Michigan 28, Akron 24: Alternate Universes

Gregory Shamus

No. 11 Michigan survives...barely. The Wolverines squeaked by the lowly Akron Zips, but flaws were further exposed in this 28-24 victory in the Big House.

With a little over four minutes to go, Akron's Kyle Pohl tossed a one-yard touchdown pass to put the Zips ahead, 24-21. Now that enough time has passed to start making an attempt to understand what happened, I wish I could say that I knew Michigan would go 70 yards in four plays en route to the end zone. But that's not what was going through my mind at the time.

The moments after Akron's final score was a mental tug-of-war. First, I remembered that yes, this was still Akron. Michigan would drive down the field and score, and this would all go down as an unfortunately uncomfortable blip on the radar. I remembered last year's Northwestern game, then thought, "But that was Northwestern." I then remembered the 2004 San Diego State game, one Michigan won just 24-21 (i.e. the game Mike Hart became The Guy).

I remembered we won that one, and that there was no way this could happen here on this day. Not after the cathartic, high-octane performance last week against Notre Dame. There's just no way, right?

Then, of course, I remembered Toledo. Then, I remembered the other one.

All of this ran through my head in the span of thirty seconds or so. The rationalizing calculus was "yes no yes no no yes NO *flatlining resignation.*

Luckily, Michigan did go 70 yards in four plays, but, of course, the drama didn't come to an end with Fitzgerald Toussaint's two-yard plunge. With just under three minutes to go, the Zips drove down to the Michigan four yard line after starting at its own 25. With a 4th & 3 from the Michigan 4 and one final play to decide the game, the specter of Toledo and Appalachian State loomed once again (this Akron team is certainly worse than the latter, and probably isn't any better than the '08 Toledo team, which finished 3-9).

Pohl dropped back, and everything existed as a possibility, as the 22 players on the field moved to decide which universe would be chosen as the one that would exist in this realm of reality.

In one universe, Pohl drops back, hits Zach D'Orazio, and the Zips run around the field, their helmets held up to the Ann Arbor sun. In another, a banana peel falls right underneath Pohl's cleats; he slips, and falls, 2005-Henne-against-Wisconsin-style. In yet another, like the Futurama episode where everyone has differently colored hair than the real universe, Brady Hoke, a 6'8'' viking fresh off a successful coaching tenure at Nordic State University, smashes his battle hammer against the Big House turf, causing the Akron offense to forget the play call in a daze; Pohl then throws it to Terry Bowden, who catches it--with his hands, which are made of Dreamland BBQ, because this is an alternate universe, of course--because Michigan is playing a defense with SOFT CORNERS. In this alternate universe, the fans are okay with this defensive alignment.

But, in this universe on this day, the pass fell incomplete, well past D'Orazio's outstretched arm. Thomas Gordon, who was in coverage on the play, pulled himself up from the Big House turf as if the Zips had just scored. Jibreel Black and James Ross, who were pressuring Pohl on the play, got up with the all the equilibrium of a top in its spinning death throes. Blake Countess, who was near the play, gave nothing more than a feeble golf clap.

As The Victors blared and other players ran to the student section, Thomas Gordon moved slowly. He stuck his mouthguard in his helmet and walked. Not all victories are made of the same stuff.

The Offense

Given the amount of e-ink that has been spilled about this game here at Maize 'n Brew (and elsewhere), I'll try to keep these sections as brief as possible (I'll probably fail at this anyway). We all saw what happened, and there's no use saying "well, that was bad" over and over again.

Also, we can play the transitive property game all day, but, as always, that's not the way to go about making sense of this nonsensical thing called college football.

In any case, what is worth talking about is infrastructure, the things that we know are reproducible, for good and for bad. After last season and three games this year, we can safely come to a few conclusions regarding things that will more or less remain issues the rest of this season. Here are a few for the offense:

  • Run blocking. Like others, I do get the sense that Toussaint misses a few cuts here and there, but he's shown flashes thus far of his 2011 form. With that said, his ability to flash that form is contingent on run blocking, which has for the most part been a dicey proposition once again. Despite going up against an Akron defensive front, the Wolverines managed to pave the way for just 71 yards on 19 carries for Toussaint (with a long of 24). That equals a paltry 3.7 YPC. Eliminating James Madison QB Michael Birdsong's 11 carries for one yard against Akron last week, JMU racked up 187 yards on 40 carries against the Zips; that's good for 4.7 yards per carry. JMU's top rusher, Dae'Quan Scott, averaged 4.0 YPC (27 carries, 107 yards). Michigan generated less production on the ground against Akron than JMU did.
  • Devin Gardner miscues. For the third time in as many games, Gardner, for all of his dazzling runs and laser-like strikes to Jeremy Gallon, made some brutal, head-scratchingly bad mistakes. In this one, he tossed three interceptions and coughed up a fumble. As far as time as a starting quarterback goes, Gardner is still "young." He will improve in this department, but his meltdown in this game against a squad like Akron does not bode well for Big Ten schedule. Fortunately, Michigan has what should be a comfortable win coming up this week at UConn, but, after this past week, no game can be considered a gimme given Gardner's issues with taking care of the football.
  • WR targets. I'd have to watch the game again with an eye for targets, but Jeremy Gallon is still Michigan's only true receiving threat on the outside. In this one, Gallon reeled in six of Gardner's 16 completions, for a total of 66 yards. Devin Funchess made the most of his two receptions (65 yards, one TD), but he is obviously still a wide receiver sort playing tight end. Jehu Chesson picked a good time to notch his first reception, a 33-yarder for a score, but didn't do anything else otherwise. Jeremy Jackson was catchless*, and Joe Reynolds had one for a yard. Meanwhile, at the slot, Drew Dileo was catchless as well (which I didn't really realize during the game for obvious stress-related reasons). It's nice that Chesson got on the board, but Michigan's non-Gallon receiving production will continue to be a point of concern, especially as Michigan goes on to face teams with better secondaries than CMU, Notre Dame and Akron. On the other hand, there aren't many of those on the schedule.
* For what it's worth, Jackson likely had a decent shot at a touchdown grab if not for a spectacular PBU from an Akron defensive back.

Despite flashes of decent blocking against CMU in the opener, they were just flashes even then. Against Notre Dame's good front (not as good as last year's, but still good), Michigan couldn't get much non-Gardner running going (Toussaint--22 carries, 71 yards). Yes, this all goes back to the Denard argument stating that rushing production from the quarterback still counts, and yes, of course it does. As athletic and dynamic as Gardner is, that's not something you want to count on when you're on the road in East Lansing or even Happy Valley (their loss to UCF notwithstanding) or Kinnick. Then, of course, you've got a trip to Ryan Field and Ohio State to close the season.

Every time Gardner starts moving around, the potential for a big play exists. Yet, at the same time, the potential for disaster also looms, as we've seen thus far. This sounds like I'm advocating statue-esque immobility on his part, which is obviously ridiculous, but when you play with fire so often, you will get burned eventually.

Fortunately for Michigan, they haven't been burned just yet. But, as the schedule toughens up, that could very easily change if at least one of the aforementioned facets listed above doesn't seriously improve. I'm not quite sure how much the the interior OL will improve by the heart of the Big Ten schedule, or whether Jehu Chesson can quickly become a reliable target on the outside.

So, really, Michigan can only hope that Gardner learns from his mistakes in these first three games and thinks better of tossing that sidearmed Bad Idea Jeans pass under duress.

The Defense

It's hard to draw too many good conclusions from a game like this, but if there is anything to praise, it's the resilience and wherewithal of the defense. It wasn't a lights out performance by any means, but the Wolverine defense got it done, and Mattison, like the final play against Northwestern last year, dialed up the right call to end the game (of course, hindsight is 20/20).

Akron couldn't get much going on the ground, which is exactly what you'd expect when a supposedly solid Michigan defense goes up against a team like that. Excising Pohl's rushing stats for the sake of simplicity (and one "team" rush for a loss of five yards), the Zips rushed for 3.9 YPC.

Unfortunately, that's a better YPC than Akron managed against JMU.

In the passing game, Pohl threw for 311 yards, albeit on 49 attempts, good for a YPA of just 6.3 and a QBR of 42.1. In case you were wondering, Gardner's QBR was 66.6.

James Ross had his first statistically dominant game of the season, racking up 10 tackles (six solo), one tackle for loss and a pass breakup. Gordon and Desmond Morgan rounded out the top three Wolverine tacklers, with nine and seven tackles, respectively.

Blake Countess intercepted a Pohl pass in the first quarter, just after the Zips had entered Michigan territory. Jarrod Wilson pitched in a big interception of his own with Akron at the Michigan 2 in the fourth quarter and looking to gain the lead. Obviously, Akron did gain the lead a little over five minutes in game time later, but Michigan's defense made plays when they needed to be made. The unfortunate part is that plays, well, "needed to be made" at all.

The Zips completed a lot of short stuff all day, as you'd expect them to try to do against a far bigger, faster and more talented defense across the way. Pohl didn't complete a pass for 10+ yards until late in the second quarter, a 30-yarder to D'Orazio. That drive ended with that 45-yard field goal hitting the upright. So, three points allowed in the first half and not much in the way of long Akron gains made for an okay first half for the Michigan defense.

Pohl's next big play, a 28-yard touchdown to D'Orazio, came about five minutes into the third quarter. I'm no expert, but it seems as if Greg Mattison has been pretty conservative/vanilla with his looks in the secondary...even so, this touchdown somehow went right up the middle of the field, starting with a blown coverage from Joe Bolden (I think?) about five yards past the line of scrimmage at the right hash.

Michigan was in its 4-2-5 on 1st & 15 (after an Akron false start), with Bolden covering D'Orazio in the slot, standing about six yards downfield pre-snap. Michigan's four-man rush got nowhere, allowing Pohl to step into a nice little pocket. D'Orazio heads straight upfield, with Bolden maintaining his inside leverage for a moment; meanwhile, Ross, the other 'backer, started way out on the other hash, thus nowhere near the completion when it happens.

D'Orazio does a little shake move about five yards downfield, which Bolden bites on like a catfish going for chicken liver. From there it's a relatively easy pitch and catch, as D'Orazio is now a shade inside of Bolden, whose momentum allows D'Orazio to make the catch and turn it upfield.

From there, everything parts like the Red Sea. D'Orazio catches it eight yards downfield with a head of steam. Ross tries to recover from the other side but is in no position to do so; he's even with D'Orazio upon the catch, but also about seven or eight yards away (i.e. no angle at all). I have no clue what the safeties were doing because they weren't even on screen. Gordon appears in the top right corner of your screen as D'Orazio crosses the 7-yard line. Jarrod Wilson shows up a few yards later. By then, D'Orazio has a clean path to the end zone, into which he dives for the score essentially untouched. It doesn't get much worse than this play.

However, the wheels really fell of in the fourth quarter, as Michigan gave up passes of 43 yards (that one on the drive ending with the Wilson INT) and another of 40 yards to L.T. Smith during the drive that put Akron ahead late. This, combined with intermittent dinking and dunking and some solid gains on the ground were enough to see the Zips put up 197 fourth quarter yards. Had Gardner not thrown that pick six at the beginning of the fourth, Akron probably would've eclipsed the 200-yard mark in the fourth quarter alone.

I'm not sure how to explain this away with anything other than late game we're-about-to-lose-to-Akron hysteria and mental and physical fatigue. Neither option is very palatable, but at least we're talking about this with the knowledge that the game did, in fact, end in a win.

Michigan travels to UConn to face an 0-2 Huskies squad that dropped its opener against Towson. The Huskies scored 18 in that one, and 21 this past Saturday in another loss against Maryland. If the Michigan defense allows UConn QB Chandler Whitmer any success through the air in the form of big plays (he went 29/46 for 349 yards against Maryland), it will truly be time to worry. For now, Michigan's fourth quarter defensive performance against the Zips can probably only be looked at as a bizarre and unfortunate outlier.

One thing that is not is an outlier--much like the interior offensive line's lack of production and Gardner's turnovers--is the lack of a pass rush. Michigan registered eight QB hurries on Saturday but no sacks. Sure, Pohl was getting the ball out fairly quickly much of the time, but boy, if there ever was a time for Frank Clark to start to make good on all that offseason hype, you'd think it would be against Akron. The season is still young, but that hype has just about evaporated (and I don't say this as if Clark is responsible in any way for the hype that the Michigan football universe bestows on various players during the offseason).

Michigan's surprisingly decent pass rush against Central Michigan--using the word "surprisingly" in that sentence says something about the overall state of the pass rush, doesn't it?--is now but a memory, languishing away in the rear view mirror as reality outpaces it.

If Whitmer's 49 passes against Maryland is any indication, Michigan should have another opportunity to work on that pass rush this Saturday. A sack or two (or three or four) would go a long way toward at least momentarily assuaging the concerns vis-a-vis the pass rush.

Special Teams

Well, things aren't so rosy here either. Matt Wile had a truly wretched day, to the point that I wonder if Kenny Allen shouldn't get a serious shot at the job going forward. Wile booted four punts for an average of just 33 yards per, which includes a long 54-yards. This is becoming a problem.

Brendan Gibbons missed, which is only jarring because Michigan has a kicker who doesn't miss very often, which is still, even now, a novel concept. Even the best kickers miss from time to time, and it was a 45-yarder, so that yields nothing more than a shrug from me.

Drew Dileo handled punts on Saturday; I'm more than okay with this given Dennis Norfleet's struggles there. With a sure-handed guy like Dileo back there, the return is much lower, obviously, but so is the risk.

On kicks, we're still waiting for Norfleet to take one to the house. Norfleet returned one for 15 yards, Chesson returned one for 19 and Dileo returned two for a combined 30 yards (a long of 23). Steve Breaston isn't walking through that door.

Miscellaneous Minutiae
  • Upon Gardner's second quarter fumble, Michigan failed to come away with points in the red zone for the first time this season.
  • In the first half after the opening TD drive, Michigan went: punt, missed field goal, fumble, interception, interception.
  • Gardner's third down incompletion on the first drive of the second half, intended for Gallon, was one of the best examples of Gardner's rattled state. With Gallon crossing from left to right, Gardner zinged it a mile behind Gallon. Gallon did a sort of "throw it here, man" shrug after the play. Regardless, it would do everyone well to forget about the Notre Dame game and remember that Gardner, a guy who played wide receiver for much of last season, is still very much a work in progress.
  • Jourdan Lewis got quite a bit of run in this one. I'm not sure what to say other than I do think he'll be a pretty good player for Michigan at some point.
  • On the bright side, Gardner did set a personal career high for rushing yards in a game, which is nice. You can find this and other important tidbits at the always oddly comforting MGoBlue "Notes" section.
  • That's probably enough about this game, don't you think? At least they won. As we all know, the alternative is much, much worse, as hollow as this victory felt.
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