1. Still Standing. Devin Gardner is still here. He got shipped off to WR for a spell, thrown back into the fire at QB, got bruised and beaten behind the worst offensive line of a generation, fought through David Carr Syndrome, got benched in favor of the new hotness, and then calmly steps back into the lineup. He is still here.
That is both good and bad, as it has always been. Gardner showed what he can do as the centerpiece of an offense that isn't afraid to move him around. He had seven rushes for 58 yards (8.2 ypc) and two touchdowns while completing 13 of his 22 passes for 178 yards (8.1 ypa). That Gardner was out-dueled by Gary Nova looks bad, but in his return to the lineup Gardner proved why he has been such a big part of Michigan's offensive success over the last two and a half years: he can make things happen at opportune times. His fourth quarter touchdown is classic Gardner. A waggle play that sees him immediately confronted by a defender who he gives a quick jab step to, which is just enough space to get the edge. He makes two players miss in pursuit to the sideline and trots into the endzone untouched.
His arm also looked solid in this one outside a bad interception that was more to be blamed on his footwork. Gardner hit a number of different receivers and had a decent amount of success throwing over the middle of the field to Funchess and Butt. It helped that Gardner got a couple nice plays from his receivers. Butt made the fantastic one-handed catch, Chesson pulled down a pass near the goal line under heavy duress, Funchess did Funchess things and Darboh caught a tough pass on third-and-nine that was incorrectly ruled incomplete, stalling Michigan's potential go-ahead drive.
Michigan can win games with Devin Gardner at quarterback, and had Michigan's pass defense not fallen apart (primarily in the second quarter when it gave up 186 yards on 10/18 passing leading to two Rutgers touchdowns), Gardner's day would have been enough. If nothing else, he has answered all doubts. Devin Gardner is Michigan's best option at quarterback the rest of the year, for better or worse.
2. Adaptation. One of the primary beefs around this place in this football season has been the Morris vs. Gardner debate, and a subsection of that debate has focused on the offense and what it should be. Arguments against Gardner often settled on his supposed inability to run the preferred type of offense. I think Michigan's gameplan on offense Saturday proves why this is not necessarily a concern.
Michigan has for the most part looked more comfortable in shotgun based offensive sets over the past two years with Gardner leading the offense. Michigan has few options at in-line TE, but lots of receivers and H-backs. It also wants to zone block and has a quarterback that can be used as a threat in the run game. Against Rutgers, Michigan focused more on this. It put Gardner in the gun, gave him time before the snap to make his reads and adjust, and as a whole Michigan's offense moved the ball a little smoother than it has in the past few games.
The college game is one about systems. The Oregon offense or Pat Narduzzi's defense are two great examples that spring to mind of a coaching staff having a defined identity and wanting to play to that. However, the college game is also about making adjustments to put non-professional athletes in the best position to win. Michigan's offense under Brady Hoke has fought against that tooth and nail, vacillating between force feeding the team whole games under center (pretty much every game against Iowa), and allowing the offense to spread out and work from the shotgun more. If Saturday's adjustments in terms of structure and tempo (about which, more later) hold up over the course of the season it could mean positive things for this offense.
3. Green Space. Derrick Green just can't seem to put together two games of the same thing. After looking inept against Minnesota, missing cuts and not finding extra yards through contact, he bounces back with one of the better games from a Michigan tailback this year. Green finished with 74 yards on 12 carries, lost just two yards on the day, and carried for an average of 6.2 yards per rush. That is the kind of production that helps Michigan move the chains consistently and actually put together scoring drives.
Green looked crisp in his cuts and ran through arm tackles well. It was an encouraging performance after a couple setbacks have left many questioning just how good he can be if he can't find his hole or trust his blocking. Michigan looked better prepared to set up holes in the run game, and Green decided Saturday was a good day to hit them. Let's hope this can continue against a stout Penn State defensive line.
There is nothing about that that is easy.
5. Fly the friendly skies. Michigan's pass defense once again looked shaky against a capable opponent. Where Minnesota sought to punish Michigan for overplaying the run game and Notre Dame wanted to neutralize any pass rush with quick passes behind pressure, Rutgers looked to throw the ball down the field and create big plays. That worked out very well against a Michigan passing defense more than willing to give up big plays. Whether it was an 80 yard bust by the safety letting a receiver behind him, or missed tackles that give up an additional 20 yards to a receiver that bounces off half of the team, Michigan looked overmatched in the secondary. Outside of Jourdan Lewis's continual lockdown of one side of the field, Michigan has seen busts by Countess, Taylor, everyone who plays safety, as well as the whole linebacking corp. Bad pursuit angles often turned bad into worse as catches went for more yards after Michigan players missed tackles.
Michigan is still without the services of Jabrill Peppers and Delano Hill, two promising young players that were getting high praise early in camp before injuries sidetracked their season. Michigan also desperately misses Desmond Morgan's presence at linebacker. Morgan has been a mainstay for the last three years and knows the defense better than anyone. He is also one of Michigan's more effective options underneath in pass defense when he is on the field.
It remains to be seen how much better Michigan's injured players could make this team, but that hardly matters in the short term. Michigan needs to find answers with what it has or some of the better offenses in the conference that lurk on the back end of the schedule are going to eat this defense alive.
6. The wall. One thing Michigan can still hang its hat on is an effective run defense. The Wolverines did a good job containing the tailback running game, holding Rutgers' tailback tandem to 56 yards on 23 carries (2.4 ypc). Gary Nova got loose a couple times for nice scrambles, including an infuriating 20 yarder to convert a 3rd-16, and Janarion Grant picked up 23 yards on a couple carries, but overall Michigan was winning its battles up front and getting pressure with its defensive line. Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow look like the clear top options inside and have ceased a big share of the PT. Meanwhile, Taco Charlton is starting to come on at the defensive end position and Frank Clark still looks impressive.
7. Fire everyone update:
Michigan put ten people on the field for a punt return. Fire everyone.
8. Tempo. One thing which was comforting to see was the way Gardner and Nussmeier handled tempo and pre-snap adjustments in this game. Michigan got to the line quicker and had plenty of time to survey the defense and make adjustments. This is in stark contrast to most of the season to day, which has consisted of the Wolverines huddling for too long and having to rush to get plays off — often with disastrous results. The huddle is dead. Michigan should eschew it entirely.
Although, I imagine that just like the NFL-style punt formation, the huddle is here as long as Hoke is.
9. The Gardner Play. There is always one. Devin Gardner can do incredible things with a football, both as a passer and a runner. He is also apt to commit the most egregious crimes against fundamentally sound football that we as a culture have ever witnessed. Take this for example:
He has just pump-faked and tried to step around the rush. He has not done so effectively. Instead of keeping his feet under him, he has turned his feet and shoulders nearly parallel to the line of scrimmage (1). Meanwhile, his target is downfield, meaning he has no leverage into that throw and has to use primarily arm strength to make a throw 30 yards downfield to Devin Funchess on a post route. Honestly, that Gardner was able to throw the ball as far as he did with his feet not at all lined up and his weight moving backwards (3) is impressive. I mean, simply as a feat of strength. This is classic Gardner meltdown mode. Feels rush, gets nervous, mechanics deteriorate, he slings it, INT. Happens at least once a game. C'est la vie.
10. Third-Down Watch. It always comes back to this: How a team does on third-down determines how effective its offense is. Converting third downs extends drives which leads to more points. Almost as important: setting up managable third down attempts is a great way to ensure a higher conversion percentage and therefore a better offense overall.
Michigan's conversion rate wasn't great. It was just 4/11 with one of those failed conversions being an interception and the other being Darboh's catch that was called incomplete (about which, more in a moment). Michigan still didn't overwhelm on third-downs, but it did manage to put itself in a little better position. Only one attempt came from more than 10 yards out (a third and twelve following a sack on first down for a 13 yard loss and an 11 yard rush on second to make it a reasonable third down attempt). Meanwhile, Michigan had three 3rd-2 opportunities (it was 2/3 on those). It wasn't a banner day, but it goes to show that a solid run game shows a benefit in different aspects of the game. Consider this: Michigan did not have a single negative rush play in any of the two downs preceding a third-down attempt. There was only one no-gain, and the only negative plays were a sack and two penalties. That's progress.
Bonus: The Catch. It was a catch. Plain as day. Darboh catches the ball and takes one step with it in his possession...
takes another step while adjusting the ball....
then stretches the ball out farther toward the first down.
Catch. Catch catch catch.