Sunday, September 09, 2012

Yeah, that was horrifying

When I was a student at Michigan in '06, I had seats slightly outside the normal student section (I'm not sure why) and toward the center of the north end zone. I saw a lot of awesome stuff that year since Michigan went 7-0 at home. I also saw one inexplicably horrifying thing: Ball State (this was the year before Ball State was actually good) driving toward me in the latter half of the fourth quarter and getting inside the Michigan 10 with a chance to tie. Wha? I know.

There was no particularly good reason for that -- Michigan was a legitimately great team and Ball State was an above-average MAC team that got outgained by a 2:1 ratio and gave up about 350 rushing yards that day -- and the lack of reason basically allowed me to write it off as something irrelevant that had no bearing on my judgment of Michigan, which had already been established by nine weeks of crushing fools. It was a blip. Whatev.

What I saw Saturday was probably not a blip; it was a potentially pretty good team having its infuriatingly obvious weaknesses exploited by a service academy team with something like five returning starters that will probably end up about 8-5.

I wasn't sure exactly what the Bama game meant since it still seems legitimately plausible that Bama is just that much better than everybody other than LSU and USC. But I'm pretty sure what the Bama and Air Force games mean cumulatively: Michigan is a good-ish team right now that's not even in the general vicinity of great because of the aforementioned weaknesses.

To be specific, those weaknesses are (a) a front seven that just got physically, mentally and everything-else-ally dominated by a bunch of 260-pound aerospace engineers and (b) an offensive line that seems like it should be very good based on past performance but can't really create anything other than what Denard creates by being Denard. See this ...

... and this:

And a gratuitous picture of Denard outrunning 11 guys while missing a shoe (courtesy of MGoBlog's Eric Upchurch):

Wwwwhheeeeee!!! A team with that and a massive size/talent advantage just about everywhere else shouldn't need two fourth-down stops in the last five minutes* to beat Air Force by six. Michigan obviously did; again, the weaknesses.

I'm not gonna go crazy about the O-line since Denard ran for 210 yards at 10.8 a pop (that number would be around five even without the two long runs). I need a little more film review to figure out why Fitz Toussaint went for all of eight yards on seven carries (?), but it appeared live as if Air Force was selling out hard on any sort of run action ... which probably contributed to Denard going for 208 passing yards (at 8.3 per attempt) and two touchdowns along with a couple other "oh hey look there's a receiver and no defenders in the picture" plays. More data needed.

I am gonna go crazy about the D-line, though, because ... I mean ... yikes. Air Force averaged 4.1 yards per carry (which isn't that bad defensively), racked up 417 total yards and went a ridiculous 14 of 25 on third- and fourth-down plays (fake field goal excluded). It was infuriating/horrifying/pick an anger-based adjective. The stuff that happened against Bama apparently wasn't a fluke or just O-line awesomeness; it was indicative of a problem (quite possibly more than one) that was exploited again by Air Force and will be exploited again going forward without some not-insignificant development and/or adjustments: That problem: The interior of the line can't hold up and the linebackers either can't or won't fill (and thus account for the interior gaps) with any competency.

The aforementioned development and/or adjustments might actually be happening already: By the fourth quarter, a large majority of the nominal front-seven starters were on the bench, having been replaced by guys who ended up producing the two stops at the end of the game that allowed me to breathe a four-hour-long sigh of relief. Hypothetical starters Will Campbell and Kenny Demens both got yanked at some point in the third quarter in favor of true freshmen Ondre Pipkins and Joe Bolden, and Frank Clark (at defensive end) and true freshman James Ross (at weakside linebacker) both played the majority of the last few Air Force drives. Their noob-ness might be problematic but is probably preferable to complete ineffectiveness, which is what Michigan got for the first seven and a half quarters of the season.

It's clear now that Campbell just isn't gonna be good regardless of how many stars he had next to his name four years ago or how much the coaches wanna talk about his work ethic and leadership and whatnot. Whether there's anyone better right now is far less clear, but I won't be surprised if the front-seven depth chart for the upcoming UMass game looks little like the depth chart for the Air Force game; getting those young guys some snaps (albeit meaningless ones against a UMass team that just lost to Indiana by 40) would be beneficial with Notre Dame next on the schedule. Anything other than meaningful progress among that group will probably put Michigan's ceiling somewhere lower than I expected before the year since getting dominated on the ground (which is definitely possible against at least four of the team's on Michigan's schedule this year) is something other than a recipe for success.

Also not a recipe for success: doing nonsensical things as a coaching staff. I'm torn on riding Denard into the ground** against Air Force; it shouldn't have been necessary but might have been given Toussaint's total ineffectiveness and what Air Force appeared to be doing with its front seven (or eight, more often), so I'm gonna limit the Al Borges-related complaints*** to one this week. Situation: It's third-and-3 near midfield with Michigan leading by 11 in the second quarter and driving with a chance to totally take control. As noted above, Denard was getting somewhere between five and 79 yards per carry. Playcall: Send everybody deep and have Vincent Smith leak out behind a bunch of guys roughly four feet taller than him. Result: A high checkdown throw that goes off Smith's fingertips and directly to an Air Force linebacker, resulting in probably a 14-point swing and thus a four-point game at halftime rather than a way-more-comfortable 18-point game. I won't blame Borges for the throw or even the decision but will blame him for creating that scenario in the first place.

Speaking of which, the clock management at the end of the half was so awful. Michigan ran five plays (all passes for a total of 34 yards) in the last 1:20 and ran out of time at the Air Force 47, eating two timeouts in the process, either one of which might have been sufficient to get one more play off and set up a field goal that would've been super awesome to have at the end of a six-point game.

Tweet of the week:
@Wolverine60614 Can we get Hoke a 13 year old who plays a lot of Madden to help him manage his timeouts?
I was also borderline stabby after Denard threw what was called a completion to Devin Gardner on third-and-6 with under three minutes left on a drive that could/should have ended the game. It was a low throw that looked pretty tenuous based on Gardner's reaction; the obvious thing would have been to run a play ASAP, eliminating any chance of a review.

Instead, Michigan got up to the line and then stood there for about 15 seconds killing clock before the whistle blew. You know the rest: call gets overturned, clock stops anyway, Air Force gets the ball, I go looking for a clean pair of shorts. Killing an extra 20-30 seconds there isn't worth it when running a play immediately means an extra set of downs, which in turn means that the game is probably over anyway.

RABBLE RABBLE HOKE RABBLE. I award him one ZookPoint, which brings him to one career ZookPoint.

That said, the RABBLE is a lot less RABBLY seeing as how, ya know, Michigan won and therefore did not lose. See: Arkansas, Wisconsin, etc. Winning in infuriating/horrifying/insert-anger-based-adjective fashion >>>>>>>>>> losing in any fashion. This is not debatable.

There was a time (2002, to be specific) when beating a meh Mountain West team in a way that made Michigan look like a slightly-better-than-meh Mountain West team would've produced several days of the aforementioned RABBLE and cynicism and negativity and an only-in-my-head impossibility that Michigan could possibly be anything other than the crappy, barely winning Michigan of the most recent Saturday. Perspective FTW. Some combination of The Horror and the RichRod era and (maybe) just not being 20 anymore has manifested in me an appreciation for games that end with Michigan having any number of points that's larger by any amount than the other team's number of points. My expectations can be adjusted accordingly without launching

There's also something to be said for the exponential improvement I witnessed last year, when Michigan went from the 2010 version of Michigan to Michigan. Brady Hoke + Greg Mattison + a crapload of big-time freshmen = the possibility of legit improvement in the front seven, and legit improvement in the front seven would probably be sufficient to revert my expectations to their original level. The Air Force game =/= the season as a whole (unless it does).

I have no idea if said legit improvement will actually happen; I do know that it kinda needs to happen since the alternative is probably 7-5 and a lot of uncomfortable wins like the one I watched Saturday. Going back to what I said above, those uncomfortable wins are fine as long as they're, ya know, wins. Beating Air Force by six isn't the worst thing ever; getting trucked by every quality team on the schedule kinda would be (even if my expectations have already been lowered incrementally and watching Denard be Denard is awesome in and of itself). Let's not do that plzkthx.

*It's probably worth mentioning that the really good 2010 version of Oklahoma -- the one that went to the Fiesta Bowl and obliterated UConn in a stupidly stupid mismatch -- played Air Force in September that year and did almost exactly what Michigan just did, needing an end-of-the-game stop to survive 27-24. Excerpt from the game-story lede: "The Falcons, the nation’s top rushing team, piled up 351 yards on the ground and scored 14 unanswered fourth-quarter points in a comeback bid that fell short." Familiar, yes? I guess I should acknowledge the possibility that playing a triple-option team that'll undoubtedly finish in the top three in the country in rushing yards might not have been much more meaningful than playing Alabama. Still, I saw what I saw on the D-line, and it wasn't good.

**Especially after the Alabama game, which makes even less sense now that Borges has either remembered or reminded everybody that Denard getting a large majority of the carries is almost always preferable to anybody else (or any other assortment of guys) getting a large majority of the carries.

***I'm also pretty intrigued by the discovery/implementation of Devin Funchess, a freshman who's a receiver in a tight end's body and might turn out to be this year's Junior Hemingway (the designated guy Denard can throw ridiculous jumpballs to who will just go up and take them away from dudes since he's like 6-foot-5 and has an NBA-level vertical). I don't think Michigan's ever had a guy like that at tight end; he'll be useful.


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