There will be no belittling of the Spartans in this post. No silly twists of their name or bringing up academics. Yesterday Michigan St handed us a beating that they should be proud of. It wasn't handed to them by the refs or by luck. They were simply well coached and their game plan was well executed. The Spartans didn't make mistakes and were solid in all phases of the game, and that is why they won.
Michigan was, in most part, what we have been seeing so far this season. That wasn't their worst performance so far (I would still give the UMass game the edge there), and it was far from the best they can play, but nothing really stood out to me as unexpected. Well, perhaps the lack of running room for Denard Robinson could be described as surprising. State had a great game plan for stopping (or slowing at least) our offense, and more importantly they had the personnel to execute it.
This is scary if you, as a fan, had pinned your hopes on what the numbers have been telling us. The problem with much of the statistical analysis you see is that it shows everything in a linear fashion. X team's offense meets Y team's defense at this point on the chart and there you have your expected outcome. College football has too many teams with to large a range of player talent for anything linear to come out of it. Extrapolating the results of this season based on our first 5 opponents is asking for disappointment.
Michigan St's defense is an order of magnitude better than any Michigan has faced this year. They have DBs that can run with our receivers and a front seven that can stand up to our OLine. Their coaches also made great decisions for
stopping slowing Denard Robinson by keeping the ball out of his hands past the line of scrimmage. Michigan ran quite a bit of read option yesterday, and I don't recall a single read leading to Denard Robinson keeping the ball. That is good execution of a solid game plan: Make the other Michigan backs hurt you. Shaw, Smith, and Co. didn't do horribly at all, but the lack of Denard Robinson in space was obvious. When Michigan ran the lead QB draw Michigan St showed that they had practiced well for defending it.
The rest of the game was pretty much what we have seen so far, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn anything from it (especially coupled with the Indiana game):
Denard Robinson is not an Ice-in-his-veins gunslinger. His throws have great zip and are largely accurate, especially so when the throw is shortish or his target is stationary. Against Indiana (and the rest of the schedule so far) his receivers have been so open that a slightly inaccurate ball wasn't noticeable. Against Michigan St the receivers were covered much better, and the picks in the end zone were the result. Both balls were thrown to where the receiver was, not leading the receiver to where only he would have a chance at the ball. With lesser coverage both are touchdowns. We must remember that Denard Robinson is still a true soph and this game another set of lessons to learn from for him.
Obi Ezeh is the biggest reason Michigan's defense sucks balls. Watching him jump out of the hole on Michigan St's second long running TD felt like Deja Vu after all of the UFR videos of the last two years. This is not going to change, not that anyone reading here expects it to. Ezeh can make thumping tackles, but is rarely lined up squarely to do so.
Kovacs is the opposite of Ezeh for this defense, never the reason they suck balls. When Kovacs took down the State tight end in space to sew up a 3-and-out in the 4th Qtr, all I could think was "He could have made that play from MLB." I would love to see him get a shot at playing in the middle. The dude is second on the team in tackles for a reason, he makes the right decisions and that keeps him in the play.
Talbot (CB) seems to be a positive addition to the defense when he sees the field. Cullen Christian does not, at least at CB. The touchdown on which CC was burned crispy displayed his lack of CB rated hips and recovery speed. I would think that CC has a move to safety (or OLB?) in his future [edit: As many have pointed out in the comments, this is probably premature. With the other freshmen looking decent though, and CC not getting much PT, I still see this move happening eventually.]
No amount of tweeking this defense is going to make it good, or even average. More time and experience will bring up the level of play for the younger players, and in that the defense will improve. Several of the younger players are actually showing quite a bit of promise. The Gordons, Jabreel Black, and Talbot and Avery at CB have all shown signs that they will be solid contributors with more experience. With some good recruiting to give depth, I think Michigan's defense will rise from the ashes in 2011 and 2012. Mike Martin (plz be OK) coming back next year would help immensely of course.
Iowa is going to be tough, and probably another loss. Their defense is top 5 with the personnel to mimic the game plan Michigan St was very effective with. Their offense is also pretty good, coming in 33rd in total with fairly even passing and running ratings. Michigan can win this game in the same way it could have beaten State, with an offensive performance bordering on perfection. Think yesterday with two TDs in place of end zone Ints and Roundtree hauling in that TD as well, then add another TD drive as well and I think Michigan beats Iowa. This is not very likely.
The rest of the season I am still optimistic about. Penn St shouldn't be able to torch us with their issues on offense, and I think we can score on anyone. Illinois looks to be improving, but I can see our offense winning that one ala the Indiana game. Purdue is simply a must win, and assuming Michigan does not suffer a rash of injuries, I could see our young defensive players improving enough to make the Wisky game a toss-up late in the season. OSU is always a throw stats out the window type game where emotion can win the day.
I realistically see this team winning 7-8 games, with a possibly 9th win in a hypothetical bowl match-up. Despite how I view the rest of the season's games individually, none of the wins is assured, and I wouldn't give any but Purdue more than a 75% chance of winning. Winning the first 5 games will probably end up saving RR's job (and thank god for that), but we should all look at our pre-season expectations and realize that this team is right about where we thought, obviously better than last year but still climbing the mountain.
Of course Denard Robinson can change this outcome by himself. If he can learn quickly from his mistakes in this game, and RR and Co. and come up with some killer counters for him in the run game, Denard Robinson can lead this team to a New Year's Day bowl. The man is special and a true "X-Factor" the likes of which we seldom get to see. So enjoy the ride my fellow Wolverines.