If Michigan fans should have taken anything away from the past three years (four if you count "The Horror") it's that no team should be taken for granted. Heading into last Saturday's game against Air Force, this writer cautioned people that AF's almost 500 yards rushing against Idaho State shouldn't be underestimated. I received retorts like "Name Idaho State's mascot" and "This is Michigan fergodsakes."
Michigan ended up narrowly escaping that game with a win.
We're now two games deep into the season and have slightly more data on team 133. What have we learned so far?
There was a noticeable improvement here between Week 1 and Week 2, but Air Force is not Alabama. Let's not hand out any awards just yet.
- Al Borges is still figuring out what he's going to do with Denard Robinson. Robinson had exactly twice as many carries in Week 2 versus Week 1 against Alabama. Part of this is that Alabama isn't fielding a team full of 5'11" guys majoring in blowing things up, and the other part is that the coaching staff knows the team is going to live and die by Robinson's ability to find space.
- The loss of Molk is really apparent. Elliott Mealer could be found either blocking air or lying on his back for the majority of his snaps at center. He is just not very strong: He has an average of 50 pounds on any the AF defensive linemen and should have been pancaking people on every play but was instead barely holding his own. Also, substitute any Michigan offensive lineman for Mealer and reread the previous sentence. You may panic now.
- Non-smurf receivers emerged. This is a good thing because it gives Robinson a chance when he winds back and throws those heart-stopping bombs that you hope aren't overthrown into triple coverage. Eleven of the day's 14 catches were made by Gardner, Funchess and Jeremy Jackson. Those three guys are going to become the most integral part of the passing game this year. I would not be shocked to see Roundtree (three receptions for 17 yards) completely disappear from the stat sheet as the season progresses.
- Toussaint. I don't know that there's anything resembling data here. He had eight rushing attempts for seven yards but I'm not convinced that those numbers tell us much. AF was selling out against the run every play and Denard was able to get into space because he is Denard and Toussaint is not. Expect to see Toussaint run into a lot of eight-man fronts this year and expect to pull your hair out because of it.
- Audibles, hot-reads, etc.—where are they? It seems that in most circumstances, the play that is called in the huddle is the play that is run. There have definitely been some plays where a quick audible to a quick-slant would net seven-to-eight yards instead of running into an A-gap blitz. I'm not sure if that's just how the offense will be run under Hoke/Borges or if it signifies where Denard is as a QB. It may be a little of both because you don't see too many college QBs with the free rein to audible at the line. Russel Wilson last year is one of the few that comes to mind.
The offense is going to be either the high-point or the low-point of every game this season. The defense will be steadily mediocre (more on that in a minute) but the offense is going to live and die by Robinson's accuracy and his ability to get into space. Already we've seen Gardner's route-running improve and Funchess is going to be huge this year—but they won't do much unless Denard can get the ball into their hands. To do that, he'll need all the help he can get from an offensive line that has many of us raising our eyebrows already.
Don't hold your breath waiting for a star to emerge.
- Freshmen. Today's column is brought to you by the number six. Six freshmen. Ross, Bolden, Pipkins, Ojemudia, Heitzman and Wilson all made at least a cameo appearance on defense in the last game. A championship team that does not make, I don't care what school you're at.
- The defensive line could not do anything. This will become standard this year. Barnum and Campbell (insert freshmen rotation here) are just not Martin and Van Bergen. The biggest problem against Air Force was allowing their tackles to release off the line and get into the second level. That allowed them to make the first guy (usually the OLB) "wrong" with the pitch. Michigan was left with their ILBs blocked, their linemen chasing from behind and forced our safeties down to make the tackle for a gain of eight. That led to...
- Play action. This is just football 101: When a team is ridiculously successful at running the football you're probably going to get gashed deep a couple of times by some receiver jumping up and down in his own zip code with nobody near him. This is not necessarily the fault of the secondary so much as the team's inability to stop the run.
These guys should be okay this year but they are going to have to find ways to force favorable third downs and get off the field. Teams that can run the ball well like Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State are not going to be looking at long third downs too often against this front seven. Somebody needs to step up in those games and I don't see it happening with Rodriguez' defensive recruits and freshmen.
Gallon reverted back to his old ways of making terrible decisions fielding the ball. Give me back Norfleet!
This is not last year's team that made it to the Sugar Bowl by virtue of sound defense and luck. This team will struggle, especially against the top talent in the Big Ten. When Michigan was getting beaten off the line on both sides of the ball against Alabama most people chalked it up to "well, it's Alabama." It's worrisome that the same problems arose against an Air Force team that is considerably smaller than Michigan.
And on the other side of the ball, if Denard has time to set his feet and get a throw off, he'll be fine as a passer. If teams can get in his face (which may be more often than not) then you will start seeing the bad reads and interceptions rearing their heads.
Brady Hoke, who is usually ambiguously optimistic about things, had this to say about his defensive line when asked if they would improve like last year:
"You know, if I knew that, I’d feel a lot better, but I think we have a long way to go.”