Quick scheduling note – I meant to get this out on Sunday, but then a megastorm named Sandy up and broke my heart (and large swaths of NYC’s infrastructure), and so I’m just now getting around to publishing. I’m sure you were all waiting with bated breath.
In the immortal words of our benevolent leader, “so, that happened.” It was either equally as bad as it looked (offense) and yet deeply encouraging (defense) depending on your predilections, and maybe both if you take the long view of what it means for the team. Throw in the ramifications it has both for the Legends Division (or Leaders, Coastal, Not-Plains State, or whatever dumb name they’ve plopped on a $10 bumper sticker) as well as the Rose Bowl bid, and Saturday’s game may be the defining moment for the program this year. Or Nebraska could gack away a game or two against PSU and MSU and it would be nothing more than a speedbump on the way to a 4-loss Big Ten team playing a pissed-off and rested USC or Oregon in Pasadena. BIG TEN!!!!
Worst: Lowered Expectations
The funny thing is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, I never envisioned a world in which Denard Robinson would miss significant playing time since he arrived on campus. I think that is due in large part to the fact that in 2009 and 2010 there was always a competent starter/backup in Tate Forcier around to fill in, and the couple of times he went out last year it never felt like it changed the outcome of the game (unless you think 4th-and-22 is a good down and distance to catch MSU guessing). With Tate and Gardner, the feeling was always that both of them could do a rough approximation of Denard in this offense in a pinch, or at least an offense that could be successful given the talent on the field. Backup Tate was the reason UM beat Illinois in 2010, and Devin showed enough last season to remind people why he was one of the most coveted dual-threat QBs coming out of HS. There were options in the event Denard went down, even if they weren’t optimal.
But when the year started, we knew Gardner was going to focus primarily on being a WR (though he was “still prepared” for QB in a pinch…apparently as long as that pinch didn’t actually happen during a game), leaving the depth chart a RS freshmen and the football version of Everlast (I mean this in the best way possible – I LOVED Everlast in HS) to assume the mantle if Denard went down for more than a series.
Before this game, Bellomy had taken about a dozen snaps, none meaningful, and so it was hard to get a bead on how he, and more importantly the offense, would perform with him as QB1.
Well, after 8-ish drives for about 50-ish non-penalty yards, we now have an idea about how a non-Denard offense will perform against a competent defensive unit. Again, small sample sizes and mid-game switch caveats apply, but without Denard this offense is just not that good. The offensive line struggles to get holes open for the RBs, who have trouble making guys miss, while WRs have a hard time getting separation from DBs that are above-average but certainly not shutdown. And if they do get open, the balls lack some velocity and may lead them into bigger hits from safeties and linebackers.
It, in a nutshell, is the type of offense people saw in 2008, but without the soothing sense of growing pains and more the realization that the talent is either very young or a poor fit for the system the team wants to run. It should be competent against poor defenses, which helps with NW, Minny, and to a lesser extent OSU coming up, but it means the defense and special teams have to be on the top of their games to keep the score close. It makes everything harder, which should be distressing since this was the same outfit that hasn’t scored a TD against a defense with a pulse in 10+ quarters.
Last week I said that beating MSU didn’t tell us that much about this team except that it was probably better than a 4-4 team. This game didn’t tell us much about how this team would fare with Denard at the helm for a full game, but it did illuminate just how quickly the bottom can fall out if he isn’t on the field.
Best: Current Expectations
What everyone needs to remember (and that includes the me from the section above) is that Denard isn’t out for the season; he apparently is fine and ready to go for next week. In a night game against a bunch of fired-up Cornhuskers with basically their season on the line, Denard was still moving the team down the field relatively successfully and was in a position to take the lead when he was knocked out. Given how the defense was playing at that time (and how they played well into the second half), it is safe to assume that the score wouldn’t have ended 23-9 if he had stayed in the whole game. And Nebraska isn’t as bad as some of their defensive metrics would lead you to believe – they played some cupcakes in the OOC besides UCLA, but so far their B1G slate has been nothing but bowl-quality teams. That housing by OSU also looks slightly better when you consider 14 points came on a TAINT and a punt return TD.
The defense kept UM in this game far later than most expected when Bellomy took over, with the 3rd quarter ending with UM only down 7 points. It was the type of game where the road team steals it at the end, but the team came up a bit short. But looking ahead, only OSU has an offense that should be able to move the ball against Mattison’s defense, and even that might be a bit of a stretch given how Miller struggles throwing the ball. Minnesota and Iowa have decent defenses on paper, but neither is a world-beater and both have struggled to slow down any of the above-average offenses they’ve faced this season. So right now, despite some bumps on the road, this year’s team still has as good a shot at making it to the second B1G game as anyone in the division.
This is the worst Dude…Where’s My Car homage EVER!
Best: Sonic Youth
While I am loathe to say that any season is “lost” when a team still has a chance to make a BCS bowl game, I always felt that this year was going to be way heavier on the transitional pains than last year’s, when everything seemed to turn up aces for Hoke and there were a number of older playmakers on both sides of the ball to give this team an extra gear. As many had predicted, all of the fumble recoveries and arm punt receptions had to swing the other way, and so while a possible Rose Bowl bid should never be besmirched, 2012 felt like the year where the differences between the past and present regimes would become most obvious, the oil and water least likely to integrate.
One silver lining, though, is that it means the younger players will get ample opportunities to see the field. And while the results have at times be mixed, it is clear that the foundation is being laid for this version of Michigan football to be what it will be going forward, especially on defense. Beyond the obvious (Jake Ryan, Funchess, Taylor, Clark), kids like Jenkins-Stone and Ojemudia (especially with a really athletic interception this game) have shown flashes with limited playing time, which bodes well for the future. Sure, there are still holes at the skill positions and pass rushing is apparently running security on the Enterprise, but unlike in years past you can see the succession of players and how they’ll fit into the systems being employed. And with Hoke having earned a longer leash, there is less fear of these players being square pegs for some successor’s round holes.*
* And yes, that looks way weirder in print than in my head.
Best: Great Garrett Rivas They’ve Got Kickers
In 2010, UM’s kickers were a combined 4 of 14 at field goals, for an astounding 28.6%. The long that year? 37 yards. And the long for the Gibbons was 24 yards. Fast forward two years and UM has hit 13 of 15 FGs for 86.7%, and both Wile (48 yards) and Gibbons (52 yards) have hit career-longs from distances that actually feel appropriate for that designation. In a game of inches, having guys who can put the ball through the uprights from distance in high-pressure situations may well have already punched UM’s ticket to a good bowl game, and at the very least gives the team hope once the ball crosses the opponents 40.
Worst: Hold Onto the Damn Ball
One of MGoBlog’s favorite memes (well, besides Lloyd Brady/photoshopping and cats) is Brian’s imploring punt returners to not allow the football to leave their possession until the whistle is blown.* We all laugh now because, for the most part, the returners DO seem to hold onto the ball at a reasonable clip, even if it means fair-catching a ball inside the five and letting it roll/fumble to the 2, which totally didn’t happen this game ever.
Unfortunately, it appears that whatever afflicted the kicking units didn’t so much recede as migrate to the WRs and TEs, which historically have displayed great hands. This year? Whether its been receivers failing to locate the ball, holding on in traffic, or just plain drops, there have been an alarming number of catchable balls that have not been reeled in. Heck, here are the updated UFR numbers from MSU.
The numbers don’t look horrible, but it gets wonky around moderate difficulty
(only 59%). By comparison, here’s last year’s numbers (sans Va Tech)
That’s 79% for moderately difficult, and based on how Brian grades out these throws those are the ones that we saw against Nebraska and, frankly, are the types you expect to see against a good pass defense. Those windows are small and safeties are closing in, so if the ball reasonably close the receiver needs to hold on. This isn’t an indictment of the current receiving core, but just evidence that lots of drives are stalling out because those “tough” catches from last year are being missed.
As to who IS to blame for this deficiency at WR, we’ve heard all the arguments. Personally, I put some blame on RR because he wasn’t getting the #1 receivers that any offense needs, even one predicated on shorter drops and more YAC. Some falls on the transition, which hurt recruiting and led to Hoke focusing more on the defense his first class because (a) it was an area of weakness, and (b) when in a pinch, I’m sure he found it easier to sell the side of the ball he knew more about. But a non-zero amount of blame falls on Hoke and Borges, though, because while there are legitimate reasons for last year’s recruiting to have a limited skill position haul, this year’s crop, while promising in terms of sleepers, is basically Treadwell or bust. This feels disturbingly like the RR-Pryor dance, and while QB is way more important than WR in terms of recruiting, it still looks like a position of need relies too heavily on nabbing an elusive target. I know that’s part of recruiting, but with Roundtree leaving and Gardner likely moving back to QB, I worry that these numbers may continue into next year.
Also, regardless of who is WR next year, the pox that apparently is on every ball Bellomy throws needs to end. Sacrifice chickens in the locker room if you must.
I ask Jobu about Smith interception, ball full of fear. I offer cigar, rum.
*If for some reason you need a refresher, check out the 2009 “hype” video, in which it almost feels like the ball is repulsed by the colors maize and blue.
Best: Referees and Replays
The storyline that seemingly was pushed under the rug for those about Michigan’s offensive impotence, Denard’s injury, and Nebraska’s swarming defense was the almost-comical officiating at various points in the game. The highlight was of course the 45 yards of penalties on the one second-half Michigan drive that led to a score, including the “life bird” of penalties, the 15-yard “sideline bitching” penalty that Bo Pelini earned after calling the refs “BASS-Bowls!” for a questionable personal foul. There were leading penalties on hits that were questionable, multiple out-of-bounds late hit penalties that wouldn’t have gotten the ambulances on the field, and a couple of pass interference calls that got both fanbases riled up.
And as it applies to replays, the burden of proof that must be met to uphold or reverse a ruling apparently ranges from a misdemeanor to what you need to overturn a Constitutional amendment. I totally support the idea that replays are used to “get it right”, but at some point it is a game with ambiguities, and no camera angle or shot-by-shot review will make that any easier. Balls move a little when a guy is diving onto the ground, and figuring out “control” and “possession” is by its very nature open to interpretation. I guess it is a collateral cost for trying to get it right, but it is still annoying to see Roy Roundtree seemingly make a great catch yet see it overturned because some of the ball hit the ground while another part is clearly under his arm and secure against his body.
Worst: Borges’s sense of “The Moment”
We have discussed Al Borges as an offensive coordinator, and my position remains that he seems competent with elite talent and not wholly innovative without it. He’ll be fine when Michigan if fielding NFL teams; he will probably be underwhelming until they do.
But one point that has driven me crazy is his seemingly lack of all sense for “the moment.” In Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball, he mentioned that for all of Clyde Drexler’s abilities on the court, he may have been the worst “great player” at properly responding when the time called for a momentum-changing play. His best example was Drexler trying to hit a “response” three against Jordan and the Bulls in the Finals after Jordan had drained another three during that dominant run in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals. He air-balled it horribly, and it further deflated a struggling Blazers team.
With Borges, it seems to be his inability (or stubbornness) to vary up his play-calling when being creative or unorthodox is the best option. Witness the numerous times he’ll have the offense line up under center with 1 WR option on the goal line, even though the defense is terrified of Denard in space trying to get to a crease. I won’t kill him for the Bellomy play-calling because there wasn’t much he could do once it became clear that Fitz and line could not get one extra yard, Bellomy couldn’t get the ball to the receivers before the 9000 blitzing Cornhuskers got to him, and if it did leave his hand the receiver would spike it into the ground with the hate of a thousand suns.
But for the past two years, it is clear that Borges has a plan for this offense, and it was based on the presumption that he would call his play and the defense would react. When that works, you get Illinois and Purdue 2012; when it doesn’t, you get ND 2012 and VaTech 2011. That approach will never change, and while it will probably get UM’s offense to a consistent level we haven’t seen since the mid-2000’s, it also means that those serendipitous “RPS +3” will be few and far between.
Best: Power of Denard
Not that this needed to be said, but that Denard Robinson kid is pretty good at football. We have simply become accustomed to his brilliance, witnessed by the fact that in about 1 1/2 quarters his offense generated about 170 yards; the team finished with 188 for the game. He covers up so many sins for this line, running backs, and receiving core, and the offense has subconsciously become so reliant on his playmaking, that everything just crumbles when he isn’t in there. Even last year with Gardner, a player with similar abilities on paper, the differences in how the offense functioned were jarring. Blocks are longer with Denard, receivers find those few extra steps to get open, and the backs at least get a chance to hit the line without 2 LBs in the hole.
I was one of the most vocal proponents of Tate Forcier when the great Tate/Denard debate broke out in 2010. Sure, Tate had played well in spurts in 2009, but it sounded like Denard had pulled ahead of him coming into the season. Still, I held strong to the argument that Tate should keep the spot because of his past accomplishments and the fact that he “looked” more like a QB. I want to think that it wasn’t because of anything backward and myopic in my thinking of the QB position* but because Denard just seemed too raw, too much an athlete who could out-run the opposition and had a good arm but lacked the abilities to harness those abilities in a coherent, consistent offense. 2 years later, he’s basically the one reason the offense is able to move the ball and gives me the mental chubby I haven’t felt since Barry Sanders was taking hand-offs.
He gives this team a chance to win every game, and no matter how this season ends, his spot in my mental Hall of Fame has already been spoken for.
* I have always liked mobile QBs provided they knew what how to keep their arm under control. Woody Dantzler, Tommy Frazier, and Eric Crouch were three of my favorite QBs in college.