Michigan Monday – The Constantly Inconsistent Gardner
By Tony Gerdeman
For the second week in a row the Michigan Wolverines had to come from behind to get a win over an opponent that had no offensive or defensive pulse. This past weekend it was a 24-21 win over the now 0-3 Connecticut Huskies. Michigan needed 10 fourth-quarter points to secure the win, but secure has to be the furthest thing from how this team is feeling at the moment.
This was Devin Gardner's worst game as a quarterback, and it was the first time that he has looked completely unsure of himself for almost an entire game. At one point, in fact, he appeared to lose all confidence.
It's Al Borges' job as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach to make sure that Gardner is always confident, and if his quarterback has questions and doubts, then Borges needs to ease those concerns. I didn't see that happening Saturday night, and it's probably a pretty good thing that Michigan has a bye week this week so that they can get some things straightened out offensively, because what is happening right now isn't going to work.
Watching Brady Hoke on the sideline, you could see the frustration on his face. After the game, there was no relief there, just concern. Sure, the win is nice, but just because you made it home safely with the check engine light on doesn't mean there still isn't a problem with your car.
When Michigan Was On Offense
There's no getting past it anymore – when we talk about Devin Gardner's vast potential, we have to talk about both halves of it; the good and the bad. Nobody has thrown more interceptions this season than Gardner (eight), yet few are as good as Gardner when he is at his best. However, you just don't know when that best is coming, and the worst can come out at any time – and repeatedly.
Ohio State may have two quarterbacks, but Michigan has one quarterback with a split personality; and when you throw doubt into situation, things get even worse.
Gardner was 11-23 passing for just 97 yards and no touchdowns against UConn. He threw two interceptions, was sacked three times and fumbled twice. Even though he recovered one of his fumbles, it came on a fourth down where he was about to get a first down, but got hit hard and fumbled the ball, forcing him to recover it short of the first down marker. Because of this, I'm chalking him up with four turnovers on the day.
Gardner was also 0-5 passing with an interception in the second quarter. The Huskies outscored Michigan 14-0 in that quarter, and it gave them momentum going into the half. Right now this team isn't good enough for the offense to be taking entire quarters off.
If you want to know how bad UConn is, just remember that Gardner turned it over four times and Michigan still won. One of those turnovers was a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, making it 21-7 early in the third quarter. The Wolverines had to work hard to give this game away, and the Huskies just wouldn't take it.
To be at its best, this offense needs as much as it can get from Gardner, and if the Wolverines aren't getting his best, there are going to be more uncomfortably-close games on this schedule.
Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 120 yards against UConn, but Gardner is still their best running threat. If he's not producing on the ground, it makes this entire offense less dynamic. He rushed for 106 yards, but he lost 42 yards via sacks and other shenanigans. He doesn't have to turn the ball over to kill a drive, because a sack deep in the backfield can have the same effect.
On the plus side, he still made enough plays to win the game, and he got help from Toussaint who carried the Wolverine offense in the second half. He rushed for 83 yards in the second half, carrying the ball 14 times. It was the best he has looked all season, but seven of his 24 carries (29.2%) still went for a loss or no gain. That's a better ratio than his 8/19 for a loss or no gain last week, however.
Since I've done it every week now, I guess I'll continue with the rest of his carry breakdown: 10/24 (41.7%) carries went for two yards or less; 14/24 (58.3%) went for four yards or less. All of those numbers are an improvement from the Akron game.
Overall, Michigan ran the ball 49 times for 192 yards (3.9 avg) and threw it just 23 times for 97 yards. A handful of those runs were scrambles and sacks that started out as called passes. That ratio is a bit larger than normal. As right now they're at a 60/40 run/pass ratio for the season, which isn't outrageous.
Gardner's inaccurate night did a great job of neutering his receivers. His longest completion of the game was just 17 yards. I do expect a better passing attack the next time we see this team, but the questions about Gardner will remain.
When Michigan Was On Defense
This was one of the better performances by the Wolverine defense this season. They held Connecticut to just 206 yards of total offense. The Huskies ran the ball 25 times for just 47 yards (1.9 avg), and quarterback Chandler Whitmer was 16-32 for 159 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked four times and threw an interception.
That fourth-quarter interception was the play of the game, as Whitmer tried to attack the area of the field behind the linebackers, which has been successful for most teams this year, but middle linebacker Desmond Morgan made a leaping one-handed interception. He returned the pick 30 yards or so to the UConn 12-yard line, and Toussaint tied the game up at 21-21 one play later.
The Huskies' longest drive of the game was just 56 yards, which was the only real touchdown drive the Michigan defense gave up. The other touchdown drive was nine yards following the muffed punt. Of their 14 drives, they went three-and-out in half of them. They actually lost yards on three of their possessions.
There's not really a lot to write about the Michigan defense because the Connecticut offense is just so awful. The good thing to see was that the Wolverines got their pass rush together and rush end Frank Clark got a pair of sacks. Defensive end Chris Wormley also got some early action in this game.
Morgan and fellow starting linebacker James Ross finished with a combined zero solo tackles, so I don't really know what to think about that. Is the gang tackling just that good, or are the linebackers a step slow?
I think we'll find out more about the Wolverines in two weeks when they face a team that believes it can run the ball. Of course, believing and executing are two very different things, but at least the Gophers will bring the proper mindset.
The Special Teams
Things weren't too bad for the Michigan special teams, save for one horrendous turnover when a Connecticut punt bounced off of Da'Mario Jones' foot and the Huskies recovered at the Michigan nine-yard line. It led to a quick touchdown for Connecticut and gave them their 14-7 halftime lead.
When punts weren't bouncing off of Wolverines, Drew Dileo was again back to return them, as he has the most trustworthy hands on the team, apparently. He finally showed something, returning a punt 24 yards in this game. However, his other two returns went for -2 yards. Dennis Norfleet returned two kickoffs for 45 yards.
Matt Wile put four of his five kickoffs into the endzone for touchbacks, and I'm assuming it's because Michigan would rather have a touchback than deal with covering a return at this point. At least that's why Ohio State does it when they do it.
Wile punted the ball well, averaging 42.4 yards on his five punts, but only one of those landed inside the 20-yard line. The Wolverines covered the punts well, except for one 15-yard return.
Now that I read what I just wrote, things were probably a little worse than “not too bad” in this area.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that it's a damn good thing that Akron and Connecticut are such accommodating teams, because without such help from an opponent, Michigan would be 2-2 right now.
Playing down to an opponent leads to unimpressive wins, not near losses. Saturday's game wasn't playing down to an opponent, it was simply the current state of Michigan football.
This version of “Michigan Football” is a complete question mark. At this point, are they even a lock to beat Minnesota at home? I don't expect them to lose, but Minnesota is going to be better than the last two teams they faced, or at least less incompetent. Eventually the Wolverines are going to come up against a mediocre team that isn't going to just hand the game over. When that happens, it can't be the same Michigan team we've seen the last two weeks, or else they will lose.
This feels like a fragile period of time for the Wolverines, and they could be approaching a turning point in their season. They have the potential to go either way, but only if they stop making the same glaring mistakes they have made all season.
Defensively, they are what they are. They give incredible effort, and they have very smart players, but the talent level needs to continue to increase. However, the defense wasn't the problem last Saturday.
This offense, on the other hand, is on a collision course with an iceberg and right now it feels like Borges and Brady Hoke are expecting the iceberg to simply get out of the way. Things aren't working as well as they'd like, and it doesn't feel like there's any plan to change their course. It seems like they just assume things will get better; and the iceberg that is dead ahead will kindly step to the side when the time comes.
This is Michigan football, after all, and Michigan football is unsinkable.
The Road To The Big One
August 31 Michigan 59 – Central Michigan 9
September 7 Michigan 41 – Notre Dame 30
September 14 Michigan 28 – Akron 24
September 21 Michigan 24 – Connecticut 21
October 5 vs Minnesota
October 12 at Penn State
October 19 vs Indiana
November 2 at Michigan State
November 9 vs Nebraska
November 16 at Northwestern
November 23 at Iowa
November 30 vs Ohio State
December 7 Big Ten Championship Game
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