By Tony Gerdeman
For scouting purposes, Michigan's 41-14 loss to Alabama is about as meaningful as an NFL team's final exhibition game. For one, this is not the Michigan offense that we will see the rest of the year. For two, this will be the last time that "Fear" will be the main ingredient in any of offensive coordinator Al Borges' remaining game plans.
Starting tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint was suspended, but this game was lost back in October of 2010 when the contract was finalized.
There is no way that Brady Hoke wanted this game, but he got stuck with it when athletic director Dave Brandon decided that it would be a good marketing move. How's that marketing working out for you now, Dave?
Brandon finalized the contract in the middle of a 5-1 season in 2010. He was no doubt feeling his oats. Too bad the Wolverines finished the season on a 2-5 run, losing all five of those games by double digits. Those final seven games cost Rich Rodriguez his job, and for good reason.
Just think, if Barry Alvarez was Michigan's athletic director, they'd never lose a non-conference game.
And you'd also never have to worry about playing in primetime.
When Michigan Had the Ball
Brady Hoke will never admit this, but this is about what he expected the outcome to be. It had to be. He knew what Borges' game plan was going to be, and he had to know that it wasn't going to work.
Michigan put up 269 yards of total offense and looked positively helpless doing it. Not having Toussaint was a non-factor. He was not the difference in this game. Would he have helped? Yes, but this was not a winning plan of attack.
It's never a good sign when a punter outgains his offense, and that's what Will Hagerup did with his six punts for 308 yards.
You probably know by now that I'm no fan of tailback Vincent Smith, and this game did nothing to change that. He carried the ball thirteen times for 33 yards, and that included a 22-yard carry. His other twelve carries netted him eleven yards.
In Smith's defense, there was no where for him to run, but then he runs into that problem a lot, so to speak.
I was interested in seeing Thomas Rawls (6 carries for 9 yards) carry the ball, but he did nothing to pique that interest during the game. He will be better next week, and the week after. He has to be.
The most curious part of the running game was the lack of Denard Robinson's involvement. He finished with ten carries for 27 yards, but it was clear that Borges and Hoke didn't want him carrying the ball against this Alabama defense.
Michigan can win if Robinson isn't running the ball, but only if he is passing it well enough to move the chains. On Saturday night, he wasn't. He finished 11-26 for 200 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
He was erratic from the pocket and he was erratic on the move. Even when he had time, he had issues.
If he isn't throwing well and he isn't asked to run, then one of the more dynamic players in the game has been pretty emphatically shut down.
Robinson got hurt twice in this game. Once when tackling his interceptor and another while reaching out for a first down. He got beat up and Borges was even trying to protect him.
Looking at how beaten up he ended up being, it seems foolish to think that he should have carried the ball more. This was a bad hand dealt to Brady Hoke, and he knew there was no winning it. It would make no sense to go all in with Denard Robinson when Hoke didn't feel like he had anything in his hand.
Even seeing Brady Hoke on the sidelines before the game, he seemed to have an apologetic look on his face. Like he felt bad for what was about to happen to his team.
While I don't know how much we can take from this game, we can certainly take from it that Robinson still has accuracy concerns, and there are definitely times when he does not see defenders.
The thing about Robinson, however, is that he may play three or four games without having anything inexplicable happen to him, and then have two or three games where he looks like a true freshman.
I was critical of Michigan's receivers in my positional previews this summer, and I didn't really see anything to change my mind. Jeremy Gallon is certainly a guy who they get every ounce out of. He had four catches for 107, including a 71-yarder. However, there will come a point this season where Robinson gets him destroyed on a screen or flare pass into the flats.
For me, the most interesting receiver of the night was converted quarterback Devin Gardner. By my count, Gardner was targeted eight times by Robinson, but had only one catch. Granted, it was a 44-yard touchdown catch, though the defender fell down right as Robinson was getting ready to throw it.
He didn't look out of place, and he likely won't see too many cornerbacks like he saw on Saturday, but a 1 for 8 average is terrible.
As you would expect from the statistics, the offensive line had issues all game long. There was no room to run, not that Smith or Rawls would have seen it on this night.
Senior Elliott Mealer got the start at center, which moved presumed starting center Ricky Barnum to left guard. Barnum had issues pulling to the far side and would get beaten to the spot by defenders.
All-Big Ten left tackle candidate Taylor Lewan had a few penalties on the day and certainly didn't appear to be any type of postseason award candidate. He got his leg rolled up late in the game and left in obvious pain. There has been no update as to his situation at this point.
Starting tight end Brandon Moore was also injured.
When Michigan Was on Defense
For some reason, the Wolverines opened up in a nickel defense. Strongside linebacker Jake Ryan opened at defensive end, which I am all for, but Craig Roh opened at defensive tackle, which I am completely against.
Roh was getting manhandled inside. Alabama's offensive line turned him around like he was on display and they wanted everybody to see him.
Tide running backs ran for 249 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Alabama carried the ball 42 times, but Michigan's starting linebackers only accounted for two solo tackles.
Granted, they got absolutely no help from their defensive line, but they took themselves out of the play just as much as they were taken out.
Alabama's freshmen tailback T.J. Yeldon is very good, but linebackers Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan made him look like a Hall of Famer already.
There was one particular play when both Demens and Morgan were taken to the ground and Alabama wasn't even trying to knock them down.
Michigan won't see another offensive line like Alabama's, and they won't see anymore backs like Yeldon. However, what we don't yet know is how good does an offensive line have to be in order to manhandle the Wolverine front four.
It seems terrible to say, but we'll learn more about Michigan's relative defensive strengths next week when they play Air Force.
Despite losing starting cornerback Blake Countess to injury (out for the year with torn knee ligaments per MGoBlog), I didn't think the secondary performed too poorly. Cornerback Courtney Avery was beaten badly for a touchdown on a double move, but they did as well as they could given the circumstances. Safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon did have their tackling issues in the running game, but they had to pick up a lot of slack in that area.
With Countess out, Avery (normally the nickel back) moved to corner and freshman safety Jarrod Wilson came in as the fifth defensive back. However, it was Thomas Gordon who moved down to play the nickel spot.
If the reports about Countess are true, then this is a fairly devastating blow given all of the other moving parts involved.
The Special Teams
Finally, a positive area for the Wolverines. Hagerup averaged 51.3 yards per punt with a long of 62. Unfortunately, those long punts allowed Alabama to average 14 yards per return.
Kicker Matt Wile put all three of his kickoffs into the endzone, which is much easier this season now that they've moved the kickoff back up to the 35-yard line again.
There were no field goals attempted.
Perhaps the brightest spot for Michigan on Saturday was freshmen running back Dennis Norfleet, who amassed 177 yards of kick returns, averaging 22 yards per return. He showed some very real speed and looks like a virtual lock to take one to the house this season.
What Does It All Mean?
In terms of the Big Ten race, not much. However, I do wonder how much of a fight Saturday night's team would have put up against Michigan State. Though, as was pointed out to me on Twitter, Saturday night's team wouldn't have played the Spartans the same way because they aren't afraid of Michigan State like they were Alabama.
It's hard to make judgments on this game when it's not all that different than most teams' season opener against an overmatched opponent. Unfortunately for Michigan, this time they were the FCS school making a cash grab.
They were never going to beat Alabama. However, they don't need to be good enough to beat Alabama in order to win the Big Ten. They only need to be better than the Big Ten.
We still don't know whether they are or not.
Was Saturday's offensive game plan simply taking the safest route to the surest end? Or was this the Michigan offense that we are going to see this year? This can't be the real offense, can it? It better not be.
Defensively, we knew there were going to be issues up front. We just don't yet know how bad those issues really are because getting manhandled by Alabama isn't a good way to judge how good you are.
We will likely have to wait until the fourth week of the season against Notre Dame before we can make any definitive statements about the defense.
Hopefully for Michigan's sake, those statements will be much different than they are now.
The Road to the Big One
Sept 1 Alabama 41 - Michigan 14 (0-1)
Sept 8 Air Force
Sept 15 Massachusetts
Sept 22 at Notre Dame
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 Ohio State
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