Due to time constraints and the fact that broken records sound even worse the second time around, I promise this post will be considerably abbreviated compared to earlier entries. To offset what I can only imagine will be a massive downgrade in creativity and humor, I will employ the time-honored and totally not schmaltzy “theme” for this week’s synopsis. I leave it to the reader to determine just what that through line is.
Worst: Ruff Offense
Let me set the stage for you: In a flurry to end the 3rd quarter, UM finished off an epic 75-yard drive with Toussaint’s 35-yard TD run, cutting UConn’s lead to 21-14 (!). The defense then weathered a couple of early completions to force UConn into a long FG attempt, which they missed. So UM took over, down 7 with the ball and driving to start the 4th quarter. A personal foul call on UConn set the Wolverines up on the 31 yard line, and it looked like the team was finally starting to find its “white people dancing at a wedding”-level rhythm offensively.*
On the first play, Al Borges looked into the BAD (Burn Another Down) part of the playbook and called a Fitz run that I can only imagine ended with him running into 1 or more offensive linemen’s posteriors 3 yards in the backfield and scampering forward for no gain. (Yes, this is foreshadowing). On second down, UConn’s totally unstoppable 4-man rush got pressure up the middle and flushed Gardner to the right side, where he held onto the ball while the 14-year-old controlling him kept pressing the stiff-arm and spin buttons instead of throwing the ball away, resulting in a 3rd and 17. The next play, at this point either a designed run or a de-facto run considering both the pressure Gardner was under and his clear discomfort in throwing the ball deep, resulting in a 15-yard pickup and 4 and 2 at the UConn 23.
Down 7 and with no promise that the offense would be that close to scoring again, Brady Hoke left the offense out there. As people noted in the liveblog, if UM isn’t able to get two measly yards against UConn, then so be it. After a Husky TO to think it over (I’m sure the conversation went along the lines of “easily dispatch of the offensive lineman in front of you and tackle the guy with the ball, fine gentlemen” because that seemed to be all UConn defenders needed to know on this night and apparently every conversation in my head is sponsored by Foppish Dandys), the playcall was the most obvious QB keeper possible, which still nearly worked except Devin fumbled the ball near the first-down marker and recovered about a foot and a half short. Turnover on downs, cats went running, beers were spilled, various furniture was kicked, etc.
If there was a better microcosm of UM’s offense the past couple of weeks, I’d like to see it. Against Notre Dame, I compared UM’s attack to a stacked Madden offense and wondered if it was the best/most dynamic of the last 15 years. In the last two games, against two of the worst defenses statistically in the FBS, UM has had 25 meaningful drives and recorded 7 TDs versus 9 TOs, including 2 that were returned for TDs by the opposition. It is an offense in free-fall, unable to really do anything particularly well outside of letting Devin run for his life or test Jeremy Gallon’s ability to enter inner orbit by throwing at the garden gnome standing on top of his helmet. I’ll get into more detail about the various faces of the offense below, but this display was actually more disheartening than against Akron simply because the last game felt like it could be chalked up to under-preparedness and/or lackadaisical play; a week later it sure seemed like UM was trying to get yardage and UConn would have none of it.
* Full disclosure: I’m a pretty stereotypical white guy, and my wedding (despite having a pretty kick-ass hora in this Gentile’s opinion), would have probably been a decent backdrop for a Dave Chappelle bit.
Worst: Stop digging!
Remember when Devin Gardner was spinning away from trouble and scampering for first downs, throwing bullets while under pressure, or calmly throwing the ball out of bounds when, heaven forbid, he was flushed from the pocket? Yeah, those were the days…of early September.
Last year, one of the things this blog and others raved about Devin was his field vision and willingness to keep looking downfield, trying to make a play with either his arm or his legs, unafraid to throw the ball out of bounds Now, every time he feels pressure (read: virtually every time he steps back to pass), he’s spinning around aimlessly or immediately tucking the ball and taking a loss even when he is a decent subway ride from the pocket. On the last drive of the 1st quarter, Gardner took a 16-yard loss scrambling around the field, never once seemingly contemplating throwing the ball away. Though he had thrown an INT on the last drive, it was this play that seemed the far more onerous one, portending a remarkably frustrating outing for a player that was seemingly exceeding the massive hype he had coming into the season. He went from being the best QB in the conference not backing up Braxton Miller to leading the nation in INTs (and I presume TOs though I don’t have that stat in front of me), and being one of the top 30 scoring players in the conference based on points scored for the other team.
Most of those turnovers are the result of simply trying to do too much: throwing across his body while being chased, trying to thread a ball through 3 defenders, lobbing bombs that come up short or are off the mark, failing to protect the ball because he is trying to twist, juke, or stretch for a couple more yards. And all this adds up to ever-deeper holes that UM has to ever-more-desperately try to climb out of. Down 3 late to Akron after seemingly having the game in hand entering the 4th quarter mushroomed into being down 14 to UConn midway into the 3rd quarter. While this phenomenon is certainly not solely due to Gardner’s play, he remains the focal point of a sputtering unit that must return to at least competent form if this team stands any chance in this division, let alone against some high-profile bowl opponent in the future.
Best: Just Roll with It
So for the first time all season, someone other than Gardner broke 100 yards rushing AND 5 ypc. It wasn’t pretty by any stretch, as Fitz had 12 of his 14 runs go for 3 yards or less, including a couple of times where he received the ball effectively off Miller’s ass as he was driven yards into the backfield. It remains very feast-and-famine with him lugging the ball, with about 30% of his 120 yards coming on the long TD run to halve the deficit in the 3rd quarter. Though the team as a whole failed to break 4 yards per carry, some of that can be attributed to some ill-timed runs by Gardner that resulted in lost yardage or minimal gain. And yes, I recognize just how poor the UConn defense was coming into the game; I woke up this morning muttering “Towson” and cursing the liveblog for reminding me of it, though it should be noted that the Tigers are 4-0 and have been obliterating teams so far this season.
For better or for worse, though, this is probably the best fans can hope for this outfit during the conference slate: a depressing number of minimal gains punctuated by some massive runs from Gardner as well as Fitz when he is able to make the first 2 or 3 guys miss. It will obviously be imperative for the line and TEs to cut down on holding penalties and other self-inflicted wounds, and someone needs to send whatever football-related methodone is required to wean Borges off his addiction to inside “power” runs, but I thought Fitz ran better in that second half (81 yards and 2 TDs with only 1 negative run and a couple rushes for no gain), and combined with Gardner’s mobility (provided he HOLDS ONTO THE DAMN BALL!) could provide a reasonably approximation to the rushing attack from 2011.
I do expect that some of the freshmen will see more time after the bye week, but I find it telling that Smith only played on special teams and Green didn’t touch the ball once all game. Minny’s highly-ranked, if lightly-tested, rushing defense should be a decent barometer as to whether this was a return of sorts for the running game or baseless optimism.
Worst: Now It’s Just Embarrassing
And you thought it couldn’t get worst than last week against Akron for this offensive line? Well, look what just happened, strawperson who watches UM football and thinks things can’t get any worse. UM’s line got served* by a unit that came into the game without a sack and 6 TFL’s (they record 3 and 10, respectively, against the Wolverines), and added 3 more QB hits. And beyond the obvious stats, there were numerous times when 3 and 4-man rushes were either driving Gardner from the pocket or forcing Fitz to bounce to the outside on runs. It was a dominating performance the likes of which people expected from Notre Dame’s NFL-stacked line, not the ramshackle one in Storrs.
While I want to believe that there will be changes made to the line during the bye week, what troubles me is that outside of Bryant at guard, I’m not sure who one can reasonably expect to step in and be an upgrade over the players already logging the reps. I mean, the guys out there won whatever amounted to “competitions” for these spots going into the season; to expect someone to come out of the woodworks (beyond major position shifts) seems like a pipedream. There should be some natural improvements just through familiarity and experience, especially at RG with Kallis, but it will fall on Borges and Funk to figure out a workable solution with the pieces they have on the field, a solution significantly better than the product that’s be trotted out there so far.
* In the same vein as my complaints about Varsity Blues movie logic issues, how did the the officials of the dancing competition at the end of You Got Served allow two teams team up, plus add about 10 new members, prior to the finals? Perhaps they were blinded by Steve Harvey’s teeth.
Meh: Air Dud
I’m breaking out the rare “Meh” when it comes to the receivers this game. Gardner was a mess, completing less than 50% of his passes and throwing 2 INTs. He locked onto Gallon a couple of times, one leading to the first INT, and was bouncing or sailing balls to open receivers throughout the game. At first blush I thought the receivers and ends were having trouble getting open, but on a couple of those tuck-and-runs in the second half it looked like Gardner ran through his progressions in about half a second and, either because of real or perceived pressure, just took off and ran the ball. This unit remains distressingly shallow in consistent playmakers (basically Gallon and that’s it), but there is only so much they can do when the defense is able to get pressure and stop the run without giving up coverage. As Chris Spielman (*shudder*) accurately pointed out, UConn didn’t respect UM’s running game and, thus, stayed back in coverage and really limited what UM’s offense could do throwing the ball. Given the fact that the Huskies were breaking in basically a whole new secondary, this was an opportunity for the receivers to reestablish some consistency we saw earlier in the season, and opportunity that they (get ready for the pun) dropped.
Best: Release the Chess-hound!
I do want to point out that Jehu Chesson again showed flashes of the playmaker this team desperately needs to complement Gallon and Dileo. I know he over-ran the ball on Gardner’s second INT and under-ran a probably TD after he beat the UConn coverage by a step in the 4th quarter, but on both plays you saw the speed people raved about. Both misplays seem to be due as much to inexperience as anything else, as freshmen coming from programs where QB play was sub-optimal are want to struggle with ball tracking in the air. Still, I expect him to continue to make strides in the passing game as the season progresses.
Also, he absolutely trucked UConn punt returners on two plays, including forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Huskies in that first half. He’s clearly not afraid of contact and, more importantly, is big enough to actually do something about it. Given the continuing struggles of the TEs to block in the running game, this physicality needs to continue.
Best: Here they come!
Only because of the offensive line’s continued struggles has the defensive line’s woes been (slightly) overlooked, but in this game they finally were able to generate both a consistent pass rush as well as a stout-ish run defense. UConn averaged under 2 ypc and under 5 ypa if you ignore the 26-yard completion on 4th-and-30 to end the game, and UM recorded 4 sacks to go along with 4 additional TFLs. Frank Clark recorded 2 of those sacks to go along with 5 tackles total, and Jibreel continued his solid season by recording half a sack to go along with 6 tackles and consistently getting penetration inside. Black will never be your prototypical tackle, and he probably won’t be able to hold up against bruising lines dedicated to running the ball (i.e. Minny in two weeks), but the “poor man’s Brandon Graham” analogies don’t seem off.
The secondary remains a work in progress, but it held up reasonably well. They were bailed out a bit by Geremy Davis’s overturned TD catch in the end zone, but (I believe) that was followed up by the punting fiasco that led to UConn’s last score. The LB’s in coverage remain troubling (I know, except for that one really GOOD thing I detail below), and guys seemed to find a way to get open up the seams way more frequently than UM’s guys do.
It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, but it was a positive sign after not being able to generate anything resembling a defense in the second half last week against Akron. UConn barely broke 200 yards in total offense, only one drive longer than 40 yards, and 14 of those 21 points were either on the offense or special teams. Let’s hope this is a return of the Swag.
Best: Air Bud II: Morgan’s Electric Boogaloo
“Woodsonian” is both a strong and made-up word, but Morgan’s game-changing INT was a thing of beauty and really seemed to energize the team. I know there are different schools of thought regarding momentum, and I’m generally not a believer in any long-term effect, but I do think that it can exist within a small context, such as a single game or even just a half. UM looked horrible for most of the game offensively, and UConn had just stuffed Gardner’s 4-down conversion attempt. The defense had been on the field for large swaths of the game, and any score by UConn probably would have meant the game. So when Morgan skied for that pick and returned it to the 12, UM had new life. On the next play, Fitz took the ball outside and scored the tying TD. From that point on, UConn recorded 1 first down and 26 total yards on 2 drives, basically all those yards coming on a meaningless completion on 4th down. He didn’t “save” the season by any stretch, but it was the play of the game.
Worst: No More Norfleeting?
I’m definitely keeping my head on a swivel watching out for the banhammer on this one, but I’m starting to think the potential of Norfleet may never live up to the actual product on the field. He has seemingly lost the faith of the coaching staff on punt returns after muffing a couple in the past weeks, and while he remains a kickoff threat he’s rarely used in the offense except on obvious running plays and (maybe) a couple of passing routes when the team goes empty backfield. He remains very fast but has a season long of 15 yards as a receiver and one 38-yard run against CMU. He also has a penchant for getting tripped up on contact, and while that isn’t unexpected for such a small guy, it also doesn’t warrant much in the way of additional playing time.
Worst: Hold Onto the Damn Ball!
I noted this already, but UM lost the turnover battle 5 to 1, and while the Jones kicking the ball on punt coverage was just poor luck (it seemed like either a lack of communication or awareness that led to him being so close), the other 4 TOs were absolutely in the flow of the offense. Cut that number in half and I think UM wins this comfortably; they’ve been “lucky” the past couple of weeks that the opponents haven’t been able to really capitalize. I’m not saying Hoke needs to break out the duct tape, but the ball needs to stop hitting the ground or landing in other teams’ hands.
On the positive side, Wile booted 5 punts for an average of 42 yards, and Uconn nearly returned the punt turnover favor on Chesson’s big hit. So after last week’s Shankapalooza, it was nice to see UM even out the field position battle. Plus, Gibbons hit another FG, adding his name to another record.
Worst: Seriously, State of Connecticut?
I commented on the liveblog that apparently the University of Connecticut paid for the new seats they added to the stadium by diverting pay from groundskeeping, because that field was horrible. I’ve seen moderately-sized HSes with better turf, and it clearly affected both teams throughout the game. Coupled with the fact that the stadium is across from a Cabela’s and is 30 miles(!!) away from the main campus, and you can see why everyone except Connecticut’s AD was pushing for the game to be played at a bigger, better stadium. I get not every school will have the type of tradition and facilities as UM, but this is (in theory) the major state school in one of the richest states in the US; they should be able to provide a better gameday experience.
Best: Bye Week! Let’s All Get Excited!
Next week being a bye means I can finally get back to working…I mean doing work around the house…I mean spending more time with BronxBlueWife…I mean playing GTA V. Yeah, that sounds right.
cliche. The reason we watch supposed "body bag" games is to see the team work on specific areas and then get a glimpse of the backups and future. While I admit the defense improved week to week, at best the offense showed no real development - at best ...
and the backups never got game time which may hurt us later in the season.
In that respect Ohio State looks hundreds of miles ahead of us right now. I heard it about in spades from Buckeyes over the weekend.
I've argued that the idea of "body bag" games doesn't really apply to any FBS team, especially given that the UConn game was schedules years ago when the Huskies were on the rise. If you want to beat the crap out of a horrible team, then by all means sign up Baby Seal U. FAMU is about as close as you can find to a body-bag team, so OSU beating them down means nothing to me. Far more instructive was OSU giving up 34 to Cal and having a harder time getting away from Buffalo than everyone expected.
OSU looks to be the class of the conference, but I'm not going to crown them champions because they beat the crap out of FAMU. Let's see how they do against Wiscy.
It seems as if Hoke and Co. have just given up on the thought of Burzynski at center, and I haven't seen very little movement (adjustment-wise) line either. Hopefully the bye week gives time for them to reassess the line issues, for someone to step up, or for the line to gel and build better chemistry.
As for the offense, a lot of it was due to the poor play on the line. Gardner was constantly flushed, became easily rattled, and their playcalling became very one dimensional when their run game consisted of just Devin scrambling for the second and third quarters. As for the running backs, we just can't have Fitz being buried by defenders immediately after he touches the ball. That just won't cut it in Big Ten play. The fact that Norfleet and Dileo are being severely underutilized pisses me off. Utilizing those two can give our playcalling and offense entire extra dimension and they make us as a team so much more dangerous on offense. As for Gardner, Borges and Hoke just need to sit down with him and tell him that he doesn't have to be Superman. I think right now he is feeling the pressure of expectation, and his turnovers are a direct result. The will definitely help his confidence and will take his mind off of this week and last.
Defense looked solid for most of the game. They looked a little rattled in the late second quarter and early third quarter probably because they weren't expecting it to be that close of a game, but they definitely pulled it together. Morgan and Clark looked impressive, but they need to be able to perform like that consistently for us to have success. Between Avery, Countess, Taylor, and Gordon, things need to be much more stout. There were coverage lapses at many points, and I'm not sure if it was a result of "Bend not break," but things need to be much sharper. The pass rush looked prolific in the second half. Most of these issues will probably be addressed in the bye.
Special teams was atrocious except for Gibbons... I mean why not give Kenny Allen a shot? Shanks out of bounds just don't cut it.
This team needs to be able to learn how not to beat itself before we can become a championship team... The tools are there, but it's going to come down to how this team is able to defeat inexperience, youth, and chemistry issues.
Re: the coverage lapses... The corners are being taught to play outside leverage in a tampa 2-esque defense.. which.. gr.. relies on the linebackers getting to their zones quickly and not making mental errors. (There was a post route in the 3rd quarter which led to a ~20 yard completion where Taylor intentionally stayed outside the receiver and lost a couple steps as a result). I don't understand why Michigan can't have the corners just play the recievers straight up and play aggressive.
I don't even know if the tools are there to be a championship team this year/next year without physical, athletic playmakers on defense. Michigan doesn't have a Shane Skov , CJ Mosley, Hasean Clinton-Dix, a Darqueze Dennard, or even a Rashede Hageman. Michigan still has undersized, adequately athletic players and that's it. They don't appear to be ready to play a physical team like Minnesota (lol) or Penn State.
been Devin - in any sense of consistency - since he threw the pick against ND. His MoJo is off kilter, and he needs to get it back.
The problem is skittish no confidence Devin is like skittish Denard, removing effective dimensions from our game and allowing defenses to game plan similar to "Stop Denard" without Denard's shiftiness and stop and go acceleration.
He's playing like shaken Bellomy with legs and needs to settle and regain confidence.
RE: Going sideways on the QB sneak, I think a big problem is that if your center/guard combo isn't blowing guys off the ball, unless the distance is really short there is a good chance that the defense will slow you down. Especially with the 4th-and-2, that isn't a great sneakable distance - you do have to make consistent progress forward and not just hope you get a good spot. Also, you might as well run behind the strength of your line, which is Lewan. In that case, I'm kind of surprised the line doesn't flip to Lewan and Kalis on one side, as those two are probably your best options for keeping Gardner clean for short yardage.
1) I don't know, the punt strategy, both punting and receiving, has been somewhat baffling. I'm guessing the running into the kicker penalty spooked the coaches into not going after the kicks.
2) Because Miller gets blown off the LOS. The strategy seems to be taking a step left and running behind Lewan, and sometimes Magnuson+Lewan-at-TE. Magnuson got blown up on that one fumble, so I don't know if that's necessarily a good plan either.
3) I think it's the one play that patches over some of the deficiencies on the line. Get the NT moving sideways and use doubles to help out Miller. Pulling guys seems to get blown up because the guys blocking down get pushed back into the path of the puller. The coaches seem to think running sideways prevents the instant penetration from opposing defenses. It worked some times, but not others. The TEs were responsible for a lot of that though, I didn't see them seal the perimeter (without holding) all game except on Fitz's last TD, and the defender took himself out mostly there.
4) In terms of this game, I think Borges's hands were tied. The line wasn't blocking, the QB was a trembling mess who couldn't make easy reads or hit easy throws. We were stuck running into 8 and 9 men fronts because that at least was safe. Overall, I agree. We have a lot of tendencies that even casual fans pick up. The Zone Stretches, QB sneaks, the Norfleet sweeps, the reverses are all easy to pick up and it's obvious opposing teams know when all of these are coming. It would be seem so easy to use their reads against them, but to date we haven't, which I don't understand. My guess, again, is lack of trust the players to execute anything beyond the basics. Being vanilla and relying on your (supposed) talent advantage has gotten us past easier teams, barely, but we're going to have to open it up a bit if we want to win against the better teams.
Our running game seems to always be going sideways. Multiple plays during the UCONN game where either Devin or Fitz were frozen trying to juke a defender instead of just running forward and knocking the defender on his ass.
Dudes, we can write off our struggles this Saturday to a hangover, if you will. It was a classic trap game with us coming off an emotional victory over Akron and at the same time probably peeking ahead a little bit to the bye week. Every great team endures a trap game like this in the course of a championship season. Point is, we were resilient and overcame. Should be a wake-up call for the rest of the year.
"There was a time I could have been mistaken for Burt Reynolds. I had a moustache and so did he. But he was the number one star in the world, so there wasn't really much confusion."
Of course, there are issues, but you hinted to it yourself. Two fluke-ish plays are what kept this game close. Without the strange "muffed" punt and Gardner's fumble that was recovered for a TD (both, in my opinion, rather erratic, unlucky plays) we probably win 31-7 or something similar. And that's with the passing game virtually non-existent.
Maybe my hand is resting gently on the panic button, but I've yet to press it.
So maybe the INTs evened out, but that TD reception really wasn't a reception. It was a close call and I'll admit it, but they did score on the subsequent drive caused by the flukey punt return issue. And when you lose the TO battle by 4 and really give up 14 points that way, you definitely helped out the opposition.
I stand corrected - in my defense, I figured if the offense could drop 41 on ND pretty easily they should have no problem with the mighty Zips and Huskies. Clearly I don't watch enough college football!
I will argue that those Brady/Henson offenses were incredibly disappointing considering how much firepower they had and how "meh" they were during that time. They'd plow through some teams true, but they basically had an All-Pro offensive line, two great QBs, a ROY RB, and some top-flight WRs and still had some pretty mediocre performances. At least this offense has the excuse of inexperience and poor line play.
Stadium was fine, somewhat generic but weather was perfect and UConn fans were into the game.
Probably 1/4 of the stadium was in Maize and Blue. I was in the Michigan section under the scoreboard (temporary bleacher seats put up for the game). Michigan was driving towards us for 2nd and 4th quarter.
As noted above, the field was not in good shape. At timeouts, field crew was out trying to patch up holes (think cadies at a golf course).
The PA announcer would go "its another UConn"...and the crowd would response First Down! They also played the opening bars to Welcome to the Jungle probably 25+ times.
On the botched punt (which was coming right at us), I think it was on Dileo/staff more than the coverage team. It was clear from our perspective that Dileo was faking the catch but there was no communication with those around him (or at least pre-planning, i.e., if inside 10 yard line, get the F out of the way).
Fun to see the team out east in my home state. Happy to escape with a win. UConn fans were welcoming and friendly. Beer was flowing a plently, lots of drunk fans which amusing, especially with the stadium 1/2 hour from campus.
Sounds like a not-bad gameday even with the eye-gouging annoyance of the team's performance. I was thinking of going to the game, but never got around to buying tickets.
I agree that the punt fiasco was probably on Dileo, as much as anything like that can be due to anyone. Usually you see the return team vacate the area when it gets that close to the goalline, but who knows what happened. I suspect Hoke will talk about it this week.
How exactly do you over-run a fly route? I don't think that's technically possible. Gardner under-threw it and Chesson's adjustment wasn't spectacular (though much better than Reynolds' flailing on the deep ball his way). The trailing corner pretty much picked it off in stride. Not sure you can put that on Chesson.