Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs
What was so formidable about your opponent today?
Denard: “They’re a great team. They’re a great defensive team, too. And so they played great. Toward the end that’s when we started picking it up. We talked about all week finishing, so that’s what we did. We finished out the end of the game, and we kept fighting the whole game. We never let up.”
What does this moment feel like for you guys?
Kovacs: “It’s pretty good. It feels pretty good. And like Denard said, you have to tip your hat to those guys. Obviously they were struggling a little bit coming in, but we knew it was going to be a dogfight. That’s what the Michigan-Michigan State game is year in and year out. They have a tough defense. They pound the ball on offense. You have to tip your hat to them, but Michigan won today.”
Is this defense good enough to win the Big Ten?
Kovacs: “We believe it, but at the same time, I think if we play like this every week we’re going to be in trouble. We have to keep getting better. That’s one of the things coach Hoke and coach Mattison emphasize: never become complacent. Get better every week. That’s what we plan on doing, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The last defensive stand was sort of reminiscent of the last drive against Notre Dame. Did it feel like redemption or something similar to be able to get the stop this time?
Kovacs: “You know, that’s what I was thinking as we took the field. It’s our opportunity to redeem ourselves and give the offense the ball back. Same situation as Notre Dame, and today we executed. We stopped them when we needed to and made some big plays and got the offense the ball back and let Denard take over.”
I don't always golf. But when I do, I think of brunette girls.
What’s your overall reaction to your team’s reaction to winning No. 900 against Michigan State?
“Well to be honest with you I don’t know if they realized the 900th win. Maybe the two seniors had an idea -- the two captains -- where we’re at, because that wasn’t the point of focus for the week. It was playing a great rivalry game, a game in our division, that’s important to win. Playing hard and playing to represent the 133 years of Michigan football.”
Reaction to Drew Dileo’s game?
“He’s not the biggest guy. He’s not the fastest guy. But the one thing Drew is, he’s a football player. What he does for our football team in a lot of different areas from an off returner in kickoffs to holding on PATs and field goals, I think you all would agree that there were two field goals that were pretty important today. The one at the end, that’s a skill set. He’s just a tough, undersized, not fast enough, but he’s a football player. That’s what he is.”
Where do you think your defense is at right now compared with where you want it to be?
“We really had a bad series in there defensively. You give your opponent credit, but we didn’t do some things well at the start of the second half. They went down and scored the touchdown. You know, I think we’ll look at the film. I think we’ll look at some things we did well, and I hope we repeat those, but we’re not near the defense we need to be to win a championship in this conference.”
Denard was bottled up for most of the game but was able to make some big plays when it counted. What does it say about his leadership ability?
“I think he’s been an outstanding leader. The confidence that he has and his teammates have is part of it. I don’t know if anyone on our sideline thought the game was over. The defense was playing well at that point. Get the ball back and see what happens.”
Can you talk about the fake punt but then holding MSU to a field goal afterwards?
“Yeah that was a very good play for Michigan State. That was a smart play. They saw that we weren’t leveraging the outside, and that’s something that I need to do a better job with as part of the punt return team coaching staff. Because that got them some hope, got them in the game, but the one thing we told the defense: ‘Keep them to a field goal. If we keep them to a field goal here, then good things can happen for us.’ Obviously that’s what happened.”
Did you feel like you did a better job of matching their physicality this year?
“I think so. Yeah. I thought our kids, you know, we wanted to play, finish everything we were doing. Blocks, plays, catches, runs, whatever your job is to do, we wanted to finish. I thought we practiced that way. I thought we did that.”
You’ve talked to us before about Matt Wile having a big leg. What went into the decision to put him out there for the long field goal?
“You answered it. Bigger leg. Stronger leg. That’s one reason why Matt kicks off for us. We had some wind with us. That wind kind of changed really right before the start of the game, so we felt that he would have the leg to do it. He did by kind of a lot.”
What does Michigan State do defensively that’s so effective in terms of bottling up Denard?
“I think they’ve done that to a lot of players, quarterbacks. I don’t know a final statistic, but they have good players. They play extremely aggressive. The things that they like to do, sometimes can be higher risk and higher reward. It’s a belief system they have. They tackle well. They do the things that you need to do in order to play good defense.”
What do you feel like you need to do in order to become a Big Ten championship-level defense? Also, what is Raymon Taylor’s status?
“Raymon got a little boo boo. He’ll be probably okay, most likely. Turnovers. We need to do a better job of creating. We need to do a better job [putting] pressure on the quarterback with four guys. I don’t think that’s a strong suit of ours. That can help our secondary out. I think at times we’re playing too far off the guys in coverage. So that’s a start.”
Gibbons seems a bit of a free spirit.
“What do you mean by that?”
Well, you know, last year at the Sugar Bowl about the brunettes and stuff, not that I don’t agree with him, but …
How do you approach kickers? Do you stay away from them? Do you say something before a big kick? Are you superstitious? Where’s your mind at? Do you go up to him and say, “Hey, we got this one?” Do you --
“I’m with those guys a little bit during practice. I’m not a kicking coach, but it’s kind of like golf, which I’m probably a pretty good golfer ... if I would do it. Those guys, they know what they need to do and how they need to do it. I think them going up to the stadium during the week is helpful because the wind in there’s a little different, especially with the new stuff up there. I think it’s a little different. You know, both those kids, we have a lot of confidence in. And anything else, when you show confidence, kids are going to respond. Not that you don’t rip them once in a while, but I decided when they called the time out, I was just going to watch Gibby do his thing. I don’t know. There’s no magic to it.”
As well as Michigan State’s defense played, you maybe missed a couple opportunities for big plays (dropped pass, missed a block, etc.). Were you disappointed by the execution?
“Oh. I think you could go through every game and there’s going to be execution. We didn’t block down once on a run play that may have been pretty open. We don’t block down. Why? I don’t know. 113,999 or whatever it was? A good defense that you're playing against. You want to see them all execute, but no one has ever played a perfect game. No one will ever play a perfect game. They’re 18-22, 23 years old. We’re going to try and prepare them and remind them and do all those things and grow them right, and then … go play hard.”
Dileo said on the radio that he thought the kick was going wide right. What was your view?
“I watch the people sitting behind the goal post. Because they’ll tell you. I’ll be honest with you. You can’t see it from [the sideline].”
Kovacs said this was the monkey off the back for you guys. Does it feel like that’s what this was for the program, preventing them from beating you five years in a row?
It’s not more meaningful than a “Yeah”?
“It’s an in-state rival. But we have bigger expectations.”
Did you feel like the icing-the-kicker timeout helped you or hurt you?
“I think we were well prepared. Denard did a tremendous job spiking the ball. The field goal team was there. Dan Ferrigno was there, our special teams coach, had all those guys right there ready to go. I think it’s a strategy that can work. Can’t work. You know? Flip a coin.”
What made you go back to Gibbons rather than Wile?
“Because it was his range. We had talked about distance, and it was his range, and he’s more consistent than Matt has been in practice at that range.”
[player transcripts will be up later today]
"We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" — Mark Dantonio
BRENDAN GIBBONS IS THE MOTHERFUCKING THREAT.
Celebrate. Pants optional. Brunettes mandatory.
There was no greater example of Brady Hoke's ability to manufacture something out of nothing using only smirks, confidence, and home remedies from back at Yellowstone than the one-year transformation wrought in kicker Brendan Gibbons. When last we saw Gibbons, he was doing this and I was captioning like this:
WHAT THE BALLS WHY IS THIS MAN'S PICTURE HERE
Hoke put CONFIDENCE in his BRAIN in a VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER, and brunette girls did the rest.
A year after going one of five and doinking an extra point, Gibbons hit 13 of 17 field goals and won the Sugar Bowl. His leg wasn't severely tested and it seemed like Michigan was going out of its way to avoid long field goals, but long field goals are for saps anyway.
In 2012 Gibbons should produce the same steady Garrett-Rivas-like production, pounding him a bunch of field goals under 40 yards and not taking many longer ones.
Rating: unfathomable, or bad and then 3
After being suspended for five of his last six games, Will Hagerup returned against Minnesota and proceeded to thunder two punts off his leg for 75 yards each. Wait. That's not an average. 37.5 yards each. Against MSU two weeks later he pounded seven punts for… 31.8 yards each. In the Ohio State game he immortalized himself with a now very funny but still-not-too-good-for-his-job-prospects GIF:
After Hagerup shanked two Sugar Bowl punts for an average of 25 yards, Michigan finally had enough, inserting freshman Matt Wile for the remainder of the game. Season total: 29 punts for 36 yards each and one muff-induced torrent of profanity from section 44, row 16. Brendan Gibbons 2010 == Will Hagerup 2011.
Despite all that, Hoke announced he'd won the starting job a few days ago. Hopefully Hoke has executed the same sort of mind-meld with Hagerup that he did with Gibbons last year. Early signs to keep an eye out for:
- expressing preference for redheads
- or starting to look like Spuds McKenzie
- or starting to look like Lynyrd Skynrd
- or kicking the everloving hamburglar out of the ball
A return to Hagerup's freshman year performance—second only to Zoltan The Inconceivable for best all-time at M—would be worth almost eight yards a kick, and Hagerup has upside even beyond that, as a 72-yard bomb against Purdue would attest if New York copyright nazis acknowledged fair use.
Reaching that is a matter of recovering his freshman chi. That's unpredictable. Think of the Gibbons.
If Hagerup doesn't Michigan will be okay. Sophomore Matt Wile's 17 punts a year ago averaged 42 yards each. He's got a big leg—he also handled kickoffs—and was an Army AA kicker and all that. The bottom here is average.
Kickoffs and Return Units
We'll start with the kickoffs since it's uncertain how much they'll matter. The Mathlete predicts that half of all kickoffs will now be touchbacks, and I think it may be even higher as coaches decide on the safe start at the 25 over a small shot at something better.
This may be good for Michigan in the short term. They were terrible at kick returns last year, averaging just 18.4 yards an attempt. That was good for 117th. That's not a huge surprise when your top two returners were Martavious Odoms and Vincent Smith, who no one will confuse with top-end athletes. Odoms is gone now and Smith seems to have lost the job to Dennis Norfleet, who is Smith except quicker than neutrinos, and Josh Furman, who is probably the fastest guy on the team not named Denard. Furman might not have much wiggle but he can fly. Michigan should improve here, for as much as it matters.
When kicking off Michigan was average a year ago and figures to be again.
Hoke also worked his juju with Jeremy Gallon, who went from this…
Jeremy Gallon special teams error limit: determined. It is ten billion. I'm obviously on the tolerant side of the scale when it comes to coaching errors (outside of obvious game theory errors, about which I have an Al Qaeda level of zealotry) but JESUS GOD RICH RODRIGUEZ WHY DID YOU LET JEREMY GALLON RETURN KICKS AND PUNTS FOR TEN GAMES.
…to a solid, error-free returner. Michigan got punt returns up to 53rd nationally (9 yards each) and last season is notably free of ALL CAPS moaning about fumbles and punts left unfielded. I'm vaguely hoping we see a second guy back there, probably Dileo, against teams that go to the rugby style spread punt, but am not banking on it. This, too, should be a blank.
There is some possibility that having a dedicated special teams coach will let Michigan block some stuff or get creative on a return or finally go to the max gunner style most teams are running these days, and not HOLDING ON TO THE DAMN BALL is a constant threat. The likeliest outcome is meh all around, which fine.
Goodbye Gateway. You probably have a vague familiarity with Gateway High School in Pennsylvania as that place that puts out a bunch of guys who Michigan recruits, occasionally secures, but more often go elsewhere in the Midwest, sometimes annoyingly. Justin King, one-time Michigan lock-type substance who ended up at Penn State, is the most frustrating loss in retrospect. While King's presence with PSU didn't help them win any games against Michigan…
…adding an All-Big Ten corner (even if a second team one) to the 2006 team had the potential to flip one or both of the OSU and USC games, in which you may remember Chris Graham and Morgan Trent getting torched repeatedly. In Graham's defense, he was a brick of muscle badly miscast as a nickel corner against OSU's passing spread that year, which is all the more reason King's presence could have been a game-hanging one.
You may also remember Gateway as the home of Shayne Hale and Cameron Saddler, two of the guys on the "Pittsburgh is basically Mississippi" list of players who inexplicably chose the local half-empty NFL stadium over, you know, Michigan. And others I suppose. I was pretty sure that Michigan had acquired at least a couple guys from that school (Marlin Jackson?) but Rivals shows none.
Anyway, this is an extremely long preamble to a surprising happening: due to severe budget cuts it looks like long-time Gateway coach Terry Smith may be forced out. The school district is dropping their athletic director position—also held by Smith—to part-time and the guy can get a regular gig somewhere else. Any impact this has on Michigan will be minimal since PA recruiting has been erratic at best since Teryl Austin departed, but apparently the mention of changes at Gateway are enough to prompt the fist-shaking realization of what could have been if Justin King had just gone where everyone expected him to. I still remember the post-it note I would scribble Michigan's hypothetical recruiting class on when in boring work meetings.
The comparison is inescapable. MGoFave-rave Brian Phillips spent the duration of Wimbledon at Wimbledon, returning with autism-spectrum-on-the-scene reports about a triumphant Roger Federer that frequently reference the capital-A "Apparatus" and find Phillips yelled at by a multicultural cornucopia of annoyed television people.
It's impossible to read them and not think about David Foster Wallace, and yet Phillips comes out looking pretty okay despite that inevitability. I enjoyed them… a lot. It turns out I like reading about tennis far more than I enjoy watching it. You might as well. Five parts!
- Part 1: finding a press pass and having a hallucinatory experience
- Part 2: Nadal loses to some guy!
- Part 3: People, toilets, things happening
- Part 4: Phillips's comically bloodshot eye, etc
- Part 5: Watching Murray lose to Federer in a room with a spasming Scottish lady
I love Grantland. Viva Bill Simmons.
But you're supposed to be an incorporeal floating voice. Fouad goes down the twitter rabbit hole and comes out with Carl Grapentine in the flesh:
He's got a radio show in Chicago and is not a ball of soothing energy, which is quite a surprise. Fouad finds this a little disturbing, and I'm with him. But I find this more disturbing:
I know there are some anti-Grapentine folks out there in the fan base
Who are these people? We must find them and give them, I don't know, Fort Wayne Mad Antz season tickets. Grapentine's voice is as integral to the Michigan Stadium experience as Bud Lynch's is at Joe Louis. He's the voice of the program. I find the idea people would dislike him—maybe prefer the FREEEEE PIZZZZAAA guy—alarming.
Good luck with that. If you're not a season ticket holder and you want to buy single-game tickets to the MSU game, you have to buy UMass plus two of Air Force, Illinois, Northwestern, and Iowa. Total charge for the four games is $380, $95 bucks a ticket… which seems about double what you could get from scalpers on gameday. I'm guessing they'll sell out since scalpers will try to make it work selling to people pathologically afraid of going to the stadium without a ticket in hand.
NCAA reviews coming out. Unlike myself, Ace is still a feverish devotee thanks to a band of friends who he plays with online. He'll have a review whenever he can pry himself away. While you're waiting, MJD says "just buy last year's," which he thought was a major leap forward in the series. Midnight Maize highlights the OCD approach—which was mine when I kept buying the thing—taken by the serious folks at Operation Sports. Some of these complaints are the same ones I had five years ago:
Apparently, Brent Venables taught the NCAA Football 13 team all about safety play because receivers run right past them into the open field. Vertical routes with fast receivers are nothing but money, it's horrendous. …
There aren't penalties in football except for the occasional holding and offsides!" - Anyone [whose] only experience with football was through NCAA Football 13. …
There are more plays than just screen plays and deep passes computer AI. Seriously. The A.I. Playcalling is absolutely atrocious from what I'm seeing in the early going. Or maybe it's just the AI's execution? Regardless, the AI seems way off this year when it comes to running an offense.
I'm glad I missed the era when four years into your dynasty nobody had a kicker who could hit an extra point.
On the Dantonio impression. Shane Morris deployed one:
What makes this funny to me is that this is clearly a conversation that actually happened almost word for word. Shane's clearly talking about Taybor Pepper, the longsnapper who was going to walk-on at Michigan before Dantonio tossed him a scholarship. Shane adds a "State" in there when he means just "Michigan," so it's a little confusing, but it's clear that at some camp Dantonio approached Shane Morris and had a little exchange about the importance of long-snapping.
Which is really important starting NOW. 2011: no one cares about long-snappers even a little. 2012: Auburn pays 180k for one.
The pointlessness of watch lists. It's watch list season, when every returning starter in America is named to their positionally-appropriate reminder that Award X exists. This will be the only time watch lists are mentioned on the blog, because this is how silly they are:
Brendan Gibbons converted 1-of-5 field-goal attempts as a freshman in 2010, which helped lead the Michigan football team to a last-place finish in placekicking -- nationally.
Two years later, he's one of 30 players to land on the watch list for the Lou Groza Award, which is presented annually to the nation's top kicker.
No offense to Keith Stone, but Gibbons's career long is 43 yards. Watch lists are inane.
Quality people. Kitchener has apparently filed a pointless lawsuit against the Daily because they said they offered Trouba money. Given the standards for libel prosecution on both sides of the border, the chances of success are 0% and the Rangers are threatening freedom of the press because they'd like to maintain the fiction that certain OHL players get dollars in excess of the $50-a-week stipend they haven't changed since the 80s.
Etc.: The free Blue Ribbon Big Ten preview this year is Michigan. The primary question it asks is "why would anyone pay for this"? Their prediction is… not made. Woo! Meanwhile, Phil Steele says M is one of 11 teams that fit the "national championship mold".
The Insight Bowl is now called the Valley of the Sun Bowl, not to be confused with that other Sun Bowl. It is now the only bowl game other than the Rose and Gator to have an actual non-sponsor name, which means it's probably not long for this world.
Special Teams: Bit of a mixed bag, just not in the way you expected.
This is the final edition of the 2011 Preview Review, focusing on special teams and Brian's "stupid predictions"—his term, not mine. Instead of breaking it down in the categories I've used in the two previous posts, I'm just going to go prediction-by-prediction for this one, since there's obviously less to cover here.
First, however... never forget:
This picture, encapsulating the gawd-awfulness of Michigan's 2010 attempts to split the uprights with a football, prefaced the preview section for kickers. The general assumption, given said gawd-awfulness, was that highly-touted freshman Matt Wile would step onto campus and immediately take over the starting job. Instead, three photos of post-shank Brendan Gibbons graced the top of the "kicker" section ("Rating: 2?"), followed by this caption:
WHAT THE BALLS WHY IS THIS MAN'S PICTURE HERE
It was a legitimate question. Gibbons went 1-for-4 in the 2010 regular season, lost his job to Seth Broekhuizen (3-for-9), then put a fitting cap on RichRod's final season by completely biffing a 35-yarder in the Gator Bowl. Optimism, well, was justifiably absent:
The idea of Gibbons hitting the field again gives me hives. At least this time around there's another option, though it's an option that lost out to Brendan Gibbons. Guh.
I always punt on kickers I haven't seen play but the chances Michigan has come up totally incompetent on two straight scholarship guys is low. Either Gibbons has gotten a lot better or they're trying not to put too much on Wile's plate.
So, of course, Gibbons goes out and hits 13 of 17 field goals, then cements himself in Michigan lore by drilling the game-winner in the Sugar Bowl while thinking about brunettes. By midseason, I wasn't even hiding my eyes when Hoke sent out the field goal unit. Gibbons improved dramatically; I won't attempt to figure out why—kickers are weird—but the stark contrast in reactions between Hoke and Rodriguez when the kicking game went to hell isn't a bad place to start.
The aspect of the kicking game that purported to be rock-solid was punting, where Wile was supposed to hold down the fort for four games until Will Hagerup made a grand, Zoltan-esque return from suspension.
If he manages to get through September without immolating his career, Michigan will have one of those punters color commentators call a "weapon" whenever he strolls onto the field. In Hagerup's case this is almost not hyperbolic.
Brian gave the punters a rating of "3, then 5" with the expectation that Hagerup would put behind him the early struggles of his freshman season and punt like the guy who averaged 44 yards per boot in Big Ten play. Instead, he wasn't even the best punter on the team: Wile averaged 42 yards per punt, while Hagerup managed just 36. Hagerup still started for most of the season, but when he shanked punts for 26 and 24 yards in the Sugar Bowl, Wile came on in relief and again performed better. Michigan finished the season 109th in net punting, a bitterly disappointing effort from a unit that was thought to be a strength.
Less surprising were Michigan's struggles in the return game, where Jeremy Gallon's contined presence at punt returner after finding every conceivable way to fumble in 2010 was deemed "inexplicable." There was one mission, and one mission only:
Gallon and the kick returners? Ask again later. I'm not expecting miracles. Just HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL.
There were no miracles. Gallon averaged a hair over ten yards per punt return as the Wolverines finished 53rd nationally in that category. Martavious Odoms and Vincent Smith handled most of the kick return duties; both were underwhelming, and Michigan was 117th in the country, averaging just 18.4 yards. Fumbles were notably absent, however, and thus the masses were placated.
Now we delve into the "Heuristics and Stupid Prediction" portion of the preview. Brian again recounted RichRod's "weird evil turnover juju," then predicted that Michigan would experience a much-needed regression to the mean after finishing -10 in turnover margin in 2010, in large part due to a competent defense and experience (say what?) at quarterback.
If Robinson remains healthy Michigan should improve significantly. The defense has to suck less and Robinson's responsibility should improve rapidly relative to players more than a year removed from being novelty freak shows. I'm afraid that Robinson is just a fumble-prone guy—Mike Hart didn't need experience to hold on to the damn ball—but the interception rate should dip considerably.
On the other side of the ball, a defense that rushes more than three players and has Martin, RVB, and Roh should get back to at least average in sacks. The center of the Gaussian distribution here is probably –3 turnovers on the year; even that would be massive improvement.
Robinson's interception rate, unfortunately, did not take a dive, but that didn't stop the Wolverines from vastly exceeding those expectations. Michigan finished +7 on the year, jumping from 109th to 25th in the national rankings.
The part you all want to see, however, is the final, "stupid" prediction. Before the ultimate unveiling, Brian put forth best-case and worst-case scenarios. Your nightmare season:
There's no bottom if Denard and a couple of other key defensive players are hurt. Leaving the worst-worst case out, a relatively healthy Michigan has no business losing to WMU, EMU, Minnesota, or Purdue at home.
San Diego State, Northwestern, Illinois are all losable but Denard should be able to snake at least one of those. 5-7 is the floor.
Obviously, none of that happened, because this website is not devoted to pictures of kittens. As for the best-case season:
The schedule is fairly soft, with no true road games until Michigan State (the game at Northwestern will be at least half M fans) and both Penn State and Wisconsin rotating off. If the offense maintains its current level of productivity and Mattison mediocres the defense real good, the only game that still seems entirely out of reach is Nebraska.
That's not to say Michigan can reasonably expect to win all games in reach. Taking more than two from Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, and the Akron State Golden Bobcats seems to be irrational optimism. 9-3 is about all you can reasonably hope for.
Take out what ended up being overblown faith in Nebraska and understandable skepticism about the defense being anything better than mediocre and this is essentially what happened. Hooray for besting the "best-case" scenario. Less hooray for overrating Iowa and seeing them beat us anyway.
And finally, Brian's actual prediction:
I add it up and I come up with eight wins and change. Assume one irreplaceable player is annihilated and that comes back down to an even 8-4. Unlike last year, when I predicted 7-5 but thought 6-6 was more likely than 8-4, I think Michigan is more likely to surprise to the positive until such time as we have another Woolfolk ankle explosion pity party.
Some commenters have suggested that the exactingly specific predictions in the previous posts today suggest I'd be predicting something better than 8-4, but I think turnovers, while getting much better, will still be in the red. Though the special teams issues can't be as bad they will still be a problem that could kill Michigan in a close game.
Robinson, Martin, Van Bergen, and Demens all survived the season without significant injury; dodging those potential bullets cannot be understated in its significance. Throw in Michigan's turnover reversal, a defense that surprised even the most irrational optimist, and a competent kicking game—plus the implosion in Columbus—and you get a 10-2 regular season, landmark victories over Notre Dame and Ohio State, and a (completely fluky) Sugar Bowl triumph over Virginia Tech.
Please predict 10-2 this time around, Brian. That's how these things work, right?