Michigan Monday - Massachusetts
By Tony Gerdeman
After Michigan's 42-37 win over FCS school Massachusetts on Saturday, it might be wise for the Wolverines to keep Notre Dame ON the schedule, and the FCS schools OFF of it.
Massachusetts actually got out to a 17-7 lead late in the second quarter before Michigan scored two touchdowns in the final minute of the half to take the 21-17 lead.
The Wolverines would score two more unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter before Massachusetts finally stopped the bleeding. Three times the Minutemen scored touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but never managed to get the ball back after finally cutting the Wolverine lead to just one score.
It was a remarkably disturbing performance from a team that many thought had turned some type of corner.
And it may have taken a few weeks, but we finally got to see the Michigan defense I've been waiting on. Sadly, it took an FCS offense to get it done. And to be honest, I'm more disappointed in Connecticut and Notre Dame, than I am impressed by Massachusetts.
The amazing thing about UMass's offensive output—they rushed for 217 yards and threw for 222 more—was that this wasn't a spread offense, and there were no big plays.
Generally, a spread offense will neutralize a more talented defense, but Massachusetts' offense was a lot like what you'd see from Wisconsin, minus the 260-pound running backs, of course. The Minutemen ran a lot of two tight end sets with a single back, and simply pounded the ball at the Wolverines while mixing in some timely passing. And it worked.
The lack of big plays by Massachusetts is actually as problematic for the Michigan defense as last week's blown coverages against Notre Dame were. The fact that Massachusetts scored 37 points and their longest play from scrimmage was 19 yards says that Michigan's defense was systematically and methodically bested by a bunch of kids who can't even play in the MAC. (And don't talk to me about how many of these kids were FBS transfers, please. It makes you look sad.)
Basically, the Minutemen are incapable of the big play, so Michigan did no big thing by keeping them from doing something that they can't. Their long run from scrimmage against Holy Cross the week before was just 15 yards. Their long run against William & Mary in their opener was just 22 yards. And they won both of those games.
As an aside, or possibly an affront, William & Mary actually defended the run against UMass better than Michigan did, holding them to 215 yards on 52 carries (4.1 yard avg). Michigan gave up 217 yards on 49 carries (4.4 yard avg).
Oh, and the Minutemen also had their highest scoring game of the season against Michigan. They scored 27 against William & Mary, and 31 against Holy Cross.
After three years at Michigan, it looks like Rich Rodriguez's defense is worse than it has ever been.
And it may not even be close.
Just think, Lloyd Carr left the cupboard so bare in Ann Arbor that it remains unstockable three seasons later.
How long will this nuclear winter last?
When Michigan Was on Offense
Offensively, it was almost a subdued performance from quarterback Denard Robinson, if you can call 241 yards passing and 104 yards rushing “subdued”—which you can't.
He only ran the ball 17 times against Massachusetts, which wasn't unexpected, but his long carry on the day was only 20 yards. The bread and butter of Michigan's running game so far this season has been the shotgun ISO where a tailback acts as Robinson's fullback. But against UMass, we only saw this play run seven times, and Robinson only picked up 41 yards—and that was after he gained 24 yards the first three times he ran it. The Wolverines have added a nice little counter action to this play, but the Minutemen defended it well.
Robinson DID gain 32 yards on three sweeps and 34 yards on three read options, however. So let's not start talking about his demise just yet.
He did also throw his first interception of the season on his first pass of the game. But Robinson completed 10-14 passes on the day, and threw the ball downfield better than he's ever done it before. Before this week, most of his passes over 20 yards were about as likely to be completed as an NBC primetime drama (I'm looking at you, “The Event”).
But his throws were spot on, and he completed three deep passes over 36 yards on the day. His “longest” completion, however, was a one-yard screen pass to Darryl Stonum, who then went 66 yards for a touchdown. It was a great play by Stonum and an indicator of what this short passing game can do when it's run well and blocked well.
Stonum caught three passes for 121 yards, which is a stark improvement from the 7.4 yards per catch he was averaging the first two weeks.
Robinson averaged 24 yards per completion on the day, which is basically what you'd see in make believe.
The other big news about Michigan's offense is that a running back finally looked like a running back. Michael Shaw had 126 yards rushing on 12 carries, and scored three times.
However, being a Shaw hater as I am, I feel that it needs to be mentioned that 86 of those yards came on two carries out of the zone read, so it has me wondering how much of his success was based on the fear of Denard Robinson, as opposed to talent and ability. But hey, that's what makes an effective running game.
And it should also be said on his 34-yard touchdown run, he actually stopped in the backfield before starting again and finding the gaping hole that had been waiting for him since Robinson gave him the ball. He has success when he simply runs north and south, but he just doesn't do it enough. And as we've seen when he plays against competent defenses, his hesitation always kills him.
Vincent Smith rushed for 42 yards on 11 carries and continues to make his doubters look good.
The offensive line did a very good job of opening holes against a decent-sized UMass defensive line. One player to watch from here on out appears to be redshirt freshman left tackle Taylor Lewan, who looked fantastic when he came in for starter Mark Huyge. Lewan has always been one to keep an eye on because of his size (6'8” 294) and athleticism, but I was most impressed by his motor and physicality on Saturday. He locked on to defenders and didn't let go until a linemate would peel him off after the whistle had blown. This kid needs more snaps.
When Michigan Was On Defense
All that really needs to be said is that Michigan gave up 37 points to a UMass offense that scored 27 on William & Mary, and 31 against Holy Cross. As a fun little bit of trivia, since 2003, the most points UMass has scored against a non-service academy FBS team was 17 points last year at Kansas State.
And as I mentioned above, Massachusetts didn't use smoke and mirrors, or bells and whistles. They used two tight ends, a single back, and some good old fashioned misdirection.
The Minutemen's longest gain on the ground was 19 yards, and it ended with a fumble late in the first half, which then led to Michigan's final first half touchdown.
Massachusetts went the entire second half without a carry of longer than nine yards, and still held the ball for 18:15. Michigan just couldn't get any push from their three-man defensive line. They were either neutralized or pushed back the entire day. The only consistently effective player is nose tackle Mike Martin, who had a very good day, but he's just one guy. And he's just one guy generally going against two or three blockers. He's essentially wasted at nose tackle.
Where Michigan's defense REALLY ran into problems was on the misdirections, i.e. bootlegs, rollouts, reverses, and counters. UMass ran a counter pitch twice and picked up 15 yards. They rolled quarterback Kyle Havens out three times and he completed two passes for 11 yards. Both completions came against cornerback James Rogers.
They ran some form of a bootleg nine times, and completed seven passes off of it for 77 yards, including a wide open five-yard touchdown to receiver Julian Talley, with safety Cameron Gordon so far behind the play that it was hard to tell if he was playing defense, or just out for a Saturday afternoon stroll.
Havens threw one incompletion—a bad pass, on a bootleg. Other than that, it was a certain first down nearly every time. He also had a touchdown run on a bootleg where he beat Jonas Mouton to get to the endzone. Though, you really had to see the play to appreciate the Michiganicity of it all. Mouton was running east/west to reach Havens, who was running down the sideline. They actually intersected at the one-yard line, but rather than pummeling Havens, Mouton decided to run by him without making any contact at all.
It was like watching two joggers meet up at a corner with one (Mouton) deciding to politely get out of the way. Note to Mouton: Quarterbacks DON'T have the 'right of way'.
It was a disappointing game all around for Mouton, who up to this point really looked like he had become a good player. I'll chalk this up to a 2010 aberration, or a 2009 revisitation. Either way, I expect him to be better than he was on Saturday.
Middle linebacker Obi Ezeh is still bad. He's just so slow to fill the hole. He would probably do better to come up with something quicker than “eenie meenie miny mo” to decide which way to run. Maybe 'one potato, two potato' would work better instead.
Of course, even if he made quicker (and better) decisions, more often than not, he ends up on the ground when he's not even making a tackle. I can't help but wonder if possibly there's an inner-ear thing going on with him. Can we get him to an ENT guy at some point?
Walk-on linebacker Kevin Leach came in a bit on nickel defenses, when I believe Craig Roh would move to defensive end and replace Greg Banks. I didn't really notice much improvement.
And speaking of Greg Banks, I'm not sure what he really does—other than flex like he's Mr. Universe after he's near a play. He doesn't even have to make a play, he just has to be near it.
The loss of cornerback Troy Woolfolk has devastated this defense, but the folks who believed this defense would be better despite losing Brandon Graham, Stevie Brown and Donovan Warren must never forget to take their meds again. It's about safety for EVERYBODY, people.
The fact is that the front six is resoundingly blockable and the back five can't really cover anybody. But at least the coaches are looking for answers. Eight different players got a look on the front three, including freshman defensive end Jibreel Black. But nobody other than Martin stood out.
Things aren't going to get any easier for Michigan, and if Massachusetts is pushing them around running Wisconsin's offense, what is Wisconsin going to do to them?
People want to call this a “bend but don't break defense”, but the truth is for three years now, it's been a “broke but don't fix defense”. And the help that is supposed to be on the way, leaves piece by piece every single week.
The Special Teams
Michigan needs to hold a campus-wide competition to find somebody who can kick a field goal, because they're 0-2 on place-kickers so far this year. Brendan Gibbons has already lost his job to walk-on Seth Broekhuizen, and all Broekhuizen did to show his appreciation was miss his only field goal attempt (38 yards) on the day.
To make matters worse for the special teams, Massachusetts also blocked a punt on a dropped snap by freshman Will Hagerup. Michigan netted seven yards per punt on their two punts on the day.
Not to be outdone, the punt return game featured another muff by Jeremy Gallon, who was too short to field a bouncing punt that took a high hop and went through his hands. Fortunately for the Wolverines, neither of Gallon's gaffes have cost the team yet. That will eventually change, however.
What It All Means
It means that what we saw from this Michigan defense is not only unacceptable, but it's also embarrassing. And if this was the first time that we had seen them like this, then we could just chalk it up to a defense that wasn't geared up to play an FCS team. And given the success of FCS teams this year against FBS opponents, it would be a justifiable assumption.
But we've been here before.
The offense has its work cut out for it this season. The pressure they will endure having to carry this team will mount as the season goes on—especially if Michigan continues to find ways to win.
Fortunately, nothing seems to be fazing Denard Robinson right now. But the offense will also need to continue to improve because the defenses they'll be facing will be getting better and better.
I'm going under the assumption that we'll see more of the zone read from Robinson, because we're only seeing a handful of it every week. He's effective when he runs it, I just wonder if it's almost being saved for conference play.
If Robinson continues to throw the ball as well as he did on Saturday, and the running game continues to expand, then the Wolverines will be able to outscore a lot of opponents this season.
As long as they have the ball last, of course.
The Road To The Big One
September 4 Michigan 30 – Connecticut 10 (1-0)
September 11 Michigan 28 – Notre Dame 24 (2-0)
September 18 Michigan 42 – Massachusetts 37 (3-0)
September 25 Bowling Green
October 2 at Indiana
October 9 Michigan State
October 16 Iowa
October 30 at Penn State
November 6 Illinois
November 13 at Purdue
November 20 Wisconsin
November 27 at Ohio State
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