I was chatting with Space Coyote earlier this morning about the game last week, and after we both admitted that we really didn't want to watch the game a second time, we started to talk about some of the things that went wrong. I had mentioned the same point to someone a couple days ago: essentially, we didn't learn anything new. The problems that we saw on Saturday are the same ones that had been there in varying degrees against Central Michigan and Notre Dame. It was just a weird confluence of events, a hangover, and a few bad breaks. This win proved that Michigan Isn't as good as it looked against Notre Dame, but that game also shows that Michigan is better than it showed against Akron.
There may not be a lot of new things to learn from this game, but for the purposes of closure and maintaining sanity, figuring out exactly what the hell went wrong will probably do us all some good.
Turnovers kept the game close
The first thing everyone brought up in the aftermath was App State. I get that. It is really the seminal moment in the crumbling of Michigan's mid-aughts football empire, and the one thing that opposing fans will immediately jump to. However, if you really watched this game and managed to make it through the 2008 Toledo game, you'd be hard pressed to find a more fitting comparison.
Both games were defined by turnovers. Sure, Michigan didn't play very well on defense, letting Akron move the ball much more easily than it should have been able to, and the offense moved in fits and starts, but think about the point swings that Michigan gave up with its first and last turnover.
- 2nd and 4 from the Akron 10. Devin Gardner fumbles on a speed option that likely goes for a touchdown if he pitches, or at least ends up three points if he gets stuffed. -7 for Michigan.
- 3rd and 9 from the Michigan 30. Devin Gardner throws an interception on a screen pass that Akron takes back for a touchdown. +7 for Akron.
In all likely hood, that is a 14 point swing. Instead of squeaking by 28-24, Michigan wins more comfortably at 35-17, or at least if you remove the pick six at the beginning of the fourth, Michigan has a mildly comfortable two score lead instead of having to win a dog fight.
The story is almost always the same with these big upsets: turnovers change the game. Michigan nearly gave away the game with two plays. That's the difference between an underwhelming win against an over-matched team, and a nail-biter that has everyone running for the hills.
Michigan got behind the chains early
The numbers are a bit deceiving. Michigan rushed for 5.5 yards per carry as a team, but a large part of that was thanks to a pair of big runs from Devin Gardner. If you look at the tailback only runs, Fitz Toussaint led the way with 19 carries for 71 yards and a 3.7 yards/carry average. Against Akron that is pretty terrible, and while Fitz was probably still Michigan's best offensive player on the day because of what he was able to do to pick up yards with little or no help from his blocking, all of this adds up to a bigger issue.
Michigan was 3 of 10 on third down conversions. Would it surprise you to learn that two of those conversions came on Michigan's first drive? Probably not. Those conversions were also on a third-and-six and a third-and-four. Manageable distances.
The rest of the game Michigan had eight chances to convert third downs. Five were 10 or more yards. None of those were converted. Two more were nine yards. Neither converted. One was third-and-seven and was converted. Devin Gardner was 2 of 7 on third down attempts after the first drive with two interceptions plus one scramble that ended seven yards short of the sticks.
Here is how those seven third downs that weren't completed were set up.
|3rd Down Situation
|1st down result
|2nd down result
|Run (+2 yards)
|Run (-2 yards)
|Run (-1 yard)
|Run (+1 yard)
|Run (+1 yard)
|3rd-17 (run, short)
|Run (+3 yards)
|Sack (-10 yards)
|3rd-9 (pass, short)
|Run (+1 yard)
|Run (0 yards)
To set up Michigan's seven unsuccessful third down attempts, the Wolverines ran the ball eight times for five yards, took one sack for -10 yards, and threw five incomplete passes.
Furthermore, five of those seven eventual failed first down attempts came after runs of less than two yards. Michigan's run game put it in some bad situations on first down and the team failed to recover.
Michigan's offense looked ineffective for long stretches on Saturday, and getting behind the chains early was a death-knell for the Wolverines that led to four punts, two interceptions, and a missed field goal. That is a lot of wasted opportunities.
Akron made some incredible plays
Credit where credit is due, Akron absolutely made this game as tough on Michigan as it could.
The Zips' two running backs combined for 101 yards on 24 carries, which rounds out to 4.2 yards/carry and isn't a bad day against this Michigan offense, especially when you consider that the long runs were 19 and 12 yards and that most of the day Akron chipped away just enough yardage to keep itself in a good position (unlike what Michigan's offense would do).
On top of that Kyle Pohl had himself a day. Excusing his one costly interception in the end zone, and another that was tipped right to Countess (who must have built up some good karma last season while sitting out rehabbing his knee), Pohl was mostly on target. He put one receiver over 100 yards and nearly got another one there. His two second half fade routes down the right sideline were just dead on throws.
On the other side of the ball, Akron did a good job getting into Michigan's young offensive line and not allowing the Wolverines to get easy blocks. Quick penetration absolutely killed Michigan in this one, and a lot of that was Akron doing the right things to make life hard on Michigan, and Michigan not adjusting. This was just enough harassment to put Michigan behind the chains and force Gardner to make some tough throws against tight coverage. For some reason, this didn't work out as well against Akron as it did against Notre Dame.
Special teams look anything but special
Okay, so Gibbons missed a field goal. These things happen, and just because we aren't used to it doesn't mean its anything but one missed field goal in 17 tries. Also, it was a 45 yarder, so it wasn't a chip shot.
Nope, the real issue is the punt team. Matt Wile punted four times. Two of those punts were 21 and 22 yard shanks. Another was an underwhelming 35 yarder.
The first punt, a 21-yarder from deep in Michigan territory set Akron up for a field goal after a quick three-and-out. That's -3 points thanks to Wile.
His second punt went 54 yards and you can't really put Akron's ensuing touchdown drive on him. Pass.
Third punt? Thirty-five yards to the Akron 39. Two plays later the Zips are on the goal line. Not totally on Wile but Y U NO PUNT IT FARTHER?
Last punt? From Michigan's 45 with a chance to pin Akron deep while still up 21-17, Wile boots one a paltry 22 yards to set Akron up with fine field position at the Zips 33 yard line. This would be the go ahead touchdown drive. Again, not all his fault, but a missed opportunity.
So, we can attribute three Akron points to Wile, as well as blame him for the good field position on two different Akron drives that ended up going deep into Michigan territory (Wilson stole one with his INT, the other was the go ahead touchdown).
In a game as close as this, Michigan desperately needed an advantage in field position. Wile gave that away on three of his four punts, and handed Akron a good opportunity for a long field goal.
Devin Gardner's collapsing confidence
This isn't all on Gardner, but when the wheels are coming off you need your best player and start quarterback to get things back on track. Gardner didn't do that. From my conversation with Space Coyote earlier today:
Me: It's weird that Gardner looked so flustered after the ND game when he handled the pressure well and got the ball out over hte middle with no problem
SC: I actually think the opponent was part of DG's troubles. Michigan wasn't supposed to struggle with Akron.
Gardner knew that. So when he made a few bad throws he started pressing, really trying to get on his read and hit that pass over the middle. Against better competition, he likely would have said "it happens, can't do it again"
Me: That makes sense. I wonder what the coaches could do in that situation to head this off at the pass.
SC: Borges tried to give him some easy passes again before going back over the middle, but none of the passes were really coming easy because of Akron's coverage. I mean, run game would help, maybe even get to the QB run earlier; get his confidence up that way. I think one thing that was clearly different was how upset he was in this game after turnovers compared to other ones.
A lot of things went wrong in this game, as evidenced above. Michigan's offense struggled to get much rhythm generated early in possessions, a pair of badly timed turnovers robbed Michigan of a potential 14 points swing, and the punting (plus a missed field goal) put an extra burden on both the offense and defense to deliver.
Instead of taking it in stride, Gardner showed some struggles that one would expect from a quarterback still getting comfortable as a starter — one whose strengths are his athleticism and not his technique and ability to read defenses. Michigan's second quarter drives ended: punt, missed field goal, fumble, interception, interception. Two of those turnovers came in scoring position. Reverse those and throw in the made field goal and Michigan is going into the locker room up 24-3 and its all business as usual. Instead, Gardner feels everything falling apart slowly and he tries to force things in an effort to will the team back. However, he isn't doing it within the offense. He is throwing the ball late and making bad reads. By the time the second half comes and Michigan gets him heavily involved in the run game, its too late. He still isn't dealing with pressure well and making all the throws he needs to. His passing by quarter:
Michigan's passing game fell apart in the second quarter and never really recovered.
After the Notre Dame game I described Devin Gardner's performance roughly like this:
Both of the off season's that Denard Robinson worked with Al Borges, I waited for the breakout. I thought his ability as a quarterback would take a big leap because he was working with someone that focused more on the things that really mattered to produce pocket passers. Watching Devin Gardner vs. Notre Dame was exactly what I expected Robinson's leap to look like. He was heady, athletic, and made plays down the field.
In the aftermath of the Akron game I could only think about how apt that statement was. This was as much a Denard Robinson passing game as I have seen out of Gardner. Early mistakes got to his head, his technique broke down, and he lost his timing on throws. He couldn't attack the middle of the field and couldn't deal with pressure. It was the worst of Denard all over again.
I don't think Devin Gardner is all of the sudden a bad quarterback, just like I didn't think he was a Heisman candidate after week two. He is still young and growing within this offense. When you have an unpolished quarterback with this much potential, sometimes you just have to take the good with the bad and wait for the improvement that should be on its way.
Devin Gardner will have bad days and good days. I think his performance against Notre Dame signals that there are many more good days than bad days ahead. However, the all-around breakdown against Akron is also worrisome. If Michigan doesn't do much to help him, Gardner will be put in situations where he can't succeed as easily.
It is important to remember that this is still a very young team. The interior of the offensive line now has a combined nine starts. There are three contributors on the defensive line that are coming off redshirt years and three more that only played as reserves a year ago as freshmen. The tight ends are all too young and too small (or too injured) and the defensive backfield can't play lock down coverage without more of a pass rush.
The sky is not falling, but as much as we all wanted to recalibrate expectations after Notre Dame, it was too soon. This team still has a lot of growing up to do.
One last thing from my conversation with Space Coyote:
Me: I mean, if the last two games prove anything, it is that this team is both very young and very talented, and sometimes the talent will show through if it is correctly focused, and sometimes the youth will win out and it will look sloppy. Expecting consistent production out of some of these young players is asking a lot.
SC: That's very true. You see the potential and the flashes, but it's just consistency executing assignment that is lacking.
On to the next one.