Michigan Muesday — The Miracle on Main Street
By Tony Gerdeman
[Editor's Note: Technically, this piece was submitted for publication on Monday in keeping with it's usual title, Michigan Monday. The complicating factor is that while it did arrive on Monday, only 14 minutes remained until Tuesday. Since it did arrive on Monday, but will not be posted until Tuesday, we are calling this particular edition Michigan Muesday.]
Move aside Denard Robinson against Notre Dame in 2011 and Tate Forcier against Notre Dame in 2009, Devin Gardner has surpassed you both with his Elwayian heroics in the final minutes of Saturday's classic against the Akron Zips, who just happen to be one of the six best MAC teams from Ohio.
The Wolverines moved to 3-0 on the season with their 28-24 comeback win over the Zips (1-2). It took a touchdown in the final three minutes for Michigan to regain the lead, and then a goal-line stand in the final seconds to keep it.
I really had no thoughts that Michigan would lose this game, even when they were actually losing late in the fourth quarter. For all his faults on Saturday, Devin Gardner is better than anything Akron has seen, and on the final drive he wasted all of 1:21 before getting the lead back. When he's dialed in, he's very good. When he's not, you don't know know he's not until he makes a mistake that should never have been made.
Overall, this was a pretty disappointing game on both sides of the ball, and all corners on each of those sides. No Wolverine was innocent in this game. This debacle was a complete team effort.
That being said, a win should never be apologized for because one big win erases all of the little ones, and the way the Legends Division is shaking out with Michigan State and Nebraska showing their vulnerabilities with zero shame, being undefeated right now is all that could be asked for.
There are issues here, but there are no perfect teams on Michigan's schedule this season.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines rushed for 177 yards on 32 carries (5.5 ypc). However, the running backs rushed for just 74 yards on 20 carries. Fitzgerald Toussaint owned 71 of those yards and 19 of those carries. His average per carry was just 3.7 yards. He is averaging an extremely disappointing 3.6 yards per carry this season.
By comparison, the previous week, Akron gave up 162 yards rushing to James Madison's running backs, so obviously Akron is able to be run on from the tailback position.
The tailback continues to be a problem for the Michigan offense. Toussaint struggled again, as 15 of his 19 carries went for four yards or less. It gets worse from there, however, as 12 of his 19 carries went for two yards or less and eight of his 19 carries went for no gain or less.
In other words, his eighth-longest carry of the day went for no gain.
For the season, 35% of Toussaint's carries have gone for no gain or a loss; 53% have gained two yards or less; and 75% have gained four yards or less. More often than not, a carry by Toussaint is doing this offense very little.
The problem with this dilemma is that Al Borges doesn't seem comfortable turning to anybody else to look for production. Derrick Green hardly looks like the answer right now as he's having trouble outrunning defensive linemen on stretch plays. I would like to see what freshman De'Veon Smith could do, but it's clear who Al Borges trusts, and it's almost nobody.
At this point, the purpose of the running game is to keep defenses honest, and to get the ball just a little bit closer to the chains so that Devin Gardner can pick up the third and six.
I can't help but think what a blown opportunity this was for Green. He's already the number two tailback, and has one good run to show for it this year. Had he come into camp as Michigan expected him to, he would probably be able to handle more of a workload, and he'd probably also be able to actually do something with it.
Before the season, I asked on Twitter (@gerdozone) who would have more yards from scrimmage between Green and Ohio State freshman Dontre Wilson. Right now, Wilson has him beaten 193 to 60. In fact, they each have 13 carries on the season. Green has 60 yards rushing (4.6 ypc) and Wilson has 121 yards rushing (9.3 ypc).
Green will still have plenty of opportunities this season, but it's pretty obvious which of the two rookies came in ready to contribute immediately.
The other question with the running game would be the offensive line, namely, how good does a running back actually have to be just to look average in this offense? Right now there is very little push between the tackles, and the only speed to the outside comes from sweeps with Dennis Norfleet.
Center Jack Miller was pushed around like a shopping cart by Akron's defensive line, and he wasn't the only one. At one point, the BTN sideline reporter was talking to former Wolverine offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson about left tackle Taylor Lewan, and at that same moment, Lewan was being pushed into the backfield right to where the ball was for a loss of a couple of yards.
There were no innocents in this running game. Despite that, I think we know what Michigan has in Toussaint, and I doubt it's fear inducing to opposing defenses. And at this point, in order to make Green more effective, I think the offensive line would have to hold blocks longer than they're capable of doing right now.
The only redeeming quality of the running game continues to be Devin Gardner scrambling and reading the option. He did have a fumble on a speed option inside the redzone, which was a huge turnover and kept Akron's spirits in the game. He won this game on his legs, however, rushing for 103 yards and a touchdown. He had two 35-yard carries and a 36-yarder. He is a big play waiting to happen, it's just sometimes the big play doesn't belong to Michigan.
The passing game certainly has more promise than the running game, but it's not like the passing game is immune from their own issues. Gardner threw three interceptions to an Akron defense that gave up 310 yards passing and three touchdowns to James Madison.
One of those interceptions was a terrible pick six on a screen pass where Gardner never saw the defender in relation to his receiver. He has now thrown six interceptions on the season. That's as many interceptions as Braxton Miller threw all season last year. Gardner now has eight starts under his belt as a quarterback and he's thrown 11 interceptions in those games.
Last season, he never had more than one interception in a game. This season, he's lucky to only have the six that he has. I don't think it's a coincidence that with more being asked of him in the passing game, the interceptions have increased.
I also thought it was interesting that Akron's defense didn't bite on the bootleg play-action much. Several times they had an edge defender in Gardner's face as he was running his bootleg. It only turned into one sack, but it certainly disrupted the timing of the designed play. Defenses don't have to respect the run right now, so they can afford to have that edge defender take a run at Gardner whether he still has the ball or not. Defenses aren't worried.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl completed 25-49 passes for 311 yards. He threw two touchdowns and two interceptions. One of those interceptions came in the endzone on a quick pop pass to a tight end, but safety Jarrod Wilson stepped in to steal the ball and protect Michigan's lead for a few minutes longer.
It was not a great day for nickel back Jourdan Lewis, who chased receivers around all afternoon. He gave up a few plays downfield at critical times, and it seemed like Akron was attacking him on purpose. When Michigan goes to a nickel, cornerback Blake Countess moves inside to cover the slot, and the nickel then plays cornerback. This led to a few passes deep down the sideline that were fairly open. It will be something to watch moving forward, as they may have to move the actual nickel back inside and keep Countess outside, or find a different nickel back. So far they're not having much luck finding a fix at that spot.
It wasn't a great day for cornerback Raymon Taylor either, as he was consistently a step behind the receivers. He wasn't as locked on as he was the week before.
Last week I talked a bit about how open the middle of the field was against Notre Dame, and it was exploited again this past week by the Zips. The linebackers are having issues defending the receivers in the slot, be they actual receivers or tight ends. When I see this, I wonder how they will go about defending the Ohio State offense that will have three receivers, a tight end, a tailback, and a mobile quarterback.
If they keep the linebackers in to stop the run, who will defend the the tight end flexed out and the slot receiver? If they bring in an extra defensive back or two, then that would seem to favor the Buckeyes' power running game. This is, of course, a simplified future, as defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will certainly have as solid a game plan as is possible for this defense.
Speaking of Mattison, he didn't seem all that happy on Saturday. His defense was getting pushed around. There was very little pass rush and there was no penetration. Michigan's starting defensive tackles Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black failed to record any tackles. They were too easily blocked in this game.
Interestingly, linebacker Joe Bolden started in place of James Ross this week. Ross has been quiet this season, so it probably shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was. More interestingly, however, was the way Ross responded. He led the team with 10 tackles. If this was a ploy by the coaches, then it seemed to work.
Overall, I still think the front seven gets blocked too easily, though the linebackers can only do so much when they're running to a play and the offensive line is already in the second level.
There continues to be room to work between the linebackers and safeties in the passing game. There's not enough range between those two spots. Basically, if the linebackers and the safeties were a Venn diagram, they wouldn't always intersect.
The lack of a pass rush is a concern. James Madison sacked Akron four times, which is four more times than Michigan sacked the Zips. Defensive end Mario Ojemudia continues to be the only Michigan defensive lineman with a sack. Frank Clark came in with big expectations, but to this point has just one tackle for loss.
The Special Teams
Drew Dileo was the punt returner, as the Wolverines are trying to avoid the inevitable critical muff by Dennis Norfleet. He also returned two kickoffs for an average of 15 yards. The return game continues to be very meh.
Matt Wile did not have a great game punting. He had a 21-yard punt and a 22-yard punt. Both of those punts led to scoring drives for Akron.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that even though this was not a pretty win, it was a win nonetheless. A year ago at this time, Wisconsin was 2-1 and completely unsure of what kind of team they were. They ended up winning a Big Ten Championship.
This was not an impressive outing for the Wolverines, and some of it was absolutely due to a let down coming off of the Notre Dame win. However, that win lost a little bit of luster with the way the Irish struggled against Purdue, and now we are left to wonder what it was we should be impressed by.
Michigan was extremely fortunate to win this game, so perhaps they will use this win as a reminder that nothing is as easy as some would like to think it is. With only a pair of dynamic playmakers on offense, every mistake keeps an opponent that much closer than they need to be. Eliminate the mistakes, and this is a much different team.
However, eliminating the mistakes might be the one thing that this team can't do.
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