10/8/2011 – Michigan 42, Northwestern 24 – 6-0, 2-0 Big Ten
Last week's picture pages focused on a two-playsequence in which Stephen Hopkins bulldozed a Minnesota linebacker on an iso, then pretended he was going to do the same on the next drive before running right past him for a long completion up the seam. If Michigan wasn't playing Minnesota the iso would have gone for a few yards and that sequence would have been the Northwestern game exactly: two halves, pretty much the same same thing, radically different results.
Half the first: this old bad thing again
It is not fun to be a Michigan fan seeing your past flash before your eyes when your team is going up against the spread offense. Three hundred yards and twenty-four points in the first half? I have seen this before. It ends with me in the fetal position muttering something about Armanti Edwards or Donovan McNabb or this exact Northwestern team blowing up the recordbook in 2000 in this exact stadium at this exact time. The only intelligible things in the moaning will be a bleated "Herrrrrrmaannnn" or strangled "Englissssssh."
I uncurled long enough at halftime to get a tweet out about how we were essentially getting Rich-Rodded to death. We'd heard about but rarely seen this kind of thing the last three years: Northwestern killed Michigan with bubbles they weren't aligned to defend and expertly used varying tempos to catch Michigan off guard much of the first half. This was the spread 'n' shred at full absorption, the kind of thing you can do when you are totally committed to one style of offense you know well.
That was influenced by these super-interesting Calvin Magee videos* in which he's describing the philosophy of the offense that just led a redshirt freshman everyone recruited as a receiver and his sidekicks to a BCS win over Georgia. I'm an hour and a half in and and it's mostly been Magee describing the various tempos WVU uses and breaking down various bubble screens.
This fresh in my mind, my experience of the first half was thus accompanied by a strong sense of déjà vu as the Wildcats bubbled and tempo-ed and aargh-safetied their way down the field. It was simultaneously the thing we'd always seen and the thing we never got to see. It was yet another reason to shake your fist at the Great Rodriguez Defensive Coaching Malpractice. It was unpleasant.
I envisioned Rodriguez sitting in the same room with Ralph Friedgen. Rodriguez watches the Michigan game; Friedgen watches Maryland. Mike Leach pops his head in from time to time. They are sipping cognac, smoking cigars, and laughing maniacally.
Half the second: this old bad thing again, happening to them
It is more fun to be a Michigan fan seeing your past flash before your eyes when the Rodriguez spread is the other team's and they are suddenly incapable of moving the ball while their defense is incapable of anything at all. Insert any of a dozen games over the last three years for comparisons. 2008 Penn State may be the canonical example.
The collapse of the Northwestern offense shouldn't be overstated. They only had four second-half drives that meant anything thanks to the offense executing this second half:
8 play, 80 yard TD
12 play, 80 yard TD
6 play, 47 yard TD
7 play, 28 yard FGA
9 play, 53 yard TD
This was a masterpiece for the time of possession fetishists. Northwestern opportunities were limited. (As an incidental bonus, Michigan also got 28 points while "keeping the Wildcats off the field." Funny how that works.)
In the aftermath you can't poke a newspaper-type person (and even the occasional blogger) not talking up adjustments. I'm not so sure the adjustment were brilliant. They consisted of telling Denard to stop throwing terrible interceptions and throwing Jake Ryan into the slot—hello heebie jeebies—so the Wildcats couldn't bubble Michigan to death. That accomplished, they waited for the turnover flood.
One sack, two of those turnovers, and a quarter-and-a-half later Michigan was already in rush-the-passer, kill-the-clock mode up 11 with nine minutes left. The first turnover should have been a first down conversion that pushed the Wildcats into Michigan territory; the second was an excellent strip by Thomas Gordon on a drive that had moved from around the Northwestern 20 to midfield.
The adjustment was not giving up the thing they shouldn't have been giving up in the first place and not arm punting directly at opponent safeties. Michigan was just better, no brilliance required. The second half bore that out.
The end result: 42 points despite three turnovers, 541 yards, 360 ceded, and a margin of victory over the Wildcats larger than any since 2004. The 2004 team was the last one Michigan team to smoke-and-mirror its way to a Rose Bowl—if that's really what a team one inch away from beating Vince Young really did.
As the weeks pass the questions fade. Michigan seems flatly better than everyone they play, no qualifiers necessary. This week the Spartans will test that theory. They are the mirror; this weekend blows away the smoke.
*[It's mostly football stuff but a couple of personality items:
1. Magee's showing a clip of a bubble they ran against Cincinnati and apropos of nothing says "the coach, I can't remember his name, is a really nice guy." Someone in the room says "Dantonio?" and he replies "Yeah, Dantonio. Nice guy." Wonder how Magee feels about him now—easy to think someone's a nice guy when you beat him 38-0.
2. Magee's describing a bubble against Georgia in their Sugar Bowl win as a pre-snap read he let White have because he "wants to let the kid grow." WVU ran two different bubbles, a pre-snap read based on alignment and a post-snap read with a full mesh point and an option afterwards if the QB keeps. By allowing White to make the read before the snap he's giving him more flexibility in the offense.
Rodriguez, in contrast, "isn't going to put his fate in the hands of a 19-year-old kid" and wants his QBs to "read it out" post snap all the time.
This particular bubble looked there pre-snap but wasn't actually because a desperate Georgia defense was plunging the safety down at it; WVU didn't have any PA off the bubble—hard to believe—at the time, something Magee said he regrets and they obviously fixed.]
BRADY HOKE EPIC DOUBLE POINT OF THE WEEK AWARD. Awarded to Brady Hoke for the following section.
Game theory bits. You will not be surprised that I was very much in favor of the fourth and one in the first half, especially given the state of Michigan's defense at that point and what we'd seen Northwestern do on D in their first few games. The result of that play and their ability to convert on the ensuing drive was the difference between going in down 24-14 and 24-7.
While the dominant second half made that touchdown irrelevant in the long run, the people who doubt the wisdom of that call are the same who ascribe a mystical power to momentum. If you're worried about giving momentum up by not converting you have consider the possibility of acquiring it by getting a touchdown, which in addition to being momentum-tastic is also worth seven points. For me, simple calculation: fourth and one near midfield against a team with an iffy defense and in possession of Denard Robinson. Go.
Also not a surprise: thumbs down to the field-goal attempt. I'd actually started arguing with my friend about it on second down. I was in favor of going on fourth and reasonable; he and others around me were in favor of kicking. My main rationale was that there's a huge difference between 18 and 11 (game over, especially with more time off the clock) and only a meh difference between 11 and 14.
We were having this as a hypothetically kicker-independent argument, but there seemed to be agreement that with Michigan's situation at that spot you go. If you had Nate Kaeding I could see kicking, but Gibbons has never made a field goal of 40 yards, let alone 48, and 4th and 5 is very makeable.
Even with the FG attempt I disagreed with, my "Brady Hoke is awesome on gameday" meter incremented a notch. On twitter someone said he tried to sneak Denard and a WR out with the punt team before the timeout, which if true is awesome. It means the TO was not hesitation but rather a trick being snuffed out and that even when the trick was foiled Hoke still went for it.
EPIC DOUBLE POINT STANDINGS, RETROACTIVELY APPLIED:
2: Denard Robinson (Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan), Brady Hoke (San Diego State, Northwestern) 1: Jordan Kovacs (Western Michigan), David Molk (Minnesota)
Almost went with Hemingway for the ND game since Hemingway didn't throw a bunch of interceptions but "WHAT?!" and "the game is ova" were tiebreakers.
Something I've never screamed before. "NICE BLOCK," I yelped a moment after Michael Shaw blew up Bryce McNaul with a cut block:
Thanks to terrible play by the NW MLB and what looks like a slant by the playside DT all Shaw had to do was meekly shove McNaul for Denard to burst into the secondary, but yelp == shoutout.
Hello Mr. Gardner. Gardner had another package in this game. I didn't like this one as much. It seemed too on-the-nose to run that jet sweep to Denard, then come back with a naked boot off it the next time you ran it. Michigan just executed a similar pattern against Minnesota, so NW was prepared. Above is the linebacker Gardner dodged en route to three yards.
And then there was that bit late in the game where Gardner came in. At first he was just handing off/getting the corner from the one, which is not that thrilling, but before that they brought him in to hit Jeremy Jackson on second and ten.
If Gardner can handle it future plays with both guys on the field should be less focused on Denard—maybe make that jet sweep fake and then drop back as per normal. Robinson is an option but not the only one.
Obvious waggle is inverted. On the Watson touchdown, the universe thought "waggle" when Michigan brought in an I-form big on second and goal from the nine. Michigan ran it to the short side of the field, breaking a tendency, and got rewarded for it with an wide open Steve Watson (who Denard nearly missed).
Bipolar OL. Maybe. Michigan couldn't run the ball but it occurred to me there was a strong possibility they got RPSed trying to run the spread against a team that knows it backwards and forwards. There seemed to be a lot of blitzing into places Michigan was trying to run.
So run problems exist. On the other hand, Denard had eons to find people to throw the ball to. Vincent Smith epic blitz pickups had something to do with that, as did Wildcat-fan-infuriating three-man-rushes, but so did the offensive line. So much so that this was a Freudian slip in a thread about the refereeing:
also a rushing the passer on Drob that was never called. He was takled for a loss, in the third I believe, and while on the ground was hit by a second defender and then a third. That third defender had enough time to pull up but didn't. No call.
Borges seemed to agree with this blog's petulant complaining about rollouts, which were reduced. Northwestern got negative pressure on pocket passes and the rollouts that were called saw better protection as those edge blockers went hell-bent for the outside instead of hesitating. Michigan's currently first in sacks allowed [tiresome avalanche of caveats]; so it seems that Michigan's best option when it's going to pass is letting Denard sit back and survey. No one is getting near him.
The arm punting bit. Denard did throw three interceptions. This is less than ideal. One of those was a badly inaccurate deep ball into single-ish coverage; the others were WTFs. But the opponent line that Denard is basically a tailback at quarterback…
The long passes were underthrown jump balls that NU didn’t win. I am disappointed (but not surprised) that the secondary was not told to look for the ball once the receiver was 25 yards down the field. Throughout the year, most of Denard Robinson’s long passes have been underthrows that would be INTs if the defender looked for the ball. … At least 100 of those passing yards were 50/50 jump balls. the pass defense wasn’t great, but the defensive scheme in general limited most of Robinson’s runs and made him throw. … Denard has receivers that are willing to go up for the jump ball and bring it down (e.g., the Notre Dame win), and until teams can stop that, all Denard has to do is limit his wild throws to the opposition and get the ball into the general area of his receivers.
…has started to grate. Even with the turrible interceptions Denard still completed 65% of his passes for nearly 13 YPA. That is enough for him to far exceed Dan Persa's QB rating last game (177 to 131) when Persa completed 73% of his passes like he always does. And, like, 13 YPA. 48 and 57 yard bombs to Hemingway and Roundtree help, but Robinson being Robinson put those guys in single coverage.
And here's the thing. While the jump ball thing is a fair assessment of some of the deep stuff, remove his two longest completions and Denard still averaged 9.7 YPA. Chop out the two successful bombs—but not the INT or the Gallon overthrow—and Denard averaged almost a first down per passing attempt. Northwestern fans cannot talk crap about him in any fashion. Do terribly unfair things to his passing stats and he still pwns you. Teams with secondaries are another matter, but we are seeing Denard get back to being the fairly accurate guy he was last year.
When allowed to set and step into throws Denard can toss all kinds of stuff. As Borges gets his head around the things he can and cannot do his efficiency should improve, because he's got enough in his legs to compensate for the fact he's not Andrew Luck. Now, about those throws that make all of us want to die…
[Disclaimer: There's a difference between not thinking you can sustain an offense on downfield chucks into double coverage and back-shoulder fades to Jeremy Gallon and thinking a QB averaging 10 YPA even when you mutilate his stats unfairly is not a QB. Thank you for not needing this disclaimer.]
WTFs. I don't know, man. I think one of them was an attempted wheel route that was either badly disrupted or saw the guy fall down; in any case there was a safety right there so that was a very bad read. The other I have no idea. Hypothetically that could have been a massive WR bust, but I doubt it. I will look at these in UFR but I doubt I'll be able to tell much.
Shaw. If Tommy Rees's brain goes "FLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYD" then Michael Shaw's goes "BOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCE." It worked against a slow-ish Northwestern team cramming the box; kudos to Borges for making that switch.
Roundtree. Welcome back to the offense, kid. Totally thought you were Junior Hemingway on the long one.
Woolfolk. Again pulled for Countess. Obviously injured.
Johnson. Hoo boy, going to come in for some finger-wagging in UFR. His whiff on the Kain Colter TD was spectacular.
The West: open. It was going to be wide open when Nebraska was losing 27-6 to Ohio State, but even with that comeback there the Michigan-Michigan State game has the shape of a division championship game, doesn't it? Whoever wins it will be two clear of their instate rival with the most threatening other teams in the division already carrying losses. The winner of that game could lose once and probably be fine since Iowa is unlikely to sweep M/MSU/Nebraska and Nebraska similarly unlikely to do so against M/MSU/Iowa/PSU/Northwestern.
Michigan State would have a smaller margin of error since their remaining games against the East include an almost certain loss versus Wisconsin; Michigan wins this weekend and they become solid favorites.
As per usual, when I attend road games I usually can't get around to VOAV. Penance:
Postgame interview with the person of particular note:
After starting slowly in the sack department, we picked up 3 last week and 4 this week, including a decapitation by Kovacs and a Wile E. Coyote style steamrolling by Will Campbell.
After giving up 297 yards in the first half, the defense settled down (and the offense controlled the clock for major stretches) limiting NU to 438 yards total for the game. A tad higher than my goal of 400 per game, but NU does have a good offense, I think everyone would agree. And they would have been held under 400 if the refs called holding penalties. More on that in the ref section, don’t neg me yet.
That 438 includes a 79 yard drive at the end of the game when Michigan was up three scores and just bleeding clock. If anything ever convinces you that advance stats are more real than the regular ones, that should be it. On 11 real drives—about an average game's worth—the Wildcats had 359 yards, which is about average. On the meaningless last one the Wildcats piled it on. Advanced stats will dump that last drive.
Most of my life (33 years) has been spent rooting for a Michigan team that would win most Saturdays, live in the national rankings, and stub their toe early in the season. 4-0 or better starts have only occurred 11 times in those 33 seasons:
4-0: '78 '96 '09
5-0: '85 '95 '99 '10
6-0: '86 '97 '06 '11
The starts to the last three seasons have been a stretch that Michigan fans have not witnessed since the dawn of the Carr era.
We should get a giant inflatable Wolverine head for the players to run out from under, except it should probably be, like, the comic book version, and then to make it even more rad we could shoot off some fireworks during the national anthem and this would make things electric.
Media, as in unwashed blog masses. If you are a true schadenfreude connoisseur, there is aSippin' on Purple game thread that descends into self-loathing misery. I didn't enjoy it much except for the one post where the person said every time Denard takes off it terrifies them.
Kenny Demens had his best game of the year. Demens hasn't been as productive this year as I expected, but he's still been a solid player. This game was his best, though. He had 10 tackles, including a sack, and did a good job of chasing down wide receivers and crossing routes in space. A lot of middle linebackers (Obi Ezeh, for example) would have been left in the dust or would have missed the tackle on those smaller players, but Demens is so strong that if he gets his hands on someone, that person is going to the ground.
In five of Michigan's nine losses during the 2008 season, the Wolverines were either ahead or tied at the half. But during the subsequent two quarters, Michigan's offense crumbled and the defense wasn't good enough to prop the team up. Throughout the Rodriguez years, exponential in-game decline became a staple of the team's performance
Don’t you feel like, for the first time in a long while, that Michigan clearly has the advantage in coordinators? While there is room for improvement, it’s a blast to see Borges tinker around with Denard and Gardner, and the defense has rattled several quarterbacks this season and has clearly improved. The team seems to get better as the game goes on.
The story of Northwestern being shut out entirely in the second half is one of repeated, eerily consistent, enormous drive-ending plays by the Michigan defense. A sack and an interception killed the Wildcats’ third-quarter drives; a fumble and a sack put paid to their first two fourth-quarter efforts, and the final Northwestern drive barely reached Michigan’s red zone before the clock ran out.
Some face mask penalties an official should never miss. This is not one of them. When I watched this play in real time and even after the first replay, I did not think the face mask was grabbed. So many helmets come off, and often it has nothing to do with the face mask being pulled. In this case, however, the last replay indicated that Kovacs did grab the mask with his left hand. The referee, who is behind the quarterback, would never see this, and he is the only official who is watching the quarterback. It was a foul, but not all fouls can be seen. Coach Fitzgerald was penalized for running out on the field to argue, which is absolutely the correct call. You cannot let a coach come as far onto the field as Fitzgerald did to scream at the officials. It makes no difference whether there is a missed call. That cannot be allowed.
That's on point. It's clear on the replay that Kovacs did grab the facemask but you can't expect the official to see that. (Side note: Adding Pereira to their coverage of NFL and college sports was a brilliant move by FOX. He's great at giving an unvarnished take from the referee's perspective. In that same article he bags on the live-ball unsportsmanlike penalty the NCAA just instituted, but he also gives it to you straight when you are being a stupid fanboy.)
I think "adjustments" is being used as a synonym for "coaching". Our coaches may not have needed to make many adjustments during halftime. But they sure did a great job coaching their kids to do better execute their assignments.
I'm pretty sure the Shaw runs were designed to go outside. NW was plugging the middle, so the Michigan coaches were trying to get to the edge. Fitz isn't as good at reaching the edge (something Michigan has struggled reaching all year, somewhat due to poor O-line blocking), and Shaw is faster and better at reaching it. It may look like indecision or BOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCE, but I think it's designed to go there, and that is why Shaw is getting those carries. If defenses are taking that away (probably because they are afraid of Denard getting to the edge) you will see more Fitz between the tackles.
By the way, I think Michigan showed some improvement under the center rushing. On several plays they had solid gains (~4 yards on average) or big gains (~10 yards) called back by bad holding penelties. It is obvious though that the O-line is getting better at blocking it and that when defenses sell out on stopping a different style of offense that Michigan can at least go to that on 1st down and stay ahead of the chains.
Agreed on Shaw's runs. They were clearly trying to get to the edge with him, and they were pretty successful. Vincent Smith doesn't have the speed to get to the edge and can't shake off tackles if his shoulders aren't square. Toussaint also struggles when running laterally. Shaw has the flat-out speed to reach the edge on a consistent basis. That's why Michigan runs tosses and stretches with him. I think it's kind of humorous when people knock Shaw for running to the edge on outside runs; I haven't seen anybody pick on Stephen Hopkins or Fitzgerald Toussaint for running up the middle on plays that are supposed to go up the middle.
I don't think Brian was criticizing Shaw for thinking "BOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCE" this week. Instead, he credited Borges for "making the switch" to Shaw this week given NW's tendency to cram the box. Borges apparently recognized that Shaw's tendencies would be beneficial against this defense.
Is likely to lose this year, how would it be more meaningful if they were in the division? Don't get me wrong; I can see situations where that would be the case...I'm just don't see how this is one of them.
I haven't re-watched the entire game yet, but did it seem to anyone else that all three of Denard's picks came on throws where he threw off his back foot? By the end of the game, I was screaming "set your feet" every time he threw. And when he did, he was very sharp. I think it really is as simple as this: when Denard remembers his mechanics, he's a very good passing quarterback. When he doesn't, he's somewhere between a tailback and a reckless Forcier- or Favre-esqe gunslinger.
Football allows the intellectual part of my brain to evolve, but it allows the emotional part to remain unchanged. And this is all I want from everything, all the time, always. --Chuck Klosterman
Maybe its having a 3 yr old, but I was thinking that Shaw runs like Tigger without the tail.
And Kovacs on that sack/me no button my helmet/whistle play - when I saw him dart from the corner of my screen I felt like I was watching a T-bone car accident in real time. You just knew Persa was going to get clobbered.
BTW - anybody else think Persa looks like Harry Potter?
Has anyone else noticed that Dileo likes to celebrate with the defense when they make big plays? He joined in on the end zone celebration last week after Avery's fumble return, and he was jumping around with defense after Kovac's TFL on 4th and 1 this week. Both times I checked to see if he'd been on the field for the play somehow.
Who was the last Michigan head coach to start his Michigan career 6-0? I'm pretty sure I saw that it was Yost, but I haven't seen anyone address this anywhere. Am I mistaken on this? Pretty impressive start for Hoke, regardless.
The other I have no idea. Hypothetically that could have been a massive WR bust, but I doubt it. I will look at these in UFR but I doubt I'll be able to tell much.
If we're talking about the same one, on replay, I think I saw a wide open man, possibly Koger, settled into an open spot (was NW in zone?) I thought that Robinson was trying to hit him and had the ball soar about 3 miles over his head. Otherwise, that throw was to no one. Apologies for my vagueness. I was watching the game on a tiny window on my computer, with a chat window open next to it, and was not sober.
On a happier note, I think this was one of the best coached games I've seen Michigan play in a long time.
just, in the pit of my stomach, it felt like Michigan might make a few mistakes here or there, but eventually win because they are more talented, better coached and have a better game plan, barring some huge freak accident. its been a long time since i thought that, and boy did it feel nice to sit and watch a competitive-ish game with confidence rather than a screaming sense of impending terror delivered through various means over and over again.
this weekend, though, the old nerves are back up already.
I love Will Campbell's reactions to his big plays...he gets the big eyes and the slow motion walk going.
He reminds me of Warren Sapp whenever he makes a play.
“True loyalty is that quality of service that grows under adversity and expands in defeat. Any street urchin can shout applause in victory, but it takes character to stand fast in defeat. One is noise — the other, loyalty.”
Is Brian really going to refer to the division names as east and west forever now? I get it. I hate the names too. But it's taken me six games to finally figure out the difference between Legends and Leaders. (Legends = All schools named M, N and Iowa.) I don't want to have to reset my brain everytime this blog makes it's own silent protest.
I've also found, like many a great thing, the names aren't really that terrible. Kinda like when Facebook changes. People just fear change. My guess is that in two years time, we all relent.
Ron Zook just outed himself--he's illiterate. He claims he "forgot" the score, but as a coach you don't have to remember it if you can read--it's up on the scoreboard. That or he is offensively bad at arithmetic. One or the other, though.
Agree with the commenter above - "adjustments" is more than schematic changes (though even there it was more than just Ryan-not-nickel). Getting off blocks, leverage, responding to technique all are part of adjustments, and all improved.
I also think that the "game theory" on the field goal is forest-and-trees point. At some point, Gibbons will be called on to make high-pressure field goals. It is better for Gibbons, and better for the coaches, to give him some more-than-chippies opportunities. That point of the game was perfect. Some pressure, but not game-deciding. Good distance. Presumably some coaching and/or positive reinforcement afterwards, as well as lessons about FG protection. The coaches also now have more data, earned essentially risk-free, on whether to call for FG attempts in the future.
To say the adjustments they made were just an emphasis to getting back to fundamentals. Blocking, tackling, lane discipline, footwork. That's what we were doing wrong; not some massive scheme problems. And it worked. And even if it didn't, it wouldn't have mattered, because they haven't invented a scheme that can cover up for shoddy fundamentals.
I did see some scheme changes, but I don't know how important they were. Frankly we won't know better until we get a close look through the UFR. It was clear that Michigan was the superior team in terms of speed and size, but were confused in the first half by what NW was doing, particularly the linebackers.
So great not to have true freshmen lining the entire secondary...although Countess gets a pass, he's playing out of his mind
truis football dia.
Dont Fear the Football Gods. They will make us warrior heros.
a 48 yard FGA? I could have sworn the B1G joke announcers were talking about how Gibbons had never made a FG from beyond 40 and I am fairly certain that if it was 28 yards out, it would not have been so easy to block.
Did y'all notice that several of the guys changed jerseys later in the game? They went from their tight fit, all white jerseys to the ones from last year? Denard didn't start the game with the old jersey, but he finished with it on - and even did his interview with it on. What gives?