Michigan Monday

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Last updated: 09/05/2011 5:32 PM
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Michigan Monday - Western Michigan
By Tony Gerdeman

The Brady Hoke Era got off to a good start on Saturday with a 34-10 win over Western Michigan. The game featured two lightning delays and was eventually ended with 1:27 left to play in the third quarter.

Weakside linebacker Brandon Herron had two lightning strikes of his own. He scored on a 94-yard interception return in the second quarter and a 29-yard fumble return in the third quarter. He became the first Wolverine defensive player to score two touchdowns in a game in the school's history.

Overall, the Michigan defense had their moments. They forced three turnovers and only gave up 279 yards of total offense. Of course, that was only in three quarters, and the weather certainly did the Broncos no favors in the second half.

With Brady Hoke now in charge, all of the talk has been about the Wolverines' new offense. That offense's first snap was a quarterback sweep with Denard Robinson. Clearly, offensive coordinator Al Borges doesn't want to extinguish Robinson, but to not use his legs in this offense would be like not using a textbook in an open book exam. Why handicap yourself completely? At least take a few peeks, and that's what Borges did.

Obviously it's dangerous to make too many conclusions about this Wolverine team given the fact that: a) this is the first game of the season; b) the game was against Western Michigan; c) it was shortened by weather; and d) both teams were affected by the weather. However, making conclusions based on as little information as possible is why you are reading this right now and I must oblige.

When Michigan Was On Offense

During the preseason, Al Borges talked some about his new passing offense, which would feature short, safe, quick passes. Looking at Denard Robinson's box score from Saturday, and that's exactly what we got. He completed 9-13 passes for just 98 yards.

Of Robinson's thirteen passes, only three were thrown more than ten yards down the field, and he only completed one of those throws, a 37-yard bomb to Junior Hemingway in the rain, which was his last pass of the game.

The short passing game will eventually bring defenses closer to the line of scrimmage, and therefore make things even more congested and difficult for Robinson to parse. Though if he can continue completing 69% of his passes, then they should be able to get away with it.

Generally in short-passing games, there is some responsibility on the receivers to make plays after the catch, but that didn't happen on Saturday. Of the six players who caught passes in the game, only Hemingway and Kelvin Grady averaged better than eight yards per catch.

It was good to see that Borges has kept the read-option play-action pass to the slot that made Roy Roundtree famous last year, but they only tried it once and it was incomplete to Drew Dileo. The play was completely open, but Robinson's pass was behind his intended receiver. Given the weather at the time—which was a torrential sidepour—a bout with inaccuracy can be forgiven.

It's a good thing that the Wolverines got their final drive in, because if they hadn't then they would have actually averaged more yards per rush attempt (7.4) than per pass attempt (5.1), and nearly more than each completion (7.6).

Those types of numbers don't exactly make for a dynamic offense, but then would Borges actually showcase a dynamic offense against the likes of Western Michigan? He'd be crazy to do so one week before Notre Dame comes to Ann Arbor.

The offensive line did a fantastic job of protecting Robinson. He was never sacked and hardly pressured. They also paved the way for the rushing game, which averaged 7.3 yards per carry. Michael Schofield got the start at left guard for Ricky Barnum, who is was in some type of doghouse this past week. He and Schofield will now battle for the job. Presumably that battle will take place in an arena featuring Schofield and Barnum each controlling gigantic battlebots. To the winner goes the starter's nod.

Michigan rushed for 193 yards on 26 carries. Robinson accounted for 46 of those yards on just eight carries. He had four rushes on the Wolverines' first drive alone, at which Brady Hoke probably said something to Borges along the lines of “If you break it, you bought it.” Robinson gained 26 yards on those four carries, as Borges was likely just kicking the tires a bit.

The big news on the rushing front was that sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint got the start. He finished with eleven carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns. He had a long of 43 yards in which he burst through the line of scrimmage and displayed his Michael Hart-like speed before being tracked down and tackled.

I've always liked Toussaint, so I was glad to see him get the nod. He has the vision, and ability to follow that vision, that Michael Shaw does not.

Shaw picked up 54 yards on just four carries, but the bulk of those yards came on a 44-yard touchdown run. On that touchdown run, the Broncos had nine defenders to the left of the right hashmark. Shaw got the ball up the middle, then went to the right a bit and there were no defenders on that side of the field to tackle him.

Those two long runs for Michigan happened on the same drive and showcased a possible positive of the short passing game. With the defense bunched up a bit closer to the line of scrimmage, if a running back (or quarterback) gets through the line of scrimmage, there's a good chance that he could go all the way.

I'm not sold on the running game yet, however. Too much of their success came on just two plays, and if defenses know that Robinson will be limited in carries, they can focus more on stopping the tailbacks. Keep in mind, however, that there are still other running backs who will get involved this season. We have only seen about half of Michigan's arsenal in that regard.

Based on just this one game, I have to assume that this was as basic as basic can get, and things will look a little different as we move along. I refuse to pass judgment right now, so I won't even say that this offense is in trouble if this is what they are going to look like every single week.

But keep in mind, of Michigan's 288 yards of total offense, 138 of them came on the two drives following the first weather suspension. How much was Western Michigan's defense affected by the rain?

When Michigan Was On Defense

Western Michigan started the game off with a 15-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that took 7:11 off of the first quarter clock. It was the Wolverine defense's first chance to make an impression, and that impression looked a lot like Michigan defenses that we have seen for the past three years.

In fact, of Western Michigan's eight drives on the day, five of them made it to at least the Michigan 25-yard line. Still, the Wolverines only gave up 10 points, and that's the only actual statistic that carries any weight on the scoreboard.

Western Michigan made it to at least the Michigan 21-yard line on their first three drives. The first ended in a touchdown, the second ended in a missed 38-yard field goal, and the third ended in the 94-yard interception return for Brandon Herron.

For the first time in a long time, Michigan's defense bent without actually breaking.

Despite that bit of good news, however, very little about the Wolverine defense jumped out at me. There was very little pass rush from the front four, and Michigan had to go to the blitz to pressure Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder. However, when they did blitz, it was extremely effective.

It looked like the Broncos' coaching staff wasn't even aware blitzing was legal. Maybe they were thinking that they were playing in a high school all-star game. However, since there were never any stoppages of play for verbal commitments, you would've thought they'd have figured it out eventually.

The best blitzer on the team continues to be safety Jordan Kovacs. He led the Wolverines with ten tackles, two sacks and the forced fumble that led to Herron's second touchdown. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison used Kovacs well. Once it was clear the front four wasn't getting any pass rush going, he dialed things up and came after Carder on nearly every snap and it worked.

Not only did the front four not get any pass rush, they got very little penetration. Nobody on the defensive line had a tackle for loss. Mike Martin had one assist on the day, but that's not really the measure of a defensive tackle. A more accurate measure of a defensive tackle would be the total rushing yards given up, and Western Michigan only rushed for 112 yards.

Western Michigan's starting running back Tevin Drake rushed for 65 yards on ten carries, including a 24-yarder, but there just weren't enough carries for him to make a bigger dent. However, there is certainly room to run against this defense. A starting defensive line of Craig Roh, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger simply has too many lunch pails on it. You can't walk ten feet without stepping on a thermos or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Middle linebacker Kenny Demens is solid, but wasn't overly impressive on the day. Brandon Herron was the national defensive player of the week, so he's got that going for him. But the one guy who stood out most for me was redshirt freshman linebacker Jake Ryan who got the start on the strong side. He only had one assisted tackle, but he was active and even showed a nice pass rush while down in a three-point stance at defensive end. To me, he looked like what people expected Craig Roh to be.

The secondary had a scare when cornerback Troy Woolfolk was carted off with a leg injury, but it was apparently just a sprain and he could have returned to the game if it was needed, and if he had an ark.

Sophomore Courtney Avery got the start opposite of Woolfolk and gave up quite a few catches. He's just never very close to the guy he is covering. He gives up too much cushion and gets attacked because of it. J.T. Floyd came in for Woolfolk and wasn't terrible. In fact, he made a tremendous play on a receiver in the endzone to break up a touchdown catch.

The longest pass play of the day was just 20 yards, so they didn't get beat deep, but then Carder didn't really test them deep. The majority of his deep passes were when they were inside Michigan's 30-yard line and he was facing blitzes and throwing into single coverage with no safeties deep. He completed none of those passes.

After Carder started the game by completing his first ten pass attempts, Greg Mattison seemed to begin cranking up the blitzes. He essentially had to pick his poison, and decided to come after the quarterback in order to slow down the completions. Normally when you're playing against an inferior opponent, you're supposed to make THEM pick the poison, not the other way around.

But plenty of defenses are okay with getting dinked and dunked as long as they don't give up the score. That's been one of Ohio State's best attributes over the years. It can be frustrating at times, but as long as you tackle, either the defense will make a play or the offense will come up with a third down that they can't convert. That's what the Broncos experienced repeatedly on Saturday.

Overall, giving up ten points is a great sign, but better offenses will be able to capitalize on the blitzing. They won't always capitalize, of course, but sometimes it only takes one.

The Special Teams

Punter Will Hagerup is suspended for the first four games for rules violation, so freshman kicker Matt Wile got the nod in his place and averaged 41 yards on his two punts. Brendan Gibbons started the season as the number one placekicker, and made four of his five extra points, getting one blocked after a second-quarter touchdown.

Given the issues at placekicker, and the part about a backup freshman placekicker punting, the biggest concern on the special teams on Saturday was the kickoff coverage. Western Michigan averaged 31.3 yards on their eight kickoff returns. That field position played a large part in the Broncos getting into scoring position five times during the game.

What Does It All Mean

It means that Michigan beat Western Michigan by 24 points in a three-quarter game, and that's about as good of a debut as anybody could hope. (Granted it wasn't as good as winning by 42 points against Akron, but who's keeping score?)

The offense was basic, yet effective, though I do wonder how much of the pass protection's success hinged on the fact that Western Michigan was more worried about containing Denard Robinson than sacking him, but if that's the attitude that all defenses are going to have, then that's great for Robinson.

The Wolverine defensive line didn't get much penetration, but that tends to happen against three-step drops. They will absolutely need to contribute going forward, though I'm still not sure they can. They will have their moments, but will they have them in the fourth quarter when they're tired and they need them most?

The special teams will remain a concern in all facets until consistency is finally shown. Any positive improvements shown by the defense could be washed away by field position from poor kick coverage.

Still, imagine starting the season with a 24-point win over Western Michigan to open the season, followed by a huge win at home over Notre Dame.

It would be just like 2009 all over again!

The Road To The Big One

September 3 Michigan 34 – Western Michigan 10
September 10 Notre Dame
September 17 Eastern Michigan
September 24 San Diego State
October 1 Minnesota
October 8 at Northwestern
October 15 at Michigan State
October 29 Purdue
November 5 at Iowa
November 12 at Illinois
November 19 Nebraska
November 26 Ohio State

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