Peppers at 10, which seems low.
Vastly underrated; properly rated
Previously: The Offense
My look back at Brian's epic 2011 football preview continues with the defense. This one got a lot more interesting than the offense, because despite all the warm fuzzies we felt from the GERG-to-Greg transition*, expecting a jump from the #110 total defense to #17 would have been outrageous. As in get-this-man-a-straitjacket outrageous.
Thankfully, the performance of the defense exceeded all reasonable expectations, and even most of the unreasonable ones. Let's peep last year's predictions, shall we?
*Not to mention the Tony-Gibson-to-Anyone-But-Tony-Gibson transition.
The move to three-tech won't be an issue [for Ryan Van Bergen]. He played it two years ago and when Michigan went to a four man front last year they stuck him back inside. He's now 290, a three year starter, and a senior. He's a good bet to crack double-digit TFLs and get some All Big Ten mention.
RVB actually ended up at strongside DE, which probably helped him lead the team with 12.5 TFLs. He ended up earning All-Big Ten honorable mention from both the coaches and media and graduating as one of the most beloved Wolverines in recent memory.
Demens will benefit from the move to back to the 4-3 under more than anyone save Craig Roh. With RVB and Martin shielding him from linemen he won't be in nearly as many hopeless situations where he's one-on-one with a guard He should be the team's leading tackler by a healthy margin and see his TFLs skyrocket from the measly 1.5 he managed a year ago.
Michigan's defense will probably be too bad to warrant much All Big Ten consideration, but honorable mention seems reasonable.
A year after inexplicably having to move past not just Obi Ezeh, but converted fullback Mark Moundros, on the depth chart at middle linebacker despite subsequently making it painfully obvious that he should've been the starter all along, Demens had his breakout season. He led the team with 94 tackles—second was Jordan Kovacs at 75—and saw his TFLs jump to a respectable five. Like Van Bergen, Demens was an all-conference honorable mention.
Even so, [Kovacs's] season was a step forward from obvious liability to "certainly not a liability." Even if he's a walk-on and even if he's obviously small and slow, he should continue improving. He'll be a little less small and slow with another year of conditioning. Being in a coherent defensive system should help put him in positions to make plays. His redshirt year was not spent on the team so he's not as close to his ceiling as your average redshirt junior.
He's not going to be Reggie Nelson. That won't keep him from becoming the first Michigan safety you only hate a little tiny bit since Jamar Adams.
This may still be underselling Kovacs, who took to competent coaching even better than expected and became the team's rock in the secondary, covering for his athletic limitations with usually-impeccable positioning. No, he's not Reggie Nelson, but I don't think you can find a remotely rational Michigan fan who harbors even the tiniest bit of ill will towards Kovacs. Michigan's shocking lack of big plays allowed—both against the pass and the run—can largely be attributed to his play; despite missing a game, Kovacs led the team with 51 solo tackles. He also notched 8 TFLs. All hail Kovacs.
I have the same optimism about this Johnson/Gordon combo that I had last year. This, of course, terrifies me. It seems unnatural to think an unproven Michigan safety could be competent. I like Gordon's agility and tackling, though, and while there will be rough spots early by midseason he should settle into that midlevel safety range like Englemon or Barringer.
This time around, the optimism regarding the free safety position was justified. Thomas Gordon had his share of struggles, especially late in the season, but for the most part he was quite competent. Around here, safety competence is a luxury on par with consistent placekicking.
Sacks almost double from 1.4 per game to 2.4. That would be a move from 98th to around 30th.
Michigan finished with 2.3 sacks per game. That put them at... 29th. Tip o' the cap.
Turnovers forced go from 19 to 27.
Brian's continued insistence that turnover luck would someday go Michigan's way finally paid off; the Wolverines forced 29 turnovers. It also helped that this defense actually tackled people.
EVERYTHING SEEMS WONDERFUL
YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW RIGHT THIS WOULD BE.
Morgan was the MGoBlog Sleeper of the Year based on a wide array of scouting reports that praise his instincts, lateral mobility, and toughnosed hard gritty gritness. I thought he'd have to cool his heels behind Demens for a couple years, but he may get on the field quicker than anyone expected.
No full credit simply because Mike Jones was projected as the starter at WLB, a fact I had completely forgotten about until I looked back at the preview. Morgan ended up playing in 12 games, starting seven (the first being in week two against ND), and finished fifth on the team in tackles.
If [J.T. Floyd] gets a lot better this year it's time to take the Gibson chatter seriously.
This wasn't really a prediction, but... yeah. Tony Gibson minus all of the points.
Beyond Talbott it's true freshmen, but at least there's a horde of them. Maryland's Blake Countess arrives with the most hype and should be the biggest threat to play. (Caveat: last year Cullen Christian arrived with the most hype.)
Points for mentioning Countess as the most likely freshman to see the field. No points for giving him one sentence when he took over the starting job by midseason, especially considering the Christian caveat. As you'll see, the hype that should've surrounded Countess went—justifiably, in the preseason—to Courtney Avery.
Not So Much
Healthy again and less abandoned in the middle of the defense, Martin's numbers should soar. Before the sprain Martin was on pace for 11 TFLs and 4 sacks; after it he got just a half TFL the rest of the year. While the front of the schedule is a bit easier, Martin had 8.5 TFLs and 51 tackles a year ago. Reasonable progression should have gotten him to 11. Add in further progression plus three DL coaches plus a bit more help on the line plus a free-roaming QB attack role and 15 to 18 TFLs plus a little more QB terror should be within reach. He should be All Big Ten. He might be better.
I hate that I have to put this prediction in this category, but here it is. While Martin was the best player on the defense, his numbers were hampered by having to play the nose; he finished with six TFLs and 3.5 sacks. Despite the lack of statistical production, Martin's efforts were recognized with second-team All-Big Ten honors. He also forced a pitch on a speed option. See you on Sundays, MM.
"Experience" was why [Will Heininger] got the nod; that experience consists of backing Brandon Graham up. In is time on the field he rarely did anything wrong; he rarely did anything right, either. He was a non-factor. As a guy spotting Graham from time to time that's cool, but as a starter or a guy rotating with another equally obscure walk-on that's a recipe for zero production out of a spot that should see its fair share of plays. If this spot averages out as a zero next year that's probably good—and that's not good.
The biggest swing-and-a-miss on the list. Heininger swapped spots with RVB and started all 12 regular-season games at five-tech DT before missing the Sugar Bowl with a foot injury. He exceeded all expectations of a walk-on raised in the shadow of the Big House, proving he could hold his own against Big Ten competition and be a positive force on the interior. After the season, Brian ranked him as the third most siginificant departure on the defense, behind only Martin and Van Bergen. While part of that is due to the remaining depth along the defensive line, I don't think anyone thought Heininger's absence would be felt in such a way.
Brink will play. After mentioning Heininger's experience he said Brink has "practiced very well, played well, been productive" and promised to rotate six guys on the line. Six is a weird number because it means one of Black, Campbell, or Brink is on the fringe. Given the lineups Campbell seems the most likely even though that seems unlikely.
If you're saying "who?" you're probably not alone (though you read this blog, so you probably aren't saying "who?"). Walk-on Nathan Brink was penciled in as the starting SDE at one point in the fall, earning much preseason praise for his unlikely rise up the depth chart. After garnering all that hype, however, he made almost no impact, recording just one tackle while barely seeing the field. He's a prime example of why you must take all offseason practice hype with a grain of salt, especially when said hype involves previously-unknown walk-ons.
We've yet to see the much of the pass-rushing skill that made Roh a top 50 recruit. He's displayed hints of the ability to zip past tackles before they know what hits them when suffered to rush the passer—there's a chance that when he puts hand to ground and is told to let it rip that he goes bonkers. Roh is the biggest X factor on the team. He could end up with anywhere from a half-dozen to twelve sacks.
Playing his third position in three seasons, Roh didn't quite go bonkers, tallying four sacks and eight TFLs. Roh's play still markedly improved from his previous two seasons, but he still hasn't lived up to the sky-high recruiting hype. Much of the blame for that can fall upon the shoulders of Greg Robinson and Co., and we'll see if one last position switch, this time to SDE, finally results in Roh producing double-digit sacks.
In high school, Ryan was an outside linebacker in an actual 3-3-5. As such, he spent a lot of time screaming at the quarterback from angles designed to make life hard for offensive linemen. That's not far off his job in the 4-3 under but it comes with a lot more run responsibility—the SLB has to take on blockers in just the right spot so that he neither lets the play escape contain nor gives him a lane inside too big to shut down. Expect to see him on passing downs but only passing downs this fall.
Ryan became a pleasant early-season surprise when he started against Western Michigan and made his presence felt by batting an Alex Carder pass that Brandon Herron would intercept and return 94 yards to the house. While certainly more of an asset against the pass than the run—his balls-to-the-wall approach was great on blitzes, but not always sound when keeping contain—Ryan proved that he was by far the best option on the strong side. Just one year later, all-conference honors are very much in play.
Assuming he's healthy, another year to learn the position and get bigger should see him improve on his previous form. There is a nonzero chance his earlier performances were not representative of his ability, but the smart money is on Woolfolk being at least average. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him go at the tail end of next year's NFL draft.
Troy Woolfolk's return from the exploding ankle of doom wasn't as triumphant as we all hoped. While he started ten games—six at corner and four at safety—Woolfolk never looked fully comfortable on the field and was supplanted at each position by a younger player (Countess at corner, Gordon at safety). It would be quite a surprise to see him taken in this week's NFL draft.
Courtney Avery busts out. Going into next year people are talking about him as an All Big Ten performer.
After showing much promise as a true freshman, Avery was the obvious candidate to grow into a big-time role as the team's top corner of the present and future. Instead, he started the first two games, then ceded that role to J.T. Floyd, Woolfolk, and eventually Countess. Avery was a solid nickel corner, and should reprise that role in 2012, but his progression wasn't as great as expected.
Craig Roh leads the team in sacks with eight.
Nein. Despite Michigan's impressive rise in team sacks, they were spread pretty evenly across both the D-line and the back seven thanks to Mattison's blitz-happy approach. Ryan Van Bergen paced the team with 5.5, with Jordan Kovacs actually tying Roh for second with four.
Michigan noses just above average in yardage allowed. Advanced metrics have them about 50th.
I know Brian has no complaints about being so hilariously wrong on this one. As noted above, the Wolverines finished 17th in yardage allowed, and they also shot up to sixth (faints) in points allowed. Football Outsiders's FEI metric ranked them as the #16 defense in the country. Despite watching every second of the 2011 season (usually twice), I still have a hard time not believing I'm the victim of an elaborate hoax or a drug experiment gone horribly awry. If you see me waking up in a gutter and GERG is still the defensive coordinator, please do me a favor and run me over with an SUV. Make sure to double-tap, please.
Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint
Denard, can you talk about re-establishing the running backs? Denard: “First of all, our offensive line played a great game, and once Fitz got the ball in the open field, he made things happen.”
Fitz, can you talk about the long touchdown run and what you saw? Toussaint: “I just saw daylight. Coach Jackson always stresses, when you see a crease, shoot through it like a cannon. That’s what I did, and credit goes out to the offensive line for creating that for me.”
Talk about focus you had coming up to this week? Denard: “We knew we had to bounce back this week. Everybody prepared hard, and everybody was ready. We did what we had to do. That was a great team we faced.”
Do you enjoy the diversity of the offense, and are you excited about how it gets so many of your teammates involved? Denard: “I think I was excited about everybody. Everybody that watched the game was excited, and I’m in it, so I’m loving it.”
Fitz, you look like you found an extra gear. Did the bye week help you get healthier? Toussaint: “A lot of it was to get off my feet more and get a little bit more treatment on my body for me to be healthy for this game.”
Does this game show that you can be the lead back for Michigan? Fitz: “I still feel like we have to go out there every Tuesday and throughout the whole week to just compete. All the running backs.”
Fitz, on your touchdown run, what was the moment you knew you were going to go all the way? Toussaint: “There wasn’t really a moment. I … kind of just saw it and hit it.”
At what point did you know that Taylor had sprung you? Toussaint: “I really can’t even remember the moment. It just happened so fast.” Did anyone touch you at all? “I have no clue. I’m just happy that the line opened up the hole for me.”
Denard, can you talk about being 7-1 and it could be anyone’s division to win? Denard: “We just have to focus on this team, Michigan. We have to come out ready to play every weekend because [in] the Big Ten there’s always competition. That’s what we have to do every week.”
Fitz, can you talk about what it feels like walking off the field this week compared with how it felt two weeks ago? Toussaint: “Every team faces adversity. It’s not really how you have adversity. It’s really how you respond to it. We knew we had two weeks to get prepared for this game, and we did what we had to do.”
Denard, you guys have gone against the Michgian defense in practice. What’s different about it this year? Denard: “Well, everybody holding each other accountable. That’s the biggest thing. If the cornerbacks don’t play good defense the D-line won’t get pressure. So everybody holding each other accountable.”
Fitz, in the deuce packages, how do you guys see defenses playing that? Toussaint: “It’s kind of hard to play it because when you have your best athletes in the game, it’s kind of hard to really actually practice that formation. I think it’s kind of hard.”
Can you guys talk about how tired you are of hearing about people waiting for the Michigan collapse? Toussaint: “We really just focus on going out there and preparing every week for Saturday.” Robinson: “We don’t really care about what other people think. It’s about this team. Team 132.”
Denard, do you feel half the defense going with you on the jet sweep fakes? Denard: “Coach Fred -- Freddy J -- he told us one good fake equals two blocks. I just run full speed and hope somebody runs with me.”
Mark Huyge and Craig Roh
Mark, how much did you emphasize the run in practice the past couple of weeks? Huyge: “Well it’s always an emphasis. One of our main goals is to get some tailback yardage, too, and really put it on that, because when we can get our tailbacks out and take some pressure off Denard, that’s a big thing, and that’s a big key to our success on offense.”
Mark, how hard is it for you to shuffle the offensive line and still produce the way you did? Huyge: “Well even in practice and throughout the couple years here since all the guys have been here, we’ve been playing next to each other. I know I’ve been on both sides. Ricky, Mike Schofield, Patrick Omameh, they’re all going back and forth, right and left sometimes. It’s not really that big of a deal, though. We have pretty good chemistry up front, and it showed.”
Craig, when you see Mike Martin produce the way he did, how does that alter your own attitude? Roh: “Well, that guy is just a physical beast. He’s a very dominating player. When you see that, you’re like, ‘I can do that.’ It’s cool to see him because you’re like, ‘That guy’s right next to me, and I know he’s going to beast his guy, so I have to beast my guy.’ ”
Craig, what changed after that first touchdown? Roh: “We just made a few adjustments. Usually in games, offenses come out with a few tweaks here and there. We just adjusted and we came down and played Michigan defense.”
After the last game, did you feel like the offensive line was under a lot of scrutiny? Huyge: “We didn’t get it done in that game. The key was to move on as quick as possible from that, make the necessary adjustments. We were under a little bit of pressure, but we knew if we played our game and executed to how we’re capable, we’ll be just fine.”
Craig, what was discussion like after the first touchdown, and what were the adjustments? Roh: “We knew everything was okay. They scored a touchdown. We never want that, but we weren’t freaking out or anything. We were like, “Okay, let’s just settle down and play Michigan defense.’ ”
Was that the most confident you’ve seen Fitz? Huyge: “I think he was just himself. I didn’t really see anything that stood out. I know he had a couple big runs there and that one long run when he cut it back. I was really impressed with that because he found the opening and got some good blocks downfield. Steve Watson threw a great block to spring him.” You said he was just himself. What does that mean? “He’s actually a pretty sarcastic guy. He’s always trying to start stuff with me, and then he’ll back off right away. He’s just a cool guy.” He does this in games? “No, not in games.”
You’re 7-1, tied for division lead heading into November. What’s your feeling about that, and what’s your motivation? Roh: “We just need to keep improving and play the way we know how to play. We can win every game here.” Huyge: “That’s just the main thing. One game at a time.”
Mark, can you talk about Taylor Lewan’s toughness? Huyge: “Obviously Taylor is a pretty tough guy. He’s been banged up before. He just keeps fighting through it. I know in the game I remember him saying he might have gotten rolled up on a couple of times, which happens, but he just kept fighting through it.”
Craig, can you talk about the effectiveness of your perimeter defense? Roh: “Offenses are going to look at tape and if one thing works the offense is going to do that, but that’s something that we’re working on as a defense to be tougher on that perimeter.”
How much of a focus was that in practice? Roh: “I mean the focus is always on technique and perimeter defense comes from good technique and aggressive playing. I think that was more of the focus than just perimeter defense. We take unbelievable pride -- this whole entire defense takes pride in perimeter defense and inside defense. Really everything.”
Mark, can you talk about the challenges of flipping from right tackle to left tackle when Taylor went out? Huyge: “I’ve played both in my career and I do it in practice a lot, too. It’s not too difficult. Sometimes it takes a little bit, a few plays to adjust. I feel confident I can do that.”
What was Taylor’s demeanor while he was trying to soldier through the game? Huyge: “He was just saying that, ‘I’m going to stay in, and let’s go.’ I mean, yeah, he wasn’t going to get pulled out.”
Craig, on the safety, were you looking for the safety, and how much of a turning point was that? Roh: “I mean, you’re looking for the offensive set. You’re looking for the tendencies coming off of that. When you have them pinned back, that’s always on the forefront of ... you front that that is a possibility. When Mike Martin got that safety, I couldn’t be any happier.”
Craig, what is your definition of Michigan defense? Roh: “Michigan defense is just dominating everything. And every aspect of life. That’s a rough definition.”
Does anything change for you guys when Marve comes into the game? Roh: “I mean we just keep playing our technique. Keep playing our defense the way we know how to play it. We adjust somewhat to personnel.”
After Devin’s interception, you turned to the power play and the run game. Huyge: “We like to run the ball as an offensive line. I’d personally rather run than pass. It’s fun to get going. When the offensive line gets it going, the running backs running hard, it’s a fun thing.”
During the off week, was there anything special you paid attention to that paid dividends today? Roh: “I just thought technique. We just focused on technique and played hard-nosed Michigan football.” Huyge: “Just improving from last game and getting back to the fundamentals and basics of football.”
Hoke said he wanted to challenge the offensive line. How did he challenge you guys? Huyge: “All of our practices are pretty physical, and that’s one thing where we try to go out and hit people. Sometimes we’re a little -- I don’t want to say tentative, but it looked like on film. We did not get it done, and we needed to just go out and just play as hard as we could.”
Mike Martin and Courtney Avery
That safety -- kind of a defensive lineman’s dream, eh? Martin: “Van Bergen did a good job with giving me a little bit of a presnap idea of what they were going to do. We were looking for a few things, but he did a good job of where they were going to slide the protection, and when it came down to it, we were just aggressive off the ball, and good things happened.”
On the play following the touchdown, did you feel like the defense needed to step up? Martin: “Yeah. This defense is great with responding to adversity whether it’s a sudden change -- whatever it might be -- or we get scored on, which we never want that to happen. But we did a great job of coming to the sideline and regathering and knowing that we had to play better defense, and that’s what we did. We responded well. Period.”
Craig defined the defense as dominating every aspect of life. Do you have different definitions? Martin: “Playing Michigan defense, and coach Hoke says it all the time and Coach Mattison -- it’s really playing with the mentality that first of all no one can run on you. No one can run the ball. You have to have that as a defensive line, up front, as a whole, as a defense. When they pass, getting to the quarterback. Really just getting 11 hats to the ball every single play with the effort that’s just crazy. I think we did that today. We’ll watch the film, have improvements, and we’ll get better for next weekend.” Avery: “Going off what Mike said, from the secondary’s standpoint, we want to keep everything inside and in front and then just get 11 hats and pursuing like crazy to the ball.”
Why is this team better equipped to handle the second half of the season? Martin: “Well, our mentality every single day when we take the practice field, whether it’s on a Tuesday or Wednesday, any work day during the week, watching the film -- we just have the mentality that we want to get better. Every single day. This defense is hungry to get better. We have young guys, stepping up, playing. That’s what it’s all about. We’re just going to keep on taking positive steps forward, and from this point on every single game is a championship game for this program.”
That easy touchdown was the first of the year. Avery: “I just feel we didn’t attack it as well as we would like to and we didn’t cup it as well as we would like to, but we made some adjustments and coach brought us over to the side and told us just to attack it and that’s what we did. We stopped that play later on during the game.”
Mike, you got the safety in the first quarter, but then in the fourth quarter when they were backed up in their own endzone again, you got called offsides. Did you get a little trigger happy on that one? Martin: “Well, the mentality of our defensive line is getting off the ball. That was definitely all my fault and I was really trying to get a good jump on the ball, which is what you try to do every single snap. I should have been smarter on my part of it knowing they were going to do it in the black. I just have to get better on my half of it. Coach talked to me about it, and I didn’t do it again.” So it was because they did something with the snap count? “Yeah, they got me. They did a good job with that.”
Mike, after the Michigan State game, Hoke said he was going to challenge the offensive line. Did you notice anything different in the way they practiced? Martin: “Yeah, that was probably a big part of it. They did a great job of executing, and really it’s because of how good of a look we gave them during the bye week. We played really physical in our bye week. It wasn’t lackadaisacal, take-a-week-off-because-we-have-a-week-off type of practices. We were going after each other, and we were giving each other the best looks we could up front, and it showed on the game field today.”
Hoke praised Mike’s tackle 16 yards downfield. He said that means something. Courtney, what does that mean? Avery: “It just goes back to the effort and pursuing to the ball. You just have to keep fighting and the ball’s not the endzone until it’s in the endzone.” Does it help the rest of the defense to see a guy hustle like that? “Oh definitely. …”
There’s been a lot of questions about the defense. After eight games, do you feel like those questions have been answered? Martin: “You know, every week’s going to be a test for us. There’s always going to be people saying different things about our defense, but the most important thing is really the guys that are in that locker room. The guys that are in that team defensive room. Those are the most important guys. We’re going to play for each other. Courtney and myself and everyone else in that defensive room, including the coaches, we’re all in this thing together. We just have to make sure that we control what we can, which is how we play, every single week.”
Courtney, can you talk about your interception and the ability of this defense to make stops? Avery: “That’s a great thing about our defense. It just seems when we have our backs to the wall, we seem to rise to the challenge. With the interception, they ran that play before, and they got a big play out of it. Coach brought us to the sideline, told us to attack that, so I just did what the coach said and attacked it and it came out good for us.”
Is it different to feel like there’s something to play for in November other than just pride? Martin: “Yeah, time’s flown by. Senior year and this year for this team is huge. November is championship football for us. Going from month to month, we know we have to get better. Week by week, I think we’ve done that. Sometimes we haven’t taken the biggest steps forward that we want to, but we’ve gotten better, period. I’m confident that we’ll continue to do that. These games coming up, we’ve got Iowa away. That’s going to be a great test for us as a team and as a defense to respond in a high-[stakes] environment. That’s going to be a battle for us.”
Courtney, how did Blake Countess play today? Avery: “Blake’s been solid in practice, and during the game he looked really good. He’s coming along, he’s improving, he’s working hard. He’s a hard worker.”
Courtney, you said Purdue got a big play earlier in the game using the same play on which you got the interception. Was that the touchdown pass on their first drive? Avery: “Yes, sir.” How close was the ball to hitting the ground?“It was pretty close. He bobbled it actually twice, and then once I got it, it was pretty close to the ground, yes sir.”
How close was this game to Michigan football on both sides of the ball? Martin: “I think coach probably said he hasn’t seen the film yet, but he probably said that we played with great effort … But I say the same thing. I just know period that we were busting our butts to the ball, we had guys doing whatever they could to make a play. You’re never going to play a perfect football game. That’s going to happen. The thing’s that’s important is to take steps forward every single week. We’ll look at the film and make sure that we correct those things and play even harder next week.” What about the offense? “They were playing their butts off. The thing we’ve gotten better as a team is complementing each other. Offensively, them holding onto the ball, time of possession, running the football, putting points on the board. And then us getting the ball back to our offense. They were playing physical and it showed on the scoreboard, period.”
Denard Robinson and Vincent Smith
Why was the passing game better today? Denard: “We just clicked. We worked on it in practice, and we just had to put it forward in games, and that’s what we did today.”
When the last time you had a rushing, receiving, and passing TD in the same game. Also, can you talk about the game plan that utilized you in a unique way? Smith: “I was just put in the right place at the right time. The coaches know what I’m capable of. What I have to do for the team to help them out.” Was it fun? “Real fun. And the last time I threw a pass was in high school, but not like three [TD’s] in one game.”
When did the 2-QB thingy arise? Denard: “We’ve been doing that in practice. We’ve been working on it. Coach said he’d throw it at us, and just be ready. And he called it, so we were ready.” Were you expecting it that early? “Oh yeah.”
That was an unorthodox offense today. Is that exciting for you? Denard: “Oh yeah … Just going out and having fun with my teammates.”
Denard, how comfortable did you feel in the passing game? You looked more comfortable. Denard: “Oh yeah. I mean, we’ve been practicing getting it down with the receivers, and we were just on the same page.” How much you looking forward to going on the road? “Both of us are looking forward to that.” Smith: “I mean it’s just another football game, and that’s what we love to do. We just love to come out to compete, and it’s another night game.”
You guys have been putting up a lot of points. How does the team feel about this new offense? Denard: “We’re confident. I mean, we’ve been playing [well], and we trust Coach Al to give us the right play and make things happen, because we have some playmakers.”
Are there other things we haven’t seen that you might show us? Denard: “We can’t tell them that …” Smith: “Not that I know of.”
(more after the jump)
9/24/2011 – Michigan 28, San Diego State 7 – 4-0
A long, long time ago now a Lloyd-Carr coached Michigan team was struggling through the 2005 season when they met Northwestern. A lot of throws to Tacopants (Jason Avant's 11-foot-tall imaginary friend) on both sides later, Michigan emerged with a 33-17 win and I embarked on one of the first of an endless procession of stat-nerd diatribes about the evils of punting.
You've probably heard it already: punting decisions have not kept pace with the increasingly offensive nature of the game, leaving coaches in a perpetual state of risk- and win-avoidance. Romer paper, Pulaski High, Mathlete chart. Etc.
In this particular Northwestern game, though, Carr went for it on fourth and five from the Northwestern 23, a decision I thought was too aggressive(!). When paired with a number of similarly aggressive calls from earlier that season, it seemed like a sea change for the old man:
In multiple cases he's made tough, correct decisions: going on fourth and goal from the one against Wisconsin, pounding it into the line twice against Michigan State, etc. Even when the strategy has backfired, he accepts the downside and persists in a more aggressive posture.
In context, the Penn State gaffe seems more like one last hit of that sweet Bombay Popsicle* snuck in-between rehab sessions than evidence of 1970s thinking taking hold. Lloyd Carr has checked himself in to the Betty Ford Center for Coaches Addicted to Low Variance. I wouldn't expect a flying-colors discharge any time soon, but he's made the first, biggest step.
*[I don't know either.]
That change lasted into the fourth quarter of that year's Ohio State game. Having acquired a two-score lead by converting a fourth and inches around the Michigan 40, Carr reverted to his primitive instincts at the crucial moment. With three minutes left from the Ohio State 40, he called for a wide receiver screen on third and ten. It gained six yards. With a two point lead, three minutes on the clock, no Ohio State timeouts left, and a fourth and four on the Ohio State 34, Carr punted. Ohio State drove for a touchdown; Carr would never again have the opportunity to kill a game against the Buckeyes.
In the moment, Carr choked. Six years on that single decision seems like the best way to explain why a lot Michigan fans found his tenure frustrating despite its high rate of success: the program was perpetually making poor decisions because a combination of fear and arrogance. Something could go wrong if you made a high variance decision, and Michigan could spit on expected value because This Is Michigan. See any game in which Michigan acquired an 18-point lead or the first half of the Orange Bowl for confirmation.
Carr coached like he had a kickass running game and killer defense no matter the facts, which was the difference between being a legend and a being a B+ coach who lost the battle with Tressel authoritatively. Hell, even Tressel blew games when he failed to adjust to the reality that sometimes his defense and special teams were not enough, and he ran roughshod over the Big Ten for nine years.
Part of the reason a segment of the Michigan fanbase (including the author) blew up at Hoke's hire is because it seemed to represent a return to that expectation-spurning 1970s decision-making.
Brady Hoke put a lot of those fears to rest by going for—and getting—the win against Notre Dame with eight seconds left. That decision was a no-brainer. If the field goal team had run out onto the field, I would have been livid. That was a test he passed, but it was one with a low bar.
On Saturday, Hoke sent out the punting team with about two and a half minutes left in the first half. It was fourth and two around midfield, and I was mildly peeved. It was not the percentage play, but I've watched a lot of football and it seemed too much to hope that even the rootin'est, tootin'est, eyepatch-wearingest pirate of a head coach would go for it. Needing more than a sneak and up fourteen in the first half, the world punts. My peevishness was directed at football coaches in general, not Hoke in particular.
And then an angel came down from the sky, and signaled timeout. Great trumpets erupted from the flagpoles, playing a fanfare as a golden staircase descended. Each of the steps was engraved with the names of World Series of Poker winners. Down from the clouds strode Doyle Brunson, clad in a jacket of hundred-dollar bills. And lo, Texas Dolly spaketh unto the people: "check-raise." Brady Hoke sent the offensive line onto the field.
This was a really, really good decision. Even if you don't believe the exact outlines of the Mathlete's calculations, it is not close: average offense versus average defense means the break-even line is around eight yards. This was not an average situation. Michigan had Denard Robinson against a pretty horrible run defense. And that number does not take into account the game situation. If Michigan gets the first down they are almost certainly robbing San Diego State of a possession. Punting gets you thirty, forty yards of field position. Getting the first down puts you in good position to score and is essentially another +1 in turnover margin. You need two yards and you have Denard Robinson.
stealing a joke from the internet: the guy on the right looks like he just looked into the Ark of the Covenant. via the News.
One speed option later Michigan was en route to the endzone and had essentially ended the game. Without that massively +EV decision they go into halftime up maybe 14, maybe 11, maybe 7 points. That ugly third quarter becomes the gut-check time most were predicting before the game. Maybe Michigan comes out on top (24-21, say). Maybe not. That didn't happen because when Michigan had its boot on San Diego State's neck, Hoke called Z 22 stomp right.
The Lloyd Carr example above shows we don't know that Hoke's going to do this consistently, that he'll stick to the non-pejorative MANBALL when the pressure is at its greatest, but so far so good. Even my doubts about Hoke's ability to math up in the waning moments of an Ohio State game are faint. When things go wrong he does not scowl or pout or throw headsets like Rich Rodriguez or Brian Kelly or Bo Pelini. He does not go on tilt. He calmly talks to guys about what in the hell they were thinking.
Hoke continues to leave best-case scenarios in the dust. Saturday night I watched Dennis Erickson punt on fourth and five from the USC 37 and thought "my coach would never do that." Then I watched Erickson chew out the punter who put the ball in the endzone because that's what happens when you punt from the 37 and thought "my coach would never do that."
That felt good. It felt invent-a-time-machine-to-assure-yourself-its-all-going-to-be-okay good. It feels like Michigan has finally learned how to gamble.
Boy do I want to play poker with certain people on the internet. Evaluating the decision has popped up on every Michigan message board. It's mostly been met with praise, but man, there are a lot of people who can't estimate and multiply out there. Maybe it's Carr Stockholm syndrome.
A reminder: anything on the MGoBlog photostream is creative-commons licensed, free to use for non-commercial applications. Attribution to Eric Upchurch, the Observer, and MGoBlog is appreciated.
Mark Huyge is delighted to be here. From the above SDSU photoset.
It's not quite the Molk death glare. It's more like Shifty-Eyed Dog.
Try to look at Mark Huyge ever again without having that play in your head.
That's a great question. Just as our rationality leads us to a belief in an objective reality, Kant believed there is an objective morality we can locate from the same process. The Categorical Imperative is an absolute, fundamental moral law on par with Minnesota losing to teams from the Dakotas. Things are either right or wrong—there are no gray areas, and context does not apply. You could call him the BJ Daniels of philosophy*.
*[Ten-cent summary of Kantian philosophy cribbed from Three Minute Philosophy, which is terrific. Philosophers wishing to quibble with my paraphrase of a comedic summary are invited to consider the moral consequences of their actions and also jump in a lake. USF fans wishing to WOO BJ DANIELS can skip to the latter.]
And the internet eeeed Countess. When Troy Woolfolk headed to the sidelines, all Michigan fans everywhere winced. When Blake Countess replaced JT Floyd in the third quarter, all Michigan fans everywhere prepared for the deluge.
It never came, and as a result everyone from my uncle to the internet to the newspapers are having little freakouts about Michigan's #4 corner. I am with all of you. The only thing stopping Countess from having a few PBUs or interceptions was Ryan Lindley's inability to throw the ball anywhere near the guys Countess had blanketed but Lindley targeted anyway.
For most of the third quarter I stopped watching the offensive backfield and started watching downfield coverage and while I won't be able to confirm this on the tape I think Countess was doing really well even when people weren't going after him. I'm with the rest of the internet when I suggest that Troy Woolfolk should take the Minnesota game off to recover from his multiple nagging injuries so we can see some more of the freshman.
I thought Avery did well, too. He had a third-down slant completed on him and was the DB victimized on the touchdown but in both cases he was right there tackling/raking at the ball. Is he doing something wrong I'm not perceiving yet? Because I think he's playing better than Woolfolk, who gave up some groan-worthy easy completions. (I don't blame him for allowing Hillman to bounce on one third down conversion because he was clearly held.)
Release the Martin. This week in the I-told-you-so files: Mike Martin is just fine. His good day last week was obscured by EMU never throwing and having quite a bit of success attacking away from him. Against SDSU he was nigh unblockable, bowling a veteran offensive line over backwards multiple times and drawing holding calls left and right. Craig Roh had two big plays and will show up doing little things when I do the UFR; Will Campbell had a couple of line-pushing plays. Hillman's YPC was still over five, so there are issues but I think a big chunk of them are localizable to…
Problems. So… everyone's talking up Jake Ryan, too. I'm with everyone in a general, long-term sense but a little less enthused about his performance on Saturday. One of the results of the first few weeks of UFRing/picture paging is that whenever the opponent tries to get outside I immediately focus on Ryan. Result from last week: three "aaargh Ryan" screams that no one in my section comprehended. He's still giving up the corner way too easy.
Also, there are two caveats to an otherwise encouraging performance from the secondary. One: Lindley and his receivers were flat bad as a group. Drops, bad routes, and bad throws artificially boosted Michigan's efficiency against him. Some of that was caused by pressure. Some of it was just a crappy opponent. Two: I wonder if Michigan's familiarity with the SDSU offense allowed them to beat the Aztecs' favorite routes into Michigan DBs heads.
Still, 5.3 YPA and actual depth at corner. +1 Mallory.
Offensive construction bits. Another week, another confirmation that running Denard is the offense. While I still groan whenever they line up under center, snaps from there were limited. I would really prefer it if they never ran I-form power on first and ten again, though. They've mixed in some inexplicably effective short play action so far; if they can't run that will probably dry up.
Things I liked: That screen to Smith. The essence of an RPS+3 is when three offensive linemen have no one to block for 30 yards. And then the much-discussed speed option debuted. I'd gotten a couple insider emails telling me it was part of the offense but thought it would be extremely bad form to publish that, so I'd been waiting. It was quite a debut.
I'm hoping we see Borges add wrinkles at the same rate Rodriguez did. He'll have to to keep the run offense ahead of the wolves. He's off to a good start.
via the Detroit News.
Tailbacks. I'm suddenly happy with Michigan's tailback situation after Vincent Smith made a lot of yards on his own, including the above touchdown where he kept his balance at about the five and managed to drag a safety into the endzone. There was also the zone play where he squeezed through a crack in the line it's possible literally no other D-I back would have fit through.
Toussaint, meanwhile, didn't have the yards Smith did but ran hard on the inside; I still like him best but understand if they're going to split duties between the top two. I feel bad for Shaw—maybe it's time to put him on kickoffs? He's got speed Smith does not.
The Denard question. So they did run a curl-flat. Denard went to the curl way late and threw his first interception. Not sure if that was schemed or just bad execution by the offense. If it's the latter that might be attributable to not running it over the offseason as Borges attempted to install his route packages, route packages that now seem like things Denard just can't do.
A three-point plan in an attempt to get Denard back on track:
- Stop throwing on the run.
- Provide some easy throws early—all hitch, snag—in an effort to get him calmed down.
- Develop some sort of counter-punch to the opponent getting all up in Denard's face on the rollout PA. A shovel pass?
Bending but not breaking. Michigan's giving up a lot of yards but not a lot of points. Frankly, some of this is luck. They are acquiring turnovers at an unsustainable rate. Not unsustainable for a mediocre defense, unsustainable for Michigan 1997. When the well dries up they'll do some more breaking.
The other thing is the secondary. Michigan's newfound ability to make plays on deep balls and Jordan Kovacs being stone-cold reliable (so far /crosses self) have erased cheap touchdowns for the opposition. WMU's touchdown came on a 15-play drive. ND touchdown drives went 7, 10, 7, and 4 plays. San Diego State's took six plays but started from the Michigan 38. The only quick drive Michigan's given up all year was ND's desperation drive, on which Michigan gave up chunks on purpose because of the time situation and then tried an NFL-style defense they weren't ready for and blew it. The longest touchdown other than that was the 16-yard pass Lindley hit in the third quarter.
Opponents have ripped off chunks on occasion, but they have not been handed free touchdowns. Michigan's at least making them earn it. That's a necessary first step on the road away from completely awful.
The next opponent. When Minnesota managed to hang with USC on the first weekend of the season they seemed like they might be more intimidating than your average Minnesota team. Then they lost to Not Even The Good New Mexico and North Dakota State and seemed even less intimidating than your average Minnesota team. Compounding matters: Jerry Kill is again out of commission with his seizure issue.
I did not VOAV this week for reasons of being spooked. Boyz In The Pahokee provided the usual bounty if you are jonesing.
ST3 goes Inside the Box Score:
Matt Wile. Wait, let me try that again. MATT WILE!!! Yeah, I think he was properly pumped up to play his Dad's team. Net yards per kickoff were 50 for SDSU and 49.2 for UofM. To be even on kickoffs is a win for us. Net yards per punt were 34.7 for SDSU and 43.5 for Michigan. To gain almost a full first down per punt is huge. Two punts were inside the 20, and two were 50+ yards. #82, Terrance Robinson had 2 ST tackles and did a great job as the gunner on punts.
Wile's just lost his punting job; if that allows him to improve his kickoffs and compete for the field goal job, Michigan's kicking could be one of those strength things by midseason.
Lordfoul's weekly Hoke for Tomorrow:
Michigan needs Hagerup back.Maybe Hagerup isn't the only answer. Wile's kicks are improving it would seem, both on KOs and punts, possibly because his nerves are settling down. Kickoffs regularly made it to the goal line and only 1 of 4 punts was returned for much while they averaged 49 yards per with a long of only 51(!).
Player participation notes from jtmc33.
You see that conch shell he's got in his hand? At some point in the first half he was talking into it like it was a cell phone. That is all.
Media, as in blog rabble. BWS hops aboard the Countess bandwagon and points out Denard can't throw.
MGoBlog : The Big Lebowski :: The Hoover Street Rag : The Hunt For Red October:
After the Notre Dame game, I tweeted very simply: "And the singing, Captain?" "Let them sing." The moment was too good to start worrying about the future. But at some point, the future arrives and you need to deal with it. How well prepared you are for that future plays a large role in how well you're able to handle it when the moment arrives. The non-conference schedule, particularly one played as four games at the start of the season should, theoretically, be a nice combination of challenges and the working out of kinks. Before the mission starts, you must know the capacity and capabilities of your crew.
Media, as in local newspaper. John Niyo on the defense, which is extant. Chengelis on the fact the team is not vintage. San Diego State had big pictures of their former coaches as signals. The Daily on RVB's Hillman chase:
Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen caught Hillman from behind inside the 10-yard line and knocked the ball loose for the second fumble.
Try reading it this way: a 288-pound defensive tackle caught the nation’s second-leading rusher from behind in the open field — 30 yards away from the line of scrimmage.
Van Bergen got a block from fifth-year senior defensive tackle Mike Martin, but most of his help came from practice.
“But when it comes down to it, we have the most explosive player in the country in our backfield,” Van Bergen said. “We get to play against (junior quarterback) Denard (Robinson), so we’ve learned how to take angles at guys who have speed.
“I took off on my horse just thinking, ‘I’ve almost caught Denard before, maybe I can catch this guy.’ ”
“They were very emotional after the game, depressed, disappointed, upset, however you want to say,” said Long, whose team dropped to 3-1 after Saturday’s 28-7 defeat. “It was a very emotional locker room after the game and not in a good sense.”
They probably would have done a “poor job” of answering questions, Long said, so he kept them behind closed doors. “It’s my job to protect them,” Long said Sunday. “This is not pro football.” …
"The defense got shocked by the speed of especially one guy (Robinson),” Long said. “They got shocked by the strength they had up front and the speed of quarterback early in the game.”
• Offensively, Michigan is 13-for-13 on red-zone opportunities. It is one of 13 teams in the country to have scored on every trip inside the 20-yard line this year.
• Even better? The Wolverines have scored touchdowns on 12 of those 13 trips. That 92-percent touchdown rate trails only Texas Tech nationally.
One of the main arguments made in favor of Shotgun Forever is that red zone efficiency is not a stat that shows much repeatable skill year to year and that the huge chunks of yards Michigan picked up without, you know, scoring in 2010 would turn into points if you just left the damn thing alone (and got a kicker). The early returns are excellent.
National takes. Smart Football:
- Michigan 28, San Diego State 7. Brady Hoke’s new team faced his old team, and I’m still not sure, despite their 4-0 record, that we know anything about this Michigan football team. The defense seems to be improving under DC Greg Mattison, but they’ve been using so much movement and motion to cover up their talent weaknesses it’s unclear how the defense will fare against a polished opponent. And while the offense has found a better rhythm running a Rich Rodriguez-lite Denard Robinson attack — including Denard’s long TD run on the speed option — his passing line was abysmal: 8 of 17 for 93 yards, no TDs and two interceptions. He’s obviously uncomfortable in the new offense. He looked like a more polished and comfortable passer last year. I chalk some of this up to the fact that the very techniques he’s using are new, but he’s going to have to improve for UM to have success. That said, given Michigan’s favorable schedule — no Wisconsin and the easy part of the Big 10 schedule up next — we may not learn anything about Michigan until the last three weeks of the season, when they play Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State.
No one else bothered. A couple weeks after puntosauring himself into a loss against Iowa State, BHGP documents Kirk Ferentz opening Iowa's game against ULM in a shotgun spread, demonstrating the Carr thing above perfectly.
A few rows in front of me at the Western game was one of those guys who exasperatedly yells out a piece of football wisdom he's picked up over the years whenever he is affronted by its lack. His wisdom was "turn around for the ball," which he yelled at Herron a couple times and the cornerbacks a couple times.
I was with him, but then a funny thing happened: no one could complete a fly route on these mediocre corners. Here's everything I've got marked fly/go/fade (which I am totally inconsistent about) from the first two weeks:
|Opp||Ln||Dn||Ds||O Form||D Form||Rush||Play||Player||Yards|
|WMU||M25||2||12||Shotgun 3-wide||Nickel press||6||Fly||Floyd||Inc|
|Demens's delayed blitz gets him in free(pressure +1, RPS +1) but I wonder if he didn't time it quite right. Another step and Carder is seriously harried. As it is he gets off an accurate deep ball on Floyd's guy, who's got a step. Floyd runs his ass off, starts tugging jersey early, and... I'll be damned. He strips the ball loose(+2, cover +1). That was textbook. Gibson -1.|
|WMU||M19||1||10||Shotgun 3-wide||Nickel Eff It||7||Fly||Avery||Inc|
|Sends: house. Obviously something gets through(pressure +1); Carder chucks it deep to a fly route Avery(+2, cover +1) has step for step. He's right in the WR's chest as he goes up for the ball. WR leaps, then reaches out and low in an attempt to stab the ball. Avery rakes it out. Gibson -2. Demens(+1) leveled Carder, BTW.|
|Opp||Ln||Dn||Ds||O Form||D Form||Rush||Play||Player||Yards|
|ND||O36||2||10||Shotgun 4-wide||Nickel even||5||Fade||Woolfolk||Inc|
|Hawthorne as a standup DE-ish thing and Ryan as an MLB. Blitz telegraphed? I don't remember this play. Survey says... yes. Ryan blitzes, Hawthorne drops into coverage, ND picks it up. Rees wants Floyd on a fade covered by Woolfolk. Woolfolk(+2) is step for step and uses his club to knock the ball away as it arrives. Robinson(+0.5) was there to whack him, too. (Cover +1)|
|ND||O44||1||10||Shotgun trips||Nickel even||4||Fade||Avery||Inc (Pen 15)|
|No question about this. Avery shoves Floyd OOB on a very catchable fade (-2, cover -1).|
|Floyd on Floyd action. Floyd(+1, cover +1) has excellent, blanketing coverage on Floyd but the back shoulder throw is perfect and his hand is a half-second late. Floyd stabs a foot down and Floyd can't do much other than ride him out of bounds. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat. This is one of those times. That is hard. That is why Floyd (not our Floyd) is going to be rich in about nine months.|
|ND||M21||2||10||Shotgun 4-wide||Okie||5||Fade||Van Bergen||Inc|
|They back out the MLBs this time and send the DL plus the OLBs. RVB(+1, pressure +2, RPS +2) is instantly past the G assigned to him because of a poor pickup; Rees chucks a ball off his back foot that's not catchable. Eifert gives it a go, though.|
|ND||M16||1||10||Shotgun 3-wide||Nickel even||5||Fade||Floyd||Inc|
|Floyd(+2, cover +1) in press here and stays step-for-step with Floyd on the fade, breaking it up as it arrives. Fade is not well thrown, which helps.|
|ND||M22||2||2||Shotgun 3-wide||Nickel even||5||Fade||Avery||Inc (Pen 15)|
|Kovacs rolls up; check. They take advantage of the man to man to take a shot at the endzone. Avery(+1, cover +1) is right in the WR's face as the ball comes in; it's low and to the outside and Avery can't do anything about the futile one-handed stab the WR makes, but it's a futile one-handed stab. Avery is hit with a terrible PI flag (refs -1)|
|ND||O39||1||10||Shotgun empty||Nickel even||5||Fade||Floyd||Inc (Pen 15)|
|Hawthorne(+1, pressure +1) gets a free run at Rees so he chucks it to Floyd, Floyd(-2, cover -2) is beaten instantly and starts yanking the jersey in a desperate bid to not be an instant goat.|
|Miscommunication between QB and receiver means pass is nowhere near anyone. Blitz was just getting home.|
Your score excluding the miscommunication: two legit pass interference penalties, one horsecrap call, one 26-yard completion to Michael Floyd, five incompletions. What's more, in each case save one pressure-forced incompletion and the two legit PI calls the corners are 1) there and 2) making a play on the ball.
That's seven out of nine legitimately good plays from the DBs on accurate deep balls. On all but one—the legit Avery PI—the corners were on an island as Mattison sent at least five. No bracket here. The Avery PI was a zone, the rest of it was man coverage, much of it press.
Michigan's press-ish coverage success in fly routes in 2011 including a game against Michael Floyd: 88%. The exception was virtually unstoppable and still drew a plus from the ol' softie who does these things. That's miraculous in last year's context. Hell, it's miraculous in a lot of contexts. How has this happened?
Michigan Press Coverage As Explained By Underpants Gnomes
STEP 1: Line up a yard off the LOS with inside leverage.
STEP 2: When receiver releases outside, turn hips and run with him real fast.
STEP 3: NOBODY CARES WHEN RECEIVER LOOKS FOR BALL
STEP 4: NOBODY CARES!
STEP 5: When receiver reaches up for ball, punch him in the face.
OPTIONAL: grab his jersey a bit and get away with it
OPTIONAL: scream SHORYUKEN.
STEP 6: Profit: arm-waving motions indicating that the pass was incomplete.
OPTIONAL: shake head to indicate "no."
OPTIONAL: pick up horsecrap pass interference call.
Floyd on Floyd action:
Avery on Jones action:
Why it works. That whole find-the-ball thing is hard. Todd Howard was coached to do it but always did it late, whipping his head around just in time to see the ball zing by. When you do that you've given yourself an even tougher job than the WR, who's been tracking the thing since it left the QB's hand. Lots can go wrong there. He can slow up and you bowl him over. He can slow up on a deliberately underthrown ball. He can slow, then extend a la Manningham. Or you can just not find the ball quickly enough.
In contrast, the shoryuken technique seems pretty easy. Focus on the WR's chest. When his arms go up, get your arms/head/body in between those arms. Faceguard the guy for bonus points. Net result: incompletion or spectacular Prothro-style catch. Mostly the former.
It's hard to get lost because you're following the WR's chest everywhere, and the only bomb you can't defend is the one that's just past your outstretched arms. That's hard to throw and hard to catch.
Gibson –8. Two games in I am a believer in Tony Gibson Was The Worst. These are the same guys as last year making these plays. Notre Dame clearly identified these fades as a weakness to exploit, especially in press coverage, but got little out of them. If you discount the Avery PI, on the eight fade attempts against press coverage opponents got 41 yards, just over five yards per attempt. Even if you count the Avery PI that hops up to 6.9 YPA—still worse than the NCAA average of 7.2 YPA.
Compare that to last year, when even doing something right meant you did something wrong:
Small sample size disclaimers apply, but Tony Gibson? The worst.
Downsides and low upsides. So this style of coverage seems pretty effective, obviously. There are two major downsides to my eyes:
- Low upside. Since you are never looking for the ball you are highly unlikely to intercept it.
- A tendency to pick up PI calls. Refs give you more leeway when you are looking for the ball. Bumping a guy with your back to the ball is always going to be an issue, but you can get away with "look and lean," as Spielman calls it.
I'm a little concerned about our corners' speed when asked to run real fast. Against Western Floyd gave up a yard or two of separation to a MAC receiver on his successful fly defense; in the second clip above it kind of feels like on a longer route Jones will pull away from Avery. Those are hypotheticals, though, and whatever limitations of Floyd and Avery have do not currently include a tendency to get burned deep.
This allows cool stuff. Michigan can press with one high safety because of this, which opens up the blitz possibilities that produce big plays. While the coverage style precludes big plays from the cornerbacks it allows them from other parts of the defense, and those big plays are bigger. What would you rather have, an interception 30 yards downfield or the quarterback fumbling the ball?
Tony Gibson. The worst!
HEY TOMMY REES
CHECK IT OUT I'M ALL GONNA BLITZ YO
LOL LOOK HOW CLOSE I AM TO THE LINE
WHY IS EVERYONE LOOKING AT YOU?
HEY MAN… I'M NOT BLITZING BE COOL
LOL JK YES I AM. HEY… THAT GUY IS OPEN
IF I WAS NOT BLITZING I MAY HAVE BEEN IN THIS AREA
TOMMY REES IS A JERK
I HOPE HE THROWS A BALL BACKWARDS FOR NO REASON LATER
This happened a lot. Michigan would line up, show something unsound, and Rees would check into something that would punish the defense. Blue Seoul highlighted another instance where Michigan tipped its blitz:
Also a result:
Michigan would line up in its okie package on plausible running downs like third and five, which caused Rees to check to runs up the middle. With no linebackers and Mike Martin dropping into coverage these went for about 20 yards.
Hell, even when good things happened this was going on. Look at this dude on Kovacs's interception:
That is a 65-yard touchdown waiting to happen if Rees's brain isn't going FLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYD. The difference between a great call and an idiotic call is Rees not being a true sophomore in his fifth start with deep man love for Michael Floyd.
Seriously. Michigan's defensive RPS is going to have huge numbers because Mattison is doing all sorts of crazy stuff. This defense is the philosophical opposite of the bland 4-3 cover twos of Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin.
They show a bunch of different fronts, blitz from everywhere, don't bother to cover guys in the seam when there are no safeties… it's a freak show out there. Sometimes it works. When it doesn't it's ugly. ND's last touchdown is especially galling because Michigan had to know ND would see this massive bust on the Kovacs INT and check into "free seam touchdown" when Michigan checked to cover zero. In this instance there was at least a guy vaguely in the area, but they've got a lot to work on.
Blitzing is not such a good idea when you wave your hand and say "sir: I am blitzing." In the first half Michigan tipped their blitzes a lot. Matters improved when Hawthorne came in—I watched him blitz without so much as taking those anxious shuffle steps, let alone going LOL I'M AT THE LINE—but it's disconcerting to watch the Michigan defense freak out on a QB handclap so consistently. They should know by now that the clap often leads to a check, because the offense did that a ton last year.
So… where is Michigan's check after ND checks? You can't check all the time because then ND's check will be "let's change their play without changing ours" but you have to check some of the time, particularly early.
Avery could have done better here. He's beaten to the inside too easily and can't tackle on the catch. He is not capable of dealing with Mike Floyd. Not many are, but predictions in this space of a bust-out year are not off to a good start. It's early yet.
Not that it would have mattered: Avery can run his slant for Floyd and Eifert is still hand-wavingly wide open. Dude could have gone for 150 against us if Tommy Rees's brain wasn't going FLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYD.
Another reason for worry. This defense is unsound. Does Mattison want it to be unsound because it makes Kovacs pop up for turnovers or does he have little choice in the matter because he's starting a walk-on (Heininger—Kovacs has graduated), a couple freshmen, and only 2.5 non-walkon seniors (RVB, Martin—Woolfolk is the half)?
I don't know, but I'm betting it's the latter. I am glad they've got a week to practice not leaving guys wide open all day. They're busting coverages every other play.