Friday, October 30, 2009

Illinois Preview

Ed. Another light day because I'm leaving for Orlando for work. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday will also be slow. Apologies.

After last year's Illinois game, I was convinced that Juice Williams was not only one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but he had far and away the best ball fakes--like if Chris Paul suddenly became a dual-threat quarterback... and threw a little worse. Come 2009, things are a little different. Illinois is reeling and Williams has been so bad that he's been replaced by not one, but two quarterbacks, one of whom has since been moved to wide receiver. Things are, in a word, unsettled.

78th nationally
230.57 YPG
101st nationally
181.43 YPG
101st nationally
185.29 YPG
40th nationally
171.86 YPG
84th nationally
27.71 PPG
113th nationally
 16.14 PPG
81st nationally
232.50 YPG
93rd nationally
185.13 YPG
61st nationally
134.88 YPG
9th nationally
219.38 YPG
58th nationally
23.50 PPG
17th nationally
33.88 PPG
So they're worse than us? At everything? Yeah, mostly, I guess. The only statistical category here that they're better than Michigan is in passing defense, and that's only marginally--and even then, aside from Clark and Cousins, who both teams have played, Illinois has played mostly cupcakes QBs, even letting a true sophomore at Missouri torch them in his first collegiate start. Adding to the Illinois woes is that star wide receiver Arrelious Benn has a flat tire and will be playing injured. This bodes well for the well-documented, terrible secondary.

But then again, it's been Michigan tradition for a while now to let Juice Williams explode and have his best game of the season against us. As I wrote about before the Iowa game, I always have a bad feeling about Iowa that never turns out to be true. Michigan played a lot better than they had any right to, which seemed about right. I have the same feeling about Illinois, only it seems like everytime we play Illinois and should win handily, Williams gets all scrambly and difficult to tackle and runs all over the defense. This is exceedingly likely.

But this is the exact kind of game Michigan is able to lose this year. Easily. Holding onto the ball will be a big deal against a team that likely isn't good enough to make things happen for themselves. Putting them in difficult field position will be crucial. If Michigan starts giving Illinois short fields (learn to cover on kick offs pleez) this game could get a lot closer than it realistically should be. Forcier will need to be sharp, the offensive line needs a better performance, and they need to avoid Minor/Brown fumbles on promising drives. Coming away from the first few possessions with points will go a long way as Michigan's defense should be able to grind down Illinois' struggling offense through the game.

Prediction: Michigan should be able to run and run and run and run during the game. Illinois' defense is truly awful and as long as Michigan isn't turning the ball over on every drive, they should be able to put up a lot of points. On the defensive side of the ball, I don't know what to expect. Robinson will probably continue the schemes he flashed during the Penn State game as Williams and Clark are similar quarterbacks. Though I have an awful feeling about the game--and don't know if I'll be able to watch much of it as I'll be touring random hospitals in Orlando all weekend--it's going to take a 5+ turnover performance from Michigan for Illinois to have a chance. Michigan literally runs away with this one for most of the game: Michigan 38-24

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where does the defense go from here?

With the dismissal of Boubacar Cissoko from the team, an already terrifying secondary depth chart seems to have taken the final plunge. With the problems the secondary has had all year, this sort of kills any chance that they would look competent. Also, man coverage is mostly a thing of the past. So now, you're depth chart looks something like this:

Left Cornerback
Right Cornerback
1st string
Donovan Warren
Troy Woolfolk
2nd string
Teric Jones
J.T. Floyd
3rd string
Justin Turner (redshirt)
James Rodgers

That's... not good. Especially when you take into account that J.T. Floyd has looked mostly awful this year, Turner is redshirting, and James Rodgers is a converted wide receiver. At safety, as we all know, Michigan is similarly crippled, starting a walk-on at strong safety and having little to no depth at all. So on the surface, Michigan is thick in it.

But when I started thinking about it, barring injuries to Warren and Woolfolk, the loss of Cissoko doesn't really affect the defense at all this year. Maybe Cissoko would've eventually lived up to his considerable recruiting hype, but that wasn't happening this year. And since, for the last few games, he's seen about five snaps, this doesn't really hurt Michigan at all. If they continue with the situational defenses they ran against Penn State, J.T. Floyd becomes the third CB in the game and likely will end up either with dedicated safety help (please, someone teach Jordan Kovacs how play in coverage) or in the various zones that we saw Donovan Warren playing in.

What surprises me most about all of the horror expressed that Cissoko is off the team, is that he was patently awful this year. Have we all forgotten about the Notre Dame game already? He dropped a dead-on interception that would've locked the game up without the last-second heroics by Forcier. He was shredded time and again in man coverage. He was slow breaking to the ball when he dropped back into zones. Etc. This happened repeatedly when he was playing. Hell, that's why J.T. Floyd replaced him as the starter and Robinson eventually moved Woolfolk to corner. MGoBlog is decidedly more pessimistic about the defense, regardless of Cissoko's presence:

Kovacs as a deep safety (oddly, in Michigan's system this is the "strong" safety) doesn't work, Williams as a deep safety doesn't work, Floyd as a cornerback doesn't work, Michigan has two Big Ten level secondary members and guys who might not start for a good MAC team elsewhere. There is no hope for that the rest of the season.

But, like, how was this any different with Cissoko on the team? What about his play this season has made anyone think, "Yeah, he looks like a high-quality D-I player. I'm glad he's in our secondary." Frankly, Cissoko hasn't looked much better than J.T. Floyd this year. And given how little we use a third cornerback anyway, Cissoko's loss looks to be exactly zero. If Warren or Woolfolk go down for any extended period of time, that will be a problem, but it would've been a problem anyway. Sure, Cissoko's upside was probably way higher than that of Floyd's, but that doesn't help this year, and per Rodriguez's unfortunate situation, we were likely to see a freshman playing at corner next year anyway (either the redshirted Turner or one of the many high-profile CBs Michigan is currently recruiting).

It's possible that I'm too optimistic about this defense going forward, but I really liked that Robinson was working with different schemes against Penn State to try and hide some of our problems, whether or not they worked in their first attempt. A commentor said, "Your peppiness about our defense makes me think you're confusing your ability to correctly diagnose what went wrong with our ability to ever fix it." To which I can only respond that it also looks like Robinson sees what's wrong and is attempting to fix it. I honestly believe that Robinson might actually be able to turn this defense into a reasonable Big Ten squad by the year's end, with or without Cissoko.

Now it's just time to pray that Donovan Warren sticks around for one more year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Grilled salmon with a side of MOEAKI!!!

As I mentioned in my way-too-long breakdown of Michigan's defensive schemes against Penn State, the team ran a 4-4 alignment with a lot of zone for most of the game. In the second quarter, Penn State finally reacted to the coverage and was able to slip a tight end, Andrew Quarless, into the secondary for a long, uncontested touchdown. Much of the blame on this play goes on Jordan Kovacs who was playing deep and whose only responsibily is basically to stop this play from happening. Pictures:

This is the presnap alignment. Penn State is in a three-wide set with a running back in the backfield and a tight end to the strongside of the field. Michigan is in the alignment they played for most of the day: A 4-4 front with the a linebacker shaded inside the slot man, Donovan Warren 10 yards off the line, and Troy Woolfolk over the other outside receiver (with over the top help from Kovacs). Mike Williams is moved up near the line of scrimmage as is playing a zone, bracket technique with Warren. Andrew Quarless, the Penn State tight end on the receiving end of the touchdown is lined up on the top of the screen. Obi Ezeh will end up covering him.

At the snap, you can see the four defensive linemen rush. Stevie Brown is dropping into coverage on the slot man. Williams is watching the run near the line of scrimmage while also covering the shallow zone on the backside receiver. Kovacs has help over the top and Warren is covering the deep zone. Ezeh and Mouton are the middle linebackers.

It's difficult to see here, but Quarless is releasing straight into the secondary on a skinny post route. There's been a lot of players taking blame for this play (everyone except Kovacs who I haven't heard any public "I dun screwed up" from). Brandon Herron is lined up on the line of scrimmage over Quarless presnap and has said that he didn't press Quarless at all, giving him the free release. This is all well and good, but this play is not his fault. I believe Ezeh has also said it was his fault in coverage, but no one expects him to be able to cover anyone.

Here, you can clearly see Quarless out in the middle of the field and Ezeh turning to give chase. Stevie Brown, who would be better suited to cover Quarless was pulled over to cover the slot man who is running a stop route. Williams is runing to cover the receiver on the backside that he and Warren were bracketing. The other outside receiver that Woolfolk is covering (on the top of the screen) is also running a stop route, like you can see here.

This is where Kovacs screws up. Once both of those receivers run their stop routes, Kovacs absolutely has to get over and help on Quarless. Kovacs was given that third of the field and was just keyed in on the wide receivers. Better safeties can make this play on the fly. Even better ones will know what to do before the snap. Kovacs is a glorified run stuffer and looks lost out there.

For whatever reason, Kovacs still has not broken toward Quarless, even though the other two receivers he's in charge of looking after have both run stop routes. The defensive line hasn't gotten any pressure, and Mouton was dropped into a short zone in the middle of the field, likely to spy Clark in case he tucked the ball to run.

The ball is in the air and Ezeh is unable to keep up with Quarless, allowing him over a yard of separation. You can see Kovacs (circled in red due to blurryness) is starting to break to the ball. By this time, it's way too late, and he doesn't have the athleticism to catch up to the pass or tight end. It looks like Kovacs just has a really difficult time diagnosing plays. Rodriguez always talks about where players' eyes are, and that typically causes these blunders. I think Kovacs was just staring down the receivers and had no idea that Quarless had released into the secondary.

Diarist Steve Sharik at MGoBlog took a look at the play as well and has this to say:

The long TD to the TE was Kovacs responsibility.  We were in Cover 2.  The completion wasn't on him, but the fact that it turned into a TD was on him.  There were three breakdowns on the play.  First, Brandon Herron lines up too far outside the TE, allowing him a free release.  There's no reason for him to be out that far given there's Stevie Brown apexed b/w the slot and the TE, plus a hard corner in cover 2.  Second, Obi doesn't collision the TE, mostly b/c of his unmolested release, but Obi still has to at least get his hands on the TE and widen him toward the half safety.  Third, and most importantly, Kovacs has the deep half of the field.  The two WRs both ran hitches, which should have refocused Kovac's eyes inside to #3.  He didn't get depth, and then looked less than speedy attempting to chase down the TE.

I don't totally agree with the analysis. It's tough to see on the tape, but I don't think Warren dropped into a cover 2 any more than he had on the previous plays; he put a diagram of the play up, but unless he can see something I can't, I'm sticking with my evaluation that Warren was running a bracket on the outside receiver like we had been doing all game. He's right that both Herron and Ezeh should've put a hand on Quarless, but regardless, the fact that this play resulted in a touchdown is solely on Kovacs.

More than anything, however, this was a really good play call from Paterno or whoever is calling the plays over there. We had run this alignment for much of the game and mostly defended pass plays the same way, especially when a third receiver was brought into the slot. Hypothetically, if Herron gets a good press on Quarless and Ezeh bumps his out toward Kovacs a bit more, this still has a pretty good chance of resulting in a completion. The play call was basically perfect against this defensive look and was designed to put Ezeh into man coverage (yikes) and see if Kovacs knew what he was doing. All of the things that could've gone right for Penn State did on this play.

Dear Big Ten Officials,

When I was watching the Penn State game, I noticed on Denard's interception that Penn State was trying to rush a few players off the field. I started hurriedly saying "Snap it, snap it, snap it". And it appeared that Penn State got their players off the field. They didn't:

Count the red dots. That's 12. You're allowed 11 players. Get it? You can see that the Penn State defender has not yet gotten off the field. The ball is circled in yellow and has already been snapped. This is not why Denard threw an interception--more about his interception on Thursday--but that doesn't negate the fact that it's clearly a 5-yard penalty on Penn State. This wouldn't bother me so much if we hadn't been called for a five-men-in-the-backfield penalty on this play that led up to the 3rd and long that Denard threw his interception on:

How many men do you see in the backfield? Because I count four. Seriously, who is the fifth man and how were we called for this? Ugh.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Boubacar Cissoko off the team?

A report from the Free Press (link is no follwed) says that Boubacar Cissoko's high school coach is claiming he's off the team:

Sophomore cornerback Boubacar Cissoko has been kicked off the Michigan football team, his high school coach, Thomas Wilcher of Detroit Cass Tech, said tonight.

"He missed class, missed workouts," said Wilcher, who said he spoke to a U-M assistant coach and Cissoko today.

Cissoko, a 5-foot-9, 177-pounder, was suspended three weeks ago by U-M coach Rich Rodriguez, missing the Iowa and Delaware State games. He slowly worked his way back into the lineup and was reinstated late last week, playing a bit at cornerback against Penn State on Saturday.

"Now he's got to make something, because he blew it," Wilcher said.

Asked about Cissoko earlier this week, Rodriguez repeated himself, saying Cissoko's reinstatement was "day-to-day."

So you remember all of that stuff that I wrote about the defense and what Cissoko brings? Yeah, well, replace all of that with JT Floyd if this happens to be true.

FWIW, Cissoko is still on the official roster at MGoBlue. I was really pulling for him. But if what his coach says is true, it makes it tough to root for the kid. We'll see how this unfolds.

The New Defense (Part 3)

Ed. Read The New Defense (Part1) and The New Defense (Part 2) to see what Michigan did during this game and how this differs (albeit slightly).

As MGoBlog mentioned yesterday, Michigan showed their first situational defensive substitution in this game, bringing in the maligned Boubacar Cissoko on obvious passing downs--apparently, Robinson calls this his SWAT package. The team, however, still played a lot of zone coverage, and pretty successfully. On this particular play, they even drop the two defensive tackles (Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen) into coverage to further confuse the offense. This is basically the 4-3 under with a bit more zone coverage than we've seen all year. Also, the situational stuff is nice.

There are two deep safeties, one corner standing up on the line of scrimmage (Warren), one linebacker lined up over the slot receiver (Mouton), and two linebackers in the middle of the field. Kovacs and Williams are the deep safties. Warren (top of the screen) and Cissoko (bottom of the screen) are the corners. What's weird about this is that Cissoko is given man coverage with Woolfolk over the top, who I assume is also in charge of watching Mouton's man on the deep route. Michigan likely scouted this formation and knew Penn State never threw back across the field, meaning Cissoko was unlikely to get exploited.

Here's the snap. Warren, Brown, Ezeh, and Mouton are staying firmly planted at the first down marker (why haven't we been doing this all year?). Cissoko is just playing straight man coverage while Kovacs and Woolfolk are making sure not to give up anything deep. They are also in charge of covering any receivers that may settle into the zone between the linebackers and safeties. The defensive line is attacking, but as we'll see, the tackles end up pulling away and sitting just below the first down line.

A moment later, Van Bergen and Martin have dropped into coverage. Roh and Graham are speed rushing the edge. Brown and Warren are allowing the wide receiver to pass through them. If Clark decides to throw this ball, it's likely a pick, as either Brown or Warren cuts under it, or Clark has to loft it enough that Kovacs can get to it. Cissoko looks to have decent coverage. The first down line is completely blanketed.

Warren is now carrying his wide receiver a bit but never vacates his zone or takes his eyes off of Clark. Mouton has his slot man covered on a short stop route, allowing Woolfolk to double Cissoko's assignment--who is never really a threat on the play. The only open receiver is standing next to Mike Martin and going to run an out route into Warren's zone.

The receiver is breaking open, but Warren and Martin see it and are breaking toward the ball. It's poorly thrown, but you can see in the next screen that Martin and Warren swarmed the receiver right when he touched the ball, and short of the first down line to boot:

This is exactly what the defense was trying to force on this play and it worked to perfection.

There's a reason Michigan hasn't been lining up their linebackers and Warren on the first down line to play zone this season: They didn't have the personnel, or at least the personnel wasn't trained/good enough. Now that Cissoko is back, this allows Michigan to play to their strengths. Brown doesn't have to drop into coverage, but can watch short zones and runs. Warren can continue to be fast and awesome and aggressive in any sitauation we put him in. The linebackers can spy Clark/quarterbacks and make passes over the middle more difficult. Woolfolk can give help over the top. And Kovacs can play to negate deep threats and come up in run support.

With Cissoko's behavioral problems, Michigan was forced to put Brown, Williams, and Mouton into coverage on plays that weren't just short zones--Woolfolk, too, but he proved to be a capable corner. But now, as long as they give Cissoko some help and don't put him on an island, the linebackers, safeties, and corners can all play in ways that are less likely to cause huge disappointing MOEAKI!!! like touchdowns. It will be interesting to see what happens when teams bring 4-wide sets against Michigan in the future, as this general alignment is meant to stop those when you don't have a good nickel package, it seems. We have options now to try and force teams into zones--most intriguingly, they can play zone on Warren's side of the field (who reacts quicker and probably plays zone defense better than Cissoko) and leave man coverage with dedicated safety help on the other side, like they did above.

The takeaway: I think Robinson is doing some really good things with this defense. One of them is finally realizing that he doesn't have the personnel to play a lot of man coverage and trying to come up with schemes that play to the defense's strengths--it's just unfortunate that we decided to try these out against a team that can easily exploit missed coverage and assignments. I like this 4-3 under/4-4 hybrid system as I think masks most of the deficiencies on Michigan's defense. Penn State did find a way around it later in the game on the Ezeh-covered touchdown pass, but I'll go over that tomorrow and show just what went wrong (Kovacs. Basically.)

So as disappointing a loss as that was, there were actually a lot of improvements made on the defensive side of the ball, despite not being particularly effective in this game. This is obviously a work in progress, but Robinson might have something going with this alignment. I'm excited to see what they do against Illinois, as much of this system is designed to attack/stop a running quarterback. And if Michigan is able to mix their defensive zones, Juice Williams, a noted poor passer, might end up with a few costly picks. Time will tell.

The New Defense (Part 2)

Ed. Read The New Defense (Part 1) before reading this.

This isn't much different than the play I broke down in The New Defense (Part 1), in fact, it's the exact same defense and the exact same offensive play call. But the result is a little different. And that's encouraging.

Here's the same alignment by Penn State, only they flipped the field. The tight end is now on the bottom of the screen. Kovacs is shading to the bottom and Woolfolk has man coverage on his wide receiver. Mike Williams is the outside linebacker on the top of the play and Donovan Warren is the corner playing 10 yards off the line. What to watch here is that Williams reacts faster and there's a better result. If Michigan can continue to improve, this defense might actually work.

Here's the play right after the snap. You can see that Williams is still watching Clark, like he did the first time but is already shading toward the receiver who is sitting down and waiting for the screen pass. The next shot is particularly telling.

The ball is in the air here (you can see the spec just above the 0 of the 40 yard line). Most importantly, though, Williams is already starting to run at the receiver. Warren does exactly as well as he did on the last play and is crashing down on the pass.

Williams is still a step or two late on this pass, but you can see that he's close and able to make the tackle near the line of scrimmage. Warren looks to be playing cautiously so that if Williams misses the tackle, he hasn't overrun the play.

Three yards past the line of scrimmage, Williams has tripped up the wide receiver who rolls for another yard. Warren has successfully kept contain on the play.

You can see on film at the end of The New Defense (Part 1) that Greg Robinson grabs Williams after the play and gives him a very specific directive. I assume that this is exactly what he told him. Ezeh and Mouton should be able to give chase if it ends up as a run play, and Williams crashing on that short zone should limit or take away these short passes. Again, empirical improvement in game. This is encouraging.

The one problem with this defense, as you might guess, is that it takes arguably our best defensive player (Warren) and mostly neutralizes him. I think the positives and negatives balance out in the end, though. This alignment makes it difficult for Michigan to get beaten on the long ball while, if everyone plays their respective zones correctly, also takes away the short passes. The 4-4 alignment also helps with run defense and puts a lot of players in the box--there's actually a really good breakdown of a similar defensive play call over at Trojan Football Analysis. There are obviously flaws here and Michigan is going to need to work on a few things, but this is mostly encouraging.

The final part of the series will be coming around Noon.

The New Defense (Part 1)

Watching the Penn State game, you may have been thinking to yourself, "Why in Christ's good name is Donovan Warren playing with a 10-yard cushion on the line?" You probably thought, "I'm sure there's a reason for this. I trust my coaches. This seems reasonable." And then three bubble screens later and blown coverages galore, you were searching in your napsack for the lighter fluid to spark your torch.

You may remember last year's Purdue game in which Rich Rodriguez basically got fed up with Scott Schafer's defensive schemes and wanted to see something he used to run in West Virginia, the 3-3-5 stack. Against a nobody quarterback in his first collegiate start, Michigan struggled with their assignments and got absolutely torched on passing plays. That was the public birth of the rift between Rodriguez and Shafer, and what eventually led to his firing and the introduction of Greg Robinson and his wacky schemes.

This Penn State game was almost exactly the same, only this time, Michigan decided to play essentially a 4-4 zone on every down--it's kind of a small shift from the basic 4-3 under Michigan is supposedly running, but I think there's a little more it than that. Let's take a look at the presnap alignment and then follow it throughout the game:

This is the basic presnap alignment. Troy Woolfolk is lined up in man coverage on the top of the screen. Jordan Kovacs will give him help over the top and is lined up as the safety in the middle of the field. Donovan Warren is the deep corner at the bottom of the screen. What's interesting about this formation is that Michigan left the same personnel on the field that they usually run with their 4-3 under. The defensive line is the same. Mouton and Ezeh are the middle linebackers. The changes come with Mike Williams, who is lined up as the outside linebacker on the bottom of the screen, and Stevie Brown, who is the outside linebacker on the top of the screen.

This is sort of a half zone, with Warren's side playing zone. But it can be played either way. The way Michigan is defending this play is with Williams covering the underneath route and the bubble screen, and Warren covering the deep route. On the other side, Woolfolk has man coverage with help over the top from Kovacs. I think the reason there is this man coverage aspect to the play is because of the tight end on the strongside of the play. Stevie Brown is supposed to cover him when/if he releases into the secondary--we'll see how Penn State counteracted this later in the game and ended up with a touchdown because Obi Ezeh is pulled into coverage on a seam route.

Here's the snap. Warren stays in his deep zone and Williams is spying Daryll Clark (incorrectly so). Williams here is supposed to hover over toward the wide receiver on the bottom of the screen to cut off the bubble screen that will eventually be thrown. It's sort of a robber play. If Williams plays and times this perfectly, it's a pick 6. He doesn't.

Clark takes the presnap read when Williams is too slow to get over to his zone. You can see that Clark is winding up to throw and Williams has barely started to move. Warren is sitting back in his deep zone and already sees the screen being thrown. He's breaking toward the play.

The receiver has the ball now and a clear 5 yards to run. Even if Williams takes a perfect angle and makes a perfect tackle, he still gives up four yards.

Williams and Warren are now closing in but have already given up at least four yards. Williams will miss on the tackle and the wide receiver will end up getting seven yards:

So, this is how Penn State brutalized us on Saturday: A completely new defensive scheme that our team had no idea how to run.

The thing is, as poor as the results were, I am actually a little encourage by this. As the game went on, the team got better at running it. And moreso, this isn't the same Shafer/Rodriguez dynamic that eventually ruined the defense last year. I honestly believe that this is a concession by Robinson to the talent he has to work with. What the team had been trying was clearly not working. This is a step in the right direction. And I think with more time with this system, they can get better. Plus, this is only a small shift from the 4-3 under that is Michigan's base defense. Instead of having two deep safeties, two linebackers, and five men on the line, Michigan is putting six men on the line, by bringing the free safety down to cover the short zone. Robinson trusts Warren enough not to give him help over the top, and Kovacs will probably cover the strong side of the play going forward.

Essentially what it does is take advantage of the athletes Michigan has without putting them in one-on-one coverage. It also allows Michigan to send a variety of looks. Williams and Brown are good enough athletes to play a hybrid linebacker role, and both were/are safeties and should, presumably, be good in coverage. Once they understand what they're supposed to do, the only weakness is seeing whether or not Kovacs makes the right plays to cover over the top--he didn't in this game, which I'll talk about tomorrow, but hopefully he can grow.

Take a look at how this progressed through the game: Part 2; Part 3

Monday, October 26, 2009

Notice of Inquiry

Michigan received a Notice of Inquiry from the NCAA today concerning the potential NCAA violations. USA Today explains (emphasis mine):

According to the NCAA's website, a "notice of inquiry" is issued when NCAA investigators conclude they have "reasonable cause to believe that the institution may have violated NCAA rules."

The NCAA Manual, Bylaw 32.5 states: "If the enforcement staff has developed reasonably reliable information indicating that an institution has been in violation of NCAA legislation that requires further investigation, the enforcement staff shall provide a notice of inquiry in writing to the chancellor or president."

Another section of the NCAA's website states that such an inquiry is launched when there is enough evidence indicating "an intentional violation has occurred, that a significant competitive…advantage may have been gained, or that false or misleading information may have been reported to the institution or the enforcement staff."

The notice of inquiry generally lays out for university officials the nature of the potential violations, the time period in which they occurred, the individuals involved, and the approximate time frame the investigation will take. The NCAA does not release the notice of inquiry to the public but makes clear that any school, including U-M, may release it on its own.

If no violations are ultimately found, the NCAA will notify the school in writing.

If the NCAA concludes that a major violation has taken place at U-M, it will send a "notice of allegations" with specific allegations of violations. The NCAA is required to give the school a status update on its investigation within six months of issuing its notice of inquiry.

This is news only insofar as Michigan hasn't been completely cleared. Now it's a waiting game. This is still a bit disconcerting that, ya know, they haven't completely cleared us. But if the previous analysis of the situation, the handling of voluntary and nonvolutary hours was done correctly by Michigan's staff, and there's adequate documentation that the players and coaches never broke the rules (and given the reputed history of Michigan compliance team, this shouldn't be an issue), we're probably in the clear here.

The real news will be whether or not the University releases this Notice of Inquiry to the public. My guess is that they won't and we'll just have to wait. Plus I don't know quite how much we'd learn besides what players in particular may have exceeded the hour limit. Time to wait and see.

Turnover machine

On the frustratingly long drive home from Ann Arbor on Sunday, my brother and I got into a long discussion about Denard Robinson, in which he deemed Robinson a "turnover machine", and further still, declared he didn't want to see Robinson under center anymore. He had given up. I can't say I blame him, but I disagreed, despite the mass of evidence in his corner. Robinson has thrown 4 INTs on only 21 pass attempts. That's Josh Nesbitt bad. Further, he's lost at least three fumbles that I can remember (of course, absolutely no one keeps individual fumble statistics and I can't remember exactly how many he's lost) and put the ball on the ground a number of other times. Denard has done little to inspire confidence, but despite all of that, I still want to see him in the game.

Robinson is a true freshman, and if we learned anything from last year, it's that these freshmen from the warmer tropics of Florida take some time to get adjusted to the cold and rain of the Midwest (just last week, Odoms proved he still wasn't over his fumbly ways on punt returns). The fumbles, though, from comments made by Rodriguez and Robinson seem to be fundamental things that are just going to need to get ironed out, sooner or later. Denard appears to be waiting just a bit too long to secure the ball. He's carried the ball 51 times and put it on the ground 3-6 times. Those are bad numbers but ones that are probably correctable.

The interceptions are a different story. On 21 attempts, Denard has thrown 4 INTs--one, I'm not entirely sure was his fault. This week's pick almost certainly was. I'm going to have to watch it again on film, but it looked to me like Denard misread the coverage, Penn State slipped their corners into a short zone, and Denard bit on the look.

Brian of MGoBlog's take on Denard/Rodriguez:

I'm fine with deploying Robinson, but Michigan has to be more flexible with him. The difference between second and nine, when a Robinson run is still a plausible threat, and third and nine, when it isn't, is obvious: second down is an open seam that Koger (argh) drops; third down is a horrible interception. Bringing Robinson in is fine—he was effective, the third and long was the result of a penalty and a drop—but once it's a passing down, Forcier's got to come in.

I don't know that I wholly agree with this. Let's look at Denard's passing credentials: A true freshmen, dual threat quarterback who completed under 50% of his passes in high school and has thrown, against non-Delaware State competition, 17 collegiate passes. So insofar as Denard shouldn't be in the game on third and long, I can agree with Brian. But the more important point that he doesn't address is that Robinson is clearly not being given the same playbook as Forcier.

All season, we had heard that Denard/Tate/Sheridan were being given the same playbook; they're all quarterbacks and will all be treated as such. And yet after the Michigan State game, you get quotes from MSU players that say things to the extent of "80% of the time Denard is in the game they run the ball. They did it here too." Denard Robinson is not yet a passer, but exclusively running the ball with him on first and second down is a bad idea. We've seen that on plays with simplified reads, Denard can make some good throws--he did so against Iowa, Indiana, and Western Michigan. These plays need to be run early and often in Denard series. To say, "Run the ball until you don't think you can get a first down. Then throw for the first down." is unfair and unwise. Denard needs more of the playbook, least of all, to the keep defenses honest.

So Rodriguez needs to put him in a more realistic position to succeed. The way he's been deploying Denard--giving him complete series instead of just using him as a change-of-pace quarterback like he was used early in the year--is not particularly well planned. I mentioned before the Delaware State game that I wanted to see Denard given the full playbook. He wasn't, and only attempted four passes in a game when he should've thrown the ball 15-20 times. So Denard may be a turnover machine right now, but that's only because he's being forced into positions where, unless he defies logic and data, he's going to fail.

Monday morning presser

Rich Rodriguez

- Molk tore ACL and will have surgery as soon as swelling goes down. He will be out for the rest of the season. If everything goes well, he will be back by the summer
- Odoms hurt knee but didn’t tear anything
- Minor is day-to-day with an injury to his other foot
- Hemingway is also day-to-day
- Moosman is back at center
- Molk felt good. Coaches thought he was running well. Just an unfortunate accident
- Tim McAvoy and Rocko Khoury will get reps at center as well
- Seem to have a few more technical errors and missed assignments than normal. Maybe players are trying to do too much.
- Two games without forcing turnovers. If you want to win against good teams, you need to be on the positive side of the turnover battle.
- Going to work on holding onto the ball this week in practice. Need to be more fundamentally sound. On interceptions: Need to trust reads and not force anything. In college it’s a little different.
- Denard’s confidence is fine right now after the turnovers. Have to coach him up. Coach Smith is working with but the coaches don’t have a lot of time in college.
- Delaware State game didn’t give the team too much confidence.
- Some of the drops from receivers weren’t made earlier in the year. Some of the balls could have been better thrown.
- More of a gray area with holding calls.
- Five men in the backfield penalty: They generally warn you and they warned them one time. From the angle on film, it looked like the fifth man was on the line of scrimmage. Had it called twice but both times, thought the fifth man was on the line of scrimmage.
- When Denard threw his pick, there was a 12th man running off the field for PSU.
- Script 10-12 plays or formations to get done early. If you get third downs, you come off the script. Don’t remember how many of the scripted plays were on the first drive.
- Lot of talent on Illinois. Had bad luck and turnovers in key moments.
- Juice Williams looks the same as last year. Had some turnovers but knows that they aren’t always his fault. Remembers what Williams did to Michigan last year and take that into account.
- Problems will be fixed both with more time on the field and through recruiting. Need two full recruiting classes to address needs. Have more than 70 on scholarship because of walk-ons, so numbers are down.
- Recruiting going well, but there are still important roles that need to be filled.
- One of the problems with JUCO are the credits that won’t transfer to Michigan.
- Donovan Warren had a sore ankle. Should be OK.
- Roh has improved with experience and recognizing plays.
- Happy with how the defense has progressed at times. Some of the big plays came from PSU making good plays. Sometimes they were defensive problems.
- Darryl Clark said there was confusion on defense. No one was out of position, but there were technical problems (problems with gaps, etc.)
- Kick off returns have been very average because haven’t done as good a job blocking.
- Kovacs still a walk-on. Will get a scholarship when they have one available.
- Rodriguez probably micromanages defense too much already. Trusts defensive coaches. All a matter of getting players in position to make plays.

Penn State: Where the similarities are uncany

When the Michigan men's basketball team had an improbable run against Top 5 teams last season, beating both UCLA and Duke early in the year, the team went from promising upstart to potential Big Ten contender, rightly so or not. As the season waned, so too did the team's momentum, and their youth and flaws began to show. Close matches between Savannah State and Indiana, coupled with back-to-back-to-back losses to conference foes (Illinois, Ohio State, and Penn State) raised alarms for fans and made an NCAA berth go from a certainty to a realistic, best-case scenario.

So too seems to be the arc of the football team. After a nonconference win against then #18 Notre Dame, the preseason projections of 7-5 suddenly looked more like 8-4 (or 9-3 at best). But in the midst of the Big Ten slate, Michigan has stumbled, falling to Michigan State and Iowa (which included a benching of the team star, Forcier, much like the similar, controversial benching of Manny Harris against Iowa in an overtime game), a close win against lowly Indiana, and now a crushing defeat to Penn State; 8-4 is a pipe dream now, and the team is now in line to play the worst two Big Ten teams in what feel like must wins.

What can we can learn from this Penn State game is a little more concrete: David Molk really is as valuable as we all thought; the shine is beginning to come off of freshman savior Tate Forcier; the turnover problems from 2008 are far from resolved; and the defense is worse than we all thought.

I'll get into this later in the week, but the secondary is in far more dire a situation than was widely presumed at the beginning of the season. Stevie Brown and Mike Williams are mostly incapable of covering anyone in space. Jordan Kovacs, who had been anointed as Michigan's Rudy two weeks ago, has been exposed time and again, allowing a number of touchdown passes that have crushed the team. The defense appears incapable of playing man coverage, while the defensive line is flailing without much success. Simply put, this team is in a lot of trouble as the offense continues to have difficultly scoring behind an injured Forcier, fumbly running backs, and receivers whose recent case of the dropsies is nothing short of a massive disappointment after their respective performance early in the season.

On the other side of the field, it would appear that I greatly underestimated how good Penn State is. Not that any team that beats Michigan so resoundingly is suddenly much better than we thought, but Penn State is clearly a legit contender in the Big Ten and will still finish second or third in-conference; their stats, though against mostly cupcakes, are no joke. Evan Royster trounced what was otherwise a particularly stout defensive front, putting up 5 YPC on 20 carries. Meanwhile, Michigan's rushing attack looked exceedingly mediocre. Basically, everything that could've gone wrong did.

In other words, Michigan is reeling. I don't know what they need to do to get better. The secondary doesn't look like it has the talent to perform against Big Ten offenses. The offense has gone from fast and high-powered to a sputtering collection of players that look like they are trying to win by themselves (see also: Michigan 2008). Meanwhile, I've got questions about the defensive play calling and the offensive personnel that Rodriguez has been playing. When once we hoped that the Illinois/Purdue stretch would be gravy, it now becomes a crucial stretch of the season. Michigan is in trouble and they don't look like they have any answers.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Penn State Preview

Ed. note: Light posting today. This will probably be it, as I drove back to Michigan yesterday to see family and friends who will be in town for the game.

After Michigan's quasi-bye week against Delaware State, they welcome in Penn State, a team that hasn't won in the Big House since 1996 and has endured such atrocities as the one above in recent meetings. (Personal aside: At the time of this game, I was pretty good friends with Alan Branch. He's particularly more soft spoken and gentle than this picture might suggest. He also likes Wu-Tang.)

Let's take a look at some numbers. Mmmmm numbers:

Penn State
14th nationally
163.43 YPG
37th nationally
245.71 YPG
6th nationally
75.43 YPG
25th nationally
187 YPG
2nd nationally
8.71 PPG
42nd nationally
29.57 PPG
80th nationally
232.86 YPG
86th nationally
191.57 YPG
58st nationally
130.43 YPG
8th nationally
235.00 YPG
46th nationally
21.86 PPG
9th nationally
37.29 PPG

So that, uh, doesn't look great. But then again, Penn State has been uniformly ripped for their cupcake scheduling. Delaware State jokes taken in stride, Penn State has played Akron, Syracuse, Temple, and Eastern Illinois. Their conerence slate has been similarly frosting-covered: Illinois and Minnesota (with the exception of the one good team they've played, Iowa, who they lost to in spectacular fashion).

So we shall forget the teams not named Iowa, and look at how Penn State fared against them. Darryl Clark had an exceptionally bad day, throwing three INTs and completing only 12 of his 32 passes. The running game didn't do much better: 109 yards on 33 carries (3.3 YPC). Michigan, by contrast, saw Forcier have his worst day of his career (8/19 with 1 INT) but had a good rushing attack against what was known as a stout, aggressive run defense (195 yards on 45 carries; 4.3 YPC and three TDs). The value you put into shared-opponent comparisons like this one aside, those numbers say something. And given Penn State's weak schedule to date, those national rankings are painfully inflated.

Defensively, Michigan crushed the Iowa run game (2.4 YPC) while Penn State allowed them to put up some decent numbers (4.4 YPC). Passing is a different story, however, as Stanzi had a pretty good day through the air, despite his pick-6--though his numbers are inflated due to MOEAKI!!! With any luck, our shifting secondary will have gotten their act together and won't let up these huge plays against a Penn State team that will be looking to attack the suspect safeties.

So what does it all mean? Well, it means that Penn State is no where near as good as those numbers above say they are. And while Michigan has had a few cupcakes themselves, punctuated by their state spike following the Delaware State game, they haven't benefitted quite as much.

So what does all that mean? It means that these teams are really, pretty evenly matched (I hope), despite Penn State's seemingly huge advantage in sheer statistics. Playing at the Big House is a big difference maker and is a big reason why the line on the game tomorrow is Michigan +4.5 and not, like, +8.

In terms of personnel, Forcier is apparently healthy, Molk is back, and Carlos Brown is healthy and practiced all week. Brandon Minor, however, may not be 100%; a big blow as he was unstoppable against Penn State last year. Apparently, the staff has been giving him limited time all week as he still nurses an ankle injury. I expect him to get limited carries at worst; there's no way Minor sits out the entire game. Expect most carries to be by Brown and Minor, with some Michael Shaw mixed in here and there. And Forcier, now healthy, can hopefully return to the form we saw him in early in the season. His backups are having trouble.

Prediction: Frankly, I don't feel like I know enough about Penn State to have any idea how this game is going to play out. Against their cupcakes and weak Big Ten competition, they've looked dominant. Against Iowa, they looked like a second-tier Big Ten team. This game is going to hinge, like the Iowa game, largely on turnovers. If Michigan doesn't cough the ball up like it's 2008 and Tate has even a moderately effective day, I think Michigan walks away with this one without too much heart ache. But if the passing game has trouble getting going, Minor is injured, 5 turnovers, and the run game struggles against Penn State's linebackers, Michigan is going to get crushed. Unfortunately, I can see either one happening. And since I have no idea which one it's going to be, and I'm a homer and an eternal optimist and the game is at the Big House, I'm going to nudge the victory Michigan's way. Michigan 28-24.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Nick Sheridan difference

Nick Sheridan, for everything I've ever heard about him, is a truly great guy. Moments after mentioning to a Michigan insider that I never wanted to see him lead this team again  (despite his positive influence on the program; coaching the young'uns, willingness to stick with the program, etc.) while waiting outside the Brown Jug after the Western Michigan game, he walked up and kindly greeted the insider and seemed congenial.

Regardless, when watching the Delaware State game again, I was looking for things to talk about (there isn't much, and this is just about the last of it), and I finally saw something with Sheridan playing under center that made me thankful for Tate and Denard and freshmen and competent running games. Take a look at Sheridan's 4th down attempt in the 3rd quarter, from the six yard line:

Michigan is lined up in a four-wide set with trips to Sheridan's right. Closest to Sheridan on his right is Terrence Robinson; next to him is tight end Brandon Moore; and the outside receiver is LaTerryal Savoy. The play is a designed roll out to Sheridan's right. Vincent Smith is in the backfield as a blocker. Savoy heads to the corner, Moore runs a square out, and Robinson runs a slant to the pylon.

On the snap, Sheridan immediately starts to his right. Je'Ron Stokes, who is lined up to Sheridan's left, is only there to draw a defender. Smith is looking for a linebacker to block.

Sheridan is now rolling out and surveying his options (kinda). Smith is still waiting to block the linebacker that is crashing into the backfield--Delaware State were scraping a linebacker almost the entire game. Moore is beginning his out route. I believe it's some sort of circle out, the same play that Greg Matthews ran for the winning TD grab against ND. As you can see, Moore is open here, but it looks as though Sheridan is waiting on Robinson to open up. Sheridan can't throw to Moore yet because Robinson and his defender are in the path of the ball, but it looks as though he doesn't even see the route.

Right now, Sheridan needs to throw this ball to Moore who is now two steps ahead of his defender and running away from him. Sheridan, unfortunately, is still staring down Robinson. Savoy is covered up in the back of the endzone, and Smith is cut blocking his defender successfully. Sheridan, however, waits too long and fails to make the pass to Moore. He continues to roll out and look for Robinson.

Still, Sheridan has Moore open and a seam to throw the ball in. He's still staring down Robinson and is, at this point, beginning to tuck the ball and run toward the end zone. It ends like this:

Surrounded by three men with two more coming. Sheridan comes up three yards short, taking a pretty hard hit and never really having a chance to make it into the endzone.

Much has been made about Forcier's tendency to scramble, but continue to look downfield for a pass rather than to tuck and run. Sheridan seemed unable to do this. In this play, Sheridan stared down one route (Robinson), and when it didn't open up, he decided to tuck the ball and run, despite the fact that he had a receiver open for at least five steps in the endzone. Combined with the lack of physical talent that Sheridan has, this inability to properly diagnose plays on the fly shows that his much rumored improvement over the summer is largely suspect--though he has looked a little better throwing the ball, the "not having to think and just being able to play" meme that circled Sheridan et al at the beginning of this year is somewhat fiction.

I don't really want to rag on the kid. He seems very nice and I don't doubt that he'll be a great coach some day. But after that Delaware State game, I need stuff to write about. Sorry Nick.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I can has Roses? No.

Stevie Brown said in a press conference that he was interested in maybe, possibly, playing in the Rose Bowl again this year despite the team's 1-2 conference record. Well, MVictors breaks down the possible scenarios that get Michigan into the Rose Bowl. The outlook? Bleak:

The only scenario that gets Michigan the automatic BCS bid requires Iowa to lose three games. Bollocks. Once Iowa is out of the picture, our chances are wonderful!

In a Michigan-Michigan State-Penn State three way tie, assuming the Lions beat the Spartans and the rest of their schedule, Michigan State would actually be eliminated due to overall winning percentage, then the tie-break would go to Michigan who beat Penn State head-to-head. In a Michigan-MSU-Ohio State three way tie, OSU and Michigan State are eliminated based on overall % and Michigan gets through. And obviously the Wolverines would win two-way ties with just Penn State or Ohio State.

The numbers are just as bad as they seem, and Stevie Brown is going to be disappointed that there's about a .0746% chance Michigan has any shot at playing in Pasadena for the holidays. Rebuilding years and expectations and all that. A non-Pizza Pizza Bowl will be acceptable. Roses are too formal anyway; we just started dating.

Denard touchdowns

The Delaware State game saw a lot of playing time for Denard Robinson and rightly so. He desperately needs the kind of in-game polish that Forcier has shown this year, and only game-time experience will help that. Against Iowa, Denard threw a fatal interception that ended the game. A lot of the talk about the pick was that he basically just floated the ball in the air, into the arms of an awaiting safety. I contend that it wasn't nearly as bad a throw as it looked (Stonum shouldn't have broken off his route), but it was still a jump ball at best.

Saturday's game against Delaware State saw a few passes from Denard, and two of them were long touchdown passes. But despite the results, the passes--watching them live and again on the replay--are as much OH NOES DENARD as they are good decisions. Touchdown the first:

Michigan is in a three-wide set. Kelvin Grady who catches the wide-open touchdown pass is set up in the slot. Denard is flanked by two running backs and is going to fake the zone-read before rolling out and throwing the pass.

At the snap, Vincent Smith is coming in front of Denard for the play action, which freezes the linebacker. Delaware State is blitzing hard, leaving their corner backs out on an island with one deep safety. This is a naked-ish bootleg as the offensive line ends up going backside and drawing the attention of the defensive line and linebackers.

The playside defensive end doesn't bite on the play fake, Kevin Grady (no L) is running into the flat for a quick release, and the playside linebacker is also crashing down on Denard. However, Kelvin Grady is running a straight fly route through the seam. His corner tried playing bump-and-run coverage but completely whiffs as Grady meets him. This route technically shouldn't be open with the one deep safety. There's no good angle to see what he does, but it seems like he is crashing down on the outside receiver, who Denard is staring at.

Here, Denard sees Kelvin Grady open in a sea of turf, pulls up to get his feet, and hurls the ball downfield. Touchdown. Unfortunately, this play constitutes OH NOES. The linebacker and defensive end are on top of Denard and end up delivering a shot as he's throwing the ball. Even though Kelvin is wide open, Denard should have hit him earlier in the route, shortly after he passed by his corner with ease--that is unless the safety sat on that route for a while, which I doubt given how out of position he is here. Against better opposition, Denard would either be sacked here or throw a duck into the middle of the field. The smart play is throwing it to Kevin (no L) Grady in the flat for 15 yards or so.

It's difficult to criticize Denard for throwing a 40-yard touchdown to an open receiver, but the pass isn't particularly good. Not only did he probably make the wrong decision by throwing the ball deep when he was being pressured, but the pass was underthrown and lofted, much like his interception at the end of the Iowa game. The second touchdown was almost the exact same play.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Power running game

Chris Brown at Smart Football put a post up today about the power running game and how it's been adapted by spread offenses. Of particular importance to Michigan:

The teams, like Florida, with good running quarterbacks are only too happy to use their runningback as a fullback and use their quarterback as a tailback. When they don’t, they still can use a variety of motions to get them into this look. In this way you’ve seen a big synthesis with spread teams in the last four or five years as compared with the previous five. Whereas from 1999-2005 or so spread teams thought it to their advantage to be four and five wide most of the game to fix the defense’s personnel, in the last four or five they have begun using these H-back types more because of their versatility in the run game: they can be lead blockers, they can kick out the EMLOS [end man on the line of scrimmage] on power, they can pull and trap or lead to the opposite side, and they can be used in pass protection.

Michigan has used this play a lot with Denard Robinson. Denard will be in the backfield, next to a running back. On the snap, Denard takes a step back--a hesitation that's supposed to sell "pass"--while the running back shoots into the gap between the tackle and guard. Denard follows shortly thereafter, using the running back like a lead-blocking full back. Take a look:

Michigan is lined up in a four-wide set with Denard and Grady (I think) in the backfield. Delaware State is in the 4-4 base defense that they ran all day--they actually had a few interesting ways of combatting Michigan's zone reads that, if it was executed by a better team, might have shut down the Michigan running game.

At the snap, the right tackle kicks his blocker to the outside while the center and right guard seal the Delaware State tackle to the inside, thus creating a hole up the middle. Grady's job is to hit that hole and pick up the linebacker whose job it is to fill it.

The right guard has now released and is headed to the second level to block the linebacker in the middle of the field. The linebacker who was supposed to fill the gap is four yards away from meeting Grady's helmet in his chest. Denard has tucked the ball and is following Grady.

It's difficult to see here, but Grady is now engaged with the linebacker in the middle of the pile in front of Denard. The right guard has a clear look at Delaware State's linebacker. Denard is waiting for a hole to open up to run through. He finds one to the right of Grady and scurries through. Unfortunately:

The seal to the outside from Michigan's right tackle has given way and the Delaware State defensive end is now crashing back down on Denard who would've otherwise had nothing but open field until the end zone. The play ends up in a huge pile that pushed 5 yards further by Michigan linemen. In any case, the play worked swimmingly until a block let up. To the YouTubes:

The emergence of Vincent Smith

Though Delaware State proved to be little competition, one of the big storylines that came out of the weekend was the emergence of Vincent Smith as potent runner. Brian at MGoBlog touched on it yesterday:

Pardon the blasphemy, but you know who Vincent Smith reminds me of? Mike Hart. Same lack of killer deep speed that prevents the guy in question from being an elite prospect—Noel Devine would have housed two or three of Smith's carries. On the other hand, Smith appears to have Hart's ability to juke guys out of their shorts and hit zone creases with authority, and when it comes time to get tackle Smith delivers a blow impressively for a member of the lollipop guild. He's probably even shiftier than Hart, not quite as liable to drag a pile but set to become an excellent player over the next few years. I still think Mike Shaw is the odds-on favorite to start next year because he has the explosion to take it the distance and the moves to break more than his share, but in this offense the #2 back is almost a starter and Smith should be productive.

For the record, I cosign just about everything here. I had planned on mentioning this, without the Hart comparison, but Brian beat me to it.

The first thing I really noticed from the game was Smith's patience. It's an old adage and one that you hear about a lot with traditional Big Ten rushing attacks--it was rammed down your throat by the ESPN commentators during the Iowa/Michigan game. Cliche aside, you could see Smith waiting for the field to open up before he hit the holes. It may have looked that way because of how easily Michigan moved the Delaware State defensive front, but Smith just hovered behind his linemen before scooting into the seams they created. It will be interesting to see Smith play against more stout defenses. I have been relatively unimpressed with him thus far through the season (sparing carries noted), but this game was really an eye opener. Watch as he runs carefully horizontally until his gap opens up. He looks none too worried to get into that hole; this is the kind of play that can't really be taught. It's more instinctual.

The other thing that really stuck out to me was his lack of top-end speed. For some reason--and maybe it was the mass of YouTube clips I had watched of his scurrying past defenders in high school--I thought Smith was a burner. But the clip below shows that he's going to have trouble beating any legit DB out in a foot race. Here (and watch the patience and the cutback), Smith makes a great move to get into the open field and has nothing but blockers and the end zone in front of him, but is quickly wrapped up by a defender giving chase. I remember remarking to myself when he broke open, "There's no way anyone's touching him. Touchdown."

So that's a little disappointing. But nonetheless, Smith proved himself to be a heck of a running back and will definitely be one of the prominent rushers next year, likely behind Michael Shaw who looked monstrous on Saturday. If Smith can up his top-end speed in the offseason, he'll give Shaw a run for the starting job, though. Don't be surprised to see him get a few more meaningful snaps this year, however.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Monday morning presser

Rich Rodriguez:
- Molk is going to practice today and how he feels every day will determine how much he will play. Medically cleared to practice. Tomorrow will be true test.
- No hesitation about Molk playing after missing a few weeks. If rust lingers throughout the week, then you hesitate a bit.
- Line will go back to how it started the season if Molk is back.
- Time off this week was invaluable, especially for players that were injured. Minor and Tate were very limited last week in practice and the game to get healthy.
- Don’t know if Minor will be 100% but he’ll be better than he’s been in past weeks.
- Doesn’t matter what your record is. You go into the game with the same intensity. But it is a different feel when you run down the tunnel about to play Penn State.
- A lot of ways we can control our own fate to win Big Ten championships and we need some help too. Need to take care of what they have to do.
- Darryl Clark is one of the best QBs in the country. Recruited him at West Virginia. Royster is one of the best RBs in the country. PSU plays very soundly, typical JoePa team. Dominated TOP, ball control. Dominating complete games.
- PSU forces loss-of-yardage plays in the games team has watched. A lot of great players and put teams in long yardage situation.
- It’s going to be a game that we’re going to play to the end and hope a few breaks go our way.
- Worries about number of possessions more than time of possession. You want to have 12 or 13 opportunities. If you’re limiting your possessions, you’re limiting your opportunities to score. Need to create turnovers, 3 and outs, and make them defend.
- Stonum has become a big play guy. Wants him to play on a consistent level.
- Identified what Mike Williams’ strength and weaknesses were in camp. Trying to work those out and put him in good situations.
- After watching film, didn’t have anyone that should get playing time above a starter. Not disappointed by this.
- Team doesn’t panic when teams get into the red zone. Playing hard and trying to make plays to minimize the damage. It’s the team’s personality. Team might not always play well, but will always play.
- Has met with Boubacar Cissoko almost every day since he was suspended. It’s a day-to-day thing. Up to Boubacar when he comes back.
- Odoms will be back in punt return more often.
- If players call back 15 years after they’re gone and say they’d do it all over again at the same place with the same people, then the program has been successful.
- Will meet with the team and mention the Jasper Howard [UConn CB who was recently stabbed to death] situation.

Delaware St.: Where Llyod Carr sits in Iowa

It's ironic that one week after reports of Lloyd Carr sitting in a skybox with Iowa supporters in Kinnick Stadium, that the Michigan faithful were given the least Lloyd Carr-esque moment of Rich Rodriguez's tenure: A 63-6 thrashing of lowly Delaware State at the hands of Rich Rodriguez's seemingly unrelenting squad. Not that Rodriguez was particularly ruthless--he did play five quarterbacks in the game and essentially inserted the scout team in the third quarter--or things played out spectacularly against traditional wisdom. But it's difficult to believe that the same game, played under Carr, would produce such a result. In fact, you can be largely certain it wouldn't as Michigan set school records for offensive yardage, yardage in the first half, and points in the first quarter, among other things.

Delaware State, however is also likely the weakest program that Michigan has ever played. It's difficult to blame Michigan for their output because they did everything in their power not to run up the score. It was difficult not to. This was not Rodriguez being a cut-throat coach, dedicated to obliterating every opponent in his way. It was Rodriguez trying to run his team as best he could without thoroughly embarrassing a team that clearly had no business being on the field with the Maize and Blue. This was apparent from the opening kickoff.

It was nice, however, to watch a game that Michigan was calmly in the driver's seat for. Not that I feel like Michigan is back to being the world-destroyer it used to be, but since the Appalachian State game, I haven't felt comfortable watching Michigan, or at least entirely confident, no matter who the opponent. There were too many close calls against inferior competition. When you know you're going to win, it's a good feeling.

All was not settling though. The most glaring problem was the coverage against kickoffs, where some zippy Delaware State player continued to gash the coverage unit, once breaking one off for 51 yards, which set up a Delaware State field goal. Next was the verification of the fear that the depth in Michigan's secondary is as dire as reported. The backups looked completely inept against a Hornets offense that had, to the point they came into the game, looked completely helpless. The defensive line's backups had a nice day, but now is the time to sacrifice a goat for the health of Donovan Warren's extremities. Meanwhile, Greg Matthews is in no danger of losing his punt returning gig (Terrence Robinson and Martavious Odoms were terrible, and Odoms proved he still hasn't solved his fumble-itis from last year on punt returns). And Denard Robinson looked... scattered. I had been a little skeptical of everyone's criticism of his passing game, thinking it was better than it had looked, but his long-ball touchdowns (which I will likely break down later this week) were horrible, horrible decisions, that against better opponents would've seen him crushed in the backfield. Finally, Michigan had 9 penalties for 93 yards, three (?) of which were facemasks. I only hope that this was a function of backups not having enough experience tackling.

But Michigan used this week to get healthy and prepare for Penn State. They did both things, presumably, as no one was injured, David Molk may be able to play against PSU, and, most importantly, Michigan didn't fall victim to an immensely inferior opponent in doing so--and most comforting, they never looked like they might.

As an aside, if the Dolphins/Colts game a few weeks back wasn't enough to convince you that time of possession is a completely useless statistic, look at the box score from Saturday: Michigan held the ball for 29:50 compared to Delaware State's 30:10.

Friday, October 16, 2009

David Cone: Too tall to act

Everyone loves Michigan's walk-on, backup quarterback David Cone, least of all because of the fantastic rhymes he drops in the above video. But MGoBlue's "What I've Learned With David Cone" reveals a side of Mr. Cone that we've yet to uncover (emphasis mine):

I haven't learned too much about love. I try to stay away from it. When you can't live without a person, that's when you know you love them.

In football it's great to be tall. Being 6-6 is nice, but now that I'm trying to get into acting I'm too tall. All the guys on the team are starting to wonder why I'm so concerned with my height all of a sudden. I need to shrink a couple inches.

I've always been taller than everyone in my classes and I get asked how tall I am all the time. Whenever I'm asked, I tell them 6-6 and then ask them how tall they are, then act interested. That usually ends the conversation.

I have a 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser that has 230,000 miles on it. I got it when I was a senior in high school. Before that I drove a little 1973 Mercedes with no air conditioning and no heat. I like cars. I want a nice car one day.

I truly cannot wait for David Cone's acting career to take off.