Sunday, October 28, 2012

Monkey darts and Denard appreciation

You are Al Borges. It's first-and-10 on the Nebraska 38 on Michigan's first sustained drive of the game. Denard and Fitz Toussaint have alternated 7-ish-yard gains for the last six plays. Vincent Smith has had one moderately successful carry to date this season. So you do this:

It's now second-and-10 from the Nebraska 38. You have just been reminded that Vincent Smith is not an effective running back, which is why there are four guys (including a receiver) getting more regular carries than he is. So you do this:

The drive ends on a third-and-8 incompletion, resulting in a missed 53-yard field goal.

It's now third-and-3 from the Michigan 23 late in the first quarter of a scoreless game. It's been pretty well established at this point that Nebraska (which gave up roughly 6 bajillion rushing yards to Ohio State) can't really stop the zone read; Denard and Toussaint and averaging just under five yards a carry and at a pretty consistent clip (nothing long to skew the average). Your quarterback is the modern-day Barry Sanders. So you do this:

Because running out of the I into a nine-man front while eliminating your quarterback as a threat totally makes sense.

It's now third-and-7 from the Nebraska 18 late in the third quarter. Denard is done for the night because of an aggravated nerve in his elbow, which means the maybe-slightly-more-accurate-and-moderately-mobile-but-not-that-mobile Russell Bellomy is in the game. Nebraska leads 16-6. A field goal does little; the offense has done literally nothing since Denard left over a quarter ago and will have to get at least one touchdown at some point in the next 16 minutes. So you do this with your not-super-athletic backup quarterback and your picks-up-blitzes-like-a-mofo third-down back:

LOLWUT. Ask Corso? Ask Corso.

I could go on but will stop there since Bellomy produced maybe the worst 35-minute quarterbacking performance in the history of ever and the receivers were desperately in need of some towels from the Chargers. When a redshirt freshman quarterback with five career passes gets thrown into a road night game he's woefully unprepared for and proceeds to start 0 for 10 with -12 total yards, that's probably not (entirely) on the O-coordinator. That will be largely written off to the stupidity of the universe. The first half will not be because OMG AAARRGHGHGHGHGH.

The first half will be remembered for the text I sent after the above-referenced third-down play:
A monkey is throwing darts at a play sheet. I'm positive.
So this:

. . . . .

Michigan has not scored a touchdown against a top-50 defense since the Alabama game (and the only two touchdowns in that game came after Alabama jumped out to a 31-0 lead, at which point they didn't even matter). In the previous decade before this year, Michigan was held without a touchdown three times; it's happened three times this year, which is the first time that's happened since the 1962 team got shut out three teams in a row (how fun) en route to a 2-7 finish. I'm pretty sure that team didn't have Denard Robinson, a returning 1,000-yard running back and/or four O-line starters returning from a team that finished 13th in the country in rushing.

It's time for a painful acknowledgment: Michigan's offense has regressed significantly from last year, and last year represented a moderate/not-insignificant regression from 2010. And the starters on that 2010 team were mostly sophomores who are now seniors but haven't scored a meaningful touchdown against a decent team in four games this year.

To be fair, a little of that regression this year was to be expected. David Molk was an all-world center last year; he's gone. Junior Hemingway was the one legitimate deep-ball threat on a team full of poorly utilized 5-foot-10 guys; he's gone. Kevin Koger was a pretty decent blocker and a pretty decent receiver at tight end; he's gone, and Michigan does not have a replacement who can do both of those things. The coaches have also had an epiphany: The defense is good enough that no crappy team will be able to score enough points to win without being given some via head-asploding interceptions, and that means it's Going Into a Shell Time. The stats have suffered to a marginal extent; I'm fine with that when it results in wins.

That said, holy unwatchable, Batman. Watching Michigan games at this point is like watching 2010 Michigan games but in bizarro world: The strategy apparently revolves around hoping the defense is so good that the offense just has to be something better than incomprehensibly awful in order to win. I wrote off some of the incomprehensible awfulness last week since (a) Michigan won, (b) there were some good drives and points that could've been had but weren't because of blah throws and (c) the gameplan was an admittedly conservative one given the quality of the other team's offense, which OK. But doing that every week isn't being conservative; it's just being bad on offense.

The We Heart Borges Club is leaning on "it's not his fault Denard threw 47 interceptions against Notre Dame," which is only partially true in a sense that at least a couple of those picks were destined for failure via the play design. There's also been some success that hasn't shown up in the scoring totals: In all three games against top-10 defenses, Michigan has put up significantly more yards than the opposing defense has allowed on average. So that's something. The offense isn't totally ineffective; it just doesn't have anything to rely on other than "be Denard," doesn't do anything whatsoever to make "be Denard" more effective (other than the inconsistent use of the veer) and doesn't do anything to take advantage of defenses' awareness that "be Denard" is all there is. It's just Denard. Any criticism of the guy was rendered irrelevant when Michigan had five total yards in the seven possessions after he left the game Saturday night. Michigan's success on offense is dependent entirely on Denard and (to a lesser extent) the O-line just being better than the guys up front on defense.

How much of that is on Borges? A lot. Not all of it. Michigan's receiver-type guys had, by my count, six borderline drops in the first two and a half quarters, at which point I stopped counting. And said receiver-type guys include the 5-foot-10 Jeremy Gallon, converted quarterback Devin Gardner, the 5-foot-nothin' Drew Dileo and a couple freshmen and a walk-on at tight end. The talent just isn't there for a pro-style-ish passing tree since the receivers can't get open and the quarterback isn't accurate enough to throw guys open. This is not 2001 Michigan; this is an experienced version of 2008 Michigan, with the legit NFL talent pretty freakin' hard to find.

But I just don't know, man. Even the '08 team scored a touchdown in every game (and probably would've scored more than one against a totally hypothetical defense that had given up 63 points to Ohio State). There is an obvious chasm there between what Borges is good at and what this offense should be good at based on personnel, and the result is infuriating (even more so after watching Arizona put up 600 yards and 39 points against USC despite having a bunch of just-a-guy types at receiver and a not-very-good O-line). Saying "it'll be OK when Borges has elite players to work with" is (a) swell, Captain Obvious and (b) not very soothing since Michigan is two or three years away from having elite (and upperclass) players. If the next two years are gonna be like the second half of the Nebraska game, no thanks. Again: Five total yards in seven possessions before the last one, which didn't matter. And that's not even taking into account the inability to score any points against decent-to-good defenses this year with Denard. There are some things competent coordinators do in terms of constraint and playing off the stuff the offense does well, and those things don't exist right now; that's not a Denard/personnel problem as much as it is a coaching problem, and that's a scary, scary thing.

And it's actually gotten worse, which doesn't even make sense. Last year's offense had more inside-zone/veer variation, the Devin Gardner-at-quarterback-and-Denard-in-motion package, etc.; there was stuff that allowed the offense to seemingly be something other than "be Denard," and that stuff worked pretty well at times. And now there's not. And that's bad since it's both easy to scheme against (nine in the box on every play, with the degree of Denard's athletic superiority largely determining success or failure) and capable of spontaneously combusting into a pile of flaming debris at the whim of a stupid elbow nerve. I'm hopeful that the regression has been a weird thing due maybe in part to whatever is going on with Denard's arm and maybe in part due to the complete lack of a viable receiving threat and definitely in part due to the defense allowing Borges (via mandate from Brady Hoke, I assume) to completely remove the high-risk/high-reward stuff from the playbook. I'm not totally optimistic, though, since my hopefulness is based mostly on the 2011 Nebraska and Ohio State games and my skepticism is based on a much larger (and mostly more recent) sample size.

So ... I just produced 1,500 words about the playcalling. That was fun. There was other stuff.

Let's start with this: The defense yay. The last six weeks were not a mirage generated by the vapors of horrific offenses; Nebraska has easily the best offense in the Big Ten (seventh nationally in rushing, 17th in pass efficiency, 15th in total yards and 18th in scoring) and had scored 29-plus points in every game coming in. The irrelevant end-of-game drive notwithstanding, Michigan gave up a total of 283 yards (!) and 23 points, and 13 of those points were gifted via Bellomy picks in Michigan territory, one of which got run back to the 4-yard line (guh). Amazingly, despite all the stuff written above about the playcalling and the offense in general, Michigan got the ball back with 11:40 left down only a touchdown at 16-9. That in and of itself is an amazing statement about what the Michigan defense did to a borderline-elite offense.

The reason: The Michigan front seven dominated the line. Jake Ryan was barely relevant but didn't have to be because of the way Craig Roh, Quinton Washington, Brennen Beyer and an assortment of other guys cumulatively produced a wall of nothing that yielded a bunch of 2-yard gains, a lot of punts and a sufficient number of chances for the Michigan offense had it been anything other than totally incompetent. The only problems, really, were the lack of quality coverage from time to time -- with this play ...

... being the particularly aggravating one for obvious reasons -- and the accompanying lack of a pass rush, although that wasn't surprising given that Michigan used a slightly heavier front than usual. Michigan largely sold out to stop the run, did it and still only got beat deep once, with the result being by far Nebraska's worst offensive performance of the year.

It's now safe to say this without any caveats: Michigan's defense is approaching elite (again). Despite losing three starting D-linemen (including Mike Martin) to graduation and top cover corner Blake Countess to a torn ACL and then getting smoted by Alabama in the opener, Michigan is ninth in the country in total defense and 14th in scoring defense. And the three offenses other than Ohio State's left on the schedule are average (Northwestern), bad (Minnesota) and pathetic (Iowa). It's likely that anything better than 14 points wins all of those games since I'm having a hard time envisioning Michigan giving up anything consistently against any of those teams.

This is probably worth noting here:
Asked whether or not he was concerned Robinson wouldn't be available next week, Hoke replied "No." He also said the normal rehabilitation process for this type of injury is mainly rest and time.
Hosannas, angels, etc.

With that in mind, holy hell Bellomy was terrible. He finished 3 for 16 with three picks (!!!) and generally looked like a kid who just found how babies are made and how hot dogs are made on the same day. The accuracy he'd shown in his extremely limited playing time to date disappeared entirely; he missed about three wide-open guys with inexplicably awful throws, and his three picks were the result of three terribly thrown balls into not-a-chance coverage. Like so:


I'm thinking 0 for 10 would've been the point at which I would have made the switch to Gardner (if that were a possibility since Gardner has allegedly been nursing some kind of injury). Hoke said after the game that he hadn't taken enough snaps at quarterback this year to be a viable option, but ... I mean ... he couldn't possibly have done any worse, right? Michigan was averaging 0.71 total yards a possession in the second half until Nebraska started sitting back with three guys deep after taking a two-touchdown lead with about five minutes left. I have to believe Gardner gets a few more snaps over the next couple weeks in the event of disaster. I also have to believe he's the probable starter at quarterback next year, but if he isn't even taking snaps this year, is it realistic to think that he's just gonna switch back over for spring ball and be any better than Bellomy? I really don't know. Either way, I will spend the next nine months praying that Shane Morris is Chad Henne.

As for this year, there isn't a game on the schedule Michigan can't lose if Denard goes down for any extended period of time since even Minnesota and Iowa are capable of acquiring double-digit points via luck or whatever. There's also not a game on the schedule Michigan shouldn't win pretty easily (until Ohio State) if Denard can stay healthy, especially with Brendan Gibbons becoming automatic and thus making any drive that ends inside the other dudes' 40-yard line guaranteed points.

Sadly, it might not matter. Nebraska now has the tiebreaker and will have to lose at least once (maybe twice, depending on what Michigan does against Ohio State) for Michigan to win the division. Plausible? Yeah. Nebraska still plays at Michigan State, against Penn State at home and at Iowa. Probable? Ehhh. Note to self: Just think of it as rooting for Nebraska to lose rather than rooting for Michigan State to win. It's better that way.

Anyway, all Michigan can do is win out, beat Ohio (BEAT OHIO) and hope Nebraska goes down at least once. If that doesn't happen, it's Denard Appreciation Month* followed by the Capital One Bowl, which would be pretty much exactly what I expected but would still be ultimately disappointing given the lack of roses in a "here please take the roses" year and the distinct possibility that 2013 Michigan will look a lot like 2012 Michigan State, which yuck.

* Denard appreciation, man. Get on board.


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