At 5-0 many Michigan fans were having visions of an 11-1 season and a BCS berth. It didn't matter how bad the defense was, who could stop Denard Robinson?
Now, at 5-1, those same visions are being replaced by cloudy recollections of last season where, after a strong non-conference start, Michigan fell apart after a loss to Michigan State.
Still, there are good things as well as bad things to take away from a loss and everyone in the Wolverine nation stands to learn a few things by suffering a tough-to-swallow loss at home against in-state rival MSU. This was a "learning experience," as Coach Rod would say so let's take a look at the midseason grades and see what we've learned so far.
It's always good to start off on a high note and this is no exception. There are several positives that I would take away from the first several weeks, last Saturday notwithstanding.
Denard Robinson Is Still a Threat and Ever-Much in the Heisman Race
Yes, he made some very costly mistakes against MSU and college football pundits have applied the brakes a little on the hype machine but that doesn't erase the fact that he is still an efficient passer (Passer Efficiency Rating: 164.11) and a threat on his feet no matter what the situation is. The only thing that has changed is that someone has figured out a way to shut him down. Not every team is going to be able to do that.
Michigan Has a Stable of WRs That Are Constant Big-Play Threats
The Michigan QB's have done a good job of spreading the ball around and making sure that the defense can't key-in on just one guy in pass game. I think the most interesting thing to look at is that each of these guys can play just about any role on the field. It's not just Denard that has big-play ability and these weapons need to be utilized more.
The Offensive Line Is Gellin' Like Ma-Gellan
In stark contrast from last year, the Michigan offensive line seems to be grasping Rich Rodriguez's blocking schemes and seems to work well as a unit. That's not saying that they couldn't have done that last year but the injury to David Molk seems to have played a bigger part in that than most people thought. In six games, this unit has only allowed two (official) sacks.
As with anything, there are always negatives to look at too; it can't be all good.
Can a Running Back Emerge As a Go-To Guy?
Everyone is excited about Demetrius Hart committing to Michigan, and they should be, but that really doesn't help our situation out much this year. It's not to say that Michigan doesn't have any talented backs but Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith, the de facto guys in the Wolverine backfield, haven't impressed too much. They've been good but "good" isn't going to be enough to take the pressure off Denard Robinson in the running game.
Denard Needed to Lose
Michigan fans needed a hero this year after the let-down that was the end of 2009 and Denard Robinson became that hero early in the season. Whether he bought into his own hype or even knew about it (as he claimed many times he didn't), it was apparent that he felt the pressure to make the big plays against Michigan State.
The problem was that, in the height of that pressure as Michigan State was putting points on the board, Denard made some poor decisions and forced the ball when he didn't need to, giving the opponent the ball in the red zone. As it turns out, "shoelace" is in fact mortal and needs to step outside the game and make sure he's making the correct decisions. Nobody is perfect.
It's going to be difficult and time-consuming but I'll try to eke out some positives from the Michigan defense.
The Defensive Line Is Actually OK, Despite Loss of Brandon Graham
It's a pretty tall order to replace someone as stellar as Brandon Graham, just like it was when LaMarr Woodley needed "replacing" but Mike Martin seems to be that guy this year. His numbers aren't very staggering (23 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and three sacks) but it's the intangibles he brings to the field that are most important for this unit. He is constantly beating double-teams and finding his way into the backfield, even if he can't find his way to the QB.
Jordan Kovacs and Craig Roh Have Shown Flashes of Brilliance
Jordan Kovacs currently leads the team in tackles. Spin that however you like (i.e. that's because nobody can stop the opposing offense until they get to the second level) but it does say something for his field awareness. I've heard it from the players and I've heard it from analysts, most of them agree he is the smartest player on the Michigan defense.
Craig Roh isn't too far off from that but he's a product of being in a bad position at a bad time. Too often he is dropped back into coverage only to be made look foolish by a well-placed slant across the middle. When he's in the three-point stance, he seems to live in the backfield as often as Mike Martin.
Unfortunately that's where the accolades stop.
Just about Everyone Else Doesn't Have a Clue
Cameron Gordon can't make an open-field tackle to save his life. James Rogers doesn't play in the same zip code as the receiver he is "covering." Obi Ezeh is perhaps the most underwhelming player I've ever had the displeasure of watching (even Shawn Crable had a couple of good plays). The list goes on and on. One has to wonder how much better this defense would be without the disparities and injury in the secondary. Possibly the most disheartening fact is that, even though this unit probably couldn't get much worse, I doubt they're going to get much better.
Grade: D+ (and I feel like that's being generous)
This area has plagued Rich Rodriguez since he began his tenure at Michigan. The one bright spot, Zoltan Mesko, has since departed and is making the monies in the NFL. (Side note: he came to the MSU game Saturday and received thunderous applause and the traditional "Z" in the student section). While this aspect of the game hasn't gotten worse, it certainly isn't better.
Just Hope It Never Comes Down to a Field Goal
Michigan has yet to make a field goal from farther than 34 yards out and is 2-7 overall. Don't get me wrong, Michigan hasn't had a kicker that was "money" since Hayden Epstein but at least Garret Rivas was capable. Expect Rich Rodriguez to go for it on fourth-down situations between the opponent's 45 and 25-yard lines because Michigan can't count on the kicking game for much more than an extra point.
The Return Game Has Been Better, but I'm Still Not Convinced
Nothing special has come out of the return game yet for this Michigan team and it's very disheartening. Maybe we were spoiled by Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson and Steve Breaston but it seems like our guys are just starting to figure out how to hold onto the ball and when they should field a punt. Turnovers in the return game are just plain inexcusable and are enough to kill a team's momentum 10-fold.
Hagerup Is No Zoltan but He Looks Capable
Nobody likes to see a punter get a lot of work but, when he's called upon, Will Hagerup looks like he can get a good piece of the ball (with the exception of the UMass game where his long was a 33-yarder). He launched a monster 63-yard punt against MSU, which even garnered a "Helluva punt" text from me to one of my friends back home. With as shoddy as the Michigan defense is, they're going to need all the help they can get and that includes a solid punter.
Rich Rodriguez has seemed to have made a greater percentage of good calls this year so far, from hiding who is No. 1 QB was at the beginning of the season to covering up for Tate Forcier when he had his pity party on the sideline in Week 1. If I had to put things under a microscope and take some of the bad with the good, this is what I would have to say.
The Worst In-Game Decision I've Seen This Season by a coach not name Les Miles.
Against MSU last week with six minutes left to go in the game, down a couple of scores, Rich Rodriguez elected to punt of 4th-and-8. At that point, I got up from my seat and said to my wife, "Come on, we're leaving. This is game-over." That is the first time in my life I have ever left the Big House with time still on the clock. I don't care where you are on the field, you have to give your team a chance. ESPECIALLY with as bad of a defense as Michigan has.
Greg Robinson's Schemes Are Not Working
Chalk it up to whatever you want: injuries, inexperience, etc. The bottom line is that this system has failed to stop a single offense this year. The 3-3-5 is great for giving opposing teams different looks and, with an extra defensive back, allows blitzing from the corner and safety positions.
The three-man front isn't supposed to necessarily get penetration, that is reserved for the linebackers who are supposed to read the blocking schemes of the offensive line and shoot the gaps for stops. As you can see, none of this has either worked or been implemented to date. Take from that what you will. I am neither advocating for the firing of Greg Robinson, nor am I defending him.
The Offense Must Be More Creative
Let's face it, teams have film on Denard Robinson now and that's becoming an important feature for opposing defenses. Michigan State showed they were paying attention when the DBs failed to bite on the fake run from Denard. Teams know that the bubble screen is a big part of the passing game and that our wideouts can execute down-field blocking well.
I'm reserving this part of my grade for future dates to see if some new wrinkles emerge, I'm just getting it out there now that I would like to see a little creativity against teams like Iowa and Penn State.
I've said this for a while now and I still believe it: This team is just good enough to stay in any game. Take the loss against MSU, 18 points were left on the field by the Michigan offense (three turnovers that would have likely resulted in touchdowns). That puts Michigan pretty much dead even with Michigan State.
Unfortunately "coulda," "woulda" and "shoulda" don't mean much in football and it's all about how you execute on the field, and the Wolverines didn't. If Denard and Co. can avoid making mistakes like that against Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin they should be at least close in every game.
What Does This Mean Going into This Weekend vs. Iowa?
It essentially means that anything can happen this week. Iowa is similar in talent and style to Michigan State and Michigan can expect to see much of the same. Iowa still is nursing injuries in the backfield but, while their most talented runners won't see the field, that doesn't mean Iowa doesn't have a rushing game. Ricky Stanzi is just as dangerous as Kirk Cousins and has only thrown one "Rick-Six" this year, a stark contrast to the four in four games he threw last year.
The important thing for Michigan is that they execute on all levels this weekend. Iowa had a bye week this last week and don't think for a second that they weren't watching the Michigan-Michigan State game and taking notes. As I said earlier, Rich Rodriguez and Calvin Magee are going to need to get creative with their offense this week if they hope to keep a repeat of last week from happening.