Michigan Monday
By Tom Orr

Michigan was bad against Notre Dame. At times, they were really bad in all facets of the game.

Yes, the defense eventually picked itself up and managed to hold a team with a quarterback who couldn’t throw accurately downfield (pretty much at all) to 17 points.

And yes the offense did manage to out-gain Notre Dame on the ground and through the air, but they absolutely melted down in the red zone. Chad Henne looked like a completely overwhelmed freshman, instead of the ever-improving sophomore he’s supposed to be, and Steve Breaston has exactly three catches for 24 yards through two weeks.

Oh yeah, Michigan was also hurt by some stupid mistakes in the special teams department.

When Michigan had the ball: Where to begin? I guess the good news is that tight end Tyler Ecker had a big game. He caught seven balls for 74 yards, and seemed to be Henne’s first option on a number of plays. He got the chance to play extensively because regular starting TE Tim Massaquoi suffered a broken arm in the opener and missed the game (he should be back in a few weeks)

That’s part of a much wider problem for this team—they’re all sorts of banged up. WR Adrian Arrington will probably miss a couple months with a sprained ankle. OT Jake Long is out for months, if not the entire season because of a leg injury. OT Mike Koloziej missed Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury. OG Matt Lentz went out with an apparent knee injury and missed about a quarter before returning. Perhaps most crushing was the injury suffered by HB Michael Hart. He limped off with what certainly looked like a hamstring problem (Michigan didn’t provide any specifics, but he was icing the back of his thigh on the bench), and didn’t return, finishing with three carries for four yards.

With Long, Kolodziej and Lentz all out, the entire right side of Michigan’s offensive front were all replacements or playing out of position. That obviously didn’t help with running the ball or pass protection.

True freshman Kevin Grady stepped in to fill Hart’s shoes. His day was superficially impressive: 18 carries, 79 yards, and an average of 4.4 per run. But he fumbled twice (that’s three times in two college games, all inside the red zone), missed at least one key blitz pickup (leading to a sack), and made a terrible decision on a long run, cutting back away from open field, right into a Notre Dame defender (the last one between him and the end zone). The fumbles have to be a concern—one was ripped out of his arms as he struggled for yardage, the other was a bad exchange with Henne on a handoff.

Henne was also off his game. After three quarters, he was 12-for-26 for 90 yards, no scores and one interception.

He had five passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, which was partly the fault of the patchwork offensive line, but was also notoriously a problem for Henne’s predecessor, John Navarre (suggesting that it could somehow be systemic—anything from release point to pass-blocking scheme). Henne also spent a lot of the day overthrowing open guys, throwing behind guys, and making generally lousy decisions. He threw into tight coverage several times, something he had been getting away from.

The most glaring problems came when Michigan was in the red zone. Henne seemed to lock on to Ecker, who was covered on an out route in the end zone. Jason Avant was wide open in the middle of the end zone on a post, but Henne tried to force it into Ecker and got picked off.

That was just the start of a long and painful day for Michigan in the red zone.

In the fourth quarter, the Wolverines recovered a fumble at the ND 18. Two runs gave them first-and-goal at the 7, and things were looking good.

On first down, Grady ran for two yards. On second down, Grady and Henne botched the handoff and fumbled, but Michigan recovered. On third down, Henne overthrew a receiver in the back of the end zone. On fourth down, Henne threw a fade route to Jason Avant, but the ball was overthrown by so much that it almost hit a photographer in the head, six yards out of bounds. That means either that Henne was throwing it away (generally not a good decision on fourth down) or that he was off by at least six yards on a short touch pass. Either one is not good.

The next time they got inside the Irish 20, it was a long catch and run by Jason Avant that put them there. Avant made a great grab and took off up the right sideline for 54 yards before getting pushed out at the 1. On first down, Henne tried to sneak it up the middle and apparently got stuffed, but Notre Dame got called for a penalty. On TV, it looked like Henne might have gotten in, but the officials didn’t think so, and there was no review. On the next play, Henne fumbled on his way in and Notre Dame recovered.

It was very tough to tell exactly when the ball came loose (and you could make a good argument that the “indisputable video evidence” required to overturn a call was not there), but the replay official did overturn the ruling on the field and awarded the ball to Notre Dame. Michigan fans expressed their disagreement by showering the field with garbage, hopefully forever shutting up the snots who insist that “Michigan fans are so much more civilized than those barbarians at (pick a school).” Incidentally, the fans did the same thing again a few minutes later when another call was (correctly) overturned. How refined.

In all, Michigan’s three trips to the red zone netted them one interception, two fumbles (one lost) and one drive that ended on downs. Michigan did score a touchdown and kick a field goal, but did so both times from outside the 20.

The touchdown came on a bust in the Notre Dame secondary. True freshman Mario Manningham was wide open for a 26-yard score with less than four minutes left.

Steve Breaston had another quiet day in the receiving department, catching one pass for nine yards. For the second week in a row, he was open behind defenders, but dropped a basket catch in the end zone, and seemed to have “alligator arms” when he came up just short of the pass on a hesitation route. He did, however, take a reverse for 30 yards.

It now looks like Manningham and redshirt freshman Doug Dutch have passed the older Carl Tabb on the depth chart at WR.

When Notre Dame had the ball: The Irish moved it early by mixing runs by HB Darius Walker with a series of short passes to backs and tight ends.

Walker had a big first half when he was able to bounce the ball outside. As it has in the past, Michigan’s defense lost contain, letting Walker get around the corner for a string of 6, 7 and 9-yard runs. Later in the game, they shored up their play quite a bit, and seemed to be a little more assignment-sound. The tackling seemed a lot better than it was the week before, although there’s probably still some room for improvement.

Really, it was a pretty decent day overall for the beleaguered Wolverine defense.

Admittedly, Notre Dame was somewhat limited by the fact that their quarterback, Brady Quinn, was pretty much incapable of completing a pass to a receiver more than 10 yards downfield (I think he was about 2-for-7 on those throws, and many of the incompletions were in the general direction of open receivers).

Michigan also got a bad bounce on Notre Dame’s second touchdown. Quinn threw a laser well behind a receiver in the end zone, but a Michigan defender deflected the pass up in the air, right to the receiver for a score.

The coaching staff seemed to make a constant effort to keep speedy DE LaMarr Woodley on the weak side of the Notre Dame formations. By keeping him far away from the Irish tight ends, they made it tougher to double team him and helped make him more of a factor.

Michigan also brought a much more aggressive blitz package this week, especially with their defensive backs. For a number of years now, it’s been a Michigan tradition to blitz a corner almost every time the opponent is in a third-and-long situation. The Wolverines expanded that this week, bringing more constant pressure from outside. CB Leon Hall recorded two sacks, both after lining up over the slot receiver in a three-wide formation and blitzing.

The injury problems on Saturday weren’t limited to the offensive side of the ball. FS Ryan Mundy sat out with a nagging shoulder injury. Also, all-conference DT Gabe Watson was benched, and didn’t see any action until the second quarter as a motivational ploy—apparently the coaches aren’t happy with his practice habits, his play, his attitude, or some combination of the three.

As is almost always the case, Michigan’s defense got off to a very slow start.

Over the last seven games, here’s what the Wolverines’ opponents have done during their first drives. (Number of plays, yardage, time off the clock and result)

Notre Dame: 12 plays, 76 yards, 2:58, touchdown
Northern Illinois: 16 plays, 86 yards, 6:48, field goal
Texas (Rose Bowl): 8 plays, 28 yards, 3:34, punt
Ohio State: 5 plays, 80 yards, 1:13, touchdown
Northwestern: 3 plays, 9 yards, 2:02, punt
Michigan State: 4 plays, 80 yards, 1:00, touchdown
Purdue: 10 plays, 65 yards, 3:55, touchdown

The only two who didn’t put together monster scoring drives on the opening possession (Northwestern and Texas) managed to do so during their second possessions.

Texas: 12 plays, 85 yards, 4:27, touchdown
Northwestern: 12 plays, 64 yards, 5:11, field goal

It’s not all that unusual to see teams give up longer drives at the start of the game as they gradually adjust to what the opponent is doing, but Michigan’s problems have been not only extreme, but also incredibly consistent.

Just for comparison purposes, here’s what the last seven opponents have done against OSU.

Texas: 11 plays, 64 yards, 3:54, field goal
Miami: 8 plays, 18 yards, 5:15, punt
Oklahoma State: 3 plays, 12 yards, 1:20, interception
Michigan: 9 plays, 87 yards, 3:16, touchdown
Purdue: 3 plays, minus-4 yards, 1:19, punt
Michigan State: 3 plays, 1 yard, 0:51, punt
Penn State: 11 plays, 45 yards, 6:21, interception

It’s fine to make adjustments as the game progresses—that’s a big part of football. But if Michigan isn’t able to adjust on the fly a little better on defense, they’re going to keep digging holes for themselves. Saturday, the seven points on Notre Dame’s first drive played a huge role in the game, helping to keep Michigan at arm’s length and forcing them to play from behind for the entire afternoon.

Michigan’s special teams: Garret Rivas hit his only extra point try as well as his only field goal attempt (a 38-yarder). Punter Ross Ryan also did a good job on kickoff duty, sending one to the goal line and the other deep into the end zone for a touchback. But there were some issues with this unit as well.

One of Ryan’s punts hit inside the 20, and skipped right toward a Michigan gunner at the 10. Inexplicably, he watched the ball hop by him into the end zone. In a low-scoring game like that one, those 10 or so yards of field position may have made a difference.

Michigan also lost some key field position during the second half in the punting game. A booming kick by the Notre Dame punter, coupled with a block in the back during the return, left Michigan pinned deep in its own end. After a three-and-out, the Wolverines did a lousy job covering their punt, giving up a big return and letting the Irish start a drive inside field goal range. Notre Dame was able to pick up three points (stretching their lead to 14 points) without even making a first down.

What does it mean?: That Michigan has some rather fundamental problems. Yes, some of the issues on Saturday are attributable to the injuries on both sides of the ball. And yes, the defense looked better. But there are still some serious issues to deal with.

For one, there’s a tendency for defenders to not play sound assignment football. This is a big part of why running quarterbacks torched this defense last year, and it doesn’t seem to have gotten much better.

Repeatedly, Walker was able to take a couple steps toward the line, the ends (or DBs) collapsed inside and Walker was able to bounce it outside and get around the corner.

I also counted at least four or five times when Irish receivers were open downfield and Quinn missed them. Michigan will eventually play teams that can hit those passes and force them to play back, leaving the Wolverines even more vulnerable to the run.

Remember, the defense still has not faced a mobile quarterback this fall. We have no idea how they’ll fare against Drew Stanton, Troy Smith or even Drew Tate this time around.

On offense, it’s not clear how long Hart will be out. Hamstrings can be touchy, and can turn into lingering problems. For all the flashes of promise shown by Grady so far, he’s putting the ball on the ground a lot. Michigan also seemed to stop throwing screens when Hart went out. If that was because Grady’s not a great receiver (rather than because of situational issues), that takes something away from this offense as well.

Steve Breaston has yet to really emerge this year as the kind of deep threat he was projected to be. He averaged about five yards per punt return, and only touched the ball three times on offense. Michigan needs him to return to the explosive form he flashed as a freshman in 2003.

This is not a bad team, and they’re not in any danger of finishing 4-7. But at this rate, they’re also not in much danger of winning more than eight or nine games. Frankly, the back-to-back road trips to Madison and East Lansing (more on that in a second) look very dicey, and if the issues with run defense linger, the home date with Minnesota is no picnic, either. After that, there are still a trip to Iowa City and a visit from the Buckeyes to worry about.

Some of their issues could be resolved by simply getting some of banged-up guys back. I don’t think too many teams would look good with the entire right side of their line playing out of position and with a true freshman running behind that mess.

Injuries or not, if they want to be playing on New Year’s Day, they’d better get things straightened out in a big hurry.

This probably warrants mentioning: Michigan’s three biggest regular season rivals are Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan State (likely in that order). Early in his tenure, Lloyd Carr built a reputation as a great big game coach. He went 11-1 against top-10 teams from 1995-2000, held a 5-1 advantage over Ohio State, went 2-1 against Notre Dame, and 4-2 against MSU, for a total of 11-4.

Recently, things have done a complete 180. Starting in 2001, Carr has gone 5-7 against those three rivals and is 2-4 against top-10 teams.

Last season and now in the first game this year, Michigan has looked really terrible in all four games against its big rivals.

A year ago, Michigan was a 12-point favorite at Notre Dame, but trailed 28-12 with three minutes to go and lost 28-20.

The Wolverines were an 11-point favorite at home against Michigan State and trailed 27-10 in the fourth quarter. They managed to pull it out in overtime thanks only to a one-man circus of improbability by Braylon Edwards, coupled with an injury to MSU quarterback Drew Stanton, who had shredded their defense.

Michigan was a 5-point favorite on the road against a 6-4 Ohio State team but got spanked 37-21, and needed Iowa to beat Wisconsin in order to back into the Rose Bowl.

This weekend, they were a 7-point favorite at home against Notre Dame and scored exactly three points in the first 56 minutes.

That's barely 1-for-4 in big rivalry games, when they were favored to be 4-0. And Carr is now 1-3 against Notre Dame and 1-3 against Ohio State in their last four meetings. Fans who have been following the Buckeyes for a decade or so know all about how struggles against your rivals can begin to snowball, and while Michigan isn’t quite there yet, they can certainly see that point from where they are right now.

Michigan will play another big rivalry game when they make a trip to East Lansing in three weeks. Given this team’s struggles and the program’s recent issues in these big games (not to mention a road trip to Madison), it’s suddenly not out of the realm of possibility that they could leave Spartan Stadium as a 2-3 team.

The road to the big one
Sept. 3: Michigan 33, Northern Illinois 17
Sept. 10: Notre Dame 17, Michigan 10
Sept. 17: Eastern Michigan
Sept. 24: @ Wisconsin
Oct. 1: @ Michigan State
Oct. 8: Minnesota
Oct. 15: Penn State
Oct. 22: @ Iowa
Oct. 29: @ Northwestern
Nov. 5: Idle
Nov. 12: Indiana
Nov. 19: Ohio State

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