By Tony Gerdeman
Well, we should've known that playing 11 on 22 was going to come back to haunt Michigan at some point this year.
The Michigan State Spartans drubbed the Wolverines 34-17, and did it in whatever fashion fit their fancy at the time. They ran it for 249 yards and threw it for 287 more. The 536 yards of total offense given up by Michigan was the third 500-yard game for the Wolverine defense this year—and second in a row to a Big Ten team.
It is by far the worst six-game defensive start of the Rodriguez Era.
During the first half of 2008, the Michigan defense gave up an average of 344.2 yards per game. In 2009, the Wolverines gave up 387.8 yards per game over the first six games. This season, however, the numbers are dwarfing any previous. Michigan is currently giving up 450.7 yards of offense per game. That number is the worst in the Big Ten by 32.9 yards per game. Heck, Indiana is only giving up 413.4 yards per game and they've already played Ohio State and Michigan.
Indiana's offense exceeded their average by 151 yards against Michigan. The Spartans exceeded their average by 76 yards. I'm guessing most Michigan fans would love to go back to the bare cupboards of Donovan Warren, Terrance Taylor, Tim Jamison, Brandon Harrison, Morgan Trent, and yes, even Stevie Brown.
We can talk about the losses of Warren to the NFL and Troy Woolfolk to the hospital, but they both played last year and the 2009 defense was worse than the 2008 version.
To be a good team, sometimes you're going to have to win games when you only score 17 points. In Rodriguez's tenure, however, his defenses have held just five teams under 17 points—one of those games was Delaware State, and another was a 13-10 loss to Toledo.
So basically, in 30 games, a theoretical Michigan offense that scored 17 points week in and week out, would have only had a chance to win five games since the start of 2008. (By comparison, Ohio State would have had a chance to win 20 games in the same timeframe. Michigan State would have had a chance to win 12. Indiana would have had a chance to win five...just like Michigan.)
And if the Wolverine offense scored 24 points every week, they'd still have a record of just 10-20.
How many points per game would Michigan have had to score over their first 30 games to have a record over .500?
34 points. Every week. Just to break .500.
Of course, those numbers are a bit skewed because the defense keeps getting worse. After next season, 34 points every week may not guarantee anything.
Yet the Wolverines are still 5-1. Sure, people are nervous about the way things are heading. And yes, everybody remaining on the schedule can very much beat Michigan.
But we knew the defense was going to be bad. The area of newer concern, clearly, is the offense. As seems to be the case throughout history, quality defenses can slow down even Rich Rodriguez's best offenses. And so can Michigan State, apparently.
It's not time to panic yet, however. Quarterback Denard Robinson had an off day. He threw three bad interceptions, which should be mistakes he learns from. The defense is a lost cause, but there's no reason to give up on the offense yet.
However, if the Wolverines get shut down by Iowa like they did against the Spartans, then I'm not sure what else needs to be said about Rodriguez's chances of success in the Big Ten.
But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.
For now, there are plenty of problems to talk about without skipping ahead to future issues.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Perhaps I should have been watching this closer this season, and maybe this is very old news, but on Saturday, Michigan didn't run the zone read that Rodriguez used to run at West Virginia. Or if they did run it, Denard Robinson always handed it off. He had exactly zero carries from any type of fake handoff. They still have the zone read look on handoffs, but Robinson never keeps it, so I'm assuming there is no read involved.
Obviously, it hasn't been a large part of the offense this season, but I guess I assumed it was at least SOME part of the offense. Apparently I need to start paying closer attention.
Robinson had by far his worst day as a starting quarterback, but he still rushed for 86 yards on 21 carries and threw for 215 yards, completing 17 of his 29 pass attempts. As mentioned earlier, however, he threw three interceptions. One came in the Spartan endzone, another came at the Spartan goal line, and a third came on a deep post into double coverage. The first two interceptions were terribly late, and the defenders simply stepped in front of the throws. The third one looked a lot like Robinson's interceptions from last year, which isn't a good sign.
Michigan State held Michigan to 162 yards rushing, which was 162 yards under their average. If you think it was a coincidence that the offense did so poorly against the first defensive test of the year for the Wolverines, then you would be wrong. Though I'm not sure how Robinson is expected to do it all on his own.
Rodriguez has his running backs, he has his quarterback, he has the best offensive line that he has maybe ever had, and he has his receivers. Hand picked. And they scored 17 points at home against a defense that gave up 17 to Florida Atlantic and 31 to Notre Dame.
I keep trying to tell myself that it was just one game, but as frustrated and puzzled as Robinson looked on the afternoon, it was clear that Michigan State knew exactly what they had to do to slow this offense down, and I'm guessing everybody else knows as well, though that doesn't mean they'll be able to execute.
The Wolverines could certainly help themselves by throwing touchdowns to open receivers, as opposed to interceptions, and it would help if those receivers running free actually caught the good passes that are thrown to them. Roy Roundtree dropped a sure touchdown with nobody around him, for instance. In addition to the touchdown drops, there were countless other bumbles throughout the game. Roundtree wasn't the only receiver dropping passes, because Junior Handsintheway dropped at least two.
Paraphrasing Robinson after the game, he said he can't do it all. and apparently when he tries, he throws multiple interceptions.
Clearly, Michigan State had the proper gameplan. They went after Robinson and didn't let him get any momentum going. They were in the backfield on run blitzes and came from many different angles. They eliminated his comfort zone, and it showed.
Robinson only had two carries that went over ten yards—the longest being a 16-yarder. Seven of his 20 carries (not including a sack) went for three yards or less, and if it weren't for his amazing ability to get out of trouble, it's likely that over half of his carries would have been three yards or under.
I'd talk about the running backs, but there aren't any.
The last thing that I wanted to mention is that with about seven minutes left in the game, and down by 17 points, Rich Rodriguez punted on fourth and nine from his own 30-yard line, basically throwing in the towel and admitting that a 17-point deficit halfway through the fourth quarter was an insurmountable lead.
Perhaps if he was better versed in Wolverine lore, he would have remembered that in 2004, there was another Michigan team that was down 17 points to Michigan State with under seven minutes to play and they ended up coming back and sending the game into overtime before winning in the third extra session.
But then, those Wolverines had a defense...sort of.
When Michigan Was On Defense
I've already talked quite a bit about the defense, so I don't want to keep beating a dead horse. Especially since it's been the same dead horse for almost four years now. I call him “Buttercup”, by the way.
Michigan ran quite a bit of a four-man front on Saturday, which isn't surprising because they knew they'd have to get some extra bodies in there to stop Michigan State's running game. It worked pretty well for the better part of 20 minutes. Then it no longer mattered what type of front the Wolverines were in.
They were abused, misused and confused. Like a runaway on a Japanese game show.
Running backs Edwin Baker (147 yards) and Le'Veon Bell (78 yards) combined to rush for 225 yards on just 29 carries. Baker had a 61-yard touchdown run and Bell had a 41-yarder for a score. On each of those two runs, middle linebacker Obi Ezeh ran away from the play as fast as he could. Each play saw him run wide, leaving the middle of the field open for the cutback. The crazy thing is that he seemed to know what he was doing. On Bell's touchdown, he ran straight for the sideline like it was what he was told to do. Of course, now I'm torn: do I believe that he did it on his own, or do I believe that defensive coordinator Greg Robinson told him to do it. Either scenario isn't just plausible—it's quite likely.
Watching him try to shed blocks is always amusing. It's like he's having too much fun getting driven backwards to try and stop it. He rides offensive linemen like a four-year old on pony—very gentle-like so as not to startle them. Ezeh's regression these last three years is a microcosm of Rodriguez's tenure as a whole. But what happens when he's gone? Because you have to remember, he's the best they got.
One point of interest watching the game was that Michigan State had six third down and short situations (third and three or less), and they ran the ball every time. Only twice did they get stopped short. After one of those, Michigan ended up running into the punter, giving the Spartans the first down. On the other, Michigan State simply went ahead and picked it up on fourth down.
Conversely, six times the Wolverine offense had third and short, and four times they were stopped short, though they did pick up the fourth down on one of those attempts. A traditionalist would point to this and say that you need a powerful running game to pick up those downs in the Big Ten. I will simply say that the stats say what they say. They may say something different next week.
Defensive end/linebacker/nomad wanderer Craig Roh was again playing all over the place on Saturday. He had his hand down quite a bit, and he also showed up at some type of inside linebacker position. It's clear the staff is trying to find somewhere for him to excel, but they're just having a tough time of it right now.
Oh, and defensive tackle Mike Martin is still very, very good, and probably getting very, very frustrated.
The Special Teams
The return game didn't really do anything for the Wolverines again this week, but the good news is that they catch punts like normals now.
Seth Broekhuizen was 1-2 kicking field goals, which is tremendous for him. Punter Will Hagerup averaged 47.0 yards per punt, and finally started to look a little like the Zoltan we were promised.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that baby steps won't win the Big Ten. Incremental improvements are nice, but not when they're constantly negated by incremental deterioration.
You can be an Illinois. Or a Northwestern. But you can't be a Michigan.
How many seasons is the University of Michigan willing to sacrifice just to see if Rich Rodriguez can build a team as good as his best West Virginia team, only to then find out that his best West Virginia teams STILL wouldn't have won a Big Ten Championship.
I'm not saying Rodriguez “needs to go” based on this one loss. Heck, he's got Michigan at 5-1 and poised for a bowl bid. All I'm asking is what the University wants from its football program.
They say offenses sell tickets and defenses win championships. But bad defenses don't do either, and eventually they taint everything they come into contact with.
No matter how much you may like an offense that can score a lot of points during the first half of the season, is it really worth having if you have to deal with a defense that gives up points like it was their life's passion?
If you're West Virginia, the answer is “sure, why not?”
If you're Michigan, the answer should clearly be “no”.
The Road To The Big One
September 4 Michigan 30 – Connecticut 10 (1-0)
September 11 Michigan 28 – Notre Dame 24 (2-0)
September 18 Michigan 42 – Massachusetts 37 (3-0)
September 25 Michigan 65 - Bowling Green 21
October 2 Michigan 42 – Indiana 35
October 9 Michigan State 34 – Michigan 17
October 16 Iowa
October 30 at Penn State
November 6 Illinois
November 13 at Purdue
November 20 Wisconsin
November 27 at Ohio State
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