Monday, September 5, 2011

WMU 2011: Where the jury is still out

The first quarter of Michigan's win over Western Michigan on Saturday was basically worst case scenario. Michigan won the coin toss and deferred to the second half. Western Michigan took the ball and promptly marched down the field with the greatest of ease. Alex Carder went something like 7/7 on the drive. Michigan played strictly a passive zone defense, rushing three or four linemen and dropping everyone else into coverage. The drive lasted 7:11 and took 15 plays, and never once did the Wolverines look like they were going to stop the Broncos.

Down 7-0, Michigan received the ball and proceeded to slog down the field during an 8:33, 16-play drive that never felt comfortable. The Wolverines found themselves in a 3rd and 3, 3rd and 5, 3rd and 4, and a 4th and 1 (from the WMU 19-yard line where Hoke deferred to the offense rather than sending out the kicking team). Michigan was tied 7-7 with Western Michigan a minute into the second quarter, and they had done so in the most concerning fashion imaginable.

Then the skies opened, both literally and figuratively. It was as if Greg Mattison wanted to show everyone what happened last year and how things would be different this season. Suddenly Jordan Kovacs was blitzing off the edge and Kenny Demens was screaming through the middle of the offensive line and all the corners were left alone on Revis Avery Island to defend for themselves. The following WMU drives ended thusly: missed field goal, interception, punt, made field goal, fumble (caused by pressure), punt, fumble. This is the defense we expected to see.

Despite this obvious progress, I couldn't help but be a little dismayed at the relative closeness of the game. Brandon Herron brought back a tipped pass and a fumble for a touchdown, one of which explicitly took points off the board for WMU. Brandon Gibbons had an extra point blocked. The offense had two three-and-outs. And the offense's final touchdown was more a function of WMU's defense being embarrassingly out of position on back-to-back plays, than it was the tinkering schemes of a madman (e.g. last year's play action QB draws). Taking into account that this was only the first game under this regime (and boy was that obvious from the defense on the first drive of the game), if you remove the plays that aren't easily replicable against other teams (the defensive scores), Michigan is suddenly in a 20-10 game against WMU with a kicker who gets extra points blocked and an offense that went 3 and out on two of its five drives.

These are not encouraging numbers against a MAC program, especially because the team's only game experience before next week's showdown against once again overrated (by me as well) Notre Dame was shortened by lightning and water plummeting from the heavens. But the defense caused turnovers as a result of timely defensive playcalling and the offense did what it was supposed to do. I have concerns but Saturday was a good start.

  • We gave Matt Wile a scholarship to kick footballs right? Can we please let him kick footballs? He held his own punting (averaging 41 yards per kick on two attempts) and looked comptent on kickoffs. Now if only the team could cover kickoffs and punts, the special teams might not be a black hole this year.
  • Denard was 9/13 through the air for 98 yards (7.5 YPA) with at least one late throw that Roundtree was able to rope in. He looked comfortable throwing in the pocket but still has major mechanical issues that will become a problem later in the year.
  • Denard's rushing numbers were not so encouraging: 8 carries for 46 yards (5.8 YPC). On the first play of the game, Michigan ran a QB stretch around the outside that picked up 12 yards, but for the rest of the game, Denard was being run between the tackles. While he's able to do so, getting him on the edge and putting a serious strain on the defense is a better gameplan. Hopefully the coaching staff was keeping a lot of their tricks in the bag, because if they weren't, Denard is going to have a difficult time on the ground this year. It cannot be underestimated what Rodriguez's tweaks did for Denard's ability to find open field.
  • Blitzes! Last year, I complained about the lack of blitzing and man coverage from the defense, which drew much skepticism from readers. Mattison showed exactly why you need to bring pressure: if the quarterback can't get off a good throw, it doesn't matter who is in coverage.
  • Courtney Avery started opposite Troy Woolfolk at corner as expected, and was OK. All of the corners were face guarding on deep throws rather than getting their heads around to defend the ball. If this trend continues, it'll be a long season with lots of pass interference calls. Woolfolk, on the other hand, looked like a man possessed until he got injured (of course).
  • There was a ton of defensive rotation up front and it was clear how much of a falloff there is between the starters and backups. As MGoBlog mentioned, hopefully this rotation was more a function of the overwhelming heat than a defensive gameplan.
  • Jeremy Gallon caught a punt! Kelvin Grady was terrible on kickoff returns.
Next week Michigan takes on Notre Dame under the lights. They've got a lot of work to do before then, but this was a good start. Sorting out some of the early-game issues on defense and expanding the offensive playbook a bit more will help. Besides, if the Irish are as bad on Saturday as they were against USF, it's possible none of that will matter.


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