Last year, while Al Borges fumbled to figure out what to do with Denard, the team stumbled to a surprising 11-2 record, but Borges quickly figured out what everyone else already knew: if Denard was on his game, Michigan had a chance to beat anyone. Unfortunately, as the season wore on, Denard's limitations in the new system became apparent: there weren't enough receivers spreading the field, complicating Denard's reads; he threw panicked jump balls off his back foot that were miraculously reeled in by breakout star Junior Hemingway; and his overall accuracy was still nowhere near elite levels.
Now, Hemingway is gone, Michigan's conference-best offensive line has been Swiss Cheesed by graduation, and Denard, despite being a senior in his second year of the system, has proven that he plateaued--two years ago. Saturday's game against Notre Dame was more frustrating than surprising, but it was a stark reminder of exactly what this team's limitations and weaknesses are. Given the proper system and personnel, Denard Robinson can be a great quarterback, but without that precise set of circumstances, Denard will never be better than the erratic, mechanic-flawed quarterback he was when he first took over under Rodriguez's direction. Denard's ceiling remains one of the highest of any player in the entire country, but the reason he'll never be an elite quarterback is because of how effortlessly he plunges to his basement.
Saturday epitomized everything that is wrong with this iteration of Michigan's team. Notre Dame was able to rush three and four linemen and still get pressure on Denard because the offensive line struggles in pass protection. Denard failed to read the flooded defensive zones and stared down his receivers, allowing the Irish defenders to jump the passing lanes. And the secondary, though it is coping with injures, was shredded by the mediocre passing attack of Tommy Rees (8/11 for 115 yards).
The silver lining: Michigan's defensive line looked improved over its previous performances, and the Big Ten is still so bad that Michigan may be able to challenge for the league title. But Michigan fans have been able to find a silver lining in every loss over the last two years: the defense can only get better or Denard can't throw four interceptions again or if Michigan had a decent kicker, they would have won. Eventually, those "if"s need to turn into wins, but with a team that caters to high variance, it feels like the silver lining will be the real story of 2012.
- People are going to criticize Al Borges' play calling, but they probably shouldn't. Denard ran the ball 26 times and threw it 24. Those back-to-back-to-back-to-back interceptions from Denard were not caused by poor playcalling. With a depleted Notre Dame secondary, throwing the ball is the best option (Denard averaged only 3.5 YPC on 26 totes and Fitz Toussaint averaged 4.5 YPC on 13 carries)
- The concept that "Denard is most dangerous when he stands in the pocket" has to be bunk by this point. The problem with Denard sitting in the pocket (and this may be more a problem with the scheme) is that he's not waiting for a receiver to cut across the field through a hole in the defense. He's waiting for a receiver to run far enough downfield that he feels confident heaving it into single coverage. When's the last time Denard stood in the pocket and threw a pass over the middle to a crossing receiver? Hitting Odoms last year across the middle on fourth down against Nebraska (Ohio
- Silver lining: Despite turning the ball over 6 times in the game, Michigan's defense only allowed 13 points. That's an impressive turnout for any defense, but especially for one with so many question marks. Will Campbell and Quinton Washington looked great slicing into the backfield on slants but they were always just one step too slow to make a tackle for loss.
- I recently lived in Los Angeles and when Al Borges was announced as the offensive coordinator for Michigan, everyone told me the same thing: He's a really great OC but he often gets too smart for himself. The Vincent Smith interception was Borges getting too smart for himself.
- Play action, naked bootlegs are not working. They didn't work last year. They're not working this year. For the exact same reasons: the backside defenders are not committing to the run, instead playing contain on Denard and disregarding the handoff.
- JT Floyd being unable to jam a tight end split outside on the final drive of the game is a very JT Floyd thing to do. That was... distressing. He struggled all game.
- Raymon Taylor's interception was perfect. That's how you're supposed to play zone defense.
- Fitz Toussaint's pass blocking is terrible.
- This is an aside and I won't go on about it too long because that's not really my thing, but John Bacon's Detroit News article "Some Michigan fans can't appreciate brilliance of Denard Robinson" pissed me off when it was published. It's the kind of condescending article that assumes ignorance from the same people who are supposed to be reading his columns. It's pandering and passive aggressive and I wish Bacon treated his readers with more respect. Sure, Denard is a great talent, but pointing out obvious errors in his play is not some masochistic practice that Michigan fans take part in because they like being upset about things. This Notre Dame game happened and Denard's performance didn't surprise anyone who questioned his abilities as a passer.
Michigan gets a bye next week before starting the Big Ten schedule against Purdue. This is as good a time as any to lick your wounds, reevaluate schemes, and get healthy. Posting next week might be slow (grad school beckons and a week off from blogging might allow me to get a jump on work due later in the semester). This week will be painful as I rewatch this game and break down a whole bunch of the game.