By Tony Gerdeman
The 2006 Revenge Tour is now over for the Wolverines, and they've come out of it 5-0.
Michigan has avenged last season's losses in three successive weeks, with wins over Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
And now the 2006 Victory Lap Tour begins as they face Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa and Northwestern in the next four weeks. The Wolverines will be favored in all four games and should be double-digit winners in each.
Why do I say that?
Because Michigan's offense is beginning to make more noise than Michigan's defense.
They put up 518 yards of total offense on Minnesota. Of course, Minnesota is more known for oceanfront property than they are for defense.
It's not just the fact that they put up this yardage or that yardage, it's how they're doing it. Chad Henne is in complete control of this offense for the first time in his life, and it's showing. The defense doesn't need to play a perfect game, because they know that the offense is going to score.
And the defense didn't play a perfect game against Minnesota. But any time you can hold the Gophers to 108 yards rushing for the day, that's still very good.
When Michigan Had The Ball
Let's start with the passing game. Saturday was the first time that Chad Henne looked like a future NFL quarterback in my eyes. He was decisive and displayed an arm strength that was previously only known to The Followers of Morelli (or T-FOM, for short.)
It was the first time I felt that twinge of apprehension about a Michigan quarterback since Drew Henson. (Somebody get Steinbrenner on the phone.)
Henne was unpredictable and unstoppable. He went downfield as often as he threw short. He threw inside as often as he threw outside. And for the most part, he was dead-on. He finished 17-24 for 284 yards and three touchdowns.
And it wasn't just his throws, because he did as much with his eyes as he did with his arm. He manipulated the Gopher safeties like a snake oil salesman amidst a village full of backwoods Pennsylvanians.
He still only has three wide receivers to throw to, however, but they are all starting to step up their games.
Mario Manningham had his third straight 100-yard game, as he finished with five receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown from 41 yards out. I'm still waiting for a catch and run from Manningham. He dropped another slant, as he and Breaston are wont to do. Of course, I keep saying I want to see Manningham do some running after the catch and I'm sure it will come back to burn me on November 18. So I'll refrain from asking to see things from Wolverines from here on out.
For the first time in a long time, Steve Breaston is now actually running passing routes. And Chad Henne is actually looking for him and finding him. For most of the season, Breaston was usually only thrown to behind the line of scrimmage or on slants. Last week, however, Henne repeatedly looked for him downfield, connecting a couple of times. It's difficult to know if this is a positive development or a negative development, because you just never know when Breaston's hands are going to fail him.
We talked about Adrian Arrington a bit last week, and he's continued his emergence...if such a thing is even physically possible. I think once you've emerged, you've emerged. Anyway, he caught three passes for 59 yards, including two touchdowns. And both of his touchdowns were picture-perfect passes from Chad Henne. The first was a sixteen-yard rope over the middle of the field where Henne froze one safety and fired the ball to Arrington so quickly that the other safety couldn't even move. It was the best looking pass I have ever seen from Henne, and it was only sixteen yards. Arrington's second touchdown was a 37-yard post route that was placed right in his hands. It was an easy six.
With Arrington playing this well the Wolverines can do whatever they want with Breaston. They can keep him up at the line of scrimmage or they can give him token routes to run. The key thing, however, is that they've got somebody else to play wide receiver so that they can make Breaston a complementary player--which he will excel at.
Mike Massey was active at tight end. Tyler Ecker was out with an injury and Carson Butler was suspended for the game, so Massey went most of the way. He had three catches for fifteen yards, but his impact was felt early on as he had a handful of blocks where he sealed off the defensive ends, allowing Michael Hart to get to the second level of the Gopher defense.
Speaking of Hart, he carried the ball 31 times for 195 yards, including a 54-yarder late to basically end the game. Honestly, how much can you talk about the guy. You hardly ever see anything new out of him. I guess that's why he's so good.
For future reference, the following paragraph can be used from here on out to describe Michael Hart:
It was another workman-like day for Hart. He carried the ball a ton and always got positive yardage. He broke tackles that he had no business breaking and he had a couple of nice screen passes. He especially had a very nice nine-yard carry where he was stopped for a gain of five but somehow squirmed through and fell forward for another four yards.
The zone blocking is really working for this offensive line. Any time you can run the ball 45 times, you're doing something right. Michigan finished with 234 yards rushing, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
The line did exactly what they were supposed to do, and Michael Hart picked the right cutback lane nearly every time. I'm already looking forward to the matchup against Ohio State's defensive line.
Where the offensive line struggled a bit was in pass protection. Left tackle Jake Long gave up a sack, and right tackle Rueben Riley was called for his usual holding. Henne was only sacked once, so it's not like Minnesota had Henne running all night long.
Still, the outside pass rush is a concern for the Wolverines.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Well, for the most part, Michigan was hardly ever on defense. Minnesota's offense was only on the field for 22 minutes.
But the Gophers did have some success moving the ball.
Amir Pinnix carried the ball 20 times for 91 yards. He had six carries of eight yards or more. Of course, he also had eleven carries for two yards or less.
Middle linebacker David Harris again led the Wolverines in tackles with nine. He met up with Amir Pinnix on more than a few occasions, and generally stopped Pinnix as soon as he hit him.
Prescott Burgess had a solid night, finishing with five tackles. He had a couple of missed tackles, which was actually surprising. Shawn Crable was virtually the same way. Although most of the credit needs to go to Amir Pinnix. He's a lot like Antonio Pittman in that he's patient, yet fast and decisive. It was encouraging to see him have as much success as he did against the Wolverine front seven.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch was typically disruptive. He and Terrance Taylor continue to collapse offensive lines like a drunk trying to get out of a living room fort.
Even though he's a Wolverine, I have to admit that it's pretty fun to watch Branch (6'6" 330) chasing quarterbacks out wide--and gaining ground.
The Michigan defense didn't sack Cupito at all Saturday night, but they still got pressure on him.
LaMarr Woodley has been quiet of late, but that's because the opponent is focusing as much attention as possible on him. And you have to, or else he will ruin your game plan.
And what should that game plan be?
Attack the secondary.
Nearly everybody in the defensive backfield looked out of sync Saturday night. With cornerback Morgan Trent out, Charles Stewart has stepped back into the starting job that he already lost once.
He didn't do much to keep it.
With Stewart in, this secondary suddenly becomes vulnerable. Leon Hall had a decent game, but he seems to play worse when Stewart's in there. It's weird, because Trent brought a calm to the secondary. With him gone, the shambles are coming back.
Safety Ryan Mundy was routinely beat deep and Willis Barringer missed several tackles.
In fact, the most impressive defensive back for the Wolverines on Saturday was Brandon Harrison. I would not be surprised to see him starting at cornerback next week. Charles Stewart cannot stay on the field if Michigan wants to be 11-0 heading into the Ohio State game.
Johnny Sears also saw time at cornerback, and he's not the answer either.
The Special Teams
It appears that Lloyd Carr has finally settled on a punter. The Wolverines only punted three times and Zoltan Mesko handled all three. He has been pretty impressive lately. He's putting the ball high and deep. In fact, one of his punts was so high and took such a high bounce, that the long snapper was able to down it.
Speaking of down...Garrett Rivas missed a 22-yard field goal. Seriously. Yeah, it was a bad angle, but c'mon, it was 22 yards!
The return game continues to be remarkably mediocre for Michigan. Buckeye fans can relate.
And surprisingly, none of Ross Ryan's kickoffs went for touchbacks. Minnesota benefited from the short kicks more often than not. Since the game was indoors, I wasn't expecting Minnesota to return any kicks, but Dominic Jones returned four for 81 yards, with a long of 31.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Michigan's front seven is as good as there is in the country.
The back four, however, is about as good as there is in the Big East.
A formula is starting to be devised on how to beat the Wolverine defense, and it doesn't require a big running game--just an adequate one.
And an accurate quarterback wouldn't hurt.
The equally daunting task, in my opinion, is stopping the Michigan offense. The weak link on offense is Rueben Riley at right tackle, and he's only really bad a couple of times per game. There are ways to disguise his inadequacy.
But you can't hide a suspect secondary against a team with a good offensive line and a good quarterback all game long.
Unless you're playing the Spartans, I guess.
The Road To The Big One
Sept. 2 Michigan 27 - Vanderbilt 7
Sept. 9 Michigan 41 - Central Michigan 17
Sept. 16 Michigan 47 - Notre Dame 21
Sept. 23 Michigan 27 - Wisconsin 13
Sept. 30 Michigan 28 - Minnesota 14
Oct. 7 Michigan State at Michigan
Oct. 14 Michigan at Penn State
Oct. 21 Iowa at Michigan
Oct. 28 Northwestern at Michigan
Nov. 4 Ball State at Michigan
Nov. 11 Michigan at Indiana
Nov. 18 Michigan at Ohio State