Monday, September 19, 2011

Eastern Michigan 2011: Where Threetidan looms

I can still remember the final pass of Michigan's season opening 2008 defeat to Utah in vivid detail. Despite a putrid all-around performance from the offense, Michigan still had a chance. Down by only two points with a little over two minutes to go, Michigan received the ball with the opportunity to drive for a final touchdown or field goal and seal an unlikely, and mostly undeserved, victory. On fourth and seven, Steven Threet hurled a ball 10 feet over the head of Darryl Stonum and out of bounds. The game was effectively over, but more importantly, I remember the distinct sense of doom that fell over me and everyone else watching the game once the offense limped to the sideline.

On Saturday, Michigan won, and if you only look at the box score, won in convincing fashion, hammering Eastern Michigan to the tune of 31-3. But for anyone who watched the game, things were not so peachy. Michigan gained a total of 32 (!) yards in the first quarter, went three and out three times during the game, and showed an offense that looked as dysfunctional as it did unsustainable. It wasn't until the second half when Al Borges decided to let Denard Robinson loose on QB draws that the offense began to resemble a functional unit.

After a 7/18, 95 yard (5.3 YPA) day against a MAC bottom dweller, it's difficult to see Denard Robinson as a sustainable option at quarterback in Borges' offense. It may sound reactionary, but after another game riddled with poor decisions (chucking the ball into double coverage) and spotty accuracy, and against competition that shouldn't be able to compete with Michigan's athletes, it's clear that Denard's struggles in the passing game last year, his uninspiring spring game, and his poor passing performances against Notre Dame and Western Michigan are no flukes. He locks onto receivers, struggles with his accuracy, and frequently makes near backbreaking decisions.

There is a silver lining though. Had Rich Rodriguez brought back Mike DeBord to coach the 2008 offense, it still would have been terrible. With this team, there are options. When Borges did unleash Denard, he ran wild, as he (and everyone else on the team) should have against a hodgepodge of JUCOs and lower-level MAC players. If Borges is smart, and I think that he is, this game will be a clear indication that in order to move the ball, Denard's legs will have to bear the brunt of the load. Not only could Denard run against Eastern, but his legs once again opened up the QB draw play action that was used to devastating effect last year.

It's not that Denard can't be a great college quarterback. Last year proved that he can. It's that he can't be a great quarterback in a pass-first, I-formation offense. If Borges and Hoke know what's good for them, they'll start tailoring the offense around Denard's legs now to avoid a catastrophic meltdown as the season progresses.

  • Though I wanted to see the I-formation in this game, after watching Michigan's linemen struggle with blocking and running backs fail to hit the proper holes, consider this my vote to have the I-formation banned from the playbook for the rest of the year. There are just far too many fundamental problems with how the team runs it currently, that it's not something they should be utilizing in games yet.
  • Eastern Michigan averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 46 carries which is really bad, but I wouldn't read too much into it. Greg Mattison seemed to play the game in the most vanilla fashion imaginable. There was very little blitzing and the team spent most of the game in a Ron English-like defense. This does, however, go further to explaining why Michigan struggles so mightily to open games without blitzing: they're terrible in zone coverage and struggle stuffing the line of scrimmage without added pressure from the linebackers and safeties.
  • I assumed the offense would fruitlessly burn the redshirt of one of their freshman running backs and lo and behold, Thomas Rawls got two carries and looked like a true freshman. This is an utter waste with three to four established running backs higher on the depth chart.
  • Devin Gardner desperately needed more than one garbage time possession. With Denard's early-season struggles, there's a good chance he'll be needed (regardless of injury to Denard) later this year. I remain unimpressed by his performances to date and would've liked to see him get more time to develop in the system.
  • Craig Roh had a decent game and seemed to outperform Jibreel Black, who is currently fighting for the starting role. Roh had one sack and seemed marginally more effective than Black who was often chasing, and being outrun by, EMU running backs.
  • Other insights gleaned from the rest of the game are hit or miss. EMU rarely threw the ball, so the secondary wasn't tested. The defensive line saw a lot of rotation, though we already knew the backups were a noticeable step back. And none of the running backs really impressed.
Next week, Michigan takes on Hoke's old stomping ground San Diego State. Chances are this is when Michigan will start using Denard in running situations more consistently and tailoring the offense around him. If not, this is going to be a long year.


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