Monday, October 10, 2011

Northwestern 2011: Where the defense got stingy

#12 Michigan 42 - Northwestern 24
In five of Michigan's nine losses during the 2008 season, the Wolverines were either ahead or tied at the half. But during the subsequent two quarters, Michigan's offense crumbled and the defense wasn't good enough to prop the team up. Throughout the Rodriguez years, exponential in-game decline became a staple of the team's performance. When the second half rolled around, teams would adjust to Michigan's schemes. Rodriguez and company seemed unconcerned and for the most part ran the same plays they had shown in the first half. Some of that was necessity: Michigan had a young, inexperienced team and the coaches were slowly implementing their offense. That's the excuse Rodriguez defenders would use, anyway. Critics only saw brazen disregard for the opposition's schematic adjustments and a lack of concern for a crumbling on-field product.

The first half against Northwestern is one that Michigan will want to forget. Denard threw three interceptions and the defense was being dissected by the Dan Persa-led Wildcats. In the last three years, when Michigan was dominated as thoroughly as they had been in the first half Saturday, it was usually en route to an Ohio State or Wisconsin pummeling. On Saturday, something was different, and it wasn't just Denard identifying who was and wasn't on his team and throwing it to the right players.

True that Northwestern is known for these types of defensive collapses/shootouts. Just the week before, they lost a double digit lead to Illinois. But holding Northwestern's offense to 161 second-half yards--79 of which came in garbage time--and no points is impressive regardless of who's playing. When it's the Defense Formerly Known as Smoldering Crater, it's a minor miracle. Though through six games, Greg Mattison could favorably be described as just that: a miracle worker. Mattison, Hoke, and the defensive staff have turned JT Floyd into a legitimate Big Ten corner, Jordan Kovacs into an All Big Ten performer, and changed Will Campbell from a giant body that gets pushed around to a giant body that stands still.

When Hoke was first hired, a few coaches around the country said it's not a matter of if Hoke wins a national championship but when. After the strides made by the team since Hoke's arrival, those claims start inching toward reality. Lots of things have to go right to win a national championship, but if this coaching staff can turn this collection of Wolverines into a Big Ten title contender (albeit in arguably the worst Big Ten in 10--20?--years), the chances of them turning their own prospects and players into a national championship team are in reach. The flexibility and ingenuity of the coaching staff mean only good things for the future.

That's a long way off, and any talk of national championships is premature. What this performance means currently is that Michigan has a very real chance of beating everyone on their schedule this year. Honestly, at this point, would you bet against Mattison, Borges, and Hoke?

  • I think it's fair to say that Denard's struggles in the passing game this year weren't a function of the abscess he had removed from his elbow prior to the Minnesota game. For any struggling quarterback's ills, it's clear that Minnesota is the panacea. Denard's interceptions against Northwestern are some of the worst that he's ever thrown. They were no where near his receivers and in at least one case, probably took away a touchdown. He even threw an interception on the brilliant counter draw play action (which, yes, will be picture paged).
  • Non-Denard rushers had a rough game. Despite Northwestern's putrid run defense performance against Army, it looks like their run defense might be for real. Seeing as they had more success against Michigan's running game than any other team this season (or last, possibly), I don't expect Michigan's running game to be significantly slowed going forward.
  • I'm really not a fan of Devin Gardner taking snaps when Denard is healthy. I'm even more worried about the jet sweeps that Denard was running. This seems like a surefire way to get him drilled by linebackers. Michigan has much better ways of picking up six yards than running Denard in a wonky trick play.
  • Persa completed a lot of passes (32/44) for a lot of yards (331), but I don't think the secondary had an especially poor day. Courtney Avery continues to struggle and Blake Countess got beaten once, but otherwise, the secondary was par for the course.
  • The front seven looked solid, often getting to Persa and and clogging the middle of the field. Northwestern's leading rusher had 31 yards on five carries. Most of NW's rushing yards came on triple option plays that the linebackers lost contain on. Fortunately, Kovacs and his  Mighty Mites in the secondary wrapped up everyone before they could do too much damage.
  • The I-formation returned and if I can recall, it wasn't totally awful. That's a change but not totally unexpected. Michigan is still far more effective from the shotgun, but using it as a change of pace (and not in Totally Surprising Third and One Carry) might be beneficial.
Next week
Michigan travels to East Lansing to face MSU on Saturday. The Spartans are coming off of a bye week, giving them extra time to prepare for the only game that matters. This'll be an interesting matchup. The Spartans offensive line is basically non-existent, turning Kirk Cousins from potential All Big Ten QB to just a guy, and it makes their lethal RB tandem a lot less, ya know, lethal. They've also had two weeks to prepare. We'll see what Hoke et al have in their bag of tricks for this game.


Kirkoke said...

The Big Ten is down but 6 are in the top 25!! All conferences seem to be down!

Chris Gaerig said...

I'm with you. Outside of the top 5-10 teams, it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of good football being played right now.

mrkid said...

I agree with you on the jet sweep with Denard, but I have a feeling that play is setting up another play in the bag of tricks. I was expecting to see it in the NW game, but I didn't. We will see if Borges has something up his sleeve for some kind of play off of that.

ron said...

Nice observation on Kovacs and the's a delight having Big Ten quality safeties so that ten yard runs stay ten yard runs and don't become devastating bombs...

jemblue said...

It seems like since OSU is down, people have decided that the whole conference must be. Of course, two of their losses are to other Big Ten teams.

Chris Gaerig said...

I think with the current state of Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State, and (honestly) Northwestern, who now has three losses (one of which was to Army, in addition to the collapse against Illinois), it's tough to say this conference isn't down. Nebraska even looks like a shell of its 2010 self.

Post a Comment