Looking at the running game, were there different holes for Denard than for Fitz?
“Well some is we couldn’t get Fitz started. They ran 30 times fire zones -- run fire zones, which they never were that big a team. We call them sharks and stuff like that. But it was a little different. It was a little different. Never could get him started. Some of it we have to block better, some of it on some of the reads, maybe he should have kept the ball twice in there, but I think some of it goes down to number one what we were trying to do, giving Denard the ball, and secondly blocking better. And then you’ve got to give them a little credit, too.”
Throw a dart at a row of newsstands within 400 miles of Ann Arbor and you'll probably puncture a sentence telling the Michigan running backs to step it up. If you do the same with the blogosphere it'll stick in some guy who won't notice because he is running around in panic over all non-Lewan OL. Other potential targets include the "Most of that is Alabama" couch, the floor of "Toussaint only played one game and they took him away by alignment," the wall of "it's early in the season," the "Denard missed some reads" chair, or maybe the "Mealer <<<<(!!!) Molk" bookshelf you just bought at Ikea and discovered to your horror you can't return or reassemble even though you're pretty sure you mixed up two of those bolt-thingies and this is why it keeps coming apart.
This Ikea metaphor for the offensive line is worth exploring but not this moment. This moment I want to figure out which of the above targets are actually getting the most hits, i.e. why aren't the running backs getting any traction?
Instructions after THE JUMP
Here's the called running back runs from the Bama UFR and my mini-UFRing of Toussaint in the Air Force game. Note thanks to AF's two long drives and Michigan's one short one that Toussaint didn't get his first carry until less than 2 minutes left in the 1st quarter.
ManPanda – (reference)RR-recruited OL screwing up while man-blocking is a crime against the Man-Panda. Guilty: 10 plays
Hello Wall - Running into a stacked front: 7 plays
Smith/Rawls=Guy - Smith is just a guy: 2 plays
Counter to Nowhere - The counter that isn't a counter that Schofield always screws up: 2 plays
Outside zone still works! - Ran an outside zone and it worked: 2 plays
Outside zone still…MEALER! - Ran an outside zone and it didn't work because Mealer<<<<Molk: 2 plays
So there's your problem. Just like last year Michigan tried to sprinkle a small helping of the offense of the future into the mix, and it didn't work because Alabama's NT can two-gap and Air Force just sent everybody right after it every time. Both opponents—but Air Force to a much higher degree—were setting up with a lot of guys in the box, walking more down from the DB ranks, and slanting toward whichever direction the running back will be traveling.
This is not working.
Addressing the ManBall Problem: After two games I don't think this offensive line is ever going to be very good at man-blocking. Lewan can hack it, but Air Force exposed Mealer as not very strong, Schofield as ineffectual, and Omameh/Barnum not great at pulling even when they're not getting tripped by a fallen Mealer. Since we've seen them all excel at zone blocking in the past, and since that's what they were recruited for, at this point a two-game assumption about the limits of their abilities in this regard is rather safe. Man-blocking is fine as a changeup but it's the opposite of helpful if the intent is to get more yards via the running backs.
Addressing the Wall Problem: I'm starting with the running-into-a-stacked front "problem" first because the wall is easy enough to avoid except those few times one must bash his head into it to prove one's manhood.
If defenses are using unsound alignments and extra defenders to troll Michigan's avowed love of running back running, that means they're making the passing game easier and betting their safeties can beat Denard one-on-one in a competition of speed and athleticism. Good luck with that.
We saw a great example of this last Saturday as Air Force again and again committed eight defenders to not dying by Fitz, and consequently left their various Eckstein defensive backs 1-on-1 against Michigan's towering receivers (11 of the day's 14 catches were made by Gardner, Funchess, and Jeremy Jackson) and/or Denard in space. Robinson averaged over 11 ypc on the ground and 8.3 ypa through the air en route to 435 yards and four TDs. The close score belied a game in which evenly distributed luck at the key points (3rd downs, the tipped INT, officiating, etc.) would have found the Falcons consistently forced to drive the length of the field every possession—while they're good enough to do that, this game was more likely to finish 42-17 than as close as it did.
If every opponent sells out against Toussaint to this degree he'll average 1 ypc on six attempts per game while Denard's booking flights to New York and Pasadena. They won't, but even so Michigan needs to do a much better job of taking what the enemy has provided. This starts with pre-snap reads. Hoke mentioned that Denard maybe made some bad reads but I saw a grand total of zero play on potential zone reads when handing off was the right call. I think these are some of the reads Denard was supposed to make, e.g. the first Toussaint run against Air Force when the cornerback crept into the box several seconds before the snap.
The one thing that came up time and again on the head-to-wall-charted plays above was the bubble screen was wide open. This complaint has been had on these pages ad Borgesium, but is no less relevant because the best way to keep the deck stacked against both Toussaint and Denard is to open up the outside. It doesn't necessarily have to be the bubble screen.
Air Force might not have had the resources to shut down Michigan's running backs without sacrificing a member of the back four, but Bama sure as hell did. Future opponents are not Bama, however Michigan State is Bama light and you can be assured Dantonio will be every bit as cunning and soulless as his evil masters. The big thing that needs to get fixed, or at least better covered, is the play of the offensive line, especially when they're tasked with pulling and drive-blocking.
Watch this sequence of plays from Michigan's 2nd drive (starts at 23:30 if below not working):
1st and 10, Air Force leaves a quick throw to the slot (Gallon) open by alignment but there is no pre-snap read made. M is running a vintage 2010 Denard-ISO right at them. Their WILL linebacker reads quickly and attacks so fast that Mealer totally whiffs his second block and that guy stops Denard for a 1-yard loss. Mealer is negged, and the bloggerati sing lamentations for six free yards to Gallon. [Announcers name impact players. Kovacs declared a walk-on.]
2nd and 11, Funchess in for Hopkins but AF is massively under-shifted. M fakes zone and Falcons are slanting hard that direction with the LBs biting hard as if the last maggot to get to Toussaint will be cleaning the latrine with his mouthguard. M's manbeast freshman TE has a wide open seam that Denard hits in stride. 1st down declared, "Jim Mandich" searches spike. [Interlude: Florida scores on a zone read. Spread declared officially dead.]
1st and 10, Hopkins back in, bubble not (very) open but weakside CB is walking down leaving Gardner alone with a safety standing 15 yards away. Not seen. Slant plus blockdown plus CB blitz means Barnum's blocking nobody, Schofield is (badly) blocking the CB, and Omameh is letting the DE go by while watching Mealer getting stood up by the DT. Fitz swarmed, Molk lamented.
Out of similar personnel against similar alignments Michigan was stopped twice because of bad O-line execution and being outmaneuvered, and had one easy long play. All three happened out of things that were visible in the pre-snap alignment. Even with a shift back toward the type of plays that better utilize their skills, this isn't going to be one of Michigan's great offensive lines without huge improvement or a new face. However this could be a great offense if Denard is able to make more pre-snap adjustments to the obvious things opponents are doing to prevent getting gashed by Toussaint.
Against better defenses this won't be so obvious all the time. But Michigan doesn't face another Alabama, meaning when opponents "cheat" against the run it'll mean Gardner is matched 1-on-1 with a human, not a Milliner. A quick audible here or there will find room to use the myriad other weapons at Borges's disposal (Denard's legs, Gardner, the Funchess, Gallon in space, etc.), or make defenses plug those leaks so they can't just key on stopping Toussaint.
The play in the video that begins at 11:45 is Denard's first touchdown, for reference.
And in that play, he is definitely supposed to fake the exchange and throw the bubble screen. If you look, he has the the ball in a throwing stance, looks over to Gallon, and realizes he's about to get blown up by that blitzer.
So he tucks the ball, and takes off after the hole that Toussaint has left. If you ask me, that's the 'second read' on the play, because Fitz doesn't waste a step getting to the secondary and blocking (even though this play was supposed to go to Gallon).
Anyway, some people criticized Denard for not handing this play off. I don't think that's a part of the play. And if I'm right, then this play is the new QB Oh-Noes because it either gets us to the edge against a stacked run or gets Denard through a MACK-sized hole with linebackers running away from him.
You need to include Denard's runs in the Running Back analysis. Unless it's a pass play that turns into a scramble, Denard is one of the running backs, and to provide a complete anlaysis on the hypothesis, "is it O-line or Running Back at fault" you need to include all plays from all the running backs.
Especially when the head scratching on the Alabama game was, "why not run Denard more?".
It's likely that Fitz gets caught by a safety if he had the ball on Denard's first TD, but if you look at that play, Fitz is running through a gaping hole, and unless he was rusty, Fitz would have made it to the secondary, and assuming Air Force seconday = Purdue secondar, then Fitz too would have had a TD, and Air Force likely would have said, "crap, let's load up the box and hope Denard can't throw and we can cover reciever man to man, then would have said, crap we don't have DB's that are 6ft 1in and 200 lbs, we can't cover the Devins!!!"
#36 Big Joe at 248lbs. would have gained more yards running right up the middle. They will learn this over time. look at his history. he is a champion. he is a gamer. just do the physics, 248# at 4.7 per 40. the force would kick thier butts. don't dance. run up the middle.