Sunday, November 18, 2012

With authoritah and glorious sentimentality

Given what I wrote Friday, there's really only one appropriate way to start this post:

It happened; I had a warm fuzzy. And then it happened again and again and again and again and again; I definitely didn't expect that but was no less satisfied. A touchdown would've been swell but wasn't really necessary considering both the score and the sentiment, which was just Denard. He played. He did Denard stuff. He did this:

And the rest was semantics.
. . . . . 

Kind of. When I wrote this in my Denard soliloquy-type thing Friday ...
Michigan is probably going to beat Iowa tomorrow since Michigan is pretty good and Iowa is pretty terrible, meaning Michigan's seniors will have finished the home portion of their careers by winning 14 straight games at Michigan Stadium, which is to say all of them over the last two years. They'll have won literally every single home game as upperclassmen, in the process ending all the awfulness that had built up over the previous however many years; that's a hell of an accomplishment given where this program stood 22 months ago.
... it hadn't occurred to me that Michigan hadn't beaten Iowa since 2006 (!), which wow. It was only appropriate that the guys who took care of the stupid Columbus Dispatch fanboi clock and the Little Brother rabble rabble did the same with whatever Iowa had been holding over Michigan, and they did so with authoritah.

I mean ... yeah. It was over by halftime, at which point Michigan had scored a touchdown on every drive, all of which went 70-plus yards. Iowa had one brief display of competence, that being a first-quarter touchdown drive on which the middle of the field got exploited repeatedly and in irritating fashion, that made it 7-7. Iowa didn't score another touchdown until it was 42-10; Michigan hadn't punted yet.

I don't know if I've ever seen a Michigan offense do that against a legitimate defense. And yeah, Iowa's defense is legitimate even if the offense is awful: Iowa came into the game almost exactly average statistically in total defense, rushing defense and pass-efficiency defense. That defense allowed the following against Michigan in the first three quarters:

12 plays, 70 yards, rushing touchdown
7 plays, 79 yards, passing touchdown
8 plays, 75 yards, rushing touchdown
7 plays, 87 yards, passing touchdown
11 plays, 81 yards, rushing touchdown
6 plays, 60 yards, passing touchdown

Great googly moogly. Michigan turned into Oregon and did so without Denard at quarterback and without a legitimate running back (more on that momentarily). The reason: Devin Gardner. I feel like I could be copying/pasting this section each week since every week just confirms with more certainty that he's as good as he'd previously appeared to be. That was a dominant quarterback performance in every way after two pretty good ones, even if the defenses the last couple weeks haven't been Alabama-esque. Gardner's line against a statistically average (albeit obviously talent-depleted at safety) Iowa secondary: 18 for 23 for 314 yards with three touchdowns and a pick to go along with 37 rushing yards and three more touchdowns. So yeah: six touchdowns. And that pick was a great play by Iowa's one particularly good corner, Micah Hyde, who dropped back into a corner route and got about 40 inches off the ground to pull in a ball that was otherwise perfectly thrown to the sideline.

In three weeks, Gardner has become arguably the best passer in the Big Ten. No joke. His pass efficiency: 190.22, which would easily lead the country if he had enough attempts to qualify. He's also averaging about 4.6 yards a carry (sacks excluded) and has six rushing touchdowns, which (absurdly) is tied for the team lead. I don't even know, man. This is actually happening. Devin Gardner FTW. Now give that man a medical redshirt so he's got two more years of eligibility plzkthx.

And I gotta give some credit to Al Borges, who has guys running hilariously wide open all over the field. Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B:

Wwwhheeeeeee!!! The passing game has become everything it wasn't for the first seven weeks; I take back my criticism of Borges as a coordinator and reallocate all that criticism to Borges as a strategist who I wish could've manipulated some of his knowledge to Denard's benefit since he was always the guy who was gonna determine this team's success or failure this year. As it is, the clips above will have to suffice in their assurance that the Offense of the Future will be able to produce yards and points on the regular, even against the irritatingly effective Iowa-type defenses of the world.

And that's happening despite the standard under-center running game continuing to be nothing but a facade for the passing game; it probably won't be anything more for a while seeing as how AAAHHHHH YOUR ANKLE ISN'T ATTACHED TO YOUR LEG BLECHCHCHCH. Fitz Toussaint is done for the year. Fitz Toussaint might be done for next year, too, seeing as how he had the lower portion of his leg dangling from the upper portion after a tackle on Michigan's first possession (click here for the screenshot if that's your thing).

Ugh. The good news: There's only one (meaningful) game left in the season. More good news: The alternative at running back is apparently Denard, who ... ummm ...

... yeah. Borges busted out some crazy stuff featuring Denard as a running back/wing back, with one of those plays becoming a handoff to a speed option, one of them becoming a double reverse (or triple reverse, depending on your definition) and one becoming this throwback screen that kinda/sorta took advantage of Northwestern having to freak out about all the aforementioned stuff:

Wow. More of that. And barring an injury-related setback, there will be; it's obvious that Denard isn't gonna be able to throw with any consistency until/unless he has surgery, but I don't think there's any doubt that he'll get 10-plus carries next week against Ohio since the running game is gonna have to be built around Denard (or at least the threat of Denard) and Thomas Rawls, who's a decent short-yardage guy but isn't exactly a guy to gameplan against at this point in his career.

So the Denard option kinda limits the short-term Toussaint sadness but also adds some "if only" awfulness; with the way Gardner's been playing, a Gardner/Denard/Toussaint backfield would've offered the potential for literally almost anything and been capable of putting up a lot of points against a not-that-great Ohio State defense. Alas. The offense can still score some points next week but is gonna have to do it largely in ways that had never been tried before the last week or three; that's moderately concerning.

As for the defense, it was the defense. As mentioned above, Iowa found an irritating hole early in whatever Michigan was doing in the back seven and exploited it with C.J. Fiedorowicz, who caught literally every pass Iowa threw beyond the line of scrimmage; the receivers had zero catches. Fiedorowicz got open up the seam on Iowa's touchdown that made it 7-7, caught a couple more passes on the ensuing field-goal drive and then was somewhat limited thereafter since it was clear that Iowa had no alternatives. And Iowa didn't run another play on Michigan's side of the field until the fourth quarter, when the game was effectually over.

Michigan does seem to have some issues early in games; I'm guessing that there are still some issues with inexperience and technique that have to be ironed out on the sidelines via the coaches explicitly pointing out what the offense is doing to take advantage of certain things. Still, I'd prefer that to the alternative, which is to say a defense that eats hearts early but can't make adjustments. Speaking of which, Michigan is now 12th in total defense and 17th in scoring defense, and those numbers would each be slightly better if not affected by Iowa's garbage-time touchdown drive. Whatever. I have some concerns about Ohio's option game but have to believe Mattison's familiarity with Meyer's offense at Florida will be of some benefit.

I can also foresee good things going forward since (a) Mattison and (b) Michigan returns the majority of every unit and shouldn't have a significant drop-off anywhere other than maybe Jordan Kovacs' spot at strong safety, which has become much less relevant now that the safeties don't have to make ALL OF THE TACKLES.

In the big picture, "going forward" is probably all that matters since stupid Nebraska* is stupid (and realistically, Iowa isn't beating Nebraska). Except it isn't really all that matters; I mean, the Ohio game means everything for everybody since it's the Ohio game. I would like to cling to the idea that Urban Meyer is John Cooper. I would like to laugh at another awesome Ohio season becoming infinitely less awesome because of Michigan. I would like to think that Brady Hoke might own Ohio the way Jim Tressel owned Michigan (except without the CheatyPants McSweaterVest stuff). I would like to think that Michigan will have gotten back to the good ol' days of "eh nine wins whatever." I would like to hold onto my totally unrealistic hopes of a BCS at-large berth in the Fiesta Bowl, where I'd get to watch Denard be Denard one more time.

So yeah: BEAT OHIO.

*Maybe the only warranted criticism of Brady Hoke to this point in his almost-two-year tenure: Y U NO PLAY GARDNER AGAINST NEBRASKA? Granted, that might have been a Borges call inasmuch as Gardner hadn't takenm snaps at quarterback all year and probably hadn't even sat in on the gameplanning sessions, but given what Russell Bellomy did in that game and Gardner has done since, it's unfathomable that Gardner wouldn't have done better, and "better" to the degree of any freakin' touchdowns would have (all other things being equal) Michigan going to the Big Ten title game regardless of what happens against Ohio. Sigh. I'll have to settle for 20-ish wins in two years and the near-certainty that the future will be even awesome-er.


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