Michigan Monday - Northwestern
By Tony Gerdeman
It was a tale of two halves on Saturday as the Wolverines were out-schemed by Northwestern in the first half, only to then turn around in the second half and grab the Wildcats by their double-popped collared throats and smack them around until they finally agreed to do Michigan's homework for the quarter.
Northwestern led Michigan 24-14 at the half, and that was even after settling for a field goal to end the half following a dropped touchdown pass by a Wildcat receiver.
The Wolverines then scored 14 points in each quarter of the second half and stoned Northwestern the rest of the way to win 42-24.
After having seen the Buckeyes panic with both a deficit and lead of 14 points, I couldn't help but notice that there was never any concern among the Michigan coaches and players going into the half. The players have complete faith in their coaches to put each of them in a position to succeed.
For instance, Denard Robinson threw 18 passes in the first half—three of them interceptions, but in the second half he only threw the ball eight times. Al Borges put Robinson in a better position to succeed.
Northwestern is terrible at defending the pass, and that's one reason that Michigan came out throwing, but the turnovers were killing the Wolverines. They set about on eliminating those turnovers, which they did, and Michigan scored 28 second-half points because of it.
The defense was similar—they absolutely made plays to kill drives, but they also got a few lucky bounces—and one lucky “non-bounce”.
Following a 12-play touchdown drive by Michigan that gave the Wolverines a 28-24 lead, Northwestern was looking to answer late in the third quarter. Dan Persa threw a pass that was behind tight end Drake Dunsmore, and the ball popped off of Dunsmore's shoulders and linebacker Brandin Hawthorne made a tremendous diving attempt at the interception.
They gave him the pick, but replays showed that while he had two hands on the ball, the nose of the ball hit the ground and then moved in Hawthorne's grasp. The rule book states that the ball can hit the ground as long as the player has a firm grasp on the ball. The ball never left his grasp, but it certainly re-situated itself. You know how you can re-situate yourself on the couch without ever leaving the couch's grasp? That's what the football did.
The play was reviewed and confirmed as an interception. Now everybody in Michigan has a new baseline for what they consider a firm grasp. Did it cost Northwestern the game? Who knows, but Michigan took the ball, and the momentum, and they did it at midfield. They then marched down for their third consecutive second-half touchdown to boost their lead to 35-24.
I don't think the play cost Northwestern the game simply because of Michigan's complete domination in the second half—but that interception certainly contributed in a major way to that domination.
Even if the interception had never happened, and Northwestern took the ball down and scored a touchdown to regain the lead, they showed no ability to stop the Michigan offense in the second half anyway.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Denard Robinson was 17-26 passing for 337 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. The interceptions all took place in the first half and were his three worst throws of the game.
The first came on a back-foot jump ball that was overthrown. The second came on a way overthrown wheel route down inside the Northwestern redzone. The third came on a throw that bore no resemblance to a pass that was intended for anybody living. It was thrown towards the sideline and had two receivers in the area, but neither close enough to be considered intended targets. It was just a terribly inaccurate throw.
I don't know what else Al Borges can do with Robinson's passing, other than to maybe take a page from Joe Bauserman's playbook and make sure that no throw lands in the field of play. After all, you can't throw an interception if you're drilling the popcorn dude seven rows deep on second and six.
But as is the running theme on all sides of the ball for the Wolverines, they made fantastic halftime adjustments. Robinson only threw the ball eight times in the second half, completing seven passes. His lone incompletion was an overthrow of an open Jeremy Gallon streaking down the sideline 50 yards downfield.
Receiver Junior Hemingway continued his big play ways, hauling in five passes for 124 yards, including a 48-yard jump ball that he caught at the highest point in one on one coverage. Roy Roundtree also snagged a jump ball of his own, but his went for 57 yards. As long as Robinson is stepping into his passes, a jump ball in one on one coverage is probably an okay play. The risk is far outweighed by the reward. It's when he starts throwing off his back foot, or throwing into double and triple coverage that he needs to rein things in a bit.
I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before or not, but Jeremy Gallon is rounding himself into quite a valuable player. He caught five passes for 73 yards, including a 25-yard throwback screen. He has shown himself to be comfortable in the screen game and also running routes. He is not a gimmick player—he is legit.
The screen game was working very well for the Wolverines, and the offensive line continues to display the necessary mobility to make it an even bigger part of future plans.
The running game struggled a bit, but they were still remarkably consistent. As a team the Wolverines rushed for 179 yards on 50 carries—an average of just 3.6 yards per carry. The long rush of the day went to Robinson, and that was just 25 yards. Northwestern did a great job of containing the running game, but they were a far cry from stopping it.
Despite the lack of big plays, what the Wolverines did was keep their third downs short and manageable. They finished the game 14-17 on third down, and one of those misses turned into a fourth down conversion. The other two failed third downs led to the only punt of the day and a blocked field goal. Other than that, every Michigan drive ended in a touchdown or interception.
Robinson finished with 117 yards rushing on 25 carries with two touchdowns. He only carried the ball on the read option twice and lost yardage doing it. Northwestern was clearly focused on stopping Robinson, and for the most part it worked. He had eight carries that went for zero or negative yards. Thirteen of his carries went for three yards or less. That is a winning number for Northwestern, save for those third downs that kept getting picked up.
The running backs really did nothing worth any mention, though I guess their lack of doing anything is what's actually worth mentioning. Michael Shaw, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith combined for 23 carries for 58 yards (2.5 ypc). Northwestern set out to make sure that they stopped Robinson, and along the way they ended up stopping Michigan's average running backs as well.
Sophomore quarterback Devin Gardner once again got involved. When he came in, Denard Robinson would move to the slot and then come in motion. They ran this play four times with moderate to middling success. The first time was a slot sweep with Robinson that gained six yards. The second time turned into three-yard scramble on a play-action bootleg for Gardner. The third time was a misdirection counter pitch to Shaw for four yards. The last time was a play-action throwback screen to Vincent Smith for six yards.
Like last week's gimmick looks with Gardner, it's more about show and tell than any actual plan of attack. All Al Borges is saying is, “Look at what I have and now you have to worry about it.”
It's pretty clear that they don't want Gardner to transfer—and sitting behind Robinson for three seasons can certainly make one think about transferring—so they are wisely integrating him into their gameplans. Considering the amount of hits that Denard Robinson has taken, it's a brilliant strategy on Borges and company's part.
Robinson ran the speed option a few times, and also broke out the triple option from the zone read—but Robinson kept the ball and was stopped for no gain.
Overall it's an offense with a lot of possibilities, and not all of those possibilities are things that offensive coaches like. Robinson's accuracy comes and goes like AM radio reception on long road trips. The more concerning thing for the Wolverines, however, is that if the Wildcats were so intent on stopping Robinson, then why didn't the running backs have huge days? And what happens when Michigan comes up against better defenses in the coming weeks?
Lastly, it should be pointed out that for the first time all season Robinson missed a few snaps because of an injury. It seemed to be just a slight hand injury that he eventually shook off, but who would have ever thought we would have gone through almost six games before he got hurt enough to come off the field. He was clearly hurt because they were down on the goal line while the game was still in doubt, but that's more fantastic experience for Gardner for when his time comes.
When Michigan Was On Defense
In the first half Northwestern had success running wide with option plays, much like Eastern Michigan did a few weeks ago. They attacked Michigan's lack of speed on defense and they did it well. They exposed Michigan's linebackers and put the defense on its heels.
Northwestern put up 297 yards of total offense in the first half. In the second half Michigan controlled the clock and kept the ball out of Dan Persa's hands. The Wildcats only had the ball for 9:01 in the second halfand a who pping 2:32 of that came in the third quarter. Any momentum that the Wildcats had heading into the third quarter was quickly sapped when Northwestern gave up a touchdown drive to start the half and then went three and out.
The Wildcats had seven possessions in the first half but only five in the second half. Their second-half possessions ended with a punt, an interception, a fumble, loss of downs and then their final possession ended at Michigan's one-yard line as the clock expired.
The Wolverines made plays on defense in the second half, and it's something they've done all year. Thomas Gordon stripped receiver Jeremy Ebert in Michigan territory, which stopped yet another Northwestern drive before it could really get started.
There was another glaring missed call in this game, however, and it again went in Michigan's favor. Trailing 35-24 with just over seven minutes remaining, Dan Persa was “sacked” on fourth and five when Jordan Kovacs ripped Persa's helmet off, and by rule, stopping the play. There was no flag on Kovacs for a facemask or for hitting a quarterback in the head. However, replays clearly showed Kovacs' hand on the facemask. Had the refs gotten this call correct, it would have given Northwestern a first down at Michigan's 22-yard line with 7:02 to play. Would it have made a difference? It certainly wouldn't have hurt the Wildcats' chances.
It was the second time that Persa was hit in the head without a penalty to accompany it. Earlier in the game Craig Roh came around on a pressure and went helmet-to-helmet directly, but was not given a flag.
Am I saying that the missed calls cost Northwestern the game? No. I'm convinced Al Borges and Greg Mattison would have figured something out, but that doesn't mean the bad calls didn't aid Michigan. Yes Wolverine fans, I know you point to Northwestern's blown holding calls to counter the three blown calls that I've referred to. Do what you need to do. Just remember that receivers always hold on screen plays, even yours.
The Wolverines certainly had issues getting off of blocks. They also had issues in coverage. They only got beat deep once, however. That was freshman cornerback Blake Countess, who got beat and then failed to look back for the ball.
Other than that, Michigan's defense kept everything in front of them. It can be a frustrating defense to watch early on, but eventually against spread teams the bending defense starts to make plays. It's science.
The baffling part for me is that Northwestern didn't run the option more. It was certainly effective.
As was suspected, the Wolverines had trouble defending the short passing game. Dan Persa completed 32-44 passes for 331 yards.
The Special Teams
Punter Will Hagerup punted just once, and that went for only 38 yards. He needs to get more work. He'll probably get it against Michigan State. Brendan Gibbons had his only field goal attempt of the game blocked.
The Wolverines covered kickoffs very well, limiting Northwestern to just three returns for 48 yards.
What Does It All Mean
It means that the Michigan offense took what Northwestern gave them, but didn't make them pay as much as they should have. Northwestern wanted the ball out of Denard Robinson's hands, and they got what they wanted for a half.
While this offense can explode at times, it can also disappear. Yes, they threw for nearly 200 yards in the first half, but that first half also contained three interceptions. It's like showing off your new Ferrari, but stalling at a light in front of convertible full of women. What good is it if it can let you down at the most inopportune times?
And where were the running backs? They are more capable than what they showed on Saturday. The Northwestern defense was more than happy to allow them to make plays instead of Robinson, and they failed. A similar performance will not lead to a win in East Lansing next weekend.
I'm not a believer in this defense yet, but I am a believer in Greg Mattison. He's only asking his defense to do what they're capable of, and in doing so, they're making plays. When you ask them to do things they can do, they go out and do it, and good things come from it.
The cornerbacks had a rough day, but that's life against an accurate quarterback in a spread attack. Just make sure you keep things in front of you and eventually good things will happen.
They will get tested downfield against Michigan State, as will Thomas Gordon and Jordan Kovacs. Both had some rough moments against Northwestern and will be looking to raise their level of play commensurate with the competition.
And they'll need to.
The Road To The Big One
September 3 Michigan 34 – Western Michigan 10
September 10 Michigan 35 - Notre Dame 31
September 17 Michigan 31 - Eastern Michigan 3
September 24 Michigan 28 - San Diego State 7
October 1 Michigan 58 - Minnesota 0
October 8 Michigan 42 – Northwestern 24
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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