Michigan Football: Michigan at Purdue — What Happened and What it Means
In tribute to Fred, it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood was nice to visit. West Lafayette is kind of unique in that the well-loved Wabash River separates the main city, Lafayette, and the university component, West Lafayette.
West Lafayette is a very nice area indeed. The fans of Indiana (Purdue and Indiana) are first class and offer a pleasant alternative to certain other game environments within Big Ten environs.
The day started by paying a whopping five-dollars to park in a monster yard of a very nice house close to the stadium (try that at Pioneer). The crowd in the lot was split about 50 percent for each team. The host then came around, enjoyed the tailgating and atmosphere with both sides, and offered up shots of Crown Royal. What a nice neighborhood indeed.
The game was of course the conference opener for Michigan, and in any such venture questions are typical. The first question was how Michigan’s defense would hold up against Purdue’s fast personnel. While not definitive, the defense put up a strong argument that the mission could be accomplished with an initial three and out series.
The defense made a strong statement in many capacities Saturday at Purdue. First up for discussion is Coach Mattison’s continued increase of rotating defenders. This strategy is a repeat of last year. And like last year the strategy is working.
In particular, Will Campbell had a very good game. He did a nice job of tying blockers up and spent the game on his feet holding position, not on the ground, or five yards out of the play. Jibreel Black also was very solid the entire game. Craig Roh did a better job of shedding blockers and improved his contain assignment. The rest of the rotation was simply very workmanlike and effective. Everyone simply followed assignment technique and provided a functional if not overpowering defense.
This allowed the linebackers to play better and look better. It is amazing how much better linebackers play when given freedom to roam the range. Kenny Demens and Jake Ryan were solid all day long and played better in space against the spread alignment.It was apparent that Purdue was going to go after Ramon Taylor. He played solid, kept the play in front, and got a nice present when TerBush sailed a ball over a receiver resulting in a long interception return for a go-ahead 21-0 touchdown. The receivers were duked several times by good Purdue receivers but kept the gains to a minimum by getting to the ball with dispatch after the catch and keeping contain.
With the running game pretty much shut down on the quick hitter up the middle and on the edges, Purdue continually through the game went more to the bread and butter short passing game on the perimeter that frequently featured isolation on one side and a three back set on the opposite flank. A few simple slants yielded receptions and a few tackles on the outside game were slipped to turn two-yard gains into first downs. Other than that, the back seven defenders were solid. Purdue ran a beautiful hook and lateral but the defense kept the damage to a minimum. In the second half Purdue ran the expected middle slip screen and Michigan was ready.
The offense played its part after Purdue was stopped by successfully completing a long clock-chewing drive, capped by a one-yard Fitz Toussaint touchdown. Long drives and chewing clock are good ideas when on the road against a team that can put up points. The same followed in the next exchange and Michigan put up another touchdown to take an early 14-0 lead.
With a 21-0 lead, a Purdue defender broke through and attacked the mesh point of a read option play. This resulted in a mistake that temporarily put Purdue back into the game picture. Things like this happen, but the smart thing is pull the ball out and take one negative play that allows the clock to keep running and prevent the other team from getting a cheap opportunity to score.
The offense crawled some in the third quarter, due in part to missed passes and a failure to accomplish anything on the ground except for the Denard package. This brings up two questions: the Denard question and the Fitz question, both related to the offensive line of course.Denard, came out and played hard just like he always has and always will. Except for the mesh mess-up he clearly played a nice game. The question will always be raised as to the quality of competition he runs up numbers against. Well, that happens with every high level player against a talented group of defenders, especially when the focus of attention is almost universally one player. Again, as in the Notre Dame game, the linemen pulled and did a nice job of flowing the play enough to give Denard the holes needed to get to the second level. When the front four of Purdue had to react to a track meet jailbreak, they were much less effective than against a straight up read where job one is to plug the middle.
Denard missed one pass to a wide open receiver in a sit down zone and threw high to Gallon on another play. It is not hard to throw high to a small receiver, but Gallon almost made a great catch. In the second half Gardner just flat dropped a ball that would have resulted in a big gain. As mentioned here before, Gardner is much better when he turns inside versus to the outside; this is an area where he can clearly improve. But, all in all, the passing game helped control the game, but was not needed to win the game. Denard made a few really nice throws to move the chains and a very nice throw and catch to Gardner for a touchdown. Again, Gardner turned inside on this cut and beat his defender.
If anyone is wondering whether or not Gardner or Funchess have the necessary tools and ability to be high-level receivers, the short answer from this roost is most assuredly they do. Both are near six foot five and with long arm reach. Both are very athletic and with enough speed to cause problems. Both have the size to beat about any defensive back with position and a well-thrown ball. This duo has very nice potential.
Purdue fans’ attention was brought to one A. J. Williams. Several in the crowd asked, “Who is that?” He looks big because he is big, simple as that.
The second primary question is the Fitz question, one that is not that easily answered as to the reasons for the question, less than 20 yards rushing on plenty of opportunities. Fitz struggled and several times the author saw him dance and bounce with no effect. He even hesitated and danced on the goal line, and it was fortunate he only needed a yard.Every question typically is not a black and white choice of one cause versus a second, and so it is with the Fitz question. To what degree is the problem associated with Fitz’s choices in running with the ball; to what degree is the problem associated with the three interior linemen, or the line in general? Or is there a chance the quarterback read is just flat off? There is little hope of quantifying such a question into an answer, but the problem is probably mulch-variate and not just one variable.
Still, it takes little observation to conclude that Fitz could use a little orienteering instruction as to compass use. North and South is more than the name of a mini-series, it is a must do when the gaping holes are not present and bouncing to the outside against decent level defenders does not work. Fitz did hesitate and frankly looked like a guy not 100%. Having said that, the belief is that no such condition exists. No doubt, the initial coaches pow-wow this week will start with a discussion about what to do about the inside run game.
A related discussion always seems to center on alchemist Al Borges. It is amazing how smart a guy looks when the scheme works and points are scored. That is of course the objective of any offense, but nevertheless an objective that is not always met.
Borges went into this game knowing a win was a must and he minimalized the game enough, helped by the defensive performance, that game management played a big part in the outcome. It is difficult to beat a great team with a one-headed offense, but yesterday provided Borges with an opportunity to showcase the monster against a good team. It became a necessity when the other running game option became dormant. Denard was asked to do what he is very good at doing, and his moderate success in the passing game was enough to help push the balance of power to Michigan’s corner. Coach Borges has one proven commodity and when the opportunity arises to use the resource to advantage, the choice becomes easy.
Clearly, to compete against better defenses Michigan will see in the near future, things must keep improving. Coach Borges must find a second option in the running game and the passing game must continue to improve enough to worry an opposing defense.
As stated in the preview, this is actually Déjà vu all over again, in a good way for the most part. The lines are showing at least some improvement, although the offensive interior, made up of hard-working, high effort guys, has limitations. The inside running must improve and Borges is in a little bit of a pickle. The traps and pulls are working for Denard’s designed runs, but Fitz does better with zone blocking.Many are pleasantly surprised at yesterday’s results but are wondering if Michigan was better or Purdue is not that good? Michigan was very well prepared, and scored a convincing win against an opponent that almost beat the team, Notre Dame, that sent Michigan into a two-week nightmare. The defense, which played very well at Notre Dame but became a secondary story due to the loss, again played very well, especially against the run. Michigan can obtain an advantage by turning other teams into a one-dimensional entity, much like Michigan has had to live with for several years.
Purdue has talent and decent speed, but by cutting off the running game. Purdue became limited, even though the passing game has tons of options.
Brendan Gibbons range is around the 45-47 yard mark. Yesterday again reinforced this small limitation. Punting was solid and Matt Wile kicked a little under the sweet spot allowing for returns. Bot punt teams, punt and return, need to improve as does the kick-off team. Part of this is preparation and dedication and part of this may be a need for even more athletes with special team skills to be on the roster. Nevertheless there is enough talent that teams should not continually get past the 25-30 yard line.
In many ways it was a good day, Saturday. But the focus turns to next, week, and the next week, and so on. Michigan has work to do, but improvement was obvious.
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Written by GBMWolverine Staff
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