On a clear Saturday in September, Michigan fans had to feel like they were watching a repeat of last season. Bad defense. Denard left. Denard right. Denard up the middle. Twenty-five carries and almost 200 yards later, Michigan had topped Eastern Michigan 31-3. While a 28 point victory is usually the cause for celebrate, this weekend's jump into Marty's DeLorean created more questions about this season that generated answers.
One question that seemed to be answered though was the question mark at tailback. And to me at least, the most important thing that happened in Saturday's game was the emergence of Vincent Smith as a legitimate rushing threat in Michigan's offense. While it is within the bounds of reason to write Smith's performance off as "it's just Eastern," Smith beacome the first Michigan back not named Robinson to rush for over 100 yards since Michael Shaw rushed for 126 against UMass last season. Even more startling, Smith's 118 yards marked the first time since Brandon Minor went for 154 against Purdue in 2009 that a Michigan running back has rushed for over 100 yards against a FBS opponent.
As I said after the Notre Dame game, Smith seems to have it. A certain I don't know what that allows him to pick up yards, block like a lineman, and be the ulti-back the offense so desperately needs. Saturday again demonstrated that his burst seems to be back. He gained the edge or exploded through the hole on several of his 9 carries, including a 38 yard scamper where he looked as fast as I've seen him since his knee injury against Ohio State in 2009. We may all have our favorite backs, but it's clear at this point that Smith is the best of the bunch and we should expect to see a lot more of him.
Smith's stellar day aside, there was plenty to cause some consternation among the Michigan faithful. It wasn't just the all-Denard-all-the-time offense that made it feel like 2010 all over again. For the first quarter, of the game it was the defense that provided the deja vu. For the third straight game Michigan's opponent marched up and down the field on the Wolverines, amassing 147 yards in the first quarter, mostly on the ground. Michigan's defense looked slow and out of position as Eastern Michigan's tailbacks and quarterback repeatedly found gaps in the defensive line and space on the edge to pick up first downs.
When Michigan had the early ball, things looked startlingly like 2010 as well. Denard Robinson rushed the ball 15 times before the end of the half. None of Michigan's tailbacks could generate any yardage on their own. Receivers were getting open, but Denard was missing them. The only person on the offense who seemed capable of generating yardage was Denard, but that was only possible on the ground. So the coaching staff went to that well again, and again, and again. Until finally, the gun for the first half sounded and Michigan was leading 14-3.
But as much as Saturday reminded us of 2010, there were definite differences we should be thankful for. Despite bending all the way to the one yard line, Michigan's defense held, surrendering only 3 points despite having all of Eastern's first three drives end inside Michigan territory (and two of them end inside Michigan's 5 yard line). The Defense again came up with turnovers. More importantly, the defense again held strong on the goal line, stuffing Eastern on a fourth and goal from the Wolverines' 1 yard line. And once the first quarter ended, and the Defense got its bearings, it gave up only 89 yards over the last three quarters.
Unlike 2010 though, the defense seems to be the unit that has its act together.
There is a strange alchemy going on in Ann Arbor right now. Michigan operated most of its day out of the shotgun, but lacked the explosion we saw from it against Notre Dame. Offensive Coordinator Al Borges is trying to find the right balance with which to kick start Michigan's extremely sluggish offense, and as a result he seems to be leaning heavily on last year's play book. The problem with that is the exposure Robinson gets. Last year it was clear that it would be All-Denard, All-the-Time. The end result was a banged up signal caller who's production dropped like a stone as the season wore on. This season, Borges is desperately trying to find other options on offense to keep Denard in the game late in the season. Be it a passing game or different running backs, he's trying everything.
One of the strangest things that I've noticed this season is the inconsistency of the offensive line, a unit I thought would be one of Michigan's biggest strengths. There are times the line looks like world beaters. There are also times that they look disorganized and confused as to their assignments. One play they will open up gaping holes for Denard to run through. The next they won't be able to find a sliver of daylight for Fitzgerald Toussaint. It's bizarre. Especially when you consider just how good the pass protection has been. While the line improved as the day went on, it remains a source of confusion and concern for Michigan fans.
But the bigger concern is Denard, and why, for a third straight game he came out flat. Extremely poor passes early in the game lead to punts or interceptions. He continues to trail receivers and chuck deep balls into double coverage despite having men wide open in the flat (the bomb to Roundtree, while Kevin Koger stood open at the chains making a sandwich). The options and the opportunities in this offense are there for Denard. He's just having a lot of trouble identifying them in the heat of the game.
A lot of that is just learning a new system. A portion of it is also mechanics. As you read through the pressers and comments of Denard and the coaching staff, they continue to tell us that Denard's problems stem from his footwork. That is probably true. Even on Denard's touchdown pass to Drew Dileo, Denard put it high and behind Dileo making the catch far more difficult than it needed to be. His touchdown pass to Koger was behind him as well. And, of course, the interception was four feet behind Junior Hemingway. Those things are attributable to poor mechanics. But missing wide open receivers that aren't Denard's first read is a different problem. An experience problem. And the only thing that will cure that is time.
One thing is clear though: this offense will only go as far as Denard's arm can throw it. As Michigan begins to play more and more athletic teams in conference, the option of rushing Denard 25 times a game isn't an option. Frankly, if Michigan's coaches do it, its manslaughter. But that may be Michigan's only chance for success if Denard's passing game doesn't improve. Denard will always remain Denard, an electric young man with a gun for an arm and feet touched by Mercury himself. It is because he has shown us such excellence in the past that we now expect so much more from him. We've seen his deep ball, we've seen the beautiful 24 yard out to Grady in crunch time, we've seen him scamper like a deer. We know he can run. We know how special he is as a runner. We've seen it time and time again.
But we need to see more of "Denard the accurate passer" for this team be good. Actually, we need to see that so that Michigan is not just another 7-5 team like last season. And that's a blast from the past we can all do without.