Michigan Monday

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Last updated: 11/11/2013 12:07 PM
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Michigan Monday – Tales From Rock Bottom?
By Tony Gerdeman

When we look at bad losses in the Brady Hoke era, I'm not sure there were any prior to this season. For clarification's sake, a “bad loss” for me doesn't mean a blowout, it means a loss to a lesser team that shouldn't have happened. In 2011, he lost at Iowa and at #23 Michigan State. No, the Iowa loss wasn't great, but road games like that happen, and the Hawkeyes did finish 4-4 in conference play.

Last year there were no bad losses. Dropping games to Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State aren't shameful (even if the way they lost the Notre Dame game absolutely was), and the loss at Nebraska was due as much to Denard Robinson's injury as anything else.

This season, however, Michigan already has two bad losses. The 43-40 overtime loss at Penn State will continue to only get worse, especially when you consider that Illinois took the Nittany Lions to overtime as well. Despite that loss at Happy Valley, it was Saturday's 17-13 loss at home to Nebraska that was the worst of the Brady Hoke era.

Michigan welcomed in a team that was coming off of a loss to Minnesota and a miracle win against a dying Northwestern team, and yet it was the Wolverines who spent most of the game reeling.

The Huskers came into Ann Arbor without quarterback Taylor Martinez, which means what little passing game they did have, never made it off of the sideline. But it was okay, because Nebraska didn't need offense, they only needed a little bit of defense, which is about all they have.

The Huskers held Michigan to -21 yards rushing, which is the second week in a row the Wolverines have been held to negative numbers. In their last two games, they've rushed for a combined -69 yards, getting sacked 14 times. In their first seven games, Michigan quarterbacks were sacked a total of 12 times.

The worst part about that -21 number, however, is that Nebraska can't stop ANYBODY on the ground. Six of the nine Husker opponents rushed for at least 195 yards against them this season, including Wyoming and South Dakota State.

The three teams held under that 195-yard mark? Southern Miss (0-9), Purdue (1-8) and now Michigan (6-3).

This loss should have never happened, and yet the Michigan offense was powerless to stop it. Teams are supposed to get better as the season goes on, but the exact opposite is happening here. And now, for apparently the first time ever, they are an underdog at Northwestern this weekend. Yes, the same Northwestern team that is currently 0-5 in Big Ten play.

Even Rich Rodriguez's first Michigan team was a three-point favorite against Northwestern in 2008, and the Wolverines were 3-7 heading into that game against a 7-3 Wildcats team.

Michigan Football is walking on brand new ground right now, and it's uncomfortable to watch.

You can talk about the young interior of the offensive line all you want, but this is the point in the season where freshmen become sophomores, sophomores become juniors, etc. There is no progression here. The same mistakes are being made. The same positions are watching defenders run by them, regardless of the Wolverine linemen actually playing the position. There are still guards blocking nobody.

Is anybody on this offense getting better this season? Is anybody even staying the same? Sure, tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield are fine, but they're fifth-year seniors. But just imagine if both were as good as they could be.

Right now, Michigan isn't getting their money's worth from any of their offensive coaches, and unless he is forced to by athletic director Dave Brandon, I'm not sure Brady Hoke is of any mind to make some changes.

If I'm Dave Brandon, and Hoke tells me that he doesn't see a need to make significant changes, then he needs to go. I understand that youth has played a role in this year's demise, but that youth hasn't been helped at all by the coaches.

Michigan's offensive coaching staff is loaded with coaches who are at their best with veterans, which is true of all coaches; but if they don't have that “best”, then they have no way to minimize the struggles.

And really, if you can only operate when you're at your best, how often are you actually going to be there, and why should I trust that you can even do anything when you get there?

There are plenty of programs who do a lot with a little. Look at Indiana's offense – in the last two years they've scored 49 and 47 points against Ohio State and Michigan, respectively. Do you think Indiana's offensive line last year – which started two true freshmen – is more talented than the Wolverines offensive line this year?

Michigan is the rare program that is doing very little with a whole lot, and that goes back for many, many years. But it just doesn't have to be that way.

When Michigan Was On Offense

Devin Gardner lost 43 yards on his seven sacks, so the -21 rushing yards is a bit misleading because the Wolverines did much better than that – they actually gained 46 yards on the ground. See? Things aren't so bad, are they?

Running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint (9-6) and Derrick Green (8-11) combined to rush for 17 yards on 17 carries. Positive yards came as a surprise, and gains of three or more yards were met with mental streamers and rejoicing.

When you include the passing game, 31 of Michigan's 63 plays went for no gain or a loss, and 36 of 63 plays went for just two yards or less. That's not youth on the on the offensive line, that's inadequacy across the board.

Will things get better when players get older? In theory, yes. But what here has followed logic to this point?

And how old is old enough? Does an offensive lineman need to be in his fourth year before he can be counted on? If that's the expectation, then it's a ridiculous one. This is Michigan, not Iowa.

Gardner was 18-27 passing for 196 yards and a touchdown. He threw no interceptions despite facing constant pressure. I'm starting to think that his interceptions are down because he's holding the ball so long, which is bringing his sacks up. So pick your poison, do you want Gardner throwing the ball, or taking the sacks?

Nebraska had absolutely no respect for Michigan's offense, and attacked it throughout the game. Michigan made them pay once, with a 25-yard screen to Toussaint. It started Michigan's only touchdown drive of the game.

That drive came in the first possession of the second half, and of course started with the obligatory run on first down. Other than that, however, it was a fantastic series by Al Borges. It was the only one, however.

The Michigan passing game is much better than the Michigan running game, but that doesn't necessarily make it good. Gardner had an interception or two dropped, and just isn't playing with the confidence that he once was.

Michigan State set the blueprint for attacking this offense, and the Huskers followed it right along. Northwestern will do the same. Heck, even Iowa might blitz once against them.

The key moving forward will be whether or not Borges and his offense can counter something when they know it's coming. I'm not confident they can.

When Michigan Was On Defense

As a whole, Michigan's defense played well enough to win. Like last week, however, they folded a bit at the end of the game, and this time it cost them a win.

Down 13-10 with just over eight minutes to play, Nebraska went 75 yards in 14 plays (and six minutes) for the game-winning score – with what is normally their backup quarterback Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers had three third downs and one fourth down on the drive.

Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah rushed for 105 yards on 27 carries, but the UM defense did a nice job of containing him after a first quarter where he carried the ball 10 times for 56 yards.

Overall, they did a very solid job defending Nebraska's option, stretching it extremely well. Even on the game-winning touchdown, they defended the option almost perfectly, but Armstrong was still able to make a play to get the ball to Abdullah.

Michigan held Nebraska to just 273 yards of total offense, which makes the loss all the more damning.

Cameron Gordon got the start at strongside linebacker, and he tied for the team lead with eight tackles, including the team's lone sack. He also forced a fumble. He has played well of late, rotating in with Jake Ryan, who continues to try to fit in.

Despite not starting, weakside linebacker James Ross also tied for the team lead in tackles. Like most every one else on the defensive side of the ball, he did his job well enough. Interestingly, the top five tacklers for Michigan were all linebackers.

In a bit of a surprise, Courtney Avery and Josh Furman were the starting safeties. Nebraska didn't possess a passing offense that could attack them, however. Will Northwestern? Pretty likely.

Cornerback Blake Countess didn't play in the second half and there is a cloud of mystery at the moment as to why. Channing Stribling came in for him at corner and freshman Dymonte Thomas was in at nickel, which is normally where Countess is on passing downs. It didn't really matter this week, but could moving forward.

Defensive tackle Jibreel Black had a very nice day, notching three tackles for loss. He was very solid against the option all day long.

As a team, Nebraska only rushed for 128 yards on 43 carries (3.0 ypc). Michigan did a very nice job against them, but there was really no threat of the pass. Armstrong completed 11-19 passes for 139 yards, and five of those completions came on the game-winning drive.

Basically, the Huskers protected their weakness for as long as they could, and it worked.

The Special Teams

Matt Wile had a very good day punting the ball, averaging 48.8 yards on his six punts with a long of 69 yards. Michigan was punting from deep in their own territory quite a bit, so every last inch Wile gave them was a help. Wile did miss a 52-yard field goal, however.

The Michigan return game continues to be non-existent, but at least they defended it well enough.

What Does It All Mean?

It means that Michigan could be an underdog the rest of the way out with games at Northwestern and Iowa, and then home against Ohio State.

If the thinkable happens, and Michigan drops their final five regular season games – and six of seven, then changes need to be made whether Brady Hoke wants to or not. And if he can't see that, then he's not the guy who should be at the helm of a major college football program.

Even if the Wolverines somehow turn it around and close strong, that doesn't mean the problem went away.

In 27 seasons as an offensive coordinator, this is currently Al Borges' fifth-highest scoring offense of his career. Does this offense feel all that “high scoring” to you?

Offense is used by many to nullify an advantage another team has over your own. That's why you can have a Boise State or Hawaii or Kansas or Cincinnati play in a BCS game. Those teams weren't playing because of their defenses.

An offense is supposed to even the playing field, and unfortunately for Michigan, that's exactly what it's doing.

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 Michigan 63 – Indiana 47 (6-1, 2-1)
November 2 Michigan State 29 – Michigan 6 (6-2, 2-2)
November 9 Nebraska 17 – Michigan 13 (6-3, 2-3)
November 16 at Northwestern
November 23 at Iowa
November 30 vs Ohio State
December 7 Big Ten Championship Game

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