From Portage Northern.
9/22/2013 – Michigan 24, UConn 21 – 4-0
I watched the UConn game with two diehards who happen to be in town from out of state. I'd spent large chunks of the past decade trying to get one of these guys to come over to watch Michigan games for the same reason he refused to do so: he experienced games on television as an emotional trial to be bested. I'm the same way, but talk only goes so far.
So there's four of us in the room when Devin Gardner takes off up the middle for a sixteen-yard touchdown on third and eleven. Michigan's up seven midway through the first quarter. No one does anything. There's no whooping or even a slight fist pump or a clap. We just stare at the television, internally relieved but marshaling our strength for the road ahead like international meth kingpins on the lamb.
It takes a special kind of paranoia to be petrified about a game like that against a team like that, but it was redeemed in full. The recent history of Michigan football* lends itself towards nuanced discussion of this particular vintage of terror, and this one was spicy and piquant with notes of Denard Robinson's role in 2009 Iowa and 2002 Utah, which ended 10-7 despite the Utah offense scraping together only 200 yards of total offense. The nose was full-bodied, redolent of 2010 Iowa, and 2010 Michigan State, and the first three quarters of 2011 Notre Dame.
The aftertaste was like filling your mouth with iron shavings and walking into a strong magnetic field.
One of the worst things from the worst things column last week was the familiarity of all this: struggles against mediocre competition that throw a wet blanket on your season after Michigan beats Notre Dame and gets all hyped up about it. To that you can add an even darker familiarity now, one that you may have been reminded of when ABC flipped to the end of the Texas-Kansas State game just in time to see Greg Robinson do a little dance of joy.
What is Michigan doing on offense? I don't know. They come in saying they're going to manball it up; they are largely prevented from doing so by Denard Robinson. They do dump the stretch play that had been Michigan's primary way of gaining yards on the ground for five years, when they have David Molk and Patrick Omameh and Michael Schofield on the interior of the line.
Denard's gone, as are Molk and Omameh; Schofield's at right tackle, a spot that's generally less important than those guard spots on stretch plays. So of course now is the moment when Michigan turns to the stretch as their base. They suck at that, unsurprisingly. They haven't run more than five stretch plays per year since Rodriguez left.
You could see the confusion last week, when guys were leaving first level defenders with easy paths to the backfield. Those plays against Akron were shockingly bad. You have a guy between yourself and the center, you deal with him before moving to the second level. Otherwise you die. Whether the issue there was the call or the execution, the underlying symptom is the same one that plagued Michigan's defense during the Rodriguez era: never settling on who you are and being terrible at everything as a natural consequence.
I mean, how insane is it that after two years with an offensive line entirely recruited to run the stretch they install it once Kyle Kalis is the right guard?
This is the second straight year Michigan has one of the worst running games in the country papered over by the fact that its quarterback can scoot for 40 yards without breaking a sweat. Toussaint can't see what's in front of his face sometimes. Neither can the line. While Toussaint showed his ability in open space on his touchdown, Michigan found itself behind the chains far too often against a defense that had just been ripped apart by Maryland. Michigan is looking up at North Texas, Tulane, and Florida Atlantic in TFLs allowed after four games. Michigan is 118th(!!!) of 123 qualifying teams in tackles for loss allowed.
Michigan lacks an identity, and once in a while they come out doing something completely different and disastrous (3-3-5 against Purdue; under center against Iowa). In this one, Gardner's inability to throw straight makes it impossible to judge the playcalling, but more ominous than the already-plenty-ominous dropoff of Michigan's quarterback is the persistent clown show on the offensive line. Any idea that the problems may have been fluky is now gone. This is Michigan, still: looking at the quarterback as the cause of and solution to all problems.
*[For a handy one-sentence review, let's go to the Hoover Street Rag:
Michigan is ALWAYS going to get an opponent's best shot, because if you beat Michigan, your name gets etched in history, next to the Appalachian States, next to the Toledos.
I am not sure if that is meant with ironic lilt or not. This is Michigan, fergodsakes?]
Also here is the bizarre Eminem-flavored opener.
Brady Hoke Epic Double Point Of The Week. The only truly good things that happened in this game happened on defense and there was one incredibly critical play that turned the game around. You know what it is already; you know it's about to be featured in the double fist pump, you know that Desmond Morgan is the man who made the play.
Honorable mention: Frank Clark, for sacking people frequently. Blake Countess, for seeming to be good at coverage. Fitzgerald Toussaint, for busting a much needed 35-yard touchdown en route to a 100 yard game that means I no longer have to predict 100 yard games for Fitzgerald Toussaint every week in the game preview.
Epic Double Point Standings.
1.0: Devin Gardner (ND), Jeremy Gallon (ND), Desmond Morgan(UConn)
0.5: Cam Gordon (CMU), Brennen Beyer (CMU)
Brady Hoke Epic Double Fist-Pump Of The Week. Michigan had just failed to convert a fourth and two, looked virtually incapable of driving the field against UConn, and trailed by seven points in the fourth quarter. UConn dropped to pass; Desmond Morgan dropped into a seam route, leap, speared the ball, and returned it to the UConn eleven yard line. One play later it was tied. Huzzah, Desmond Morgan.
Honorable mention: Frank Clark crushes UConn's inept right tackle for a critical sack on UConn's final drive. Gardner actually pitches on a speed option this time.
Epic Double Fist-Pumps Past.
8/31/2013: Dymonte Thomas introduces himself by blocking a punt.
9/7/2013: Jeremy Gallon spins through four Notre Dame defenders for a 61-yard touchdown.
9/14/2013: Michigan does not lose to Akron. Thanks, Thomas Gordon.
9/21/2013: Desmond Morgan's leaping one-handed spear INT saves Michigan's bacon against UConn.
[After the JUMP: PANIC and RUN AROUND SCREAMING.]
FORMATION NOTES: Discontent with trying to file plays on which a tight end motio`ns inside of the tackle box but does not line up as a pure fullback as either "ace" or "I-Form," I've created new lingo. This is "Ace H":
Welcome it. It will be your good friend for a long time.
As the coaches mentioned, Akron spent much of the day in bear fronts. That means they folded linebackers inside of their ends at the LOS like so:
I noted this as 6-2 bear. When only one Akron player was folded inside it was 5-3 bear. (On almost all plausible run snaps Akron showed an eight-man front.)
PERSONNEL NOTES: OL was the usual, with Magnuson making his regular goal-line cameo. AJ Williams didn't play and Funchess went out late, paving the way for a lot of Jake Butt and the debut of Jordan Paskorz, runnin' routes with a broken hand.
Green got two snaps, I think, and Justice Hayes was briefly featured as a second back in a shotgun 2-back formation; all he did was pass block. Wideouts were as usual. If you squint maybe you can perceive Chesson getting more time than he has in the past.
Oh: again there was a small Norfleet package. Hopefully as the season goes along "Norfleet is on the field" starts being less than 90% "Norfleet is getting the ball."
[After THE JUMP: wha happen]
The weekly roundtable wonders about this whole "let's not get another Gardner" plan (that isn't the plan). Our depth chart:
|What, my Henson-ian athleticism isn't good enough for ya? [Upchurch]|
- Brian Cook: Field General!
- Seth Fisher: Legit 4.4 Speed!
- Ace Anbender: Top Recruiter!
- Heiko Yang: Huge Arm!
- Blue in South Bend: Super Accurate!
- Coach Brown: Reads Defenses!
- Mathlete: Academic All-American!
This one comes from the mailbag, a guy appropriately named "Dual Threat." If you notice a whole lot of positivity in it, it's because it was sent before last Saturday. I'll posit his question as he sent it:
My point of view is we should be recruiting more dual threat-ers. While Morris and Speight are no doubt going to be good pocket passers, leaving the running aspect of the position off the table leaves a huge hole in the offensive arsenal going forward.
I feel dual threat QBs are going to be the future of dominant college football programs going forward (I see Alabama as a current exception, not the norm in the future). Would you not sacrifice a bit of QB passing ability for a chunk of QB running ability to open up that attack dimension? Wouldn't you be foolish not to? Thoughts?
Brian: It's clear that all things being equal, Michigan's going to prefer advanced passers to guys who can glide for 35 yards without looking like they're moving particularly fast. And that's a little bit of a bummer to me, since a guy who can make people pay with his legs opens up many more possibilities in your offense.
What remains to be seen is whether Michigan is going to completely eschew athletic types that need some molding. Would they go the Charlie Weis route and recruit Terrelle Pryor as a wide receiver? I have nothing to base this on but I don't think so. If there's a Gardner or Pryor in the area, Michigan will probably go after them as hard as they would Morris.
After securing my copy of the Akron game, which somehow didn't instantaneously melt my hard drive, I solicited GIF requests on Twitter. A sampling of your responses:
There were also requests for kittens, corgis, Henrik Zetterberg, and a Men In Black-style memory erase. This quickly devolved into people sending me GIFs of adorable animals. I may have requested this, too.
Worst win ever? Worst win ever.
[After THE JUMP: actual football GIFs. Well, for the most part.]
Taylor Lewan and Devin Gardner
As leaders of this team, what was your message to your teammates after this game?
Lewan: "It was embarrassing. Gotta give it to Akron. They played a hard-fought game. We didn't prepare. This is on the seniors, this is on the leadership of this team, and extremely poor, poor leadership. Especially on my side. Being the one offensive captain on this team, I put that offensive performance on myself. Devin [Gardner] didn't have enough time to throw. Our running backs didn't have enough holes, and that's my fault. That's my fault."
Gardner: "I mean, he pretty much said it all. I talked to Tom Brady and he talked about being the best quarterback for the team, every time out in practice and in the game. I was not the best quarterback for the team today. Like [Lewan] said, it's embarrassing, and we're going to respond. We won the football game, and we're going to respond, I can guarantee you that."
This afternoon in front of a late-arriving, non-sellout crowd at the Big House, Michigan faced off against an Akron team that went 1-11, 1-11, and 1-11 in the last three seasons, started the year with a 38-7 loss to UCF, spent last weekend getting outgained and nearly outscored by FCS James Madison, and is considered the worst team in the FBS. This was a game to work out the kinks in the playbook, get in some good reps for the backups, and give a good show for the fans who probably paid $5 for a ticket from their friend who likes to sleep in on Saturdays.
At first, it looked like all would go as expected; Michigan forced an Akron punt on their opening drive, and after Fitz Toussaint rushed for a two-yard loss, Devin Gardner completed five consecutive passes, capped by a 48-yard toss to Devin Funchess, who outran the entire Akron secondary en route to the end zone.
Concern started to grow when Michigan's next drive netted zero yards. The first quarter ended with the score at 7-3, Wolverines; surely, Michigan would pull away any time now.
Then Brendan Gibbons missed a 45-yard field goal to start the second quarter, snapping his streak of 16 consecutive makes. After the defense forced a three-and-out, the Wolverines drove deep into Zips territory, only for Devin Gardner to fumble away the possession on a speed option—a play in which Fitz Toussaint had a clear touchdown if Gardner would've pitched. The defense again picked up the offense, as Blake Countess intercepted a Kyle Pohl pass and returned it all the way to the Akron 20-yard line. Any time now...
Three plays later, Gardner forced a pass into coverage that Akron's DeAndre Scott intercepted easily. The Zips were able to mount a plodding drive that oozed into Michigan territory; after taking a delay of game on fourth-and-one, however, Robert Stein's 45-yard field goal clanged off the left upright. Any time now...
Two plays later, Gardner threw the ball to a well-covered Jeremy Gallon; Akron's Justin March came away with the interception. Luckily for Michigan, only 29 seconds remained on the clock. Stein's 55-yard attempt with 0:05 left in the half went wide left, and the Wolverines were happy to kneel out the clock and regroup at halftime. Any time now...
The second half began inauspiciously, with the Wolverines gaining just one yard on three plays before a Matt Wile punt. Akron's ensuing possession went 75 yards in eight plays, ending in a 28-yard touchdown from Pohl to a wide-open Zach D'Orazio, who went unmolested up the seam as the linebackers failed to get depth on their drops and the safeties couldn't close the gap. Akron 10, Michigan 7. ANY TIME NOW...
Devin Gardner bounced back from his turnovers and gave U-M fans a brief respite from PANIC on the next possession, scoring on a 36-yard inverted veer keeper—for seemingly the first time all day, Michigan got great blocking up front, and Jeremy Jackson guaranteed the score by wiping out three Akron defenders downfield. The defense held up their end, too, forcing another three-and-out, and the Wolverines took a 21-10 lead when Jehu Chesson took his first career reception on a crossing route, broke through a few (poor) tackling attempts by the Akron secondary, and jetted into the corner of the end zone. After Michigan came up with another stop, disaster averted, right?
Wrong. Two plays into the fourth quarter, Al Borges tried to set up a screen pass on third-and-9. Facing heavy pressure, Gardner sidearmed a horribly ill-advised throw directly into the arms of Justin March; as noted earlier, March plays for Akron. He waltzed 27 yards untouched into the end zone. ANY TIME NOW...
Michigan's next drive went nowhere, and Wile didn't help matters by booting a 35-yard punt—not even among his two worst on the day—to set up the Zips on their own 39. A 43-yard pass from Pohl to L.T. Smith set up Akron at the Michigan seven. The Wolverines caught a huge break two plays later, when Pohl threw a play-action pass right to Jarrod Wilson (above, Upchurch). Wilson smartly took a knee in the end zone, giving Michigan the ball on the 20. Time to run out the clock, yes?
Well, not quite. Fitz Toussaint started the drive with a 16-yard run, but his two ensuing carries netted a lone yard. After Gardner's third-down pass to Gallon came up just short of the sticks, Wile shanked a 22-yard punt. The Zips went on an 11-play march down the field, and after getting stuffed twice at the goal line, scored the go-ahead touchdown when they spread the field—Pohl rolled right and found receiver Tyrell Goodman all alone. 24-21, Akron. 4:10 left on the clock. Full-blown PANIC.
Gardner went back to what he'd done best all game, run the football, taking off for a 35-yard gain to move Michigan into Akron territory on the next possession. He found Gallon on the sideline for a 20-yard gain on the very next play, and Michigan got another first down when Gardner's throw to Jake Butt in the end zone drew a pass interference call. Toussaint found a big hole on the left side of the line and took advantage for a two-yard touchdown on the next play. 28-24, Michigan. 2:49 left. Now was the time, yes?
Well, kinda. First, Pohl found Jerrod Dillard for a 24-yard gain, and the Zips moved into Michigan territory two plays later when Blake Countess jumped offsides on a blitz. A 19-yard run by Conor Hundley on third-and-five gave the Zips a first down at the Michigan 27. Despite a holding call moving them back ten yards, Akron kept pushing downfield, with Pohl finding Smith all alone at the 11-yard line after escaping the pocket. Another pass to Smith gave Akron a third-and-one on the Michigan two as the clock ticked down to 0:15. An ill-advised toss play to Jawon Chisholm moved the ball back two yards; the Zips burned their final timeout. Fourth down, five seconds left, ball on the Michigan four.
Greg Mattison dialed up a heavy blitz, and Pohl's desperation pass found only fieldturf, perhaps helped by a missed holding call in the Michigan secondary. The time had finally come, with zero seconds on the clock. Michigan 28, Akron 24, The Horror II narrowly avoided.
In the end, Michigan outgained the worst FBS team outside of Georgia State by seven yards—seven very critical yards, as it turned out. Gardner's 248 passing yards and 103 rushing yards were offset by his four turnovers, including his second pick-six in as many games. The offensive line struggled to open up holes against a very small Akron defensive front. The defense, for their part, allowed far too many passes over the middle and couldn't muster a good pass rush until the game's final play; they gave up big plays, too, as both Raymon Taylor and Jourdan Lewis were beat for big gains over the top.
"This is an embarrassment," Taylor Lewan said after the game. Even with the victory, there's no argument here.