Monday, November 30, 2009

Youth and the learning curve

Well that didn't go particularly well, did it? When Michigan was favored to win the Old Spice Classic this weekend, they imploded and bowed out of the tournament a putrid 1-2, with losses to Marquette and Alabama.

There was a lot of hype leading up to the 2009 season but one thing is clear after only five games: Michigan is still going to struggle mightily through one of the most difficult schedules in the country, and arguably the deepest conference in the country. They are a young team full of potential and undeniable stars, but their deficiencies--lack of size, consistency, on the ball defense--are obvious and will be exploited as the season goes on. This isn't to say we should scrap the season and hope 2010 is brighter. But the past weekend was, in a word, discouraging.

It's difficult to be a three-point-shooting team, though, when you're not making three pointers. Michigan had these stretches last year too, where they had trouble making any threes, and this tournament recalled those times, as Michigan shot an ugly 19/72 (26%) from outside the arc. And when you combine that with Michigan's inability to score underneath the bucket and missed dunks and missed layups and missed free throws, well, you come out of tournaments you're expected to win 1-2. But increased consistency and shooting percentage will hopefully come as the younger players adjust to the speed of the game.

The real concerns are the defense and the lack of production from anyone outside of Manny Harris, DeShawn Sims, and the occasional flown-in three from Stu Douglass. When the shots start falling (and all indications from last year are that they will), production shouldn't be a problem. We've seen flashes of greatness from LLP and Matt Vogrich, and Novak and Douglass can both be lights out from time to time. But the defense looks porous and has been easily picked apart. I think a big part of this is having Darius Morris--and occasionally Vogrich--in the lineup. The 1-3-1 zone relies so heavily on rotation and discipline that there's quite a learning curve involved. If one player doesn't rotate in time or is caught out of position, it throws the entire defense off. But we saw it work last season, and these games should not be anything more than a minor blip on your panic radar. The more time the young players spend in the defense, the more effective it will be.

Michigan has two seniors (Sims, Zack Gibson), two juniors (Harris, Anthony Wright), and 12 freshmen/sophomores on their roster. There are obviously going to be some bumps in the road, especially early in the season. On Wednesday, Michigan takes on Boston College at home before getting a bevy of cupcakes/winnable games (Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Utah, University of Detroit). From there it gets tough, but Michigan should hopefully have all of the little problems worked out by the time they hit the meat of their schedule.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Win at any cost, you say?

Ed.: This will probably be my only post until Monday, as most of the next few days will be spent traveling to various places across Michigan and Ohio.

It's a shame I have to waste my time writing about this, but Michigan State running back Glenn Winston and safety Roderick Jenrette have been kicked off the team, presumably for the brawl that took place a few nights back in an MSU dorm. This wouldn't normally be a huge deal as college students are dumb and get into fights and sometimes get kicked off of football teams. The real problem here is Winston, who you might remember from your stint in Ingham County Jail where he was for four months before the football season started--getting out just in time for Dantonio to reinstate him to the team.

Winston was temporarily dismissed from the team after he hospitalized MSU hockey player A.J. Sturges. The day Winston was released from prison, he was reinstated by Dantonio and ended up becoming one of the more potent players in the MSU offense before being injured late in the season. You might remember him from such touchdowns as "Oh noes, we lost to MSU in overtime."

By why does anyone care that Winston is a thug and got kicked off the team? BOOM FREEPOCRISY:

You may remember a few months back, there was a kid on Michigan's team and something about cocaine and etc. It wasn't, like, a big deal, and the Free Press definitely didn't run a lead story on their site called, "Win at all costs a poor formula for Rich Rodriguez". That player, of course, was Justin Feagin who was immediately dismissed from the team upon Rodriguez's knowledge of the situation. Winston, however, who was imprisoned for violently attacking another student, was allowed back onto the team--and at the time, Dantonio was praised for his forgiveness--and has now, presumably, attacked a bunch of random students in a dorm because he was mad at someone he couldn't find.

What does the Free Press do? Run a completely objective headline as the third lead. Win at all costs? How about the fact that Winston was MSU's second leading rusher this season before his injury, something Dantonio more or less expected when he let Winston back onto the team practically wearing his prison uniform. You want to talk about winning at any cost? The cost of Dantonio's winning was the hospitalization of another Michigan State athlete, and now, the terrorizing of completely innocent Spartan students. And yet, not a peep from the Free Press condemning Dantonio's embarrassing lack of accountability and standards.

It's a shame that the day before Thanksgiving, I have to get in a fuss because of blatant media bias, but I'm being forced to. Rosenberg, Drew Sharp, we're looking at you. It's time for you to get your journalistic integrity on and rip Dantonio for this gross mistake. But that's probably too much to ask.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Denard conundrum

So we've now had a full season to watch and critique all of the hyped freshmen of Rodriguez's first full class, and no two drew more attention than Focier and Denard Robinson, the annointed saviors of the program. We all knew how Forcier did, but Denard is another story. Robinson completed only 14 of 31 passes, threw four interceptions to only two touchdowns, and ran for five touchdowns while managing the fumble the ball more than I'd like to remember--so much so that this blog had deemed him a turnover machine.

Frankly, however, I think a lot of these problems fall on the coaches, and not necessarily because they didn't improve his skills enough in the short time they've had to work with him. When Denard first showed up on campus, Rodriguez was adamant that Robinson was a quarterback and was going to stay a quarterback; that he would eventually have the full playbook and options that Forcier had. But time and again, when Robinson came onto the field, he took a snap and ran between the tackles. There are a number of problems with this:

Ohio State was the first team to do it, but every single play (with the exception of maybe one) that Robinon was in the game, Ohio State blitzed the cornerback that was over the slot receiver--Jermale Hines, who actually spent much of the day blitzing in an attempt to break up Michigan's rollling pockets. It took Michigan until Denard's 6th or 7th snap to finally throw the ball. It's not that Robinson should be heaving skinny posts over the middle on every play, but when you never throw the ball (even bubble screens, which he can throw well, or at least better than the mess Michigan had in 2008), there are simple things a defense can do to stop it. IMO, it took Rodriguez far too long to put the ball in the air with Robinson.

Further to the point, in no way did Robinson have the full playbook, or even a fraction of it. Where were the zone reads from Robinson? Where was the speed option? Where was that quick pitch to the edge? Robinson never did any of that. In terms of the reads, I can understand if he wasn't making them fast enough and screwing the plays up. Sure. But don't you break some of those out against Delaware State?

I think a lot of the reason that Denard wasn't particularly effective this year is because the coaches made him one dimensional; they turned him into a wildcat quarterback. In all honestly, that's fine. I'd be perfectly happy seeing Denard come in as a wildcat QB from time to time. The problem was, Michigan never lined up as such, instead lining up in their regular formations, which left them open to the kind of edge blitzing that Ohio State brought (frankly, I don't know why more teams didn't do this throughout the year). Chris Brown of Smart Football wrote a good piece for the New York Times' football blog, The Fifth Down, detailing exactly what constitutes the wildcat:

All too often the term “Wildcat” is synonymous with any set involving a skill player who takes the snap. It got to where when Michael Vick took a shotgun snap, announcers and commentators shouted “Wildcat!” This is incorrect, or at least incomplete. There are three primary facets to the “Wildcat,” and the mobile quarterback is but the most obvious element. The three are:

• The mobile “quarterback.”...
• The jet sweep/jet fake...
• The unbalanced line...

It's a really great piece, and I suggest you read the whole thing, but the long and short of it is that Michigan, when they brought Robinson in, weren't even gaining a tactical advantage in the blocking game by going to a wildcat formation. Instead, they just kept running QB draws. That's fine when you need a quarterback draw, but it doesn't make someone a quarterback--not really, anyway. This falls squarely on the shoulders of Rodriguez, that is unless Robinson was so far behind the curve in terms of reads and passing that he simply couldn't do anything else (if this is the case, though, dude needed to redshirt).

Much of the speculation surrounding Robinson is that when Devin Gardner shows up on campus and sits through his presumed redshirt, Robinson will move to slot receiver/RB/Percy Harvin, which is fine, but someone needs to teach him how to secure the ball. He fumbled again against Ohio State, and I think part of the reason he has trouble holding on is because it's difficult to bring him down. Robinson stays on his feet longer than he probably should he someone has him wrapped up, and teams punch the ball out. Robinson needs to secure the ball with two hands and go to the turf when he's surrounded by six defenders. He's clearly a great talent; I just hope that Rodriguez will figure out how to use him properly.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ohio State: Where, well...

So it's over: The season that started 4-0 ended with a resounding thump as it fell to the turf lifeless and defeated. But this game against OSU, sad as it is to say, might have been the best game Michigan played as a team since Notre Dame. Sure, they held in it against Iowa and Michigan State, but MSU dominated Michigan throughout and Iowa would've been another miracle victory. No, Michigan finally held serve with someone and, were it not for Forcier's four interceptions and fumbledeath, Michigan walks away with a victory here.

But Tate Forcier is was a true freshmen, and they're bound to have games like this one. Forcier interspersed magnificence with crippling mistakes and the muscle memory learned from his touchdown pass was responsible for the "Well, now it's over" endzone interception in the fourth quarter. Just like after the Iowa game: You live by Forcier, you die by Forcier. And in the future, this will be a wildly more positive experience than it was for the second half of this season.

As I said after the Wisconsin game: Vincent Smith has solidified himself as the 2010 starter. I hinted at it then, but now I'm officially there: Michael Shaw needs to prove himself against competition better than Delaware State if he wants to see significant playing time. He looks too frantic when he runs and has a habit of running into the back of his linemen instead of hitting holes and running patiently. He showed some flashes receiving this year when he came out of the backfield, but otherwise, he looks firmly like a backup right now.

Michigan's defense looked... competent too. There were a few personnel shifts for this game of note: Woolfolk moved back to safety, Kovacs played as a linebacker (more or less), Floyd took over the corner position opposite Warren, and Williams and Brandon Smith rarely, if ever, saw the field. Michigan played a cover-1 for most of the day and dared Pryor to throw the ball which he did poorly. But mostly, Tressell ran Carr ball: We're going to out-execute you. Michigan didn't have the athleticism, schemes, smarts, or strength to stop Ohio State's rushing attack, so they kept running the ball. Much of this falls on the linebackers, and you can, as MGoBlog has been presuming, assume Jay Hopson is out as linebacker coach next year.

The most depressing thing about watching this game was watching Pryor run the zone read. He was born for that and clearly is in the wrong system. Ohio State has resounding success when they ran the play and Pryor has the size and speed to annihilate teams running it. I kept thinking to myself: If only you weren't such a stubborn prick, you'd be running those plays here and we'd be winning. That was depressing, but going forward, I think we're probably better for it.

(How worried should Ohio State be? Barring a drastic uptick in Pryor's passing ability, that team probably won't get any better year-to-year, and needed four interceptions and a fumble for a touchdown to beat the worst Michigan defense, um, ever? I came into work today and was accosted by my boss' boss: "Your team sucks. But you do have a good quarterback." And well, sure we sucked this year, but OSU's running game won't be any more successful than it was against Michigan this year, their defense was as stout as OSU defenses get, the rest of the team played mostly as they did all year, and Forcier projects to get better from Year One to Year Two. And yet they still almost lost that game. But I digress.)

Now we have eight months to hear people talk about how Rodriguez is going to be fired (Wilbon--who, sometime last week on PTI, ripped Michigan fans for not giving Rodriguez enough support and called for people to give him more time; I'm getting more than a little tired of his noted hatred for Michigan) or should have been fired or will fail again because his system doesn't work or he isn't connected to Bo or he's planning to bomb the White House and should be fired. I will avoid these things and think about what it might be like in 2010. Sunnier days are ahead. Those who stay will be champions.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lead us to victory

When I was four years old, my parents told me I could play any sport I want—except hockey and football. They were too violent. Baseball, soccer, basketball; I could play any of these. I had been playing tee-ball already and found it to be exceptionally fun but had only heard horror stories about soccer from my brother who, through his seven years of wisdom and existence, hated the sport. I was content.

Later that year, a family moved in down the street with a son named Tony who was my brother’s age. When they were moving in, Tony came rollerblading over to my brother and I who were playing catch in the front yard. It was, without a doubt, the coolest thing I had ever seen. I immediately went inside and tried convincing my parents to let me play hockey. I cried and complained and argued that they let me brother play every sport he wanted. After a few months of research, my parents caved. I haven’t missed a season of hockey since.

And as a son of Detroit, this was never a problem. The Detroit Red Wings were beginning their legendary streak of excellence that continues to today. Meanwhile, the Lions were a family joke. My uncles would come over on Thanksgiving and would turn the game on. We don’t watch the NFL in my house and my dad actively roots against the Lions.

College football was similarly vacant in our household. On a cold November Saturday morning in 1997, I was in a small ice rink called Devon Aire in Livonia, Michigan, waiting for a game to start. I was in the front lobby where a number of people had collected and were watching the small TV that was mounted in the corner. Michigan had just beaten Ohio State, much to the pleasure of everyone around me. I felt nothing and went back to the locker room to finish getting dressed for my game.


2001 was my brother’s freshman year at the University of Michigan. As a little brother tends to do, I paid attention to most of the things he did. Michigan football was starting to appear on my radar. There were, however, a number of Saturdays that I spent in my parents’ basement, watching Cartoon Network or playing Gamecube.

It wasn’t until 2004, my freshman year, that I really paid close attention to the Michigan football team (i.e., emotional investment). Before every game that season, I signed on to AIM and left an away message up: “Chad Henne, lead us to victory.” And though it worked a few times that year, it never did for the one that counted.

And for the last five years of my life, the week before Thanksgiving has been one of cautious anxiety. 2006 was devastating. At the time, I knew a number of people on the team and had a pretty large get together at my apartment. A few hours after the loss, and a few spirits later, someone told me it was only 9 p.m. Shocked by this revelation, I stopped everything in my apartment and felt it my duty to inform everyone that it was still early. We still had more time to try and forget.

Three years later, I’m still trying to forget. Everyone knows the story: Michigan has lost five straight to Ohio State and, by all outward appearances, it about to extend that streak to six. The ecstasy of beating Ohio State is completely alien to me.

After last year’s debacle against Ohio State, I told a few different people that it was an entirely cathartic experience. 2008 was finally over. I’d never have to see that team play again and that gave me hope.


After I graduated in 2008, I moved to Cleveland for a job where I currently live. My life here has afforded a marked lack interpersonal contact, so much so that the bartenders at my local bar are of a select few, outside of coworkers, that know me by name. For lack of any personal relationships and the hope inspired by the end of 2008, I immediate searched out season tickets for Michigan football, knowing full well that that meant I’d be spending countless hours in a car, driving back and forth between Ann Arbor—a place I still consider home—and where I reside now.

As time went on, the only real personal relationships I felt were with athletes. Watching sports, Michigan or otherwise, was a release, a way for me to connect with society in an otherwise insulated world. I spent countless hours analyzing the NBA, NFL, college basketball and football; anything I could get on television, I consumed. Frankly, it’s what drove me to finally start this blog.

After the beginning of the season, I fell in love with this team, something I’ve mentioned in this space before. It took a group of upstarts and freshmen mistakes to make a team that I enjoyed watching as much as my beloved Henne/Hart troupes. But this year and last have been trying. Watching not only your favorite hobby, but your most immediate connection to the world crumble, isn’t easy. And neither have been the constant cries of foul play, removal, and upheaval in the program.

Beating Ohio State on Saturday won’t cure all of that like the media has been saying. But it will give hope once again.

Unfortunately, it’s unfair to even expect a victory on Saturday. To hold this team to a standard of victory this season seems almost malicious and offensive. Even after the first four games of this season, holding Michigan in the esteem of Ohio State is irresponsible. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cover-2 and the inability to play anything else

As I mentioned in my Wisconsin recap, Nick Toon ran free through the middle of Michigan's secondary on Saturday and was largely untouched before getting 20- and 30-yard gains. Michigan never changed their defensive scheme even though Wisconsin had clearly figured it out, and it finally hit me: Michigan has been vulnerable in the secondary because they're unable to play anything that's not a cover-2--or zero blitz, when they bring the house--due to the lack of talent at safety and depth elsewhere. Take a look at the pre-snap alignments from a few of Michigan's big disaster passing plays:

The first one is from MOEAKI!!! and the birth of our inability to stop tight ends, and the second is Penn State and one of Andrew Quarless' scoring plays. Against Quarless, Michigan is sitting in a base cover-2 set, and the opposing tight end split the middle of the field. I think a lot of this falls on the linebackers who need to drop back into coverage and make sure that the pass to the tight end doesn't get there, but we all know how our linebackers play in coverage. Against MOEAKI, Michigan played in this really weird quasi cover-2, quasi man, quasi cover-1... I don't now. It's definitely one of the formations we had heard about preseason. As you know, it was a disaster. So as Michigan experiemented with different formations to try and get everything right, the need to go to a cover-2 arose as Michigan continually gave up huge, crushing plays.

Wisconsin saw Michigan's trend to play cover-2 and started to exploit it. (With MGoVideo down and, apparently, no where else to find the game, I can't really bring you any images. If I find some video in the near future I'll post some pictures.) You may have noticed that in the second half, Wisconsin started a lot of plays by showing a two-wide, max protect set. Before the snap, they would motion Nick Toon from one side of the field to the other to, presumably, see how Michigan's defense would react. And what did they do? The corner that was initially on Toon would slide over to the end of the LOS on the side of the field he was on--presumably, he was then in charge of covering the weakside flat, but that move completely tipped Michigan's defensive alignment. This was a glaring signal to Wisconsin that Michigan was playing zone. Tolzien only had to do a pre-snap read on the safeties to see if they were playing a cover-2 (they were), and Toon simply ran skinny posts through the middle of the zone. This play happened exactly this way at least 4 times during the Wisconsin game.

As I mentioned before, this is the biggest condemnation of Greg Robinson this season. He's been working with a relative lack of talent and the poor performances are at least moderately acceptable given the depth and physical limitations of his players. But when you're outwardly outschemed and unable to react to it, that's a problem. I've been fairly forgiving of Robinson this season because of the personnel trouble. This, however, was ugly.

But maybe this scheming (or lack thereof) can't all be blamed on Robinson. For starters, it's not as if Michigan had been succeeding with the cover-2 they'd played all year. To give the secondary a completely new look would probably be disastrous (think 3-3-5 stack against Purdue last year). But what needs to break first: Being bad at playing cover-2 and changing to something else, or trying to get good at playing cover-2? At this point, you almost have to say the former.

But that's where the problems really begin. With Michigan's lack of any depth in the secondary, it's difficult to play anything but cover-2. And the lack of talent that the current set of safeties has makes playing cover-1 a worse gamble than they're current formation. The only reasonable compromise would be to play Williams, Kovacs, and Brandon Smith at the same time in a cover-3 and sacrifice one of Michigan's linebackers--but given their trouble in run stopping with the personnel they have currently on the field, one less linebacker would probably spell doom in the run game.

If all of this sounds like I'm talking in circles, well, I am. The fact of the matter is, the lack of any respectable depth or talent in the Michigan secondary makes it exceedingly difficult to counteract opponents attacks. I'm not implying that Robinson shouldn't try. He has, to relatively poor results. In the end though, the inability of the linebackers to stop the run, the lack of depth at safety, and the fear of the big play if Michigan strands Kovacs, Williams, or Smith in the secondary alone, all contribute to a defense that's behind the 8 ball. This isn't supposed to come off as an excuse for this defense. A plea for understanding and an explanation as to why Michigan is unable to stop, well, anyone.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Panic level: Moderate

Like many of you, the recent admission from the University that they had not submitted countable athletically related activities (CARA) reports from the 2008-2009 academic year was pretty bothersome and foreboding. The Detroit News and Free Press both handed in their take on the situation and neither one of them were particularly positive. The Michigan Daily also ran something yesterday, which also included the various documents that the University had been circulating on the situation. I suggest you read it.

So being a journalist of sorts, I decided to do a little digging and see what exactly this all means. The comment from the Daily that stuck out to me was this one:

Michael Buckner, a lawyer from Florida who consults with universities during NCAA investigations, told the Free Press that if the University cannot produce evidence to convince the NCAA of its innocence, there could be much more trouble for the Athletic Department.

“The enforcement staff is going to be looking at whether the institution failed to monitor,” he told the Free Press.

Buckner continued by telling the Free Press that could be “a major violation.”

After doing some digging into past violations and otherwise on the NCAA website, I found that in almost all cases of major violations, they cited either a lack of institutional control or a failure to monitor. The separation between the two is as such, per the NCAA website:

2. Failure to Monitor vs. Lack of Control.
a. D-I: In recent years, failure to monitor was cited at a greater rate than lack of control, suggesting that institutions may be doing a better job of putting systems for control in place but need to enhance monitoring.
b. D-II/D-III: In recent years, lack of control was cited in nearly every case, suggesting that institutions may still have work to do in establishing appropriate systems for control.
c. Considerations when evaluating failure to monitor vs. lack of control (not intended to be an exhaustive list):

(1) Duration/frequency of violations.
(2) Visibility of violations.
(3) Warning signs to institution.
(4) Number of involved student-athletes/teams.
(5) Number of involved staff members.
(6) Significance of impermissible benefit.
(7) Recruiting/competitive advantage gained.
(8) Self-report or report from outside source.

d. Multiple failures to monitor can be viewed as a lack of institutional control.
e. In failure to monitor cases, adequate systems for compliance often exist, but the institution fails to pay proper attention to a limited area and/or for a limited period of time.

Given the reports we've recently heard--that Michigan's compliance department didn't obtain the CARA forms from Rodriguez but eventually filed their own audit in response--it seems that Michigan is almost certainly guilty of a failure to monitor. It would be pretty difficult, given the outline above to make a case that Michigan didn't have institutional control and were repeatedly unaware of what was going on. Though the lack of CARA forms extended to over a year, the University audit may play as a significant factor into the NCAA's judgment.

Plainly put, however, this is an NCAA violation. Whether it was, as MGoBlog suggested, Rodriguez telling someone in the compliance department to to buzz off or the compliance department simply not doing its job, one way or another Michigan will be reprimanded for this. If there are no other violations found, the fact that Michigan filed an internal audit on the situation prior to the Free Press report, Michigan will probably get a public reprimand and be asked for records on a fairly consistent basis for the next few years--in the various NCAA official documents, it's "public reprimand and censure". It would be difficult for the NCAA, unless they were on a serious crusade, to make anything more than a failure to monitor out of the current situation.

However, the lack of these records does one of two things: a) indefinitely validates the accusations of former/anonymous players or b) acts as, essentially, a safeguard against the comments made by the former players. Since the missing records are directly from the time in which the program is being accused of overworking players, my guess is that the NCAA is going to take the accusations significantly more seriously. Michigan is going to have to make sure the rest of their paperwork is in order (spot checks, educational sessions, the subsequently collected CARA reports, etc.) to avoid a more serious NCAA reaction.


Barring unforseen clerical errors and a lack of institutional control ruling, Michigan is still going to deal with the fact that, with no paperwork to prove its innocence, it's staring down several players that are accusing the program of overworking its student athletes. I started looking into a lot of different major violation cases to try and get a handle on what kind of penalty might be passed down. There aren't really any cases that are as relatively pedestrian as this one. In the cases where players are overworked, there are also a variety of issues including immoral conduct from coaches, recruiting violations, financial aid issues, and other problems. In all of these cases, the most severe penalty handed down is a loss of scholarships and postseason ban for a few years.

Obviously, this would be devastating. But even if Michigan is given such a ban, there's precedent for having it repealed. With the excessive hours put in by players, the NCAA, aside from its 20-rule is most concerned with the idea of competitive advantage. It's described as such:

The structure and programs of the Association and the activities of its members shall promote opportunity for equity in competition to assure that individual student-athletes and institutions will not be prevented unfairly from achieving the benefits inherent in participation in intercollegiate athletics.

Those benefits of intercollegiate athletics presumably include winning. And if that's the case, well... 8-15 doesn't exactly scream competitive advantage. I highly doubt Michigan could use that as a valid retort, but I digress. In February, Eastern Washington University was hit with an NCAA violation from 2003-2004 when 13 players who were ineligible, practiced with coaches. Eastern Washington was hit with the aforementioned public censure and reprimand and a post-season ban. The school, however, appealed the ban as it was based on the program gaining a competitive advantage due to the excessive workouts.

The NCAA's ruling for repealing such a ban had to prove that an abuse of discretion had occurred due to one of the following:

…we conclude that an abuse of discretion in the imposition of a penalty occurs if the penalty: (1) was not based on a correct legal standard or was based on a misapprehension of the underlying substantive legal principles; (2) was based on a clearly erroneous factual finding; (3) failed to consider and weigh material factors; (4) was based on a clear error of judgment, such that the imposition was arbitrary, capricious, or irrational; or (5) was based in significant part on one or more irrelevant or improper factors.

This is where things bode well for Michigan as the ban was eventually overturned. But it's not just that it was overturned, but why (emphasis mine):

The NCAA Division I Infractions Appeals Committee has overturned a postseason ban for Eastern Washington University’s football program, saying that the competitive advantage the school gained through the violations was not as significant as the Committee on Infractions had claimed.

The Infractions Appeals Committee noted that the Committee on Infractions based the postseason ban “substantially on (the Committee on Infractions’) judgment” that the violations provided the university with a significant competitive advantage. However, the Infractions Appeals Committee found that the violations in the case did not justify that conclusion. Rather, it noted that “while the violations provided some competitive advantage, the conclusion that the advantage was ‘significant’ was a clear error of judgment, such that the imposition of the postseason ban was arbitrary.”

In support of this decision, the Infractions Appeals Committee noted that of the 13 persons involved in the impermissible practice violations, most never competed for the team, or competed in a limited capacity.

The fact that the allegations that still stand are from former players and transfers, it seems as though Michigan may be subject to a similar fate if the NCAA decides to come down with a postseason ban.

For the record, I don't think they will. Another case study in 2005: There was a case against Florida International that included, "impermissible skill instruction; impermissible out-of-season athletically related activities, unethical conduct and a failure to monitor." There's a lot of the same stuff Michigan is dealing with here, and the penalties included "public reprimand and censure, three-years of probation, show cause provision placed on the former assistant football coach involved in this case and annual compliance reporting required". The relevant aspect for Michigan, however, is this:

During the summer of 2004, the head strength coach took attendance of football student athletes participating in voluntary strength and conditioning activities. The head strength coach maintained weekly attendance logs indicating a student-athlete's presence during summer strength and conditioning workouts. The head strength coach then periodically reported the information regarding a football student-athlete's attendance to the head football coach as well as selected assistant football coaches.

Long story short, the initial allegations appear to be secondary in these sorts of cases, so that's good. Furthermore, the things that constitute major violations, and presumably a postseason ban are mostly avoided in the Michigan case--failure to monitor rather than lack of institutional control, and secondary violations rather than major ones.

So what's the upshot? Well, the bad news is that Michigan is probably going to be punished by the NCAA in some regard. The failure to monitor charge will be the main thing Michigan is hit with if nothing else serious surfaces. This should bring down public reprimand from the NCAA. But the fact that Michigan launched an internal audit on the problem and has since corrected the recently found issues, Michigan should be spared something more serious. In terms of the allegations? Well, it will probably end up being nothing more than fluff that eventually gets either entirely dismissed or appealed away.

I can't see any way Michigan gets hit with major NCAA violations here. And if they do, like I said, appeals have a good chance of doing away with the problems we currently know about.

To beat OSU: Break tendency; play the underdog

Michigan's deep in it going into their final game of the season against Ohio State on Saturday. Rich Rodriguez has long said that he doesn't care about time of possession, and that's pretty obvious from the stats this season (Michigan is 119th in the country in time of possession at 26:22 a game). If Michigan wants to have any chance going up against Ohio State on Saturday, it's going to have to break this tendency and try and grind out the game, slowing it down to a crawl.

A great post a few months ago from Brian at MGoBlog went a ways to explaining it. I suggest you read the entire thing to get the whole scope of it, but the gist is this:
And it's the same for the favorite and reducing their variance: sometimes it's worth reducing expectation to get it, but only in certain situations and when you're a considerable favorite. In Bo's time, Michigan was a considerable favorite much more often and the game lent itself to low-variance moves: a 40-yard punt is much more valuable in an era when ten points is a potentially game-winning number.

Anyway, to the assertion above: modern offenses have more variance to them because they score more. Don't lose sight of expectation here: Missouri had a lot of variance in their scores but that was because they averaged 42 points a game. Michigan had far less but they were averaging 20.

Offenses that do this quickly are actually more predictable because they get in more trials. Moving fast without sacrificing expectation is advantageous to the better team, which is why Oklahoma was in zero even halfway close games against the Big 12 rabble. (Texas is not rabble, obviously.)

Defenses reduce variance by, you know, having safeties that can tackle. The very best defenses are low variance because all of the outcomes have the same result for the opposition: shame and humiliation. In that situation, punting your ass off makes sense, because you're a big favorite, you're not giving the opponent much of an opportunity and you're reducing variance in a way that helps your overall chances of winning. The main problem with Michigan's defense over the last few years has been their suckiness, which by the way increases variance as your defense falls to a point where opponents can drive the field on them regularly.

So what does that mean for Michigan on Saturday? It means they need to chew up as much time off the clock when they have the ball and pray for Terrelle Pryor to arm punt his way to a loss. The other problem here is that it presumes Michigan will be able to stop the OSU offense, um, once or twice or three times, which at this point, seems unlikely.

Having Brandon Minor this week is going to go a long way to make this happen. Without Minor, Michigan's run game (and subsequently, it's most consistent way to run time off the clock) takes a serious hit and depends a lot on Carlos Brown--a player who has made his mark this year on the big play. Vincent Smith, last week, looked like he might have the ability to cut through holes and pick up 4 or 5 yards at a time. If Michigan can get this kind of consistent play from Smith and Minor is out (for the record, it being Minor's last game, I assume he'll play, injured or not), it will go a long way to this end.

When the ball is in Forcier's hand, Michigan is going to need to limit sacks, penalties, and dropped passes. I'd be surprised to see Michigan take more than one shot downfield if they realistically want to win this game--it seems counter intuitive, but the faster Michigan scores, the more chances it gives Pryor and his offense to score. If Ohio State is blowing up Michigan's bubble screens and breaking into the backfield on rushes, Michigan will lose. There's no doubt about it. Also, Michigan is going to need to slow the pace of their offense down. Not that they should huddle up after every play, but taking most of the time off the play clock before snapping the ball would be advantageous.

On the other side of the ball, the key for Michigan is limiting the big play. Ohio State has lived off of the big play this year and has struggled when they haven't gotten it. Misdirection plays are going to be key, like they usually are for OSU, and the safeties' ability to stay home on these will be critical. If Michigan can force Pryor to march down the field, they further take time off the clock and increase the chances that Pryor will throw a pick. It's an uphill battle and Michigan needs to treat it as such if they want to have any chance in this game.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wisconsin: Where hope is lost

There's not much that can be said about Michigan's performance at Camp Randall on Saturday that isn't obvious from looking at the box score: John Clay trounced Michigan's defense, Scott Tolzien had a career day--like most quarterbacks playing against Michigan this year--and the Wisconsin rush defense is exceedingly stout. Early on, it looked like Michigan might be able to pull this one out, looking mostly unstoppable on offense and being able to go score for score with Wisconsin for a time. But, as has been the trend of late, the defense in the second half was absolutely shredded and Wisconsin was finally able to get a few stops.

Doom and gloom and sadness.

One of the only bright spots was Tate Forcier, who was impeccably good: 20/26 for 188 yards, 2 TDs, and an arm punt of an interception. But those numbers need to be tempered. Wisconsin's pass defense hasn't been great on the season, but more importantly, it was the kind of passes that Forcier was completing (and missing on) that told the story. Wisconsin was conceding the long ball for much of the game and trying to lock down the short passes that Michigan has been effective on. Wisconsin did an admirable job, and shut down the offense in the second half. Forcier threw three long balls, all of which were open. Matthews' catch down the sideline was the only good throw of the three, and even that was a little too far out of bounds. The other pass to Matthews was terribly overthrown and the interception that he threw was intended for Stonum, and would've been completed if he threw it to the outside shoulder. It was a good day for Forcier, but weaknesses were obvious.

In terms of the running game? Well, that didn't happen. Brandon Minor--who is probably injured again--Vincent Smith, and Denard Robinson were the only ones that had any bit of success, and even that was moderate. Wisconsin completely dominated Michigan's run game and, frankly, it was a little disappointing that Michigan kept going to it when it was obviously not working.

The most encouraging thing to come out of the game was Vincent Smith, who may have gone a way to solidifying himself as the premiere back next year. He ran tough and smart against a dominating defense that drastically outsized him. And his ability to catch and run out of the backfield was nothing short of a revelation. Expect to see him get a lot of playing time against Ohio State if Minor or Brown aren't 100%, and frankly, unless Michael Shaw can prove that he's worth all of the praise that's been heaped upon him--against teams better than Delaware State--Smith is going to be the #1 back next year.

Our defense is bad bad, and the inability to make any adjustments during this game is the biggest condemnation of Greg Robinson this season. Michigan ran a base cover-2 set the entire game and, when Wisconsin reacted to it and started attacking it through the middle, Michigan did absolutely nothing to respond. There weren't any giant horrifying defensive lapses, and there was, finally, a defensive score on a great play by Brandon Graham (who else?), so that was a positive. But the defense's performance was awful. Nick Toon was turned into the best WR in the country, TEs ran unmolested through fields of daisies, Tolzien became football throwing god, and on and on. All of the problems we've seen all year. (I plan on going in depth into why all of these problems exist, and why the depth of this team is particularly damning later in the week.)

So what does this mean for the future? It means we're missing a bowl game again. There was nothing here to inspire confidence that Michigan can beat Ohio State. Maybe it'll be one of these shocking turnarounds where the team puts together a good performance to save face. Maybe Pryor breaks his leg and their backup's arm (who was a minor league pitcher; I truly don't want to see him shred the Michigan secondary) explodes into dust. But if both of those things don't happen, Michigan's chances against Ohio State are somewhere between 0 and 3.6. Wooo arbitrary numbers!

Basketball /= Football. But at least Manny Harris exists.

(I plan on doing basketball coverage too, but probably won't be doing too much until next week when football is over and I recover from my drinking coma.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wisconsin Preview

The good news: Michigan won three games in 2008 and one of them was against Wisconsin, the only returning victory from last year's schedule. The bad news: Michigan 2009. Numbers:
46th nationally
209.33 YPG
83rd nationally
198.00 YPG
19th nationally
102.78 YPG
17th nationally
205.67 YPG
43rd nationally
22.44 PPG
42nd nationally
29.56 PPG
83rd nationally
235.00 YPG
89th nationally
195.70 YPG
80th nationally
158.30 YPG
16th nationally
208.30 YPG
76th nationally
26.40 PPG
24th nationally
32.00 PP
So that doesn't look great. The one thing that Michigan has going for it against Wisconsin is that Wisconsin doesn't throw the ball too much, and well, we all know how that goes. But against Michigan, teams have been breaking the mold and going to passing sets more often. I expect that Wisconsin will do similarly. Well, that and you can expect a lot of MOEAKI!!! running seams through the middle of the field and putting Kovacs and Ezeh into coverage. So how do we get there:

Wisconsin is predominantly a run team behind the strength of dino-back John Clay, the conference's leading rusher, whose averaging 5.1 YPC because of both his size and the size of his offensive line, which frankly will probably push Michigan 10 yards into the secondary on running downs. I wouldn't be surprised if we only see Craig Roh sparingly because of his lack of size, instead opting for a heavy set with Will Campbell, Brandon Graham, Ryan Van Bergen, and Mike Martin on the line. There's not much depth there, and Roh might be able to sub in on obvious passing downs. If not, Roh will be a liability against the enormous offensive line of Wisconsin. Another possibility is running a three man front and putting Mouton, Ezeh, Fitzgerald, and Leach on the field at the same time. No matter what, it looks grim.

Scott Tolzien hasn't been asked to throw the ball too much this season, and when he has, he's been exceedingly pedestrian: a 61.8% completion percentage, for 7.53 YPA, 10 TDs, and 8 INTs. But, ya know, Michigan's secondary likes to turn every quarterback into Peyton Manning. Again, the bigger concern here is going to be max protect sets with tight ends that slip into the secondary after play action. Michigan will be particularly susceptible to this and it largely falls on the linebackers and safeties to play smart, disciplined football.

On Michigan's side of the ball, it's business as usual. The offense is going to have a tough test with a defense full of meaty, prototypical Big Ten players that will likely manhandle the scrapbooked offensive line. But with size often comes a marked lack of speed, and Michigan's zippy zipsters should be able to zip around the field if Wisconsin doesn't immediately blow into the Michigan backfield. As I mentioned earlier this week, the resurgence of Michigan's big-play running game was probably a one-game appearance. If Michigan starts breaking a lot of big plays on the ground, this game could swing Michigan's way. This is unlikely.

Prediction: It's difficult to put any games Michigan's way, especially when they're playing on the road against a top 25 team in one of the more difficult venues in the country. Michigan is going to need a couple of breaks to go their way, play disciplined defense, not letting up any long touchdowns, and take care of the ball. With how strong of a defense Wisconsin appears to have, Tate and company are going to need all of the chances they can get to try and put up points against a stout defense. Wisconsin will probably have their way with Michigan's defense on the strength of 5-yard runs and short passes. If they limit fumbles and interceptions, they probably keep Michigan off the field long enough to limit their chances to score. I think Michigan will have a moderate amount of success on offense because, frankly, I don't think Wisconsin can keep up with the speed of the team. In the end though, unless some big-time breaks go Michigan's way and they don't have any major gaffes, this one is going to Wisconsin. Wisconsin 28-24.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Jordan Kovacs problem

It has been said that I’ve been a little too harsh on freshman walk-on starting safety Jordan Kovacs. Just writing that string of adjectives before his name makes my brain hurt. But I stick by evaluation of Kovacs and will do you one better: Kovacs is to Michigan 2009 what Threetidan was to Michigan 2008.

Hear me out: Threetidan’s impact on the team last year was statistically and empirically obvious. Twelve INTs to only 11 TDs, under 50% completion percentage, immobile quarterbacks trying to fit into a system they had never played and weren’t physically equipped for. It was a horrorshow. And everyone knew it because on every single snap, one of the two unfortunate quarterbacks touched the ball and had to fumble it or hand it off or throw it into the arms of an opposing linebackers or whatever it was they did with the football last year. Their effect was obvious because of how critical that position is offense.

Kovacs’ lack of production and D-1 talent is a little more concealed because of the position he plays. But, if there were a position on the defense that’s as critical to the relative success or failure of the unit in the same way as the quarterback is on offense, it would be safety. Not that your safety should make a play on the ball every time he’s on the field, but being the last line of defense means that any time something goes wrong, or any time a safety screws up his own assignment it’s a massive failure and potential game-changing play.

Of course, a lot of blame gets unnecessarily put on Theetidan and probably Kovacs for the problems each unit experienced. The interceptions weren’t overwhelming and Theetidan wasn’t always the one fumbling, much like Kovacs isn’t always the one that’s missing tackles or not jumping on loose balls or allowing 80 yard runs. There was an obvious lack of production from Threetidan that did cause a lot of trouble last year, and Kovacs presents the same problem on defense this year.

Kovacs, and to a large extent Michigan’s awful linebacker core, have given opposing teams a blueprint of how to beat this defense: Play action pulls Kovacs and the linebackers away, and a pass to a running back or tight end on the opposite side of the field will be wide open. We saw it against Iowa and Penn State and Purdue and probably Illinois (a game which I still haven’t watched and refuse to do so). The mere presence of Kovacs on the field presents a gaping hole in the defense and an obvious weak spot for opposing offenses to attack.

Like Cissoko before him, Kovacs is so deficient at his position, that Greg Robinson actually has to change his formations and personnel to try and reconcile his lack of production (e.g., Donovan Warren essentially playing safety in a cover-2 to try and mitigate the long touchdown). Rich Rodriguez refused to change his system to cater to the players and talent he had last year and was ripped by a number of local and national publications. What Robinson is proving with this defense is you can’t make lemonade with walnuts.

A common refrain is that Kovacs is good as a run stopper--something that may eventually see him move to linebacker, about more which later--but how is this A) something used as the only defensible trait of a starting safety and B) not something taken into account by other coaches. The Kovacs as good run stopper meme exists in a vacuum. When put in context, it becomes, “OK, duh. Now what?” Kovacs is a good run stopper because he sells out on the run on every play. That’s why play action is so dangerous for Michigan: Kovacs doesn’t read plays, he plays against the run. Every coach that has scouted Michigan this year knows it and has exploited this. I shudder to think how Terrelle Pryor is going to beat us on this play.

Just as harmful as Kovacs’ on-field problems, though, is the fact that Vlad Emilien is riding the pine, save for special teams, and has blown his redshirt. Unless the coaches believe that Kovacs has the upside to turn into a long-term answer at the safety position--something that his lack of any recruiting profile and status as a walk-on firmly argues against--leaving Kovacs on the field is doing nothing but taking away from valuable playing time from Emilien. Given the current state of the depth chart at safety, this is a serious problem.

There’s been speculation that Kovacs is being primed to take over Stevie Brown’s position next year in the wake of his graduation, but I frankly could not think of a worse position for Kovacs. Brown is responsible for making quick reads, needs extreme athleticism, and most damning for Kovacs, is put into man coverage any time opposing teams bring out more than two wide receivers. Putting Kovacs here would be a massacre. He simply cannot play that position.

Kovacs is a nice kid and a good story, and just like Nick Sheridan, I harbor no ill will toward him. That’s not to say that I am particularly pleased with how he plays football nor do I want him to be anywhere Michigan’s starting lineup.  Vlad Emilien was a 4-star, stud safety recruit who’s blown his redshirt and sitting behind a player that, in the coming years, will probably never see significant playing time. If we put Emilien in the game, what’s the worse that can happen? He plays like Jordan Kovacs? I suppose at this point, we have to ask what exactly Kovacs is bringing to the table. When it’s all said and done, his negatives far outweigh his positives, and furthermore, he’s having an effect on the long-term growth of a player that we’re kind of counting on.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Kovacs will improve with an offseason in the S&C program and will eventually turn into a serviceable safety or linebacker or wherever he ends up. I don’t like being wrong and I don’t think I am here either. I’ve seen the movie: Even Rudy only gets two plays.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The problem with assignment football

You may have remembered yesterday when I said,

Much like the first play, Purdue played a lot of man/assignment football that, if the coach is good enough and has enough of the playbook open, will eventually crush. Again, Michigan just isn't there yet in their development.

Well, I was right and wrong. I went back and looked at the different touchdown plays that Michigan ran on the day and saw something that was extremely encouraging, and a sign of what Rodriguez can bring to the table as a play caller.

(First though, on the Roundtree touchdown, Purdue called nearly the same corner blitz that they had against the triple option that caused the fumble. Only this time, they didn't get nearly as lucky with the offensive play call, and Roundtree ran free through the secondary before stiff arming a safety into oblivion. It's pretty obvious that Purdue came into the game with a high-risk/high-reward gameplan. Unfortunately, Michigan couldn't covert on enough of these plays to pull out the victory. That or the defense is so bad that regardless of how many times Michigan converted, the defense couldn't get a stand. But, like the beginning of the season, you saw the return of Michigan's long run game. You can expect to see this disappear again against Wisconsin and Ohio State who have superior talent and won't be playing roulette with their defense.)

Brandon Minor scored two long touchdowns on the day, both on nearly the exact same play call. One worked because of a great play by Minor and Purdue's willingness to allow Michigan backs get into space for six or seven yards. The second was in direct response to the way Purdue was playing and worked to perfection. Let's take a look at the first:

Michigan is in the 3-wide, 2-RB set that they played out of for most of the day. You may remember this same defensive and offensive looks form the triple option plays I talked about yesterday. Purdue here is in the 4-3 cover-2 formation they put on the field nearly every time Michigan pulled out this formation. Michael Shaw is to Forcier's left and Minor is to Forcier's right in the backfield.

On the snap, the offensive line blocks all of the down linemen. Shaw's responsibility is to the hit B-gap between the left guard and left tackle and block the closest linebacker. This will put Minor--if he hits the hole correctly--one-vs.-one with the safety, much like we saw in the triple option, because Purdue was playing strictly assignment football. As the safeties are playing man coverage on the separate RBs, the playside safety (bottom of the screen) is charged with hitting the hole Minor is in and bringing him down. Frankly, this is exactly how Rodriguez wants defenses to play against him: Get your playmakers in space against one defender and watch them go to work.

Shaw is running through the hole and about to engage with the playside linebacker. Minor gets a good block and gap to run through and is following Shaw. The playside WR (I believe that's Hemingway on the bottom of the screen) is charged with getting to his corner and sealing him to the outside.

Shaw is engaged with his linebacker, and Minor is breaking through the gap, and is one-vs.-one with a safety who he makes look a little silly.

Minor doesn't have the top end speed nor the shiftiness to just shake the safety. If he did, you can see that there's plenty of room to the sideline, and if Minor breaks to the edge with more speed, he probably gets there and doesn't need the acrobatics he shows here.

Laying prone on the ground is the safety that was just at eye level with Minor. He didn't truck him, but had enough moves and strength to get by him. From here, Minor actually cuts back across the field and dodges through the defenders who are scrambling to tackle Minor, but who never get there.

Long story short, assignment football is exactly what Rodriguez wants defenses to play. If Michigan's power back is able to dance around the one defender who's spying him and get to the endzone, putting Vincent Smith or Carlos Brown into similar space will be even more effective.

Even though this worked--and in large part because Purdue had been conceding that dive play the entire day; it turned into a touchdown or seven yards every time--Rodriguez saw how Purdue was playing and decided to change his blocking schemes to get an easier touchdown (after the jump).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The speed option: What went wrong again?

Here's the second and more harmful of the two triple/speed option plays. Let's take a look at the presnap alignment:

Presnap, Michigan is in a 3-wide, two-RB set. In the backfield with Tate is Brandon Minor (to his left) and Michael Shaw (to his right). Purdue is playing a 4-3 under that Robinson bases his defense out of. You can tell from the stand-up defender on the line of scrimmage, and, as you'll see, the linebacker over the slot man on the top of the screen shades toward the line of scrimmage as well. The offense is currently looking to the sideline to get the play call from Rodriguez. Purdue does a great job of disguising their play:

Tate has now gotten the call from the sideline and is getting into the snap count. The player to look at here is the playside (bottom of screen) cornerback who is now showing blitz. The linebacker that was lined up over the slot man has now shaded over to the line of scrimmage and is also showing blitz. This ability to hide their play before Tate got the call from the sideline will be key to the play.

Here's the snap. Moosman, as was his tendency all day, makes a bad snap that Tate has to work for. Michael Shaw is coming across the formation for the option dive. As mentioned, this is probably not a read yet, but Forcier is still in charge of reading the backside defensive end, who is crashing down on Shaw and coming in unblocked (as designed). This doesn't tell us any more about whether or not Forcier was given the option to hand the ball of to Shaw here because, as you can see, with the DE crashing down on Shaw, the correct read is to pull the ball. However, you can also see the playside cornerback who showed blitz is now also crashing down on the play. I assume that in the future, when this play is more of a factor in the playbook, Matthews (whose corner is crashing on a blitz) will be instructed to turn and look for a quick pass. This is not in the playbook yet.

Forcier is still reading the backside DE who is still crashing on Shaw. The playside cornerback is still coming on a blitz but is mostly in charge of keeping contain on the play. Another thing you can see here is that playside middle linebacker has been charged with spying Forcier. Much like the first play, Purdue played a lot of man/assignment football that, if the coach is good enough and has enough of the playbook open, will eventually crush. Again, Michigan just isn't there yet in their development.

Forcier has pulled the ball as he was supposed to do, but the backside DE has made a really good play and already started to turn and attack Forcier. This makes a numbers problem for Michigan. Rather than having 2-vs.-2, which Rodriguez will take any time, Michigan is now going up against 3 defenders with only two players--the DE, corner, and linebacker against Forcier and Minor. Matthews has released past his cornerback and is looking to block on the second level. Matthews may have missed a read here; there's a chance that the play is designed so that if the cornerback blitzes, he's supposed to stay with him and block. This is all speculation and unlikely.

Forcier is now being hounded by the backside DE who made a good read on Forcier. Tate is starting to pitch the ball here and the cornerback who blitzed sees it and starts to make a break on the ball. I think this is probably the right play for Forcier. It just ends poorly, probably because of a bad pitch by Forcier. I think he leads Minor just a little too much on the pitch, which allows the corner to get a hand on it:

The Purdue cornerback makes a really nice play here and reaches out to swat the ball down. This is the epitome of high-risk/high-reward for Purdue. We know how this play ended, but if the cornerback misses that ball, or Forcier makes a better pitch, this play probably goes to the endzone. If you remember, Purdue was playing a 4-3 under with two deep safeties. They blitzed their cornerback allowing Matthews to release to the secondary uncovered and looking to block someone (one of the two deep safeties). So if the cornerback misses the swat here, the linebacker isn't fast enough to catch up to Minor, who's about 7 yards away and will likely get the edge of the field.

This corner blitz was a really good call by Purdue, but Michigan's alignment on the first triple option play didn't give it away. This is just kind of bad luck and probably a bad play on Forcier's behalf. Bummer.

The speed option: What went wrong?

So Michigan broke out a few new looks against Purdue: Denard saw one snap at RB and, more memorably, Michigan finally debuted the triple/speed option that has become synonymous with the spread option game. Unfortunately, it's memorable for the massive flub that gave Purdue the ball back on the 20 yard line after a Tate fumble. At first, I thought, "So this is why we haven't used this before." But after rewatching the game, it turned out to be a few really smart play calls by Purdue and the perfect storm of problems--from play calling to great defensive plays--that caused the Michigan fumble. Let's take a look at the first time Michigan tried this play. Alignment:

Michigan is in a 3-wide set with two RBs in the backfield. Purdue is playing  in a traditional 4-3 with two deep safeties. However, everyone on the field for Purdue is actually playing man-to-man coverage, with the two deep safeties charged with spying one of the two RBs in the backfield.

On the snap, the offensive line blocks left, leaving the weakside defensive end unblocked. This is where the problems start for Michigan. The weakside defensive end decides to keep contain on Forcier. Brian at MGoBlog mention that the hand off for the dive play--in this instance, the original handoff that, if it was available, Tate should have made to Michael Shaw because the DE is playing contain--is probably not an option for Forcier yet. In any case, Purdue is conceding the dive play because the backside corner (bottom left of the screen) actually has man coverage on the dive play.

Forcier pulls the ball even though the weakside defensive end is keeping contain. In any other instance, Forcier should have handed the ball off. He probably doesn't have this option yet. What's most interesting is the playside safety (top of the screen) is starting to crash down on Minor, who is his man-to-man assignment.

It's a little hard to see here, but if Forcier had handed the ball of for the dive play (or been allowed to), Michael Shaw has a seam that would net five yards or so and put him one-on-one against the safety. Instead, Tate is forced to pitch the ball to Minor on the option because the playside DE is keeping contain. The safety on the top of the screen can see this happening and is now starting to go directly at Minor, who he will eventually hit four yards in the backfield.

Minor is in the act of catching the ball and is 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The safety spying Minor is 4 yards from the line of scrimmage. The math doesn't work out for Michigan and this happens:

As you can see, If Forcier had kept the ball, he would've been in trouble, and yet Minor is surrounded by three players and about to be brought down in the backfield. This is because Purdue's DE kept contain and Forcier still pulled the ball. This is what happens when someone misses a read--or isn't given that read, whatever the case may be.

I have no idea how Purdue planned for this play, but they were undeniably ready for it, even though Michigan hadn't run it all year. It is my guess, however, that this kind of assignment football is how Roundtree got open on his TD pass and Minor broke so many big runs. I'll have to go back and see, but if Shaw gets the handoff here and breaks one tackle against the safety spying him, he's got nothing but the endzone in front of him. I'll let you know what I find later in the week, but this is purely assignment football and what every coach talks about when they play the spread. If Forcier wasn't a true freshmen, Rodriguez would likely have a devastating counter to this play. Michigan isn't there yet.

In a while, I'll post what happened the second time Michigan tried this play--the one that ended with a crushing fumble to the Michigan 20 yard line. Long story short, Purdue got pretty lucky with their play call and their cornerback made a phenomenal play. What's both encouraging and bothersome is that Michigan wasn't giving the play away with the presnap alignment, as they ran it a number of times throughout the game; I specifically checked for this. This means that Rodriguez's play calling has become stagnant enough that teams are getting the upper hand--for example, it looks like on most 2nd and long plays, Purdue blitzed a linebacker or corner in order to stop a Tate roll out.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Monday morning presser (2)

Tate Forcier

- Feels pretty healthy. Took a few shots but feels fine and will see how practice goes. Will wear a sleeve on knee. Just twisted his knee. Shoulder has been good. Haven’t taken bad hits on the shoulder. Was a little bit protective of his shoulder but at this point of the season, need to play hurt.
- Close losses just show how close the team is. A few plays away from having three more wins.
- Team comes out fired up in the first half and a little slower in the second half. As team leader, needs to fire up the team more.
- “We’re going to be fine. Just need to get these seniors to a bowl game.”
- Every game is a tough game. Wisconsin and OSU are going to be tough but just need to come out hungry.
- Knows a lot of the seniors because many of them come from Jason Forcier’s class. Can’t send the seniors out empty handed.
- Thinks defense plays very well. Biggest problem is big plays. Throughout the season, Tate has noticed that offense puts defense in difficult position.
- Waiting to see Roundtree on the field. Now that Odoms is out, Roundtree went out and played well.
- Expected to be banged up; coming in as a freshman against the Big Ten, he was going to get beat up.
- Injuries to the offense don’t make it more difficult on Tate because everyone gets reps during the week.
- On turnovers: Little mistakes that you can prevent. Making freshman mistakes he doesn’t want to make. Have to put turnovers behind you.
- Never let success of the first few games get to his head. Team came out strong but the last few weeks, haven’t been playing their best.
- Do you feel like you’re playing like a freshman? Since Illinois the game has slowed down for Tate. As a team, everyone is making their share of mistakes and he’s made freshmen ones. It’s his job not to make those.
- Tried to back off from doing everything himself. Been trying to get the athletes the ball instead of doing it all yourself. When things aren’t going well, you want to be the answer.

Monday morning presser

Rich Rodriguez:

- Injuries: Brandon Minor has a shoulder bruise and still has ankle problem. Hemingway has back issues that limited him in the game Saturday. Odoms is day-to-day and not progressing as they’d hope. Dorrestein’s back should be better. Minor’s ankle is a nagging thing and won’t know more about his ability until tomorrow.
- Carlos Brown playing time was because of tendinitis in his knee and Minor running well.
- Offense played well in the second half but Purdue did things differently on defense in second half. A lot of execution problems.
- Omameh played hard and well for his first start.
- Offensively, team felt comfortable. A few reads would’ve been better. Tate knows when he makes a mistake immediately.
- Big plays on Saturday were mental lapses. Zone coverage when the defender takes his eyes off his man. Can’t have those misses and expect to stop anyone.
- No theme in the last three second halves. Team just needs to play better.
- Is second half conditioning? No, “Do we look out of shape?”
- Onside kick went 10 yards. Warn players about leaving early. Player didn’t leave early but didn’t react to the ball. A phenomenal kick and they made a play on the ball.
- Was Carlos out of bounds on the pitch play? Rodriguez can’t see out on the tape. “Nothing you can do about it. Time to move on.”
- Don’t know what LBs will start against Wisconsin. Depends on how they play during the week.
- Hard to bring down John Clay. The O-line and tight ends are huge. Clay is the biggest and one of the best backs they’d see this year.
- On 4th and 10: Wouldn’t do it differently. Maybe call a different play, but the defense hadn’t done a good job stopping them.
- Linebackers have been OK. Moments of disappointment. You can play a good game but make one big mistake and it change the whole perspective on the game.
- Wisconsin is a loud place and a good atmosphere. Not worried about playing on the road.
- Team has to just play better and eliminate big mistake, whether it’s on offense, defense, or special teams. Eliminate the big, big mistakes and they’re right there.
- On Robinson: Really likes the chemistry of the staff but the production has not been as good as he hoped. But there are a lot of things that go into that. A lot of smart coaches on defense, and there’s not just one reason for success on either side of the ball.
- Don’t have a reset button. Just have to learn from losses and move on.
- There will be happier times ahead, hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s just a bigger challenge than a lot of people think.
- Brandon Smith has moved around a little bit. He’s at safety right now but eventually will be a linebacker. He’s bought into that but he’s shown a few good things on special teams. Trying to find his role.
- Need to have another two and three years of recruiting classes that fit the team’s needs and the players pan out as they’d hope. There’s always mistakes made, but you want to minimize those mistakes.
- Feel good about last year’s recruiting class as the type of guys they want to go forward with.
- OK to talk about the potential to go to a bowl, but not too much. Would rather look at the first play of the game than the last.
- Denard was kept out of the game because Tate was in rhythm during the game. Coaches wanted to get Denard in more and had a great week in practice.
- Tate has progressed and regressed since ND. Had more positive moments than negative moments. Still a work in progress and has to learn a lot.
- May practice with more crowd noise this week because of Camp Randall’s environment.
- Any encouragement come from last year’s comeback? They’ll be watching cut up film from last year but won’t harp on it.
- Greg Robinson’s system and terminology is a little different from last year, but there are a lot of new players playing right now. New players are as much an explanation as the new scheme for defensive struggles.

Purdue: Where extra points are a commodity

A few years ago, there was a viral video called Super Mario: Impossible Levels. In it, you watch and listen to someone swear and stumble through completely insane levels that defy all of the physics of the Super Mario world. What you soon come to realize is that this guy is actually one hell of a Mario player who's slowly unraveling as he dies repeatedly trying to complete the most mundane jumps. Small successes are resounding victories.

The picture above comes from level 1-2. After having successfully solved the labyrinth of moving platforms and revolving fire staffs, he jumped a little too recklessly and was killed by an unassuming Goomba who would have otherwise sheepishly walked off a cliff. Needless to say, he lost his mind. "Goomba, a Goomba killed me?" He then went on a suicide spree and spends the next 5 minutes never making it back to the fated evil mushrooms. "That's an interesting way to die. I did not know you could die like that".


I assume that Michigan coaches feel the same way about Saturday's game against Purdue where, ultimately, a missed extra point put Michigan a point behind what was otherwise a stalemate. There were a lot of other things that went wrong, but trying to win a football game with the talent and defense that Michigan currently has, and you're missing extra points, well, it's an uphill battle.

This is another game that is going to be put on the shoulders of Rodriguez who was grilled in the post-game. But what more could he have done? I disagreed with his 4th down play calling but little else. Going for it on 4th and 10 from the 20 was a poor decision. And trying a field goal on 4th and 5 from the 30 is a coin flip. I didn't like his choice. But aside from that, he called a good game, scored 36 points (with a missed extra point), racked up 427 yards, and looked prepared against a Purdue team that clearly couldn't stop them offensively. But when you're starting a freshman walk on at safety, a true freshmen at DE, and have 1.5 legitimate D-1 CBs, it's difficult to beat anyone.


It does feel like the season is over though, doesn't it? Wisconsin and Ohio State are both games that are only borderline winnable. And with the current performance of the defense, there's little-to-no way Michigan heads to a bowl this season. This will ultimately be heaped on Rodriguez, and that's a shame. When you're playing with a talent deficiency to the likes of Purdue, a bowl game is probably a pipe dream. But that's not to say that this season isn't starting to look like a massive disappointment.

Wisconsin is the only win from the 2008 season that Michigan faces again, and maybe Rodriguez has their number. Then again, it was a confluence of luck that Michigan pulled out the win last year and Camp Randall is not a welcoming place to play. And then Michigan heads up against an Ohio State team that just trounced Penn State and is looking to take home another Big Ten Title if they can beat a Stanzi-less Iowa team next week--this is a certainty. Michigan will have the fortune of playing the Buckeyes after they've come off stretches against Penn State and Iowa who they likely have to dedicate their entire preparation time to.

Michigan can win, but it looks groom. We should've known

- How many times does Jordan Kovacs have to cost this team a horrible, back-breaking 70-yard touchdown before he's pulled? I haven't seen the replay, but from what I saw, the touchdown that Purdue scored after their fake kickoff was wholly on Kovacs who got beat on a straight fly route down the sideline. How bad is Vlad Emilien? Having already blown his redshirt, why hasn't he seen the field? I don't know if this is Robinson's doing or Rodriguez's insistence on a walk on program, but either way, Kovacs needs to be benched--Cissoko needed all of three games to see the pine; why does Kovacs get more leeway? In the same way that I never want to see Nick Sheridan under center for the Maize and Blue again, I never want to see Kovacs on the field again.
- Forcier looked good again but our offensive line is completely decimated. That is a bad offensive line without Molk. And Moosman's snaps were uniformly bad the entire day. Not that he snapped many over Forcier's head or into his feet, but they were all over the place.
- Turnovers: Two interceptions vs. a fumble to give a short field and the fake kickoff (that I'm considering a turnover). My estimation was mostly correct: The teams were even in the turnover column and played the game to a tie save for a missed extra point. Disappointing.
- Now we know why we haven't seen the speed option much this year.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Purdue Preview

There's a chance you remember the play above. It was one of the more painful moments of Michigan 2008 and all but ended a game that Michigan mostly deserved to win. Purdue decided that they'd pull out all of the stops against struggling Michigan, and waited until their last drive of the game to bust out the back breaking hook and ladder for the go ahead score with only seconds remaining. Ugh. Numbers pleez:
34th nationally
194.67 YPG
42nd nationally
235.33 YPG
88th nationally
168.44 YPG
73rd nationally
136.78 YPG
84th nationally
28.00 PPG
80th nationally
24.56 PPG
63rd nationally
220.33 YPG
91st nationally
193.89 YPG
85th nationally
161.78 YPG
14th nationally
207.65 YPG
70th nationally
25.11 PPG
27th nationally
31.56 PPG
Michigan appears to have an advantage rushing the ball (like they do against everyone in the Big Ten) and can put the ball in the endzone one more time than the Boilermakers. That is when they're not vomiting the ball to the other team the entire game. Purdue is a team who's had similar turnover woes. Joey Elliott has thrown 11 INTs this season already. Elliott is mostly a pocket passer and tends to hurl the ball a lot, so his comfort in the pocket will be a focus. He's not afraid to scamper out when he has the chance, though, notching 63 carries on the season. Elliott is a senior now who is finally getting quality playing time and making the most of it: 179/310 for 2,081 yards, 14 TDs, and 11 INTs. He isn't setting the world on fire, but probably will against Michigan's secondary.

The only advantage here is that Juice Williams won't be making Michigan's linebackers look silly. The bad news is MOEAKI!! Expect to see a lot of max protect sets with tight ends slipping into the secondary. This is the formula for success against Michigan. If the defensive line can get to Elliott quickly and often, Michigan will win this game. Also, the linebackers staying in rushing lanes will be supremely important, as will be their ability not to completely bite on play fakes. The chances of these things happening are slim.

Purdue's defense is approximately as bad as Michigan's, which bodes well for Michigan's running game, going up against the 88th ranked rushing defense. Expect them to load the box though and force Michigan to put the ball into the air. Michigan's rushing attack has been able to move the ball against much stouter defenses in the past, though, and I expect that Brown and Minor (if healthy; please, please be healthy) should be able to go to work.

Ralph Bolden is Purdue's main rushing attack and will get most of the carries. He's a sophomore who's been largely unremarkable this year, save for games against Toledo and Northern Illinois. He had a nice game against Oregon (4.3 YPC on 29 attempts, and finding the endzone twice), but against most other FBS opponents, he's been in th 2.5-3.5 YPC range. I can't tell whether or not a good performance by Bolden is a good or bad thing for Michigan. On the one hand, the more he runs, the more Purdue isn't throwing the ball. On the other hand, linebackers and secondary and non-Warren corners. Again, the key for success in this game is getting to Elliott. Bolden should be a non-factor.

Prediction: Purdue is a difficult team to get a handle on. They lost to Notre Dame by three and to Oregon by two, beat Ohio State, were shut out 37-0 by Wisconsin, and lost to Northern Illinois, Northwestern, and Minnesota. But I've read this script before and it doesn't end well for you and I. This game is as must win as must wins get for Michigan who, if they go down here, will have to beat Wisconsin on the road or Ohio State at home, neither of which look particularly promising. (I have had this sneaking feeling though, that, like MSU preparing for Michigan all season, Michigan has been spending time preparing for Ohio State and will come away with a victory there. Michigan probably just isn't a good football team.)

Once again, winning the turnover battle will be supremely important, and if Michigan is behind in this category, you can expect them to lose this game in spectacular fashion. My heart is telling me that Michigan is going to win this game, but given Purdue's recent ability to beat real football teams and apparent peak late in the season, my mind is telling me that Michigan is going to get beaten in this one. Does desperation count for anything? Not when you're team isn't any good. If Michigan had caught Purdue earlier in the season, I'd have put this game firmly in M's column (even if Michigan had been performing the way they had lately). As it's 9 games in, and who knows how many times Michigan will turn the ball over, I have to put a conditional on it:

Michigan 35-20 if they win the turnover battle
Purdue 28-20 if Michigan loses the turnover battle