Michigan won back its Little Brown Jug this weekend, sometimes putting a beatdown on Minnesota in a 28-14 victory.
Overall, the Wolverines looked like a vintage Lloyd Carr-coached Michigan team--it was run-first all the way; play action fueled the passing game; the defense was pretty strong with some occasional lapses; Ryan Mundy was reliably out of position at conspicuous times; and the team was only spectacular when it had to be.
This season, these things don't feel as damning, though. Maybe it's because Michigan has controlled every game, making the mistakes appear to be less worthy of concern; maybe it's because the schedule suddenly seems more forgiving than it appeared a month ago; or maybe it's because from week to week and even half to half, some break downs seem to be getting fixed more quickly. Don't count me among the many all but giving Michigan 11 victories in advance of November 18th, but even I am having a hard time being my characteristically realistic/pessimistic self.
Some game notes:
Chad Henne was The Man. The numbers are impressive enough--17-24, 284 yards, 3 TDs, no interceptions--but they don't tell the whole story. While there have been more important games in which Henne has played well--like last year's OSJU battle and the 2005 Rose Bowl--this past week's game may have been Henne's best performance as a Wolverine. From the opening play, he looked to be in total control of the offense. His play action fakes were crisp; he made multiple reads on plays when that strategic assessment was required; he froze safeties with his eyes; he stood in against the (very minimal) pressure; he rolled out nicely; and, what's most importantly, he was making nearly every throw perfectly. His passes down the middle to Arrington were perfect; his throws to Mario Manningham first for a touchdown and later for that long gain down to the Minnesota two-yard line were perfect. Sure, the sideline pass in the first half to Breaston was a little too far outside (although I can't imagine Henne thought Breaston would be that open), and he overthrew a couple of balls, but Henne was great. What a commanding performance.
- Michigan stopped only throwing to the sideline. And thank the fucking Lord; it was about time. For about, oh, I don't know, ever, Michigan's game plans asked Henne to throw lots of outs, sideline comebacks, fades, and four-yard dump-offs on third-and-much-more-than-four. Allegedly, Henne had a hard time throwing the ball over the middle due to problems with his reads, his touch, and his timing. I can't imagine that Breaston and Manningham's inability to catch slants inspires much confidence, either. But all of that seemed to wash away this weekend, as Henne regularly threw the ball down the middle of the field to a streaking Michigan wide receiver that Minnesota had no hope of covering. Super Mario again dropped a slant, so the sort passing game that exploits soft linebackers or puts the ball over a linebacker and in front of a safety is still not there, but any incremental improvement is welcomed.
The offensive line protected passes well. And by that I mean, of course, that the pass protection was strong. It seemed as though Chad Henne was forced out of a rhythm and/or away from one of his primary intentions rarely. Henne has never been accused of struggling to find the guy he's meant to find when given the time, so the choice that Michigan's offensive line forced on Minnesota--you know, to give Henne time--wasn't so smart. I can't remember, but it also seemed as though Minnesota chose against consistently blitzing, likely because Arrington and Manningham were getting open all day while the running game got more than five yards per carry, and that might not have been so smart.
It wasn't all peaches and sunshine for UM, though. Ruben Riley was again called for holding and there were a couple of times when Henne got flushed out of the pocket, one time when he was sacked. I would be much more upset with Riley were he not selflessly playing out of position, as he is a natural guard. Instead, it's easier to question Offensive Line Coach Andy Moeller and Strength and Conditioning Coach
Uncle RicoMike Gittleson--how is it that Michigan only has one healthy, capable offensive tackle? Where's the player development?
Um, wasn't the pass rush supposed to be, like, good and stuff? Michigan sacked Brian Cupito zero times, and the Gopher QB seemed to have all the time he needed on most of his pass attempts. Michigan's failure to get to the quarterback wasn't wholly a failure of the defensive line, of course. Cupito made a lot of three- and five-step drops, occasionally lined up in the shotgun, and was getting rid of the ball quickly, all strategies employed to mitigate the usually fearsome Wolverine front four. But on a number of long passes, Michigan rushed four and even blitzed yet still couldn't get to Cupito. This was an area of concern, although the other 80% of the season suggests that the absent pass rush was an aberration.
We should also note that against such a powerful running team like Minnesota, Michigan's defensive line was likely a little hesitant to get all up in that ass, lest it let the Gophers use delays and draws and counters and cutbacks and all that to exploit the aggressive move up field.
- Charles Stewart is a disaster. It's not nice to rip a kid, and I'm not saying that he's a bad person, undeserving of a scholarship, or worse than George Allen. But it has to be fair to criticize how a player goes about his assignments, no? I get on the coaches all the time, but they aren't the ones who are on the field getting lit up by any ol' dude with two legs and an inclination to accelerate. All night against the Gophers, whenever there was a big pass play or a missed tackle in the secondary, it looked like Stewart was reliably running into, falling into, or getting left out of the picture a second or so after the play. Morgan Trent needs to come back as soon as possible--broken bone in his hand and all--because Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State will run Stewart into Wolverine infamy.
Michigan really needs a special teams coach. When Lloyd "shook up" his staff this offseason and made the bold decisions to elevate his defensive backs coach in lieu of retaining a guy who had failed over and over again while also booting his offensive coordinator in favor of his carpool buddy, he also beefed up the defensive coaching staff. Whereas last year's defensive staff consisted of a coordinator who also handled linebackers, a DBs coach, and a line coach, the latest incarnation of the Lloyd Carr Cronyism Lives Here Boys Club includes a line coach, a linebackers coach, a cornerbacks coach, and a seemingly god-body defensive coordinator who loves safeties.
No Michigan fan can credibly complain about the defense--it is winning games, and the new staff has already proved its superiority. But adding an extra body to coach 'em up on defense meant that someone else had to get cut elsewhere, and that person was a special teams-dedicated coach. The result? Michigan never blocks punts; Michigan does a horrible job setting up punt and kick returns; and the kickoff coverage has been inconsistent. Those are the results of a program whose general attitude toward special teams seems to be that that phase of the game is just something to survive, not something that might ever actually win a game. And that's pathetic. Next off season, as he plows through his Disraeli biographies and trades rub-downs with Mike DeBord, Lloyd might consider taking a trip to an NFL team or a college where they know what to do on special teams so that Michigan can threaten its opponents in all three phases of the game.
At least Zoltan Mesko is starting to look like the real deal.
Mike Hart is too slow. Stop. Stop it. Stop it right now. Before you proceed to the comments section to bombard me with insults and angry "reminders" about Mike Hart's quality, know that I am fully aware of Hart's strengths. He's Mike Freakin' Hart: he always falls forward, he never goes down on contact, he doesn't lose fumbles, he plays well in big games, and he is the emotional engine that drives the team. I am not refuting or marginalizing any of that. Michigan is a markedly better team with him. So save your sanctimonious, self-congratulatory "Michigan Man" schtick for the homers on a message board.
That said, there are some things that Mike Hart isn't, and one of those things is fast. He just doesn't have the speed to get outside or create truly big plays in the running game. The 54-yarder at the end of the game aside--which was completely out of the ordinary--he doesn't ever change a game with huge burst. Michigan may not need that if it can get 5.4 yards per carry, but speed in the backfield would be a tremendous improvement for this running game, as the zone scheme has not emerged as a system that allows Michigan, with its personnel, to attack the outside on the ground. It seems as though it would behoove the coaches to develop some plays that might maximize the burst of a kid like Minor or Brown, especially if they're gonna burn Brown's redshirt on 30 carries over the course of 12 games this season.
- Kevin Grady is a potentially great fullback. At least, I hope he is, because he's a mediocre running back. He doesn't have great vision, doesn't have great moves, and doesn't hit a hole especially quickly. He's a straight line runner with decent power and a maddening penchant for fumbling. That's a bad combination if you want to be an elite runner and can't even run a 4.5 (or even a 4.6?). If he worked on his blocking, and if the coaches would ever actually involve the fullback in the offense as more than just a body of mass with pads on, Grady seems like he'd be an ideal fullback, a true offensive weapon at a position that usually doesn't concern a defense. I'd especially like to see this happen sooner rather than later because Minor and Brown both might benefit from increased in-game reps if Grady were playing fullback. But that's not likely at all, and even if the potential does exist, we wouldn't see it until next year. *sigh*
- I am still not a Mike DeBord fan, but for one week we may have found detente. Look, Michigan still runs on too many first downs, still tips too many plays with its formations, and still can't do shit like punch it in to the end zone with a first down inside the five. But that said, the first three quarters on Saturday were a perfect example of methodical execution that builds on itself as success mounts. The early running success begot the play action; the play action begot more room at the line; and more room at the line begot easier going for the offense. Kudos to DeBord and the players for executing such a sound game plan. Now we need more variety in the formations and passing game. And I am still not sold on the zone-blocking scheme if the whole thing is basically just Mike Hart running right or left between the tackles. Good teams seem likely to stop this, and Wisconsin already showed that the Michigan offense is not likely to blow people out.
- Minnesota should be ashamed that it is still using the Metrodome. If you want to be in the Big Ten, get a football stadium already. I know that they're building one, but Jesus, what a joke. When the game started and ESPN spent a minute explaining that there was a "lip" on the field thanks to its use for baseball, I thought I was watching bush-league football. I also assumed that if Michigan lost, Lloyd, who never makes excuses, would have found his latest "explanation." At least it wasn't a crowned field.
- Ryan Mundy is not really...(wait for it)...good at football. He just gets lost in coverage too often, and much like Stewart, he is usually trailing a play, watching someone do something in front of, behind, or next to him. Nice guy, glad his career wasn't ended, and it's great that he doesn't have permanent nerve damage. But it doesn't say much about UM's other safeties that Mundy starts.