Ed. Note: A special thanks to MGoVideo.com for allowing me to watch the game post-mortem.
On a day where so much changed in the college football world, thankfully Michigan was not a subject in that conversation. Saturday was for lack of a better term, boring. Our offense was vanilla. Our defense was horrible without being terrible. We actually won a game we were supposed to. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Nothing happened that would cause the Michigan fan based to collectively clutch its chest after three hours of ignoring pain in its collective extremities. The heart attack that has been Michigan football this season never came. So, in a strange way, Saturday's win over Northwestern wasn't even a needle blip on the seismograph during the Level 5 earthquake that shook the rest of football loving nation.
After four weeks of holding my breath, I'll take a miserable, boring, horrifically played football game with a Win over just about anything else.
When you're on the outside looking in on the top twenty-five, games like the one Michigan played generally go unnoticed by the media. It's a win. It's not really that important other than the fact it builds your resume a bit in the win column. Unfortunately, Michigan is usually within that top twenty-five bubble where games like Saturday's a reviewed ad nauseum and punishment for poor play is doled out. After a miserable start to the season, there is no punishment from the national media for Michigan's play Saturday. So, mercifully, the only people who will offer opinions about the Michigan Northwestern game are people who actually care about the program. At least I hope so.
If my displeasure from the game is not apparent from the passage above, let me be more direct. The game was like watching someone with a wired jaw being fed salsa through their tube. Sure the person got the nutrients they needed, but there had to have been a better way to deliver it.
Brian has already rehashed the play calling. There is little I can add to his excellent piece other than to say, honestly, what did you expect? Over the last 12 years Michigan has never played Northwestern as though it possesses the talent advantage it most definitely has. The games are always played at the level of the lowest common denominator. Whether Carr, Moeller, or Schembechler, the guns are holstered and the game is always determined by slap fight (with one noteable, horrible exception).
On Saturday Michigan spent three quarters running itself into a brick wall apparently based on the theory that the wall will eventually give way. It did, but it took three and a half quarters to do so. The fact Michigan ran nearly every down is not all that surprising. Michigan has always played that way, and when its quarterback is either young or struggling its playing tendencies are well documented. What is frustrating is that Michigan is having less success than usual running these plays. Hart has faced stacked lines since 2005. Against Penn State the Lions stuffed the box yet Hart ran relatively well. Against Oregon Hart ran well despite an ineffective Henne and Mallett.
What was frustrating watching the game was the penetration Northwestern's smaller, quicker linemen were getting against Michigan's vaunted behemoth of a line. On several occasions I noted our lineman being knocked backwards or defensive linemen shooting the gaps between zone assignments. All of Harts long runs were his own creation, not the result of any dramatic push the line created. Hart's cutback 15-20 yarders were the result of dodging the first would-be tackler three yards deep in the backfield and then reversing field against the over pursuit of the Wildcats. There were no holes or "zone gaps" that a running back would expect. Just purple shirts.
I have to wonder what happened to the push? Last year defenders were two yards backwards when Hart hit a gap. This year they are at the line or deeper. I have no explanations for this drop off in production. Apparently neither does the coaching staff. Either our zone blocking system has been figured out or our execution has devolved back to a high school level. If there was one aspect of the offense's run philosophy that changed during the Northwestern game, it was that Michigan was not tipping its plays as often as it usually does. In fact, several of the pre-snap motion plays where I said out loud "run", turned out to be passes. Perhaps the coaches were attempting to change the playbook a tad in the hopes of revitalizing the team. Perhaps the execution errors were the results of these changes. Perhaps this is all wishful thinking. All I know is Northwestern provided every good team in the conference with yet another blueprint of how to stonewall our offense if Henne is not in the game.
When Chad Henne re-appeared it was a different Michgian offense. The execution was better, the protection was as well. You got a sense that things were in Henne's hands more so than the coaches. Henne played very well for a man who struggled so mightily in his first two games. His touchdown passes were crisp and on the mark. His reads were generally good and he didn't lock onto his receiver as much as in previous games. He played well and deserves as much of the credit for Michigan's win as Mike Hart does. With regard to his understudy, Mallett was okay but did not look as confident this game as last. His passes sailed high or his throws were intended to kill the receiver rather than deliver him the ball. Granted his role in this game was to provide Hart with the ball, but when he had the opportunity to throw the ball excitement got the better of him as often as not. Overall I don't have many complaints.
On defense Michigan again showed it is incapable of adjusting to a spread offense. Even a bad one. The fact that the defense was mystified by Northwestern's passing an running efforts for a full quarter is yet another indictment of English's coaching. Giving up yet another long touchdown run, straight up the middle, does not give me any confidence against Illinois. On several occasions Northwestern ran straight up the gut for big gainers. Part of the reason for their success was Michigan's linemen all taking outside routes AT THE SAME TIME and our linebackers covering the sidelines. Even when playing a spread offense you have to at least attempt to protect the middle of the field and on several occasions Northwestern's only opposition in that area was a safety 15 yards downfield.
My biggest concern was Michigan's inability to detect screen passes or short slants over the middle. On the former, every linemen bit on the screen and our linebackers apparently were on vacation in Cambodia. Only Northwestern miscues prevented those throws from being huge gainers. Regarding the latter, where Northwestern would cross its slot receiver right to left, more often than not our linebackers were flatfooted. Obi Ezeh's interception was the result of a Wildcat miscue, not anything he did particularly correct. Had the pass been on the mark, based on the positions of the linebackers and the downfield corners/safeties, that play was a minimum of 25 yards.
The second half "improvement" was as much the result of Northwestern being determined to give the game away as it was any adjustment by the coaching staff. The Wildcats still picked up 15 yard passing plays. Still beat Brandon Harrison like a rug (will someone on the coaching staff PLEASE notice this). Still managed to run the ball. Still outgained Michigan.
Fortunately, a decent opponent, is two weeks away. Purdue will most definitely strut into Michigan Stadium expecting to light up our defense like the Vegas skyline. But we have a week to prepare for them and positives to build upon. Northwestern managed only 94 yards in the second half. Mario Manningham finally emerged from whatever coma he has been under and was Michigan's second best player behind Henne. Speaking of which, Henne is back. Donovan Warren, despite being picked on, is pretty good.
There are positives. One of them is that no one noticed this game.