By Tom Orr
Before the Michigan game even kicked off on Saturday, I promised myself that I would keep things in perspective. Whether they came out and struggled, or went Georgia Tech-Cumberland all over Northern Illinois, it was just one game. Not only that, it was also just one game in which Michigan was probably going to show almost nothing on either side of the ball.
Of course, I spent all summer promising myself that I wouldn’t get sucked into the Spurrier-hype bandwagon and give way too many points with the Gamecocks in week one, too. We see how well that worked out.
Holy crap! Did you see Northern Illinois marching up and down the field on Michigan’s defense!
If you missed the game, Michigan’s offense looked like a juggernaut, Michigan’s defense looked like the last few games of 2004, and Michigan’s special teams had a few issues.
The Wolverines won, 33-17, but I would bet that a lot of UM fans woke up grouchy on Sunday morning.
When Michigan had the ball:
It was a clinic, plain and simple. The Wolverines showed they could sustain long, punishing touchdown drives—14 plays for 74 yards and 13 plays for 70 yards. They showed they could score quickly—6 plays for 78 yards and a touchdown.
They also showed they could take advantage of the opposition shooting itself in the foot. NIU turned the ball over five times (more on that later), and Michigan capitalized. Up by 10 late in the first half, the Wolverines picked up a fumbled punt deep in the NIU end and scored a touchdown three plays later.
Leon Hall picked off a pass in NIU territory in the third quarter, and Michigan turned it into a field goal. Later, another NIU fumble in their own end turned into another three points for UM.
Michael Hart was solid, but not spectacular on the ground. He finished with 27 carries for 117 yards (4.3 per carry) and a touchdown. He also caught four passes for 49 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown on a screen pass.
The most remarkable thing about Hart was his consistency. He didn’t rip off any huge runs (a long of only 12), but he was also never caught behind the line of scrimmage. His carries went for: 3, 2, 4, 5, 4, 2, 12, 4, 4, 4, 5, 9, 2, 2, 1, 0, 7, 9, 4, 3, 6, 4, 9, 3, 5, 0 and 4 yards.
That’s a lot of numbers, but a couple trends are pretty clear. Out of 27 carries, only five of them went for 7 yards or more. Three went for 5 yards, eight went for 4 yards, three went for 3 yards, four went for 2 yards, one went for 1 year, and two went for no gain. Basically, if you put the ball in his hands, you’re going to get between 3-5 yards more often than not.
Freshman RB Kevin Grady carried it nine times for 42 yards. He’s clearly second in line behind Hart right now, and is an absolute load to bring down. Grady scored a touchdown, but also coughed the ball up in the red zone (NIU recovered). If he can hang onto the ball, don’t be surprised if he starts splitting time more evenly with Hart later in the year.
Junior Jerome Jackson was third in line (3 carries, 14 yards) and sophomore Max Martin played fourth (4 carries, 14 yards). Not to be an instigator, but if I was Martin, I would have to wonder how much I was going to see the field with one guy in my class and one guy a year behind me, both entrenched ahead of me on the depth chart. Martin is a native of Alabama, and I wouldn’t be surprised to at least hear some talk of a transfer (perhaps somewhere closer to home) at some point. I should emphasize that I have absolutely no reason to think that Martin is considering a transfer. The thought just occurred to me during the game.
Chad Henne had a good, but not great day. He finished 20-for-31 for 227 yards, two scores and no INTs. He also threw behind a bunch of receivers—some of whom bailed him out by making nice catches. He also made a couple shaky decisions, notably throwing into tight double coverage on a deep pass to Breaston. Still, throwing for 227 yards and two scores while not turning the ball over is nothing to scoff at.
The Michigan playbook was very, very simple for much of the day. They basically ran it up the middle, threw screen passes, dumped it off to backs and tight ends, hit Jason Avant on a bunch of “in” routes, and took a couple (unsuccessful) shots deep to Breaston. Those five plays probably accounted for 80% of Michigan’s offensive snaps. I think we’ll get a much better idea of what this offense is going to look like next week.
The one thing that was a little different was that Michigan seemed to do a little more pre-snap shifting than they have in the past. It only happened about a half-dozen times, but many of them came during the first couple drive.
Avant had a spectacular game. He caught nine passes for 127 yards and a touchdown (a nice fade route in the corner of the end zone—a ball Henne threw almost perfectly), and also recovered an onside kick near the end of the game. On many plays, it looked like Avant was the first guy Henne was looking for (much like Braylon Edwards was last year), and he was sure-handed all game. He’s definitely the first option on third-and-long.
Steve Breaston caught only two passes for 15 yards. He was open deep a couple of times, but Henne was a little long on bombs to the end zone.
Watching the game, it felt like Michigan was trying to get tight end Tim Massaquoi more involved in the passing game, but he ended up with only three catches for 19 yards. Henne threw a couple other passes his way, but they fell incomplete.
The biggest problem Michigan’s offense had, was the loss of third WR Adrian Arrington. He hurt his ankle on a kick return and had to be carted off. After the game Carr said, “he’s going to miss some time” but didn’t get into specifics. If it’s an extended period, that’s a tough loss for Michigan.
Michigan’s line did a decent job on third-and-short for most of the day. They weren’t blowing people off the ball, but if they needed two yards, they seemed to get about two-and-a-half. The only problem came on a fourth-and-one during the third quarter. Kevin Grady got stuffed, and Michigan turned it over on downs. The Wolverines were 11-for-17 on third down conversions on the day.
Michigan’s pass protection was very good. Henne was only touched a few times all day, although NIU never really brought the house.
At one point, the Huskies had the Wolverines in a 3rd-and-4 situation and broke up a pass, seemingly forcing a punt. However, NIU was offsides, handing Michigan another chance—needless to say, the Wolverines capitalized and capped that drive off with a touchdown.
When Michigan’s defense was on the field:
This needs to be prefaced by the fact that Michigan fans spent all off-season worrying about the fact that their team A) gave up some grueling, pounding drives by opponents last year and B) gave up a ton of big plays last year.
Northern Illinois’ first drive of the game went 86 yards in 16 plays, chewing up 6:48 of the clock, and ended with a field goal.
Northern Illinois’ second drive of the game went 80 yards in 2 plays, including a 76-yard touchdown run.
On the first drive, the Huskies spread the field, then ran draws, threw some short slants and outs, and had a key scramble by their quarterback (pretty much the recipe for success against Michigan last year).
On the second drive, Michigan’s CB Grant Mason and FS Ryan Mundy both over-ran the play and lost contain, the NIU tailback bounced the ball outside and was off to the races. Other than the bad angles and lack of assignment play, it was really very well defended.
NIU was able to move the ball all day long, often by rolling the quarterback out of the pocket. They put up 211 yards on the ground and 200 through the air, and only punted once. But the Huskies repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and other mistakes.
Down 20-10, the offense drove into Michigan territory, outguessed the UM coaches and called a shovel pass just beyond two blitzing Wolverines. The receiver ran it all the way down to the Michigan 13, but fumbled the ball away.
After the defense stopped Michigan’s ensuing drive, the NIU returned fumbled the punt, handing the Wolverines the ball inside the red zone. Just like that, what could have or should have been a 20-13 or 20-17 game turned into a 27-10 hole at the half.
The Huskies drove down into the red zone to start the third quarter, but a holding penalty pushed them back and their field goal attempt was blocked.
After the defense stopped Michigan’s next drive on a 4th-and-1, an NIU receiver fumbled the ball away again.
Grady fumbled it right back to the Huskies, but they helpfully threw a pass that ricocheted off a receiver’s helmet, right into the waiting hands of Michigan CB Darnell Hood. That turned into a field goal and a 30-10 Michigan lead.
On the next drive, the Huskies again pushed it out near midfield, but Lamarr Woodley stripped the quarterback, and Michigan recovered it again. That turned into another Wolverine field goal.
In all, the Huskies turned it over five times, frittering away a couple good scoring opportunities and handing the ball to Michigan with a short field a couple other times.
The Wolverines certainly look like they’ve still got some major issues on defense (and as I look outside my house, I can see several UM fans sharpening pitchforks and lighting torches, preparing to storm Schembechler Hall and forcibly remove defensive coordinator Jim Herrman). But it’s important to remember that it is still very, very early.
From what I could tell on TV (obviously not able to see downfield on most plays), it seemed like Michigan was playing a very basic defense on almost all plays. There was not much blitzing, and seemingly a lot of plain vanilla to give Notre Dame as little to work with as possible.
Michigan’s special teams:
The problems with the placekicking unit continue. NIU blocked an extra point by simply bull-rushing the middle of the line (that was a protection issue, not a Garrett Rivas issue). Rivas also missed a 48-yard field goal badly off to the right. His career long is 47, and based on what I saw on Saturday, I think even that is pushing his range.
He was solid on the shorter kicks, hitting from 38 and 23 yards. Remember Josh Jackson, who kicked for OSU back in the mid-90s? That’s pretty much Rivas. Pretty good on short field goals, but shaky from outside 45 or so.
Michigan only punted once (Ross Ryan got the nod), for 41 yards.
They also only received one punt, which was kicked away from Breaston.
The kick return unit was far from spectacular (returns of 17, 16 and 15 yards) in limited duty.
What does it all mean?: Not much, and it’s important to remember that. Michigan seemed intent on putting as little on film as it could, and still won.
The game was a little closer than the score indicated, but the Wolverines were never really in significant danger at any time in the second half.
I guess you can take away that Henne looked good, Avant certainly looks ready to step in as a solid receiver, Hart was consistent, and the offense as a whole marched it up and down the field in impressive style. But there are still questions about the defense.
NIU did most of the stuff that worked against the UM defense a year ago (outside of having a mobile quarterback), and many of them worked again. In an interview during the game, Bo Schembechler said, “When I see that defense, it really worries me.”
“First of all, I’m not sure that we have enough speed in there right now, particularly in the secondary. Secondly, our tackling is atrocious.”
He summed it up, “You can’t win this conference unless you play great defense. So don’t start talking about the Rose Bowl until you do.”
How much of that shaky defense had to do with playing base schemes for most of the day, and how much is really still a problem with the system/players/coaches? We’ll find out next week when the Wolverines release the hounds against Charlie Weis and the Irish.
The road to the big one
Sept. 3: Michigan 33, Northern Illinois 17
Sept. 10: Notre Dame
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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