Sunday, November 04, 2012

What I need is all around me

The last Michigan game Denard Robinson didn't start was a 2009 loss to Ohio State that ended with a sophomore Terrelle Pryor saying "I'm glad I'm on this side." That was obviously a long time ago since (a) Rich Rodriguez was still a good 13 months from getting fired and (b) lol Terrelle Pryor.

Prior to Saturday, there'd been 67 meaningful non-Denard passing attempts in a span of 34 games over about three years, almost all of them by Tate Forcier and most of the rest of them being utterly horrifying. The Russell Bellomy Experience was not something I particularly enjoyed, and by "not something I particularly enjoyed" I mean "the worst thing ever."
. . . . .

Brady Hoke:
"Well, he's not gonna play today. He didn't progress as much as we hoped."
Srsly. Panic. PANIC.
I take a drink sit back relax /
Smoke my mind makes me feel /
Better for a short time /
What I want is what I've not got /
What I need is all around me /
. . . . .

Here's a chart of my totally-not-emotion-driven assessment of Michigan's win probabilities over the course of Saturday morning (stupid 9 a.m. kickoffs):

That was ... like ... fine (eventually). It was fine because of Devin Gardner.

An explanation of the chart: Michigan's first three drives against a Minnesota defense giving up almost 6.5 yards a carry against BCS-conference teams this year acquired a total of nine yards, meaning that in the first 10 meaningful drives this year without Denard (notwithstanding the irrelevant one at the end of the Nebraska game), Michigan gained 16 total yards. Awful.

The remaining drives Saturday went as follows:

1. 12 plays, 91 yards, touchdown
2. 11 plays, 90 yards, touchdown
3. 3 plays, -9 yards, punt
4. 7 plays, 86 yards, touchdown
5. 8 plays, 79 yards, touchdown
6. 4 plays, 50 yards, touchdown

Oh. OK. Gardner started 1 for 3 with a pick and then proceeded to go ham for three quarters, finishing 12 for 18 for 234 yards (that's 13.0 yards an attempt) with two touchdowns and just the one aforementioned pick, which came on his second throw of the game. It's probably worth noting that, according to the coaches, Gardner had taken almost no snaps as quarterback this year until last Monday. So he spent the first nine weeks at receiver, spent one week at quarterback, started on minimal notice and put together one of the best passing performances at Michigan in the last five years.

Some of that was just crazy stuff that probably won't be replicable in the long term ...

... but some of it wasn't. Like this ...

... and this ...

... and this (note the corner blitz) ...

... and this (note the trajectory/placement):

That's doin' work. And for all the crap I've given Al Borges for being incapable of assembling a coherent offense built around Denard, he had guys running hilariously open all over the field despite going against a team that came into the game 10th nationally in pass-efficiency defense (although that number was undoubtedly skewed by the Big Ten's craptacular quarterbacking). It seems very possible that the downfield passing game is/will be more of a threat with a guy who's 6-foot-4 and can (a) see the open dudes and (b) get the ball to them (that has more to do with vision and trajectory than it does arm strength, BTW).

Sadly, the running game was no more coherent and did almost nothing against a defense as bad at stopping the run as it has been good at stopping the pass. Thomas Rawls got some fairly regular I-form carries and produced all of 2.7 yards a carry with them, with one well-designed pitch play getting him outside for 12 yards and the other 15 carries going for a combined 31 yards. Fitz Toussaint had about the same amount of success (which is to say none, basically) until busting a 41-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-inches play early in the fourth quarter. Just to be clear, the problem isn't the running backs; it's an O-line that clearly isn't very good despite having four returning starters, two of them seniors and one of the other two a top-15 pick who's just destroying everybody at left tackle. That's been a problem all year, a problem that's been exacerbated by basically every defense putting eight in the box and just outpeople-ing the blockers on the assumption that Denard/the receivers/Borges won't do anything to account for that; they've been right for the most part. I mean, just look at this screenshot (this is play-action):

There are eight guys both in the box and screaming downhill as Gardner approaches the mesh point. And this is the very next play:

Again there are seven/eight guys in the box, although said guys are being slightly more conservative than on the previous play. But when seven/eight guys are all planting themselves in the box for a full two seconds assuming that everything that even vaguely looks like a run is definitely a run, there should be stuff open downfield, hence the 234 passing yards at 13 yards an attempt. The inverse of that: A hypothetical Michigan offense that can consistently hit three 40-plus-yard pass plays a game will probably produce a better running game since there won't be a safety in the box on every play like there has been this year. Anyway, Michigan for once took advantage of what the other guys were doing to shut down the running game; consider my confidence in Borges upgraded incrementally.

And, 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.

As for the receivers, they did pretty OK with Gardner throwing it to them instead of running around with them. I mean, the Gallon touchdown catch was legit, as was this one by Roy Roundtree:

Wow. More of that plzkthx.

So the offense done good. The defense done ... uhh .. good-ish? My expectations are obviously pretty out of control when the other team's quarterback goes 13 for 29 for 4.9 yards an attempt, the other team's running game goes for about 3.4 yards a carry and the other team as a whole goes 4 for 16 on relevant third- and fourth-down attempts and I call it a "good-ish" defensive performance. Still, Minnesota's offense hadn't scored more than 13 points against a real team (does Purdue count as a real team?) all year but moved the ball with some regularity in the second and third quarters, and Michigan needed two goal-line stands and the world's worst fake field goal on a fourth-and-13 play ...

... to keep it from becoming far more uncomfortable than it should've been. In that regard, I give Minnesota some credit; the offense ran a lot of veer/misdirection stuff, got the edge a few times, tested the corners deep a few times and generally seemed about 1,000 times better and more competent than last year's offense. Given that next week's game is against Illinois, it's pretty likely that Minnesota is going bowling this year. Upshot: Minnesota isn't terrible.

And what was most relevant was that Minnesota's five first-half possessions prior to Michigan getting its head out of its ass on offense yielded a total of 78 yards and seven points despite three of those drives starting at or near midfield. It could've easily been 10-0 or 14-0 early and a totally different game; it wasn't. Really, the defense largely gave up nothing other than a few irritatingly long drives sandwiched around halftime, and those drives didn't produce much because Minnesota could no longer get the edge once everybody got crammed into the red zone (that's why Notre Dame never allows touchdowns). So it was a a good-ish performance, which makes sense based on the 13 points and 275 yards allowed (Minnesota's second-lowest output of the year).

BTW, Michigan is now seventh nationally in total defense (!) at 288 yards a game and 13th nationally in scoring defense at 16.8 points a game. Greg Mattison FTW, even if those numbers are Big Ten-aided and probably won't look so awesome after the Ohio State game (I'm legitimately terrified of Braxton Miller running the veer all day).

Unfortunately, the Ohio State game probably won't mean much (other than meaning everything just because it's the Ohio State game) since Michigan State rabble rabble can't even win right rabble. ARGH. Stupid fate; if Denard's ulnar nerve weren't made of paper mache and/or Michigan had one freakin' receiver capable of being tall and stuff, Gardner would've been playing quarterback in the second half of the Nebraska game and maybe/possibly/potentially doing what he did against Minnesota, in which case Michigan would be two wins away from roses and good times and wooooo.

As it is, all Michigan can do is curse at the football gods, win out and accordingly take back all that cursing at the football gods in hopes that Nebraska loses to Penn State and/or Iowa (realistically, the Michigan-winning-out part is probably more likely than the Nebraska-losing part). If only one or neither of those things happen, it's Orlando and ehhhhh, which I guess means these are the good ol' days. Come on, Penn State.

Also, this:

That is all.


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