By Tony Gerdeman
Didelphis virginiana. That's the scientific name for the Virginia opossum. And it's much more indicative of Michigan's first three games than Gulo gulo, which is the scientific name for the wolverine.
Michigan showed exactly zilch in their first two games, leading many to believe that that's just the way it was. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord's methods were already being questioned, but there was definitely a method to his mildness.
On Saturday, the Wolverines came out firing...eventually.
It took a few possessions for Michigan's offense to click, but once they got started, Notre Dame had no answers.
So, in the wake of Michigan's 47-21 roundhouse kick to Notre Dame's solar plexus, what have we learned?
Offensively, Mike DeBord still prefers the short passing game, but defenses now need to be aware that there is a "downfield" downfield. Any cheating up may be dealt with swiftly and severely. Oh, and Michael Hart is still okay.
Defensively, it's not outrageous to say that this is the best defense in the conference. The only thing missing for Michigan has been a second corner, and that problem may be on its way to getting solved.
On the coaching front, I don't think I've ever seen Lloyd Carr happier.
That should probably concern the rest of the conference.
Start saving up your pennies for November 18th.
When Michigan Had the Ball
Saturday was probably the most calm and confident that I have ever seen quarterback Chad Henne. Not only did he finally go downfield, but he went downfield when he had easier options underneath. He was decisive and precise. He didn't put up staggering numbers, only completing 13 of his 22 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns. But when you compare it against what he had done this season to that point, the difference is more than noticeable.
I've talked in the past about the depth of Henne's throws and that his deepest throw until Saturday was 27 yards to Mario Manningham. Well, in the first half against Notre Dame, Henne had three to Manningham that were roughly that deep or deeper.
And it wasn't just the throws to Manningham. Perhaps Henne's best throw was a play action rollout early in the second quarter to Adrian Arrington. Henne made a perfect throw on the run and Arrington made a great catch. It was a pass that probably would have been thrown out of bounds in the past, or dumped off to a tight end underneath. That throw showed me more about Henne's state of mind in this game than any of his deeper throws to Manningham.
But don't think that Michigan has suddenly turned into the Indianapolis Colts. They still like to throw short and quick. And when Steve Breaston actually catches the ball, the offense has been working.
What keeps the offense working, however, is the workhorse.
Michael Hart had another typical Michael Hart day.
No, he didn't blow up. He didn't have any spectacular runs. His long for the day was 21 yards and he only averaged four yards per carry, netting him 124 yards on 31 carries.
But the stats don't tell the story with Michael Hart.
His ability to move the chains allowed Michigan to control the clock. They ended up with a 33:56 to 26:04 time of possession advantage. They kept the ball out of Notre Dame's hands and frustrated an impatient Brady Quinn.
Hart also had a terrific two-yard touchdown plunge where he didn't just go up the gut, he went OVER the gut.
Kevin Grady was short of pedestrian on the day, carrying the ball six times for nine yards. It should be noted that ten of those nine yards came on one carry.
Hart, Grady and Henne were the only Wolverines to carry the ball. The freshmen we've seen earlier in the season watched Michael Hart just like we did.
So while Hart did the behind the scenes stuff, receiver Mario Manningham stole the show. The former Ohioan had four catches for 137 yards and three touchdowns. He made the 2006 Notre Dame secondary look like the 2005 Notre Dame secondary.
Manningham got deep on Notre Dame for touchdown catches of 69, 20, and 22 yards with nary a safety in sight.
Chad Henne is still being pretty selective with whom he throws to. Only Manningham, Arrington , Steve Breaston and fullback Obi Oluigbo caught passes on the day. Henne did throw an incomplete pass to freshman receiver Greg Mathews over the middle, and nearly got him killed in the process.
Speaking of incomplete passes, Steve Breaston still has feet for hands. He did, however, pull in a team-high six passes.
The tight ends weren't too involved in the passing game last week, but don't expect that to continue. The Wolverines went into the Notre Dame game with the plan of stretching the field. What they've done in stretching the field will make the mid-level stuff even more available for Tyler Ecker and company.
Michigan's offensive line had a few issues on the day. Henne was pressured a few times and sacked twice, but for the most part, he was given the necessary time to throw. The running game only averaged 2.9 yards per carry. Yes, you'd like a better yard per carry average, but they obviously got the job done because they scored 33 points on offense.
Right tackle Rueben Riley's name was only mentioned once or twice, which may mean that he's getting better.
When Michigan's Defense Was On the Field
Where to begin?
Well, let's start with the fact that Michigan's defense wasn't hardly ever on the field.
Take a look at the time of possession in the first three quarters:
1st Quarter: UM 9:03 - ND 5:57
2nd Quarter: UM 8:59 - ND 6:01
3rd Quarter: UM 10:53 - ND 4:07
Now if I'm doing my clock math correctly, that's 28:55 for Michigan and 16:05 for Notre Dame.
So even when Notre Dame did have the ball, they didn't have it for long.
This was never more evident than during Notre Dame's first possession when on their third snap, Brady Quinn threw a pass through tight end John Carlson's hands and Prescott Burgess snagged the tip and took it back 31 yards for the touchdown. Notre Dame had the ball for all of about 30 seconds on that possession.
Burgess wasn't done after that play, as he later had another interception and nearly returned that one for a touchdown as well. He finished the day with five tackles, one tackle for loss, two interceptions, one pass break-up and one quarterback hurry. He has seemingly come a long way since not starting against Vanderbilt in week one. He is clearly showing that he needs to be accounted for.
Burgess' fellow linebackers showed up as well. David Harris had six tackles playing the middle and frequently shut down the Irish running game before it could get started. And Shawn Crable continues to impress on the strong side. He finished the game with four tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack. I don't even think he was this disruptive in high school. Well, maybe in class, but not out on the field.
Notre Dame actually did a very good job on defensive ends LaMarr Woodley and Rondell Biggs. Irish tackles Ryan Harris and freshman Sam Young held both of them without a sack, and Biggs didn't even make it into the box score. Woodley finished with two tackles and a half tackle for loss. But, even though Woodley wasn't prominently displayed in the box score for his tackles, he was for his fumble return. With 3:30 left in the game, Brady Quinn dropped back to pass and fumbled the ball. Woodley picked it up and ran it in for a 54-yard touchdown. He has a way of finding the football.
Reserve defensive end Tim Jamison did have a sack late in the fourth quarter, so the Michigan ends didn't get shut out.
Defensive tackles Terrance Taylor and Alan Branch are noticeable in the box score, provided you know where to look. For instance, the two of them had one tackle total. Not very impressive. Until I tell you that Notre Dame rushed for four yards on the day. They averaged 0.2 yards per rush, or about seven inches--which is less than the length of the football.
They plugged the middle of the line and occupied Notre Dame's interior, allowing Harris, Burgess and Crable to contain the Irish running game.
Branch also hit Quinn while he was releasing the ball, forcing an interception.
So while there may not be many, or any, tackles coming from the interior, do not take it as a lack of production.
While we're on the subject of lack of production, let's talk about the corner spot opposite Leon Hall.
In week one it was Charles Stewart and he didn't produce.
In week two it was Morgan Trent, and while he had some problems, it was an improvement.
Against the Irish, there was no mistaking the improvement that Morgan Trent has made. By the time November 18 gets here, it's not likely that he will be a detriment to this defense.
Yes, Trent looked ridiculous on his pass interference hug-n-cuddle on Rhema McKnight early in the fourth quarter, but he was up to the challenge for most of the day. He finished the day with six tackles, so the Irish did get some completions on him, but he kept those completions in front of him. He was only beat badly once, and the score was 40-14 when it happened. Trent's speed has been known for quite some time, but he is actually starting to look like a cornerback now.
Leon Hall looked good as well. He had a terrific diving interception on a poorly thrown ball back across the middle of the field by Brady Quinn. Hall was on Jeff Samardzija for much of the game, and it showed. Samardzija finished with four catches for thirty yards, including a four-yard touchdown catch at the end of the half, making it 34-14.
Safeties Ryan Mundy and Jamar Adams went most of the way for the Wolverines. They look like they could be turning into one of the better duos in the conference.
The defense as a whole just had a terrific game, especially when you look at Notre Dame's scoring drives. Notre Dame's first drive came off of a Chad Henne interception and was all of four yards. Their second touchdown drive came at the end of the half when the score was 34-7. Michigan was in a prevent defense and Brady Quinn picked them apart, completing all seven of his passes on the 72-yard drive. (Taking that drive out of the equation, Quinn was 17-41 on the day.) Notre Dame's final touchdown drive came in the fourth quarter when the score was 40-14.
If Michigan's offense hadn't scored so often and so early, you have to wonder if Notre Dame would've scored at all had Henne not thrown the early interception.
Michigan's Special Teams
Breaston had some decent punt returns, averaging 16 yards per return. Obviously, it's only a matter of time until he breaks one.
Michigan's kick return unit was much less than impressive last week. Johnny Sears and Carl Tabb don't exactly instill fear in you. They averaged about 15 yards per return between the two of them. Kicking the ball into the end zone is actually giving Michigan five more yards than they can get on their own.
Garrett Rivas had another extra point blocked, but that shouldn't really surprise you. He was, however, two for two kicking field goals (20, 33).
Ross Ryan has continued his quality kickoffs. They don't always reach the end zone, but they usually reach the five. Two of his nine kickoffs were touchbacks.
Punting continues to be a problem. The Wolverines again used two punters last week. Ross Ryan averaged 35 yards on his two punts, with a long of 36. Zoltan Mesko averaged 38.8 yards on his four punts, with a long of 42. Mesko does have a big leg, but it's not always evident. If there is a silver lining here, it's that the Michigan punters are consistently mediocre. They don't go from a 65-yarder to a 29-yarder. Everything is right around 40 yards.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Michigan will be in contention for whatever they want this season.
I can sit here and tell you that they've been impressive where they've wanted to be impressive this season, and you can go ahead and choose to believe that the schedule has had more to do with Michigan's success than Michigan.
I would disagree.
The offense still has room to grow and improve. It is not yet a finished product, but you can see where it's going.
The defense is for real. Not only are they tough to move the ball against, they're tough to keep the ball against.
Wisconsin is coming to town this week and we'll get to see just how strong the Wolverine defensive front is against the Badger running game and the Dayne-ish P.J. Hill.
However, if San Diego State can hold the Badgers to 14, Michigan should be able to do the same.
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 Wisconsin at Michigan
Sept. 30 Michigan at Minnesota
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
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