Michigan Football: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the First 4 Games

Adam BiggersSenior Analyst IISeptember 25, 2012

Michigan Football: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the First 4 Games

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    If you're a Michigan Wolverines football fan, you've likely beaten up yourself on at least two occasions during the 2012 season: Week 1's 41-14 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide, and Week 4's 13-6 loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. 

    Relax this week. Michigan won't lose, and that's guaranteed (bye week).

    The Wolverines (2-2) have grossly underperformed through the first four weeks of the year, and have looked like pretenders rather than contenders—a far cry from what was anticipated. 

    A Heisman Trophy victory for quarterback Denard Robinson won't happen, and neither will a BCS title game. At this point, finishing the season with seven or eight wins may be the best-case scenario for Michigan, which was ranked No. 8 in the preseason polls.

    Could force-fitting Robinson into a traditional offense be the culprit of Michigan's disappointing start? What about the fact that the once-improved Wolverines defense looks like it's reverted back to its previous form under coach Rich Rodriguez?

    It's still early, yes, but Michigan ranks seventh out 12 Big Ten teams in terms of total defense, giving up an average of 336.5 yards per outing. Considering that Michigan rose from one of the worst defenses during Rodriguez's tenure to a Top 25 outfit in 2011 under coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the lack of tackling and ability to stop opposing offenses from making big plays may be the most alarming issues thus far.

    Michigan may be the sixth-ranked rushing team in the Big Ten (184.5 yards per game), but that's largely due to Robinson, who's ran for 90 or more yards in three of four games this season (218 yards against Air Force, 106 against UMass).

    Running backs like Vincent Smith and Fitz Toussaint have all but disappeared. Sophomore Thomas Rawls—Toussaint's replacement against Alabama—has yet to hit his stride in a lethargic offense that just can't move the ball without Robinson's feet.

    The loss of a key member in the secondary certainly hurts, but so does the lack of consistency from one of Michigan's top offensive linemen.

    Good. Bad. Ugly. Otherwise.

    We'll cover it all in this nifty little package.

Ugly: Michigan's Secondary

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    The absence of Blake Countess isn't the only reason why the Michigan Wolverines secondary struggles each week.

    But it's a contributing factor.

    Without the sophomore who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Week 1, the Wolverines secondary looks lost. Corners like J.T. Floyd and Raymon Taylor have definitely made a few key pass deflections this season.

    Courtney Avery has been hit-or-miss—mostly miss, though.

    Even safety Jordan Kovacs has trouble making clean tackles. That's uncharacteristic, considering he was one of the Big Ten's best open-field tacklers in 2011 and led league safeties with 75 stops.

    Let's face it, this group of pass protectors has looked overmatched in every game but one (UMass).

    Alabama's A.J. McCarron carved the Wolverines for a modest 199 yards and two touchdowns, and Notre Dame's Tommy Rees turned in an almost-surgical performance this past Saturday during the Irish's 13-6 victory at Notre Dame Stadium.

    Rees, a senior who was benched in favor of a sophomore, went 8-15 and led the Irish to their first win over Michigan in four years. Yes, that was the same Rees who threw 14 interceptions in 2011. 

    He's an effective quarterback, an effective manager, but he looked elite this past Saturday. He didn't burn the Wolverines for many big plays (other than a 38-yarder), but he went sideline-to-sideline, dissecting the soft coverage that the Wolverines thought would be sufficient.

    It's mind-boggling how Michigan leads the Big Ten in pass defense. How in the world could that happen? But it's true. The Wolverines are tops in terms of average yards-per-game, giving up 154 through the air each week.

    That may be the most misleading statistic of all. Michigan won't stay on top for long.

Good: At Least Denard Robinson Has Been Fun to Watch

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    He threw four interceptions and committed a fumble this past Saturday in Michigan's 13-6 loss to Notre Dame. He could hardly hit a receiver in stride or properly lead one along the seam or sideline either.

    In fact, Denard Robinson couldn't do much of anything right against the Irish.

    But hey, he's still one of the most exciting college football players to watch, still one of the guys fans nationwide look forward to seeing break awe-inspiring runs.

    Michigan's faults aren't all to blame on Robinson. The Notre Dame loss? Well, yes, but not entirely. The loss to Alabama wasn't his fault either.

    Robinson is a once-every-other-decade type of player at Michigan. Forget every 10 years or so. "Shoelace" will go down as, perhaps, the most-thrilling athlete to ever play in Ann Arbor.

    He's just that electrifying, that entertaining and that magnetic. Whether you're a fan of Michigan or not, you can't deny the fact that the braided speedster who wears Maize and Blue each Saturday isn't a freakish athlete.

    You probably watched Robinson explode for 426 total yards of offense against the Air Force Falcons in Week 2. Michigan escaped with a 31-25 victory thanks to Robinson, who jettisoned the field at Michigan Stadium like Maverick and Goose in an F-16.

    Yeah, Robinson took the Falcons into the "danger zone." That was fun, wasn't it? He needed to do that.

More Good: Denard Robinson Better Under Center?

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    According to ESPN, Denard Robinson was actually more efficient under center than most initially thought.

    Of course, the statistics ESPN used were published Sept. 13, nearly two weeks ago. Robinson, known as a running machine, accumulated impressive numbers when operating in a pro-style offense. According to the numbers guys, Robinson completes 17 percent more passes when he's under-center than when he's in the shotgun formation (67 percent compared to 50 percent). 

    Is your mind blown yet? One of the biggest gripes Michigan fans have this year is that Wolverines offensive coordinator Al Borges insists on keeping Robinson in non-spread formations—well, for the most part.

    From ESPN:

    Robinson has completed 46 of 70 passes from under center in his career. That's a 65.7 percent completion rate. As if that weren't eye-catching enough, consider this: As a dropback quarterback, Robinson has thrown 12 touchdowns and only one interception and has a passer efficiency rating of 197.9 under center.

    He has been even more effective there under Borges, where he has completed 42-of-62 (67.7 percent), thrown all 12 touchdowns and that one interception with a passer efficiency rating of 209.7. While the sample size is much smaller, consider this—the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Andrew Luck, had a 169.69 passer efficiency rating last season at Stanford.

Bad: Michigan's Running Game

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    Michigan's sixth-ranked Big Ten rushing offense has been fueled by Denard Robinson, but take him out of the equation and you have a different story all together.

    Remember when Fitz Toussaint was suspended for the Alabama game? Remember how the Wolverines rushed for a pathetic 69 yards against the top-ranked Crimson Tide during that 41-14 loss?

    Toussaint's return was supposed to cure that, but it hasn't.

    He rushed for seven yards in Michigan's 31-25 victory over the Air Force Falcons, 85 in a 63-13 win over UMass, and 58 in a 13-6 loss to Notre Dame.

    Toussaint wasn't yet tuned-in during this time last season, though. So that may be a sign of things to come. In his first three games of 2011, Toussaint had games of 80, 46, and 67 yards. Toussaint was among Big Ten rushing leaders in 2011 with 1,046 yards.

    It could take him some time to catch his stride, but Michigan fans expected him to immediately take the reigns once he returned from suspension.

U-G-L-Y

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    Click here for the statistics, via BigTen.org

    Michigan's turnover margin is horrid, last in the Big Ten (-7, -1.75 points per game).

    Michigan is 10th in time of possession (29:22 per game).

    The Wolverines are 11th on opponents' third-down conversions (43.9 percent), and allow the 10th-most first downs per game (18.8). 

    You get the hint, right?

    While it's far too early to panic, looking at areas where the Wolverines need to improve upon needs to be done. Four games aren't enough to really have an accurate sample size and break down each problem Michigan has, but it lends a clue to what could go wrong down the road. 

    Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81