“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Learn from yesterday...
Michigan is undefeated again in September and yet I am nervous for the future. Perhaps because similar starts to the last two seasons filled me with unbridled optimism for Michigan's return to the nations' elite. Mayhap the reason is that for a second week in a row I felt like the final score did not accurately reflect the play on the field. Michigan won by a lot but didn't get much play for their reserves, Devin Gardner most notably. I am made nervous by Denard's heavy load running the ball and seeming inability to hit the broad side of a barn down field, to the sideline, or even on screen passes. Looking closer at each aspect of Michigan's play:
Michigan's defense is the most awesome "bend-but-don't-break" defense I have ever seen so far. Seriously, allowing 11 trips by SDSU's offense into Michigan territory and yielding only 7 points is both extremely lucky (no doubt at least partly true) and also a part of a trend at this point. Turnovers are the key of course, coupled with keeping the play in front of them/not giving up the big play. SDSU was the first team to win the TO battle against Michigan this season, but only because the stat doesn't include TOs on downs. Michigan forced three of those by jumping out to a big lead and by getting big stops at points on the field where SDSU was almost compelled to go for it on 4th down. The reason for this success is owed in large part to the longest plays given up Saturday being 30 yards, both on the ground and through the air. This defense makes big plays, but more importantly they give themselves enough chances to make them.
Michigan's offense continued to slide towards one-dimensional with each poorly throw ball by Denard Robinson. Luckily Michigan didn't need to throw much with SDSU's defense yielding over 7 yards per carry, having no answer for Denard's legs. It was also good to see the OLine open up some running lanes for Smith and Fitz en route to 320 yards on the ground. I fear that the level of competition and lack of SDSU size up front made the running game look better than it should have been.
Michigan needs Hagerup back. Maybe Hagerup isn't the only answer. Wile's kicks are improving it would seem, both on KOs and punts, possibly because his nerves are settling down. Kickoffs regularly made it to the goal line and only 1 of 4 punts was returned for much while they averaged 49 yards per with a long of only 51(!). Now if we can get him a chance at the FG duties, maybe he can be an upgrade over Gibbons (doesn't seem possible to be much worse).
The coaching staff continues to impress in all phases of the game, save possibly being willing to give Gardner a shot at a real drive. Borges again went with what is known to work until Michigan had a couple of scores lead before inevitably trying to force Denard under center. Mattison had a great game plan dialed up, containing Ronnie Hillman and rattling Lindley with constant pressure. For the first time this year it seemed like our D-Backs were the most suspect part of Michigan's defense, as they should be, and even there we have a few rays of hope.
Live for Today…
Several Michigan players should bask in the glow of their accomplishments:
1. Denard Robinson – With a stat line so much like last game it is spooky, Denard again dazzled with his untied shoes en route to 200 yards on the ground. Again he couldn't seem to get in rhythm with his receivers, looking like shadow of 2010 Denard at least in terms of efficiency. Over 20 carries/game is going to get him killed, but maybe not as much a last year. He seems to have a better idea of how not to get lit up, getting out of bounds or to the ground before contact much more often than last year.
2. Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint – If these two continue to rotate in that would seem fine the way they both are playing. Both looked tough to bring down Saturday, breaking tackles and picking through traffic for YAC. Smith in particular looks to have that shiftiness back that excited the senses so much in 2009. Fitz should also be the #1 choice at FB, with his tough running style, decent size, and good ball security.
3. Michigan Defensive Line – These guys looked great finally, creating constant pressure in the SDSU backfield and forcing Lindley into less than 50% completions. Roh came alive, sacking and forcing a fumble. RVB was in there making big plays, and Mike Martin was held 100 bazillion times or else he would have sent Lindley to the hospital I have no doubt. This performance was extra encouraging since the SDSU OLine is supposedly pretty good.
4. Blake Countess – In his first really extended appearance, this kid showed why his hype is justified. I'm sure some completions were on his head for being out of position, but I saw him blanketing a receiver on a slant (that was completed despite great coverage) and making a great play on a fade to keep SDSU at 7 points to finish. I look forward to what UFR has to say about Countess's play as a whole.
5. Matt Wile – As noted above, Wile's play is improving steadily. I wouldn't be surprised to see him keep punting again next week and hopefully get a shot at the next FG try.
Hope for Tomorrow
Last week I said:
Bask in 3-0 for now, because this team is looking to be on much the same course as last season so far. I think that our reliance on Denard Robinson will actually help us next week against SDSU, because our offense will not look like what Rocky Long remembers a Borges offense looking like. Then again, our run defense might get gutted by Ronnie Hillman. SDSU will put a scare into us at least.
I think I was right on the first part (at least theoretically, does anyone really have an answer for Shoelace?) while being thankfully wrong on the second (though Hillman did rack up pretty good numbers, he didn't kill us), and now we can bask in 4-0 and another undefeated September. So what can we hang our hopes on that this season is not doomed to end up like the last two?
I'll just stick with what I thought a week ago:
Our biggest hope for the whole season may actually be Borges's willingness to adapt to Denard's strengths as well as Mattison's willingness to use naked aggression to mask our defense's glaring flaws.
The only caveat to this reason to hope is that we are going to need a QB that can hit is receivers in BIG 10 play. The athletic abilities of BIG 10 defenders are going to both bottle up and punish Denard if he can't keep them honest through the air. With Denard's struggles throwing so far, I am both surprised and made nervous by Devin Gardner's lack of playing time. Is Gardner just not impressing enough in practice that Hoke/Borges feel it important to get him some meaningful snaps? Is the success of the team so far goading the coaches into keeping all of the eggs in the Denard GO! GO! GO! basket?
Though it would be a knock against the coaches in my mind, I hope it is the latter. I mean, maybe Denard lights it up in practice, completing ropes 30 yards to the sideline and hitting his TEs in stride. At some point this is going to have to become reality in games or else the one-dimensional nature of our offense will get Denard hurt, and leave us wondering yet again what could have been.
Go Blue and stay safe.