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Michigan-Air Force: You Ain't A Beauty But Hey You're Alright


We're two weeks into the season and the questions have cropped up like weeds, popping up in places that we never thought possible. In between cracks in the sidewalk, on a lawn carefully manicured by Greg Mattison, in the place where a 5th-year starting middle linebacker once stood. Weeds growing everywhere, seemingly faster than they can be destroyed by pesticides or wishful thinking. Questions without answers, or answers that are currently unsatisfying or somewhat disconcerting. When weeds start somehow growing on your trusted kitchen appliances--an old toaster, for example--maybe it's time to start wondering what is going on.

Or, perhaps not. After all, biology will tell you why these things grow where they do, and the effect that it has on the life around them. It is laid out, plain, ordered even without any apparent unifying theory. In that sense, instead of looking at the lawn full of weeds and complaining, we can survey the landscape and acquire the materials needed to get rid of these intruders.

Be honest: the lawn was never as green or pristine as you really thought. There were always things growing in far-flung corners and in the darkened space near the the shrubs over there by the fence that you had not thought to mend from the time that that varmint burrowed a hole through it like it was made of rice paper.

When faced with such a start, we can do one of two things: 1) panic unconditionally or 2) attempt to recognize and understand the problems that this team has. This is a response that effectively renders panic obsolete, an outdated mechanism of life that harkens back to when "fight or flight" was the primary order of the day (back before Michigan Man trademarks like self-loathing and righteous indignation had the space with which to incubate in the human mind).

I will do the latter.

After two games, all we can say with absolute certainty is that Michigan is: a) not nearly as good as Alabama and b) 1-1. That, I believe, is quite literally it. It is very easy to overreact shortly after a game has ended, to conflate the cropping up of a couple grisly patches of weeds as a precursor to the inevitable fall of a proud dynasty. As a fan, if something is easy--for example, screaming RUN DENARD last week--then you can safely bet that that thing is probably wrong or at best intellectually lazy.

The same applies here. The way I see it, we will not truly know about the real substance of this squad until Michigan travels to South Bend on the 22nd. Alabama was simply a team far better than Michigan in every aspect of the game, a team that in turn is far better than anyone else on Michigan's docket; this doesn't make the loss any less palatable, but it does mitigate any notion of its instructiveness as to the worth of this team.

Likewise, Saturday's game against Air Force was almost as uninformative, in the grand scheme of things. Air Force, an option team, runs an offensive attack that Michigan will not see again this season. Michigan did not look great, sure, and I'm not going to argue that Saturday's game was an enjoyable one to watch for any reason other than the fact that it was Michigan football, a thing that we will get to watch only 12-14 times this season.

With that said, I would advise all of you against wasting your reserves of panic and concern until Michigan hits the road for north Indiana. As we all know, trips to South Bend have a way of turning up seemingly endless stockpiles of these sentiments, free of charge, over the years.

The Offense

I had Michigan putting up 35 in this one, but that was with Toussaint actually putting up something close to his average 2011 numbers. The offense was ugly, insofar as watching Denard run past human beings far slower than him can be ugly.

While I will attempt to temper some of your concerns vis-a-vis the defense, the offense is the thing that is worrying me right now. I'm not talking about Denard, I'm not talking about the receivers, I'm not even talking about Fitz and his 8 carries for 7 yards. Of course, I'm talking about the offensive line.

Going into the Alabama game, even the most optimistic among us assumed that getting beat on either line was practically a certainty, and that is what happened. Michigan couldn't run the ball or stop the run at all, but we all knew that this was Alabama, after all. With an Air Force team trotting out defensive lineman that would be linebackers for Michigan, many of us rightfully thought that an inability by the line to get much push would be an ominous note attached to an already macabre symphony. Unfortunately, that very thing came to pass, as Michigan's offensive line--Lewan, included--seemed unequal to the task.

We have a right tackle in Schofield that has struggled thus far despite many assurances that he'd be an obvious upgrade over Mark Huyge (I felt that way myself). We have a left guard in Barnum who is probably better suited at center if not for the whole snapping thing. Lastly, we have a guy in Elliot Mealer, who I cannot feel good about criticizing except to say that he is not David Molk (few are). Even Taylor Lewan, whom many have tried to claim is the next Jake Long--they both wear #77 and have tattoos!--has seemingly struggled in the run blocking aspect of his game. As a freshman, I had the chance to watch Long absolutely steamroll Big Ten linebackers on zone left after zone left, and I think it's safe to say that Lewan is not quite the run blocker that Long was.

Our maligned offensive coordinator* essentially gave up on running the ball with anybody not named Denard in the second half: after carrying it six times in the first, Toussaint only carried it twice in the second.

Otherwise, I think that Michigan's offensive performance was alright under the circumstances. I'm not sure how many more ways I can come up with to praise Denard Robinson, but he came to play a week after receiving criticism from all sorts of people. He went a 14/25 for 208 yards and a pair of touchdown passes, one to a wide open Devin Gardner in the endzone, the other a "jump ball" to the freshman tight end Devin Funchess. The scare quotes there are laced with sarcasm; if this was any other quarterback, the throwing of a jump ball would not be a consistent progenitor of questioning.

Overall, it was nice to see Denard running free in the open field again; this is not something that we have many more chances to witness, sadly. Savor it.

2012 Air Force at Michigan 1st Half (via mgovideo)

The receivers took a step forward as well, although Roy Roundtree's decline since the 2010 season has apparently only continued, as Jeremy Jackson (IIRC) started the game along with Gallon and Gardner. Roundtree only managed 1 reception for 5 yards. On the bright side, Devin Funchess provides Michigan with an actual receiving threat as a tight end, although, as Gardner noted in the post-game presser, Funchess is pretty much just a large wide receiver right now. For right now, that is just fine, as our only big receiving option is a guy who was a quarterback last season. After a few Cottage Inn pizzas and some S&C work, Funchess will hopefully be closer to well-rounded ideal tight end next season.

Additionally, Gardner notched his second touchdown in as many games. He finished with 5 receptions for 63 yards (plus the aforementioned TD) and Funchess pitched in 4 receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown, a virtuoso performance for the youngster playing in the injured Brandon Moore's stead.

*BREAKING BAD SPOILER ALERT (KIND OF): one of these days I really want to see Al Borges pull a Skyler White at a press conference. "Can you talk a little bit about why you didn't run Denard and..." "SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUTTTT UPPPPP." That would be awesome, and you know Al would love to do it. I don't blame him.

The Defense

You're probably worrying a lot about this, so I'm just here to say: take that worry and throw at least 50% of it in the trash heap of senseless ulcer-inducing worries. Things are never as good or as bad as they seem, and in most ways I think this dictum holds true in the case of this game.

Air Force had great success early on, driving down the field on long drives that make you understand why this team was fifth in the country in the "methodical drive" metric last season. Michigan fulfilled all our nightmares early on, as defenders at every level were getting cut. As we all know, if you're on the ground, you are essentially useless to the defensive effort. Yes, it is an irritating blocking philosophy, but it simply requires you to stay on your feet. Well, easier said than done.

Michigan tightened up after the first two drives, forcing two three and outs. Unfortunately, Michigan then gave up one more long drive before the end of the first half, an 11-play touchdown drive that took 3:49 to complete. Air Force was gaining the edge consistently, a fact underscored by the fact that AFA had 26 first downs on the day (compared to Michigan's 19).

Keep this in mind, however: with all the hand wringing about Michigan's run defense, AFA pretty much does the sort of thing against everyone. It is useless to look at AFA's rushing total (290 yards) and extrapolate any sort of real, enduring worry from that because that is just simply what AFA does. I mean, you could really include "Air Force running for a bazillion yards" in the "death, taxes, and X" construction if you wanted to and it would be early reasonable. AFA ran the ball a ridiculous 72 times (compared to only 19 passing attempts); I would hope that a team would rack up rushing yardage with that sort of run-pass split.

Michigan had a better yards per carry, yards per attempt, total yards, and average gain per play on the day. Again, keep in mind that AFA dominated TOP (as if you needed any more evidence that this statistic means nothing) and ran 34 more offensive plays than Michigan did. Michigan ran 39 plays, total, against Western Michigan last season (yeah yeah there was no 4th quarter, quiet you). For all of AFA's success, Michigan was better in almost every important offensive category. If you're going to say "but but Denard skews the stats!", well, I can't help you, man. Denard accounting for all of Michigan's yardage is not ideal, but it is what we have and I'm sorry but it is fun if unsound and maybe unsustainable.

With that said, all is not quite well. As a preface, I do want to say this: people will try, but attempting to make assumptions about who made what mistakes on the option (or even on any other play) is a futile exercise. We can try, but more often than not we are operating with only a tiny percentage of what can possibly be known. How can we truly know what each player's assignment is on a given play? We can't, and attempting to speak to this with a definitive tone is a tricky road fraught with potholes filled in with melted marshmallows.

Certainly, we can ascertain that mistakes were made. On a basic level, for an option team to gain the edge that consistently, something was going wrong. Players were getting cut on the defensive line and beyond, and guys were overrunning the play (e.g. Desmond Morgan) or simply missing tackles. Another example: Jordan Kovacs on that long completion during which the AFA receiver, Ty MacArthur, caught it but fell down, missing out on what would've been a sure touchdown. Kovacs could be seen sweeping across the screen, seemingly "allowing" MacArthur to run up the seam unimpeded. At this point in Kovacs's career, I find it hard to believe that this play was on him. The question that then follows, however is this: whose fault was it? In many cases like this, I don't think that we, as fans, can really know with respect to a majority of these sorts of miscues.

I am not worried about the raw total of rushing yards or even the fact that this game was close (ahem, 2009 OSU-Navy). What I am concerned about is the fact that, with the game on the line near the end, we had Ondre Pipkins and Nathan Brink on the line and two true freshmen, James Ross and Joe Bolden, manning the inside linebacker positions. If you're keeping score, that means Kenny Demens, Desmond Morgan, Quinton Washington, and Will Campbell were nowhere to be found when the game was truly up for grabs. This speaks to the state of things on the defense and to the importance of players like Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen.

It is still early, but if Ross and Bolden have actually won the WLB and MLB positions from a sophomore that started last season and a fifth-year senior, two things are probably true. 1) Michigan's run defense, which was already not exceptional last, could be pretty rough moving forward. ND has a stable of backs capable of doing damage; going into South Bend with an essentially gutted from 7 is not an appealing notion. 2) Perhaps Kenny Demens and Desond Morgan's poor play was simply covered up by a stalwart defensive line last season. Again, it's still too early to tell, but thus far, it's looking like that may be the case.

However, one player deserves some praise, and that is of course Jake Ryan. Yes, he made mistakes, just like everybody else, but he had a career day, contributing 11 tackles, a TFL, and 2 PBUs. He also contributed some nice play even when he wasn't registering on the stat sheet, such as this play:

2012 Air Force at Michigan 1st Half (via mgovideo)

Dietz fakes the toss to the short side and comes back around with an option to sling it short or tuck it and go. Unfortunately for Dietz, Jake Ryan was covering the outlet masterfully rather than peeking into the backfield and wildly flying in on Dietz. He covered, covered, and covered, giving his help enough time to collapse on Dietz well short of the first down marker. There's also this play, for which I have to clear Ryan of blame:

2012 Air Force at Michigan 1st Half (via mgovideo)

First of all, how is that AFA blocker allowed to do that? I don't know either, but, either way, he gets out to the second level and cuts Kovacs to the ground. Also, Roh and Morgan (and Black) get cut as well, basically making most of the players on that side of the play about as useful as uncooked pasta just chilling there on the Big House turf. The defense was not having a real good time on this play.

At that point, it's pretty much game over for Michigan, as it's 1-on-2 on the edge, i.e. Dietz and Getz vs. Jake Ryan. Ryan did the only thing he could do there, which was to delay and hope that help would come. He was in a lose-lose situation, and, guess what...he lost! Babbling on and on about "holding the edge" is useless without looking at what is going on everywhere else, which goes back to my overarching point about criticism: it's like Heisenberg's (no, not the guy from Breaking Bad) Uncertainty Principle. As fans, it is impossible to know what we are talking about at any given point with 100% certainty. What you do with that understanding is up to you.

In any case, if UMass has success running the ball on Michigan next week (a UMass team that has gotten thrashed by UConn and Indiana), then will it be time to panic in earnest and without reservations.

Special Teams

Nothing much to write home about, which is generally good thing when it comes to special teams. Dennis Norfleet had another nice day on kick returns, taking 3 back for 77 yards and a new career long of 36 yards. It's pretty obvious that Norfleet will take one back at some point this season, and we can only hope that that will come to pass against one of Michigan's tougher opponents.

Will Hagerup had anotherr positive outing, booting two for 90 yards (a long of 53). It looks like he's officially back to his freshman form, another thing that will come in handy later on in the season.

Lastly, Brendan Gibbons converted on a 31-yarder about halfway through the 4th quarter to give Michigan a 6-point cushion. It went up and through the uprights, a happening that still seems strange to me. Regardless, Gibbons is now 1/1 on the season. I get the feeling that he will need to make a couple when Michigan heads to SB on the 22nd.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • 2009 OSU-Navy. Every person ever has probably already mentioned this, but after the game ended my first thoughts were "well, a win is a win" and then "hey, this happened to OSU not too long ago." This is not meant to extinguish all of your white hot concerns, but it does go to show you that playing these option-running academies can be a tricky thing. That OSU team went on to win the Rose Bowl, FWIW. All that matters is that Michigan left this contest with a win, and they did. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Michigan played ugly...and lost.
  • Devin Funchess! With Brandon Moore's MCL injury putting him out of commission, the backup tight ends had to step up, and man oh man did Funchess do that. I will need a second viewing to see how he did while blocking, but given his frame, I'd have to guess not all that well. Regardless, it is nice having an above average receiving threat at the tight end position.
  • Denard Robinson as religious experience. Few feelings in my sports watching life surpass what I feel when Denard breaks into the open field. Michael Jordan with the ball on the final possession, Charles Woodson soaring through the air for a one-handed interception, maybe Devin Hester returning a kickoff or a punt for a score in the most circuitous manner possible...these are the only things in the same stratosphere. It was only Air Force, sure, but once Michigan is back to bludgeoning people with a power running attack and an accurate but statuesque quarterback, you'll be asking for a little bit of that excitement that we once knew. Per the "Notes" section on MGoBlue, Denard is the first player since 1996 to have three games of 200+ yards rushing and passing to his name.
  • The youth movement. The notion of guys like Pipkins, Ross, and Bolden getting serious playing time, let alone starting, is kind of a scary one. Clearly they have done well enough in practice to merit the playing time that they've gotten, but they also wouldn't be playing if the starters weren't failing. I want Will Campbell to succeed just like everybody else, but it just might not be in the cards. Similarly, Morgan's hold on his position, which was already fairly tenuous, has got to be all but gone at this point. He has looked slow, indecisive, and has whiffed on multiple occasions, with one leading directly to a touchdown in this one. Demens, on the other hand...I don't know. For a guy whose primary attribute was "is not Ezeh", he's looked a lot like Ezeh so far this season. I have a hard time believing Michigan will roll with to freshmen linebackers going forward, but if the second half is any indication, that might be exactly what we're in for.
  • Clock management. This is a minor concern, but Hoke could have managed those timeouts at the end of the first half just a little bit better. Michigan should have been able to come away with a field goal but needless wasted at least 15 seconds or so despite having two timeouts. Again, minor concern, especially as there is no reason to believe that this is part of some ongoing trend.
  • Devin Gardner. Week 2 was another step forward, especially after an Alabama game in which he looked exactly like a game that was new to the position (his TD notwithstanding). Also of note: this may not say much about Michigans receivers as a whole, but Gardner is clearly getting open because Denard is targeting him more than anybody else. Gardner's routes were a little crisper this week, and he showed some smarts on his TD catch, settling into the unoccupied area in the end zone, minding the white space, and making the easy catch. If DG can continue to incrementally improve, he will be a very formidable receiver by the time things get really tough.
  • Illegal motion? I know I'm not the only one that noticed this, but AFA was doing some things pre-snap that seemed, uh...against the rules of football? Perhaps I need to brush up on my knowledge of the rulebook, but on the touchdown in the video above, the AFA blocker motions forward before the snap, giving him the momentum to get out to the second level and cut Kovacs, essentially forcing Ryan into a losing 1-vs.-2 proposition. Also, generic griping about the legality of some of those cut blocks goes here, but I think it's unreasonable and somewhat impossible to expect the refs to catch every instance of this. Thankfully, Michigan won't have to go up against this again this year.