Saturday, October 01, 2011

That's a paddlin'

Let's get this out of the way: Minnesota is awful. Like "the worst Big Ten team I've ever seen" awful.

I actually started thinking about that sometime in the third quarter Saturday. While there were some abysmal Indiana teams in the late '90s (and this year) and some pathetically terrible Northwestern teams before good coaches started showing up on doorsteps in Evanston, Minnesota is ... ummm ... I don't even know what word accurately describes what I just saw; "craptacular" fits but isn't quite extreme enough. So all competition-related caveats* apply.

Still ... I mean ... good lord. The Michigan offense did everything it wanted. The Michigan defense did everything it wanted. There was a span in the second quarter in which Michigan scored, Minnesota went three-and-out, Michigan went the length of the field in four plays and scored again, Minnesota went four-and-out and Michigan scored on the next play (it was called back for holding, but whatever). And that pretty much told the story. Also telling the story:
  • Total yards were 580-177.
  • Michigan didn't punt until after the starting offense had left the game.
  • Minnesota didn't cross the 50-yard line until the next-to-last play of the third quarter.
  • Michigan's 83-yard fumble return in the fourth quarter gave the UM defense 47 percent as many yards as Minnesota's offense.
  • Michigan averaged 7.95 yards per play.
  • Minnesota had eight first downs.
  • Minnesota had five penalties just on special teams.
  • Denard started 11 for 11 and finished 15 for 19 with two TDs and no picks.
  • Michigan finished with 363 rushing yards, and that was with Denard and nominal starting running back Vincent Smith getting a combined 11 carries.
  • Minnesota was 0 for 11 on third downs.
And then there was this craziness (and this doesn't even include the really crazy stuff):

I'm talking about the plays that come up in the "Ask Corso" menu as I go "ummm, no" and choose something less ridiculous. "Let's go with the jet sweep QB wingback speed option, then the jet sweep throwback flea flicker, then the halfback toss sweep option pass." Al Borges' sportsmanship score = -3,677, and he doesn't care (neither do I). He just couldn't stop playing with his new toys.

That was probably the most encouraging development: For the first time all year, the offense looked fully coherent, mostly because Borges has finally figured out what Denard can/can't do and what this offense is good/bad at. Hitch-corner combos and counters and tunnel screens and QB sweeps? Yes plz. I-form power and under-center play-action and jump balls to Roy Roundtree? Nay. Borges is finding his happy place.

The "probably" qualifier at the beginning of the last paragraph is necessary only because I just watched Michigan's defense shut out a Big Ten (kind of) team. In the past three weeks, Michigan has given up a total of 10 points (!!!) to a decent MAC team, a good Mountain West team and Minnesota. I realize that San Diego State does not equal Oregon, but the improvement on defense is massively massive. In the past three years, Michigan held a total of zero D-I teams to single-digits points; that's now happened three times in a row. The defense is, like, kinda good (ducking vengeful lightning bolts). Proof: Michigan is fourth in the country in scoring defense (OMG head asplode). And that success isn't predicated on fluky turnovers anymore, which was my primary concern a couple weeks ago: The secondary is covering people and the D-line is becoming legitimately dominant. The linebackers could be better (containment is a frequent issue) but are doing enough that I can't really complain. Like I mentioned in the stats, a non-tomato-can opponent just got held to eight first downs and didn't cross midfield until the game was over. Coaching FTW.

So ... I'm officially excited in a way I probably shouldn't be. There's an unsurprising and ongoing message-board debate right now about whether this 5-0 start is any different from last year's 5-0 start or the 2009 5-0 start. IMO, it's different for two extremely obvious reasons: Michigan (a) can now play defense (and, because of that, is destroying the bad teams rather than scoring with 21 seconds left to beat them 42-35) and (b) is getting better every week. As Borges figures out what works and Greg Mattison floats around the field in angelic fashion turning on light bulbs, the games are getting more and more complete. That probably can't continue in a results sense -- it seems unfair to expect a 400-point win over Ohio State to cap an undefeated season -- but it can and probably will continue in a learning-what-they're-doing-and-executing-it sense. The offense is going to be pretty effective and the defense will end up being above average nationally, which would've seemed like a laughable suggestion a month ago.

I also just watched Michigan State "beat" Ohio State in the ugliest game that's ever been played right before Nebraska got shredded by Wisconsin and lost by about 80 points -- and MSU and Nebraska represent the hypothetical best teams in the division. There's not a game left on the schedule Michigan can't lose, which is terrifying, but are there are any for-sure losses? Question that will drift into the ether: If you had to put money right now on the Michigan-Ohio State game, who ya got? As of right now, Michigan is a Vegas underdog in one game the rest of the way; Michigan State is a three-point favorite. This makes no sense, but it feeds my assuredly stupid sense of optimism that will be crushed in short order.

I start getting really nervous/terrified/wired as of next Saturday night (and I'll be borderline epileptic if Michigan gets to 7-0, at which point 10-0 becomes a non-fantasy possibility). I've missed that feeling.

*I can't explain Minnesota almost beating USC a month ago. The results since then: loss to New Mexico State (terrible), six-point win over Miami (not that Miami), 13-point loss to North Dakota State (yup) and 58-point loss to Michigan. Even if you generously assume that the injured MarQueis Gray is worth a lot of production on offense, the body of work is trending away from "competitive against USC" and toward "hilariously bad."


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