chance of bowl: 13.6%
Greg Mattison is our savior
Due to time constraints the past couple of weeks, I caught only parts of the Purdue and Illinois games. Luckily, what I saw made a post like this unnecessary, unless you think “Best: Everything”, “Best: I’m Kirk Herbstreit and I like to jinx Purdue” and “Worst: Moar Fitz rushing” embodies deeply thoughtful analysis.
Plus, I was kind of saving up for this MSU game. The first two weeks of the B1G season looked like tuneups to start the season, with MSU being the unofficial beginning of “Run for the Roses” in Pasadena, and nothing transpired during those first couple of games to change that opinion, at least in UM’s eyes. MSU, though, stumbled to start the season, and were definitely looking to dig themselves out of a Sparty-inflicted hole that included tough loses to OSU and Iowa. And so a rivalry game + MSU reeling + “William Gholston isn’t a jerk, he’s just misunderstood” = a fertile ground for highlighting the waxing and waning of UM’s first victory in the history of this series.*
* This series having started in 2008, one year after Microsoft Encarta and the Mayan calendar apparently arrived in East Lansing.
UM was only 1-4 against Dantonio heading into this game, and for all of the negative press the guy gets here and across the greater UM blogosphere, he’s turned a mediocre State program into a consistent winner, something it hasn’t been since, I don’t know, the 1950’s. Seriously, check out these season records from 1950 to 2011. People around here complain about UM not making a bowl game for 2 years; MSU had won 10 games only twice in the past 60+ years before Dantonio glared his way onto campus.
And it wasn’t just the losing to MSU that drove people crazy, it was how. Sometimes they won in dramatic fashion in OT after UM made a miraculous comeback; other times it was a dominating performance on the ground. Almost always, though, MSU had the better team AND found a way to confound not only the Michigan players, especially Denard Robinson, but also the coaching staffs. There’s a reason that the game previews for 2010, 2011, and 2012 kept pointing out that MSU was successfully jumping the snap on virtually every play, yet it kept happening. Or how MSU found a way to consistently gash the UM defense for yards on the edges despite everyone knowing that MSU’s gameplan was taken from the 1959 game program.
So beating MSU needed to happen to not only restore order back to the world, but also to validate the notion that the program was back on its way to the relative dominance most people remember from the 90s/00s. The OSU win last year was a nice step in that direction, as was the bowl game, but beating OSU is rarely presumed when the season begins; beating MSU is far more the norm. And while I’m sure many fans are loathe to admit it, this iteration of UM football needed to beat them to dispel the notion that Dantonio was plated in some impenetrable Wolverine armor (a similar feeling seemed to have set in on Notre Dame until this year). He’s been cut by Hoke and Co., and once that happened that tightening you have in your chest when MSU takes the lead late will hopefully disappear.
* I know this is a super-tired reference. The “good job, good effort” kid was the next in line.
I’m sure this is a bit of coach-speak, but it is also something that needed to be said. Since, oh, the Eastern Michigan game, I don’t think most people saw MSU as a legitimate Big 10 championship team. The offense was too crippled by a porous line, poor WRs, and a somewhat-shaky QB to keep pace with teams like Wisconsin, UM, OSU, and Nebraska. The Iowa game cemented their ceiling for the year at 7-8 wins, even with an elite defense.
Outside of the Alabama game, though, UM’s ceiling was never defined. Notre Dame was a tough loss but one that felt more self-inflicted than the team meeting a superior opponent. Purdue and Illinois proved only that UM was probably as good as Louisiana Tech and and Marshall. MSU, frankly, was not going to validate UM’s season, but only give them another breakpoint from which to calibrate their potential.
And that’s what Hoke encapsulates in this statement. He recognizes that MSU is a rival and the game mattered, but this wasn’t the season. Nebraska and OSU will be tougher opponents, and the near-certain B1G title game and (hopefully) the Rose Bowl bid will be far more emblematic of Michigan’s 2012 season. Last year expectations were such than an MSU win would have been one to hang the team’s hat on; this year, they’re another 4-4 team that gave UM their best shot and came up a little short.
Worst: “Rivalry” game?
Listen, I can totally get behind belittling MSU’s fans. I was at school there for 3 years, and I witnessed two riots, one “celebration” of a hockey championship during a season in which tickets to games were very available, and thousands of instances of drunken 40-year-olds hitting on college girls outside of dorms as the men’s belies jiggled under super-tight “Go Green! Go White!” shirts they picked up from the local Quality Dairy. It is a school that prides itself on making boxes*, having “awesome parties with hot chicks!”, and being able to count, and while the people there are not as bad as you think, comparisons between the two schools tend toward the Blue Team.
That said, the oft-repeated refrain from UM faithful that MSU isn’t a “rival” is just silly. Sure, OSU remains UM’s most consistently-excellent foe, and 30 years ago the Notre Dame and Michigan clashes typically featured top-10 programs shooting for a national title. But MSU is the other major program in the state, and really the only one in the footprint that features two public schools that (at least ostensibly) draw from the same high schools and communities (Purdue and Notre Dame and Illinois and Northwestern feature the whole private/public differences and the related non-geographically draws). In my high school class of around 160 kids, we had 3 who went to UM and about 40 who went to MSU. At other schools, the numbers were a bit closer, but the fact remains that if you go to either university, you are more than likely to have spent years of your life cohabitating with peers on the other side.
For Michigan fans, beating MSU feels like it should; despite EVERY MSU student claiming he/she was accepted but declined/never wanted to apply/”totally loved MSU the minute they walked on campus and never thought Ann Arbor was anything special”, you secretly felt most of them wanted to go to UM but couldn’t. It also poked a weird hole in the meta-argument that the “jocks” went to MSU and the “nerds” went to UM (which never made sense since it’s not like either team is comprised of the general student body). For MSU, beating UM was a clear rebuttal to all the crap I spewed above; a tangible instance of MSU beating UM in something that both schools’ fanbases cared about. This wasn’t a “our Particle Physics major is better” or “our mascot is cooler according to Playboy.com”, but a win for MSU and a loss for UM.
The point is that it matters to both sides, and anyone mouthing off about how beating MSU didn’t matter, that they are not UM’s rival, is just displaying his/her naivety and/or unfounded arrogance. And while I definitely see this year being the end of MSU’s “dominant run” in the Big 10, they will remain a key opponent for championship game and bowl bids under Dantonio. MSU ain’t going anywhere, and trying to ignore them or minimize their threat doesn’t impress anyone.
* I know that packaging engineering is more than making boxes, but that ESPN special a couple of games ago didn’t help to dispel that idea.
Worst: Still with the unimaginative offensive schemes?
Al Borges seems like a nice guy, and I definitely see how the offensive skill players he inherited don’t mesh with the play-calling he prefers to call. Denard is great for the offense that RR runs, where his feet lead the way and defenses worry about gap control and QB Oh Noes! for 4 quarters. Under Borges, he’s an oval-ish peg trying to fit into a parallelogram-ish hole. He’s not super-accurate, the WRs he throws to are either too small, too slow, or too inexperienced for complete optimization, and the dominant tailback and massive linemen are either in red shirts or still playing HS. It’s like owning a 3DO in 1994 – it looks really cool on paper, but the controls don’t work the way they should and the pictures on the game boxes always look cooler than the games themselves.
That said, this offensive ineptitude against anyone with a top 50-ish defense needs to end. 2011 Notre Dame and Nebraska are the only decent defenses that Michigan really scored on, and even with those two performances there were a myriad of factors beyond “offensive efficiency” that led to those outbursts. It’s gotten to the point that I’d rather the team spot opponents 10-15 points just to get Borges out his routine and let up on the reins a bit.
Everyone knows about the much-bemoaned I- and screaming “multiple TEs in on the line so we are clearly running”-formations, but it’s also the option runs that are almost never options and a vertical passing game that can charitably be described as “adventurous” at times. It’s a mindset that calls for plays that he knows his team just cannot execute the way he wants, and while I get the argument that he needs to run what he knows, it is infuriating to see this team get stymied in the red zone or go three-and-out repeatedly with offensive play calling that only calls on Denard to run 6 times in the second half before the final drive. The Denard Borges Fusion Cuisine is like a restaurant in an airport – it looks good because you are starving and have a 2-hour layover with the only other options being a Sbarro’s and one of those airport bars where businessmen from Des Moines hit on the “mature” female bartender who also doubles as the short-order cook. Chop the menu in half, sprinkle in a bunch of designed runs and screens to keep Spartan Pride from killing him on gap blitzes, and wait until Shane Morris is a Sophomore.
Best: This is how we do it!
On the other end of the coordinator spectrum stands Greg Mattison, whose work restoring the validity of “Greg” after Mr. Robinson, Mr. Williams (I’m ignoring the superfluous G), Mr. Davis, and Mr. Brady tried their best to ruin it deserves serious nomination come the off-season. In 2010 Michigan was ranked 110th in total defense, above a bunch of directional schools and below such juggernauts as Rice, Duke, and Baylor. Today? They’re 10th. That’s not just impressive, that’s damn near a miracle. Every time a see Jake Ryan burst through the line to snag a QB in the backfield or J.T. Floyd break up another pass attempt, I involuntary pull one of these:
Yes, this is the same video. No, I won’t apologize for my love of mid-90’s R&B. You’re just lucky I couldn’t think of anything catchy/appropriate for Next.
Say what you will about MSU’s offense this year, they still had one of the better RBs in the country in Bell, a competent QB, and the laser-focus to circle the Michigan game on the calendar and pull every goofy play they can out for it. Yet, outside of two drives that netted MSU 170 yards (helped in part by a fake punt that accounted for almost 30 yards), they record 134 yards over 9 more drives and barely broke 300 yards for the game. Bell, who was used as the human battering ram that in years past gashed the Wolverines, had a quiet 68 yards and nothing longer than 8 yards. Maxwell threw a pick and a TD and never looked super-comfortable out there, and his repeated failed attempts to pick on Floyd at the end of the first half should shock anyone who remembers watching this only a couple of years ago.
Michigan won yesterday because the defense is a legitimate threat, and that transformation is due in large part to Greg Robinson (and Brady Hoke) making it so.
(Of course, this raises the questions surrounding why big-time coordinators were apparently “out of budget” under Carr and RR, but that’s for another day. Minnesota, let’s say.)
Best: Poor Sinead O’Connor
Everyone likes to say that Brenda Gibbons’ fondness for brunettes powers his cold-as-ice heart as he kicks yet another game winner. Personally, I think he derives his power from hair follicles in general, their faint aroma wafting by his nostrils as he lines up a half-dozen yards behind the ball. 2 years ago he was 1 for 5 in FGA, with a long of 24. In other words, a shade over an extra point. Two years later, he’s 10 of 12 with a long of 42 and a couple of game winners to boot. Someone needs to be in Columbus at the end of the season with whatever machine they use to fumigate Abercrombie & Fitch with their “cologne” and make sure whatever subconscious memories that are triggered in Gibbons are ready to go.
Worst: Recidivism on the rise in East Lansing
Usually the MSU-UM game coincides with the yearly East Lansing work-release program. I leave it to the reader to
bunch of convicts
to see what I am referring to.
Best: Liveblog Moderators are people too.
A redundant but totally necessary thank you should go out to the posters who moderate these liveblogs. I’ve yet to moderate one, as my proclivity to immediately approve anyone who references TMNT or “No Fear” t-shirt slogans would bog down the proceedings immensely, but watching the feed yesterday made me happy that no matter how many whiny posts go through, there must have been literally millions that didn’t. To imagine the horrors these men and women must endure every Saturday and yet function for the rest of the week is truly shocking, and they have my gratitude. Of course, that and $2.99 would get you a commemorative “I Was There” pin from the 2011 B1G championship game, but at least it’s something.
Another article well worth reading by Burgeoning Wolverine Star on Mattison's zone blitz packages. Here is the blitz, drawn up:
EDIT: and here's the video:
In 2010, Michigan finished the season ranked 110th in total Defense giving up 450.8 yards per game. (includes the bowl game).
In 2011, Michigan ranks 16th in Total Defense giving up 317.6 yards per game. That's an improvement of 94 spots and 133.2 yards per gamer less this year than last with virtually the same players.
Greg Mattison deserves Asst. Coach of the Year and Brady Hoke deserves Coach of the Year, it's no-brainer.
THought this was interesting.
Stats are from cfbstats.com
I spent yesterday putting together a highlight video for the 2011 defense, because hot damn, defense as good as ours deserves it. This is my first highlight video, so let me know what you think.
In full disclosure, you might get really pumped up and break anything red in your home.
I would just like to aknowledge several things that have really helped me put things in perspective about this team, this season, and this coaching staff.
(1) I've been vocally hard on Denard this year, as more people have tended to be. He's got some serious fundamental flaws that are being exposed in a system that awkwardly hybridizes (word? word, now.) things that he does well with things that he doesn't do well. This naturally has made for frustrating moments where you want to string up borges, denard, rich rod, anyone tangentially related to this transition, etc.
Given (1), (2) Denard has accounted for 29 TDs through 10 (11) games, which is 3 short of his scoring production in 13 games-ish last year. That's actually pretty nuts, given his apparent struggles. The point is this: we can handle the reduction in yardage/ per play average if he's getting us into the endzone with that kind of regularity.
(3) Acknowledging that Denard's turnover rate is still unacceptable, and given (1) and (2), if this is a down year for D-Rob, I'm OK with it. I'm more than ready to give Al Borges the benefit of the doubt and see if his Year 2 progression theory holds up. I've been pleased with the job he's done overall, and I'm more than happy to sacrifice the bubble screen for the package deal of hiring Borges and Mattison. The development of Fitz Toussaint has been amazing to watch.
(4) Speaking of Mattison and his defensive staff, holy hell. I'd trade flashy QB heisman-ish stats for this defensive turnaround 3 times over.
(5) I'm ready for 8 years of frustration to be taken out on OSU next weekend. 41-17 M with the coronation of Fitzmonga Biakabatoussaint. 200+. Go Blue. Good times ahead!
[Ed: argh, having some editing issues. Bump.]
"Play hard and play with great effort"
Immediately after the game, I was struggling to come up with a thru-line for what had just happened. But then Brian posted "Defensive Annhilation Muppets" and then the video of Mattison getting emotional surfaced. And for a moment I thought, 'you guys are over-reacting. Illinois does not have a good offense'. I like when coaches just give coachspeak. But then I thought about the last three years and yeah, it makes sense. The difference in emotion between Chip Kelly's comments and Mattison's are where you're starting from.
A couple of years from now, a win like this will only be notable for constructive criticism. There were a lot of bad plays that need to be corrected. But given the circumstances of where we were last year and what we were expected to be this year and the fact that we're 8-2 with a decent chance of picking up at least one more win and a very small chance of getting to 11 wins, emotional celebration is more than appropriate.
What a difference a week makes!
Al Borges didn't have a great game against Iowa, and I pointed that out. He had a much better gameplan this week. I don't know if he or anyone close to him reads blogs or not, but he responded to several very specific criticisms leveled here last week.
Holding the backside DE
I mentioned something about a lack of reverses.
Thanks Al! Odoms is coming from his slot position to take an end around fake. Not only did it hold the backside OLB and prevent the DE from crashing down on Denard, it also froze the MLB just enough for Fitz to run right by him.
But that wasn't the only trick up Al's sleeve. He pulled out another wrinkle from the Richrod days.
One of the problems with protecting Denard and limiting his carries is that the DE that you're optioning on the zone read doesn't have to respect the keep and is free to chase the TB. But here we see Koger coming from his H-back wing to block #9.
The O-line is getting good lateral movement and both Denard and Koger are eliminating defenders from the pursuit.
One caveat is that their safeties were pretty bad (someone mentioned they had backups in the game). #5 has badly misread this play, and he's too slow to catch Fitz anyway. Meanwhile, if you wonder how a guy can get over 100 yards in the first quarter, you can bet he's breaking tackles. This arm tackle didn't even slow him down.
This arm tackle slowed him down,
but it didn't stop him.
So Fitz had about 45 yards of YAC from the first arm tackle and then about another 15 yards of super YAC downfield.
The offense as a whole had a much better day (despite some derpiness in the 2nd and 3rd quarters). The O-line was doing a great job with the zone blocking in the first quarter and opened up some nice running lanes.
Here we've got Hopkins blocking the DE from his FB position instead of Koger, but the result is about the same. Gallon cracks down on his man and Omameh does a good job scraping off the double team and getting to the linebacker.
Huyge takes his man where he wants to go and it opens up a nice line.
On this next play, there's only 5 in the box because the OLB's are out on the slot receivers.
Molk does an excellent job of tracking down his man and we've got a hat on a hat.
The Zen of zone blocking is you just get on your man and take him away from the play using his own impetus. Of course you need a guy like Fitz back there who is patient enough and has good vision to see the hole developing.
Even though the OLB crashes down for contain, he's nowhere near Fitz and Denard has read him properly. If this were the pros Fitz would be owing five really large guys a nice dinner for this play.
The Numbers Game
We had some issues in the red zone last week. Part of that is due to Iowa's talent on the D-line and part of it is having Denard sitting in the pocket or handing off or otherwise not putting pressure on the defense to account for him.
If this were a normal pitch play or off-tackle dive, it would've been completely stuffed because they've got more defenders than we've got blockers on the playside. But when Denard keeps it, we've got an even matchup and Denard just has to pick his way through and find a hole.
But what really makes this play work is that Omameh gets a great cut block, upending his man. Now we've got 6 blockers against their 5 defenders and Denard with no one to track him down.
Omameh's block freed up Molk to get on the pursuing linebacker and the result is an easy touchdown for shoelace.
So what happened in the 2nd Quarter? Well let's compare to a play where we don't have a numbers advantage.
They've got 9 defenders in the box with both safeties playing up. If Denard has the freedom to audible (or we had gotten to the line with more than 8 seconds so that the coaches could call a check play #misshightempo), then he should be throwing a fade or "z out" to Roundtree at the bottom of the screen. We've got 9 in the box, but because we're in I form, the defense doesn't have to account for the QB (as his first 5 steps are backwards).
The play is a lead draw. The line shows pass blocking and then the center or whoever is free is supposed to head upfield after a couple beats. But this call means that Illinois has a lot of unblocked defenders. It doesn't help that Molk misreads the defense and doesn't scrape off to one of the linebackers. This means that Hopkins has three unblocked people he has to choose from. If Denard had been running, then both Hopkins and Fitz would have hit the MLBs so Denard would just have to juke the safety to get in the endzone.
Instead, Hopkins gets one LB and the other stuffs Fitz for a loss with both safeties racing up to make sure he doesn't fall forward.
[ed: follow the jump.]