Monday, September 3, 2012

You come at the king, you best not miss

#8 Michigan 14 - #2 Alabama 41

In the second quarter, with Michigan trailing 24-0 and backed up inside their 10-yard line, Kirk Herbstreit was talking about Michigan's non-existant running game. The camera panned up to Al Borges in the coordinator's booth. After relaying the upcoming 3rd down play, Borges shook his head in disbelief and rubbed his face. It was the unmistakeable look of someone who had run out of answers, like working your way through a maze and finding only brick walls.

The problem wasn't Borges' schemes being out flanked. The problem was an offensive line that got pushed into the backfield on every play. It was a quarterback with dysfunctional throwing mechanics unable to hit receivers. It was receivers unable to get separation from their defensive counterparts. Alabama is a great team, but they are not an unbeatable team. There were opportunities to attack them in this game that Michigan simply missed, usually because of performance errors more than schematic inefficiencies.

No one really expected Michigan to win this game; 14-point Vegas spreads are not a mistake. Blogging for the last three seasons, I've been able to explain away most of Michigan's losses: walk-on quarterbacks, untimely turnovers, terrible special teams, unsound schemes. There was always something you could take from the games and say, "If we just did _____ better, we would have won." After watching Alabama dismantle this team, the only feeling I have is frustration: Michigan is just not as good as Alabama. Our team has worse players. The Alabama offensive and defensive lines beat the Michigan offensive and defensive lines. Alabama's linebackers are always in the right spot and safeties fly downhill to blow up option plays in the backfield. AJ McCarron can complete downfield passes.

Blame oversigning and Nick Saban and the SEC for allowing shady recruiting practices. Sure, those are the reasons that Alabama has better players. But regardless of why they're better, Michigan is operating with sub-par talent and will continue to, relative to the national powerhouses, for another few years until their oversigning reserves drain out. So it's frustrating watching your team getting beaten by superior athletes and knowing that it'll be years until you can actually compete with them again.

The game itself played out almost exactly as expected: Alabama pulled away early, Denard struggled to find a rhythm, and the Tide won the game on the ground. Michigan's defensive line held up relatively well. Campbell and Washington took on double teams and didn't get pushed into the secondary, but Michigan's linebackers were outright terrible. Desmond Morgan was pulled after the second (?) Alabama drive in favor of freshman James Ross who also found himself out of position and over-pursuing plays. Kenny Demens is still only able to move in one direction on any given play. And Jake Ryan, who was victimized on a play-action TD pass, was a non-factor as Alabama continuously attacked the middle and weakside of the Michigan defense.

Denard had one of his worst games as a starter but for almost no reason. He was only sacked once and had plenty of time to stand in the pocket and throw, but his mechanics killed his accuracy. Denard stepped into approximately one throw all game, and it ended as a 71-yard touchdown strike to Jeremy Gallon. But on most of his throws, Denard would square his feet and heave the ball downfield. Denard's other major downfall: he was staring down Devin Gardner all game and tried forcing the ball to him rather than taking what the defense offered. While most of his forced throws to Gardner ended in PBUs, one of them ended as a pick-6.

So Michigan lost to a team that's much better than them. Chatter after the game implied that Alabama would have a chance to run the table this year, but there's no way they don't lose at least one or two games. From here, the road only gets easier for Michigan. Playing Air Force and UMass in the next two weeks will be a good primer for the Big Ten season. This team should still challenge for a Big Ten title, but any dreams that they might be one of the nation's elite--given health--have gone out the window.

AP Photo/LM Otero
  • Despite it being the opening game of the season, I think it's fair to say that Senior Denard is not a robotic, laser-passing Junior Denard. At this point, Denard is what he is. That'll win Michigan a lot of games this year, but against elite defenses, he's still going to struggle.
  • No, Denard did not get enough carries. His carries wouldn't have gone anywhere either because the Alabama defensive line was in the backfield immediately.
  • Devin Gardner is big and fast but is a horrible route runner. He will mix spectacular plays with missed opportunities because of poor routes.
  • Bubble screens! For whatever reason, Al Borges changed his opinion of bubble screens. Michigan threw two in the game and they were two of the more successful plays the team ran.
  • People are really excited about Dennis Norfleet because... I'm not really sure why. He looks fast, but this game didn't inspire much. He has potential.
  • Elliott Mealer ended up at center for much of the game. I'm not really sure who was playing left guard, but the line seemed coherent. They weren't able to get any push against Alabama's defensive front, but that won't be the case throughout the season.
  • Every time Greg Mattison blitzed, Saban had the perfect play to counter-act it. Aside from the first defensive series, not much of what the defense did made a difference.
  • Michigan forced a three-and-out on the first possession because Alabama ran to the strongside of the field, which Michigan stopped for one yard. After that, they ran almost exclusively at Desmond Morgan and Kenny Demens up the middle and to the weakside.
  • The Countess injury didn't have much of an impact on this game, but it might going forward. Courtney Avery got burned when he slipped on a double move, but otherwise, he was indistinguishable from any other corner.
  • Kovacs and Thomas Gordon both got beaten in the running game by poor angles and arm tackles. So did everyone else though.
  • The whole defensive line, while lacking playmakers, performed well.

Next Week
Michigan looks to get their season back on track next week against Air Force. The Falcons run wishbone option football, which is a little worrysome given the linebacker play and lack of D-line talent. Expect some long runs from Air Force due to poor angles, but the defense should be able to contain a pedestrian attack. Offensively, Denard and Fitz Toussaint should get the team moving.


Bob Dively said...

Ricky Barnum went the entire way at LG. I found the Mealer/Barnum switch to be odd because for the last 6 months virtually everything has indicated Barnum as the starting center. Then it's game time, and there's Mealer. I was even looking for a Barnum hand injury as an explanation. The DetNews has a quote from Hoke saying that the change was because they felt Mealer was better at shotgun snapping - a statement which makes me really nervous because if you been saying all along that your starting center ISN'T the guy who's better at snapping in the gun, then you must be thinking you're running more from under center, which is definitely not where I want to see Denard.

Bob Dively said...

Also, why do you think the D-line performed well? I thought that with the occasional exception of Campbell they got completely obliterated. That's not necessarily a dig against them because I'm pretty sure that almost any D-line in the country is going to get trampled by that stable of synchronized elephants Alabama has in front of McCarron.

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