Monday, November 12, 2012

A forgotten classic

#24 Northwestern 31 - Michigan 38 (OT)
Melanie Maxwell |

Saturday's game will never go down as a classic. My freshman year of college, we had Braylon-fest, an improbable comeback against Michigan State. A few years later, Tate Forcier saw cover-zero and scampered 40 yards into the endzone before finding Greg Matthews on a circle route with 11 seconds left. The next two years, Denard Robinson broke Irish hearts in gif-able fashion. But these games are legendary as much because of the helmets that didn't have wings on them as the outcomes themselves.

The ending of Saturday's game was more improbable than any of those prior classics, but it will probably go forgotten. Beating Northwestern should be a certainty, not a cardiac event. Michigan's chances of playing for a Big Ten title this year are probably dead following yet another fortuitous (and incorrect) officiating call that went Nebraska's way. And this wasn't even a miraculous Denard Robinson performance during his senior season. This was a game that was uncomfortably close and probably ultimately meaningless.

Perhaps if I had been in the stadium, my impressions would change. By the time Michigan got the ball back with 18 seconds left, I was resigned to the team's fate: best case scenario was a long bomb followed by a coinflip field goal to tie the game because, let's be honest, Junior Hemingway ain't walking through that tunnel. But then a miraculous apparition appeared. Number 21 had the ball pinned to his shoulder, setting up the most vicious spiked ball in Michigan history. When overtime started, there was just a sense that Michigan would pull the game out. They had too much momentum, but more concretely, in overtime, always side with the team that has the 6'4" robobeast quarterback.

After Michigan scored in overtime and put the pressure on the Wildcat offense, the ensuing possession went about as well as you can hope for against an option team: 7 yard gain, 2 yard gain, 1 yard loss, 0 yard gain; game. Though Northwestern had been gashing the Wolverine defense on the speed option all day, they opted instead for a veer option. Jibreel Black beat a block, forced a cutback, and Kenny Demens treated Tyris Jones like an excited puppy jumping into its owner's arms after a month-long vacation.

This game was another good audition for Devin Gardner, but it highlighted something that appeared the week before. It seems like Al Borges treats Gardner differently, and not just in playcalling. Gardner gets to the line of scrimmage, surveys the field and calls audibles, and uses a hard count to draw the defense offsides. I refuse to believe that Michigan's three-year starter, senior quarterback can't make the same checks or keep the defense on its toes--it's possible, but seems unlikely--so the question becomes, why does Borges treat the two quarterbacks so differently?

Playing almost exclusively under center helps with a lot of these issues. Hard counts can be used under center more easily, but making checks at the line of scrimmage is something that we've seen Gardner do a few times in the last few weeks that Denard hasn't done once in two years. The other advantage of playing Gardner under center so frequently is getting the play in and lining up faster. With Denard in the game, Borges changes formations from I-formation sets featuring two tight ends and a fullback to shotgun looks with three and four wide receivers. That much rotation of personnel has resulted in a lot of wasted first-quarter timeouts when Denard is in the game. With Gardner playing, the offense just seems more complete, a function of Borges more than the anything the quarterbacks are doing.

Regardless of why the difference exists, it's a very real aspect of this offense now. The offense looks better under Gardner, which unfortunately just highlights how improperly Borges has been using Denard the last two years, but there's no need in fretting over that now. Next year looks a lot more encouraging after the last two weeks and Michigan is still technically in the running for the Big Ten Title this year. Go Minnesota. Go Iowa. Ugh.

  • Michigan struggled on defense in this game for a number of different reasons. Jake Ryan and Frank Clark both lost contain frequently which gave Northwestern big gains on the ground. In addition, and I think Mattison figured this out before the fourth quarter, but Michigan was defending the speed option in an unsound manner. The playside linebacker was always playing the quarterback, forcing a pitch to the running back who had nothing but blockers in front of him. I think Mattison assumed his corners and safeties could get off of their blocks on the outside the help contain the rushing attack, but Michigan's corners aren't very good at doing this. By the fourth quarter, Michigan started forcing the runs back inside.
  • Michigan's third-down defensive struggles where a different matter. Mattison couldn't use his okie blitzes because Northwestern spreads the field too far. Instead, he drew up a strong safety blitz that was largely ineffective. I'll draw these up later this week, but Mattison finally figured out what the problem was: he kept bringing Jordan Kovacs on a safety blitz from Colter's frontside, allowing him to recognize the blitz and scramble around. The one time the blitz actually landed, it was because Mattison flipped the field and brought the blitz from Colter's blindside.
  • Kain Colter is slippery. Michigan had him in the backfield a few different times but was unable to bring him down. Will Campbell pushed beyond the line of scrimmage only to see Colter scamper around and one of Michigan's defensive ends dip inside, giving up the edge and a huge rushing lane. This was the least disciplined defensive performance from Michigan we've seen all year, helped along by perhaps the best running quarterback Michigan has played.
  • The interior of Michigan's offensive line is broken. At this point, you don't burn redshirts, but Michigan's offensive line may be the weakest unit on the entire team. This is also why Fitz Toussaint is broken. He won't break 100 yards per game once this season.
  • I'll have to rewatch the game, but the linebacker rotation confused me. Michigan gave a lot of time to James Ross and Joe Bolden. Then again, Ondre Pipkins saw significant snaps again (and was much improved), so it may be that the defensive staff is willing to rolling the dice during the game more frequently in order to get these younger players some meaningful snaps.
  • This was far and away Roy Roundtree's best game as a Wolverine in the last two years, and not just because of his miraculous, game-saving catch. He was getting separation, making shoestring catches, and showed a bit of open-field shiftiness.
  • Michigan's secondary is very not good. I really worry about next week's matchup. Despite the fact that Iowa is terrible, they may have a decent pocket passer. Thomas Gordon has looked a stepped behind whoever he's defending for the last few weeks and JT Floyd didn't do much to alleviate fears that he's still too slow to keep up with Big Ten receivers. 
  • Devin Funchess is tall, and thank god.
Next Week
Michigan takes on Iowa in a game that will be closer than it should be. Were it not for three Purdue turnovers, Iowa would have been summarily beaten. Purdue managed 490 yards, 8.0 YPA through the air, and 4.8 YPC on the ground. In contrast, Iowa had only 264 total yards, 5.3 YPA, and 2.4 YPC, and yet they only lost by 3 points. Michigan should win, but this game will expose the Wolverine secondary in a way that we haven't seen this season.


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