Michigan Monday — Under the Lights
By Tony Gerdeman
The Michigan Wolverines took it to Notre Dame just like those of us in the know knew they would on Saturday night. The evening turned into a 41-30 Wolverine win that saw Michigan keep the Irish at arm's length throughout. Notre Dame made it interesting at times, but the Wolverines always had an answer.
There's a certain confidence that I have in quarterback Devin Gardner and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison that is hard to explain, but I'll try. Honestly, I should have very little confidence in Gardner. He's started a half a dozen games at quarterback coming into the Notre Dame game, and still throws some passes that should never be thrown.
But that's just a fraction of what he does. Everything else results in production.
Mattison, meanwhile, gets more out of his players than is fair to ask. There aren't many great players on the Michigan defense - I don't even know if there is one great player on Michigan's defense currently - but I know that Mattison will put the pieces together like a pragmatist. Everybody has a distinct purpose, and he tries not to ask anybody to do anything that they cannot do at least marginally well.
That being said, the Notre Dame offense exposed a few things on defense for the Wolverines. But fortunately for Michigan, they are clearly in the position to be able to outscore most teams when that tactic is called for.
When Michigan Was On Offense
I was very impressed with Al Borges' game plan for running the ball against Notre Dame. They finished with 166 yards rushing on 39 carries (4.3 avg), and even though it wasn't spectacular, it accomplished what they set out to do.
I think Borges knew that he wasn't going to be able to just run between the tackles, so he had to mix in some jet sweeps and a reverse. He also used Devin Gardner's legs on bootlegs and a few zone reads. The more Gardner is moving around, the more dangerous this offense is.
Borges was able to stick to the running game because of how effective Gardner is on picking up third downs. (The Wolverines were 6-12 for the game on third downs.) They may only get a few yards on first and second down, but it made third down very manageable.
For instance, Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for just 71 yards on 22 carries (3.2 avg), and 18 of his 22 carries went for four yards or less. Also, 11 of his 22 carries went for two yards or less. Despite this, he did have some key carries, as three of his four runs of five yards or more occurred on touchdown drives.
Toussaint had a 22-yard run in the fourth quarter after Notre Dame kicked a field goal to cut Michigan's lead to 34-30. The run put the Wolverines at midfield, and one play later Gardner found Toussaint in the flats on a bit of a wheel route that turned into a 31-yard gain. Notre Dame then pass interfered its way into a Michigan touchdown to seal the game. (And yes, the pass interference calls were correct.)
I came into this game wondering how the Wolverines were going to run the ball, and they ended up doing it every which way they could. Gardner was the most effective runner, however, finishing with 90 yards on 12 carries.
The speedy Dennis Norfleet got a carry out wide (one yard), and he also touched the ball twice on a tap pass/jet sweep. Freshman tailback Derrick Green only carried the ball once, losing a yard in the process. The tailback touches (Toussaint 22, everybody else 1) certainly gives us an idea that Toussaint is the only tailback the coaches trust right now in big games.
Notre Dame had some success run blitzing up the middle on the stretch plays, as left guard Graham Glasgow would be caught off guard and unable to leave his area and reach the blitzer.
The passing game was pretty effective because Jeremy Gallon might just be the best receiver in the Big Ten. He scored the first touchdown for the Wolverines on a 61-yard catch and run that saw him get hit by a couple of defenders and then spin out of their tackles and run into the endzone. He's always played bigger than he actually is, but on that play he was the world's first 5-foot-8 180-pound college football brute.
He finished with eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns. The bad news, however, is that I'm think of picking him up on my fantasy team and that's been bad news for human bones so far this season.
The rest of the team combined for 13 catches for 110 yards. Tight end Devin Funchess had three catches for just 19 yards as the Wolverines tried to get him involved over the short middle of the field, as opposed to the deep middle where you would think he would be extremely effective.
Drew Dileo had three catches for 18 yards out of the slot, including the final touchdown of the game on a nice option route that left a defender reminiscing about where Dileo used to be and no longer was.
Gardner completed 21-33 passes for 294 yards. He threw four touchdowns and one interception. That interception, however, was one of the worst that I have ever seen. He escaped the rush, then tried to scramble out of trouble by turning his back to the defense and running back into the endzone, before finally trying to throw the ball away as he was getting sacked. The pass was caught by Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt for a touchdown.
I was driving home from the Ohio State game and was listening to this game on the radio when the play happened, and when I got home I asked on Twitter if the play was as bad as it sounded. Of the 50 or so responses that I got, they all answered "worse", even the Michigan fans. And they were right.
The good that Gardner does far outweighs the one or three bad plays that he tends to have in every game. However, the fact that you just don't know when those plays are going to happen has to be a concern. It's not a big issue as long as the Wolverines stay a couple of scores ahead of their opponents, but the possibility seems to always be there for that one mistake that should never have been made.
That all being said, Gardner is pretty darn good when he's on the move, so it's not like you can limit his escapability. I would call him great, except for the fact that he throws back across the field too often for my liking, and it should have actually led to a second interception against Notre Dame.
The offensive line was challenged all game long, and they came away with a couple of holding calls, as well as an unsportsmanlike penalty on right guard Kyle Kalis. All in all, however, it was a solid effort. Gardner was only sacked once, and that came on a stunt where right tackle Michael Schofield and Kalis both lost the defensive end.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Michigan held Notre Dame to just 105 yards rushing (96 yards after factoring in a Tommy Rees sack). Though for me to say that they "held" them to those numbers is a bit misleading, since they only carried the ball 18 times. What I should have said was "Brian Kelly held Notre Dame to just 105 yards rushing."
I'm still trying to figure out why the Irish only ran the ball 18 times and threw it 53 times. It's not like they were down by three scores in the second half and had to abandon all hope.
They averaged 5.8 yards per carry and were having success simply running up the middle against this Michigan defense. Obviously, Kelly is not the most patient guy, as evidenced by the numerous shades of purple that his face turns throughout a football game.
But come on, the running game was working, and it was keeping the ball away from Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon. Where is the thought process here?
As an aside, much of Notre Dame's running success came from the pistol formation, which the Buckeyes ran very effectively on Saturday. Obviously, the defenses are much different, but the point is that the Wolverines will eventually face another pistol offense, but that pistol offense will also bring with it a running threat at quarterback.
I'm even more puzzled why they didn't lean on the running game more considering how non-existent the middle of the Michigan defense was. Linebackers Desmond Morgan and James Ross each finished with six tackles, but none of the linebackers had a tackle for loss. They were constantly occupied.
Rees finished 29-51 passing for 314 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, both by cornerback Blake Countess. Given Rees' history of being Tommy Rees, the smart play by Kelly would have been to keep running the ball until it wasn't working, and mixing in everything else. You know, sort of like Al Borges did.
Saturday night was the first time we saw this defense go against an offense that actually had some talent. The running game was successful, but limited. The Wolverines also had some trouble with tight end Troy Niklas, who finished with six catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. He is a huge target, and not unlike Ohio State's tight ends in that regard.
Maybe I'm wrong about this, but it looked like James Ross was playing strongside linebacker at times, and Cameron Gordon was playing weakside. Ross had coverage issues in these instances, and I have no idea what this means moving forward. Sophomore Joe Bolden also got plenty of snaps in place of Ross. I expected a lot more out of Ross this season, and perhaps the coaches did as well.
Notre Dame also had success attacking the wide sides of the field, as we saw with Northwestern last season. That is also something that the Buckeyes are focused more on this season.
I was impressed again by cornerbacks Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor. Countess's first interception came when he left his man and jumped a ball intended or another receiver. His second interception came in the Notre Dame endzone off of a 10-yard deflection. Sometimes players just have a knack for the ball, and Countess seems to be one of those.
I think there is still a lot of room for improvement at safety. Thomas Gordon was back from his suspension this week and finished with seven tackles. Tackling isn't necessarily the concern. The deep middle of the field has some open spaces, and I'll be interested to see if teams try to test Jarrod Wilson back there moving forward.
Despite facing 52 pass plays from Rees, the Wolverines only sacked him once. Brennen Beyer got him late in the game while lined up at defensive end. Speaking of Beyer, he started the game at strongside linebacker in place of Cam Gordon, and I was surprised that Notre Dame didn't attack him when he was matched up in the slot. That seems like a wasted opportunity to me.
Overall, I don't think it was a great day for the Michigan defensive line. Rush end Frank Clark again showed his quickness, however, beating the left tackle to the inside badly a couple of times, which led to some plays in the backfield.
The Special Teams
It wasn't a great day for the Michigan special teams either. Matt Wile punted the ball three times for just a 31.3-yard average.
Dennis Norfleet muffed a punt, but it was recovered by the Wolverines. He also returned three kickoffs for a 26-yard average.
Michigan gave up a 50-yard kickoff return to George Atkinson, so that may become something to pay attention to moving forward.
Brendan Gibbons was again perfect, making a 44 and 38-yard field goal.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Devin Gardner may be the best player in the Big Ten, but he's not immune from a play or two that would be more reminiscent of the worst player in the Big Ten.
Despite his interceptions and near interceptions, however, his production and leadership far outweigh any negatives. If a defense can limit his running, I think the offense could be vulnerable. That's easier said than done, however.
I expect Gardner's legs to be used as much as Denard Robinson's were, but it will be done more effectively and more efficiently.
It should also be mentioned that the Wolverines were 4-4 on redzone opportunities, and each of those opportunities led to touchdowns. They are now 10-11 scoring touchdowns in the redzone this season, and the one time they didn't, it was Shane Morris at quarterback.
Defensively, Notre Dame had success throwing to the tight ends, and getting the ball to the edges, as well as quick-hitting runs right up the middle. Teams will attempt to mimic the success that the Irish offense had, but the problem with that is that Mattison probably already has a fix in mind.
When I watched the way Notre Dame attacked the Michigan defense and the success that they had, it seemed like the Ohio State offense is already formatted to do similar things in November.
The Buckeyes will be able to pound the ball with most anyone, and then just as quickly take a speed option out wide with a 4.4 quarterback and a 4.4 running back. Northwestern had success with it last year. It will be interesting to see if they have success with it again this year.
Overall, this was a good win for the Wolverines against an up and down quarterback, and a play caller who simply couldn't stay patient enough to run the ball and keep the football out of Devin Gardner's hands. It was a flawed approach by Brian Kelly, and the Wolverines took full advantage of it.
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