By Tony Gerdeman
Saturday, Michigan (3-2) went into West Lafayette to battle a Purdue (3-2) team that some thought might be able to upset the Wolverines.
Instead, Purdue found themselves down 21-0 after just 17 minutes of action and never really had a chance to let themselves believe that they weren't as bad as they actually were.
That doesn't mean they won't randomly rise up against an opponent and pull out an upset at some point this season, it just means that Michigan was in no mood for it to happen this past Saturday.
The Wolverines set the tone immediately, going on a 17-play, 78-yard drive that lasted nearly nine minutes. They ran the ball 14 times, telling Purdue to "Stop us if you can." They couldn't.
Rather, they couldn't stop Denard Robinson. Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run, but he was shut down almost completely on the drive, carrying the ball six times for nine yards. His yard-per-carry average would only go down from there.
The first drive of the game for Michigan's offense was a microcosm of their entire offensive attack. Methodical, conservative, and it was Robinson who would repeatedly have to gain yards on the ground because Toussaint wasn't able to do so.
Toussaint carried the ball eleven more times throughout the game and rushed for just ten more yards.
Despite the Toussaint struggles, the Wolverines still marched the ball up and down the field on a defense that didn't realize that Denard Robinson was still Denard Robinson.
Or maybe they didn't think that Al Borges knew that Denard Robinson was still Denard Robinson.
It wasn't a pretty performance by the Michigan offense, but it was coldly effective. Any time you can rush for over 300 yards like the Wolverines did (304), and you're not an undermanned triple-option team, it means that you are in complete control of a game.
Like a Shetland pony being ridden by a fat man, Purdue just couldn't shake the Wolverines.
The defense performed similarly. But in fairness to Purdue's offense, quarterback Caleb TerBush was pretty terrible.
His receivers didn't help him either, but it wouldn't have mattered. Michigan controlled this game from every angle. It was a bizarre game to watch because Purdue seemed detached from what was actually going on. Like they weren't really paying attention. Like they had been knocked silly by that opening 17 minutes.
Or maybe they just had the wind knocked out of them.
When Michigan Was on Offense
Denard Robinson rushed for 235 yards in this game and set the Big Ten career mark for rushing yards by a quarterback with 3,905.
It was the fifth 200-yard rushing game of his career and second this season. The fact that the 235 yards aren't a career high is one of the more impressive stats of the year.
Robinson carried the ball 24 times, but only lost four yards in those carries. He had runs of 38, 46 and 59 yards against a Purdue defense that was ready for everything Michigan had to offer, except for their best player.
The remarkable thing is that the Boilermaker defense actually did pretty well against him most of the time. They were even in position to stop Robinson on his big plays, but he was just too good.
What wasn't "just too good", however, was the rest of the running game. Fitzgerald Toussaint carried the ball 17 times for 19 yards, and Vincent Smith carried it three times for eight yards.
Thomas Rawls came in when the game was well over and looked very impressive, running for 33 yards on four carries, and leaving a wake of brutalized Boilermakers in his path. Whether his play would translate while the game is still in doubt is hard to say, but it's probably time to at least let him try.
Toussaint's day was so bad that on one carry he actually found a hole and picked up two yards before deciding to bounce it outside where he got tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
There wasn't a ton of room for him, and that falls on the offensive line, but I also think that some more north-south stuff would help, rather than all of this east-west stuff that is so slow to develop at times. He doesn't have great speed, so the longer it takes for him to find a hole, the worse off he is.
Perhaps he would be better suited to get the ball in a downhill fashion which would better take advantage of his one-cut abilities, rather than asking him to run down the line of scrimmage looking for a hole that may or may not be there, and then if you find a hole, you'll also then have to make a second cut to avoid the first defender.
But maybe I'm looking too hard to find a reason why things were bad and just not giving credit to Purdue's defense.
Granted, the Michigan tailbacks are not overly talented, but Toussaint was still a 1,000-yard rusher last season, and didn't need a whole lot of carries to do so.
I think he is the best tailback that the Wolverines have had since Mike Hart, though that's mainly due to Brandon Minor's inability to stay healthy. But the other puzzling part about the Michigan tailbacks this season is that they aren't able to take advantage of the attention that Robinson demands from a defense.
I don't expect Vincent Smith to do much, and until the coaches show faith in Thomas Rawls, I won't expect much from him. Especially if they use him to run wide like they're using Toussaint. Even if this is the fault of the offensive line, Toussaint should be a guy who averages more than the 3.2 yards per carry he's at right now.
No, the offensive line isn't opening many holes, but 3.2 yards per carry is as much a tailback's fault as it is an offensive line's. Especially if the defense isn't even worried about you.
Fortunately, this may all be forgotten for a week as Tim Beckman's misfit band comes to town for Homecoming. The Quittin' Illini won't pose much of a problem, and when the Wolverines rush for 300 yards next week, at least half of it will come from their tailbacks.
It was interesting to see how the passing game performed after having two weeks off since the debacle in South Bend. Borges kept things simple and Robinson only went downfield a couple of times. He finished 8-16 passing for just 105 yards and a touchdown.
Devin Gardner finished with two catches for 31 yards, including his customary touchdown reception. He now has four touchdowns in five games and looks like the receivers at Michigan used to look under Lloyd Carr, including the occasional drops.
The Robinson to Gardner Connection still has work to do, however, as they are still completing under 50% of the passes that are intended for Gardner.
Jeremy Gallon was a busy man on Saturday, leading the team with three receptions for 37 yards, and he also had three carries out of the jet sweep for 13 yards. I would like to see Gallon targeted for an entire game, as it seems like his touches come in bunches, and then he's forgotten about.
If they can get him the ball ten times a game in a variety of ways, that's three or four fewer times that Toussaint is going to run up into Ricky Barnum's back and get tackled.
The struggles with the tailbacks, and Robinson's inconsistencies in the passing game could make the redzone a very interesting situation this year. Michigan was 6-6 in scoring in the redzone, but only three of those were touchdowns. Against Notre Dame, they were in the redzone five times and could only manage two field goals.
This is a real problem, and with the current state of the offense, I'm not sure there's an easy fix. Though maybe some misdirection and play-action would help. Or just watch film of Ohio State because they are third in the nation in converting redzone trips into touchdowns. They were 5-5 against Nebraska, for instance.
When Michigan Was on Defense
I know I say this every week, but strongside linebacker Jake Ryan is so good at his job. He does a few things in every game that stands out, and they are all in different spots on the field.
For instance, there's no reason that a guy who is strong and bullish enough to rush the passer with his hand on the ground should also be able to defend slot receivers, but he does it. Granted, it's for a short period of time, but he doesn't look out of place in the open field.
Watching this game, it struck me that Ryan could have been the missing piece from the 2006 defense. As in, if he was on that team, I'm not sure anybody would have beaten them that year.
I was actually impressed with the entire defense in this game. Purdue's offense tries to spread the ball out and take advantage of defenders in space, but the Wolverines tackled very well. It was actually a bit strange to watch a game that wasn't tainted by a bad-tackling spell.
It felt to me like Greg Mattison had his team as well prepared as they could have been for this game. I'm wondering if they aren't finally comfortable as a team, and now they can begin to be the overachievers that they were last year.
Though I have to stress again that Caleb TerBush gave Purdue very little opportunity to win. (You can't spell "I wish my quarterback wasn't terrible" without "Caleb TerBush", after all.)
Overall, Purdue was held to 213 yards of total offense, and just 56 yards rushing on 26 carries.
The front seven controlled the line of scrimmage, which they will need to do because the secondary is still suspect.
Cornerback Raymon Taylor returned an interception 63 yards for a touchdown, but it came off of a fourth-down pass that should have been caught by a wide open receiver, but instead the receiver tipped it and Taylor snatched it and ran it home. It was nice awareness after the tip, but he was beaten badly on the route.
Safety Thomas Gordon's interception also came after a tipped pass. I would like to see the secondary make more plays on the ball BEFORE they hit a receiver's hand for a change.
The secondary is vulnerable, but will they face a quarterback talented enough to attack it? Illinois comes to Ann Arbor next week, but until they show signs of life, talking about them is a waste of time. Michigan State is the week after, and that will be a very interesting game, but until I see Andrew Maxwell throw six good passes in a row, I can't see him picking somebody apart.
Traveling to Lincoln could be interesting because Taylor Martinez does like to throw downfield, and he's got the receivers to go up and catch passes. The real question is whether or not Martinez can keep from throwing the ball ten yards shorter than he intended.
Minnesota's best chance to move the ball on Michigan is for the Wolverines to be looking ahead to Northwestern, which could provide issues both through the air and on the ground with Kain Colter's running ability.
I think Iowa could come into Michigan Stadium and throw the ball around successfully, but they'll need to be able to run it in order to pull off the upset.
After Iowa, Michigan finally comes to Columbus, where nothing that happened before then really matters.
The bottom line is that the front seven will need to continue to protect the secondary in the passing game, but things aren't so bad that panic needs to be the theme of the day.
There just really aren't any playmakers back there, unless Jordan Kovacs is coming on the blitz, which he hasn't done much of this year.
Really, the entire defense needs more playmakers. They have one consistent explosive player in Jake Ryan, and that's it right now. But they showed last year that they don't have to be explosive as long as they remain a solid eleven-man unit, and that's what they looked like against Purdue as well.
The Special Teams
Michigan punted twice in this game, which should tell you how well the offense did. Will Hagerup boomed a 57-yarder for his only punt.
Placekicker Brendan Gibbons was 3-4 on field goals. The 3-4 isn't so bad, but it's made worse by the fact that his miss was from 44 yards and it was short.
Dennis Norfleet returned three kickoffs for 76 yards with a long of 38 yards. Purdue returned eight kickoffs for 183 yards, but their long was only 32 yards. That's not too bad considering all of the attempts they had. Though they may want to start kicking more touchbacks because only once were the Boilers stopped behind the 25-yard line.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Michigan's offense still isn't what Al Borges wants, but that's probably a good thing.
Granted, it has to be hard to figure things out with tailbacks who can't really do anything and a quarterback you can't always trust. I still don't understand why Michigan doesn't run more play-actions off of the zone read looks, though.
Defensively, I was thoroughly impressed with the entire effort. Solid tackling and coverage. The receiver screens never amounted to much, and the longest play from scrimmage the defense gave up was a 20-yard completion to Crosby Wright.
What that means down the road, I don't know. However, it does mean that opponents will actually have to work hard to move the ball on this defense. The cute stuff that Purdue likes was useless, and they have guys who can make defenders miss.
I want to see how this defense does against a team that is devoted to seeing how soft Michigan's middle is by running a power game. Illinois could possibly do that with the read option, but putting faith in the Illini is about as productive as throwing quarters in a wishing well.
To say that I'm excited to see how the Wolverines perform against Michigan State and Nebraska this month would be an understatement.
After all, we've seen how the Buckeyes have performed against those two teams. They've already "loosened the lid" for the Wolverines, in fact.
The Road to the Big One
Sept 1 Alabama 41 - Michigan 14 (0-1)
Sept 8 Michigan 31 - Air Force 26 (1-1)
Sept 15 Michigan 63 - Massachusetts 13 (2-1)
Sept 22 Notre Dame 13 - Michigan 6 (2-2)
Sept 29 Bye
Oct 6 Michigan 44 - Purdue 13 (3-2, 1-0)
Oct 13 Illinois
Oct 20 Michigan State
Oct 27 at Nebraska
Nov 3 at Minnesota
Nov 10 Northwestern
Nov 17 Iowa
Nov 24 at Ohio State
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