GBMWolverine: Coach’s Corner — Michigan Football – Michigan State at Michigan — Analysis
What Happened and What It Means
Gone is the giddiness; back to the present with reality. Michigan’s loss to the Sparties left a sour taste, but the accompanying bitterness of how the game was lost left a worse taste. Michigan State’s defense did play well and should be congratulated and acknowledged for good scheme and gap discipline, but the obvious must be pointed out; Michigan stopped itself (which has happened all year, the only exception has been third and short where other teams have stopped Michigan), somewhere in the neighborhood of 13-21 points worth of output. In a game where errors would likely tip the balance, Michigan had the errors and what would have been a close game, sans error,s turned in error-less MSU’s favor.
Usually in sports (minus give away games when a team has clinched a playoff spot) what happens that day is what counts. And so it was with this game. Could have, should have, might have, do not matter, there will not be a rematch for 12 long months.
There are always questions and events to ponder, more so after a loss. We begin with a series of general comments concerning the game and the program. First, there are folks around that considered the Michigan State plus five an absolute Christmas gift, an almost sure thing (in a world where sure things are disasters). How could Michigan be considered a favorite at all?
Second, the special teams did not hurt Michigan, the returns frequently crossed the 30 yard-line and a very dangerous return man was neutralized (by chance or by design is in question due to the short bouncing kicks that were not returnable). A mid-range field goal went straight down the middle and kickoffs were at a near normal depth (the five yard line). Guys stayed pretty much in lane integrity, limiting severe damage.
Third, this was a big game for the program and pressure was on Denard Robinson. The press is getting thickening, The Michigan State defense played contain well, limiting runs to five or ten yard scampers, and the Michigan State defensive backs were sitting in the passing lanes between the hashes. Denard forced some balls, obviously he did not see the defender on the first pick, and was a little impatient when the Wolverines needed points quick. He had the Robert E. Lee effect; I cannot be beat, as happened to Lee on Cemetery Ridge.
The position here is not to worry about Denard one bit. He will digest what happened, he will not leave his season on the field as a result of a loss. Denard will probably get better by working and being even more motivated. There will be a day when the overthrows (three against Indiana) are routine touchdowns. With hard work and good mentoring, he will see those sneaky d-backs sitting in wait.
Denard has all the physical and psychological tools to be a winner. He walks like a winner, he plays like a winner, and he controls his emotions and has excellent perspective and perception about what is going on around him. Denard is mildly trying to make himself out as the goat, but Denard’s throws are not the only thing that went wrong Saturday. He will rise again, but the competition level is now such that expecting 400-yard games might be a little unrealistic. This guy is not about bloated statistics; Denard’s choices will concern what the offense dictates, not padding stats.
Fourth, Michigan’s performance makes predicting the rest of the year very difficult. On the one side, Michigan may give up 30 points to anyone and that makes everything tough in the Big Ten. Conversely, will small improvements, the Michigan offense can score 30 on anyone, provided the turnover margin is near zero. So again, Michigan’s post-season hopes are pinned on a slim margin of error and the brunt of the hopes and dreams fall upon the offense.
The defense has demonstrated that no Big Ten game should fall into the lock category. This team will have to execute on offense to win, especially against the upper crust of the Big Ten. In August the author predicted a range of 6-8 wins, that range still appears probable. Penn State is playing poorly on offense, even at somewhat Unhappy Valley. Michigan may or may not catch the Lions still in such a funk, but the Wolverine (or Hoosier) defense may be the best cure in the league for an ailing offense. Michigan can hang with Iowa only if the defense can make some stops and plays assignments well. Purdue is getting better and runs the ball with some authority. Illinois has come back to life and the Illinois defense is pretty stout. Wisconsin seems to be an every other week deal, so who knows, but the Wolverines will be on the low side of size and physicality when UM plays the Badgers. And yes what about Ohio State? Ouch, that is what.
Fifth, the question will (certainly already has) arise as to whether or not this defeat starts a Tale of Two Seasons PART TWO, whereby close loses to MSU and Iowa, along with a key injury, will start a downward creep of Michigan’s mass to the bottom. The view here is not necessarily so; the offense is better, the defense is worse, and every game may be a battle. This team will have to persevere and put aside any mounting pressure. This team is 5-1 but will be playing teams that should score on the Michigan defense with some ease. That will become the very definition of pressure.
And now the following observations about the offense are offered for your reflection. First off, the mistakes in execution are correctable (and not just spin-speak) and the mishaps from Saturday are not out of normality considering the youth of the participants and the magnitude of the game. There will be better days and many offensive starters have not reached a level of final performance.
The tackles and the backs still need to work on gaining the important leverage at the edge. Next year UM will have two young tackles with the athletic ability to batten down the hatches on the corner; they only need strength.
The running game is still woeful on short yardage and it is fair to question the personnel and choice of plays that have consistently came up short in critical third down situations. Yesterday’s failure was indeed exhibit one on why the short game is critical. Hopkins is begging to run, he may lay the ball on the carpet, but he needs the rock to show UM can secure third and 1. Clearly Michigan must have the committee of backs run for over 100 yards; one hundred and fifty would be enough to loosen some of the focus on Denard. The backs must take advantage of the extra care Denard will receive in the Big Ten and run with some authority.
Although Cox and Hopkins have had security difficulties, collectively both are Michigan’s best chance for a short power game. Vinnie Smith is running all right, remarkably perhaps off his injury, but third and short and Vinnie up the middle is a lot to ask of a 170 pound back.
The receivers are not quite in synch all the time, but close enough that this group should extract a toll from opponents. The routes are spreading out, creating space and if the pass is there, damage will be done. The drops yesterday were out of frustration and pressure. Each athlete must learn how to deal with such conditions and execute, it is as simple as that.
Next up is what all of us have been waiting for, a discussion of the Michigan defense, which yesterday proved defense does matter and also that it is unrealistic to believe that an offense can be counted on every week to put up a tsunami like volume of output.
Start with this: honor every player who plays in a Maize and Blue uniform that gives effort. There is effort from most participants, but effort alone is not sufficient to play defense. Mike Martin is playing his tail off and playing like a true champion. Craig Roh has become somewhat one-dimensional, but sooner or later good things should come his way. Everyone else can be thrown in a mixing bowl and end up a blended sameness. Too many defenders getting knocked on their butts, too many guys that cannot get to the hole and defend, too many guys who just flat whiff on tackles, and too many assignments missed due to improper technique. Courtesy will be shown and names will not be presented.
Last week GBMWolverine brought up a salient point:
What must some guys on the bench be thinking when certain teammates on the field perform at the lowest level and continue to make the same mistakes adnauseum, and then continue to play? The answer is: I can’t do any worse, please give me a shot. Some proclaim the back-ups are as bad or worse than what is being seen on the field. Game time sometimes is different than practice time. Once (and if) Michigan secures bowl eligibility, there may just be some changes. The offense’s interceptions are currently overshadowing the defensive malaise of Saturday, but that shadow will depart quickly enough. Giving up over 500 yards each week is not a formula for winning in the Big Ten; the Big East, maybe; but not the Big Ten.
And so the defensive discussion always reverts to cause. There is more than one variable, but the most obvious one is lack of athletic talent, not a good overriding variable considering the poor depth of the defense. The spin is that much of the defense is young, but one may want to consider that the three linebackers have 10 years of total experience and are barely treading water. One corner-back is a fifth year player doing what is necessary and all that he can do for the good of the team. Some starters were not first opportunity offers that indeed are young and with reasonable athletic talent, but they are clearly Plan B or C guys brought on board for depth. In short, many defenders are what they are and a fan should expect hard work and improvement, but the miracle telethon is over for the year.
There is no short-term fix to the defensive woes and some folks in charge had better be deriving a long-term solution, because, and GBMWolverine says again, Michigan will not be at the top of the league until at least a better than average (league standard) defense resides in Ann Arbor. Forget the blame game that is always attached to the cause. Again stated, this matters not, what to do to remedy is the consideration, and remedy will only come with planning and great recruiting.
Remember this, things do change in sports, sometimes quickly, sometimes not.
Please comment on our GBMWolverine Message Board about this article and read what others comment.
You can contact us at our e-mail address: GBMWolverine
Follow us on Twitter: @GBMWolverine
Written by GBMWolverine Staff
Go Blue — Wear Maize!