Michigan Monday – The Definition of Insanity
By Tony Gerdeman
Penn State outlasted Michigan 43-40 in four overtimes on Saturday, and the Wolverines squandered several opportunities to secure the victory over the Nittany Lions.
There's something to be said for being in a position to win a road game where your quarterback turns the ball over three times, two of which lead to touchdowns, and your running backs combine for 30 carries and 28 yards.
There's also something to be said for doing something 30 times ineffectively and expecting each time for it to be effective – it's called insanity.
As you can guess, the single aspect that stands out to me more than any other from this game was the running game. Yes, Devin Gardner rushed for 121 yards on 24 carries, and that's a pretty good foundation to build on. However, that foundation may as well be built on sand given the way the Michigan offensive line gets pushed around and the way Fitzgerald Toussaint and Derrick Green can't make anything out of nothing. Some running backs can make something out of nothing, but those running backs have yet to play for this Michigan team.
Toussaint carried the ball 27 times for 27 yards, and Green carried it three times for three yards. Toussaint had a 12-yard carry and an eight-yard carry, and then picked up a total of seven other yards in his other 25 carries.
There is no surprise when it comes to the Michigan running game. In fact, it's the equivalent of throwing yourself a surprise party. Every snap is an invitation that you sent out, and on the card you've written, “Don't tell me about my party, I want it to be a surprise.” And then there's an RSVP attached.
The real surprise is when Toussaint can actually pick up five yards on a carry. A three-yard carry is a win for Michigan right now, which is just a ridiculously low bar for a bunch of football coaches who pride themselves on “Michigan football”.
At the Ohio State media luncheon on Monday, former Buckeye head coach Earle Bruce sat down at my table and before he even opened his boxed lunch, he said, “Boy, how about that Michigan game?”
I asked him if he thought it was the running backs or the offensive line that was the problem, and he didn't even concern himself with the backs because he said the offensive line wasn't moving anybody.
Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton talked on Monday about how an effective offensive line gives a running back confidence, and it allows them to relax and read their keys and anticipate where the second opening will be. For Michigan's tailbacks, there can't be any confidence. They'd love to worry about a second opening, but first they have to figure out the dead bolt on the first one.
On one of Derrick Green's carries Saturday, he slowed down as he got to the line because he realized there was no where to go. He basically just gave up. This Michigan running game is a ranch-style house, because there is no second level.
That being said, for a 235-pound running back, he sure doesn't use his momentum very well. He's been easy to tackle all season long. He has yet to show any vision or any agility. He's still a freshman and he's got a lot of time left, but there have been no flashes. I could probably do a “Toussaint Study” on him, but I don't need to in order to tell you that the vast majority of his 26 carries this season have never reached four yards.
I have given my theory on offensive football to others, but I'm not sure I've ever shared it here. It is very simple: Basically, if you have a bad offense, it's by choice. There are so many different styles and ways to attack a defense now, that if you're not doing anything “high tech”, then you better have superior talent, and that doesn't describe Michigan football right now.
When undermanned programs want to even the playing field, they do it with offense, because it's relatively easy, and it's remarkably effective. That leveling of the playing field isn't really done via the I-formation that Al Borges and Brady Hoke prefer.
Jim Tressel won a BCS National Championship running that offense. Of course, he had a tailback who routinely made the first man miss in the backfield, and a quarterback who's sole purpose in life was to not make mistakes. But when he made it to his second championship in 2006, he was running more of a spread offense that better suited his players. In 2007, he put the offense on Beanie Wells' shoulders, and rode him to another BCS Championship Game. In other words, even Jim Tressel designed his offenses around his personnel – it's crazy, I know.
Remember in 2008 when Rich Rodriguez was running his favored offense without the personnel to do so? Five years later, what are we looking at right now? Brady Hoke is running his favored offense without the personnel to do so. Have we really come this far to essentially be standing in the same hole? Yes, Hoke is a defensive guy, so he doesn't really “have an offense”, but he's the guy who hired Al Borges, and he did it knowing what would be coming with him.
I don't know if the numbers bear this out – though I suspect they do – but this offense is much more effective out of spread formations, like the shotgun and the pistol. Gardner's best runs come from the read option, so there are at least some holes being made by the offensive line. Perhaps if Michigan went to more of this, then the defense would have to react, and that would leave some holes for Toussaint.
Right now a defense can defend this running game with six or seven defenders, which often allows them to cover the two receivers and tight end with four or five players. That leads to interceptions, as we've seen. As I've been saying for about a month now, when the run goes away from a defensive end, he is simply staying home and waiting for the bootleg. They don't need his help.
Devin Gardner and tight end Devin Funchess are the only dynamic parts of this offense right now, and Gardner gives more than the United Way. It's dangerous to ask him to do more, but is it better than asking everybody else to give you absolutely nothing?
When Michigan Was On Offense
Everything else being equal, Michigan had 34 points with 10 minutes to play against Penn State, and that should have been enough. The Wolverines put up 389 yards of total offense, despite having nearly 30 of their 83 snaps wasted.
Devin Gardner was 15-28 passing for 240 yards. He threw three touchdowns and two interceptions. Both interceptions led to short touchdown drives by Penn State. He was also sacked three times.
The first interception was an out route to Jeremy Gallon that saw a defensive back watch Gardner's eyes and drop off of his man on the inside and pick it off easily. The second interception was a pass that was picked by defensive end Anthony Zettel, who dropped back and turned invisible as Gardner threw the ball right to him.
Gardner never saw either defender, and that's got to be a terrible feeling for Al Borges. He also lost a fumble on a sack, but fortunately the Michigan defense held.
A couple of positives on offense were Funchess and Gallon. Funchess finished with four receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns, and Gallon led the team with his seven receptions (95 yards and a touchdown.) They are one of the best receiver duos in the conference right now; and yes, I used that term “receiver” on purpose, as Funchess continues to be very effective lining out wide.
Left tackle Taylor Lewan left the game in the second quarter with an injury, so some may want to point to his absence as one reason why the Wolverines couldn't run. I would tell you that it certainly didn't help, but also that there were no huge pushes coming from Lewan's side when he was in there.
Like last week, Michigan again worked with some unbalanced lines, but the big surprise this week was that they ran away from it a few times. It was such an effective surprise that it never worked. One of Gardner's sacks came when tight end A.J. Williams was the “left tackle” and got beaten badly. How's that for out-scheming an opponent?
There's a lot more that can be said about the offensive line, but the internet only has limited space, so I'll keep it short. Chris Bryant started at guard and Graham Glasgow started at center for the second week in a row. Bryant was eventually pulled for Joey Burzynski. Fellow guard Kyle Kalis had issues all game long. He had a crushing personal foul that changed a third and one to a third and 16. Sure, they probably weren't going to pick up the third and one, but it's still a horrific mistake.
When Lewan left the game, right tackle Michael Schofield moved to left tackle and redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson came in at right tackle. Lewan should be back this weekend, by the way.
You can say the lack of a running game was the result of the shuffled offensive line, but I would also tell you that there wouldn't be nearly as much shuffling if there was any running game to speak of.
Overall, it was not a well-played or a well-coached game for Michigan's offense. That being said, the critical decisions in the final moments of the fourth quarter and into overtime were all done “by the book”.
Before that, however, there was also the matter of Michigan not bothering to try to score at the end of the first half when they had 1:29 on the clock. Penn State was leading 21-10 and the Nittany Lions were going to get the ball at the start of the third quarter. Gardner actually started the drive with a nine-yard completion on first down, but then they ran Toussaint twice for no gain and then punted. They couldn't even run the clock out properly.
On a first and goal from the eight-yard line during the third quarter, Gardner picked up three yards and lost his helmet. Rather than calling a timeout and keeping Gardner in the game, Hoke elected to put freshman Shane Morris in the game. Everybody in the stadium knew that a run would be coming, which is why it would have been the perfect opportunity for a play-action pass. Instead, Toussaint got the carry and lost two yards. Then Gardner came back in for a third and goal from the eight, and threw an incompletion to Funchess. I realize that it's asking a lot to have a freshman make a decision, but it's also the very thing the defense had no concerns about happening.
Basically, Borges is making life more difficult on his own offense than he is the defensive coordinators that he's playing against.
Then came the second-to-last drive of regulation for the Michigan offense. They got the ball with 6:28 to play, and held it for 5:38. But in those five-plus minutes, a lot happened. Of note, at the 4:18 mark, Michigan had to call a timeout to avoid a delay of game. At the 1:42 mark, they did not get the timeout called, and went from a third and nine at the 27-yard line, to a third and 14 and a 49-yard field goal possibility. Then on the very next play, Toussaint lost three more yards and Hoke decided to punt from the Penn State 35-yard line rather than attempt a 52-yard field goal to seal the game.
If Lloyd Carr was watching the game, I'm betting he thought his television suddenly turned into a mirror. Matt Wile then calmly punted the ball into the endzone for a 15-yard net.
In Hoke's defense, he was just following the football coaching handbook that says “never do anything that could come back to haunt you in two or fewer plays.”
If you're asking me, kicking a field goal isn't a bad way to go, because even if you give the ball to the opponent at the 40-yard line, it's always the last 20 yards that are the toughest, no matter where you start from.
Michigan got the ball back with 21 seconds to play at their own 35-yard line with the game tied at 34-34. On first down, Gardner hit Gallon for 25 yards, giving Michigan a first down at the Penn State 40-yard line. Gallon was taken out of bounds on the pass, stopping the clock. Then, for a reason that I do not yet understand, Gardner was told to spike the ball on the next play, which he did. Brendan Gibbons eventually missed a 52-yard field goal attempt, sending the game into overtime.
On third and 10 in the fourth overtime for Michigan, the Wolverines again failed to call timeout before the play clock expired, making it third and 15 at the Penn State 30-yard line. Gardner would pick up seven yards on a scramble on the next play, but Gibbons would miss the 40-yard field goal.
It was a whole bunch of “what am I even watching here?” from the Michigan offense.
When Michigan Was On Defense
This is getting pretty wordy, so I'll keep the defense short. Jake Ryan returned in a limited role, and that role will expand and become more productive moving forward. He is a welcome sight to this defense.
Michigan held Penn State to just 85 yards rushing, which is a fabulous number given the four quarters and four overtimes. There wasn't much room to run, and when Nittany Lion tailback Bill Belton found some room, it was a surprise. He finished with 27 carries for 85 yards.
I said leading up to this game that Penn State should attack this Michigan defense with their tight ends, and they did it very effectively. Tight ends Jesse James and Kyle Carter combined for eight catches for 91 yards. Linebacker James Ross was showing his frustration with the number of catches he was giving up in coverage. Ross did lead the team with 10 tackles, however.
Defensive end Frank Clark had a nice game, including two sacks and two fumble recoveries, one of which went for a touchdown. He also nearly had an interception on freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
I was very impressed by redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chris Wormley, who finished with four solo tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. He doesn't look as big as the 289-pounds that he is listed at, and he still looks as quick as the defensive end he used to be. He looks like he is going to be a player, and may, in fact, already be one.
It was notable that Michigan didn't care for Penn State's hurry up offense. Several times there weren't lined up properly and weren't ready for the snap. I wonder what life will be like for them when they find themselves up against a team that is going to run a consistent hurry up offense.
The Special Teams
When your field goal kicker misses three of his five field goals in overtime and the final two seconds of a ball game, I bet your special teams gets a failing grade. When you want your punter to pin an opponent inside the 10-yard line, and he puts the ball into the endzone, that grade isn't going to get any better. Only one of Wile's six punts was downed inside the 20-yard line.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that the Michigan offense is so unimaginative that it will soon be spun off as a “Law & Order” series.
In the overtime periods, Michigan's formation choices were apparent. When they got the ball second in an overtime and only needed a field goal to win, they ran their offense exclusively through the I-formation. Toussaint carried the ball four times for two yards in those two overtime periods. Michigan ended up with two missed field goals in those periods.
When the Wolverines had the ball first, however, they ran a spread offense every snap, save for one one-back set.
Obviously, they were playing it safe when they only needed a field goal to win, as the book states to do. But when they thought they might need actual touchdowns, they went to the shotgun and the pistol, and Toussaint touched the ball once. That is not a coincidence. What probably is a coincidence, however, is that Michigan made their field goals in both of those periods.
To sum up, I think it's time for Michigan to scrap this I-formation stuff that isn't working, and go much more to the spread stuff that is sort of working. The Wolverines are still scoring very well, and could be scoring even better when they aren't running into a wailing wall 30 times per game. Obviously, Gardner scares them to death, and it says a lot when they'd rather run the ball 30 times knowing nothing will come from it, but at least it keeps interceptions from happening.
The Indiana game coming up isn't the time to regain false confidence with the running game – if that's even possible – because Michigan State follows them, and they will take that false confidence and expose the ugly truth. Use the time now to work out the kinks in the spread, and then fix them even more over the bye week after the Hoosier game.
Two weeks ago I said that Borges and Hoke are heading straight for an iceberg, but they expect the iceberg to move. The evasive maneuvers could still work, but who knows if they're even interested in trying.
Doing nothing is always easier than doing anything, and from what we've seen to this point, this offense doesn't like to do much.
I think Indiana will be able to score on this defense next week, so the Michigan offense will be taken out of its comfort zone (which is actually just a dark closet with a comforter on the floor and some winter coats as pillows).
Perhaps the best thing to happen for this team is that they lost a game that they easily could have won. They can no longer keep excusing their issues with the running game. Now that they have to admit that something is broken, they'll finally getting around to trying to fix it.
Knowing is half the battle, but actually fixing the problem is another issue entirely.
The Road To The Big One
August 31 Michigan 59 – Central Michigan 9 (1-0)
September 7 Michigan 41 – Notre Dame 30 (2-0)
September 14 Michigan 28 – Akron 24 (3-0)
September 21 Michigan 24 – Connecticut 21 (4-0)
October 5 Michigan 42 – Minnesota 13 (5-0, 1-0)
October 12 Penn State 43 – Michigan 40 (5-1, 1-1)
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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