Monday, November 12, 2012

Got it by an inch

I woke up sick Saturday morning. Not sick like stuffy nose and all that crap in the Sudafed commercials; sick like the worst stomachache ever and all (I do mean all) the things that come with the worst of the worst stomachaches. I was vomiting while Northwestern scored its first touchdown and vomiting while Michigan scored its first touchdown and so on and so forth.

This is only really relevant because the TV in my bedroom -- where I was watching due to the convenience of the master bathroom's location -- is quite small. It's one of those little TVs that's only good for sticking on a side table and watching from within about 10 feet. I watched all of the first half and some not-insignificant portion of the second half on that TV while Michigan and Northwestern went back and forth in a game I was pretty confident Michigan was gonna win until about the middle of the third quarter, at which point it became evident (via Northwestern taking a 10-point lead) that Michigan's defense couldn't consistently stop Northwestern's irritatingly effective option game.

But I started feeling well enough at some point to haul my smelly carcass down the stairs to the living room, where the TV is visible from farther than arm's length. It's a big enough TV that I could actually tell what was going on most of the time, which was swell except that what was going on wasn't so swell. It's a big enough TV that I could see Northwestern's tight end breaking open up the seam and the ball nestling into his arms to give Northwestern the lead with about four minutes left. It's a big enough TV that I could see the Northwestern safety undercutting Devin Funchess on a wheel route and intercepting Devin Gardner's pass on Michigan's first play from scrimmage about 20 seconds later. It's a big enough TV that I could tell Kain Colter was about three inches short on fourth-and-inches with just over three minutes left; the ball-spotting guys disagreed. I sent the following text:
"Got it by an inch. Ballgame."
. . . . . 

The ball didn't hang in the air forever. Just the opposite; it got deflected downward and -- from the  angle on the one TV in the house big enough to actually identify the ball -- behind Roy Roundtree, and I didn't really need to see it come down to know in the devastated depths of my soul that it was hitting the ground with something like eight seconds left and Michigan still 30 yards from even plausible field-goal range.

Things might have been different if Roundtree had been Braylon Edwards; the guy's built like me, uses his body accordingly (which is to say not at all) and has never had particularly good hands. He got plucked away from Purdue on signing day in 2008, redshirted as a 150-pound freshman and then showed up on the field in 2009 as a 155-pound redshirt freshman. He had a bajillion receiving yards two years ago because he spent the season being the only guy on the screen while everybody on defense freaked out about Denard; this year, he had 14 catches through eight games as it became more and more evident that he's not especially good at anything other than catching passes while hilariously wide open and then running a long way. He wasn't even on the field much unless Gardner was either hurt or playing quarterback, with the latter happening to be the case Saturday due the general stupidity of the universe.

Roundtree has never been (and never will be) Braylon. He needed to be Braylon. It was over.

. . . . . 


I don't even know what else to say. Maybe the stupid universe figured Michigan was owed one given the Denard nerve thing and the way Nebraska has been getting gifted wins on the regular; I don't know. What I do know is that 7-3 >>>>> 6-4.

What I also know is that 7-3 unequivocally would be 6-4 if not for Devin Gardner. All that stuff he did last week that I questioned the replicability of was, er, replicated. It was replicated many times over to the extent that after two games against going-bowling Big Ten teams, I can say with little hesitation that Devin Gardner is a legitimately good quarterback.

I mean, this ...

.... and this ...

... and this ....

... and this ...

... and this (one of his four scrambles that produced a first down):

That touchdown pass to Funchess, in particular, was a "wow" throw. There's an unblocked blitzer off the edge, the pocket's collapsing and everybody's covered; the guy steps past the blitzer, realizes he's gotta unload it, finds the 6-foot-5 guy and -- while stepping forward -- lofts it into a freakin' basket six inches over the safety's helmet. That's a throw a lot of guys just can't make. And as for the scramble, Gardner now has more actual scrambles in two games than Denard's had all year; the number of "RUN!!!" events per game has diminished from many to none, which is interesting considering that one guy's been the starting quarterback for going on three years and the other one has started two career games. Pocket presence: Gardner has it.

The only downside to Devin Gardner becoming the 2012 version of Ryan Tannehill: OMG QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY. Response: No. There is no quarterback controversy. In two games without Denard, Michigan has rushed for a total of 288 yards, which as a season average would be good for ... uhh ... 78th in the country, right behind Florida International and not far north of the Penn State/Auburn/yuck tier. And those two games weren't against Alabama and Notre Dame. To be fair, Fitz Toussaint actually had one of his better games of the year against Northwestern (which is a pretty-good 24th in rushing defense), going for 91 yards on 18 carries, breaking a couple big ones and doing this on a huge drive in the third quarter right after Northwestern had gone up 10:


That said, the running game as a whole has gone from a standard deviation above average to a standard deviation below average (partially because of the lack of Denard carries and partially because of the lack of containment freakout on the veer that results from Denard's existence), and the automatic third-down-and-anything-less-than-3 conversion via the Denard iso has been missed. Upshot: If Denard's healthy for either/both of the next two games, he'll start; the running game just isn't consistent/effective enough without him for the offense to continue its current level of productivy against Iowa/Ohio State (unless I'm wrong, which would be great). If he isn't, he won't, and that will be sad because ... I mean ... Denard. Senior. Etc. Caveat: Every game Gardner starts now is a game of experience he'll have next year, when he'll have to be for the entire year what he's been for the last two weeks (except without the two awful reads/forced throws that have resulted in his only interceptions). So that's nice.

A reiteration from last week's post:
For reasons that should be blindingly obvious, consider my confidence in 2013 being something other than unwatchable upgraded massively. Gardner will almost unquestionably be the starting quarterback going into spring ball; given what's been shown by Gardner in game situations and what's been shown by Bellomy in game situations, whatever upgrade Gardner provides at wideout is inconsequential compared with the upgrade he provides at quarterback. There's an obvious discrepancy in terms of both talent (specifically arm strength and athleticism) and the ability to read defenses, and those aren't things that are gonna be overcome in an offseason. It'll be either Gardner or uber recruit Shane Morris in the event that Morris is Chad Henne, in which case OK. My money's on Gardner.
ALL OF THE MONEY is on Gardner at this point. The play-action passing game has become Michigan's offense, and half the credit for that goes to Gardner and half of it goes to Al Borges for reminding me that he is actually quite good at something; that something just isn't using Denard in a way that creates awesomeness.

As for the defense, ehhhhh. The one thing that's made Greg Mattison look like something other than a wizard the last two years has been the option, and Northwestern ran the crap out of it en route to 271 rushing yards (sacks excluded) and 31 points on nine drives (running-out-the-clock possession notwithstanding). It was a problem against Air Force, it was a problem (to a lesser extent) against Nebraska and it was a problem against Northwestern. I'm hopeful (but doubtful) that Urban Meyer has not noticed this at all. There's something about Michigan's under shift that allows a tight end/wingback/receiver to get out on the safety, and that's not so good when the safety is the guy tasked with getting to the pitch man. It's probably worth noting, though, that Northwestern is 14th nationally in rushing at about 240 yards a game. I expected better from Michigan's defense but maybe shouldn't have consider that Kain Colter is a freakin' shape shifter and is apparently incapable of being tackled before juking at least two guys.

It's also probably worth noting that Brady Hoke still hasn't lost a game in which Michigan has scored 20 points; that's more a credit to Greg Mattison than anyone else (although Al Borges gets last year's Ohio State game and arguably this one). And on the two option plays that really mattered ... well ... ya know. The first:

And the second:

Wowwwww. Kenny Demens FTW. If ever there's been a Michigan game in desperate need of MOAR CHRIS SPIELMAN, that was it seeing as how it ended with a middle linebacker decleating a guy on consecutive short-yardage plays.

So Michigan is now 11th in the country in total defense and 17th in scoring defense; I will remind myself of those numbers any time Mattison criticism seeps into the back of my mind, which has been strangely vacated in the areas that should possess memories of 2007-10. Interesting.

Going back to Hoke for a second, the end-of-game management was about as good as could've been asked for (with one exception that I'll get to momentarily). Michigan used its three timeouts after the first-, second- and third-down plays on Northwestern's series that started right after the Michigan turnover; had the Colter fourth-and-1 play been spotted correctly (or had Northwestern been coached by Kirk Ferentz and therefore punted), Michigan would've gotten the ball back with three minutes left, which is a boatload of time in college football. The only downside: By using all three timeouts, Michigan didn't have one left to challenge the fourth-down spot. It wouldn't have mattered given the minimal discrepancy between the should-have-been spot and the actual spot, but I wonder if that'll affect timeout usage going forward. Worth considering, right?

And the Northwestern punt that produced a net gain of 13 yards and thus made the field goal basically an extra point probably would've been downed at about the Michigan 5 if Michigan had gone all-out punt block; instead there were two guys back, and that worked out pretty freakin' nicely since (a) the punt was from a rugby-style kicker just trying to get it off and therefore was low and very returnable and (b) Drew Dileo stepped up and eliminated the near-side gunner to give Jeremy Gallon about 15 extra yards.

My only complaint: Michigan went basically the length of the field in 10 seconds and spiked it with seven seconds left. After that, Y U NO RUN A PLAY? I mean, from the 9-yard line, isn't it worth throwing Funchess/Gallon/whoever a jump ball for the win (FTW!)? There were only six seconds left at the end of the Notre Dame game last year -- with the ball at the 16 -- when Hoke went balls out and then later made some Herm Edwards-esque comment about playing to win the game. I'm not sure what the difference was this time; it obviously didn't matter, but it could have, and conceding a play from inside the 10 near the end of regulation in a game the other team is leading doesn't seem like an optimal decision.

I'm willing to forgive him since he's gonna finish his second year 19-6/20-5 and with a BCS win; of course, it could potentially be two if not for stupid Nebraska and the stupid officials that keep giving Nebraska wins for some reason and the stupid universe that determined Denard needed to be incapable of playing the second half of a game that, if won, would have Michigan a win away from the Rose Bowl right now. Alas.

There will be at least three more games this year, one of them in a warm place against a probably-moderately-better-than-Michigan SEC team. Really, this Michigan team isn't great or even particularly good (from a talent standpoint, anyway) and definitely shouldn't be approaching 20 wins in the past two years. Those mid-2000s Michigan teams wouldn't have needed a good performance to beat Northwestern in overtime; this one does. But this one does. And after whatever you wanna call the Pre-Hoke Experience, that's good enough for now (unless Nebraska loses, in which case OMG BEAT OHIO).

That is all.


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