9/22/2013 – Michigan 24, UConn 21 – 4-0
I watched the UConn game with two diehards who happen to be in town from out of state. I'd spent large chunks of the past decade trying to get one of these guys to come over to watch Michigan games for the same reason he refused to do so: he experienced games on television as an emotional trial to be bested. I'm the same way, but talk only goes so far.
So there's four of us in the room when Devin Gardner takes off up the middle for a sixteen-yard touchdown on third and eleven. Michigan's up seven midway through the first quarter. No one does anything. There's no whooping or even a slight fist pump or a clap. We just stare at the television, internally relieved but marshaling our strength for the road ahead like international meth kingpins on the lamb.
It takes a special kind of paranoia to be petrified about a game like that against a team like that, but it was redeemed in full. The recent history of Michigan football* lends itself towards nuanced discussion of this particular vintage of terror, and this one was spicy and piquant with notes of Denard Robinson's role in 2009 Iowa and 2002 Utah, which ended 10-7 despite the Utah offense scraping together only 200 yards of total offense. The nose was full-bodied, redolent of 2010 Iowa, and 2010 Michigan State, and the first three quarters of 2011 Notre Dame.
The aftertaste was like filling your mouth with iron shavings and walking into a strong magnetic field.
One of the worst things from the worst things column last week was the familiarity of all this: struggles against mediocre competition that throw a wet blanket on your season after Michigan beats Notre Dame and gets all hyped up about it. To that you can add an even darker familiarity now, one that you may have been reminded of when ABC flipped to the end of the Texas-Kansas State game just in time to see Greg Robinson do a little dance of joy.
What is Michigan doing on offense? I don't know. They come in saying they're going to manball it up; they are largely prevented from doing so by Denard Robinson. They do dump the stretch play that had been Michigan's primary way of gaining yards on the ground for five years, when they have David Molk and Patrick Omameh and Michael Schofield on the interior of the line.
Denard's gone, as are Molk and Omameh; Schofield's at right tackle, a spot that's generally less important than those guard spots on stretch plays. So of course now is the moment when Michigan turns to the stretch as their base. They suck at that, unsurprisingly. They haven't run more than five stretch plays per year since Rodriguez left.
You could see the confusion last week, when guys were leaving first level defenders with easy paths to the backfield. Those plays against Akron were shockingly bad. You have a guy between yourself and the center, you deal with him before moving to the second level. Otherwise you die. Whether the issue there was the call or the execution, the underlying symptom is the same one that plagued Michigan's defense during the Rodriguez era: never settling on who you are and being terrible at everything as a natural consequence.
I mean, how insane is it that after two years with an offensive line entirely recruited to run the stretch they install it once Kyle Kalis is the right guard?
This is the second straight year Michigan has one of the worst running games in the country papered over by the fact that its quarterback can scoot for 40 yards without breaking a sweat. Toussaint can't see what's in front of his face sometimes. Neither can the line. While Toussaint showed his ability in open space on his touchdown, Michigan found itself behind the chains far too often against a defense that had just been ripped apart by Maryland. Michigan is looking up at North Texas, Tulane, and Florida Atlantic in TFLs allowed after four games. Michigan is 118th(!!!) of 123 qualifying teams in tackles for loss allowed.
Michigan lacks an identity, and once in a while they come out doing something completely different and disastrous (3-3-5 against Purdue; under center against Iowa). In this one, Gardner's inability to throw straight makes it impossible to judge the playcalling, but more ominous than the already-plenty-ominous dropoff of Michigan's quarterback is the persistent clown show on the offensive line. Any idea that the problems may have been fluky is now gone. This is Michigan, still: looking at the quarterback as the cause of and solution to all problems.
*[For a handy one-sentence review, let's go to the Hoover Street Rag:
Michigan is ALWAYS going to get an opponent's best shot, because if you beat Michigan, your name gets etched in history, next to the Appalachian States, next to the Toledos.
I am not sure if that is meant with ironic lilt or not. This is Michigan, fergodsakes?]
Also here is the bizarre Eminem-flavored opener.
Brady Hoke Epic Double Point Of The Week. The only truly good things that happened in this game happened on defense and there was one incredibly critical play that turned the game around. You know what it is already; you know it's about to be featured in the double fist pump, you know that Desmond Morgan is the man who made the play.
Honorable mention: Frank Clark, for sacking people frequently. Blake Countess, for seeming to be good at coverage. Fitzgerald Toussaint, for busting a much needed 35-yard touchdown en route to a 100 yard game that means I no longer have to predict 100 yard games for Fitzgerald Toussaint every week in the game preview.
Epic Double Point Standings.
1.0: Devin Gardner (ND), Jeremy Gallon (ND), Desmond Morgan(UConn)
0.5: Cam Gordon (CMU), Brennen Beyer (CMU)
Brady Hoke Epic Double Fist-Pump Of The Week. Michigan had just failed to convert a fourth and two, looked virtually incapable of driving the field against UConn, and trailed by seven points in the fourth quarter. UConn dropped to pass; Desmond Morgan dropped into a seam route, leap, speared the ball, and returned it to the UConn eleven yard line. One play later it was tied. Huzzah, Desmond Morgan.
Honorable mention: Frank Clark crushes UConn's inept right tackle for a critical sack on UConn's final drive. Gardner actually pitches on a speed option this time.
Epic Double Fist-Pumps Past.
8/31/2013: Dymonte Thomas introduces himself by blocking a punt.
9/7/2013: Jeremy Gallon spins through four Notre Dame defenders for a 61-yard touchdown.
9/14/2013: Michigan does not lose to Akron. Thanks, Thomas Gordon.
9/21/2013: Desmond Morgan's leaping one-handed spear INT saves Michigan's bacon against UConn.
[After the JUMP: PANIC and RUN AROUND SCREAMING.]
PANIC and RUN AROUND SCREAMING. Seemingly more often than not first down runs have resulted in second and eleven this year. It's one thing if that's Notre Dame. It's entirely another after playing Akron and UConn. We are reaching unacceptably bad levels of play here even if you do have three new starters, all underclass, one a walk-on, on the interior line.
There are offensive lines in much worse shape talent-wise than what Michigan is running out there. There are MAC offensive lines that have gone up against a murderer's row of guarantee-game opponents and come out better. Toussaint does share in some of the TFL responsiiblity, as detailed after Akron. Even 80% of the current rate is awful.
So what to do? While it's not quite as dumb as the guy on Scout($) who suggested Michigan move Frank Clark to SAM, Cam Gordon to WLB, and Jake Ryan to MLB, suggestions that Mike Schofield move back to guard midseason are almost as loopy. Erik Magnuson appears to be the option if that happens. You know, the guy who just got blown up on a QB sneak to help cause a defensive touchdown. Schofield hasn't practiced at guard in two years, and he's going to be better mentally than the current guys? Not unless he is a savant. Meanwhile, here's a 285 pound freshman right tackle. In a word, lolwut.
So it's Chris Bryant or nothing. In that scenario, Glasgow slides over to center and Miller is benched. This has many advantages, like playing guys at places they have practiced and not sacrificing the excellent edge pass protection they do have. Bryant's health will remain an issue until it doesn't, but with the Braden experiment over it's Bryant or a true freshman since Blake Bars is nowhere near ready.
Gardner. I think I might talk about turnovers here. Let's see.
Turnovers. Gardner has too many of them. We are now pining for those easy days when Denard Robinson was at quarterback, because Denard Robinson never turned the ball over. Yes. That's the ticket.
In this one:
- Interception at Gallon. Entirely on him. Fine decision on a third and six to get a conversion, which a completion likely is. He may have had Funchess open downfield, as some have complained, but that's not always how quarterbacking works. He had multiple open guys and threw to the first one he identified. Fine. Problem was, of course, the fact that it was airmailed. Gardner didn't set his feet because he was getting some pressure up the middle, and while that's suboptimal he had some room to work with that he did not use.
- Interception at Chesson. Underthrown and to the inside, allowing the DB to make a play on the ball. Chesson does have to help his QB out there by realizing that the throw is short and slowing down in an attempt to box out the defensive back. It was also a 50-yard throw. Those are hard. I'll probably file this an MA.
- Fumble. Not helped by Magnuson getting blown up, but look above: Gardner hardly ever puts the ball away. That's a QB sneak on which Gardner has one hand on the ball, and the fumble Gods strike.
Even more problematic was Gardner's accuracy degrading improbably. It is impossible to believe that Gardner is the same quarterback who stared down a brutal Notre Dame pass rush and lit them up with a horde of NFL throws. Against UConn Gardner throws that were too inaccurate for the wide receiver to bat them skyward counted as good ones. It was brutal to see him miss everything, over and over.
Michigan's best hope here is that's on an injury he was dealing with all game that screwed up his mechanics. Hoke said he was "banged up," FWIW, but I can't imagine him not saying someone was banged up, ever. Gardner was limping late and ABC caught a shot of him getting some sort of massage on his hip when he went over to the sidelines. In this battle between terrifying lack of causality and Gardner being hurt, I'm rooting for team Injury Gardner Gets Over In The Bye Week.
Running a quarterback sneak behind Erik Magnuson. Magnuson is the lightest OL on the roster, and is a redshirt freshman. Why is Michigan folding him inside Lewan instead of Schofield? It makes no sense.
Miller. As always want to wait for UFR before I say anything definitive but I do know he was responsible for at least two pressures directly up the middle, which is bad in the middle of the line. I bet UConn's defensive tackles are pretty good since they return from that elite unit from a year ago, but he's out of chances at this point, I think.
Don't give it to Norfleet. It would be nice if Dennis Norfleet was treated like a slot receiver instead of a rapidly expiring steak when he is inserted in the game. Any time he sees the field right now it's going to be a gimmicky play involving him. As soon as those things get on film they're dead meat.
It is okay to put him on the field and have him, you know, run an out or something. Or just run the ball as Dennis Norfleet runs a bubble or something, if you ever did anything so outlandish as fake a bubble screen in this offense. Ironic that the main reason submitted for not doing such things is that it is insufficiently manball to occupy a guy with screen action when you could be blocking him instead. Michigan can't block for crap.
Anyway. Norfleet's symptomatic of the offense's larger problem where plays exist as small subsets of things that work together instead of a consistent whole.
Toussaint: hello. Fitz had a couple of his best runs of the year late, on the field goal drive. He took a couple of stretch plays to the sideline, took a beat to wait, and then burst through Lewan-provided holes to bail Michigan out of some tough situations. That patience had not been there to date (also it may have gotten him plastered). He also turned about 15 yards into 35 on the speed option touchdown. It was nice to see him in space again, where he's kind of good at football. I wonder if he remembered what it was like to see grass in front of him.
Chesson. A couple of deep targets for Chesson, finally. They do not go so well. He had a step or two on both. On the interception he misjudged it; on the incompletion he also misjudged it, but in the opposite way. Hopefully that last one is just an understandable overreaction to the first issue and not an indication of Darryl Stonum disease, as Seth mentioned on twitter. The coaches had mentioned that Chesson was considerably rawer than Darboh; that is likely what they mean.
Speed option check. Don't run that against Michigan State. Michigan has to have something else they can check to that sees Gardner move from under center to pistol. Also don't run the throwback screen with two WRs stacked to the boundary.
HAPPY THOUGHTS. Can't ask for much more. Michigan stared down 13 UConn drives, gave up one legit touchdown drive and one drive that resulted in a longish field goal attempt (45 yards); they also let UConn punch it in after the punt fiasco. That's about eleven points ceded since a drive starting at the ten is worth around five points on average. Before the 26 yards UConn gained on fourth and twenty-nine on their last drive they'd acquired 180 yards; even with it they just squeezed over 200.
That is what you're supposed to do to a terrible offense.
Hello, Frank Clark. Ace helpfully noted in the UConn FFFF that if Kevin Friend was out, his backup was a problem:
The offensive line did a terrible job of protecting him, especially after right tackle Kevin Friend exited the game early with a high ankle sprain. His replacement, Xavier Hemingway, was completely overmatched, immediately giving up a sack upon entering the game and allowing at least one more after Friend gamely tried to return (this resulted in, yes, a sack, because high ankle sprains are no joke).
That overmatched tackle got ripped through multiple times by various Wolverines. Amongst them was Frank Clark, who picked up his first two sacks of the year, causing a brief-lived cottage industry of tweets about how Frank Clark read what this space wrote about him last week. (If that is what it takes for Frank Clark to get sacks, I will say he is a bum every week.) Even if that's a backup tackle who's completely overmatched, at this point any sign of life is a positive one, and a critical sack on UConn's final drive is definitely a sign of life.
In general, the pass rush got healthy. Michigan had four sacks overall and several other pressures on which Whitmer had to dump the ball. His inability to find the still-extant holes in the Michigan zone helped, but it also seemed like there were just fewer options for him this week than there had been previously.
Speaking of fourth and twenty nine, what the hell was that? Michigan lined up in press coverage with two deep safeties; various seams were open and Whitmer hit one. All it would have taken was one missed tackle from Jarrod Wilson and the epic self-facepunchings would still be going on. In that situation send four, have four guys 30 yards downfield, and three guys somewhat underneath. It's nuts that the only time Michigan played full on press in this game was fourth and twenty-nine.
Run defense. This game was a good example of how including sacks is pretty misleading when it comes to rushing stats. Officially, Michigan held UConn to 47 yards on 25 carries. Excise four sacks of Whitmer and a kneel-down and that becomes 20 carries for 78 yards, almost four yards an attempt. In sack-adjusted land that is still quite good. It isn't quite what it seemed. I'm still worried about what they'll do against teams that actually try to run the ball after Notre Dame got clobbered by Michigan State.
Goodbye, freshmen. Courtney Avery returned and got almost every snap as the nickelback—third corner. You know what I mean. He got beat over the top on the controversially overturned long UConn touchdown, but only by a step. It required a perfect throw and diving catch; otherwise Avery gets a shot at NOBODY CARES ABOUT FINDING THE BALL trail technique defense. It wasn't as good as Lewis's deep coverage last week; it was better than Taylor's.
I expect Avery will be the guy for the long term out there since Jarrod Wilson hasn't been responsible for a deep completion yet this season. The only long stuff opponents have gotten has been the fly routes right up the sideline. Expect that to be tested all year, but those routes are tough to throw. Better that than wide open posts like the bowl game.
Frustrating that both Lewis and Stribling saw their redshirts burned if this is how it was going to work out, but I don't see a way around it.
Bolden: not getting it? Spielman pinned the first UConn touchdown on Joe Bolden, and I'm pretty sure he's right. Early in the Mattison era the wing of the blogosphere that breaks down plays had a debate about what we were seeing on some coverages when the inside receiver would go vertical. We ended up having Heiko ask Mattison about it and he said that the nickelback had to carry a guy up the seam if he goes vertical. In an empty set that responsibility moves a player further inside, to the linebacker over the #3 receiver*.
Spielman equivocated a bit by mentioning Countess as a guy with that potential responsibility, but I don't think there's any way Countess can be expected to do anything with a guy running a seam route to his inside. There needs to be a guy under him to force the throw back to the safety, and Countess can't get under him. So: that is on Bolden, and is the second straight week that he's busted a coverage to give up a touchdown.
*[IE, the guy furthest inside. Receivers are numbered outside in.]
A tribute to Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman. Despite the way that game was going it didn't occur to me to mute them. Generally when things are going that badly I can't stand the announcers and their stupid, stupid minds; with those two guys it didn't even cross my mind. They're the best crew going now.
A reminder about how unbelievably stupid it was to reschedule The Horror. I will feel nothing if it's a rote blowout. If it is like this…
Nope, just hatin' on Jeter. I thought maybe the UConn crowd knew their kicker was 2/7, soon to be 2/8, from beyond 40 yards in his career when they booed as the kid came out on fourth down. Wow, UConn fans are really on top of their special teams issues, I thought. Later McDonough clarified that they put Derek Jeter on the scoreboard.
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.
ST3's contrarian position of the week
* I think Borges actually called a good game. (/ducks) I think he's 3 for 4 so far this year, with the Akron game being the lone stinker. The problem with the Akron game is that it appeared he couldn't care less what kind of defense they were running. Let's go inside the boxscore on this game and look at the critical third down conversion stat. Michigan was 7 of 17, meanwhile, UCONN was 1 of 11. Let's look at some of the early third downs. On the second drive, we had 3rd and 1, and 3rd and 2. Gardner rushed for the first down on both plays. Later in the drive, on third and 12, Gardner ran again and ended up scoring our first TD. So my point is, Gardner rushing is one of our better (only? well, at least until Touss got untracked) options, and Borges dialed those up on the critical third down. Later in the game, he may have gone to the well once too many times, when we got stopped on 4th and 2, but if Devin had been more aggressive on that run, he would have made it. Then, after the Dileo punt return, with UCONN selling out against the Devin runs, Borges called a very safe pass play to Gallon on 3rd and 4. He had two WRs clear out the area for Gallon, who stopped just past the sticks. We eventually got down to the four, setting up Gibbons for a chip shot FG. Let's not forget that Gardner was 0 for 5 with an INT in the 2nd quarter. Had Borges continued to press the issue, Gardner might not have been able to recover to lead us in the 2nd half. Instead, Borges figured out what run plays were working, got Gardner back into somewhat of a comfort zone, and managed to get us a W in a game where we were -3 in TO margin.
So sure, it's 4-0 that doesn't feel well deserved, but did 2-2 after four games last year feel like what Michigan's team really was either? You have two weeks to correct the mistakes, to work on the fundamentals, to get back to what made people think you were worthy of the preseason praise. It's much easier to "forgive" a bad win than a frustrating loss.
FOREHEAD HELMET TATTOO-GUY – I’ve seen a ton of UM tats, but never have I seen one front and center on someone’s melon:
Faux Headset > At least two callers to the WTKA Sunday morning shows complained about Hoke not wearing a headset. One guy, I swear, suggested Brady should don the headset “even if there’s nothing coming through.” God that is beautiful. They could make one with hollowed-out earpads filled with Gatorade and the mouthpiece could be the straw.
Ira is a saint.
Space Coyote on the Ojemudia/Wormley sack, amongst other things:
Speaking of Wormley, his sack was because he did his job. MO got edge pressure with a nice rip move, and Wormley pressed the pocket, ripped through a double, and the QB stepped right into him. That's what I meant when I talked about someone winning 1v1 (MO) and everyone else doing their job is how you find success (Wormley).
Mattison was really asking Wormley after one set of downs to go to the rip earlier and better. I think that was the big move, the fundamental aspect they were working on with the interior players.
Newspaper types. Angelique on Morgan's INT:
“It was simple zone coverage,” Morgan said. “I was dropped back and tried to do as I was coached to do, just read off his eyes and, lo and behold, he threw it that way. I tried to jump up and make a play on it. Once I got the ball in my hands, it took me back to my high school days a little bit, just tried to follow the blockers. I just followed them.”