Monday, October 8, 2012

Running away

Michigan 44 - Purdue 13
Melanie Maxwell |
Usually a win against a typical Purdue team would not inspire a lot of confidence for the future, but given all of the Borges vs. Denard talk the last two weeks, this game represents one of the best marriages of the two talents we've seen to date. During the bye week, Borges said he was going to rewatch every play he had ever called at Michigan and it appeared he followed up on that promise. Gone from Michigan's offense were the downfield heaves, replaced by the short passing game Denard excels at. Denard carried the ball 24 times, his second-highest total this season, most of which were the inverted veer--Michigan's most successful running play all season. Though the level of competition was not up to Notre Dame's defense, this was a return to the style of offense that turned Denard into one of the nation's most dangerous players.

This game was also another building block in the not-so-straw house of Michigan's defense. This Boilermaker offense, while not prolific, is still the most recent team to score an offensive touchdown on Notre Dame and had properly rolled the cupcakes you would expect from a good offense (48 against Eastern Kentucky, 54 against Eastern Michigan, and 51 against Marshall). Putting aside Raymon Taylor's gift pick-six* Michigan held Purdue to just 56 yards on 26 carries (2.2 YPC) and only 157 yards through the air on 23/35. Perhaps the most promising stat of the game is that Michigan's top four tacklers were all front-seven guys (Kenny Demens, Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, and Craig Roh). Michigan was controlling the line of scrimmage and hitting Purdue ball carriers at the point of attack. When Jordan Kovacs only makes one tackle in a dominating defensive performance, you know things are looking up.

Then again, Purdue might be terrible, or simply Purdue. Pessimism about this game was born more of Michigan's inadequacies than Purdue's talent, so this win doesn't do a lot more than assure fans that Borges can get this figured out and Greg Mattison and his defensive staff are miracle workers. While I was a lot higher on the defense coming into the year than most people, even I didn't expect performances like this. Despite the loss of Blake Countess, the secondary is humming along, the defensive line started as a question mark but has turned into consistent good-not-great performers, and the linebackers are coming along albeit slower than most would like.

Most importantly, this game gets Michigan back on track. Losses to Notre Dame suck, but they don't have any impact on Michigan's pursuit of the Big Ten title. Holding serve against underdogs and beating Michigan State and Nebraska should more or less assure Michigan a spot in the Big Ten title game against... something from the Leaders division (probably Wisconsin).

*This was Michigan's first pick-six from a member of the secondary since Donovan Warren picked off Ricky Stanzi in 2009 and took it to the house. Michigan also got a pick-six from Brandon Herron against Western Michigan in 2011. This lack of production isn't totally surprising given Michigan's bereft secondary the last few years, but those are dire numbers.

  • Fitz Toussaint. Toussaint is not broken, but Michigan's offensive line might be. The only way Michigan could move the ball on the ground is when Denard read a Purdue defender who didn't stay disciplined. Otherwise, the Purdue front seven tore up Michigan's offensive line. That's how Fitz Toussaint goes from a 1,000 yard rusher to getting 19 yards on 17 carries against Purdue. Sure, a few of those were carries form the one yard line that netted exactly as much as was needed, but the interior of Michigan's offensive line is precisely as shaky as it has seemed all year.
  • As a bonus, during the game, the Big Ten Network put up a stat about Denard's rushing this season. Running left, he was averaging 8+ YPC; middle, ~6 YPC; and right ~4 YPC. This is the perfect visualization for the talent on Michigan's offensive line.
  • Update: (directional running at right)
  • There wasn't much receiving to be had in this game as Michigan dominated on the ground, but the names in the boxscore are what you would expect: Gallon, Gardner, Roundtree, and Funchess. Those are your receivers going forward with occasional appearances by Drew Dileo.
  • The Purdue offense is probably terrible, but they couldn't get anything done in this game. More impressively, I think Michigan spent almost the entire game in a base defensive set without much blitzing. They brought in the nickel package a few times, but this game was won by being better at the point of attack.
  • The Denard/Vincent Smith fumble was crappy, but I'm pretty sure it was because of a nickel blitz off the edge. Secondary blitzes on the zone read continue to scare me.
Prediction Tracker
Final prediction: It's hard being optimistic about this game given Short and Denard's most recent performance. Michigan's offense is going to stall a lot in this game. But I'm not sure that Purdue's offense will have much success. The over/under for this game is somewhere in the mid- to high-50s, which, if I were a betting man, I'd take the under. This is a low-scoring game with both quarterbacks making a number of mistakes. Short's strength and Michigan's interior line weaknesses actually dictate how this game goes, but Denard breaks a long run that ends up being the difference. Michigan 17 - Purdue 16.
So basically all wrong. Kawann Short ended up being a major factor in the game (8 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 pass breakup), but wasn't able to get to Denard on passing downs. He helped shut down Fitz Toussaint but did little else. Michigan's offense didn't stall at all, punting only twice and missing a long field goal. Also, it's a good thing I'm not a betting man because this game went over the O/U.

Next Week
The next terrible Big Ten team Michigan takes on is terrible Illinois at the Big House. I saw something to this effect Tweeted out this weekend, but in Illinois' last 11 games against BCS competition, Illinois' points for are: 14 (Wisconsin), 7 (Penn State), 14 (Arizona State), 24 (Western Michigan), 20 (UCLA, last year), 7 (Minnesota), 17 (Wisconsin), 14 (Michigan), 7 (Penn State), 14 (Purdue), and 7 (Ohio State). This Nathan Scheelhaase might not be very good. The only thing that gives me pause about this game is Michigan's struggles against Air Force's offense this season, but Illinois does not run the wishbone and their defense appears to be non-existant.


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