Unlike last week, this is pretty positive. It was actually quite a bit harder to write, though, which makes me think that I’m more engaged when I’m in a bad mood. Let’s hope I’m not handed another opportunity to test that theory this season.
I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic. – George Carlin
Last week against PSU, the UM defense put forth an “heroic” effort to hold the Nittany Lions to 43 points over 4 OTs. It was the type of game where the obvious structural fissures and blatant player deficiencies you usually expect after giving up 43 points simply did not exist; you could pick at the seams but the whole tapestry did not unravel spectacularly.
Against Indiana, UM gave up 47 points in regulation, allowing 572 yards in total offense and 8 scoring drives that averaged 53 yards on only 5 plays per. On paper, it looked like most of the nightmare games UM had defensively under RR or any time they played a spread team like Oregon or Jarious Jackson-led Notre Dame under Carr. Just one of those games where the defense couldn’t get off the field to save its life, and the opposition was, at best, slightly inconvenienced on its way to the endzone.
But a funny thing happened on the way to eradication: the defense played well enough to win. In no way should that be construed as “great” or even “good” because, well, this is still a results-based sport and for all of the advanced metrics and acronyms, 7.5 yard per play (and closer to 8 if you factor out that last desperation drive) allowed isn’t going to cut it.
That said, this wasn’t a game where UM was outclassed or, really, even out-schemed. True, there were a couple of busted plays caused by the Hoosiers’ maddening tempo, including a 59-yarder to Latimer for the game’s first score as well as as couple of long completions in the 3rd quarter when Roberson found Stoner for a 42-yarder and Wynn Worst Waldo’ing for a TD. But in addition to the two interceptions recorded by the defense, there were probably 3-4 others that were close to being turnovers, including the 67 yarder by Hughes and a sequence in the 2nd quarter where Taylor (?) had a near-pick on Roberson that was followed by a crazy 33-yard TD to Wynn to pull IU within 7. As with last week’s post-Crisis final drive, those plays sometimes happen against you without rhyme or reason.
And after surrendering 23 points to IU in the 3rd quarter, the defense clamped down in the 4th, allowing only 7 points and forcing two turnovers (including a quick one after the Gardner fumble) as well as a game-ending sack by Frank Clark. For 3/4 of the game, the defense held IU to about a TD a quarter; a couple of breakdowns and luck made a 16-point win look closer than it was. And yes, saying a “couple of breakdowns” is like saying The Room had a “couple of issues” with editing and plot. Given all that, while I wouldn’t frame this game as a particularly heroic one by Mattison’s crew, it was at least “recklessly effective".
Best: The Only Defense is a Good Offense
I’ll get into my feelings about the offense later on (spoiler alert: MSU scored 42 points against IU in a single game!) but it must be said that the offense performed exactly the role it needed to in this game. IU’s offense is incredibly fast-paced and up-tempo; to steal a line from official MSU sponsor TapOut, IU tries to overwhelm the opposition with punches in bunches. Kevin Wilson, in-between absolutely eradicating Big Red gum and fuming during tense interviews with former UM offensive linemen, predicates a fast-strike offense that never wins the TOP battle because it doesn’t need to.
Early on, though, it seemed like the defense had IU basically figured out; UM forced a punt on 4 of the first 5 drives, including a couple of 3-and-outs. Of course, they did get tempo’d on a 4 play, 72 yard TD drive, but overall it seemed like IU’s offense was getting stymied by UM’s tight coverage and solid line play. At the same time, UM’s offense kept chugging along, scoring 4 TDs on their first 6 possessions and having a FG blocked because science.
But starting midway through the 2nd quarter all the way to the start of the 4th, IU started rolling with Tre Roberson and the defense had no real answer. All of a sudden, the defense couldn’t get off the field without giving up points, it seemed like IU had a 14 guys on every play, and my leftover Pad Thai tasted not like a bastardized version of a Bangkok dish but merely despair. UM’s only hope was to weather the storm by matching IU’s scoring barrage, one nutso drive at a time.
And that’s exactly what they did, with a couple of bumps along the way. Both fumbles were quickly rectified by Thomas Gordon INTs that UM was able to capitalize on, and the only other non-score on those 9 second-half possessions was a quick 3-and-out. There was no “field position battle” or alternative strategy by either offense; the goal was to score a touchdown on every drive, and while IU certainly was the faster squad out there, UM just kept plugging along at an efficient pace until IU’s mistakes caught up with them. The announcers characterized it as two boxers throwing haymakers; I thought it more like one of those 40-yard dash videos where a couple of players were superimposed on top of each other to distinguish individual progress during the sprint.
Both offenses were tenuously in competition with each other, but it felt more like a race to 60 points than anything resembling a pitched back-and-forth confrontation. It was admittedly somewhat surreal to watch, though in the joyous sense of seeing your team decimate an overmatched opponent and in the sense of, you know, the rest of the season.
Worst: The Shuffle
A football team is an ever-changing and evolving creature; due to injuries, performance, or purely feel, changes need to be made throughout the year to get as close to perfection as possible. With UM, the most significant and consistent changes have been made to the offensive line, which if last week’s special 27 for 27 didn’t drive the point home, is a bit in shambles. While the tackles are both experienced and will be playing in the NFL next year, the rest of the line is ludicrously young and/or inexperienced while also experiencing nearly week-by-week upheaval between the guards and center. Both Joe Burzynski and Erik Magnuson received their first starts of the year, replacing recent first-time starters Chris Bryant and Kyle Kallis, and once Burzynski went out due to injury Kyle Bosch stepped in as a true freshman.
While I do not doubt for a moment that these changes are due to both real and perceived lack of performance, one has to wonder if all of these changes are at least partially responsible for those deficiencies. The one thing you hear most often about an offensive line is that it benefits immensely from familiarity and maturation as a unit, that the more often these same 5 guys line up the better they’ll be as they learn the line calls, identify blocking assignments, and generally get a feel for how each other plays. But when you are replacing 3/5 of your line every couple of weeks with progressively less experienced players, while also installing a bunch of wonky-ish formations, you really shouldn’t be surprised if the same problems and holes keep reappearing. For example, on Fitz’s first TD on 4th and 1, the inside of the line was absolutely crushed; only be bouncing outside did Fitz find the endzone. Now, if that sounds familiar to you, welcome to the 2013-2014 Michigan Wolverines. Your pitchfork and Thundershirt is in the mail.
I know the stats say the line did a decent job (4.6 ypc on 54 carries) run-blocking and only gave up 2 sacks, but it again looked like a line in transition, which is not a positive sign 2/3 of the way into the season.
Best: Secret Santa
I’m not sure what the Secret Santa policy is on the team, but if I’m Jeremy Gallon I would give Devin Funchess all of the gift baskets given how his move to WR has opened up the field for Rocket Boots. While Funchess pulled in the lion’s share of the catches against Minny, Gallon has 21 catches for 464 yards and 3 TDs in the past two games and looks to be back to his All B1G-caliber mark most expected after the ND game.
Similarly, Devin Gardner has transformed from a terrifying pick-six machine into what most people expected when the year began: a dynamic playmaker who will make some bad throws but who can also pick you apart on the ground or in the air when the weapons around him are thoroughly deployed. Obviously the ultimate goal would be for Funchess to follow the Tyler Eifert model of terrifying TE/WR who can actually block on running plays, but so far his move to WR has not only led to great numbers for him (23.1 ypc and 3 TDs in the past 3 games, which would rank him #5 nationally if he kept it up for the year) but also a demonstrative improvement for the other players in the passing game.
Worst: Knowing is Half the Battle, Unless Said Battle is Against Indiana’s Defense
Jeremy Gallon started off UM’s second drive with a simple WR screen that he turned into a 70 yard completion. It was a great playcall at the time because the Indiana DBs had shifted their coverage distance from “city-sized” cushion to a “state-sized” one, and Gallon is hard enough to tackle when you are on top of him that giving him any space to move was an invitation for awesomeness. So a little later on, Devin Gardner took the snap, faked what I presume was a bubble screen, and handed off to Green for a nice gain. One can only presume at that moment, Heiko did something like this:
Certainly the liveblog exploded with a mixture of jubilation and confusion; happy that the playbook was opening up a bit but also wondering if either Al Borges was purposely trolling the fanbase or if he was seriously considering using gimmicky ideas like “misdirection” and “adapting to the defense.”
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this Al Borges before; it isn’t Good Borges or Bad Borges, but instead Irrelevant Borges because his playcalling was never tested by a competent defensive unit. Call me a Borges Denier, but I don’t even know if he was calling plays this week; a 14-year-old fan could have snuck into the booth and nobody thought to check.
IU couldn’t really stop the run, even when the offensive line brought out five Vuvuzelas and announced where they were going. Penetration and swarming sometimes led to stops, but even this offensive line was able to impose its will. Heck, the one TO by Fitz was due to Gardner trying a toss play that probably would have worked HAD THEY EVER PRACTICED IT. Even with this mishap, Fitz had his beast game of the year by a country mile, scoring 4 times while averaging 4.7 yards on 32 carries and a long of 27. And when a wide receiver sets a conference record while a QB sets both passing and total yardage records at the same school where Denard Robinson played Notre Dame and Illinois numerous times, you know the secondary was just escorting the ball to the receivers.
A win is a win, though, and 751 yards in total offense (on only 83 plays!) is 128 more yards given up against than any other competitor this season (Mizzou put up 623). Al Borges called a fine game and the offense executed immensely well. But the free-wheeling, spread-ish offense we saw by Borges isn’t going to stick around against the rest the conference slate, just like it didn’t against OSU last year, Iowa in 2011, or PSU this year. If anything, this game will simply be viewed as reinforcing the tendencies we’ve seen already, except that instead of averaging under a yard per carry IU’s derpitude resulted in a record-setting game. It remains an offense that screams ‘zig’ (Devin-centric attack with some up-tempo thrown in) while Borges remains determined to zag. It worked this week, but that’s the thing about Indiana: you only get to play them once.
Worst: Poor Secondary or
Best: Limited YACs?
If you haven’t gathered yet, I’m relatively positive about the defense this week, at least compared to my very lukewarm feelings about the offense. That doesn’t mean it was a great day by the unit, especially the secondary. As noted earlier, a couple of those long completions were due to dumb luck or great throws (Jourdan Lewis in particular was victimized by a great throw along the sideline), but IU clearly identified Raymon Taylor as a weak spot and attacked him mercilessly early on. He led the team with 4 pass breakups but also was in on 9 tackles, including 7 solo. By comparison, Countess was only responsible for 1 PBU and 3 tackles, and outside of a couple of plays seemed to keep pace. When one of your corners is seeing that much action, its usually not because he’s just flying all over the field, or at least not purposely doing so within the flow of the defense.
A number of IU’s long gains were because the secondary couldn’t get into position properly, either failing to align in the right coverage or simply trailing plays that started up before they were set. Outside of more preparation against this type of offense or “being better” I’m not sure how the unit can really improve on its performance, at least as currently constructed. Thomas Gordon’s two INTs definitely alleviate the sting a bit, though I’m guessing at least a couple of the long TDs were because either Gordon or Wilson failed to shift over to help out the DBs.
That said, there were relatively few blown plays resulting from missed tackles. The 67-yarder was somewhat due to a failure to tackle after the contested reception, and I’m sure I’m missing another couple plays, but usually a defender was there when the pass was completed to limit the damage. The longest run by a back all day (and apparently all year) was 20 yards, which is totally acceptable given the circumstances.
Best: I Must Be Drunk
This is apparently where I absolutely lose my mind and talk up the defense some more. Sure it was a cheap one at the end of the game, but Frank Clark had another sack and has 4.5 in 4 games. Given the speed by which IU gets the ball out, the two sacks recorded by the team are understandable. The line’s continued improvement along with Ryan’s return gives me hope that there might be some disruption forthcoming. And the linebackers, in particular Bolden, played reasonably well, though I’d trust Brian’s detailed analysis far more than my naked-eye observations. IU had some success running the ball, especially once Roberson took over, but it always felt limited, as if the defense was giving up 4-5 yards on the ground to protect against the pass. Probably something related to bending vs. breaking.
Best: Never Go Full Gladwell-ian
I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, and if you haven’t read it yet I won’t spoil it except to say it is absolutely like every other book he’s ever written. It’s the type of book wherein you’ll be annoyed that he is playing a little fast and loose with statistics, the underlying results of papers, and how a quasi-fictional narrative can be spun in a pop-sci book, but also glean enough interesting anecdotes and believable results that you’ll feel slightly smarter at your next soiree .
Personally, I enjoy the books but take them with a hefty grain of salt; I definitely wouldn’t use them as citations but I have looked into some of the topics more deeply after reading his takes. And one of the stronger takeaways from this book is that strengths and weaknesses are often subjective, based purely on the perceptions and biases of each party involved.
The titular tale of David and Goliath is turned on its head, as Gladwell discusses the fact that powerful but immobile Goliath (who likely was suffering from the same condition that afflicted people like Gheorghe Muresan and Andre the Giant) was no match for the fleet-footed David because the battlefield favored the swift artillery, only nobody had considered disrupting the paradigm until the stone fell the giant. He then pointed to numerous other examples in which the “underdog” military held its ground against a superior force by fighting in an atypical style, and only when these smaller forces adopted more “classical” styles that favored numerical advantage over other factors did they start to lose. In effect, he argues, the status quo works best when everyone agrees to abide by its terms; deviate even a bit and the inefficiencies are there for the taking.
Watching IU on offense, I saw how their up-tempo offense could flummox defenses for games; when the offense is already lined up mere seconds after the ball is placed, the defense has a very small window in which to react and respond. On offense, you only need that one point of failure, that one missed assignment or sloppy tackle, to score. Your line doesn’t have to be big and powerful, and your skill players can be pretty average, because you are maximizing the issues created by slow-reacting defenders getting into position.
But on defense, everyone really does need to be on the same page, or at least a reasonable facsimile. That’s why you typically see the most successful defenses against spread attacks be veteran-laden; you need kids who can react to the formations with minimal communication from the coaches. RR’s offenses ran into problems when the PSU’s, MSU’s, and OSU’s of the world could keep pace. And that points to the reality that defenses are far more reliant on overall talent than offense; you can disguise coverages and blitz from as many angles as you want, but you need guys who JUST MAKE PLAYS to keep you in the game. IU doesn’t have that, and that’s how a pretty average offense was able to drop 63 points on them. I shudder to think how IU would handle a team like themselves, but more talented; OkSt. or TT would run them off the field by halftime, and I don’t even think the NCAA would let them match up against Oregon. It’s why when the clearly-aroused Glen Mason spoke of IU’s youth on defense and the expected improvement it would see as it matured, I had to scoff a bit. For all of Indiana’s polish on offense, that defense hasn’t been “good” in decades, and no amount of “coaching them up” and father time will matter if the players just aren’t that talented.
I guess my point is that while I’m never going to be a big fan of Al Borges or the offensive philosophy of this team, I care far more about how this team’s defense evolves and grows over the next couple of years. It is undoubtedly cliche, but you have to be able to stop the other guy at least a couple of times in order to win, and a dominant defense with a competent-if-infuriating offense feels like a more efficient outfit than a hack-and-slash offense with a sieve in the front 7. Obviously one can dream of both, but the fact we have yet to really see a team pull it off makes me think it is harder than one thinks. Given the coaching staff and the philosophy they have installed, I’m bracing myself to see the status quo shaken up once or twice a season but only as a tease.
Bestest: Bouncing Baby Programming Note
This is probably more personal than many of you care to know, but BronxBlueWife and I are expecting our first mini Wolverine in the next week or so. Because I am a shot-caller, I’m hoping the baby arrives during the bye week and I’m at least semi-capable of scribbling down thoughts thru the end of the season. But if not, this might become a less-frequent weekly, at least until the sleep deprivation shifts from a sharp pain to a dull, perpetual one.