By Tony Gerdeman
And just like that, the Denard Robinson Era at Michigan is over before it had even been given a chance to get started.
If you have a television, computer, radio or live-in drifter, I’m sure you have heard about freshman quarterback Tate Forcier’s performance in the Wolverines’ 38-34 win over Notre Dame on Saturday. In just his second collegiate game, Forcier led his team down the field for the winning touchdown with eleven seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
And yes, it is HIS team; and yes, he did lead it.
I’ve felt since Forcier’s commitment to Michigan that Rich Rodriguez’s ultimate goal would be to recruit somebody that would replace Forcier sooner rather than later. Now, I’m wondering if Forcier is even going to give Rodriguez the opportunity.
Yes, the hyperbole and excitement for Forcier was a little overboard during the game. ABC’s Sean McDonough and Matt Millen were cheering so openly for Michigan that it was like having your mom and dad do the play-by-play for your little league games. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with Notre Dame not being allowed in the boat on the Love Canal, but come on. Call me when this kid circumcises his first baby, and then maybe we’ll talk.
Furthering my reluctance to hop onto the Tate Wagon is the fact that I’m not sure what to make of Notre Dame’s defense. They shut out Nevada somehow the week before despite being gashed up the middle like Braveheart on the operating table. Was this the same Irish defense as last week and Michigan was just that much better? Possibly, I suppose.
Despite all of this, however, there is definitely something about Tate Forcier that makes him special. Or especially annoying if you’re a Buckeye fan. As Matt Millen said, Tate Forcier has “It”—and Millen would know because he used to be the General Manager of the Detroit Lions, so he obviously knows who possesses “It” and who doesn’t. (As an aside, the only “It” that Charles Rogers ever possessed got him kicked out of the NFL.)
Forcier was far from perfect against Notre Dame, however. He finished a very respectable 23-33 for 240 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, but he did show some inexperience at times when the pass blocking wasn’t holding up. The decision-making probably wasn’t as crisp as it should have been, but he’s just a freshman so it’s to be expected. It will be interesting to see him as he comes up against better defenses down the road. (Assuming there is more than just Penn State and Ohio State in the Big Ten who are better defensively than Notre Dame.)
However, the offense couldn’t have been asked to do any more than they did, or any better.
The defense, on the other hand, should probably continue to concern some folks. Notre Dame was able to run the ball right up the middle despite a power game that resembles your local weatherman gardening in his cutoff jean shorts. I have to assume the issue up front is talent more so than scheme, but with an undersized defensive outlook, anybody could have foreseen issues like this. But then I guess you could argue that better talent will overcome schematic shortcomings.
Overall, though, averaging 34.5 points per game like the Wolverines have done to this point will win you more games than not, no matter what your defense is doing. There are going to be games where your defense is overmatched, and it has to be at least somewhat comforting for Michigan to know that their offense is capable of putting pressure on an opposing defense.
Last year, the Wolverine defense had the entire game on their shoulders every week. That will break even the best of defenses eventually. Granted, Michigan’s defense didn’t exactly hold out like Big Bad John down in the coal mine, but when 13 points can sink you, you’re probably going to be especially tense.
This year, however, it looks like the defense may be able to lean on the offense a little. Or at the very least get a break from the rat-a-tat-tat of three-and-outs like they’re being fired from a Tommy gun.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines got Brandon Minor back from injury this week and it provided another, more forceful, element to this offense. He finished with 16 carries for 106 yards and looked ready to break free on several runs. When Minor is on the field, any finesse in this running game leaves quietly out the back door like the coward it is. He’s almost like the enforcer of the offense. Like the beefiest gal on a roller derby team.
Tate Forcier again showed that he is a capable runner, rushing for 70 yards on 13 carries, despite losing yards while getting sacked twice. His most impressive play, however, was his 31-yard touchdown on fourth and three that saw him juke one defender in the backfield and then scoot down the middle of the field for the score. The touchdown just happened to come in the fourth quarter and gave Michigan an eleven-point cushion.
Obviously, Forcier’s touchdown run will further his burgeoning legend, and really, why shouldn’t it? No matter the defense, when players make plays, you have to acknowledge it. I’m not going to sit here and give you the ESPN schpiel that Forcier puts the “Ox” in “Moxie” or the “Hut” in “Chutzpah”, but he’s more than just the “Luck” in “Plucky”. There is something real here. You can’t watch him throw on the run and not see it. You can’t watch him throw one terrible pass and then completely forget about it before the next call is even signaled in and not realize that he is good at this game.
He’s like an even-keeled, non-tantrum-throwing Drew Tate with talent.
But he is still a freshman and still has a ton of errors coming his way. At some point this year he will make a mistake that will cost his team the game. That’s just what freshman do. And to be honest, it should have come on Saturday when Tate threw an interception in Michigan territory with 7:42 remaining in the game. Notre Dame eventually turned the possession into a touchdown, which gave them the 34-31 lead with five minutes to play. Of course, Charlie Weis knows so little about running a clock that you would think he graduated from the Big Ten Scorekeepers’ Academy and Vocational School. With honors.
But in the end, Forcier answered his interception with the game-winning drive and touchdown pass to receiver Greg Mathews.
I know it may not seem like it, but the game was more than just the Tate Forcier Story. His story is very intertwined with everybody else’s, especially back-up quarterback Denard Robinson. I think it’s clear that any hope Robinson had to be the quarterback at the University of Michigan is now over. But that doesn’t mean Rich Rodriguez won’t involve him as much as possible in this offense. Robinson only had four carries (21 yards) from the quarterback spot and didn’t attempt a single pass. He should absolutely continue to be used in that role, but his overall presence in this offense needs to be expanded. If he doesn’t see time in the slot this year for Michigan, it would seem to be a waste of his talents.
One of the reasons I think Michigan needs to look at Robinson in other areas is because of the lack of production they are currently getting out of the slot and the wide receiver screens. There is just nothing coming from the wide passing game right now. I think the main issue is that Martavious Odoms just isn’t fast enough to make things happen. Granted, Odoms had two big catches on the final drive, but his post-catch play-making ability just doesn’t seem to be there. In fact, I think Kelvin Grady looks better (and faster) than Odoms right now and Grady has only been a member of the football team for a fraction of the time that Odoms has.
It surprises me that the downfield passing game has been so successful for Michigan. Forcier has no qualms about going downfield and Rich Rodriguez apparently doesn’t see any need to reel him in. Receiver Junior Hemingway was out against Notre Dame, so Forcier turned to Greg Mathews as his downfield threat. Mathews may never win a foot race, but he does know how to get position, and that’s exactly what he did on a jump ball from Forcier that picked up 40 yards down the sideline.
Two of the more effective aspects of the passing game were tight end Kevin Koger and running back Carlos Brown. Koger continues to show himself to be a very talented and valuable member of this offense. He finished the game with four catches for 38 yards and a touchdown. He gives Michigan a viable run-after-catch threat at a position where you rarely find it. He still has a very long way to go as a blocker though, but he's not in any danger of losing his job. Carlos Brown’s role in the passing game on Saturday was a very underrated contributor to Forcier’s effectiveness. Brown was always there for a dump off when things weren’t going well and he finished with four catches for 36 yards. If he continues to play a role in the passing game, it will only make this offense that much more dangerous.
This was really the first time that Michigan’s offensive line faced a viable pass rush, and they held up fairly well. Forcier was sacked twice and pressure several other times, but that’s how football works. Much like the Wolverines, Notre Dame has an undersized defensive front, so we won’t really know how stout this offensive line is until they get into October. Although by then, they should be even better than they are now.
When Michigan Was On Defense
And now we get to the part where I finally get to do some criticizing.
Notre Dame, a team that averaged only 110 yards rushing per game last year, came into Ann Arbor and pounded their way forward for 154 yards on just 30 attempts. They averaged 5.1 yards per carry after averaging 3.3 last year (and 4.3 last WEEK against Nevada). Michigan actually did a decent job of stretching the wide plays out, but it was up the middle where Irish tailback Armando Allen did most of his damage. He finished with 139 yards on 21 carries and only lost two yards on the day. There was nobody at the point of attack to stop the running game, which is why starting safeties Troy Woolfolk and Mike Williams finished tied with a game-high eight tackles.
Chief among the missing defenders was middle linebacker Obi Ezeh. He finished with seven tackles, but five of those were assists and the two tackles he did get were probably because he got in the way while actually trying to get out of the way. Ezeh seemed to be picking wrong on nearly every single snap. He just couldn’t get a handle, or even a hand, on Armando Allen all day long. Of course it doesn’t help Ezeh that he soaks up blockers like he's the ShamWow of linebackers. (He can hold up to twelve times his weight in run blockers!)
Ezeh was also the victim of a stiff arm from Armando Allen. That’s more outlandish than having White Castle refuse to serve you because of how dirty your clothes are.
But that wasn’t his worst moment. His worst moment either came on Armando Allen’s eight-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that saw Allen having to step over Ezeh as he laid face down on the goal line after getting planted like a pro-Obama sign at a tea party. Or, his worst moment came when Notre Dame went for a two-point conversion after their final touchdown. Notre Dame used Boise State’s statue of liberty play and it saw both Ezeh and Stevie Brown leap to knock Jimmy Clausen’s pass out of the air. The pass never came and Armando Allen took the handoff and went untouched into the endzone. Other than that, though, Ezeh played a mediocre game.
Obi Ezeh isn’t the only whipping boy, thankfully. Cornerbacks Donovan Warren and Boubacar Cissoko also had their issues. Granted, it’s likely that Warren and Cissoko won’t face another group of receivers like this until they play Notre Dame again next year, but there were times when receivers Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and tight end Kyle Rudolph were toying with this secondary.
Floyd and Tate combined for 16 catches for 246 yards and three touchdowns. At times, Cissoko looked completely lost. Other times, he only looked disoriented. And other times, like when he let a Clausen pass hit him square in the gut before bouncing to the turf, he looked like a catcher’s backstop. Of course, matching the 5’8” Cissoko against the 6’4”-ish Michael Floyd is just not a good move. Floyd is a freak and one of the top receivers in college football. Cissoko will have better days, but there will always be the size issue, provided you have the talent at receiver to exploit it. Warren also had issues with Floyd, giving up a touchdown on a fade pass to him in the second quarter.
Bottom line, this secondary was exposed by Notre Dame. Including the safeties. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was running free down the middle of the field at times, but Jimmy Clausen couldn’t get it to him, or didn’t try. The good thing for Michigan is that the Big Ten doesn’t have a passing attack like the Irish anywhere in its midst, so there is still hope. While there is concern here if you're a Michigan fan, it remains to be seen whether anybody in the Big Ten can capitalize.
One of the other disturbing factors about the defense is that there wasn’t much of a pass rush. Clausen was pressured, but never sacked. Essentially, the only effective blitz all day came from linebacker Stevie Brown, who forced a fumble on a draw play. Michigan only had four tackles for loss and Brown and Brandon Graham split them evenly. Against Western Michigan, defensive linemen Mike Martin and Craig Roh were both making plays. Against Notre Dame, they just didn’t make much noise. I don’t ever expect Michigan to get much out of lineman Ryan Van Bergen, but Martin and Roh can’t continue to be so quiet if this defense is going to create the kind of havoc that the coaches are expecting.
The Special Teams
If not for a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Darryl Stonum and a 50-yard quick kick by Tate Forcier that pinned Notre Dame at their own four-yard line, there would be nothing good to say about the special teams this week. The Wolverines gave up a 52-yard kickoff return straight up the middle to Barry Freaking Gallup Junior. Outrageous! Place-kicker Jason Olesnavage also missed a 26-yard field goal after the Wolverines took a five-yard penalty in order to move Olesnavage further back because of a harsh angle. He ended up hooking it wide left. (It would have been good had they not moved him back five yards.) And then there’s punter Zoltan Mesko. It was not his best day. He had opportunities to unleash some bombs, but only managed a long punt of 40 yards and finished with a 32.5 yard average on his four punts, putting only one of those kicks inside the 20-yard line.
Again, not a great day for the specialists.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Michigan fans the world over will now have a foreseeable future of some quality YouTube videos.
It also means that after two games, I’m already tired of admitting situations where I’ve been wrong about the direction and feel of this program. But you just wait until I’m right about something, because you are going to hear all about it then.
Ultimately, however, it means that Michigan is now 2-0 and ranked in the Top 25. This game against Notre Dame was thought to be their turning point—one way or the other. Good or bad. And right now things are looking good. The Wolverines will be 4-0 and likely ranked in the Top 20 when they head to East Lansing on October 3rd. If the Wolverines really want to reestablish their in-state dominance, there would be no better time.
Or should they have to play Central Michigan instead?
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 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 26 Indiana
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