Thursday, September 15, 2011

Michigan-Notre Dame leftovers

Before I can move on -- which I should have done about four days ago -- there are a few things to get out of the way from Saturday night's insanity. Let's do it:

The thing on the jerseys: Michigan has a grand total of five retired numbers. Those numbers and their owners: 11 (the Wistert brothers, way back in old-timey mustache days), 47 (Bennie Oosterbaan), 48 (Gerald Ford), 87 (Ron Kramer) and 98 (Tom Harmon). That's not exactly an inclusive list of all-time Michigan legends. So there's kind of a weird disconnect between the great players and the retired numbers -- the reason is that they stopped officially retiring numbers some time ago when somebody smart realized that if every great player had his number taken out of commission, the school would be out of issuable numbers in like five years.

The solution is the thing on the left in this picture:

Jersey patches! Basically, a player who is officially dubbed a "Michigan Legend" gets a special patch that will live forever on the jerseys of the players who wear his number in the future.

My reaction: I didn't love it at first, but now that I've had a few days to consider it, I think it's probably the most practical solution. The only other realistic possibility would be "retiring" the honoree's jersey only but keeping the number in service. Frankly, that's no more enticing. The patch seems classy, identifiable and not overdone.

The one addition I'd really like to see is some sort of large-scale recognition of the numbers within the stadium. There's not really a place to hang banners, but what about big numbers across the bottom of the press box, sort of like how the Detroit Tigers do it at the back of the right-field bleachers at Comerica Park?

Also, I'm curious to see how they integrate this patch thingy with the currently retired numbers. It seems a little odd to have a group of historical legends who get one honor and then another group of modern-day legends who get a different honor just because they couldn't feasibly continue doing it the first way.

The jerseys: In action, I thought they looked good. I still dislike the shoulder stripes, which were thoroughly unnecessary and placed in a prominent position just to add a little Adidas flavor. I would complain if the alternative (Oregon Inc.) weren't infinitely worse.

Michigan's offense: It was bad awful for three quarters. My thoughts live were that (a) Denard's passing was horrific, (b) there weren't enough zone reads that would force Notre Dame to actually read and stop a QB running play and (c) the offensive line sucked.

After reading the MGoBlog UFR (an absurdly in-depth coaching-style breakdown of the game tape that's worth reading just for the football knowledge), I feel comfortable saying that my first two assumptions were correct and my third was not. The Denard part wasn't hard to figure out; when guys are open and the ball is sailing two yards behind them or five yards over their heads, that's on the QB unless he's getting crushed, which he wasn't. The other two are kind of related: Notre Dame's linebackers were selling out like mofos to stop whatever the play looked like initially, so cutbacks and zone reads and the late screen pass and other things that played off that aggressiveness were pretty effective. The power off-tackle plays and the standard pattern combos out of the I-form were not. In fact, everything run out of the I-form other than the fourth-quarter touchdowns went nowhere.

The big and controversial question right now: Is it worth running 40 percent of the offense out of the I-form when it mitigates by far the team's most dangerous runner (Denard, obviously) and the other 60 percent seems more effective in every way?

If there's one thing (or two) to take away from that MGoBlog link, it's these pictures of Notre Dame's defense against various alignments. In the first, Michigan is like "I-formation time" and Notre Dame is like "OK cool, we can do our normal thing since Denard is totally dropping back into the pocket." Note the position and movement of the free safety on the far right side of the screen.

In the second, Michigan lines up in shotgun, Denard takes a step forward at the snap and Notre Dame is like "OMG WE R GONNA DIE EVERYBODY FREAK OUT ABOUT DENARD." Just count the players within eight yards of the line of scrimmage:

OK, I'll save you the trouble: The number is 11. That's everybody. His legs are the world's most effective play-action fake.

The offense "worked" Saturday night in a sense that Michigan scored 35 points and won, but I agree with the Official MGoBlog Sentiment that basically throwing away a third of your snaps (running plays that don't align with what your players can reasonably be asked to do) and hoping Denard can just throw a bunch of back-shoulder fades for touchdowns when the going gets tough isn't a sustainable offense. Against a team that doesn't drop the ball twice for no reason and run the world's most predictable play on every third-and-1, that game is a loss and we're all complaining.

So ... I obviously want Al Borges scrap everything and run the Rich Rodriguez offense, yes? No. That would be impractical for him and damaging for the program in the long run. But my hope is that he learned some things in that game about what's plausible with the current personnel and will adjust accordingly. To be specific: More shotgun. Run pistol-style power out of it if you want to run power, but against real defenses (not Eastern Michigan), the threat of Denard doing something other than waggling off a bootleg should be included at all reasonable times, or at least at all reasonable times once a defense has demonstrated that it can stop the standard power running plays.

There's a counterargument that says "You have to run out of the I-form against good teams to ever be effective at it," and I really don't have an answer for that. I'm not sure the current roster is built to do that effectively, but maybe getting experience with it will make it more of a usable subset of the offense later in the year and going forward. But I think the goal is to win games now and in the future, and I'm not sure exactly where the fine line sits.

Going for the touchdown: With the ball at the 15-yard line and 0:08 on the clock, there were two thoughts running through my head. The first was, "I'm pretty sure Denard is gonna run off tackle, fall down and call a timeout to set up the field goal." This is your thought process when you grow up watching Lloyd Carr run the (very unexciting) show. The second was, "Our kickers* are so awful."

Brady Hoke's thought process was (at least officially) a little more aggressive:

“With eight seconds left? We had two timeouts, so we were at least going to give it a shot in the endzone. If Denard would have scrambled and got tackled, I think we had enough time to call a timeout. I may have gone for the touchdown and gone for the win (anyway). Why not? I mean, you play to win."

The first three sentences of that quote make a lot of sense and indicate a soothing understanding of logical risk. The last two sentences are borderline jaw-dropping. Whether they're true or not is mostly inaccurate; Hoke has established in a game-on-the-line scenario that he has some balls and seems willing to play Les Miles Let's F-ing Win Football rather than Lloyd Carr Please Let's Not Lose Football. This excites me a ridiculous amount.

As for the play itself: Given Denard's general issues with trajectory, his "NBA Jam"-style en-fuego-ness with the deep ball in the fourth quarter and the crappiness of Gary Gray, I think the fade was the perfect call** in that situation. There's no chance of a sack, and the way the defense lined up (shaded over Junior Hemingway for obvious reasons), it was clearly gonna be Roy Roundtree man-up with Gary "I Don't Look For The Ball But Will Interfere" Gray on the outside. With that matchup, the result was either gonna be a touchdown, a pass interference call (which would have set up a much easier field-goal attempt) or an incompletion. Fortunately, the throw was good, the coverage was dumb (if you're gonna interfere, just tackle the guy and make them kick) and the adjustment and catch were perfect.

*The kickers are probably awful based on what we saw last season. The qualifier is necessary because freshman Matt Wile was a moderately highly touted recruit who looked competent in spring but was beaten out by redshirt sophomore Brendan Gibbons, who had a fairly small part in last year's 4-of-14 debacle (he was 1 of 3). I'm guessing at least one of them represents improvement upon the 2010 numbers.

**I would have said this even before seeing the result. Denard has issues with both accuracy and trajectory on posts and slants -- the throws are often far too low, which leads to easy linebacker/safety picks and tipped balls and whatnot -- while the fade is a low-risk throw if the receiver is taller than 5-foot-8.

Notre Dame is pretty good: Tommy Rees is good -- he checked out of about a half-dozen plays after seeing Michigan's defense tip its blitz, and almost all of those went for big yardage. For much of the game, he was a step ahead of Greg Mattison, which is pretty damn impressive for a sophomore making his sixth career start. Cierre Wood is also good. Michael Floyd is awesome, which you already knew. I have little doubt that Notre Dame will put up gobs of yards against every defense the rest of the way; the points are a little less certain because of the 2010-Michigan-esque ability to commit devastating turnovers for no good reason. The defense isn't great but is pretty good, definitely good enough to win as long as the turnover margin isn't minus-79 in every game.

Late last week, Lou Holtz predicted (lol) that Notre Dame would win out and play in a BCS bowl (he might have said BCS championship game, but I can't remember and will go the conservative route). This is laughable purely because Lou Holtz is the biggest and most predictable homer in the world, but ND is better than every team on the rest of the schedule, including Michigan State and USC. It isn't unreasonable to think that this team could end up 10-2; it all depends on Rees and whether the eleventy billion turnovers get cut down massively.

Just because: Somebody did what we (and by "we," I obviously mean "Michigan fans") were all thinking:

I think Bob Ufer would've enjoyed that game.

The most amazingest stat I've seen yet: I yield the floor to The Mathlete, who has some sort of Stats Inc.-type thing set up with the numbers from the NCAA database:

Since 2003 I have 38 cases where a team was down three with the ball with less than a minute left and first ten at their own 20 (give or take ten yards). Of those 38 cases, 35 times the team failed to score or lost in overtime. In three of those cases, the team was able to kick a field goal and win overtime, including Dooley Premature Handshake Part 2 last year against North Carolina. Michigan is the only team that was able to win in regulation under these conditions.

Good times. That is all.


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