By Tony Gerdeman
Last week I said that this would be the start of finding out just how good this Michigan football team is, but after Saturday night's 13-6 loss at Notre Dame, I was struck by just how average their very best player had become.
Denard Robinson threw four interceptions and also lost a fumble. Take away any one of those turnovers, save for the Hail Mary heave that was intercepted at the half, and this could have been a very different outcome.
Notre Dame turned Robinson's first interception, which came at the Michigan 45-yard line into a field goal. The second interception came at the Michigan 49-yard line. The Irish eventually got the ball down into the redzone before quarterback Everett Golson threw an interception in the endzone.
The third interception came at the Michigan 48-yard line and was turned into the lone touchdown drive of the game. The fourth interception came on the Hail Mary and was meaningless, but the damage had already been done.
Robinson's interceptions led to the only points that Notre Dame scored in the half, and once he stopped throwing interceptions, the Irish stopped scoring, at least until they finally hit a field goal with 6:46 left in the fourth quarter.
Last year I felt that offensive coordinator Al Borges was slow on the uptick as to how best to use his quarterback, now I'm pretty convinced that he just doesn't care.
He knows what Robinson doesn't do well, so why ask him to continue doing it? How many times has Carl Lewis been asked back to sing the National Anthem?
Robinson looked completely uncomfortable at times, and his feet were happier than an Apple fanboy who just received a piece of Steve Jobs' finger bone in the mail.
Watching the game Saturday night, the one prevailing thought that kept bouncing around in my head was that this is what happens when you get away with what Michigan's offense got away with last year.
The Wolverines got more than their share of bounces last season on offense – actually, they made most of those bounces happen, but it's hard to have such fortune two years in a row, especially when Junior Hemingway is no longer around.
"Run and shoot" is a style of offense, "Heave and hope" isn't. The scary thing is that Robinson's mistakes came on short and intermediate passes. Those are the passes that are supposed to be easier to complete. What exactly is it that this offense does well right now that Borges is actually willing to call?
Michigan lost a game on Saturday night that they pretty much had no business losing. Notre Dame couldn't move the ball, and could only score when the field position was handed over like a Gideons bible.
The Wolverines had the three longest drives of the game, including two drives of over 70 yards that ended in turnovers. Those two drives alone consisted of twelve entire minutes of possession.
And yet Borges kept dialing up interceptions in the first half like frat bros ordering Jägerbombs.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines outgained the Irish 299-239, but they didn't do anything with those yards. They went 2-5 in the redzone, but 0-5 when it came to scoring touchdowns. Robinson could have thrown interceptions until his heart was content, and had Michigan done even an average job in the redzone, they win this game.
Robinson went 13-24 for 138 yards, with the four interceptions mentioned earlier. However, he was not the only Wolverine to throw a pass to the other team. With a first and goal from the Notre Dame ten-yard line, Borges drew up a halfback pass with Vincent Smith that was intercepted in the endzone. This was after Michigan had just marched 78 yards in eleven plays over a span of six minutes. Robinson had just completed three straight passes for 32 yards and busted out a 15-yard run to get it to the Irish ten-yard line.
And that's when Borges went Malzahn.
In his defense, Drew Dileo was open on the play, but can you always count on your 5-foot-6 tailback to lead a receiver properly? I know I can't.
Michigan's offense shot itself in the foot at every available opportunity on Saturday, and Borges just kept loading the gun.
"Don't forget to shoot the left one again, it looks like the blood is starting to clot."
The sad part is that everybody is now raving about Notre Dame's defense, yet Michigan ran the ball pretty well. Unfortunately, they finished drives about as well as Liam Neeson keeps his family from getting kidnapped.
Taking out sacks and a botched snap by Robinson, the Wolverines rushed for 189 yards on 37 carries (5.1 avg). They only had two carries that lost yards. They moved the ball well enough to win, especially when they only would have needed two touchdowns to get it done.
Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 58 yards on 13 carries, though 31 of those yards came on one carry. He was held to three or fewer yards on eight of his 13 carries. Jeremy Gallon also got a couple of carries on the fly sweep.
One of the more interesting plays came when Devin Gardner came around on what looked like an end around, but he actually ended up throwing a pass to a walk-on fullback on a wheel route. It was underthrown, but did result in a defensive pass interference. I liked the idea, except for the part about it involving a walk-on fullback.
The pass was underthrown, but it was only the sixth-worst throw of the night.
There was just so much wrong with the offense. An early indicator of that was the fact that Robinson had to call a timeout on Michigan's first two possessions. We should have known then that horror would ensue.
Despite paving the way for nearly 200 yards on the ground, the offensive line certainly had issues. Left guard Ricky Barnum had a very rough night, at one point even being blamed by Taylor Lewan for a sack that Lewan gave up.
Right tackle Michael Schofield also had issues. Both he and Barnum gave up sacks in one redzone possession that eventually ended on a missed 43-yard field goal.
When Michigan Was On Defense
I thought Michigan's front seven looked pretty good in this game. They held Notre Dame to just 94 yards rushing on 31 carries. The also held the Irish to 145 yards passing.
To be fair, the Wolverines had no reason to focus on Notre Dame's passing attack because starting quarterback Everett Golson was terrible, and backup Tommy Rees peaked at competent.
They geared up to stop the Irish's running game, and they did it. The longest carry of the night was just 15 yards.
Michigan went with Quinton Washington and William Campbell at defensive tackle, and Frank Clark and Craig Roh at the ends. It may have been their biggest front this season.
Washington actually got into the backfield a few times. Unfortunately, he whiffed on tackles more often than not, and not close whiffs either. It was like watching two kids play "Marco", "Polo" on opposite ends of an Olympic-sized pool.
I thought this was linebacker Desmond Morgan's best game. He finished with seven tackles, and was successful at the point of attack.
Overall, I think Michigan showed that when they don't have to worry about a passing game, they can stop a running game.
It was not a good night for the secondary, specifically the cornerbacks. Cornerback Raymon Taylor opened the game with an interception, but it came on an underthrown pass, and he was actually beaten on the play.
Taylor is expected to struggle, as he's just a sophomore who is still getting used to significant playing time. The more worrisome aspect of the cornerbacks, in my opinion, was the performance of J.T. Floyd.
Late in the game, with Michigan trying to force one last stop and get the ball back, Floyd was matched out wide with tight end Tyler Eifert. Eifert immediately beat Floyd, and Rees found him for a 38-yard completion that effectively ended the game. When the Wolverines needed a stop, their secondary simply couldn't provide it for them.
The Special Teams
Dennis Norfleet returned three kickoffs for 87 yards, with a long of 33 yards. I don't know if this is an accurate statement, and I actually doubt that it is, but he just doesn't seem as fast as he once did. Maybe we can chalk it up to Notre Dame's grass.
Perhaps the most amazing, and damning, stat of the night is the fact that Michigan only punted once. Just think, the Wolverines probably would have won if Robinson would have quick kicked a few times instead of throwing the ball.
Brendan Gibbons went 2-3 on field goals, missing a 43-yarder. All three of Matt Wile's kickoffs were touchbacks, so Michigan didn't face any returns on the night (other than the numerous interception returns).
What Does It All Mean
It means that Denard Robinson's regression is almost complete. He is the Benjamin Button of quarterbacks.
That being said, he is always capable of a great game, but he might be even more capable of a bad one.
With the Big Ten as bad as it is, Robinson doesn't have to be great because his good is plenty good enough. Borges just needs to have somebody tell him what it is that Robinson is good at.
Maybe he needs a call-in show.
Defensively, it means that Michigan can likely stop the run if that's all they have to worry about. I'm still not sure where they stand on stopping a quarterback with accuracy, however.
Still, there is no team left on Michigan's schedule that they can't beat. But I'm not sure that anybody actually expects them to do that.
I know I don't.
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 at Purdue
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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