The state of Michigan football was far less certain a few days ago. For most of the summer, the defense was in disarray, the quarterback situation was one of those known unknowns, and people spoke of Rich Rodriguez as if he had vandalized the integrity of Michigan football.
Michigan is still not completely regenerated, but in the most pivotal game of Rich Rod’s tenure, the team was led to victory by Denard Robinson’s proclivity for creating something out of nothing. Not even God did it quite so well.
Now there is hope that Michigan can resume its winning ways and build for the future. The season is still fragile, but there is a lot to like about this team and the late season swoon that doomed the 2009 squad to mediocrity is far less likely to occur. Fans can expect this team to be competitive, which is good enough for now.
The first drive went for 96 yards and lasted for 5 minutes and 57 seconds, but by the end of it the hyperbole and verbal excess were on the tip of every Michigan fan’s tongue. I’ll just say this: Rich Rod’s offense no longer had to be taken on an article of faith. It was clearly palpable and real.
Unfortunately, this also entails Forcier's demise. There was only one possible way that Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier could co-exist together at the same time: if Robinson became the speedy change of pace “athlete”, secondary to Forcier the main starter, like he was for much of last year. Otherwise, the offense is simply too small for the both of them.
But even then there are obvious problems. If Robinson only came in on special occasions, then it would telegraph to the defense the suite of plays that he is likely to run.
By starting Robinson instead, Rich Rod is clearly bent on transforming the offense entirely this year into the zone read archetype, and this is an offense that Robinson was practically designed to run. But the corollary is that there is seldom any room for Forcier within it.
The situation may change again if Robinson responds badly to adversity. The plays mostly went his way against UConn (that makes it sound like luck, but in reality, Robinson completely outmaneuvered them). Until then, however, this is Robinson’s offense.
Robinson was efficient. He completed 86.4 percent of his passes, nearly setting a Michigan record in the process, and ran 29 times for 197 yards. A 6.8 yards per run average. He maintained the formula of using his running ability to open up space for the wide receivers to complete high percentage passes.
Robinson was also the primary reason why Michigan converted 14 of 19 third down attempts and an additional play on fourth down. There were many occasions when a drive could have stalled, but Robinson continued to pick up first downs to keep scoring opportunities alive. These included a few low-percentage third down attempts that were picked up on the run rather than through the air. Third and 15 is supposed to be a passing down, but Robinson defied the average and converted it solely with his feet.
Robinson has always had some passing ability. Coming out of high school, he had a live arm and some touch on the ball, but he never put it all together to say the least. On Saturday, however, he looked in complete control of the offense. He used the pump fake and worked the intermediate areas of the field and the flats. He even moved in the pocket quite well.
Robinson may have difficulty on similar plays against quicker defenders and a more disciplined secondary, imperiling these long, consistent drives that came so smoothly against UConn, but his athleticism and passing ability should be enough to frustrate many NCAA defenses.
It’s clear now that during some weeks Michigan may just grind teams into oblivion. The offensive line seemed almost impervious to pressure; the team also ran 61 times and held the ball for 37 minutes. This allowed Michigan to embark on two eight-minute drives in the second half.
Unfortunately, Michigan only yielded three points during those two long drives. The second one was intended to kill the clock, but on the initial eight minute drive, it seemed as if Michigan played it safe on the last 3rd down. In the process the team settled for a field goal and gave UConn some life before the Huskies essentially fumbled the game away on their subsequent drive. More aggressive play-calling would be in order against Notre Dame.
Michigan did much of the rushing inside and off tackle, but the players had some trouble gaining the outside edge against disciplined corners. This will also need to be improved.
The pessimist will find a lot about the defense to disparage. In the first quarter, for example, Obi Ezeh took a bad angle, driving inside when he should have gone outside and ceding the corner to Jordan Todman for a 20-yard gain. A few drops and errant passes also conspired to ruin Zach Frazer’s day and keep the game at a comfortable margin.
And yet apart from one circus catch by Michael Smith, the defense mostly limited big plays and contained the damage. Craig Roh helped overwhelm the large and experienced UConn offensive line. He hurried Frazer and should have gotten credit for a sack. The pressure primarily came from blitzes and superior numbers.
Perhaps the most interesting story on defense is Jonas Mouton. It's no coincidence that the picture above shows him being mugged. After a moribund 2009, Mouton had eight total tackles against UConn, six of them solo, but he still has problems with geometry: he took himself out of a few run plays on bad angles by crashing too far inside, including on an important 3rd and 1 that he could have stopped. Mouton also got blocked out a few times, but he made some big stops for little or no gain and acquitted himself well in pass coverage. The ball was rarely thrown in his vicinity; however, he did vacate his post one time on a play action fake.
Mouton wasn’t bad in the three point stance either: he almost single-handedly blew up the play that resulted in the juggling catch by Smith. If it wasn’t for Smith's theatrics, he would have been remembered for drilling Frazer into the ground. And on a 3rd and 7 in the first quarter he beat the offensive tackle one on one, while Mike Martin simultaneously destroyed the other side of the line, and pressured Frazer into a harmless grounded ball.
Michigan gave up fewer points than the yardage would suggest. This is both a positive and a negative. The defense will surely falter a few times this season against better offenses, against whom there will be no leniency, but they should also avoid another Illinois redux against worst teams.
Somewhere one of Meskos kicks has yet to come back down to Earth.
Special teams continue to be a misadventure, and there are only some hopes that it will mend. There was a muffed punt return by Jeremy Gallon (which is somewhat understandable), a missed field goal by Brendan Gibbon, and a mishandling by Drew Dileo on the extra point. Unfortunately, holder Jared Van Slyke is out for the year, which means that special teams may continue to be a little too special.
On the positive side, Michigan had only one penalty—a personal foul on the first drive that was subsequently erased by Robinson’s 22-yard scamper—and a positive turnover margin. The players also managed to line up correctly, which is a good thing. If we could just lobby the NCAA to completely abolish all kickoffs and punts, then there should be few qualms about Michigan’s execution.