Michigan Monday - Another Game and Another Bullet Dodged.
By Tony Gerdeman
Michigan had to come from behind (and ahead) in their 36-33 victory over Indiana and the manner in which it was done may be clouding the fact that it actually had to happen at all.
Once again, freshman quarterback Tate Forcier led his team down the field in the fourth quarter to win the game. In fact, he led two fourth quarter touchdown drives, though the first one was rendered moot by an 85-yard touchdown run by Hoosier running back Darius Willis which regained the lead for Indiana.
But just because it took everything Michigan had (and more) to beat Indiana at home, that doesn’t mean we should discount what Forcier did in this game. On Michigan’s first touchdown in the fourth quarter, Forcier ran the ball in from seven yards out, launching himself over the goal line and over the defenders who were there to stop him. Then on the ensuing two-point conversion, he did it again with total disregard for his body.
And on Michigan’s final drive, after getting hurt and being forced to leave for a couple of plays, Forcier came back to complete the only pass of the drive—lofting a 26-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field to Martavious Odoms who had gotten free from safety Nick Polk.
After the touchdown, Indiana had just 2:29 left to work with. And on the first play from scrimmage, Hoosier quarterback Ben Chappell threw a pass to a receiver that was simultaneously caught by the receiver and cornerback Donovan Warren. Ignoring the actual rules of football, which state that simultaneous possession goes to the offense, the ball was given to Michigan and the game was essentially over. Somehow, I doubt Rich Rodriguez will form a watchdog group to monitor the correct calling of simultaneous possessions in the Big Ten this season.
Indiana Head Coach Bill Lynch did the classy thing regarding the blown call by the referees, basically saying he didn’t have a good look at it. (Of course, that didn’t stop him from furiously sprinting up and down the sidelines after seeing the referees create their own rules right there on the spot.)
But there is no need to apologize for this win and Michigan is now sitting 4-0 in their winged throne—just like everybody knew they would be.
The season picks up in a big way for the Wolverines over the next two weeks as they travel to East Lansing and Iowa City. I tend to think Michigan fans would be okay with a split here, or at least they should be. But if they want a split, the Wolverines are going to have to play much better than they did on Saturday. I know it sounds crazy, but you can’t always count on Michigan State to blow it—sometimes you actually have to take it from them.
When Michigan Was On Offense
It would be fair to say that Tate Forcier struggled at times against the Hoosiers. He finished the game 11-21 for 184 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. This was the first time that Forcier faced a good deal of pressure, and it showed at times. He wasn’t as accurate as he has been in the past. He sailed a few passes, one of which was dropped by Indiana safety Austin Thomas. And his interception was just about the most quintessential example of freshman quarterbackery that you will ever see. On the play, Forcier escaped pressure a couple of times, reversing field in the process and then when he finally threw the ball, it came out of his hand like an overhand egg toss, and it dropped right into the cottony soft hands of diving defensive lineman Nicholas Sliger. It was a play as unbelievable as it was inevitable.
But then you can watch football every week and see veterans make the same stupid mistakes. The thing about Forcier is that he doesn’t let it bother him. He is focused on what’s next, not what was. And it was that focus that led to two fourth quarter comeback drives against the Hoosiers. I don’t think Tim Tebow got his first fourth quarter comeback until last season, and now Forcier already has two in his first four games. (Of course, Florida isn’t losing in the fourth quarter quite as much as Michigan is, but you get my point.)
It’s obvious that Forcier plays beyond his years. At times, it seems like Joe Montana and Doug Flutie had a baby with Sandy Duncan. And his escapability belies his willingness to take a hit. However, the questions are starting to be asked—how long is Forcier going to stay healthy? He injured a shoulder during the game and right now there’s no telling how ready he is going to be against Michigan State. That’s two games now where he has been on the ground needing attention from trainers, and he hasn’t even been hit yet.
If he got hit the way Tim Tebow did against Kentucky, Forcier would already be enrolled at Rice.
And when Forcier is forced to leave the field, that puts back-up quarterback Denard Robinson in a position that the coaches don’t want him in—as an eventual thrower. Robinson actually completed a nice pass down the field to tight end Kevin Koger for 36 yards, but I don’t think anybody associated with Michigan football wants to put their Champs Sports Bowl dreams in the prospects of Denard Robinson completing passes over the middle of the field. Though it should be mentioned that he did lead a touchdown drive in the second quarter after Forcier was yanked for his interception. On that 70-yard scoring drive, Robinson completed two of three passes for 39 yards and rushed for 14 yards on three carries.
Robinson carried the ball eleven times total, but due to a mishandled snap that lost 20 yards, he only finished with 24 yards rushing. And he actually dropped another snap and lost a fumble on another carry. Even though he made mistakes and didn’t have any rushes longer than eight yards, every time he has the ball in his hands, you can hear the buzz in the crowd. Eventually though, if he doesn’t get his hands together, that buzz may turn into murmuring.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Michigan’s performance was that there was no offensive flow, yet they still scored 36 points. Michigan passed for 223 yards, but the bulk of that came on four plays. The first was a 61-yard swing pass to Carlos Brown that went for a touchdown. The second long play was the 36-yard pass from Robinson to Koger. The third was a throw downfield at the end of the half that receiver Roy Roundtree caught for a 35-yard gain. And the fourth was the 26-yard game-winner to Odoms. That’s 158 of their 223 total passing yards on just four plays. The key, however, was that three of those four plays led to—or were themselves—touchdowns. And the fourth would have led to points as well had there been any time left on the clock. It wasn’t a smooth passing game for the Wolverines, yet its bluntness was most effective.
The running game had a weird vibe to it as well. Michigan gained 222 yards on the ground, but due to some snapping issues (which led to a loss of 42 yards), various sacks, tackles for loss and kneel downs, somewhere along the way, the Wolverines lost 73 yards on the ground. So, when the math is computed, Michigan ended up running for just 149 yards on 50 carries—a three yard average. On the day, the Wolverines only had three carries gain more than eight yards. And if you really want to massage the numbers, you can take a look at Michigan’s running game without Carlos Brown’s 41-yard touchdown run and say that the Wolverines could only manage 108 yards rushing on 49 carries—a 2.2 yard per carry average. However, that would be cheap and misleading because Brown and Minor managed to rush for 133 yards on 23 carries and two touchdowns between them, only losing three yards in the process.
Speaking of losing yards, let’s talk about David Moosman’s “bad snaps”. Moosman had to be moved from guard to center when David Molk was injured, so it’s not a huge surprise that there were some snapping issues against the Hoosiers. However, I don’t think any of them were Moosman’s fault. Like many coaches out there, Rich Rodriguez wants his center to snap the ball if somebody jumps offside. (Although I’m not sure how wise it is when you’re in the shotgun 90% of the time.) Moosman did the quick snap twice on Saturday. The first time it worked, gaining Michigan five yards in the process. The second time, however, it did not. Indiana defensive end Greg Middleton jumped, but got back across the line of scrimmage before the snap. Moosman’s snap then went flying by an unsuspecting Tate Forcier who had to then track the ball down and jump on it, losing about 21 yards in the process. This happened on third and four at Indiana’s 30-yard line, thereby ruining a scoring drive and nearly having a large hand in losing this game for Michigan. Giving the center the authority to snap the ball in order to catch somebody offside is a nice idea, but is the five-yard gain that would come from it worth the negative possibilities that were realized on Saturday? Is five yards really worth losing the game over? I could foresee a time when opponents even try to use this tactic against Michigan. There’s no better way for a defense to know the snap count than to actually cause it.
Overall, even though Moosman wasn’t responsible for the bad snaps since he was just doing what he’s been coached to do, he still wasn’t great. He had a holding call and there really weren’t any holes to run through up the middle of the field. In fact, the entire offensive line was really lacking in that regard. Michigan’s three longest runs were 41, 12 and 12 yards. That’s not going to get it done for this team. Indiana does have a pretty good defensive line, but the Wolverines should have been able to do better than they did. Twelve of Minor and Brown’s 23 carries went for four yards or less.
But I’m still not sure why, after having a 61-yard catch and a 41-yard run in the first nine minutes of the first quarter, did Carlos Brown only touch the ball three more times until the fourth quarter. He was doing very well getting the ball outside, so you would think that getting Brown wide would have been a nice way to soften the middle for Brandon Minor. But it just never really happened.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Even though the defense appears to be quite a problem, I’ll try to keep this brief.
Last week in the Tip Sheet, I wrote the following about this matchup with the Hoosiers:
“This game may be a bit more interesting than you might initially think. For one, Hoosier defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton could be chasing Tate Forcier quite a bit on Saturday. For two, nobody has protected their quarterback in the Big Ten any better than the Hoosiers have to this point (one sack given up). For three, Indiana has a passing game that can attack a susceptible Wolverine secondary. (Watch the bigger Indiana receivers have success against the Wolverine cornerbacks by outsizing Boubacar Cissoko and outmuscling Donovan Warren.) For four, Michigan has been hammered up the middle at times against the run and Indiana’s Pistol offense feeds right into that void. Ultimately, however, it’s still Michigan against Indiana and the Wolverines should absolutely win this. But this isn’t a great matchup for Michigan and there are some areas where the Hoosiers can have some success. If they can protect quarterback Ben Chappell, the Hoosiers will score.”
Now if my typing becomes sloppy, it’s because I’m patting my back with one hand and typing with the other.
Indiana did attack the Michigan cornerbacks, but I still think they could have done even more of it. Quarterback Ben Chappell was 21-38 for 270 yards and one “interception”. His main target was receiver Tandon Doss (5 receptions for 104 yards), who abused cornerback Boubacar Cissoko so badly that Cissoko was benched. The play that likely sealed it for Cissoko was a 56-yard reception where Doss simply ran past Cissoko and found himself open by two or three yards for a perfect pass. Redshirt freshman J.T. Floyd came in for Cissoko and ended up playing about ten yards off the line of scrimmage for fear of similar doom. The Hoosiers were foolish not to utilize Doss more.
One of the interesting things to see out of Indiana’s offense was the triple-option that saw Doss come from the opposite slot position and become the pitch man. Indiana only did this twice, but Doss gained 36 yards on the plays, including a 25-yard touchdown for Indiana’s first score of the day. The Wolverines were caught off-guard both times, and you really have to wonder why we didn’t see more of it.
Indiana did manage to rush for 197 yards in the game, and while that IS a lot, it’s somewhat misleading. The bulk of those yards came on Darius Willis’ 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. On that play, defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen called for a shift, and so everybody on the defensive line was moving around prior to the snap. The problem for the Wolverines, however, was that everybody shifted away from the play. Outside linebacker Craig Roh moved from one side of the line to the other, and the play ended up going right where Roh had just vacated. Willis scooted up the sideline and Michigan had neither the angles nor the speed to catch him. Walk-on safety Jordan Kovacs had a shot at him, as did J.T. Floyd, but Kovacs didn’t have the speed to make up for his poor angle.
Willis finished the game with 16 carries for 152 yards and two touchdowns, but two of those carries accounted for 109 yards. In fact, only five of Willis’ carries went for more than four yards. Yes, there are issues in this run defense, but this effort was more fluke than flail. And despite giving up 467 yards of total offense, the defense did clamp down when it needed to several times, most notably in the redzone where they held Indiana to four short field goals.
But there are real issues all over this defense, and the two largest are talent and depth. Michigan really only has two defensive tackles in the rotation right now. Tackles Mike Martin and Renaldo Sagesse have both played well (although I was expecting much more from Martin this year), but you have to wonder if they will tire as the season progresses. The same must be asked for guys like Ryan Van Bergen and Greg Banks, who are both defensive ends being forced to play tackle. Freshman William Campbell needs to step up in the coming weeks because there is definitely an opportunity and a need for a big run-stopping goliath on this defensive line.
If you want to compare Michigan’s situation to Ohio State’s, the Buckeyes have a rotation of six defensive tackles that all play throughout the game, and that’s not even including the times when Cameron Heyward will slide over from his defensive end spot. Regardless of how talented Michigan’s defensive line may or may not be, the lack of depth will be a problem until it is emphatically addressed by Rich Rodriguez. This defense moved to a 3-4 because they didn’t have the bodies to run a 4-3. That’s a scary spot to be in. Generally you want to design your defense based upon your strengths, not your lack of them.
But it’s not just the lack of depth on the defensive line that is a major concern. For the second week in a row, Michigan’s defense started a walk-on. Last week it was weakside linebacker Kevin Leach (who didn’t even see any time at linebacker against Indiana) and this week it was safety Jordan Kovacs. Kovacs was starting in place of Mike Williams, and has seen the field quite a bit this season, playing as well as you could expect—and better than many before him—but the fact that there is nobody else to step in other than a walk-on who came to Michigan for actual book-learnin’ has to be terrifying for Michigan. I understand that freshmen aren’t always ready to play, but how does it even become an issue?
Michigan fans will continue to blame Lloyd Carr for the empty cupboard, and legitimately so, but at some point you have to start restocking the shelves.
The Special Teams
Last week I said something about Darryl Stonum not really showing much on kickoff returns since his touchdown against Notre Dame (which was all of one game), but against Indiana, he seemed poised to break one on every single return. (Of course, he had plenty of chances.) It was fun watching him return kicks against the Hoosiers because he was running harder than anybody else on the day. It was actually a surprise that he didn’t take one the distance the way he was finding holes and bouncing off of tacklers.
The punt return game continues to be outstanding at not fumbling. The returns aren’t even important. As long as Michigan’s offense can actually get on the field following a punt, I think Rich Rodriguez will consider it a victory for the rest of his stay at Michigan.
Punter Zoltan Mesko had another good day, punting the ball seven times for a 48.1 yard average. I’m still not sure how you can punt seven times and still score 36 points and not have any of those points come off of turnovers. I think it speaks to Michigan’s offense and their ability to score when necessary.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that despite the defensive struggles, the occasional offensive naps, the youth at key positions, and the lack of depth on defense, this team has yet to fold under adversity, and their 4-0 record is their reward.
Further similar rewards may turn these kids into Pavlov’s Wolverines.
It also means the salad bar portion of their Big Ten meal is over and now it’s time for the red meat and the baked potatoes.
And right about now, Michigan is getting ready to tackle The Ol’ 96’er.
We’ll see how far they get.
The Road To The Big One
Sept. 5 Michigan 31 - Western Michigan 7 (1-0)
Sept. 12 Michigan 38 - Notre Dame 34 (2-0)
Sept. 19 Michigan 45 - Eastern Michigan 17 (3-0)
Sept. 26 Michigan 36 – Indiana 33 (4-0)
Oct. 3 at Michigan State
Oct. 10 at Iowa
Oct. 17 Delaware State
Oct. 24 Penn State
Oct. 31 at Illinois
Nov. 7 Purdue
Nov. 14 at Wisconsin
Nov. 21 Ohio State