1. It can't get any worse, can it?
It can always, always get worse.
1A. But it's not likely to, right?
good night sweet prince [Heiko Yang]
No, it's not. Yes, even though Michigan lost both starting tackles to the NFL. It takes a special kind of panicked incompetence to end up with results like last year's Michigan. Al Borges's final D-I offense ran outside zone, then it ran power, and then it ran inside zone. It heaped all of the possible base plays you can run on an offensive line that had zero upperclassmen on the interior. It wasted essentially a month of practice time on the "tackle over" gimmick that was ruthlessly exposed by the first opponent that knew it was coming.
Michigan had 13 plays on which a tackle lined up next to another tackle. These plays were 11 runs that gained 8 yards (more than all of them on Toussaint's long run of the day, a 12-yarder), a seven-yard sack given up by Williams, and a scramble that gained eight yards. That is the product of three weeks of practice time and the futility there was only stopped by Lewan's injury.
Many of these plays could not be blocked by anybody, because Penn State was so aggressively overplaying run that they were in the gaps before Michigan could do anything about it.
Three guys for two blockers with the WLB meeting Bryant a yard in the backfield. If Kalis tries to pursue #40, the MLB, he blocks no one instead of an irrelevant guy. On second and one, a great PA down that a lot of DCs will just give you.
They got to the line of scrimmage with under ten seconds on the clock most of the time.
GET OUT OF THE HUDDLE.
Yes. In addition to all the things previously discussed, Michigan's offensive line is looking at Gardner with two seconds on the playclock. Michigan snaps it with zero already showing—probably not actually a penalty because there is a natural delay before the ump looks at the ball to see if it's still there—and slides their line against a four man rush with no tailback to pick up the DE:
That turnover is a tangible cost of Michigan's inability to get to the line with 20 seconds on the clock consistently.
It moved linemen around almost literally every game after the first four. It was dumb.
How did this happen to a guy who was rather successful at San Diego State? Panic strangled reason in multiple ways. Michigan is stuck on this picture of itself as its 1990s self, and Al Borges was openly contemptuous of the spread both in press conferences and off the record (not to me, but to multiple people who covered the program over the last few years).
So they played a tight end who couldn't block. I'm not talking about Devin Funchess, who was eventually thrust outside. I'm talking about AJ Williams, who had one catch for two yards a year ago and was no better at blocking than Funchess. They had to know this. It jumped off the screen to me, an amateur. But instead of doing something about it they just kept plugging along with him on the field, to the point where people trying to evaluate Taylor Lewan got frustrated:
…why in the HELL did Michigan keep a tight end to Lewan's side so damn much? He obviously didn't need the help. The quarterback was right-handed anyway (with bootlegs you like for the tight end to be lined up to the side of the quarterback's throwing hand), and they could have potentially had a wide receiver there instead of a tight end. It would've increased the chances of success on passing downs as well as run downs if you get the opposing defenses to spread themselves out. But is that what Michigan did?
Here is the scenario I saw time and time again. So you have a tight end helping before he goes out into his route. Lewan, who doesn't need the help any damn way, blocks the hell out of the edge rusher. But the rest of Lewan's buddies on the Michigan O-line aren't quite as, well, good as he is, so the quarterback is under pressure and ends up sacked.
I mean. This is a guy who said he "didn't want to get in a chess match" last year. They're playing chess anyway, man. If you want to try to win with checkers, you're gonna have a bad time. Yes, even if you've got 75 different colors. The full results were detailed after Borges's firing. It just did not work.
[After THE JUMP: Nussmeier the savior(?), offensive line the achilles heel, Gardner the legend(?), stupid predictions.]
Under the tutelage of Doug Nussmeier, a man who's shown both pro-style chops and spread flexibility, things will improve greatly. Let me deflect a criticism about how I want both 1) a base play and 2) complain about Michigan's predictability under Carr. I want a system. I want that system to look at what the defense is doing and tweak itself to take advantage of the way the opponent is playing my base play. Ace's recent post on combining fly sweeps with inside zone is a great example.
Borges never established a thing you have to cheat to and was so inflexible he kept putting Denard Robinson in positions only an idiot would. Michigan couldn't block inverted veer play action in year one so they never tried it again. DeBord installed a system and then that was pretty much it; counters were limited to waggles for the most part; the run game was always the same. I have high hopes that Nussmeier is going to be a guy who is flexible within a coherent system, as he showed that ability at Alabama: an inside zone team that worked a lot more from the pistol and shotgun when he was around, and could put the pedal to the metal when needed.
2. Does the stuff that helped strangle the offense last year have relevance going forward?
Maybe? I wonder if This Is Michigan is a problem.
Stan Parrish gonna ball state out yo
Brady Hoke is a weird dude, stylistically. His successful Ball State outfit was a MAC-standard passing spread coordinated by Stan Parrish (of all people!) that didn't use a fullback, like, ever. Borges's offense at SDSU was a West Coast one-back passing-focused offense. Meanwhile Rocky Long's Aztec D was the same 3-3-5 so reviled at Michigan. Hoke seemed very much like a "whatever works" kind of guy.
Then he landed in Ann Arbor and decided that now he could play football exactly like Michigan did during its 1990s White Artillery Piece QB era. He told anyone who would listen that Michigan was going to run POWER with POWER. People who went to Michigan's first coaching clinic under the new regime reported that there was a near-maniacal focus on the idea of not only running power, but running "A-gap power." IE: the manliest of manball. Hoke's ideal was the famous drive against Ohio State on which Michigan choked the game out by running the same play over and over again. It was sometime in the 80s. I was approximately six, but I've heard enough people rhapsodize about it to know it happened.
I think of that drive whenever I think about the tight end blocking last year and despise it. Sometimes there are reasons to put up with bad tight end blocking: good tight end catching, poor tackle pass protection, etc. Michigan had NFL tackles and their terrible tight end blocking came with zero receiving upside. While we're all happy to execute Al Borges and move on, I wonder just how much Hoke's ideals interfered with a reality as diametrically opposed to them as possible.
Not walking through that door
On the one hand, you think not particularly much, because the guy doesn't wear a headset—something I regard as an asset; the best thing to know is know what you do not know. Also he has the aforementioned stylistic versatility. Guy had to defend the 3-3-5 in his first press conference. He said there were a "lot of misconceptions" about it, and boy howdy was that accurate.
On the other, Al Borges was not ejected into space in 2011 after setting the Iowa game on fire by deciding to put DENARD F---ING ROBINSON in a pro-style I-form system. Nor was he ejected into space after deciding to put DENARD F---ING ROBINSON in one million waggles at Notre Dame the year after.
So. This team looks like it's not going to be able to run the ball much. It may be able to pass protect, and it's got so many receiving options that 3-4 of them figure to be quality options… if not more. You've got a senior QB. How much are you putting on him? Are you ready to resign yourself to the fact that a three-wide shotgun system seems to make the most sense for your personnel when your tight ends are iffy and your quarterback can outrun most of your wide receivers?
I don't know. I think it's a hard sell for Hoke. I'm not sure why it's so hard for big chunks of the Michigan fanbase to accept running from the shotgun as good idea when it has been the main cause of most humiliations suffered by Michigan during the Carr era and was a clear indicator of doom last year; hell, even the kick-ass 2006 defense finally crumbled when OSU and USC (in the second half) decided that this running stuff was for rubes and went Texas Tech on M.
But it is what it is. I just want Michigan to do the things that make sense right now, and worry about being rough and tough when they have more than one upperclass OL. Nussmeier talks a good game in this department:
“Our goal is to put our best playmakers in position to make plays… whatever that may be,” said Nussmeier. “So if that means that we have to line up in empty formation and throw the football, we’ll do it. If that means we have to line up in three tight ends and two backs to run the football, that’s what we’re going to do. So we’re going to do whatever we need to do to put our players in the best possible situation to have success... because at the end of the day it’s about giving them the opportunity to do what they need to do. It’s about them.”
I hope that's true.
3. How big of a problem is the line, really?
Last year I tried to play down problems by noting that some people were a little unhinged:
The offensive line section's comments featured a dude ranting at me for being excessively optimistic after giving the interior guys a two and saying that "mediocrity would be a win" at the center position. People are punchy about the offensive line.
I apologize, guy who ranted at me. You are like the one guy screaming about the financial crisis in 2007. Start a mutual fund; I'm in.
The line is a problem. I think it may actually be less of one than people fear it will be for two reasons: 1) tight end blocking and 2) running back blocking. Both of those were at the bottom of the barrel last year, especially #2, and Michigan has set about fixing that bit:
"Guys are more consistent now with their reads, going from point A to point B with protections," Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson said last week on WTKA-AM in Ann Arbor. "By not having a ton of protections and a ton of different runs, it allows the guys to be more consistent in what they're doing."
/waves tiny flag
Last year there were up to ten things a back had to check presnap, and even when Fitzgerald Toussaint got in the right position more often than not the rusher blew through him like he was not there. Regression to the mean should help Michigan immensely, and increased tight end options—including not playing as many—will either play better or take guys out of the box, making blitz reads easier.
Additionally, they are an inside zone line now, running inside zone drills constantly. They suck right now, make no mistake, but as the year goes along they will get better and better at the many nuances of the zone game. Fred Jackson:
“You would think because you’re running the same things over and over and over (that it won’t be successful), but it is going to be better for your kids... simpler for your kids. … you can formation enough to make it complicated enough where the defense can’t just look at it say, ‘here comes this play… here comes that play.’ We’re going to know how to run zone. That’s going to make us a better football team.”
It is going to be an uphill battle at the start, and medocrity is the distant chalice on the mountaintop. But it won't be as bad as last year, and hopefully opposite the defense they can be not bad enough to win some games.
There is a danger. THE DANGER: right guard. Joey Burzynski should not be in serious competition with Bosch and Kalis; he is. That spot could be a problem all year. Jack Miller could suddenly be the most important player on the O.
4. Can Gardner be the really good Gardner all year?
I'm saying there's a chance. It is so hard to do the things he did while under constant assault, and the guy from the beginning of the year was kind of amazing. While the accuracy issues seem baked-in at this point they're at a level that is acceptable. Additional maturity plus pass protection from the interior of his line should cut down on the bad decisions… hopefully severely.
Gardner has been given a bunch of extra responsibilities and knows this is his last chance to put his mark on the new #98; he went through last year's leadership cataclysm and should not make whatever mistakes he may have then.
He's got a monster target to go up and get it, and a tiny guy who can pick up easy yards. He's going to be good. The upside is still enormous.
The line issues are going to put a ceiling on what is otherwise an offense that has a ton of potential. It's not often you go into a season with a senior QB, a first round pick at WR, and several other weapons besides for Gardner. I think they're a great passing team, and they cope on the ground, and things feel a lot better.
The exception: Michigan State. MSU has had Michigan's number for the past six years, whether it's jumping the snap count or engulfing the throwback screen. They are likely to overwhelm this OL en route to another grim day. Ohio State also looms what with their DL of doom. Games against the rest of the league look tractable if Michigan is doing what works instead of what they want to work.
The end result should be something approximating GERG to Mattison: Michigan is suddenly better but some distance from great.
- Senior Gardner > junior Gardner
- Sophomore Magnuson in one spot >>> never ending rotation of guards
- Junior Glasgow > sophomore Glasgow
- Kyle Kalis > freshman Kalis
- Sophomore Jake Butt, Williams, Heitzman >> freshman Jake Butt and Williams
- Chesson/Canteen > Chesson/Reynolds
- Dennis Norfleet > ignoring Dennis Norfleet
- Any pass protection >>>> Fitz Toussaint last year
- Not doing what you did last year >>>> doing what you did last year
- Devin Funchess == Jeremy Gallon
- Johnson/Green/Smith == Toussaint/Green/Smith
- Cole/Braden <<<< Lewan/Schofield
- Amara Darboh < Devin Funchess
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
Gallon and Gardner chemistry is a real thing that propels both of them way up statistical charts. Gallon challenges Braylon's single-season receiving record.
Gallon in fact broke it, thanks in no small part to Indiana. But hooray full points.
Gardner is not quite as statistically amazing as he was last year but is clearly the best throwing quarterback in the Big Ten. His legs are a side asset.
Gardner led the league in YPA at 8.6. Braxton Miller was more efficient according to the NCAA's passer rating, but so much of that is because Braxton Miller gets to throw at safeties freaking out about Braxton Miller. Points.
If healthy a month into the season, Bryant moves into the starting lineup. Glasgow displaces Miller at center. The interior line struggles early before rounding into an acceptable unit.
Correct! Correct! So, so incorrect.
Toussaint goes over a thousand yards at over 5.0 YPC. He gets the lions share of the carries. De'Veon Smith emerges into the #2 back by midseason.
I don't want to talk about it.
Funchess blows up thanks to Gardner and the Darboh injury. He's the #2 receiver on the team.
I complain about Dileo being underutilized at some point.
Correct, but this was gimme. Spiritually, very correct since a third WR made a lot more sense than a lot of what Michigan was doing.
Michigan splits its snaps about equally between shotgun, pistol, and under center.
- Pistol was an infrequent sidelight and, if audibled to, almost literally always a speed option. Michigan eventually came around to the gun late—big chunks of the OSU game were from the gun; before that they were a decidedly under-center team. I should have been right. I wasn't
The offense rebounds from the ugly numbers a year ago, in part because Alabama isn't on the schedule and Michigan doesn't spend half of the Nebraska game with the backup QB (knock on wood). Passing offense skyrockets from 94th to top 20.
Michigan was 23rd in YPA. The rebound from the ugly numbers… not so much.
Rushing remains basically static (41st, 4.8 YPC) as an improved line and Toussaint can only do so much to keep pace with Denard's missing 7.2 YPC. YPC will actually drop a few tenths.
"A few tenths" was more like "a yard and a half." In my defense, the next one is worse.
Borges seems like a much better coordinator when he's not trying to work with pieces he'd never have recruited.
The wrongest thing ever put on the internet, and I've seen the picture of a woman's breast combined with a hornet nest. (DO NOT GOOGLE THIS, YOU WILL DIE.)
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Devin Funchess challenges but does not reach Jeremy Gallon's single season receiving record, and then gets drafted in the first round.
- Devin Gardner is a slam dunk first team All Big Ten performer; he still makes too many bad decisions to be truly great.
- Michigan's OL is Cole/Mags/Glasgow/Kalis/Braden for virtually the entire season unless Kalis's back flares up. If there is a change it is Glasgow shifting to RG with Miller entering at C.
- The running game improves significantly, starting out depressing and ugly but improving throughout the season until Michigan reclaims mediocrity at around 4.2 YPC. There is little separation between Smith and Green.
- I complain about Norfleet being underutilized last year.
- Sacks plummet to the surprise of all. Cole is overmatched by elite rushers but handles the rank and file just fine; Braden is a bit of an issue that Michigan covers with tight ends. Tailback pass blocking gets so much better that it makes up for losing the tackles and then some.
- Michigan has a great passing offense, scraping the top ten in YPA.