Last time we saw Michael Schofield run by a blitzer coming up an interior gap. That combined with a panicked back-foot throw from Denard to result in an interception on a play that had otherwise opened one of two receivers up for an easy touchdown.
This time we're going to get an almost identical play from the offense, except instead of play action is it QB power. This is the fourth and one Michigan converted en route to the endzone.
The setup is the same: shotgun with twin TEs and twin WRs. Northwestern lines up in an even 4-3 with one of the linebackers over the slot and a safety rolled into the box. For fourth and one this is fairly conservative:
With Denard running the ball Michigan has a blocker for every opponent.
On the snap, Schofield pulls…
…and the SLB blitzes, hell-bent for the gap between the playside DE and DT, both of whom are doubled:
Faced with a similar situation on the last play, Schofield ran by the linebacker:
This time not so much.
With both linebackers gone—the other one ran into the line on the backside—and a double on the playside DE, once Smith kicks out the corner it's an easy conversion.
Items of Interest
Being the pulling guard seems a lot more complicated than you'dthink. A lot of power blocking is derp simple: block down on this guy. By contrast, everyone who runs a zone system talks up the need for their linemen to be intelligent because to run the zone you have to make a lot of split second decisions about who to block and when to release.
On these two plays we've seen what happens when a pulling guard gets challenged from a gap he doesn't expect to be threatened. He can miss it, at which point rivers of baby blood, or he can adjust, at which point your unsound defense has put the QB one on one with a safety for bonus bucks. He's got to have the vision and agility to pull that off. That's tough.
This seems like one of the major problems with the pulling scheme: the guards are crappier at it than the defenses are at defending it. Last year when they pulled out power blocking, defenses were trying to defend the zone and often got caught off guard. This year Michigan does not have that luxury. As a result we've seen a lot of plays on which the pulling guard gets caught up in some wash or just takes a bad angle to the hole.
"Adjustments." Is this an adjustment, or is it just telling the guard what he did wrong and not to do it again? In my view, an adjustment is changing your scheme to combat something the other team is doing—like throwing Ryan out on the slot to prevent argh bubble death. Telling your players how to stop screwing up is coaching, but it's not adjusting. What I was trying to say in the game column was that because of the nature of the offense they didn't have to do much adjusting, they just had to stop screwing up, at which point points fall from the sky.
This is not black and white. Borges did bring out some actual adjustments, like using Shaw to get the edge on theses aggressive linebackers, but I think the second-half turnaround was less figuring out what Northwestern was doing and stopping it than having a few specific players fix things the scheme is already telling them to do.
Short yardage numerical advantage. Not running Denard on short yardage is a goofy idea. Here you'd have to be nuts to not run the guy. He gives you the ability to double the playside DE and still block everyone except a safety rolled up. He has to be cautious because if he misses it's six points.
Handing it off, even on a zone read that should occupy some defenders, runs the risk of the defense selling out and Denard missing a read. Going under center takes away one of those doubles and turns the read into a call-and-hope situation.
I can see running conventional stuff in a low-leverage situation like first and goal from the one, sure. Keep the wear and tear down. When it really matters, this is the way to go.
Perfect mirror. This is a perfect mirror of the play that Denard got intercepted on, which is why the latter suckered Northwestern so badly and would have likely resulted in an easy TD if Denard can buy some time or Schofield makes the adjustment.
So… it wasn't necessarily as crazy as it appeared when he threw it. Is this good news? Maybe. It seems that Denard had one major problem in the Northwestern game, which was throwing off his back foot.
Inaccurate but complete TD to Watson
Robinson had time to step into the some of the above throws throw but did not. Other times he didn't read the play fast enough and got pressure because of indecision. When not throwing off the back foot he was his zippy 2010 self; when he did it was armpunts away.
Sometimes you have to throw it off the back foot. These times are when there is a guy in your face and you have a really wide open receiver. None of the above are events that fit that profile. On the first he does have a guy really wide open but also has time to step into the throw. On the second he also has time to step into the throw. On the third he doesn't, and that's what this post is about.
Interception #2 exposed some of Robinson's flaws as a passer but it still should have been a touchdown. Michigan has a second and six on the Northwestern 16 after Devin Gardner's tricky rollout of the Denard jet action turned into a scramble. They come out in a common set for them, shotgun with twin TEs:
On the snap Denard moves towards the LOS and Schofield pulls. This will turn into QB Oh Noes.
As Denard withdraws into a passing position Koger releases downfield; Smith will head out on a wheel route. Both of NW's linebackers are headed upfield:
At this point you have two guys trying to cover two Michigan players, One of them is Koger, who will run a post. The other is the flat-footed corner on the LOS.
This is the key frame. Smith is gone past the blocker. The safety is similarly flat-footed against Koger, and Schofield has run past the blitzing SLB to double a defensive end:
This is all kinds of touchdown except for Schofield running past the gap in Michigan's line:
Without this linebacker getting in Denard's face the safety faces a choice between leaving either Koger or Smith wide open for six points.
But linebacker is in Denard's face, forcing an early throw off the back foot…
…that does not end well.
I think there was a bust in the Wildcat secondary, possibly by this safety, because Koger is open for an easy TD and the pressure cannot be anticipated. If the safety is going with Koger this is still incomplete. Denard overthrew it by five yards because he chucked it off his back foot.
Items of interest
This is definitely a protection the pulling guard is expected to make. On fourth and one later in this half Schofield will pull and correctly read this gap, then fill it, opening up the first down.
When Denard throws off his back foot, rivers of baby blood flow from my eyes. This was a thing that Michigan evidently got fixed in the second half when Denard was 8/9 for many many yards, but it threatens to pop up whenever the opponent gets a little QB pressure. The Watson one is the worst: no one is even in position to hit you after the throw.
This is not actually an insane read. I think his assumption was that the S, being the only guy on that side of the field near Koger, would go with him and this would leave the wheel open. The key moment:
He's not staring Smith down. He's looking at Koger and naturally assumes the only guy with a shot to cover him will take the hint. This was wrong in the same way it can be difficult to play poker against someone who doesn't really know what they're doing—they do something very very bad that turns out well because you didn't expect them to have a pea-sized brain.
Again, because of the back foot stuff this was five yards long and would have been incomplete in a best-case scenario. Robinson should probably just take off when things like this happen instead of doing this.
Needs moar play action. The super aggressive Northwestern defense was super aggressive, as you can see here. When Michigan went to QB play action it invariably got dudes vastly wide open, and while Michigan didn't have much luck getting these things completed, the passes are easy (seam to Koger is too high) or the problems easy to fix (block that guy, Schofield). A good chunk of the issues running the ball were on these aggressive linebackers—Michigan doesn't seem to make them hesitant. Maybe right after scoring 42 points while turning the ball over three times isn't the best time to bring this complaint up.
Barnum's status is up in the air, but last night he "ran around."
Shaw played because of situational stuff against Northwestern, but is also working his way back into the rotation.
Opening remarks: “Saturday, I think, we learned a little bit about ourselves as a football team in good ways and bad ways. We learned that you can’t turn the ball over. That’s an important aspect that we have to do a better job [with] decision making at times, fundamentals at times, technique at times. The other thing I think we learned is that from a defensive standpoint, you need to get off blocks. That enhances your ability to make tackles. I think we learned that if we hang together, good things can happen. If we play with an aggressiveness and an aggression, then we play a little better football.”
Can you talk about how good your team has been in the second half and what you attribute that to? “From an offensive standpoint, I think we see something different pretty much all the time in how people defend us offensively and really defend Denard. I think Al does a tremendous job. And his staff -- Darrell Funk and [Jeff] Heck[linski] and Fred [Jackson] and Dan [Ferrigno] -- I think they all do a tremendous job of getting together and talking during the course of the game or the first half, putting their ideas down, and making the appropriate adjustments and changes. I think the same thing defensively. I think Greg [Mattison] and Curt [Mallory] and Mark [Smith] and Jerry [Montgomery] do a tremendous job defensively. The kids have been willing, and they’re listening. I think they’re learning.”
What stands out about Michigan State’s defense, particularly their defensive line? “Well I think you answered that question. I mean, they are extremely talented, aggressive, well coached. Coach [Ted] Gill was one of my coaches in college -- their defensive line coach. He’s a tremendous motivator. He knows the game, does a great job coaching them. Those kids play with a fire to them. You look at their defense as a whole, and I think the whole team is very well coached. I have a lot of respect for Mark Dantonio. He’s a defensive coach in his mindset and vision of how they’re going to play defense, and I think they’re athletic. I think they play with good team speed, and they’re going to be a physical presence out on the field.”
10/8/2011 – Michigan 42, Northwestern 24 – 6-0, 2-0 Big Ten
Last week's picture pages focused on a two-playsequence in which Stephen Hopkins bulldozed a Minnesota linebacker on an iso, then pretended he was going to do the same on the next drive before running right past him for a long completion up the seam. If Michigan wasn't playing Minnesota the iso would have gone for a few yards and that sequence would have been the Northwestern game exactly: two halves, pretty much the same same thing, radically different results.
Half the first: this old bad thing again
It is not fun to be a Michigan fan seeing your past flash before your eyes when your team is going up against the spread offense. Three hundred yards and twenty-four points in the first half? I have seen this before. It ends with me in the fetal position muttering something about Armanti Edwards or Donovan McNabb or this exact Northwestern team blowing up the recordbook in 2000 in this exact stadium at this exact time. The only intelligible things in the moaning will be a bleated "Herrrrrrmaannnn" or strangled "Englissssssh."
I uncurled long enough at halftime to get a tweet out about how we were essentially getting Rich-Rodded to death. We'd heard about but rarely seen this kind of thing the last three years: Northwestern killed Michigan with bubbles they weren't aligned to defend and expertly used varying tempos to catch Michigan off guard much of the first half. This was the spread 'n' shred at full absorption, the kind of thing you can do when you are totally committed to one style of offense you know well.
That was influenced by these super-interesting Calvin Magee videos* in which he's describing the philosophy of the offense that just led a redshirt freshman everyone recruited as a receiver and his sidekicks to a BCS win over Georgia. I'm an hour and a half in and and it's mostly been Magee describing the various tempos WVU uses and breaking down various bubble screens.
This fresh in my mind, my experience of the first half was thus accompanied by a strong sense of déjà vu as the Wildcats bubbled and tempo-ed and aargh-safetied their way down the field. It was simultaneously the thing we'd always seen and the thing we never got to see. It was yet another reason to shake your fist at the Great Rodriguez Defensive Coaching Malpractice. It was unpleasant.
I envisioned Rodriguez sitting in the same room with Ralph Friedgen. Rodriguez watches the Michigan game; Friedgen watches Maryland. Mike Leach pops his head in from time to time. They are sipping cognac, smoking cigars, and laughing maniacally.
Half the second: this old bad thing again, happening to them
It is more fun to be a Michigan fan seeing your past flash before your eyes when the Rodriguez spread is the other team's and they are suddenly incapable of moving the ball while their defense is incapable of anything at all. Insert any of a dozen games over the last three years for comparisons. 2008 Penn State may be the canonical example.
The collapse of the Northwestern offense shouldn't be overstated. They only had four second-half drives that meant anything thanks to the offense executing this second half:
8 play, 80 yard TD
12 play, 80 yard TD
6 play, 47 yard TD
7 play, 28 yard FGA
9 play, 53 yard TD
This was a masterpiece for the time of possession fetishists. Northwestern opportunities were limited. (As an incidental bonus, Michigan also got 28 points while "keeping the Wildcats off the field." Funny how that works.)
In the aftermath you can't poke a newspaper-type person (and even the occasional blogger) not talking up adjustments. I'm not so sure the adjustment were brilliant. They consisted of telling Denard to stop throwing terrible interceptions and throwing Jake Ryan into the slot—hello heebie jeebies—so the Wildcats couldn't bubble Michigan to death. That accomplished, they waited for the turnover flood.
One sack, two of those turnovers, and a quarter-and-a-half later Michigan was already in rush-the-passer, kill-the-clock mode up 11 with nine minutes left. The first turnover should have been a first down conversion that pushed the Wildcats into Michigan territory; the second was an excellent strip by Thomas Gordon on a drive that had moved from around the Northwestern 20 to midfield.
The adjustment was not giving up the thing they shouldn't have been giving up in the first place and not arm punting directly at opponent safeties. Michigan was just better, no brilliance required. The second half bore that out.
The end result: 42 points despite three turnovers, 541 yards, 360 ceded, and a margin of victory over the Wildcats larger than any since 2004. The 2004 team was the last one Michigan team to smoke-and-mirror its way to a Rose Bowl—if that's really what a team one inch away from beating Vince Young really did.
As the weeks pass the questions fade. Michigan seems flatly better than everyone they play, no qualifiers necessary. This week the Spartans will test that theory. They are the mirror; this weekend blows away the smoke.
*[It's mostly football stuff but a couple of personality items:
1. Magee's showing a clip of a bubble they ran against Cincinnati and apropos of nothing says "the coach, I can't remember his name, is a really nice guy." Someone in the room says "Dantonio?" and he replies "Yeah, Dantonio. Nice guy." Wonder how Magee feels about him now—easy to think someone's a nice guy when you beat him 38-0.
2. Magee's describing a bubble against Georgia in their Sugar Bowl win as a pre-snap read he let White have because he "wants to let the kid grow." WVU ran two different bubbles, a pre-snap read based on alignment and a post-snap read with a full mesh point and an option afterwards if the QB keeps. By allowing White to make the read before the snap he's giving him more flexibility in the offense.
Rodriguez, in contrast, "isn't going to put his fate in the hands of a 19-year-old kid" and wants his QBs to "read it out" post snap all the time.
This particular bubble looked there pre-snap but wasn't actually because a desperate Georgia defense was plunging the safety down at it; WVU didn't have any PA off the bubble—hard to believe—at the time, something Magee said he regrets and they obviously fixed.]
BRADY HOKE EPIC DOUBLE POINT OF THE WEEK AWARD. Awarded to Brady Hoke for the following section.
Game theory bits. You will not be surprised that I was very much in favor of the fourth and one in the first half, especially given the state of Michigan's defense at that point and what we'd seen Northwestern do on D in their first few games. The result of that play and their ability to convert on the ensuing drive was the difference between going in down 24-14 and 24-7.
While the dominant second half made that touchdown irrelevant in the long run, the people who doubt the wisdom of that call are the same who ascribe a mystical power to momentum. If you're worried about giving momentum up by not converting you have consider the possibility of acquiring it by getting a touchdown, which in addition to being momentum-tastic is also worth seven points. For me, simple calculation: fourth and one near midfield against a team with an iffy defense and in possession of Denard Robinson. Go.
Also not a surprise: thumbs down to the field-goal attempt. I'd actually started arguing with my friend about it on second down. I was in favor of going on fourth and reasonable; he and others around me were in favor of kicking. My main rationale was that there's a huge difference between 18 and 11 (game over, especially with more time off the clock) and only a meh difference between 11 and 14.
We were having this as a hypothetically kicker-independent argument, but there seemed to be agreement that with Michigan's situation at that spot you go. If you had Nate Kaeding I could see kicking, but Gibbons has never made a field goal of 40 yards, let alone 48, and 4th and 5 is very makeable.
Even with the FG attempt I disagreed with, my "Brady Hoke is awesome on gameday" meter incremented a notch. On twitter someone said he tried to sneak Denard and a WR out with the punt team before the timeout, which if true is awesome. It means the TO was not hesitation but rather a trick being snuffed out and that even when the trick was foiled Hoke still went for it.
EPIC DOUBLE POINT STANDINGS, RETROACTIVELY APPLIED:
2: Denard Robinson (Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan), Brady Hoke (San Diego State, Northwestern) 1: Jordan Kovacs (Western Michigan), David Molk (Minnesota)
Almost went with Hemingway for the ND game since Hemingway didn't throw a bunch of interceptions but "WHAT?!" and "the game is ova" were tiebreakers.
Something I've never screamed before. "NICE BLOCK," I yelped a moment after Michael Shaw blew up Bryce McNaul with a cut block:
Thanks to terrible play by the NW MLB and what looks like a slant by the playside DT all Shaw had to do was meekly shove McNaul for Denard to burst into the secondary, but yelp == shoutout.
Hello Mr. Gardner. Gardner had another package in this game. I didn't like this one as much. It seemed too on-the-nose to run that jet sweep to Denard, then come back with a naked boot off it the next time you ran it. Michigan just executed a similar pattern against Minnesota, so NW was prepared. Above is the linebacker Gardner dodged en route to three yards.
And then there was that bit late in the game where Gardner came in. At first he was just handing off/getting the corner from the one, which is not that thrilling, but before that they brought him in to hit Jeremy Jackson on second and ten.
If Gardner can handle it future plays with both guys on the field should be less focused on Denard—maybe make that jet sweep fake and then drop back as per normal. Robinson is an option but not the only one.
Obvious waggle is inverted. On the Watson touchdown, the universe thought "waggle" when Michigan brought in an I-form big on second and goal from the nine. Michigan ran it to the short side of the field, breaking a tendency, and got rewarded for it with an wide open Steve Watson (who Denard nearly missed).
Bipolar OL. Maybe. Michigan couldn't run the ball but it occurred to me there was a strong possibility they got RPSed trying to run the spread against a team that knows it backwards and forwards. There seemed to be a lot of blitzing into places Michigan was trying to run.
So run problems exist. On the other hand, Denard had eons to find people to throw the ball to. Vincent Smith epic blitz pickups had something to do with that, as did Wildcat-fan-infuriating three-man-rushes, but so did the offensive line. So much so that this was a Freudian slip in a thread about the refereeing:
also a rushing the passer on Drob that was never called. He was takled for a loss, in the third I believe, and while on the ground was hit by a second defender and then a third. That third defender had enough time to pull up but didn't. No call.
Borges seemed to agree with this blog's petulant complaining about rollouts, which were reduced. Northwestern got negative pressure on pocket passes and the rollouts that were called saw better protection as those edge blockers went hell-bent for the outside instead of hesitating. Michigan's currently first in sacks allowed [tiresome avalanche of caveats]; so it seems that Michigan's best option when it's going to pass is letting Denard sit back and survey. No one is getting near him.
The arm punting bit. Denard did throw three interceptions. This is less than ideal. One of those was a badly inaccurate deep ball into single-ish coverage; the others were WTFs. But the opponent line that Denard is basically a tailback at quarterback…
The long passes were underthrown jump balls that NU didn’t win. I am disappointed (but not surprised) that the secondary was not told to look for the ball once the receiver was 25 yards down the field. Throughout the year, most of Denard Robinson’s long passes have been underthrows that would be INTs if the defender looked for the ball. … At least 100 of those passing yards were 50/50 jump balls. the pass defense wasn’t great, but the defensive scheme in general limited most of Robinson’s runs and made him throw. … Denard has receivers that are willing to go up for the jump ball and bring it down (e.g., the Notre Dame win), and until teams can stop that, all Denard has to do is limit his wild throws to the opposition and get the ball into the general area of his receivers.
…has started to grate. Even with the turrible interceptions Denard still completed 65% of his passes for nearly 13 YPA. That is enough for him to far exceed Dan Persa's QB rating last game (177 to 131) when Persa completed 73% of his passes like he always does. And, like, 13 YPA. 48 and 57 yard bombs to Hemingway and Roundtree help, but Robinson being Robinson put those guys in single coverage.
And here's the thing. While the jump ball thing is a fair assessment of some of the deep stuff, remove his two longest completions and Denard still averaged 9.7 YPA. Chop out the two successful bombs—but not the INT or the Gallon overthrow—and Denard averaged almost a first down per passing attempt. Northwestern fans cannot talk crap about him in any fashion. Do terribly unfair things to his passing stats and he still pwns you. Teams with secondaries are another matter, but we are seeing Denard get back to being the fairly accurate guy he was last year.
When allowed to set and step into throws Denard can toss all kinds of stuff. As Borges gets his head around the things he can and cannot do his efficiency should improve, because he's got enough in his legs to compensate for the fact he's not Andrew Luck. Now, about those throws that make all of us want to die…
[Disclaimer: There's a difference between not thinking you can sustain an offense on downfield chucks into double coverage and back-shoulder fades to Jeremy Gallon and thinking a QB averaging 10 YPA even when you mutilate his stats unfairly is not a QB. Thank you for not needing this disclaimer.]
WTFs. I don't know, man. I think one of them was an attempted wheel route that was either badly disrupted or saw the guy fall down; in any case there was a safety right there so that was a very bad read. The other I have no idea. Hypothetically that could have been a massive WR bust, but I doubt it. I will look at these in UFR but I doubt I'll be able to tell much.
Shaw. If Tommy Rees's brain goes "FLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYD" then Michael Shaw's goes "BOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCE." It worked against a slow-ish Northwestern team cramming the box; kudos to Borges for making that switch.
Roundtree. Welcome back to the offense, kid. Totally thought you were Junior Hemingway on the long one.
Woolfolk. Again pulled for Countess. Obviously injured.
Johnson. Hoo boy, going to come in for some finger-wagging in UFR. His whiff on the Kain Colter TD was spectacular.
The West: open. It was going to be wide open when Nebraska was losing 27-6 to Ohio State, but even with that comeback there the Michigan-Michigan State game has the shape of a division championship game, doesn't it? Whoever wins it will be two clear of their instate rival with the most threatening other teams in the division already carrying losses. The winner of that game could lose once and probably be fine since Iowa is unlikely to sweep M/MSU/Nebraska and Nebraska similarly unlikely to do so against M/MSU/Iowa/PSU/Northwestern.
Michigan State would have a smaller margin of error since their remaining games against the East include an almost certain loss versus Wisconsin; Michigan wins this weekend and they become solid favorites.
As per usual, when I attend road games I usually can't get around to VOAV. Penance:
Postgame interview with the person of particular note:
After starting slowly in the sack department, we picked up 3 last week and 4 this week, including a decapitation by Kovacs and a Wile E. Coyote style steamrolling by Will Campbell.
After giving up 297 yards in the first half, the defense settled down (and the offense controlled the clock for major stretches) limiting NU to 438 yards total for the game. A tad higher than my goal of 400 per game, but NU does have a good offense, I think everyone would agree. And they would have been held under 400 if the refs called holding penalties. More on that in the ref section, don’t neg me yet.
That 438 includes a 79 yard drive at the end of the game when Michigan was up three scores and just bleeding clock. If anything ever convinces you that advance stats are more real than the regular ones, that should be it. On 11 real drives—about an average game's worth—the Wildcats had 359 yards, which is about average. On the meaningless last one the Wildcats piled it on. Advanced stats will dump that last drive.
Most of my life (33 years) has been spent rooting for a Michigan team that would win most Saturdays, live in the national rankings, and stub their toe early in the season. 4-0 or better starts have only occurred 11 times in those 33 seasons:
4-0: '78 '96 '09
5-0: '85 '95 '99 '10
6-0: '86 '97 '06 '11
The starts to the last three seasons have been a stretch that Michigan fans have not witnessed since the dawn of the Carr era.
We should get a giant inflatable Wolverine head for the players to run out from under, except it should probably be, like, the comic book version, and then to make it even more rad we could shoot off some fireworks during the national anthem and this would make things electric.
Media, as in unwashed blog masses. If you are a true schadenfreude connoisseur, there is aSippin' on Purple game thread that descends into self-loathing misery. I didn't enjoy it much except for the one post where the person said every time Denard takes off it terrifies them.
Kenny Demens had his best game of the year. Demens hasn't been as productive this year as I expected, but he's still been a solid player. This game was his best, though. He had 10 tackles, including a sack, and did a good job of chasing down wide receivers and crossing routes in space. A lot of middle linebackers (Obi Ezeh, for example) would have been left in the dust or would have missed the tackle on those smaller players, but Demens is so strong that if he gets his hands on someone, that person is going to the ground.
In five of Michigan's nine losses during the 2008 season, the Wolverines were either ahead or tied at the half. But during the subsequent two quarters, Michigan's offense crumbled and the defense wasn't good enough to prop the team up. Throughout the Rodriguez years, exponential in-game decline became a staple of the team's performance
Don’t you feel like, for the first time in a long while, that Michigan clearly has the advantage in coordinators? While there is room for improvement, it’s a blast to see Borges tinker around with Denard and Gardner, and the defense has rattled several quarterbacks this season and has clearly improved. The team seems to get better as the game goes on.
The story of Northwestern being shut out entirely in the second half is one of repeated, eerily consistent, enormous drive-ending plays by the Michigan defense. A sack and an interception killed the Wildcats’ third-quarter drives; a fumble and a sack put paid to their first two fourth-quarter efforts, and the final Northwestern drive barely reached Michigan’s red zone before the clock ran out.
Some face mask penalties an official should never miss. This is not one of them. When I watched this play in real time and even after the first replay, I did not think the face mask was grabbed. So many helmets come off, and often it has nothing to do with the face mask being pulled. In this case, however, the last replay indicated that Kovacs did grab the mask with his left hand. The referee, who is behind the quarterback, would never see this, and he is the only official who is watching the quarterback. It was a foul, but not all fouls can be seen. Coach Fitzgerald was penalized for running out on the field to argue, which is absolutely the correct call. You cannot let a coach come as far onto the field as Fitzgerald did to scream at the officials. It makes no difference whether there is a missed call. That cannot be allowed.
That's on point. It's clear on the replay that Kovacs did grab the facemask but you can't expect the official to see that. (Side note: Adding Pereira to their coverage of NFL and college sports was a brilliant move by FOX. He's great at giving an unvarnished take from the referee's perspective. In that same article he bags on the live-ball unsportsmanlike penalty the NCAA just instituted, but he also gives it to you straight when you are being a stupid fanboy.)
The Wildcats need to figure out whether or not they're any good at this. Last year it was clear they were not, as they gave up almost 200 yards a game and finished 92nd in raw yardage. They might have actually been worse than this—they gave up 5.2 YPC. That was worse than Minnesota. By contrast #95 Michigan and their 4.4 YPC were almost stingy.
So when the Wildcats gave up 5.2 YPC to Boston College's primary tailback and 381 yards to Army, it was just more of the same. Then they basically shut down the same powerful Illinois ground game that was a major reason the Wildcats' numbers were so bad last year. And a quick peek at previous box scores shows that Army needed 75 carries to get those yards.
OVERVIEW: The Wildcats actually did a solid job defending the Illini triple-option attack, and they were very aggressive in flowing to the ball and forcing Scheelhaase to make a decision while taking a hit. While the Illini weren't able to do much on the ground (3.1 yards per carry after sacks removed), they exploited this aggression, coupled with man coverage, by torching the Wildcat secondary on many play-action passes.
Aggression led to success and getting constraint down their throat. This seems like a game for counters. Conveniently, Michigan just debuted one with great success against Minnesota. Even more conveniently, their quarterback is a walking play action fake and Northwestern's safeties are giving up long touchdowns to Eastern Illinois. But that's another section.
Michigan has all but dumped the under-center run game in favor of a shotgun attack not much different from what Rodriguez ran last year. There's more power, no outside zone, and Borges threw in some isos last week, but it's basically an inside zone read/QB iso/QB power offense with constraint plays attached. This makes life hard on safeties, forces extra guys in the box, and still levels opponents. Michigan is averaging nearly 7 yards a carry and is well over that number when under-center carries are excised.
Realistically the best Northwestern can hope for here is to bleed it out slowly, catch Michigan with the right run blitzes, get Denard behind the chains, and try to strangle it out from there. Given the safety situation and the simplicity of the Michigan offense that seems unlikely.
Key Matchup: Interior offensive line versus Northwestern blitzes and line shifts. When Michigan struggled last week it was because guys on the line did not combo effectively because Minnesota shifted late. Northwestern looks run-blitz heavy and will test the recognition skills of the line.
"I like that you guys are demanding perfection," Fitzgerald replied. "Our (first-stringers) have given up two big plays. We want to eliminate those, but frankly it's one guy that needs to do it. He will remain nameless."
Nice sentiment, but safety IbraheimCampbell, a redshirt freshman, was largely responsible for Andre Williams' 69-yard scamper and the Panthers' long touchdown pass. Eastern Illinois' late-game run came in garbage time against backups.
That is terrible cover-3 play, just like all the wide open corner routes Jenkins ran. I'm guessing the youth and injury stricken secondary will improve but gradually, which means this weekend Michigan will have plenty of guys open. BONUS: Minnesota blew this route package exactly the same way last weekend, with the deep middle safety pulling up on the out route and leaving the post wide open for six. Denard threw it to Hemingway on the out because he was open, too, but one dollar says Borges has coached Denard on taking the deep throw here and will see if the Wildcats make this mistake again. Also, these safeties are going to freak out on QB Oh Noes guaranteed.
There will be opportunities for big plays. Michigan has not hit them much, if at all, so far this year. Denard's accuracy will be important, as will Borges giving him throws he's comfortable with (ie, in the pocket or quick Oh Noes seams).
The Wildcats do have one quality corner in Jordan Mabin, FWIW. They have a bit of a pass rush, one that seems blitz-based with sacks spread out over the roster. People don't blitz Denard much, though.
Key Matchup: Denard versus Finding Blitheringly Wide Open Guys. There have been a number this year that Denard has not seen, and he's missed some of the ones he has. Avoid Mabin and take the easy pickings that will erupt.
Run Defense vs. Northwestern
Colter, left, is NW's leading rusher. The leetle Green is the primary RB.
With Mike Trumpy out for the year after tearing his ACL and the questionable status of Persa's achilles the burden here will fall largely on Treyvon Green, a two-star true freshman who managed 67 yards on 17 carries last weekend. Sophomore Adonis Smith and Jacob "Don't Call Me Jingleheimer" Schmidt will also contribute carries, but Smith only carried once and Schmidt 6 times last week. Both were healthy. Green looks like the man.
Despite my general belief that Northwestern tailbacks not named Tyrell Sutton are all cut from the same uninspiring cloth it appears the loss of Trumpy will be a blow. Sippin' on Purple:
The ballcarrier sophomore wasn't listed as starter on the depth chart but had taken the lion's share of carries at running back and was clearly the best player coming out of the backfield, leading the team's corps in runs and yards. He was tearing up Illinois on the ground with 12 carries for 63 yards before getting hurt, and, well, sadly, it's serious.
After leaving the game, NU's run game sputtered - although Dan Persa got hurt pretty simultaneously. Treyvon Green looks promising and did have nearly 70 yards on 17 carries, and Jacob Schmidt actually had one of the best runs of his career churning his legs into the end zone for NU's final touchdown, but I don't think anybody can act like Trumpy hasn't been the best runner.
I wouldn't rule out Purdue-style mass-QB wackiness. Kain Coulter is Northwestern's leading rusher by a considerable margin and is already be used by the skill-position-poor Wildcats as a slot receiver. If Northwestern isn't moving the ball with Persa they could give Michigan more of a spread 'n' shred look with Coulter or even have both QBs in the same backfield.
If that seems desperate, well… yeah. The remaining RB platoon combined to average 3.3 YPC on 24 carries against Illinois, and while Northwestern did manage 5.3 YPC against Army it was only Colter and Trumpy who were efficient. Schmidt and Green had eight carries for 25 yards.
For its part, Michigan merrily strangled Minnesota last week and has been pretty good so far this year when not giving up the edge on jet sweeps and the like—something I bet one dollar Northwestern implements with Colter. Pay no attention to the mildly alarming YPC average of Gopher backs, which was aided by garbage-time carries and bizarre occurrences.
But that's Minnesota. The last actual football teams Michigan played both moved the ball with some effectiveness. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman racked up 109 yards on 21 carries, though a big chunk of that was on one epic rock-paper-scissors minus play where SDSU caught a misaligned Michigan in a bad zone blitz. Eastern Michigan—yes, more of an actual football team than Minnesota—exploited Michigan's weak edges in the first half and finished with 4.5 YPC. Notre Dame tore Michigan up.
Which of those games is this matchup more likely to look like? The vote here is Eastern. Northwestern's tailbacks lack the experience and/or athleticism to bust it to the second level unless Michigan gets RPSed and their offensive line has failed to impress. Where Northwestern might have an advantage is in the style of their run game, which is based off a passing spread when Persa is available. Michigan struggled against that versus Notre Dame.
Key Matchup: Third and short versus first down. I figure Michigan will blow a couple plays on the edge and get sliced up on short passes, but it doesn't look like Northwestern has much, if any, big play ability. Their longest run of the year not from Trumpy (out) or Colter (marginalized) is 15 yards, it's Ebert or nothing deep. That means a lot of third and short, which Michigan has been very good on this year. If they can keep that up Northwestern isn't going to score many touchdowns.
Pass Defense vs. Northwestern
Persa health disclaimers apply. Northwestern has little faith in Colter as a passer. This is how their second-to-last against Illinois drive ended:
(1st and 10) Green, Treyvon rush over left guard for loss of 1 yard to the ILL42 (Brown, Jonathan;Foster, Glenn).
(2nd and 11) Green, Treyvon rush over right guard for 3 yards to the ILL39 (Buchanan, M.).
(3rd and 8) Green, Treyvon rush left for no gain to the ILL39 (Mercilus, W.).
(4th and 8) Colter, Kain rush right for 4 yards to the ILL35 (Mercilus, W.).
That last one was a scramble; they still ran on third and eight with three minutes left in a game they were trailing. If Colter plays extensively Northwestern loses.
Assuming a healthy and effective Persa, Michigan's secondary will be getting their stiffest test of the year not named Michael Floyd. Yes, Ryan Lindley is an NFL draft pick after the season and Alex Carder is doing nasty things to the MAC but Persa completed 73% of his passes last year and finished top ten in passer efficiency. 8.5 YPA and a 15-4 TD-INT ratio, man. He managed this playing with maybe one good receiver behind a line that finished 112th in sacks allowed. He is good at the football. Imagine a grittier, non-insane Tate Forcier who means it when he says "it's hard to flunk out."
But, man, he's got nothing to work with. Despite returning four starters the line is hardly better in pass protection, allowing 2.5 sacks per game while throwing it only 21.5 times. That's horrible. Illinois had four sacks on a day when Northwestern quarterbacks got off 16 passes. That's even more horrible. Their quarterbacks are mobile! Northwestern's offensive line is awful.
At receiver, Jeremy Ebert is a quality option short and long but not a guy who is going to force Michigan to back off press coverage. He will get his; if Michigan prevents him from getting deep they will eventually chase Persa to Northwestern's doom. They have very little past Ebert. Drake Dunsmore returns after making 40 catches a year ago; he is just a guy. The depth is bad to the point where they're playing Colter in the slot, which is an epic position switch starter situation: Colter was the starting quarterback two weeks ago.
Persa is good enough to chop Michigan's secondary up despite this, especially when he breaks contain after his horrible offensive line lets guys through. Again, keep it in front of you and eventually they'll break down.
Key Matchup: The Second Guy Trying To Kill Persa versus Incompetent OL. Persa will get pressure that will flush him from the pocket and he will murder Michigan when this happens. One pass rusher is not enough; Michigan will have to get a second whether its via blitz or being a lot better than Northwestern's horrible offensive line.
HOLY CRAP FIELD GOALS.
In other news, everything else is horrible. Michigan would have given up massive plays in both coverage phases if not for Gopher penalties and Will Hagerup's return was underwhelming. Kickoff returns get slightly past the 20 at all times. I guess punt returns have been pretty good.
Hagerup will probably bounce back—there's a reason he kicked many balls a long way last year. The coverage issues are worrying since they don't seem to be getting any better. If anything they're worse. [spread punt rant]
But Northwestern is kind of average here, too. The punting is turrible. They are averaging 34.5 yards net, which is 101st. This is mostly because the punts don't go anywhere to begin with—their gross is under 38 yards. They do have some impressive return numbers but the top-ten punt return status is based on three opportunities. Kickoffs are more robust and will be a concern.
Michigan might have an… advantage… at… kicker? Brendan Gibbons was 3/3 against Minnesota with two of those coming from actual field goal range. Northwestern's Jeff Budzien is a new starter who's 1/3 on the year.
Key Matchup: Gibbons you put it through the uprights? Ah?
come at me bro
Only one guy is getting in on Persa.
The solid safety play turns into a mirage.
Northwestern's run defense is for real enough to put Denard in uncomfortable down and distances.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Colter is forced into the game at QB.
Michigan's OL can move the Wildcat DL.
Denard's accuracy remains at Minnesota levels.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; –1 for Offensive Line Could Not Block A Countrywide Mortgage, –1 for Lingering Suspicion Persa's Achilles Will Force Him Out Of The Game, +1 for This Is A Road Game, –1 for No It's Not, +1 for Persa Yakety-Saxing Our Secondary, –1 for Denard Now With Arm, +1 for Turnover Implosion Saturday Is Coming Sometime, –1 for AJ Jenkins Has A Cloaking Device And So Does Jeremy Gallon.)
Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline 5; +1 for We Can Totally Win Our Crappy Division In Our Crappy Conference, +1 for This Is Not Last Year, +1 for It's Not The Year Before That, Either, +1 for Epic Massive MSU Setup Ho, –1 for Just Northwestern, +1 for Those Who Stayed.)
Loss will cause me to... get my revenge by drinking all of Lake Michigan and exploding all over Evanston. U MAD, thousands of drowned Northwesterners?
Win will cause me to... set the cloning machine to "Cletus," hit the button 5,000 times, and sic them all on East Lansing.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Though Northwestern put up a lot of points on the Illini, they didn't really move the ball (329 yards). TD drives started on the Illinois 32, 36 (twice), and 39 thanks to turnovers and some amazingly bad punting. There was a single impressive 80-yard march and it does mean something that the Wildcats were able to punch in their opportunities, that looks like a game kept close by Illinois mistakes. The week before that Northwestern lost to Army; their other games were a I-AA patsy and a narrow win over BC that doesn't look good now that BC is ACC Minnesota.
So the question is "Can Persa beat Michigan?" If they're a totally different team with him the answer is yes. I tend to think not because they still have to hand the ball off and try to block and cover people, none of which they seem very good at, and while they did shut down Illinois there is another level beyond the Illinois run game. It's named Denard Robinson. I will believe a non-elite defense shuts down the Michigan ground game when I see it.
Northwestern will struggle to move the ball long distances because they won't be able to run on third and short unless they want to expose Persa to danger; they will give up a couple of cheap touchdowns when their safety of woe executes more woe. Big plays will be the difference.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
Five sacks for Michigan, one of them for Kovacs.
Persa does not make it through four quarters.
Denard completes 65% of his passes for a healthy YPA. He does throw a ver' bad interception.
A few things: 1) I’m not going to change the X’s until Michigan loses. 2) Opponent Watch is moving to Tuesday next week. This is more for me than it is for you. 3) I’ve added a section devoted to tracking past opponents. 4) Michigan is not going to lose.
Fear scale:0 = Bye week?; 1 = If Michigan loses to this team somebody’s going to get fired; 5 = 2010 Illinois; 8 = Best in conference/will play in a BCS bowl; 9 = National title contender; 10 = Hold me, TomVH Ace.
About Last Saturday:
Minnesota 0, Michigan 58
The Road Ahead:
Northwestern (2-2, 0-1 B1G)
Last game: Northwestern 35, No. 24 Illinois 38 (L)
Recap: Northwestern QB Dan Persa (10/14, 4 TDs) finally returned to action last Saturday against Illinois. It’s hard to tell whether he was suffering lingering effects of his Achilles tendon injury leading up to the game, but Persa had five real carries -- mostly on zone-read keepers -- before he exited the game in the fourth quarter with pain in said Achilles tendon.
Despite having Persa’s arm back for the first time since Iowa last year, Northwestern insisted on sticking with the run. For two and half quarters this strategy was surprisingly effective. Persa’s four TD passes to bring the Wildcats ahead 28-10 were set up by a ground game that churned out nearly 5 ypc for two and a half quarters, which, if you’re not a spoiled Michigan fan, is really quite good. RB Mike Trumpy was the centerpiece of the ground game, gaining 63 yards on 12 carries, which, again, if you’re not a spoiled Michigan fan, is quite good. Unfortunately, he also had to leave the game with a leg injury, and reports are saying he’s lost for the season.
For about 40 minutes, Northwestern’s offense sparkled and shined. Then both Persa and Trumpy got knocked out of the game. By that point they were up by three scores in the third quarter, so it was hard to see how they might blow it.
Their secondary answered the challenge. The Wildcats left Illini receivers open all day and had no answer for WR A.J. Jenkins, who took advantage of some hapless defensive backs to haul in two long touchdowns, bringing his team to within a score. Jenkins’ 28-yard reception during the final minute also helped set up the winning Illinois touchdown.
Right now they are as frightening as: With a gimpy starting quarterback, an injured starting running back, and a defense that sometimes chooses not to cover people, they strike me as Purdue 2.0. Fear level = 4.
Michigan should worry about: Mental errors on the road. Also, Persa’s arm. There’s a good chance at least one of these things will happen, but both will have to happen simultaneously for a significant amount of time for Northwestern to pull out the win.
Michigan can sleep soundly about: There were a lot of questions during the press conferences about how Michigan will deal with Persa’s dual-threat capabilities, but in reality the threat of him running is far scarier to the his Achilles tendon than for an opposing defense.
When Michigan plays them: If Northwestern wants to be stubborn with their play calling, they will again try to establish the run with a lot of of zone reads. Michigan will be able to cheat and key in on the running backs because it would be stupid for Persa to run more than a handful of times. This will last about a quarter before the Wildcats realize that maybe getting 3 ypc isn’t a winning strategy, at which point they’ll likely air it out against a Wolverines secondary, which, thankfully, finally knows how to cover receivers. The Michigan defense will probably make some mistakes -- they’ll give up a couple bombs or a long run here and there -- and the running backs will have less room to wiggle than in previous weeks, but it’s hard to see this game being more worrisome than a Western Michigan/San Diego State redux, albeit against some bigger dudes and on the road-ish.
Cannibalism is actually an improvement in their level of civilization. Add Eddie George to the long list of current and former Buckeyes bombing the program:
“It appears to me that Bollman is out there, he’s totally exposed,” George said. “It’s his offense to lose, and clearly he has no idea or concept what to do with them at this point.”
Blue Seoul described the MSU-OSU game as "fun to watch if you don't like either of these teams" and that is so true. It's more true for Ohio State, which was blithely running second and long draw plays as Michigan State run blitzed with nine guys in the box. "OY OY OY this worked with Troy Smith OY," Bollman thinks.
Crack journalism. Well done, Free Press, well done:
Time lapse. The Notre Dame game in time lapse photography:
The numbers. It's week six. FO's advanced stats maintain some preseason projections in them for another week or two, but they are increasingly based on events on the field and whoah:
Moving up four slots after bombing Minnesota probably means the formula does not yet comprehend how terrible the Gophers are—they did hang tight against USC and FEI ignores games against I-AA foes. Also it does not know just how goofy that ND game is.
In the not too distant future, Saturday A.D. There was a guy named Jordan, not too different from you or me He worked at Schembechler Institute, just another face in a maize jumpsuit He did a good job cleaning up the place, but his bosses kinda liked him so they made him play in space
(Curse you GERG!)
We'll send him speedy runners, the best we can find He'll have to stop, tackle them all as we monitor his mind Now keep in mind he can't control when the games begin or end He'll try to keep his sanity with the help of his D-Line friends...
D-LINE ROLL CALL!
Martin! (I'm Captain!) Heininger! (Left side!) Van Bergen! (Where've you been?) Rooooooooooooooooh! (I'm sophomore!)
If you're wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts He's got a meal card and it's set on earth so you can really just relax For Michigan Defense Theater 3000.
Either you have no idea what that is about or you are no longer reading this post.
Woolfolk comes in. I erroneously left Woolfolk out of the Monday game post talking about the guys who stayed through all this drama, as Rodriguez might say, but in the Michigan blogosphere there is always someone to pick up where you fell short:
And one wonders; why have the Wolverines normally injury prone players been relatively healthy this year while Woolfolk has been injured time and again? Bad Luck? Anger an old gypsy woman? Did the coaches use black magic to keep the guys healthy but the turnover was Woolfolk gets hurt instead? Did they find some D&D style Rings of Transference to transfer all injuries to Troy as long as everyone was wearing the rings? Not that I've ever played Dungeons and Dragons or anything. Like I don't have a level 17 Wizard named Tulmo Falconclaw just sitting around, so don't think that. I'm just guessing what nerds would say. FIREBALL!!
Bear with me this week as I test out some format tweaks to FFFF—please let me know what you think of the new format/features in the post, as I got some good feedback last week about needing more structure for these. This week, I'm breaking down film from the Northwestern/Illinois game from last weekend, which ended in a 38-35 comeback victory for the Illini. The show? It's on...
First, the newest feature, in which I give a very brief overview of the general structure of a team on each side of the ball. For the offense, there are a few basic questions:
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Also known as zone or gap blocking—in Northwestern's case, they run almost exclusively zone.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Dan Persa, without speculating on injury status, is about a six. Kain Colter, his backup and part-time slot receiver, is a seven.
OVERVIEW: Northwestern utilizes a run-heavy spread offense with a strong emphasis on zone read and inside zone plays. Their passing attack is mostly limited to short, quick passes to Jeremy Ebert or running back screens, in large part due to the fact that their offensive line is terrible in pass protection. While Persa, at least before he left the game after feeling discomfort in his injured ankle/foot, looked relatively mobile, he wasn't able to establish himself as a real threat on the ground.
When they scored points, it was on long, drawn-out possessions or after getting the ball with a short field—it doesn't appear that the Wildcats have much quick-strike ability. The running game, especially without injured tailback Mike Trumphy, is pretty ineffective—even after sacks are removed, NW averaged just 3.2 yards per carry on 47 attempts against Illinois. This team needs to be able to chew up yards on the ground to be a big threat, but with a less-than-100% Persa and no deep passing game, their efforts to power their way down the field were mostly fruitless, with the team averaging just 4.9 yards per play.
PLAY BREAKDOWN: This first clip was one of Northwestern's best runs of the day, a simple inside zone in which their left guard and center combine to get a great block to seal off the middle and open up a gaping hole:
This is Northwestern at their most effective, as their zone read game is still hampered by the injury to Persa—who gained just 14 yards on five carries with sacks removed—and Colter doesn't provide enough of a passing threat to keep defenses from keying on the run. The Wildcats were most successful running the ball on the inside zone, despite the fact that their offensive line wasn't opening up many holes—instead, they did a solid job of holding their ground and not letting defenders through, giving the running back time to find a crease inside or bounce the play outside if the defense didn't keep contain. The key for Michigan will be to get penetration in the middle—Mike Martin, I'm looking at you—while maintaining leverage on the outside.
Hit the jump for the rest, including offensive formations, defense and a brief note on the special teams.
Thoughts on Denard’s improvement? “We worked on it pretty good, you know. And he took it to heart. He was stressing that he wasn’t throwing well. He’s a better passer, I’ve told you that before. Like I said, part of it is we had to get him some throws that he could make early and then he got into rhythm, and it was lights out after a while. Yeah he was feeling good. But his fundamentals were so much better other than two throws, okay -- there were two throws and both of them were pocket movements to the left where I think he didn’t get turned very well, and part of that was protection. But he got his screws in the ground pretty good and transferred through most of the throws, and he was pretty much on the money. And he touched a few balls nice, too. He dropped a couple balls in, and the key to passing is it’s a finesse art.”
How did you come up with the diamond thingy and what can we expect to see from that in the future? “Well I’m not going to tell you that. But it’s something -- Devin Gardner’s a talented kid, and we just wanted to give him a chance to feature him a little bit in a couple of deals. [With] Big Ten play, we’ll empty the drawer more as we go now. Our first four games, we’re still learning the offense. That’s still a work in progress. We’re going to have our deals. They’re not all going to work. Some are going to be good, some of them aren’t. But that was just one of them.”
Is it based off anything or did you just kind of pull it out of thin air? “Well, it goes way back. There was a series [that the] Chargers ran back in I think was the 80s or early 90s with Buford Jordan, where he was a quarterback in college and we took a piece of that and expanded it a little bit. I think Dan Fouts was playing back then. Part of that’s kind of old Ernie Zampese would have done that. The other piece is that we just kind of built some stuff off it that they didn’t do back then. The option part of it was a piece from the past.”