nervous wreck. Always.
I AM EXCITED ABOUT... Under The Lights. It's just cool. As I mentioned before, this is by far Northwestern's biggest home game. Those nerds will be amped. As will we as I expect Michigan fans to travel in full force, especially considering the huge alumni base in Chicago. These type of games always produce memorable moments and tomorrow night should be no different.

BOLD PREDICTION... Denard hits Hemingway/Roundtree on a deep ball. Borges will work to stay within the offense--running the ball, short throws for Denard--but he's shown he's willing to take some shots downfield. The flip side, of course, is Denard maintaining his footwork and delivering an accurate throw--something he's struggled with all year and frankly his entire career. But the opportunity exists as Northwestern's passing defense, ranked 9th in the Big Ten at 239 yards/game, shows.

ALMOST FORGOT... Those of you in the Twitter world probably already heard about Denard's little Twitter fiasco yesterday, when his (obviously upset) ex-girlfriend got a hold of his account for about a half hour. The result? As you would imagine. Here's DocSat's take and EDSBS take. The account was deleted shortly after and my bet is Hoke has since shared his thoughts on password security with Denard. The damage is done though. And the signs will be out in full force. Personally, as long as he rushes for 150+ yards, I don't care.

GAME PREDICTION... I just think Michigan's scheduling RPS +3 trucks on. Push this game another week or 2 and I might be singing a different tune but I'm skeptical Persa's healthy to enough pull out a victory for Northwestern. Michigan is a 60-minute football team--how sweet is it to say that--and they will get after you. While I don't wish injury on anybody, I think Persa is in-and-out of this game after getting knocked down a few times and reaggravating his injury, allowing Michigan to hold up defensively. I said 7-5 preseason and here I am, predicting 6-0. Let's do this. With a safety. Michigan 33-27.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Red River Baby


I have to say, the Michigan schedule has been fantastic so far this season. Not only have they had 5 straight home games and now they come visit me here in Chicago but it has been conducive for watching other games as well.

With the late start this week I will be able to watch one of my favorite games in OU/Texas before heading up to Evanston. This game is always fun to watch not just because of the two quality teams but the venue itself. The field is split 50/50 as each of these fanbases parties at the Texas state fair. I hope they never give in to the cash grab and play it at Cowboys Stadium. There is just something about these two teams playing on a sunny afternoon in October.

This rivalry also produced one of my favorite sports moments when Roy Williams went airborne and hit Chris Simms. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was just a sophomore in high school and I didn't have a care in the world. God I miss you Chris Simms.

Thursday Cal at Oregon 9pm EST- The Ducks will be wearing these not retro throwbacks tomorrow night. Now that I am no longer dating the Ducks it feels like when the hot girl you used to date got a boob job for no reason. Since I have never dated a hot girl I guess I really don't know what I am talking about. Whatever. Oregon 45-21

Oklahoma vs Texas Noon EST- The most interesting stat I heard about this game is that the veteran QB is 8-2 in the last ten games in this series. Advantage Landry Jones. OU 31-21

Air Force at Notre Dame 330 EST- It is funny, after Michigan beats ND I never really care about the Irish the rest of the year. ND fans come up to me and start talking about their team and I forget they are still playing. So I would assume they win this game. But they have surprised us before. ND 31-28

Arizona St at Utah 330 EST- This game is going to be the winner of the PAC 12 South division. Which is basically saying which team gets to lose to Oregon or Stanford. This is sort of like the Legends division. Or is it Leaders? AZ ST 38-31.

Florida at LSU 330 EST- Good luck Jeff Driskel. Nothing like making your first start at LSU. I think this one will get out of hand. LSU 28-10

Iowa at PSU 330 EST- Wooo, Penn St. We need you to win. Unfortunately you don't have a QB who can pass unless they are playing the '10 Michigan defense. Plus Iowa owns PSU. Iowa 27-13

Missouri at Kansas St 330 EST- The Wildcats are still undefeated some how. I still know nothing about them. But, I am going to ride them. Kansas St 35-31

Auburn at Arkansas 7 EST- It is impressive that Auburn is still doing pretty well. Guz Malzahn is legit. I am still not sure what to think about the Razorbacks but this game is at home for them. Arkansas 45-41

Iowa St at Baylor 7 EST- More Robert Griffin III time. It is too bad Baylor lost last weekend because he is a great story. Come on Bears. Baylor 31-28

Ohio St at Nebraska 8 EST- I am so glad that I will be at Ryan Field for the Michigan game so that I don't have to watch OSU again. Last week I actually watch the Brewers game more than the Buckeye game because it was putting me to sleep. God I hope you guys will still be terrible when we play you. Nebraska 21-17

Once again, enjoy the weekend. Good luck to you Tigers fans out there.

Reminder hockey is back! I know only Canadian people and myself care at this point but I am looking forward to it. Go Pens

Air Denard: Minnesota

Previously: Eastern, SDSU


Not sure how many consecutive weeks I'm going to continue tracking Denard's throws--it was originally until my eyes bleed--but this week is too fun not to. I need to be rewarded. Seriously though: watching every pass a few times and noticing trends within Borges' playcalling has been really fascinating; you get an idea of how he plans to nurture Denard's arm to fit a new passing philosophy. Denard has responded with mixed results and that's to be expected; the internal battle between the two, the push-and-pull embody this season-long experiment of merging Rodriguez's players with Borges' playbook. While there have been bumps along way--3 games with under 50% completion--progress is being made. And seemingly right in the nick of time.

Denard's passing line looks much cleaner this week: 15/19, 169 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs. And that's through 2.5 quarters. Insert caveats regarding Minnesota's secondary here but it still takes effort and skill to complete passes. Accurate throws are accurate throws. But perhaps more helpful, the type of throws that fell incomplete should say a lot about how comfortable Denard is with that play (not comfortable) and red flag Borges to NEVER CALL IT AGAIN. That's because those passes will likely end up being pick sixes against Big Ten secondaries who feature scholarship players recruited to play, you know, defense.

Quick side note: man, it's hard to diagnose some of these plays, whether they are designed runs, passes or read options. Check out this example: you would think it's a scramble (called passing play) when Denard sees the hole and takes off but the fake routes/blocking by the receivers reveal it's run the whole way. Borges just instructed Denard to stay put for a second and let the pass rushers open up lanes for him to run through:


SCORE: TIED 0-0
1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, quick fire to Gallon (complete)
SCORE: MICHIGAN 7-0
1+10 | shot | PA, sets feet, P0 throws a beautiful touch ball (!) to Hopkins (complete)
1+10 | shot | PA, rolls right, sets feet, pumps, sets feet, P0, hits Hemingway (complete)
SCORE: MICHIGAN 14-0
1+10 | center | PA, immediately turns and throws to Gallon tunnel screen, P1 (complete)
1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, hits Gallon on the hitch (complete)
2+7 | diamond | Gardner hands it off to Denard, rolls right, P1, throws across back to Gardner (complete)
3+5 | shot | 3-step drop, sets feet, fires to Hemingway on curl, P0 (complete)
1+10 | shot | fake runs a little, sets feet, P1, throws screen to Hemingway (complete)
SCORE: MICHIGAN 21-0

1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, hits Hemingway on the hitch (complete)
2+6 | center | PA, rolls right, fakes looking, sets feet, P0, throws back screen to Smith (complete)
SCORE: MICHIGAN 28-0

1+20 | shot | PA, rolls left, sets feet, pumps, bad feet, P3, throws up jump ball, PI called (incomplete)
2+5 | center | PA, rolls right, P2, throws off back foot, Koger on flat (complete)
1+10 | shot | PA, rolls right, moving feet, P2, overthrows Hemingway (incomplete)
1+10 | shot | 3-step drop, sets feet, P0, hits Dileo on crossing route (complete)
2+4 | shot | 3-step drop, sees the hitch covered, steps up in pocket, P2, scrambles for a run
SCORE: MICHIGAN 31-0
1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, throws to a tightly covered Koger out route (incomplete)
2+10 | shot | rolls right, doesn't set feet, P1, throws to Dileo who bobbles could have been caught (incomplete)
3+10 | shot | 3-step drop, sets feet, blitz coming, P1, quick throw to wide-open Koger (complete)
SCORE: MICHIGAN 38-0
2+8 | shot | 3-step drop, sets feet, P1, dumps it to Fitz (complete)
3+10 | shot | rolls right, sets feet, P2, overthrows Hemingway (incomplete)
1+10 | center | PA, sets feet, P1, easy quick throw to Koger (complete)

PASSING POINTS

By the numbers: 21 passing plays broken down into 19 pass attempts, 1 PI call and 1 scramble. The PI was a bail-out call; it was asking to be picked but we'll count it as incomplete. The scramble was a good decision by Denard--more on that later. Excluding the diamond formation, 16/20 plays were from the shot and 4 from under center. Sound familiar? That's because it's the exact same breakdown from SDSU. Furthermore, all 4 plays from under center were PAs, just like last week. I think it's safe to say Borges has a formula that he's sticking to.

So what's the difference? How do identical 20-attempt gameplans with matching 16-to-4, shot-to-center ratio be deployed with such polar results (8/17, 93 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs vs. 15/19, 169 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs)? There's no a single answer but several confounding variables: the opponent for one, the type of throws, the success of the run game that make certain throws more open, the length of the throws, etc. Kyle Meike's piece in AA.com showed 8 of Denard's first 11 passes were 5 yards or less. So keeping throws within shotputting distance is definitely helps.

Another part is the passing situations. Last week, I mentioned Denard was put in a difficult spot passing in unfavorable downs: "8/20 called passing plays were on downs over 11 yards, so taking out the 1st-and-10s. None of his 7 3rd down calls were under 5 yards." A second look revealed only 3 1st-and-10 passing attempts last week. This week? 11. That Denard was given a chance to chip away yards via arm instead of his legs for more favorable 2nd and 3rd down situations allowed him to build some confidence while keeping the chains moving. He's proving he can avoid 2nd-and-10. At least against Minnesota. Damn it, I can't help myself.

The most glaring stat, however, is something that Brian @ MGoBlog has been complaining about for some time now: rolling Denard and moving him out of the pocket. Is he right? This game certainly says so. There are so few incompletions that it's worth laying all 5 of them (4 + 1 PI call) out again:

1+20 | shot | PA, rolls left, sets feet, pumps, bad feet, P3, throws up jump ball, PI called (incomplete)

1+10 | shot | PA, rolls right, moving feet, P2, overthrows Hemingway (incomplete)
1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, throws to a tightly covered Koger out route (incomplete)
2+10 | shot | rolls right, doesn't set feet, P1, throws to Dileo who bobbles could have been caught (incomplete)3+10 | shot | rolls right, sets feet, P2, overthrows Hemingway (incomplete)

Notice a trend? 4 of his 5 incomplete passes were on roll-outs. On my count, Denard rolled 6 times all game, giving us a completion rate of 2/6 out of the pocket. While it's become clear that Denard is more comfortable from the gun, rolling the pocket seems to be the bad within the good, unnecessarily complicating his footwork and taking him out of his comfort zone. Denard has surprisingly great pocket presence, why move him? DEs struggle to maintain gap discipline when he's in the pocket for fear of him taking off; rolling him allows them to give chase without that threat. Borges is effectively cornering Denard. Then asking him to keep his eyes downfield, make reads, re-set his feet and deliver an accurate throw. That's asking a lot from anybody, let alone somebody who is still pretty green in a new offense. And rolling left? Even worse. Borges has taken notice:
"But his fundamentals were so much better other than two throws, okay -- there were two throws and both of them were pocket movements to the left where I think he didn’t get turned very well, and part of that was protection."
From the horse's mouth. I understand Borges is calling these plays with big leads and therefore low-risk situations, and Denard needs to learn at some point, but I will be pissed if the roll-outs are called during critical moments. Denard has so many strengths, most notably his legs. Designing plays, much less passing plays, that do not directly work off that threat seems counterproductive. It's handicapping him at the snap, making him 1-dimensional and not the right dimension. The more we play to his strengths instead of trying to correct his weaknesses, the better off we'll be this year.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

For the third week in a row, Borges has kept the passing plays to a minimum during the first few drives or until Michigan builds a considerable lead. In the grand scheme of things, even as I dissect center vs. shotgun or in-the-pocket vs. out-of-the-pocket, the passing game takes a back seat to Michigan's ground game, as it should. Know that when, not if, shit hits the fan, Borges will revert back to the bread-and-butter which is RUN DENARD RUN.

Pressure was nonexistent. And that's by design because most of the plays called were either 3-step drops or 1 step back and fire; quick throws = not enough time for pressure to arrive. Soft coverage from Minnesota's secondary allowed those quick routes to be open all day too, so Denard didn't really have to do much beyond staring at his first read and making the basic throw. Still, the called plays and routes speak to the direction in which Denard feels most comfortable building a rhythm. Achieving it that early and with such success won't be as easy to replicate with better competition, but it's better than asking him to go playaction deep from the start.

The other thing I wanted to point out was Denard's scramble. He stared down the quick out route and caught the OLB sneaking underneath--what would have been a very dangerous throw and likely a pick--before pulling it down and running himself. Last week, it was Denard locking onto receivers that got him into a lot of trouble. He may not be polished enough to go through 2nd or 3rd reads, but I would almost prefer he just run if his primary read is covered. This is tangible progress and it's really nice to see Denard improve on his decision-making.

It looks like the mini-evolution from under center to shotgun has stabilized. Borges started the season heavier under center but transitioned to (reluctantly accepted?) a predominately shotgun (4:1 ratio) offense. It seems unlikely Borges will eradicate the under center playaction and that's fine; it's not like it doesn't work. In fact, Denard went 4/4 from under center against Minnesota. But that speaks to Borges' creativity, like throwback screens to V. Smith with a convoy waiting for him on the opposite hash. The other throws--the tunnel screen to Gallon or roll-out TE flat--I could live without but as long as they help set up other plays or keep a defense honest, I'm OK deploying them on a minimal basis.

That the defense keeps raising it's ceiling reaffirms my belief there are other assets this team can rely on other than Denard's arm. It's not so much marginalizing the passing game as it is making sure Michigan plays towards its strengths of a potent ground attack, improved defense and field position. Denard doesn't need to be a miracle passer for this team to win. He needs to be a decent enough passer not to lose. That means safe routes, easy reads and whatever else it takes for Michigan to not turn the ball over in the air. With Hagerup as a powerful weapon, Michigan can force strong opponents to execute consistently for 60 minutes in order to beat them. Anything remotely resembling Denard's passing performance against Minnesota and he'll have automatically put his team in a very good position to win.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Well, That Was Fun

Note: Sorry this is so late. I'm trying to make a better effort to get these out on Sunday. All other post-games are linked on MGoBlog here.

Do it again! Do it again!

Imagine each noise by the father as a TD and I was that baby on Saturday. There were probably even enough TDs to cover the entirety of this clip.

I mean what else is there to say? We played pretty damn well. It's hard to ask for much more from the offense, defense and Gibbons' leg. And while you can argue the Gophers aren't exactly stiff competition, it's still football being played out there. Michigan took care of business when they should. They did it emphatically. They did it convincingly. We haven't been able to say that for awhile.

It's hard not to look at the mitigating factors though. Minnesota looked like a glorified scout team--a perfectly polished bye week for Michigan, specifically Denard, to work out kinks and feel confident going into back-to-back road tests. If you were to assemble the ideal team to accommodate Michigan's weaknesses, it'd probably consist of a true-freshman QB and a secondary comprised of 2 offensive players, a guy who missed all of 2010 due to injury and a recent transfer from a random Minnesota state FCS school. Outside of playing for the oldest trophy in college football, there's very little substance left in this so-called rivalry. At times, I felt bad for Minnesota; they have 2-10, perhaps 1-11, written all over them. Michigan was never that bad over the last 3 years but we can at least identify with the feeling of a new head coach, injured quarterbacks, and depleted secondaries. It's not fun.

There is too much good in this game to find dark spots but I will try my best. I always do. Find dark spots that is--not try my best.

GAME NOTES

Air Denard.
After back to back weeks of studying Denard's passing game, and often wanting to find the nearest sharpest object, I imagine this week will be much more fun. His passing line finished at a clean 15/19, 169 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. That's after starting the day 11/11 (!). The difference? A combination of easy throws, short routes and receivers not dropping anything. There were still a few "OH NO DENARD" moments, like when he rolled left and threw a jump-ball to a well-covered Hemingway, but they were overshadowed by improved footwork and accurate throws. I wanted Borges to have Denard come out throwing and they obliged. Though this performance isn't going to exactly strike fear for in the rest of Big Ten, it at least closes the gap where Denard's arm is part of his quarterback play.

Ground Denard. 6 carries for 51 yards and a TD but more importantly, the 4th most frequent ball carrier behind Fitz, Rawls and Shaw. Interestingly enough, Denard never ran the ball in the 2nd half. As good as it is to get a game in for his arm, it's even better to get a game out for his legs. The carries will obviously increase with better competition, as Denard is still by far our best rusher, but saving him from unnecessary punishment is something Hoke has been able to take advantage of and Rodriguez could never afford.

The backs. Smith with football's version of a cycle: passing, rushing, and receiving TD. That's good. His versatility combined with Borges' creativity should be fun to watch for the rest of the year. Fitz and Rawls both did some work, granted with holes I could roll through horizontally. I thought most interesting was Shaw getting some meaningful carries. People forget: not too long ago, he was right up there with Fitz as the season starter. I think Fitz has solidified his spot and Rawls has nowhere to go but up, so it's hard to see Shaw gaining ground in the depth chart, but it's nice to see that there are some viable (and healthy) options back there. Even Hopkins looked sound as McColgan's replacement.

On board with Blake.
Yeaaaaa, so BWS declared it in his debut and TTB is on board this week. Count me in too. Not only is Blake pushing Avery and Floyd for starting time, but he's shown to have some real fire and competitiveness in him which I love from a true freshman. I mean check this out against McKnight (this is the same play Will Campbell comes alive):

He's all "Yes I'm a true-freshman and yes I'm about to be all up in your grill." And then he backs it up. Very, very excited for his future.

Will Campbell coming out party? I've been a little lower on Campbell compared to others, even when he's had some decent performances in the past. I got the feeling people saw one positive play and let their desire for him to be good immediately cloud their judgement. Having said that, if there was any sort of coming out party for Campbell, Minnesota was probably it. He had his Branch/Morelli moment and looked much more consistent in run defense. I still think he has a ceiling this year and that ceiling is being serviceable at best. But that's also all we really need from him this year. Him being reliable provides a huge boost for the rest of the D-line and helps the rotation tremendously.

Borges' playbook. I guess the biggest complaint coming out of Saturday was Borges opening up playbook too much, especially the unnamed diamond formation. At first, I was a bit displeased too but it's really only 1 formation that we run 3-4 plays out of that set; defenses will have to prepare for it, yes, but it's not like Borges can't think of anything else creative. I was more upset about the trips, Smith-to-Dileo run fake TD--that probably could have been saved for a TD we really needed and were struggling to score in the red zone. Overall, however, I've been pleased with how far Borges has come and (relatively) how little he's tampered with last year's potent offense. 58 points is 58 points. All those shotgun counters, misdirection screens--those are welcomed wrinkles that add to this offense, not subtract. Those under center roll outs though, they're another story.

Where is Roundtree?
So Roundtree's involvement in offense (or lack thereof) is becoming increasingly worrisome. Outside of his TD-winning catch against Notre Dame, he's been targeted less and less each week. He dropped a pass that hit him in the numbers this week, which doesn't help his cause. Denard and Roundtree had great chemistry last year but it seems like Gallon, Dileo and Koger have become much more reliable targets. Stonum's absence, I think, plays a huge part because it would bump Roundtree to the slot where he's much more comfortable. Roundtree isn't exactly a corner or fade route kind of receiver. He's still blocking effectively downfield so it's good he's keeping his head up and still playing hard out there.

The future is bright. We got a nice glimpse of our starting backfield in 2013: Devin Gardner and Thomas Rawls. And I must say: the future is bright. Gardner also seems like the perfect quarterback to transition Borges' playbook from Denard to Morris. He doesn't quite have Denard's legs--who does?--but he's a tall quarterback with a big arm. Gardner still has accuracy and read issues--he threw one pass right to a Minnesota defender--but I'm not going to nit-pick against a backup right now. His redshirt better hold up.