Best and Worst: Northwestern

Submitted by bronxblue on November 12th, 2012 at 1:30 AM

So, yeah…  No real reason not to have written one of these for Minnesota except, well, it was Minnesota and I missed most of the game.  I caught the torrent of the game a couple days later, but by then who wants to read stale comments that have been regurgitated by 20+ MGoBoard posts?  Nobody, that’s who.  Including my wife, who’ll read anything I write because it is at least tangible and justifies the amount of time I spend with my “internet friends.” 

In my defense, the major plot lines that emerged against the Gophers continued this week, so if you want just read this twice and consider yourself covered.

Best:  Knowing is half the battle

One of the seminal television shows of my youth was G.I. Joe, which taught me that (a) snakes are bad, (b) super-secret special operations units eschew traditional uniforms for chest-barring fatigues that better highlight your guns and massive chest tattoo, and most importantly (c) many useful life lessons through their “Knowing is half the battle” PSAs at the end of programs.  While the show itself focused on a world that defied physics, geo-political boundaries, and anything approximating political correctness, the messages contained in these PSAs were far more relevant to younger children: be kind to others and don’t judge them, don’t lie, don’t go into stranger’s cars, and stop-drop-and-roll if you catch on fire. 

While the individual messages varied, the key takeaway from them all was that difficult situations were far less daunting once you knew the proper way to respond.  Knowledge, in other words, made the unknown less scary because it provided context, a touchstone from which to measure the circumstance logically. 

One of the major concerns that’s been voiced in the brief time Brady Hoke and Al Borges have been on campus was how Borges’s West-Coast-centric philosophy would mesh with Denard’s skill set (I count myself firmly in this group).  But I think the greater issue, or at least the one that has been transitioning to the forefront of these debates since Notre Dame or so is “how will the offense look after Denard, especially at quarterback.”  Everyone knows what you get with Denard, but due to his surprising durability the past couple of years (until Nebraska), we never had to contemplate a world in which Denard could not play.  The future was always ahead of us, but it was hidden behind dreadlocks, offensive records, and the reality that #16 was the best option come Saturday.  2013 was just a calendar you’d pick up in February for $3 at Meijers. 

Sure, people spoke of Shane Morris coming in next year and starting as a true frosh a la Henne, or Bellomy taking ahold of the mantle while Devin grew into the WR position.  But these felt like complaints whispering in the ether, even after the ND game when (at least to me), a louder contingent of fanbase began to turn on the most prominent holdover of the RR era.  But nobody knew how this offense would function without Denard at the helm, and that scared people a bit.  You’d seen glimpses at the end of blowouts and when Denard would step out for a couple of plays, but certainly nothing definitive.

And then Nebraska happened.  All of a sudden, we saw a vision of the future, and it was 3 INTs, 2.4 YPA, and double-digit yards in a half sans penalties. In other words, it scared the S**T out of people. If Bellomy really was the #2 QB behind Denard, then just how abysmal was Devin Gardner, a former 5* QB who people figured was moved to WR because his athleticism filled a need on the squad and would be the top QB option next year?  Was he really worse than that? Nobody knew, at least outside of Fort Schembechler, and that terrified everyone. It was knowledge, and it seemingly confirmed the doomsday scenarios running through everyone’s minds. 

But then a funny thing happened – Gardner had a chance to practice at QB for a week and the coaches gave him a chance at Minnesota, and he played pretty well.  He threw the ball on time, had some nice touch, and while he definitely had his cringe-worthy moments, he also did this. And he followed that up with another solid game against Northwestern, warts and all, and the knowledge we had been missing for years was finally starting to fill out. While it is still an imperfect portrait, fans now have a far better idea of how this offense will look going forward after Denard, and it doesn’t look like the QB position will revert to the SheridanThreetDamnit! of 2008.

This isn’t a cartoon and nobody knows if this present remain persistent in the future, but at least now people have something to hold onto going forward, something to keep them grounded.  And that’s worth quite a bit.


Best:  The Pieces are there

Piggybacking a bit on the point above, this week’s game definitely felt like the first one to showcase Al Borges’s “preferred offense.”  It was a number of shorter passes, a dedication to running the ball with the RB, and play-calling that couldn’t fall back on a dilithium-fueled QB if the first and second reads were not open. Minnesota showed this a bit in the first quarter, but that game felt over at halftime and so I’m not sure what you could glean from it except that the offensive line still couldn’t get a push inside. 

But Northwestern was a “real” game, where Borges had to maximize all of the players on the field to win. He threw with play-action, he used the I-form and multiple tight-ends, threw to his TE near the goalline, and rarely utilized some of the read options you saw more heavily with Denard. There were fewer designed QB runs, and whether that was out of necessity to keep Devin healthy or because he didn’t feel that Gardner could run them successfully, it felt far more like the Al Borges offense with a mobility+ QB. In short, it felt like an offense you’ll be seeing for the next 5-10 years. And while it had its moments of ball-busting pain, it again highlights the offensive set pieces Borges will be using with the strong-armed rocket throwers and NFL-sized pass-catchers he’ll have in a couple of years. It’s probably not going to be better than any other offense that could be run given the talent, but any questions about its viability with a non-Denard QB have at least been laid to rest.

Worst:  Perspective


I seen some people refer to Devin’s performance against Northwestern as a “legend in the making”, and I’m here to pump the brakes a bit on that runaway train. Devin had two good games against statistically competent defenses (Minny is #28, Northwestern is #63 in total defense) that remind you why there is a Wikipedia page for “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Check out what Denard did against these same squads last year, which are not demonstrably better this year than last (2012 Minny benefitted from winning 4 OOC games since they will end 2012 with the same conference record as 2011 unless they upset Nebraska (!!!) or MSU).

Devin played well in spurts, but he still only completed a shade over 50% of his passes against the 108th passing defense in the country. He also threw a near-killer INT after Northwestern had stormed back to take the lead late. His bomb to Roundtree is going to be replayed ad nauseam like Denard-to-Hemingway at the Sugar Bowl. Both were great results but imperfect throws, plays that worked out but could have easily gone against UM. And I know that Devin had few options with under 10 seconds to go, and his recovery from that interception to win the game in overtime will not be forgotten, but legendary is Tim Biakabutuka  going for 313 against OSU, Braylon against MSU, or Grbac to Desmond against Notre Dame. This was beating an okay Northwestern team at home. 

I don’t doubt that Devin will continue to have good games at QB, but crowning him a king before he’s even faced an above-average defense is a bit premature.

Worst:  ESPN is trolling again

I’m definitely not a film student, and I only know words like Aerial shot and Dutch angles by reference. But at some point yesterday ESPN apparently allowed a first-year film student from NYU take over in the command center, and what resulted was an experience akin to watching Avatar on your mobile phone after being knocked off a bar stool. Watch the game-winning score in OT and you can’t find any angle that doesn’t make you reach for the Dramamine.

It’s bad enough that ESPN unleashes Pam Ward and Chris Spielman on the Big 10 community most weekends; workshop the Senior thesis before you make it go live. Or at least do it to MSU. The few that are watching are already too drunk to care.

Best:  Defense is fine

The general sentiment on the liveblog was that the defense was getting destroyed by Northwestern’s offense, which was able to move the ball with Colter or Siemian under center. This game, though, felt like Air Force, with a team dedicated to the run trying to tempo Michigan down the field and largely succeeding until UM started to make some adjustments and got them in longer downs and distances. Yes, tackles were missed and drives extended, but people saying this was 2010 all over again need to take a step back and realize that defense was the worst in UM’s history; this one was getting a good effort from one of the top rushing offenses in the country. Are there holes? Definitely. But as Brian noted sarcastically, he’s so happy that UM won’t ever run this terrifying offense again because it IS so hard to prepare for and stop. But when the field gets shorter and a good defensive coordinator has a chance to watch it live, good teams find ways to slow it down.  Northwestern is a good football team offensively, and in the most cliché way possible I’ll just say the defense made plays when it needed to in order to win the game.

Best:  (Tree)^3

One of the less talked-about costs of the Process was Roy Roundtree having to turn in his Waldo costume and line up as an outside receiver and try to beat DBs in coverage. After 2010, Roundtree stood to continue his assault on the UM record books, the perfect WR for an offense predicated on giving defensive backs aneurisms every time Denard took a step toward the line. He went from 72 receptions in 2010 to 19 in 2011, and this year wasn’t much better. For a player who had 246 yards in a single game, he had under 200 yards for the season going into yesterday’s game.

But did he complain? At least not publicly. Like most of his brethren from the Rodriguez years, he just kept plugging along, making plays when given the chance and seemingly being happy to win games. So it was great to see him pick up his game the past couple of weeks, hauling in a couple of nice balls against Minnesota and Northwestern, capped off by the circus catch to set up the tying field goal. With 5 catches for 139 yards, he nearly eclipsed his season total in the game, and now has secured a place in Michigan lore.

These past two years probably haven’t played out the way Roundtree expected from a personal performance standpoint, but it’s great to see a senior get his chance to shine a bit toward the end. And he’s been a great safety blanket of sorts to Devin, who along with Jeremy Gallon have been making big catches the past couple of games. 

Worst:  Everyone’s the worst

Pat Fitzgerald responding the same way a kid does when he unwraps an N64 on Christmas because of a personal foul on his QB was the most Northwestern response in the world given how the game played out, but it never really bothered me. Sure it looks amateur and bush-league, but outside of the most depressing game ever in 2008 Northwestern hadn’t beaten a competent UM team in 12 years, and this game finally felt like they had broken a streak of halftime collapses and curb-stompings over the years.  I’m sure he’ll hear about it from his AD, and I doubt we’ll see a repeat. I was more bothered by the fact he had his arms up in front of Beyer after the foul, but (thanks ESPN!) that was more a camera angle than his taunting the player.

Now, the ineptitude of the Big 10 referees continued unabated this weekend, with the usual ticky-tack personal fouls being mixed in with some truly poor ball spotting (highlighted by the 4th quarter, 4th-down conversion by NW on a rush that seemingly went backwards once James Ross met Colter at the line) and a general inability to be in the right position to make the correct calls. Maybe they were watching the game using the ESPN feed and all suffered the effects of vertigo. Add this on the heels of one of the worst PI calls you’ll see this year and it is hard to imagine any fanbase is happy with the men in stripes.

Except Nebraska.  Which leads me too…

Worst:  Every f’ing time

If you ignore the UM win for a minute, Nebraska has a negative point differential in Big 10 play this season (157 pts for/165 pts against), and only a +6 with UM included. I know their housing at the hands of OSU has something to do with that breakdown, but their non-UM winning margin is a total of 17 points. And this team is leading the Legends division, with the inside track at the B1G title game.

Say it with me:  BIGTEHEEEEENNN!!!!!

And along the way, this “juggernaut” needed last-second collapses by NW, MSU, and another questionable call against PSU. People have been carping about the luck of the Irish at ND, but I’m thinking the entire state of Nebraska will be swallowed up and sent straight to hell as payment for the deal they apparently made on behalf of the Cornhuskers. Two games remain and you never know, but barring a miracle of sorts Nebraska will probably play for a Rose Bowl bid despite being about 4-5 plays away from being 2-4 or even 1-5.

Best:  Correct Call != Going for it

As ST3 noted in the always-excellent Inside the Boxscore, Hoke made the right choice kicking the FG at the end of regulation instead of going for the win. Gardner had pulled magic out of his hat to get you down the field, and a sack or tackle in-bounds, or even a long-developing pass, would have ended the game. Gibbons has been money all year, and I’d take my chances in OT against gimpy Colter and Mark. Even if Gibbons had missed, it felt like the right call.



November 11th, 2012 at 11:08 PM ^

You reminded me about another complaint I had about the refs. On the 4th quarter, 4th down conversion, both line judges approached the pile with both feet in between the 40 and 41 yard lines, and yet, when they spotted the ball, it somehow managed to end up exactly on the 40 yard line. They must've seen something when they got to the spot, but I doubt it since the NW running back was pushed backward, so how did his forward progress magically move ahead of where the refs were standing? 


November 12th, 2012 at 3:53 AM ^

Devin looks so effortless when running and always exudes a calm when playing QB  (at least his body language is very fluid)

I have to wonder though, how he will do against tougher opposition. Not to be a naysayer but even Forcier won against ND with seconds to go, so I'll take these with a grain of salt.


November 12th, 2012 at 7:19 AM ^

Remember, that Devin has only started two games.  While he has very spotty on-field experience over the last two years as a QB and eight games starting as a WR, he has two games as a starting QB. If Denard had played and made the throws that Devin did over the last two games, we would be happy, would we not?  The guy has passed and rushed for seven TD's in the last two games. By any measure, that is impressive. His QB rating is 172,1.  Do that for a season and you get a lot of attention.…

I think Devin's potential as a QB is very high.  I go to most of our games early enough to watch the teams go through warmups.  Even when Devin was a freshman warming up with Tate and Denard, Devin threw the best ball of the three. He has excellent speed and a good sense of what is going on around him.  Give him the reps as a starter over the spring and summer and I think we will be in good shape in 2013, at least at QB.



November 12th, 2012 at 7:33 AM ^

"as Brian noted sarcastically, he’s so happy that UM won’t ever run this terrifying offense again because it IS so hard to prepare for and stop"

It's hard to stop the offense at first.  I understand watching it and going "oh wow" but it's like buying a sports car on a family budget -- it's a thrill until you need efficient, bread-and-butter performance.  That Northwestern runs the no-huddle zone read and has an issue with late-season fourth-quarter implosions isn't a coincidence.  That Michigan suffered the same sort of late-game, late-season fades in the RRod years isn't a coincidence.  It puts a lot of stress on a few pieces (namely the QB), definitely, but that's not the whole story.  People focus on the time of possession, but I think that's a symptom.  The unmentioned problem is giving opponents too much information, too many chances.  By the 8th game of the season the offense could have run as many as 500 plays, give or take a hundred.  Not only is that a crapton of game tape and QB wear, the opposing defenses are given chances to work out their positioning and keys in-game.  You can't introduce enough wrinkles to keep defenses off balance every game for a whole season, and it's not reliable to hope the defense is tired.

The formula for winning with the no-huddle zone read is to be ahead at the start of the 4th quarter and hope your defense doesn't blow it late.  If 2010 wasn't proof enough, we all just saw how well that worked for Northwestern.

Not saying it's a gimmick offense; it certainly gave teams like West Virginia a ton of mileage.  However, I also dismiss any notion that it's an inherently superior offense if we broaden the scope from scoring to winning.  It's great for jumping out to an early halftime lead, which is certainly one way to win, but football's a four-quarter game.  I've seen enough of it to know it's easy to adjust to (so much in-game practice), is prone to causing key injuries and correlated with late-season fades.  It's basically the "day trader" offense -- you can get ahead fast, but it's tough to hold onto gains made if you can't downshift.


November 12th, 2012 at 9:36 AM ^

"However, I also dismiss any notion that it's an inherently superior offense if we broaden the scope from scoring to winning."

For me, that's the money quote.  In 2010 a friend of mine noted: "Michigan is great at moving the ball...between the 20's.  Unfortunately their RZ offense stinks..."  An additional benefit of the power-grind-it-out offense is that it keeps other offenses OFF the field.  What did Hoke (or was it Mattison?) say in a recent press conference: "We play our best defense when the offense is on the field"?

I'll defer to DragonChild: the spread (so pretty and neon-y) is not an inherently superior offense.  (After all, it's not as though Illinois and Purdue and Northwestern haven't been spread teams for about a decade.  And Nebraska? -- Winning by the skins of their teeth.)



November 12th, 2012 at 8:49 AM ^

I have never seen a football game covered with such a low camera angle when the ball got into the end zone.  I've been watching games televised from Michigan Stadium since before many of you were alive and have always seen the conventional angle from which, you know, you can see everything.

Does anyone have any idea what ESPN was thinking when they decided to show the low angle?  Was Lloyd Brady hired to hold the camera from the first row?


November 12th, 2012 at 10:18 AM ^

that one shot would look good in 3D, not at first getting what he might mean. There's a fashion for such angles in soccer television now too, I note; once you get used to it there are a lot of new things to see in the game. 

People often react baddly to new stuff, later get used to it. 


November 13th, 2012 at 12:54 AM ^

Those angles were just plain bad and there is no getting used to bad stuff over time.

I don't care if it looks "cooler" in 3D, as if I'm watching a gimmicky movie about aliens from a planet of floating rocks. I want to see what's happening in the game, how many down-lineman are rushing, if the offense is in an unbalanced formation, etc. You can't catch these things with the sideline view, and I don't give a crap about whether a fade coming right at the camera will look cool in 3D when I can't tell what is actually happening with the play.

Especially in the red zone!

ESPN needs to stick with the press-box view live, and they can add all the fancy angles they want for replay.


November 12th, 2012 at 9:01 AM ^

I think it is great that Roundtree did well and he deserves a huge amount of credit for accepting a decreased role wihout becoming an issue.

However, I think the text gets a bit flowery when he is described as 'the perfect WR' for the RichRod offense. He had a nice season in 2010 but in retrospect I think he benefited from the system more than the system from him. Even in 2010, I didn't get the impression he was consistently the go-to WR.


November 12th, 2012 at 11:52 AM ^

I guess my point isn't that he was the perfect WR, but that his skillset was maximized in an offense where he could run down the seams against LBs and didn't have to beat DBs in coverage down the field.  I'm sure you could plop a couple other WRs in that offense and they would have been equally proficient, but his production there cannot be ignored.  But yeah, maybe a bit flowery, but his potential after 2010 to rewrite the record books was there.

STW P. Brabbs

November 12th, 2012 at 10:17 AM ^

You are using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Also, I've thought Devin looks really damn good on those quick outs and flares. If anything, where he's looked shaky is on deep balls - I think there are times he tries too hard to put air under the ball when he needs to gun it more. What are you referring to?

STW P. Brabbs

November 12th, 2012 at 10:21 AM ^

Also, regarding those quick outs: it would appear that the reason we don't take those free yards generally is Denard's terrifying inaccuracy on suchlike passes - it was always a crapshoot whether he'd throw to tacopants and into the sideline or throw a hospital ball too high or too far in front of the receiver. Denard can look great on intermediate throws, and also has his moments throwing down the field. But he's abysmal on short throws.


November 12th, 2012 at 11:44 AM ^

Here is both a best and worst for ya...

We got away with an illegal formation when we lined up to clock it in preperation for the FG at the end of the game.  Note the 3 WRs on the line with only Dileo off.  Whoops.  Had the ref actually decided to call that, with the penalty clock runoff the game would have been over.


November 12th, 2012 at 12:18 PM ^

I am really troubled by the false belief that the read option spread is always inferior to power and that a read option is more vulnerable to being thwarted by a great defense.   For starters if you look at SEC defensive struggles or go back to the Miami<>FSU battles from the mid 80ties to 2000, great defenses can thwart any offensive philophy if you have enough dominant atheletes.  The capabilities of the very best limit what of anything you can do.   I think it is reasonable to say a great defense will always stop a great offense.

What you need to do is ask why a school like NW runs a read offense.  NW will EVER be able to attract the talent to run a convential Borges gulf coast offense.  The five star QB with the rocket arm and the six foot four receive with the 40 inch leap will have nothing to do with NW, much less the road grader linemen.  Yeah, other then Zook any Ocoordinator is going to do pretty well if he has top15 talent.  Even a blind squirrel would find a few offensive touchdowns with overwhelming talent.

The read option is popular for the have nots because all you need to run it is a few fast atheletes.  They may be too small to attract interest at a big time school, but they can be effective in space.   The read option is ultimately the military tactic of tip of the spear.  The other side is numerically and individually superior to you.   However, if you can concentrate all of your power at a point, you can win in that local region.   NW with very little threat of a cohesive passing attack was able to run the ball when everyone knew it was going to be a run. 

There are limits to what a school with inferior talent can do.  The reality is NW implodes more because they have no depth on defense.  One may argue that the read option puts them in that postion.   But if they attepted to run power or pro set they would not even be in the position to compete.  There are plenty of examples of what happens when a read option or run spread team gets ahold of dominant talent.  Texas, Auburn, and Florida all won NC's with a dominant running QB.  They all happened to be decent enough to pass and played on teams with talent on the defensive side of the ball.  I averaged out Oregons classes since Chip Kelly was coach and they come out 19th on average.  Yet they have one BCS appearance and a very possible shot at a NC this year. 

I am not saying that the spread is superior to power as I enjoy both facets and the clash of style.   Yet the arrogance that there is only one way to win is troubling.  Even Jim Tressel adjusted his Carr ball style when a spread QB fell into his lap.   The more important conclusion is adjust to what you have.   This was Borges failure at UCLA and Auburn and what will do him in at Michigan.