In stark contrast to the rich history of Michigan football, the defense over the past few years has been bad enough to instill a new generation of fans with a congenital terror—even during large blowouts, that terror manages to resurface.
It appeared again Saturday, during a five minute stretch in the second quarter when the scoreboard read 21-14. Fortunately this offense is going to be a terror of its own.
What is really troubling, however, are the errors in every phase of the game—from offense to special teams—that conspire to rob Michigan of thundering leads at conspicuous moments in the game.
Michigan has had problems against Notre Dame (two missed field goals), UMass (a fumbled interception, botched third down run, and a blocked punt), and Bowling Green (a dropped pass and a penalty to ruin a surefire Devin Gardner touchdown).
All of these mistakes were eventually followed by massive breakdowns in the defense to keep the games close or potentially cost Michigan a win.
Some of these problems are not likely to improve; the kicking game seems particularly calamitous. Fortunately, Michigan has been near perfect in the red zone, and these missed kicks may be balanced out by a more aggressive offense that can consistently make fourth down conversions (Michigan is at 60 percent so far this season).
Other mistakes appear to be outliers that you wouldn’t expect to see very often; many of these players, at least on offense, are simply too good to succumb to them. In fact, it is also the absence of mistakes that is so striking: the team has two fewer turnovers and six fewer penalties than at the same point through four games last year.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid that we’ll reach the point where we can say that the defense gives up enough big plays to span the entire globe three times.
The strange assignment breakdowns, the lack of ability to cope with changes in direction, and the isolation of wide receivers like Kamar Jorden on Kovacs, still portend some kind of future disaster, if it hasn’t already occurred.
These large plays continued Saturday against Bowling Green. Thomas Gordon made one of his first big mistakes this season on the long touchdown pass, but it should be said that the receiver, Tyrone Pronty, collided with his own teammate which allowed him to change trajectory and spin right out of Gordon’s tackle.
Both Kovacs and Ezeh thought that Pronty was wrapped by Gordon and took bad angles, failing to converge on him. By that time, no one had a chance to catch Pronty. This is just one of those many bizarre sequences and comedy of errors combined with mental mistakes that have held Michigan back from its true potential.
Some of the defensive players are simply doomed to repeat history over and over again. Jonas Mouton, however, is one player who could still go either way.
He did take a step back last week, but against Bowling Green he made seven tackles and also had an excellent read on a play action, which closely mirrored the interception that he made against Notre Dame. He did allow Jordan Hopgood to run right over him and break a tackle in the second quarter, however.
Even more assuring is the fact that Michigan only allowed 32 rush yards, which makes the 217 yards last week against UMass seem like an ephemeral aberration, but the team still has some containment issues against running backs and quarterbacks. This fact has only crystallized in recent weeks.
Notre Dame had poorer rushing games against Michigan State and Stanford, both solid rushing defenses, but ran for 154 yards against Michigan.
The game also allowed Michigan to evaluate several promising young players, including linebacker Kenny Demens and lineman Taylor Lewan on offense. Cullen Christian received playing time but had some difficulties. If any of these players grow dramatically during the season, then the team will find itself in a much better situation.
For now, this performance safely falls in line with expectations following the UConn and Notre Dame games: a defense with a smattering of good players woefully lacking depth and a penchant for relinquishing large plays.
Entering the Big Ten portion of the schedule, this season shares eerie similarities with the last one, including the early hype and troubling signs of storms on the horizon. Pollsters seem once again eager to rank Michigan after triumphing over a few teams.
Yet the first four opponents are only 7-9, even though Michigan played a supposed Big East contender, a ranked FCS team, and Notre Dame. Take out the Michigan wins and they're still only 7-5.
This isn't bad, but I don't think that prognosticators expected UConn to be a few touchdowns worse than Temple either. If Michigan beats Indiana then their situation will be no different than it was last year: 5-0 against the non-conference schedule and Indiana.
A potential romp over Indiana this Saturday is the point at which Michigan fans hope the similarities between the seasons begin to diverge. But a close victory combined with more defensive breakdowns will conjure up the specters of 2009, which is something that no fan wants.
Further into the season, Purdue and Illinois are looking eminently winnable, and there is a growing expectation that Michigan can pick off at least one win against Michigan State, Penn State, or Iowa.
In a particularly annoying bit of scheduling, the season is set up once again so that Michigan needs to have its affairs in order before playing Wisconsin and Ohio State at the end of the season to secure for itself a bowl berth and a successful campaign.
The offense is obviously the reason why all of this is possible. Guided by veteran players and, at least for the first quarter, a kind of athletic luminary, the offense came within yards of setting the Michigan offensive record Saturday that was established last year against Delaware State.
The 88.5 completion percent is also second highest in Michigan history, behind only Notre Dame in 1991. All of the quarterbacks individually and cumulatively looked great. Devin Gardner made a few bad reads, but definitely seems like he’ll live up to the hype.
On 56 attempts, Michigan accumulated 466 rushing yards for an impressive 8.3 yard average; the team also appears to have a lot of depth. It employed nine different rushers, including a rotation of six running backs.
We may not have found our Steve Slaton, but Michael Shaw is really beginning to hit the seams well, and Toussaint looked great in only two carries.
Michigan is now the second best rushing team in the nation with 331 yards per game, after finally playing a few cupcakes of its own; they are also second in total offense.
Last year, Michigan presented a lot of flair but was stymied by most Big Ten defenses. It remains to be seen whether the same thing will occur in 2010, but my preliminary answer is that I suspect it will not.