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Michigan-Alabama: You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band

I mean, just look at this picture.
I mean, just look at this picture.

Sometimes an underdog can, with a keen sense of the reality, in theory and practice, of his inferiority, wield his slingshot with a quiet and deadly accuracy. The stone is hurled and the giant across the way doesn't see it until he falls to the ground, the tiny, innocuous bit of rock laying there, and the underdog standing five, then lengths away, only looking much larger due to his eclipsing of the mid-day sun, a glow encircling the outline of his head like a Medieval portrait. The giant reels, feeling at the now crimson mark at which the glancing blow was delivered without alarum. The giant becomes an empty shell, a conduit for the circulation of unadulterated shock.

This was not one of those times. Far more often than not, the Monstars win, and the good guys spend the rest of their lives serving as the objects of petty and demeaning entertainment for bratty alien children. Most of the time, the favorite wins, beating back the creeping infinitesimal odds with the blunt instrument of his choice: a coach for whom a 5-yard penalty signifies the fall of an empire, an offensive line that I imagine is not unlike the end result of handing Genghis Khan a fleet of tanks, and a defense that subsists upon the sulphurous fumes left in its wake after a third down stop.

I love this Michigan team--and every other Michigan team that has ever played (yes, even you 2008)--more than any rational person should love a sports team comprised of human beings who I will never meet or know in any way. We are college football fans, so reason is not within our arsenal, anyhow. Beyond the adulation and cathartic yelling that comes with watching your team succeed, filling a box score with numbers and statistics like numerical shots of serotonin, there exists another sort of happiness. Not so much happiness, really, but raw, uncut respect.

Watching Vincent Smith carry the ball into the teeth of an Alabama defense built to stop tailbacks much more explosive and at least fifty pounds heavier than him. Watching Devin Gardner become a wide receiver slowly and awkwardly before finally reeling in a score, a salvo of hope lost in the din. Watching Denard Robinson move, a corporeal manifestation of pain, coughing up rusty parts like cars will do in cartoons when they break down. He dove and twisted and collided, all the while knowing that all of this was futile. Say what you will about wins and losses, passing efficiency, relative conference strength, and so on: the effort was there, and that's what makes this so difficult.

One day, things will look much better. However, on Saturday night, fiction met reality, and the former disintegrated into so much dust.

Let's get a couple things out of the way. First, the team that Michigan played on Saturday night was that good. Ask practically every team that has gone up against the Tide in the Nick Saban era and they will confirm this before asking, seized by a paroxysm of panic, "WAIT WHAT IS ALABAMA HERE RIGHT NOW I'M OUT MAN." Ask Tyler Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor, and many, many others. There is no shame in losing to such a team--even to lose that badly--when you survey the excellent teams (many of them much better than this Michigan team) that Alabama has dispatched in recent years. It's still very early in the season, but Michigan probably just lost to the best team in the country, and it might not be all that close.

Second, this has been mentioned ad nauseam since the game ended, but for the sake of preserving a little bit of perspective and maybe a little sanity: this is the best team Michigan is going to play all year. Michigan just played a game of NCAA on Heisman difficulty against a guy who spends every waking moment playing the game and studying its intricacies (yes, i just compared Nick Saban to a video game addict). The rest of Michigan's season will be played on All-American (or, in several cases, Varsity or Junior Varsity).

Anyway, that's enough of that. Wasting anymore time explaining to you how bad this was or the fact that we are going to be okay in the grand scheme of things is a gesture as futile as trying to run the football on an Alabama defense. You get it. Let's talk about football.

The Offense

This offense, called by Al Borges and run by Denard Robinson, is one partially doomed to certain philosophical inefficiencies.* Borges's "comfort zone" with respect to knowing how to utilize a quarterback like Denard is well-documented. We all love Denard, and he is still a pretty good college quarterback most of the time, not to mention an incredibly exciting one.

With that inefficiency in mind, I will also say that Al Borges clearly knows more about football than any of us fans, tapping away at our keyboards, dispensing ill-conceived football protips with each other in the echo chamber that is the Internet. On a rational level--again, rational level--I don't have much interest in seriously asking "why didn't we do that?" or "why did we do that so many times?" Stop it. On an irrational level (i.e. during the game), sure, even the most well-reasoned among us will dip into the well of derp-infused water from time to time. I'm not saying that he (or any big time coordinator) is infallible or immune to criticism. Even a layman can get a general idea about play calling trends and what things work or don't work. What the layman cannot do is point a finger at what doesn't work and propose something that does work. This is usually because most of us, even the supposedly knowledgeable amateur Xs and Os enthusiasts, do not possess even a tiny sliver of the game planning knowledge and experience that a guy like Borges does, a guy who has been an OC at the college level for over 25 years now.

The gameplan was simultaneously simple and complex. We knew that running the ball would be difficult, and that running it between the tackles, specifically, would be nearly impossible. Given the relative inexperience in the secondary, Michigan's only shot at scoring enough points to make this a game was attacking downfield with the pass, hoping that Denard would connect on a few long bombs and that maybe he could get into some sort of rhythm on the intermediate routes and screen passes. Problem #1: you need a player like Chad Henne, Drew Henson, Tom Brady, or Elvis Grbac to execute such a gameplan. Problem #2: Michigan does not have anybody even somewhat like those players on this current roster. Problem #3: Michigan has Denard Robinson, the antithesis of the aforementioned players. Problem #4: Michigan's starting running back was out, forcing Denard to be even more Denardian. And, Problem #5, perhaps the worst one of all: given the strength of the Alabama defense, its only relative "weakness" being in the secondary, Al Borges had no choice but to deply Denard as if he actually was Brady, Henne, Henson, etc. That, of course, is not a recipe for success, but I'm not sure what Borges was supposed to do, as frustrating as it was while to watch unfold.

Denard finished 11/26 through the air, good for 200 yards and 1 TD plus a pair of interceptions. It was hard to watch at times, knowing that Alabama was basically forcing Michigan's hand, but there were some bright spots. Although it was a mostly bleak performance, there were some bright spots for Denard. For example, here's one textbook example of him "fighting" the rush (something that Borges harped on during the offseason) and hitting Gallon near the sideline for the first down:

2012 Alabama vs. Michigan 2nd Half (via mgovideo)

The 71-yard strike to Jeremy Gallon was one of the more impressive throws Denard has made in his career to date. Either Herbstreit or Musberger remarked that it didn't seem like the Alabama defense thought Denard could throw it that far...well, he can. That has never been the problem. As we all know, it's always been about accuracy (rather, a lack thereof) with Denard.

Denard overthrew receivers on a number of occasions, off the mark on throws that a senior QB should probably be making. However, it's not like his receivers did him any favors. Roundtree looked like 2011 Rountree again, although you'd be remiss if you didn't tip your cap to the Alabama secondary, Saban's pet project. If you whittled away at the total sum of the memory of this game, the one play that survives is Dee Milliner simply pushing Roy Roundtree aside like he was made of air before coming down and absorbing Denard's projectile tackle attempt like it was a minor inconvenience (p.s. Denard, DON'T DO THAT AGAIN).

I will admit, watching Michigan continue to run Vincent Smith between the tackles produced a visceral rage that reminded me of last season's adventures. In time, this anger did gave way to the understanding that there really were no other options. Smith is not a feature back. We know this. Still, on this day, he was Michigan's only non-Denard option on the ground with Toussaint out. That this is fact while Alabama trots out four above average tailbacks in Lacy, Fowler, Yeldon, and Hart kind of sums up where we are relative to Alabama (and most other elite teams in college football).

Rawls has been unimpressive thus far in his career, and this game didn't do much to change that. To be fair, the blocking wasn't there, but having him attack in any direction that is not north and south is a bad idea (whether by design on stretch runs or by Rawls's volition). I look forward to him trucking a Big Ten linebacker or two this season, but he is just not getting the corner against most good teams, let alone Alabama. I do have to say that that failed option play to Rawls on 3rd and 1 (the play before the overturned Denard scramble) is the kind of thing that looks like a stroke of genius if it works. If you're going to do that, attacking the short side is what you want to do. Unfortunately, as Alabama did all game, Adrian Hubbard played it perfectly, forcing Denard to pitch to Rawls, who was summarily clobbered by strong safety Vinnie Sunseri, who isn't Mark Barron but is still very, very good.

2012 Alabama vs. Michigan 2nd Half (via mgovideo)

As tough as it was to watch, Michigan did actually fare a little better against Alabama than many others teams have in recent years. A SEC competition, Alabama gave up 1.79 YPC last season, whereas Michigan came in for 2.4 per (woo?). Michigan amassed 200 yards through the air, 82 more than Alabama's 2011 defense's average per game of 118.4 per. Lastly, Michigan was able to score 14 without its starting running back, which was equal to or more than any 2011 'Bama opponent not named Georgia Southern. The pain and suffering that Alabama's defense has inflicted on college football as a whole is something that would make Cormac McCarthy blush. The Kid quivers in fear and The Judge is coerced into some semblance of forced sanity by the mere thought of the Alabama defense.

Most of that last paragraph is faint praise, to be sure, but let's try and look on the bright side of life. /whistles

*By this I mostly mean the translation of Borges's playcalling to the skill set of a guy like Denard. It is unreasonable and impossible to expect Borges to be completely familiar with the minutiae of the spread option offense when that is simply not his background. Of course, Borges is no fool, and he knows that he has to make an effort to maximize Denard's abilities even though it might not be within his comfort zone.

The Defense

The defense's struggles, on the other hand, were doubly frustrating. For a brief moment, hope existed after Michigan forced Alabama to go three and out on its opening drive. Will Campbell and the rest of the line got blown back a few yards on the first play of the game before recovering to hold Eddie Lacy to a gain of only one. After a drop by Lacy on second, Michigan hurried McCarron, forcing him to throw it into the the 8th row on third down. Cue Temptation. Ah, those were simpler times.

Then, things got pretty real. It's not that I didn't expect Alabama to run the ball with relative ease, it's just a lot more difficult to accept it when it actually happens and you look at the numbers when the dust has settled. Excising McCarron's four carries (two of which were sacks), Alabama ran the ball 38 times for a whopping 232 yards. The last time Michigan gave up a number on the ground that large, it was against OSU in 2010 (258, in case you were wondering). It was brutally efficient and awesome in the non-colloquial sense of the word, as in it inspired legitimate awe by virtue of its unrelenting drive. Everything that everybody has said about that Alabama offensive line is true. You know how people will say stupid things from time to time about how the best team in college football could compete against the [insert whatever cellar-dwelling NFL team is particularly horrible that year]? Those statements are always stupid, but this one isn't: Alabama's OL actually looked like a second-string NFL line from Kouandjio at left tackle to DJ Fluker on the right side. It's really no wonder, as Jones, Warmack, and Fluker will all be top picks, Kouandjio will be one when it's time for him to enter the draft, and Steen is no slouch himself.

The disappointing, albeit mostly unsurprising, aspect of this game was the back seven. The DL was blown off the ball with regularity, and so the linebackers needed to fill in and pick up the slack. Nobody said it would be aesthetically appealing or even all that successful, but it was understood that the linebackers (and secondary if the Alabama backs made it to their level, which they did very often) would have to show up big. That did not happen whatsoever. People will say that various guys made "uncharacteristic" mistakes--Kovacs, for example--but that line is mostly bunk because Alabama is not a team that any of these guys have faced. Saying that a missed tackle by a typically reliable player like Kovacs implies that most of the agency here was on Michigan's side when in reality Alabama was the one with pocket aces: Alabama would have to beat themselves for Michigan to have a shot, and they didn't.

Is there really much more to say? Missed tackles upon missed tackles at the second level made watching this game like being transported back to 2009 or 2010. Wave after wave of Alabama running backs came in and ran three or four yards before anyone in a winged helmet was in the same area code, let alone in position to make a play. There are few things in sports that are worse than watching your team get grounded to a fine powder by a dominant rushing attack. When Michigan brought the blitz, McCarron simply made the veteran play.

2012 Alabama vs. Michigan 1st Half (via mgovideo)

To make matters worse, Blake Countess went down in the first quarter, and Alabama almost immediately attacked his replacement, Courtney Avery. I've always been a big fan of Avery and I think there's no doubt that he is a fine nickelback, but a little shimmy from DeAndrew White stopped him in his tracks. A few seconds later, and White was waltzing into the end zone after Avery did his best Shawn Springs circa 11/23/1996 impression. I think better days are ahead for Avery, but with Countess now being out for the season, he'll need to step up big ti--OH WHO AM I KIDDING AHHHH. On a serious note, Avery will be fine, but losing Countess in a game that doesn't matter vis-a-vis the B1G race is just so sad.

Not much went well on defense, but, on the bright side, Michigan did produce an okay pass rush at times, even without Frank Clark's services. Jake Ryan was invisible most of the time, but he did hurry McCarron on a few occasions, forcing him to throw it into the stands. It's not like McCarron needed to have a transcendent game, and he made the plays that needed to be made, but 11/21 for 199 yards...well, it could've been worse. Countess was absolutely not the difference in the game by any means, but it definitely would've been interesting to see if he could've hung with Alabama's deep and talented receiving corps.

The following words have never been more apropos when it comes to Michigan football: so it goes.

Special Teams

You know that you're grasping at straws when the punter's play is something you're singling out as good, but Hagerup was excellent, booting 6 for an average of 51.3 per punt and a long of 62. Unfortunately, Michigan was never close enough to the point that flipping the field ever mattered much, but after his issues last season, this is a good sign.

Also, I will say what probably every Michigan fan has said at least 384 times since the game ended: NORFLEET! Sorry, I needed to compensate here for the doom and gloom everywhere else in this post. On a serious note, Norfleet looked as fast and shifty as advertised, and I really hope that Borges can find a role for him on offense. If he can block anywhere nearly as well as Smith then he is Smith 2.0, no question Jim. His numbers aren't as impressive as you would think (7 returns, 22.1 yards per return, long of 33), but he looked like a legitimate kick returner, something that we haven't had since Stonum. Given the new rules and Alabama's seeming inability to kick it through the end zone, whether Norfleet can make contributions like this on kickoffs remains to be seen, but the future is definitely bright for #26.

Other straws at which I am grasping: Matt Wile had a nice day on kickoffs. He has quite the leg; with the new kickoff rules in effect, Michigan can probably eliminate the opponent's kick return game more often than not.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

This will be the section where I cover any stray thoughts, wild conjecture, or excess emotion not yet vented. In bullet form:

  • T.J. Everybody knew that he was an enormous talent, but I was quite honestly not expecting him to produce as much as he did on Saturday. I joked all offseason that an arthritic turtle could probably run for at least 4 ypc behind that line and, well...Yeldon is pretty much the complete opposite of an arthritic turtle.
  • 2010 Taylor Lewan. Lewan reverted back to his pre-2011 form, committing multiple penalties (although the one during which Rawls's facemask was pulled should've been offsetting) before eventually getting dinged up later in the game. Michigan's pass protection was far from the worst thing it did in this game, but this was not Lewan's finest day to say the least.
  • Mealer to center. I am not sure how to feel about this. I don't think much can be gleaned from this game in general other than Alabama being several orders of magnitude better than Michigan, so by extension I'm not sure there's much to say about individual or collective line play other than "it was bad."
  • Praise for Jeremy Gallon. Hey, how about some positive stuff! Gallon is the man, and it looks like he is picking up the Tiny RR Receiver That I Somewhat Irrationally Think Is The Greatest torch from Martavious Odoms. Gallon had four receptions for 107 yards on the day. Until the Devin Gardner Death Star is fully operational, Gallon is without a doubt Michigan's best receiver...the RR era still casts tiny, 5'8''-sized shadows all over the place.
  • Containment. I meant to mention this before, but in the first quarter (and beyond, I'm sure, but I mostly noticed it earlier on) it seemed pretty obvious that Alabama's front wasn't really making a real effort to get upfield. Remember the play in the red zone against Iowa last season when Denard ran around for approximately 12 years before hitting an open Toussaint for the score? It was basically that all day only with much crazier stuff happening behind the DL as opposed to Parker's fairly static two-high zone. Unless you're Michigan State, I don't think there's really much reason for teams to do anything different..of course, it's easier said than done. Herbstreit referred to it as a "wall" forcing Denard to remain in an artificial pocket of sorts. That was a wall alright.
  • DAVE BRANDON AHHH. I don't claim to speak for the blog as a whole, so I'll speak for myself: if you're complaining about the scheduling of this game, you need to think things through a little more. Come on. You have to beat the best to be the best and all that stuff. This was like being a little kid and having to take that bitter medicine that you never wanted to take but had to. It doesn't feel good now, but it will become a positive in the long run.
  • Brady Hoke really hates shirts that are red. Michigan really emptied out the bench in this one. I'm not going to question the redshirting philosophy here, because some guys just need to play even if they're not ready or it's only special teams work. It just seems inevitable that in a few years we're going to be wishing that one or two of these guys had not played this year. Among many others, James Ross, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Joe Bolden, Jarrod Wilson, Mario Ojemudia, Ondre Pipkins, and Terry Richardson made it onto the field for the defense. Welcome to college football, guys. One notable absence that I figured might get in was Kyle Kalis. Lastly, Amara Darboh apparently played, but I admittedly don't remember seeing him out there.
  • Devin Gardner: raw, as expected. He looked like a guy playing wide receiver in a game for the first time. However, to make a TD grab in your first game against a team like that is no small feat. I'm not really sure what Gardner's stat line will ready by season's end, but I think it's pretty obvious that Devin is going to be a major contributor on the outside.
  • Talkin' 'bout hangovers (not that kind). With an option team in Air Force coming to Ann Arbor this coming Saturday, get ready for an entire week of TRAP GAME and "Michigan needs to be careful because hangovers" talk. I'm being sarcastic, but Michigan does need to be careful. I get the feeling that this will be one of those annoying games where an inferior team sticks around for way too long (e.g. 2009 Eastern Michigan). A solid performance from the linebackers, who I'm expecting will be very busy, would do wonders for recouping its image as a solid group.