Four weeks into the season a few things are clear:
1. The defense is much, much better than it's been in four years;
2. This coaching staff is far and away the best staff Michigan's seen since the late '90's early '00;
3. Stephen Hopkins, as much as we love him here at MnB, can't hold onto the damn ball;
4. Denard Robinson is going to carry this offense as far as it will go; and,
5. That ain't going to be too far if he can't stop turning the ball over.
Of all the things I was confident in going into the 2011 season, Denard improving as a passer was somewhere in the middle of that list. I figured we'd see a number of interceptions based on new scheme or bad reads. But I also figured with the accuracy he displayed early in the 2010 campaign that he would eventually "click" in Al Borges new offense and turn into something special in the pocket, and not just sprinting out of it. It's early, but the returns on that confidence are dipping like the Euro. This isn't to say there won't be a rebound, but investor confidence is a little shaky right now. In the passing game any way
On the other side of the coin, there's little to worry about with Michigan's gorund game. For all the handwringing about the pro-style offense and the lack of production from the backs, Michigan's lead tailbacks Smith and Toussaint averaged 5.2 yards a carry on 22 carries (114 yards between them). And yes, I'm ignoring Hopkins 8 yard dash and drop. Then, turning to Robinson, you note the gaudy 9.5 ypc and 200 yard day. That's not too shabby.
A good deal of credit for that goes to the offensive line. I think my favorite play of the day was Ricky Barnun pulling on Denard's first touchdown run and smushing two linebackers in route to Michigan's first, easy score. It was pretty. But even when the line wasn't opening gaping holes, Michigan's backs were finding ways to make yardage. A close second to Barnum's smushing was Vincent Smith's Houdini impersonation that turned into a 32 yard scamper. Taking the handoff, Smith hid behind his linemen before exploding out of a crease no one saw. At first you saw a tiny man run into a wall of bodies and thought, "damn". Half a second later Smith had exploded out of that mass of humanity and was driving toward the endzone. It's time to break out my Fred Jackson hyperbole machine, because that reminded me of... wait for it.... wait for it... Mike Hart.
/Hyperbole machine turned off/ But enough of the nit picking (for now).
It was a weird game. Michigan dominated the first half. The Aztecs managed only 133 yards in the first half, turned the ball over twice, punted twice, and turned it over on downs once. Importantly, they didn't dent the scoreboard. Michigan did. Robinson's legs were electric as usual. If not for a Vincent Smith fumble, it's conceivable that Michigan would have scored on all three of its opening drives. As it stood, Michigan was up 21-0 at the end of the first half, having held a team that had scored 20 points or more in 17 straight games dating back to 2009, to nothing.
But the second half was just plain, old-fashioned bizarre. Michigan's first two drives of the second half resulted in interceptions. And not the kind where you marvel at the athleticism of the player making the play, the kind where you sit there going "why in god's name did you throw that?" But it's not like Denard was setting the world on fire in the first half with his arm. Denard was 5 of 9 for a grand total of 35 yards in the first half. In the third quarter he was 2-5 for 49 yards and two interceptions. It wasn't pretty.
Here's the difference. Over the last three years, those picks and turnovers would've turned the game around for any competent team Michigan faced. On four successive drives Michigan threw two interceptions, missed a field goal, and fumbled at their own 30. It wasn't until the fumble on the 30 that San Diego was finally able to put points on the board. And this is basically the same San Diego State team that hung 35 on Navy and scored 35 on the same TCU team that beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Apples, Oranges, bananas... whatever. Michigan's defense stuffed a potent offense time and time again when the game was on the line, whereas a year before they would've given up points on at least three of those turnover fueled drives.
The change in the defense this season is palpable. Jordan Kovacs led Michigan game in game out in tackles in 2010. Right now he's third on the team behind Kenny Demens and Thomas Gordon. Last season Michigan gave up 439 to FCS UMass. This season they held a bowl bound, pass happy SDSU team with an NFL calibre running back in Ronnie Hillman under 400 yards and only allowed them 7 points, a week after SDSU put up 500 yards and 42 points on Pac-12 WSU. Apples, Oranges, bananas... whatever. There's something different this year about the defense. Something competent. As my wife said midway through the third as Michigan's offense was doing everything is could to give the game away, "Your defense is starting to look like an old Michigan defense." I can only pray she's right. Last season through four games Michigan had given up 102 points. This season, through four games, they've given up 51. Take it for what it's worth.
The strangest thing about this team is that I don't think it's going to be the defense that holds it back this season. I think it could very well be the offense, and specifically the passing game. Michigan wil be able to run on just about everyone on its schedule. The degree to which they run will vary, but I suspect they will be largely succesful on the ground. But, just like last season, the key to this year will be Denard's arm. For Michigan to prevail agains better teams, Denard must be accurate. Michigan won its toughest contest of the season on the strength of his arm. And for the Wolverines to be successful in Big Ten play, he'll have to be just as good in the conference season as he was in that magical fourth quarter.
Saturday was a mixed bag. Michigan displayed a potent, capable offense for the first half. Then it displayed the keystone cops routine that cost them so many games last year. Michigan can't be both anymore. Potent, yet sloppy, was what we got last season. This season we're all dreaming of a lot more.