Michigan Monday - Purdue
By Tony Gerdeman
Michigan defeated Purdue 36-14 on Saturday,which moved the Wolverines to 7-1 on the season. The last time Michigan had a record this good this late in the season was 2006 when they started out 11-0. Other than 2006, however, the only other season with a record with one loss after eight games since 1998 came in 2004.
What Lloyd Carr did just twice since winning a National Championship in 1997, Brady Hoke has now already done once in just one season, and it followed the worst era in Michigan's football history.
Granted, the schedule has been pretty pitiful this season, but weak schedules aren't new. What Michigan has accomplished this season after the last three years is certainly notable. Are there smoke and mirrors at play? Maybe a little, but there's also preparation, talent, experience and coaching. There are a lot of things at work here, and to simply chalk it up to a weak schedule wouldn't be fair to those who have actually turned the attitude at Michigan around.
That being said, I now believe that Michigan is as likely to lose out as they are to win out--though neither outcome should be classified as "likely". All four of their opponents—Iowa and Illinois (both on the road) and Nebraska and Ohio State (both in Ann Arbor) are talented but flawed, just like the Wolverines.
Iowa and Illinois are the easier of the two opponents, so it's good for Michigan that these are the two road games, but because these two games are on the road, the opponents will be better than they would be if this game was taking place in Michigan.
With Nebraska and Ohio State coming to The Big House, that will obviously give Michigan a boost, but it's pretty clear that both teams are more talented than the Wolverines. Playing in Michigan Stadium will certainly even things out, but will they be evened enough to secure a pair of Wolverine victories?
Many outsiders are still expecting the standard Michigan collapse this season, and while that might still happen, it will happen for different reasons. I'm of the opinion that from here on out any losses incurred this season will be simply because of lack of talent, and not lack of coaching. That might not seem like much, but it's significant. Coaches are finally giving this team an opportunity to win, even if they're outmanned.
Take the Buckeyes, for instance. If I look at Michigan's roster, I see the following Wolverines as likely starters for Ohio State: Denard Robinson, possibly David Molk and Taylor Lewan (if they can play guard), Junior Hemingway, Roy Roundtree and Mike Martin—and aside from Robinson and Hemingway, none of the five would be significantly better than what is already in place. I'm not sure if Martin is even a starter for Ohio State. He certainly hasn't played like it over the entire course of the season.
That lack of talent is a pretty steep hill to overcome for Brady Hoke, and I'm not sure it would be that much different if we also looked at Nebraska's lineup compared to Michigan's.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, they get the Huskers and the Buckeyes at home where they are free to pipe in their intimidating rock music and do their forcibly-orchestrated shenaniganery.
(I have to assume that stuff has helped this season given the turnaround.)
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines put up 535 yards of total offense against the Boilermakers. Impressively, 339 of those yards came on the ground, and more impressively 256 of those rushing yards actually came from the running backs.
Fitzgerald Toussaint carried the ball 20 times for 170 yards, both of which were career highs. It was the first time in nearly two seasons that a running back carried the ball at least 20 times for the Wolverines.
Denard Robinson rushed for 63 yards on 15 carries, and it was clear that once again stopping him was the key to the opposing defense. I said a couple of weeks ago that with defenses focusing on Robinson, the running backs needed to step up and help their offense out. They certainly did that this week.
Toussaint looked every bit the part of a Big Ten starting running back. The highlight of the afternoon came when Toussaint took a counter pitch from Devin Gardner 59 yards for a touchdown. After receiving the pitch, he cut upfield and made seven defenders come little closer than a wish to bringing him down.
It was the same vision we've seen flashes of this season, but it was on display for the entire game on Saturday. The patience he showed against a sometimes-okay Purdue defense was impressive and is what I have been expecting to see from him since he arrived in 2009.
He continues to look more and more like the running back we saw in high school where he was generally the most dynamic player on the field. Obviously that's not going to happen as long as Denard Robinson is taking snaps, but clearly he is proving to his coaches that he needs carries.
Things were going so well for Michigan running backs that Michael Shaw even broke a tackle and scampered for a 37-yard touchdown. He finished with 56 yards rushing on the afternoon.
The passing game continues to be what it is--confusing. Denard Robinson was 9-14 passing for 170 yards and an interception.
The interception was a third and four that saw Robinson lock onto tight end Kevin Koger before he even said "hut one". Purdue linebacker Joe Holland narrowly missed an interception earlier in the game, so he was locked in on Robinson and jumped in front of Koger to snag the ball.
Robinson also threw a jump ball from the Purdue thirteen-yard line. It was actually a fade, but he didn't throw it far enough or high enough and the cornerback broke it up. To say it lacked touch would be like saying Taylor Lewan is a peaceable fellow.
Other than the interception and the failed fade, however, Robinson threw the ball pretty well, especially early.
Devin Gardner got his customary handful of snaps and was 1-2 passing for 26 yards and a pretty terrible interception. The interception was a jump ball thrown between two receivers who were probably ten yards apart. The pass wasn't close to either player, which is why it was intercepted.
The thought process that goes into Gardner's decisions is still problematic.
Surprisingly, Jeremy Gallon is beginning to turn into Michigan's go-to receiver. Granted, he only had three catches on the day, but he did lead the team and also put up 79 yards receiving with those three catches. He is no longer a guy who just catches screen passes three yards behind the line of scrimmage, though he's still pretty good at that as well.
The offensive line had a very good day, as evidenced by the 339 yards rushing. but they did have a few moments of disappointment, most notably when they failed to get into the endzone after having a first and goal from the two-yard line.
They ran the ball very well, but when they were down on the goal line and Purdue knew what was coming, they weren't able to punch it in. This happens to everybody, but that doesn't mean it isn't still a concern.
I thought left guard Michael Schofield had a pretty rough day. He doesn't always have the ability to get to where he needs to be. He missed a couple of blocks that led to plays being made in the backfield.
When Michigan Was On Defense
The Wolverines had another solid day on the defensive side of the ball against Purdue. The Boilermakers were held to just 89 yards rushing on 29 carries, with 41 of those yards coming on a single read option carry by quarterback Caleb TerBush.
As an aside, a 41-yard carry for a non-fast quarterback makes you wonder what's going to happen over the next month when they face Nathan Scheelhaase, Taylor Martinez and Braxton Miller, no?
The Wolverines also shut down leading rusher Ralph Bolden, as he only gained 22 yards on eleven carries.
Three freshmen started for the Wolverines. Jake Ryan started at strongside linebacker, Desmond Morgan started at weakside linebacker and Blake Countess started at cornerback.
For much of the game, however--and especially on passing downs--Ryan played with his hand down at defensive end. He wasn't as haphazard as he normally is, which is a strong indicator of his improvement. He finished with four tackles, including a fantastic tackle for loss when he submarined a ball carrier.
True freshman Brennen Beyer also got some time at strongside linebacker, and also got some time at defensive end. He's had a few moments this season, but he hasn't necessarily jumped out consistently.
Frank Clark is another true freshman that got snaps at defensive end, and actually had a couple of good moments. He's only listed as 6-2 228 pounds, but he's got very long arms and looks like he's got the reach of Shawn Crable, but in a more compact frame.
The fact that so many freshmen were getting looks at defensive end opposite Craig Roh makes one wonder what has happened to Jibreel Black. He was supposed to take a step forward this season under Hoke and Greg Mattison, but instead he's on the verge of getting passed by.
For some reason, redshirt sophomore Nathan Brink got the start at defensive end over Ryan Van Bergen, and he was destroyed repeatedly. I have to assume some type of point was being made by the coaching staff, and I have to assume they hope they don't have to make that point anymore this season.
I thought Desmond Morgan looked faster than he did earlier in the season. He finished with a team-high nine tackles, and it looks like he's thinking quicker and appears more comfortable playing football at this level. I have no idea if he'll ever be anything special, but Hoke loves his football instincts. Though sometimes "football instincts" are another way of saying that a player knows what's coming, but doesn't have the speed to get to where he needs to be.
Middle linebacker Kenny Demens only had one solo tackle. He is another player who has not progressed the way most--including myself--thought he would as the season went on.
With four solid running games coming in the next four weeks, Demens and his fellow linebackers are going to be tested repeatedly, and if they fail these tests, Michigan is going to struggle to win.
Strong safety Jordan Kovacs was out this week due to a knee injury, and he may or may not be back next week. In his place, cornerback Troy Woolfolk moved to safety, which appears to be a permanent move.
The secondary is still a concern. J.T. Floyd had some very bad missed tackles, and a cornerback who struggles to make tackles in the open field is a cornerback that will continue to be targeted.
Overall, the defense did more than enough to win. Purdue's final touchdown came with just 15 seconds remaining. The first touchdown came with 13:36 remaining in the first quarter, which means the Wolverines held the Boilermakers scoreless for a stretch of 58:21 of the game.
Michigan only punted twice, and Will Hagerup averaged 40.5 yards per return. The coaches aren't satisfied with him yet, but they still have faith that he'll continue to get better.
Martavious Odoms had a couple of nice moments returning kickoffs, but had a long return opportunity negated by a shoestring tackle. He will never break a tackle, and he won't win many footraces, but as long as he gets forward as quickly as he can, perhaps he can find a role on this team.
Purdue averaged 24.5 yards on their four kickoff returns, which is too much. It would not surprise me to see Nebraska or Ohio State break a sizable return against them this season.
Place-kicker Brendan Gibbons made both of his field goal attempts (37, 22), but obviously wasn't tested at any point in the game.
What Does It All Mean
It means that even in a bit of a disjointed offensive outing, Michigan still put over 500 yards of total offense on the board. Denard Robinson had no room to run, but he still managed to average four yards per carry, which is fine for a quarterback.
More importantly, the rest of the running game picked him up. That should have been as encouraging as anything. An offense with a wider base to draw from will make defenses pay for the attention that they give to Robinson, and it will also make his glaring passing gaffes easier to handle. After all, when Robinson is the only weapon of choice, when he misfires, it's all the more noticeable.
While watching the game live, I tweeted on Saturday that offensive coordinator Al Borges has finally realized that he doesn't have an offense, he has gimmicks. I don't know how true that is, but the shoe sure seems to fit at times.
The semi-constant shuffling in and out of Devin Gardner is interesting to me because I don't think it has anything to actually do with Gardner. I think he's in there so that they can better use Denard Robinson as a decoy.
Robinson is not an effective decoy as a quarterback, as evidenced by the struggles the running backs have had for the most part this season. But when he's in motion, he has to be accounted for. This gets defenses flowing to him and losing interest in the other side of the field. That's what happened on Toussaint's 59-yard touchdown run.
The fact that he can't be a decoy all of the time only means that at some point he actually has to touch the ball, and since when has that been a bad thing? The worst part about the Devin Gardner lineup is Gardner himself.
The defense is almost the exact opposite to me. There are no gimmicks. The term "lunch pail" is what always floats through my brain when I think about Michigan's defense, and there are no gimmicks in lunch pails--just bologna sandwiches and sometimes a Chunky soup of some sort.
The most you can ask from this defense is relentless effort, and that seems to be what the bulk of them are best at. That doesn't lead to plays always being made, but it does lead to key plays being made at key times, and most of the time that's all you need.
In fact, it's that ability to make the big play when it's absolutely necessary that has me baffled on whom to pick when the Buckeyes head to Ann Arbor in four weeks.
To me, a close game favors Michigan because of their ability to pull a play out of nowhere on defense. That tendency will only be multiplied by the fact that the game is in the Big House.
Don't forget, none of the Buckeyes on this team have ever been in a close game against Michigan.
As if you could forget.
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, 1-0)
October 8 Michigan 42 – Northwestern 24 (6-0, 2-0)
October 15 Michigan State 28 – Michigan 14 (6-1, 2-1)
October 29 Michigan 36 - Purdue 14 (7-1, 3-1)
November 5 at Iowa
November 12 at Illinois
November 19 Nebraska
November 26 Ohio State
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