|This was a common sight on Saturday - Michigan's defensive line swarming the Illinois backfield.|
(image via MGoBlue.com)
Thank you Greg Mattison thank you thank you thank you. For the last few years, people have been making the excuse for Michigan's defense that "It's Jimmys and Joes, not X's and O's." Yeah . . . well . . . not so much. Michigan has three freshman starters (Blake Countess, Desmond Morgan, Jake Ryan), a couple former walk-on starters (Jordan Kovacs, Will Heininger), and less experience than the 2008 team. The difference: they're not being coached by Scott Shafer, Greg Robinson, and Rich Rodriguez. This still isn't the most talented defense around, but it held Illinois to 30 total yards in the first half, a 50% completion rate, and 1.1 yards per carry for the game. They also produced 4 sacks, 1 interception, 2 fumble recoveries, and 6 tackles for loss.
J.T. Floyd was okay for once. One of the frustrating things about Floyd is that he's slow to cover underneath routes and come up to make tackles, but he didn't get beat deep against a receiver that Illinois really wanted to hit deep. Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins had 8 catches for 103 yards, but the Illini targeted him more than 20 times to get those catches. That low success rate wasn't entirely due to Floyd - Michigan's defensive line put a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks - but when you get thrown at that much, you've had a decent day by allowing only 8 receptions. I was disappointed that Floyd didn't take his pick to the house, because he was brought down by a pretty weak tackle attempt by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. But I'm not going to complain too much about a 42-yard interception return.
Those referees were horrible. How many plays went to the replay booth and were reversed? Three? Four? Whenever the game was stopped for a replay, it was essentially assured that the call on the field would be wrong. The most egregious error was Illinois running back Jason Ford's fumble (that wasn't a fumble), which was picked up Courtney Avery and returned for a touchdown (even though Avery's knee was down when he grabbed the ball). The replay booth got the call right, but jeez, the head referee was standing right there and totally blew both calls. The one replay that wasn't reversed, which was the tumbling catch by an Illinois receiver, was ruled incomplete on the field but looked to me as if it should have been reversed.
Fitzgerald Toussaint had a great day. Illinois eventually figured out that Michigan didn't want to take chances with throwing the ball, and Toussaint still ended up with 27 carries for 192 yards (7.1 yards per attempt). He's clearly taken over the role as the lead back, and this represented his highest career carry total. The previous high was 20 when he put up 170 yards against Purdue a couple weeks ago. Michigan's offensive line didn't have its greatest effort, either, so Toussaint created a lot of those yards on his own.
This looks like the offense to come. It seemed clear to me early in the game that the coaches didn't trust Denard Robinson to put the ball in the air very much. The game plan was to run run run the ball. And that philosophy worked, even though it was largely boring to watch. The Wolverines only attempted to throw the ball 16 times. Robinson threw 1 interception and fumbled once when he was sacked (plus another fumble on a quarterback run), and he only played until midway through the third quarter, when he was apparently injured on a pass attempt. At least against defenses that put the pressure on our jittery quarterbacks, the coaches seem to have decided that they would rather keep the ball in the ground.
Desmond Morgan is a truck. I thought Morgan had his best game yet this season, not least of all because he destroyed Illinois running back Troy Pollard in the hole while getting blocked. He might only be a freshman, but he's a thumper. I wonder if Morgan might eventually move to MIKE when Kenny Demens graduates, but in the meantime, the kid is doing pretty well for a true freshman at the WILL spot. I have occasionally been frustrated with him getting out of position, but the kid makes tackles when he's in the right spot. Even with the vaunted linebacker class coming to Ann Arbor in 2012, it's going to be hard to push Morgan off the field.
The defensive line had a hell of a day. It's hard not to look back and wonder why Michigan couldn't have produced this same kind of effort back in 2008, with guys like Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson in the middle of the line. The defensive linemen combined for 20 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and 4 quarterback hurries. It's rare that a defensive tackle leads the team in tackles, but that's exactly what Mike Martin did with 9 tackles.
Troy Woolfolk argh. It's hard to complain about the defense much, because they allowed only 14 points and 214 total yards. But on the play prior to Scheelhaase's 13-yard touchdown run, it was clear that free safety Troy Woolfolk cramped up or pulled a muscle in his leg. I said the people I was watching the game with, "Get him out of the game. He's going to cost the team a big play." Sure enough, on the next play, Scheelhaase busted out and Woolfolk couldn't beat him to the corner of the endzone, and the couch cushion next to me took a beating. A healthy Woolfolk makes that play. Meanwhile, backup safety Thomas Gordon - who should be starting - had one less tackle than Woolfolk, added 1 fumble recovery, and broke up a pass. Woolfolk hasn't been healthy all season, and Michigan missed a chance to rest him earlier in the year. Now he seems to be playing at 85%, and it's hurting the team. Gordon is a playmaker who has grabbed 5 turnovers (1 interception, 4 fumble recoveries), while Woolfolk hasn't created even one.