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Michigan-UMass: The Kids Are Alright

"I'll ask you again since you may not have heard me the first time: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?"
"I'll ask you again since you may not have heard me the first time: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?"

It was the type of day that, for all of the mostly cogent complaints about playing these sorts of games, exuded a calm, comforting glow. It seems like a strange thing to say, but these sorts of games offer a certain equilibrium to things, a thing that is not often found in the world of college football. On a cynical level, yes, these games are like 3-hour documentaries on the vast gulf that separates college football's haves from its have nots, the strutting aristocrats from the Oliver Twists, begging for some more (in this case, replace "more porridge" with a sizable paycheck and the chance to play in the Big House).

I would not necessarily upset if these sorts of games were eliminated entirely, and I don't think that the onus should be placed on the shoulders of schools like Michigan to, so to speak, assist the finances of smaller schools. Then again, like everything else, there is supply and demand: BCS schools have a demand for a stress-free win or two per season and schools like UMass are more than willing to be that supply. Capital is exchanged and a service is provided. The process is clean and the underlying rationale is understood by both parties, risks and non-risks alike. It is a simultaneously agreeable and unsatisfying exchange. It reminds me of the Jim Gaffigan joke about going to McDonald's and hoping to not be seen by anyone you know, what with the shame associated with it and all. In light of the long list of these sorts of games played every September (e.g. Savannah State's contests against Oklahoma State and Florida State), it is college football's version of the trip to McDonald's and its accompanying consternation. You go in, order your UMass quarter pounder with cheese, and just hope that nobody notices what you've done. You take it home and eat it, in silence and probably in the dark, hoping that the ensuing general malaise and/or stomach ache goes away in time for next week's trip to Ruth's Chris a football school somewhere in the same neighborhood of the college football hierarchy as you.

This all means that: a) yes, there is a not insignificant amount of cynicism inherent to these sorts of games and b) I'm probably hungry.

Like I said, however, it's not all cynicism, suspiciously searching eyes, and shame. There is something soothing about going into a game without even a vague sense of discomfort, with the notion that the outcome has already been decided and that, for three or so hours, we are simply conduits of pure joy and appreciation for this school, this team, and this town that we all love for many of the same reasons.

The sun shone down through clear skies on a 70 degree day in Ann Arbor. The shade, a landlocked patch of cool dark, extended down upon the west side of the stadium. The field, soaked in the sun's clean and purifying rays, stood distinct, the lines and the block M divulging an unspoken but obvious sentiment; that is, that all of this is good, and it could never be anything else, even when it is.

The Offense

Now that I've finished my stroll down Nostalgia Lane, I suppose I should talk about football now. After getting thumped by UConn and Indiana, the expectations for this game on the offensive side of the ball were fairly clear: get Toussaint going, keep Denard's carry number as low as possible, and just generally bring the pain. Thankfully, Michigan spared us a blogosphere flooded with panicked comment sections by going out and doing all of those things just about as crisply and efficiently as one could hope for.

Denard carried the ball only ten times, eclipsing the 100-yard mark with 106 yards, a long of 36, and a touchdown. It was a classically Denardian performance (no, Eric Collins, Denard is most certainly not kidding you). His shoe came off on a long run once again and did you know that he doesn't tie his shoes and that's why his nickname is Shoelace?? Well, now you know, person who doesn't know anything about anything. In any case, it was one of those games where you had the feeling that Denard could have run past the defense while wearing hockey skates and a Medieval coat of armor.

More importantly, Denard was precise and looked comfortable in the passing game. Yes, Michigan receivers were hilariously wide open (imagine the "oh wide open" Manningham touchdown against Notre Dame in 2006 and that pretty much sums up the openness of Michigan's receivers in Saturday), but hey, the ball still has to get there. I'm pretty sure Michigan's receivers could have played the game like this...


...and still made a few plays downfield. I know John Donne said that "no man is an island", but Michigan's receivers were pretty much islands unto themselves, free from the bothersome meddling of defensive backs (p.s. You probably just read the first John Donne reference on a college football blog of all time: history!)

When Denard is on, his zip and precision on those slant and dig routes is actually much better than you would ordinarily think. Of course, it was just UMass, and Denard had enough time to wait in line during Zingerman's busiest hour, have several fevered debates about the viability of renewable energies, and write a dissertation about exactly how he would beat Usain Bolt in a 40-yard dash. I could include the "but it's just UMass" caveat after every point, so, for the purposes of this post let's just make this the last time I reference it.

After three quarters of play before a fourth quarter spent letting his dreads catch some rays, Denard went 16-24 for 291 yards, three touchdowns, and a long of 66 to Drew Dileo. Not to delve too far into sportswriter cliche land, but these sorts of games are good for a quarterback like Denard. Like a slugger mired in an extended slump, it's good to see the ball go over the fence once or twice in order to get back into the swing (GET IT) of things. For Denard, completing these sorts of zippy 8-10 yard passes and continuing to build a growing rapport with receivers like Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess (at this point, he might as well be termed a receiver) can only be a good thing, the level of competition notwithstanding.

One of only a few blemishes on the day came on a fumble at the the goal line during the final drive of the first half, as the ball got dislodged in the at some point during the scrum after Denard attempted to extend it over the line. Fortunately, Michigan recovered for the score*, so crisis averted there. The other mistake of note led to UMass's only touchdown of the day, a pick 6. Insert the commonly proffered words about footwork, mechanics, and so on, but Denard threw it well behind Jeremy Jackson, who was streaking a step or two past his man down the right side of the field. At this point, all you can really say is that Denard is going to make mistakes like this from time to time, and you just have to hope that they don't end up sending the opponent points and/or a win in a tidy gift box with a maize and blue bow.

Otherwise, everything else went swimmingly. Fitz Toussaint did his jukin', jump-cuttin' thing (jump to 2:44 at the video below, as always via mgovideo) en route to 15 carries and 87 yards in three quarters of play. He picked up his first touchdown of the season, an 11-yard run near the end of the first quarter, and his first reception of the year (a 17-yarder, two plays before the aforementioned touchdown). Fitz has never been a prolific pass catcher (this one was only the 7th reception of his career), so if he can offer anything in that facet of the offense, consider it a very good sign indeed, especially what with the receivers still being somewhat unproven.

Otherwise, it was a classic "smashing victory", as Bo would've said. Michigan exercised the primary tenet of preschool life, that being that sharing is good. Nine different players caught passes, and seven non-Lewan Wolverines made visits to the end zone. Vincent Smith, the toughest little guy this side of the Mississippi, joined in on the fun, scoring twice on three carries, thus boasting a touchdown percentage matching Denard's completion percentage of 66.6%. This probably means that Smith should get 30 carries next week against Notre Dame and man oh man I just heard of a rumble in the distance of fevered keyboard tapping YES I'M KIDDING OKAY GOODNESS.

This section has probably run its course. On to the defense!

*FAT. GUY. TOUCHDOWN. Yes, I know he's not fat but you are absolutely not going to deprive me of the opportunity to type those three words out in all of their glory.

The Defense

With Brennen Beyer and Desmond Morgan out (with a "head problem"), Frank Clark and James Ross got a chance to shine on Saturday, both recording their first college start. After putting up 6 combined points in UMass's first two games against the defensive powerhouses that are UConn and Indiana, Michigan held the Minutemen to six points (not including the Denard pick six). If you are actively looking for things to complain about re: the defense, you are probably: a) a Michigan coach (if so, why are you reading this blog, Coach?) or b) someone who doth protest too much.

Here's another thing that you probably didn't know. Are you ready? Mike Cox used to play for Michigan. I know. You learn something new every Saturday. Kidding aside, Cox actually had an okay game, carrying the ball 18 times for 76 yards, good for 4.2 YPC. He flashed the power and overall ability that many hoped would eventually translate into a solid Michigan career. Unfortunately for UMass, he was just about the only good thing going for the Minutemen on Saturday, and he didn't even reach the end zone.

Quarterback Mike Wegzyn went 14-29 for 149 yards, good for a fairly terrible 4.9 YPA. The Michigan defense, save for a missed tackle on the perimeter here and there, stifled what was already known to be an anemic offensive attack. Excluding the formality that was the second half, Michigan forced UMass to go three and out on its first two drives, essentially ending the game right then and there. The Minutemen were able to mount a nice 13-play, 66-yard drive near the end of the first quarter (extending into the second), getting as far as the Michigan 2-yard line before a 1-yard loss on first and goal and a holding penalty on second evaporated UMass's hopes of reaching the end zone. UMass had to settle for a field goal, and would have to do so again on its other respectable drive of the game, propelled by their biggest--and only, really--play of the day, a 33-yard flea flicker to Deion Walker (who transferred from Notre Dame, FWIW). UMass found themselves in a first and 10 situation on the Michigan 15, but three incomplete passes later led to yet another field goal.

Three of Michigan's top four tacklers were defensive backs (Gordon, Kovacs, and Avery), which would ordinarily not be a good thing but obviously didn't amount to a hill of beans this time around. Minus UMass's two field goal-capped drives, Michigan didn't give up any big plays other than the aforementioned flea flicker. The pass rush was strong, and Frank Clark continued to flash the raw ability that has very quickly made him one of the more exciting Michigan defenders in recent memory (not that that's saying much). He swatted a pass that was reminiscent of his Sugar Bowl interception (he had a second deflection early in the fourth quarter), minus the whole "catching the ball" part, he hurried Wegzyn, and he even found the time to tackle Mike Cox with one arm, a fact about which Eric Collins and Derek Rackley were clearly very excited.

The only thing Michigan didn't do was pick Wegzyn off, but given the pass rush and the number of passes that landed nowhere near a UMass receiver, this is not much of a concern at all. There is room to improve in the tackling department, especially at corner, but you could probably say that about any team in the country not named Alabama. Michigan's tackling as a whole will face a formidable test next week against Notre Dame's multi-headed rushing attack, which deploys Cierre Wood, George Atkinson III, Theo Riddick, and, of course, Everett Golson at quarterback. The Irish ran the ball against Michigan with relative ease last season, so everybody, from Will Campbell up front to Gordon and Kovacs in the back, will need to up their "physicalness", as Coach Hoke would put it.

Special Teams

Once again, not too much of note goes here. Brendan Gibbons didn't attempt a field goal, but was 8/8 on PATs. Seth Broekhuizen also chipped in a PAT of his own, meaning that he scored infinity times as many points as Mike Cox did (okay, that wasn't very nice).

Dennis Norfleet returned two kickoffs for a combined 44 yards, the longer of the two being a solid 27-yarder. Michigan only punted three times, but Hagerup did manage to boot a 60-yarder, which is encouraging. Thus far, special teams have been a net positive and at worst a non-negative, which is what they're supposed to be. Let's just hope they're not saving any of that residual 2008-2010 special teams derp for next week and beyond.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • The transformation is complete. Small sample size concerns apply, but Devin Gardner now has three touchdowns in as many games. I don't think that I'm really going out on a limb here when I say that he should have another good performance next week against a depleted Notre Dame secondary. Michigan will definitely need him to do just that, especially in the red zone when running the ball might become tough against that ND front seven. I've watched it so many times by now, but I still have no earthly idea how he was able to stay inbounds on his touchdown score.
  • Speaking of receivers...Jerald Robinson picked up his second reception of the season, a 9-yarder down the middle of the field. He also almost made a catch in the end zone that would have rivaled Devin Smith's one-handed snag against Miami (OH). He definitely looks the part of a college receiver but for whatever reason has just not been much of a factor despite the standard offseason practice reports. I get the feeling that he'll make an important catch at some point down the road, but for now he's well down the list of Denard's preferred options in the passing game.
  • Collins and Rackley. I'm not sure how many times they've shared a booth, but there were some pretty hilarious awkward pauses there...but maybe it's just me. For example, after Rackley's story about Denard wearing slippers, there was a solid 10+ seconds of silence before Collins said: "Well, the call is holding on Michigan..." I am running out of things to say about actual football right now.
  • A secret Dave Brandon conspiracy meant to confuse Michigan fans everywhere. The currently injured Brandon Moore was the latest to be knighted with the Michigan legend patch, and will now be donning Ron Kramer's #87 for the rest of the season. THANKS DAVE BRANDON FOR MAKING ME ASSIMILATE YET ANOTHER NUMBER CHANGE INTO MY WORLDVIEW YOU ARE THE WORST AND I AM AFRAID OF CHANGE.
  • Welcome to Division I college football. Seven Wolverines received their first snaps on Saturday, those being: Justice Hayes, Graham Glasgow, Curt Graman, Joe Kerridge, Kristian Mateus, Jordan Paskorz, and Steve Wilson (via MGoBlue). Hayes, obviously the headliner of this group, pitched in his first career touchdown in the fourth quarter. I've been a huge fan of his since he committed, so I'm hoping that can continue to carve out a role this season going forward.