Sunday, September 4, 2011

Michigan 34, Western Michigan 10

Jordan Kovacs, form tackler extraordinaire, gives Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder a tour of his facemask

Well, that was weird.  I've never seen a Michigan game called due to weather.  Maybe that's because it's never happened before this weekend.  Like every other Michigan fan, I wanted to see the game continue.  These games against MAC teams are typically when you see awesome plays and great statistics - witness the 94-yard interception return by Brandon Herron, the 44-yard touchdown run by Michael Shaw, etc.  By the time the game was canceled with 1:16 remaining in the third quarter, Michigan had taken control and was likely bound for a couple more touchdowns and some more big plays on defense.  Safety is the most important thing, and I don't question the decision to cancel the game . . . but if someone ends up just short of 1,000 yards rushing or 1,000 yards receiving or some other significant statistical benchmark, we might look back at September 3 and wonder what could have been.

Al Borges isn't dumb.  People everywhere were concerned that offensive coordinator Al Borges would try to turn Denard Robinson into a quarterback who takes every snap from under center, but that simply wasn't the case.  It looked as though roughly 75% of the offensive formations were shotgun.  It looks as though Michigan was more likely to pass from the shotgun and run from the "I" but that could change as the season progresses.  Additionally, the offense isn't as high speed as it has been for the past few seasons under Rich Rodriguez, but it was still effective.  Michigan huddles now, which took some time to adjust to since I got used to watching Rodriguez's teams.  But the Wolverines averaged 7.5 yards per play against WMU, whereas they had only 5.7 against UConn in last season's opener.

Hello, Brandon Herron.  I don't know where the hell you came from, but I'm glad you're here.  I really thought Herron would be a backup and special teamer based on his play in the past and his multiple position switches over the past couple seasons, but he was in the right place at the right time and made some plays.  Despite being listed second on the depth chart at weakside linebacker, he started the game at WILL, made 8 tackles, returned a batted pass 94 yards for a touchdown, and picked up an Alex Carder fumble for a 29-yard touchdown.  It was the longest interception return in Michigan program history and the first time any defensive player scored twice in the same game.  All that came from a fifth year senior who previously had 34 career tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pass breakup, and 1 fumble recovery.  Herron has always been considered a bit of a physical freak who lacks great instincts, but his instincts looked pretty good on Saturday . . . and nobody really came close to catching the 221 lb. linebacker from behind, either.

Special teams still suck.  Apparently it doesn't matter who coaches the special teams, whether it's an offensive or defensive guy, etc.  Some Michigan fans hated that defensive backs coach Tony Gibson was in charge of special teams because he was one of only four defensive coaches under Rodriguez.  Now an offensive guy (tight ends coach Dan Ferrigno) is coaching special teams, and they're still bad.  Kick returner Kelvin Grady doesn't look like anything special and made a bad decision to leave the endzone.  Brendan Gibbons had a low extra point attempt blocked.  Western Michigan averaged 31 yards per kickoff return and consistently had excellent field position.  Of course, special teams would have looked better if the suspended Will Hagerup were punting.  Freshman Matt Wile averaged 41.0 yards per punt but didn't have great hang time, and he averaged over 65 yards per kickoff, which is better than anyone - Hagerup, Seth Broekhuizen, or Gibbons - did last season.  There's potential there for Wile, but overall the special teams were disappointing.

Greg Mattison is awesome.  Does anyone have any doubt that former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson would have allowed Carder to throw for 350 yards and 4 touchdowns?  Anyone?  It looked like it might be a long day when WMU opened the game with a long drive on which Carder didn't throw a single incompletion on the way to a touchdown.  Michigan's players were confused, and at one point near the goal line, safety Carvin Johnson lined up on the wrong side of the field against a five-wide set, leaving cornerback Courtney Avery alone covering two wideouts.  Avery did an excellent job of splitting the two receivers and blasting the guy who caught the ball at the 1-yard line, but it led to a 1-yard touchdown run a couple plays later.  After that initial drive, though, Michigan's defense settled down.  It's clear that the Wolverines don't have a lot of horses on defense, because they weren't beating MAC players in one-on-one matchups often enough.  But they did come up with timely big plays (Jordan Kovacs' two sacks and a forced fumble, Jake Ryan's batted pass, Herron's two TD returns).  This  is what a "bend but don't break" defense looks like.

Oh no, Troy Woolfolk.  Fifth year senior Troy Woolfolk, playing in his first game since November 2009 against Ohio State, went down with another injury.  After sitting out last season with a dislocated ankle, he was carted off the field in the first quarter with another ankle injury.  Luckily, it sounds like it's only a sprain this time and Brady Hoke said that he could have returned if Michigan needed him, but it looked ominous.  Early in the game, he looked like the aggressive, speedy corner that Michigan lacked all of last season.  His replacement, J.T. Floyd, hasn't changed one bit - he's still too slow to be good.

Wheeee, Michigan running backs!  Neither of Michigan's primary running backs looked fantastic, but it looks like the right guys are playing.  Fitzgerald Toussaint had 11 carries for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns, both of which required a little bit of oomph that not all Michigan backs have had; included in those 11 carries was a 43-yarder.  Meanwhile, Shaw had 4 carries for 54 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown run.  He also looked good on a toss play on which he ran through a tackle.  Vincent Smith (2 carries, 11 yards) looked like a solid change-of-pace back, and Denard Robinson (8 carries, 46 yards) had a decent but unspectacular day running the ball.

It was a win.  Despite the mistakes and the scares, it looks like Michigan got out of the game relatively healthy, they allowed only 10 points, the defense probably gained a little bit of confidence, and the offense looked consistent at the least.  After the 2007 Appalachian State game and the 2008 Toledo loss, I appreciate these wins a little more.

Congratulations, Brady Hoke!  Congratulations to Coach Hoke, who got his first win at Michigan.  Hopefully many more will follow.  Go Blue!


  1. Pretty good report, but I have a couple of quibbles. The snap was high on the blocked PAT which threw off Gibbons' timing. I think Grady correctly ran back the kickoff from deep in the endzone. With less than a minute in the half UM would have taken a knee after a touchback anyway. He was probably coached to do that.

  2. @ Anonymous 8:39 a.m.

    You may be right about Grady's return, but timing schmiming. The ball was down and could have been kicked properly. All of Gibbons' kicks were low except for the last one (after Shaw's run).

  3. Hey Thunder, great writeup. Quick question though, did anyone on the D-line impress you yesterday? I was pretty disappointed that we didn't get any heat on the QB unless we brought blitzes. Seems like Roh and MM were pretty much invisible against a young WMU O-line.....

  4. @ Anonymous 10:36 a.m.

    No, I wasn't very impressed by anyone on the defensive line yesterday. They weren't getting blown off the ball, but they weren't getting any penetration either. I thought Martin especially would have a solid game, but he didn't do anything. They did do some things fundamentally correctly as far as their gap responsibility and rush lanes go, but they have to make some plays, too. Brink and Roh didn't show up on the stat sheet at all.

  5. I didn't see the performance as nearly that positive. Anytime you get a W, you avoid disaster, but here were a few things I noticed that concerned me.

    1. WMU moved the ball with ease. WMU had 5 first half drives. 4 of them ended up inside the Michigan 25. They did appear to settle down in the second half where 1 of 3 drives ended up there, but in 5 of 8 drives WMU put themselves in a position to score. Bend but don't break is a fine philosophy, but against WMU you want to see a lot less bend.

    2. The DL produced no pressure. All the heat that Carder took seemed to come from LB and S blitzes. If Roh, RVB, Martin and company can be stymied by a below-average MAC line, what does that say for the rest of the season? Brink and Heininger were used at DT and NT at least once - they seemed to move backwards.

    3. The offense looks to have taken a step backwards. With the exception of the 3rd quarter drive, Michigan's offense seemed to be a lot less explosive. I would have liked to have seen more against WMU.

    4. Special teams decisions. Woolfolk shouldn't be in on special teams. That's just dumb. Gallon and Grady don't look like good choices for kick returns either.

    5. Woolfolk injury. Ugh...hope he's healthy next week.

    Things I liked:

    1. Mattison's blitzes. GERG had less to work with, but it's still good to see the aggression. If you can't stop anyone, you might as well try to get some shots in.

    2. Substitutions. Good for building depth, competition, and keeping people fresh in the heat.

    3. Tackling. Wow, what a difference from last year. I noticed very few missed tackles. Against WMU, but still. This was by far the biggest improvement I saw.

    4. Turnovers. Obviously, if this carries over at all to the rest of the season it would make a huge difference. I'm not sure it will though.

  6. Excellent writeup. Do you have any insight as to what exactly that formation was with the entire front 7 on the LOS?

  7. We will certainly face more challenging QBs as the season progresses, but Carder is the real deal. He might have had a touchdown pass if J.T. Floyd didn't get away with pass interference in the end zone. I'm glad we found a way to slow him down because getting torched by a MAC QB--legit or not--would really have put a damper on the opening game.

  8. Carder looked legit, but Jordan White was also the real deal. Yeah, 12 receptions was a few too many, but that dude is pretty sick.

  9. @ Woolfolk 10:56 a.m.

    You ALWAYS want to see less bend. You've been saying for awhile that you think this defense lacks talent. If your expectation is that they lack talent, then 10 points allowed and some timely big plays is either meeting or exceeding your own expectations.

    The offense produced a 37-yard pass, a 44-yard run, and a 43-yard run. I don't know if you can get MUCH more explosive unless you're playing a truly crappy team. WMU isn't great, but they're not bad.

    Woolfolk got hurt on a play that could very easily happen on a snap from scrimmage. It's not like he got exploded by a wedge or anything. I don't have a problem with him being in there on special teams. Shit happens.

  10. nice writeup. re: grady, wasn't the bad one he brought out right before the half? in that case were going to down the ball almost no matter what, so he might as well give the return a shot. if he gets it to midfield+ is the only way we score an points before halftime. (or am i just not remembering right?)

  11. oops, sorry should have read the comments.

  12. Anyone else notice the WMU safety (the dude that transferred from Miami) leading with his head on Koger's catch on the opening drive. I had to re-watch it in slow motion, but sure enough, there he is leading with his head with absolutely no attempt to wrap up.

  13. Oh, and after Herron's Fumble return, they showed a crowd shot, and there literally everyone in the picture was cheering like they were at a golf match. No jumping up and down, just polite clapping. Is it always like that? 109,000 ppl should be deafening

  14. idk if i was the only one who noticed this, but on the shaw touchdown was WMU's MLB blocked by the ref? i could have sworn he ran into the ref. can someone confirm?


  15. @Thunder,

    I think the defense lacks talent relative to BCS teams and the upper-half of the Big Ten. I don't think they have what it takes to be top 50, but I think (thought?) they could be an average Big Ten D. Against a MAC team, what I saw disappointed me. Can't draw conclusions from a single game, but I guess my expectations were too high.

    Two years ago, WMU ran for 1.6 ypc, this year they ran for 3.8. That still isn't awful but repeating 2009's crappy D shouldn't be too much to expect IMO.

    It seemed too close to what we saw the last few years - bad teams who moved the ball too easily. The defense HAD to blitz extensively to be effective. The good news is that there weren't any major breakdowns and that the blitz packages looked unpredictable.

    I hope you're right and that WMU is just better than I think.

    Re: Woolfolk. Most teams don't use their most important players on special teams for a reason. Not worth the risk.

  16. @ Anonymous 3:43 p.m.

    It was the safety who got "blocked" by the umpire.

  17. i was very impressed by Jake Ryan he needs to be on the field more... he played the way i would have expected Roh to play this year.

  18. Thanks for the write-up; always like to read your take on matters.

    For what it's worth, I agree with Lank. It's just one game (heck, Michigan's D looked pretty decent against U Conn last year), but I was disappointed in the D (though blown away by Herron's speed - I literally think that's the fastest I've ever seen an LB run).

    Playing Woolfolk on special teams is dumb - he's the 2nd most valuable person on D after Martin and we're in deep doo if he gets injured (again). There's a reason the NFL pushed the kickoff's 5 yards up. Special teams plays are have a higher incidence of injury for a whole host of reasons - it doesn't have to be blowing up a wedge.

    I'm now 100% convinced the ND game will be high-scoring. Hopefully, Michigan will come out on top.

  19. @ Rob Pollard 12:01 a.m.

    I agree that special teams injuries don't always happen when blowing up a wedge, but if you look at the play that caused Woolfolk's injury, it could have happened on any defensive snap throughout the game. There was nothing about it that said "Oh, this was strictly caused by him being on special teams." He wasn't running full speed into guys who were running at him full speed. He wasn't leveled by two or three blockers. He just tweaked his ankle. That's it.

  20. First, do you think it is possible that the reason it was mostly pass from shotgun and run from I-form. was to limit game film for ND?
    Secondly, "Greg Mattison is awesome"... I 100% agree, maybe only because I've suffered through the last few years with GERG...after watching WMU march down the field I got a sinking feeling in my gut that this would be different than '09 and we were going to be watching a battle. But as you said, Mattison is awesome and I feel like although the defense gave up more yards than I would have liked against a MAC team, they still came up with the timely plays and there were obvious adjustments made which actually worked. I'm not big on beating a dead horse but I just can't remember seeing G. Robinson adjustments that had positive effects (mainly, rushing a very good/great passer into poor throws.)
    Finally, a win is a win. Some might argue that with out lucky breaks it could have been a closer game but I look at it like this: By the statistical gurus msu was very lucky in the past two years, 11-2 last year and I honestly don't even remember what their record was in 09 (but they beat us and made a bowl game) Iowa 09, advanced metrics wise, was lucky as well. Brady Hoke's first year (with the recruiting class he already has committed) I'll take lucky wins if it means improvement over last year. With more wins come better recruits and things can only go up from there. GO Blue!

  21. @ CP 2:39 a.m.

    I don't think the playcalling was to limit ND's game film. I think Borges and Hoke are going to run what they run and then hope that their offense can "out-execute" the opposing team. I'm sure they'll throw in a wrinkle or two at times, but I don't think the offense will change drastically.

  22. @ Anonymous 10:24 a.m.

    By the way, Brady Hoke said himself that Grady should NOT have left the endzone on that kickoff return.