Michigan Monday - Michigan State
By Tony Gerdeman
The Michigan Wolverines traveled to Spartan Stadium this past Saturday for a game of football, but instead found themselves in a battle for life or death in a post-apocalyptic game of ROLLERBALL!
Or at least that's what it seemed like.
The Wolverines have been stuck with the “soft” label for a few years now, and the Spartans certainly went after Michigan with that label in mind. They attacked the Wolverine offense from the outset and never stopped—even after the whistles blew. They seemed intent on making Michigan quit, and also taking their pound of flesh while waiting for what they deemed an inevitability.
Michigan State committed over a half dozen personal fouls, though only four were actually called. They beat Michigan up on Saturday and the Wolverines took their beating politely and respectfully, never once raising a hand in defense, or calling out for help.
On Michigan's first drive, Spartan cornerback Johnny Adams threw an open-hand punch at a Wolverine, but was merely told to knock off the horseplay.
Later in the same drive Michigan State defensive end William Gholston took left tackle Taylor Lewan down in an arm bar with the sole intent of injuring the sophomore. There was no other reason to do what he did. Lewan actually had to leave the game for a while because of the unflagged cheap shot that Gholston committed.
Gholston was flagged for two personal fouls. One came from jumping on a Denard Robinson pile late, but the refs only saw the pile jumping, they never saw Gholston grab Robinson's facemask and jerk it to the side with the apparent attempt to injure Robinson's neck.
Gholston was also flagged for punching Taylor Lewan, though nobody has yet explained why he wasn't thrown out of the game. The punch came at the end of the third quarter with Michigan State leading 21-7. Would things have been different if Gholston wasn't eligible to play in the fourth quarter? He had a tackle for loss and a sack in the final quarter, so you tell me.
There was also a roughing the passer call on defensive end Marcus Rush with under 4:30 to play in the game that saw Denard Robinson get thrown down to the ground well after the play was over. Robinson was knocked out of the game for good on the play. It almost seemed like Rush was in danger of losing some type of bounty pool to Gholston, so he had to do what he could to put Robinson out of commission for good.
With all of these penalties come free yards for the Wolverines, but they couldn't do anything with them. Michigan State was called for 13 penalties for 124 yards and Michigan squandered most of them.
Even with the Spartans battering Michigan up front on both sides of the line, the outcome of the game still could have been very different if not for two very badly blown calls in the second half.
Late in the third quarter, with Michigan State leading 14-7, Kirk Cousins threw a backwards pass that was called an incompletion. Michigan was pretty clearly going to pick the ball up and score, but the whistle was blown. I've long said that this is always one of the most blatantly-missed calls by football referees everywhere. I'm guessing they get this call right about 35% of the time.
Had Michigan been given the opportunity to pick the ball up, the score now moves to 14-14 and Sparty starts thinking about their sphinctering ways.
You think that would've helped the Wolverines?
The second terrible call came late in the fourth quarter when Denard Robinson threw a pick six to Isaiah Lewis. As Lewis was returning the interception, he held the ball out and taunted Robinson at the two-yard line. A flag should have been called and the ball should have been moved back to the Michigan 17-yard line. It wasn't, and the score moved to 28-14 and the ball game was effectively over.
Yes, the Wolverines got legitimately beaten up against Michigan State, but they deserved a better showing than what they got from some terrible Big Ten officials in this game.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The wind was a factor all over the midwest this past weekend, and some teams chose to take note of that fact (Ohio State threw four passes) and some teams chose not to (Michigan threw 31 passes).
The Ohio State stance is an extreme one, and I'm not saying throwing 31 passes in 24 mph winds is dumb, but there are certain types of passes that you do and do not throw in windy conditions.
Denard Robinson threw 24 passes, and a full one-third of them (that's eight for any Spartans reading this) were thrown at least 15 yards downfield. Not surprisingly, Robinson only completed one of these eight throws, and that was for the bare minimum of 15 yards.
Robinson already has an accuracy problem, so why did Al Borges think 40 mph gusts were going to solve them? On second thought, if that's his actual thought process, then I think I might agree with him.
Robinson finished the game 9-24 for 123 yards. He threw a touchdown and an interception, and he was sacked four times. Devin Gardner also got significant playing time, and he finished 3-7 for 45 yards. He was sacked three times in limited play, which gives you both an idea of Michigan State's aggressiveness, and Gardner's current ability to play the position.
I'm still not sure what Devin Gardner's role is on this team. I do know that every time he takes a snap and Denard Robinson doesn't, the defense is winning. Even when Robinson is being contained, he's still a threat at any moment to score a touchdown.
Take Michigan's first score for instance. Robinson was getting pulled down deep in his own backfield, but he broke out of the tackle reversed field and scored from 15 yards out. That's what he can do, and when he isn't given that chance, the defense is perfectly happy to see Devin Gardner on the field.
I'm not sure Gardner is even ready to be out on the field. When called upon late in the game due to Robinson's injury, he threw a pass while three yards over the line of scrimmage. There was another scramble late in the game on fourth and 22 that saw him pick up about eight yards before running back behind the line of scrimmage and then shifting the ball in his hands as if he was going to throw it. Unfortunately, he was tackled before the hilarity really ensued. Seriously, it's fourth and 22—you HAVE to throw the ball.
There was also a fourth and one at the Michigan State nine-yard line two possessions before that that Michigan would probably like to have back. Down 21-14, and against a team that was blitzing constantly, Al Borges called a play-action instead of simply sneaking it or pounding it forward. Not surprisingly, Robinson was sacked by a corner blitz and Michigan's chance to tie the game was gone.
Granted, this is one of those plays that if you sneak it and don't get it, 89% of your fanbase is saying, “How about a play-action right there?!?” But against this defense, it just took way too much time to develop. Even while developing, there was still nobody for Robinson to throw to. It was a bad call, but it was also very poorly executed by all involved.
The inability to throw the ball consistently can be masked by a great running game, but the Wolverines certainly didn't have use of a great running game on Saturday. Michigan State rarely gets beaten up front, and that held true to form against Michigan as well.
The Wolverines ran the ball 36 times and gained 82 yards. They actually netted 151 yards, but the sacks (seven) and other tackles in the backfield accounted for 69 yards in losses.
Until Michigan can find a consistent option in the running game that isn't its quarterback, Robinson will always be targeted. Though even if they do find a consistent option, Robinson will STILL be targeted, but at least then they'd have somebody who can make a defense pay.
It would seem clear that Robinson is banged up in some sort, and that was before he actually left the game with an injury for good in the fourth quarter.
I'm guessing because of Robinson's current condition, the read option has pretty much been put away for the year. Not only was that Michigan's most effective running play early on, but it made both Robinson and the running backs more dangerous. Without that option in play, each is a stand alone entity and much easier to deal with.
The Michigan running backs carried the ball just ten times for 44 yards, and that includes a 26-yard run by Fitzgerald Toussaint. No running back was allowed to develop a rhythm, but right now the offensive line isn't opening the necessary holes to make it happen anyway.
The Wolverines rushed for 65 yards on their opening drive. They rushed for 17 the rest of the game.
Much like they did against Ohio State, the Spartans knew the snap count and they used it to their advantage. Much like Ohio State, the Wolverines never bothered to make any changes.
One last note on Devin Gardner. He is supposed to be the more accurate of the two passers on the team, but what good is accuracy if he continues to miss the wide open receiver and instead throws the ball to the contested receiver every time?
Another concern for Michigan was the fact that there was constant confusion on offense. Plays were always coming in late and timeouts were wasted because of it. It was Michigan's first game in a hostile environment this season, so let's just chalk it up to the "Three Ns": noise, nerves and The Noid.
Actually, this lack of cohesion on offense cost Michigan a chance to stop the clock late in the first half when Michigan State was busy trying to run the clock out deep in their own territory. This is all assuming the Wolverines would have been able to stop the Spartans from picking up a first down, which isn't a given.
When Michigan Was On Defense
The Wolverines held Michigan State to 333 yards of total offense, which was about 65 yards below their average, but while they stifled the Spartans a bit, they still didn't do enough. Michigan State rushed for 213 yards, with Edwin Baker rushing for 167 of those yards.
It was simply a continuation of one team winning the battle at the line of scrimmage over the course of an entire game. Michigan certainly had their moments as a defense, but nobody stood out as having a particularly tremendous game.
What does stand out, however, is the fact that against a team that ran the ball 39 times, Michigan's starting linebackers only finished with eight total tackles. You can understand strongside backer Jake Ryan getting zero tackles because that's just part of being a Sam linebacker. But for Kenny Demens (five) and Brandin Hawthorne (three) to be as unproductive as they were is inexcusable.
By comparison, Michigan State's starting linebackers were their three top tackers, combining for 25 tackles. Freshman Desmond Morgan came in for Hawthorne, and while he picked up four tackles and recovered a fumble, I wouldn't exactly call his play impactful.
The Wolverines were consistently beaten up front and while they have their moments between the tackles, the defensive ends rarely contribute much to the run defense. More often than not, they simply point the way for a running back to go.
Michigan gets a week off to think about things, and then they get Purdue in Michigan Stadium for Homecoming. Following that, they travel to Iowa and Illinois, before hosting Nebraska and Ohio State. All four of those teams will be capable of running the ball as well as Michigan State did. They'll all run it in different ways, but the Wolverines will need to step up their run defense to come away with a .500 record in those four games.
One of the things that Michigan did do to combat the running game—and fairly successfully for the most part—was implementing a “Bear front”, which put five or six men on the line of scrimmage and brought Jordan Kovacs down into a linebacker position. I'm of the opinion that they could only do this because of the wind slowing down Michigan State's passing game. I'm not sure it's wise for this defense to play like this in better conditions.
The Wolverines forced two fumbles, but their offense wasn't able to capitalize on either one.
There just aren't enough playmakers on this defense.
The secondary was fortunate that the wind was as blustery as it was because there were Spartan receivers running free, and they normally have a quarterback who can actually find them.
All of that being said, I'm not sure the defense could have played much better than they did—and I'm not sure that they should have to. Michigan State's three scoring drives were 63 yards, 54 yards and 61 yards.
They were never able to take the ball from deep in their own territory and finish a drive. The Spartans got the benefit of very good field position, and they took advantage of it.
The Special Teams
Punter Will Hagerup averaged just 31.9 yards per punt, with a long of 42 yards. He had a few pooch punts, which killed his average. He did put four of his seven punts inside the Michigan State 20-yard line.
It's becoming pretty clear that Michigan has no kickoff return game. Martavious Odoms was the guy this week and he returned two kicks for 32 yards. The Wolverines did do a very nice job in coverage this week. They have improved in this regard as the season has gone on.
Michigan ran a fake field goal this week on fourth and three. Receiver Drew Dileo, who is the holder, took off with the ball and barely picked up a first down. It was a pretty obvious fake given the wind (and a man in motion), but they still picked it up thanks to some nice blocking, namely by kicker Brendan Gibbons.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that for the first time in almost 50 years, Michigan State has now beaten Michigan four times in a row.
I can't help but feel like there's a whole “back to square one” vibe going on with the Michigan offense right now. Moving Denard Robinson around isn't going to make him a more consistent passer, and Devin Gardner hasn't shown any semblance of decision-making ability right now to make me think he should be out there instead of Robinson.
Clearly, Borges is looking for something. Perhaps he will find it during the bye week.
I'll say it again, anytime you don't involve Denard Robinson in the game, the defense will thank you.
Defensively speaking, the Michigan defense is what it is. It's not really designed to stop anything, rather its purpose is just to slow offenses down, and to this point, they've done their job.
You can't ask the talent currently on hand to hold teams to 17 points and under, which means that you have to set out to score at least 21 points every week. But in order to do that, they must first find something that they do well on offense. Since they've apparently scrapped the read option, and a jump ball offense isn't really an offense, I don't know what it is that they do well.
The week off will help Robinson get healthy, which should allow them to get back to what was working earlier in the season.
At least until Robinson gets banged up again, of course.
The Road To The Big One
September 3 Michigan 34 – Western Michigan 10 (1-0)
September 10 Michigan 35 - Notre Dame 31 (2-0)
September 17 Michigan 31 - Eastern Michigan 3 (3-0)
September 24 Michigan 28 - San Diego State 7 (4-0)
October 1 Michigan 58 - Minnesota 0 (5-0)
October 8 Michigan 42 – Northwestern 24 (6-0)
October 15 Michigan State 28 – Michigan 24 (6-1)
October 29 Purdue
November 5 at Iowa
November 12 at Illinois
November 19 Nebraska
November 26 Ohio State
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