The Redzone is Not The Hotzone… And Other Keys to 2006

It may be hard to believe but it is indeed JULY! Thankfully for usMichigan fans that means the offseason is winding down, and we can begin to focus on what lies ahead rather than all of those events that we’d like to forget from last year.  That being said, it is extremely important that this football team learn from what happened last year.  There have been a lot of discussions about what went wrong last season and what must change and improve going into this fall.  Clearly, there is not one singular issue that resulted in five losses, and we could spend enormous amounts of time breaking down every possible factor.  However, I think there are two key issues that Wolverine fans should focus on early in the year to see if the much talked about changes and improvements over the spring have really occurred.  It is in these two areas that I really think we have cost ourselves football games.  To me, the two phases of the game that have hampered our Michigan Wolverines dearly are:

1.) Losing battles at the line of scrimmage on BOTH sides of the football

2.) Red Zone or otherwise “crunch time” offense

Without simply glossing over several other issues, let’s just say that the offense last year was horrific.  It didn’t control the football, it didn’t put points on the board when it had the opportunity, and it never gave our defense a break when it needed it.  Why might this have been the case?  Again, I think there were several factors that contributed to our offensive struggles this past season.  First and foremost was the myriad of injuries that hit KEY players on this offensive unit. The injuries to the offensive line were bad enough before Mike Hart went down in the first series against the Irish, a team he’s only played 8 snaps against in his entire career so far, but once that occurred this offense was going to be running on fumes for the rest of the year.

Our offensive line struggled to gel as a unit with lineups constantly changing due to the injuries and starters having to rotate to different positions just to fill in the gaps.  Without an experienced running back to find the few holes that were created, our offense was dead in the water from a running point of view; you can only run so many draws into the teeth of a defense after all. This put an immense amount of pressure on former offensive coordinator Terry Malone to come up with ways to move the football… and he failed in every possible way.  Teams were able to load the box with impunity because we NEVER ran play action fakes, and NEVER incorporated the middle of the field with the passing game.  The tight end disappeared as a factor in the Michigan offense, and Steve Breaston was reduced to a player who would catch screens behind the line of scrimmage. Our complete and utter lack of an ability to control the ball hung our defense out to dry time and again.  Malone’s play calling was not only lacking inspiration, but it never seemed to set up any other plays or schemes to take advantage of what the defense was giving us.  Two words will hammer this point home: Diamond Formation.  That deserves a whole separate column unto itself to be honest.

A symptom of these problems was that when the Michigan offense found itself in scoring position, it routinely failed to take advantage of those opportunities.  Note to the Michigan offense, the red zone does not contain a deadly virus, in fact it is the land of opportunity!  We settled for far too many field goals from inside the red zone, and came up empty an inexcusable number of times. This inability to make teams pay absolutely came back to bite us last year.  We don’t have to relive the whole season to realize how badly we squandered games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin,Minnesota, and Ohio State when we had control of the football.  Suffice to say, a more effective approach is sorely needed.

So what has to change on offense?  Well thankfully, one major factor has already been taken care of: the offensive coordinator.  It’s all too easy to point fingers at the coaches when the team is struggling, but I don’t think I’d have to look too hard to find a large number of people who’d agree that Malone simply wasn’t the man for this position.  Mike DeBord may not have been the most exciting offensive mind when he was here previously, but his offenses were fundamentally sound and could RUN THE FOOTBALL, something that we have missed dearly in the last three years against the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame, and our bowl opponents.  Oh by the way, he was a key part of that National Title we all look back fondly upon, many people forget that that offense was actually a very effective unit.  DeBord has always struck me as someone who “gets” game-planning and adapting that gameplan throughout the course of the game, his plays actually set up other plays later on in the game.  I guarantee we see the return of the tight end as an integral part of the Michigan offense, and that we rediscover the middle of the field with our skill players.  He will also bring a level of complexity to the running game that we simply lacked under Terry Malone. Furthermore, he should return some semblance of play calling back to our red zone offense.  Of all of the things that annoyed me about Terry Malone, this may have been the worst.  Every defense knew what we were going to run inside the 20, and more often than not they stopped it.  There was never a sense that we would run a waggle or play action down near the goal line.  A more aggressive and variable approach is sorely needed here, hopefully DeBord can bring that to the table.

The second issue that must be addressed on the offensive end is the play of the offensive line.  It is all too easy for us to claim that the injuries were the main culprit last year and that otherwise we would’ve been in a much better position…  HOWEVER, I would argue that our offensive line play has been lacking for some time now.  You just have to look back at our performances in the big games to see that our rushing totals are embarrassingly low, and our record is even worse, and I think a large factor has been the play of the O-line.  I think there are a number of problems that the line has been having that hopefully were addressed this offseason.  First and foremost has to be conditioning, we simply haven’t been overpowering teams despite large advantages in size on the line.  Very rarely over the past few seasons has a Michigan offense blown the opposing defense off the line of scrimmage.  Reports are this issue has been met head on, with a vast number of guys dropping weight and increasing speed; hopefully this translates into more on the field success and fewer injuries.  Lighter and faster is great, but if it doesn’t have solid technique to go with it, we won’t get too far.  Considering the number of younger guys we’re going to be using on the line this year, it’s especially important that they are fundamentally sound.

So great, we’ve solved the issues with the offense (wink wink, nod nod), so we’re set right?  To the contrary, DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS!  Repeat this ad nauseum, put on your bathroom mirror, in fact, make that our motto for the 2006 season.   I think the major concern on the defensive end has to be the complete lack of productivity from an experienced defensive line last year.  Like it or not we did not bring pressure on the opposing quarterback until the bowl game despite having a number of very talented guys in the front four.  Again, I think part of the problem here was conditioning, the D-line seemed to wear down at the end of games (although it didn’t help that the offense kept going 3 and out…) and was pushed back off the line of scrimmage.  The other issue resides in X’s and O’s I think.  I have to preface this by saying that I have no idea how many times blitzes were called, etc, but it seems to me that there was far to little emphasis on bringing pressure in last year’s defensive schemes.  Instead of creating an advantage for the defense by bringing pressure from different areas of the field, we often allowed the defensive line to be taken on by more than one blocker because no one else was rushing the line.  I’ve watched enough football to know that when the defense plays a reactionary “wait and see” type of style, the offense will burn them time and again, and at the important junctures last season, that was the style of football you saw from our defense.  The synonym for “wait and see” is of course the thorn in every  Michiganfans’ side: the dreaded zone.  Here’s hoping we see our corners up on the receivers on 3rd downs this year, and linebackers up at that line of scrimmage…

With all of that being said, the defense was not woeful last year.  In fact it was greatly improved over the 2004 unit, but a change in philosophy and attitude was sorely needed.  I don’t think it will take a lot of work to turn this defensive group into a very solid unit, the talent is definitely there.  I hope against hope that Ron English will bring an aggressive and attacking style back to the forefront in Ann Arbor, he certainly has advertised that he will.  The players are there now for the production to increase immediately, so with a few alterations to the schemes I think we’re going to see noticeable changes in this area, and noticeable changes in how the defense performs on the field.  The players really seem to like English and his approach, and the more he turns them lose to use their natural ability, the better off we are in my opinion.

So as we head into the season, I think we’ll know a lot from the first few games by looking at how successful we are controlling the line of scrimmage (look for rushing yards, sacks allowed, time for Henne to throw, etc), and by how efficient we are when we have the opportunities to score (another motto should be touchdowns instead of field goals).  If these areas can improve, then I think we’re going to be in store for a MUCH better season of Michigan Football, and much improved performances against the likes of our rivals, and that would certainly make the pain and agony of this last twelve months or so fade away a lot quicker.  So here’s to new beginnings and to a new season!  I can’t wait!

 

GO BLUE!

Henne and Hart: Michigan’s Dynamic Duo

Will Chad Henne or Mike Hart have a more vital role in Michigan?s 2006 offense? Both had surprising and astounding freshman seasons for the Wolverines. Both struggled in their sophomore years. Both will be expected to perform at a high level in order for Michigan to have a successful season. But one must step up to the plate to fix what drastically hurt the Wolverines? offense last year.   

Both of the ?Fabulous Freshman?, Chad Henne and Mike Hart, blossomed in their first year wearing the maize and blue. Chad Henne, who was appointed starting quarterback after Matt Gutierrez suffered a shoulder injury, threw for over 2,500 yards and 25 touchdowns. He completed 60% of his passes and threw only 12 interceptions. He also was the first freshman quarterback to lead his team to the Rose Bowl and only the second freshman in Michigan history to start in the opening game. Mike Hart, on the other hand, had to wait a few games until the starting role was given to him. He tallied only 37 yards in his first two games against Miami (OH) and Notre Dame while Lloyd Carr and the coaching staff shuffled around with other backs.

Hart was handed the starting role before the 3rd game and finished the season with an impressive 1,455 rushing yards. Needless to say, Hart and Henne were poised for excellent sophomore seasons, andMichigan fans across the country got excited about this highly touted duo.

2005 was a wake-up call for the then ?Super Sophs?. Both started off well in their season opener against Northern Illinoisbut a nauseating performance followed against hated rival, Notre Dame. Chad Henne struggled along with the entire Michigan offense. Against the Irish, Michiganwent 0-3 in the red zone with multiple turnovers. It didn?t help causes that Mike Hart went down with a leg injury late in the first quarter. “It wasn’t his best performance,” Carr said of Henne. Carr was right. The Wolverines, behind a disastrous offensive showing, went on to lose to the Fighting Irish, 17-10. The season finished with a loss to most hated rival, OhioState, and a ho-hum Alamo Bowl berth which resulted in another defeat.

Chad Henne and Mike Hart now play vital roles in Michigan?s 2006 run. Which one will have the more crucial part in the Wolverine offense? First of all, Chad Henne has played quite well in crucial games including against OhioState and in the Bowl Games. In Henne?s two OhioState match-ups and the Rose and Alamo Bowl performances, he has thrown for 1,048 yards, 10 touchdowns, and only 3 interceptions. Henne has played well in most crucial games, but a better outing against Notre Dame, the Wolverines? first road match of 2006, is much needed if Michigan wants to pull out of South Bend with a W.

In the five 2005 losses, Henne threw for 1,133 yards, 7 touchdowns, and only 3 interceptions which leads us to believe that a good running game may have propelled the Wolverines to more wins. A significant factor in Michigan?s offensive decline in 2005 was the rushing game. Not only Mike Hart, but the entire running back corps only averaged roughly 162 yards per game. Granted, Mike Hart was in and out due to injuries along the way but his numbers declined from 1,455 yards in his freshman campaign to 662 yards in his sophomore year. The Michigan offense was successful in 2004 because both components of a potent offense, rushing and passing, were there. Last season, the rushing game was not.

So, whose performance is most critical? Henne?s solid performances cannot carry the entire burden. If Mike Hart leads the Michigan backs, Kevin Grady, Jerome Jackson, Carlos Brown and others, to a powerful rushing attack, we will come out with fewer L?s on our schedule and more W?s including against Notre Dame, OhioState, and the Bowl Game. Henne must continue to perform at a high level, but Hart?s health and his ability to stimulate an effective rushing game will be most crucial to offensive success.

You gotta have Hart.

Twas the Night Before Practice

Today I visited the Big House and Schembechler Hall in anticipation of the first day of practice tomorrow..  I was thinking about writing an aticle called, “The Calm Before the Storm,” but as I walked around I kept thinking how it was really more like the night before Christmas.

 

‘Twas the night before Fall practice, and all through the Big House

Not a creature was stirring, not even a gopher;

The helmets were hung by the lockers with care,

In hopes that a National Championship soon would be there;

The players were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of hotties danced in their heads;

With my wife sleeping soundly, and I resting too,

Had just settled down for a long summer’s nap,

When at Fort Schembechler there arose such a clatter,

I drove in from Pittsfield to see what was the matter.

Away to the athletic campus I flew like a flash,

Jumped out of car and ran to the Stadium.

The moon on the breast of prescription athletic turf below

Gave the lustre of mid-day to the scoreboards above,

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But the Michigan Assistant Coaches, harnessed like reindeer,

With a stern old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it had to be Lloyd!

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

“Now, Debord! now, Campbell! now, English and Jackson!

On, Loeffler! on Moeller! on, Stripling and Szabo!

From Endzone to endzone! Now to the Press Box you go!

Now blitz away! pass away! tackle away all!”

As old programs that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,

So up to the Big House the coursers they flew,

With a book full of plays, and Lloyd Carr too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard the pacing and stirring of each coach’s foot.

As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,

Down to the sideline came Lloyd with a bound.

He was dressed all in blue, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all from Nike with Maize accents to boot;

A bundle of playbooks he had flung on his back,

Ready for the new season soon to begin.

His eyes — how they burned! his jaw was set firm!

His cheeks were pale, while his nose fared like a bull!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And his hair had specks of white from last year’s 7-5 toll;

He had a serious face and hardly no belly,

But his jowls shook, when he screamed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was stern and serious, hardly a jolly old elf,

But I smirked when I saw him, in spite of myself;

For I know that opponents of Michigan were in for a shock!

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And flipping through playbooks; he then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose, as if to lecture a ref,

he seemed ready for the challenge ahead

He gave a final nod, and through the tunnel he strode;

To his coaches gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, as he disappeared out of sight,

“Team Sleep well, for tomorrow WE GET TO WORK!”

The Dog Days of the Off-Season

Doldrums: (noun) a part of the ocean near the equator abounding in calms, squalls, and light shifting winds.

Doldrums is a term popularized in colonial times to describe the placid seas off the west coast of Africa. When explorers sailed to Asia, they had trouble getting around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa because of the Atlantic Ocean?s calmness in that region. In order to get around the Cape, they would navigate further west into the Atlantic so they could gain enough wind to make it to the other side of Africa. On one occasion, the Portuguese went so far west they ended up discovering Brazil. The word doldrums can also describe a bout of despondency. Similar to what BlueFan is experiencing during the Wolverines off-season. Perhaps the above definition is arcane and unnecessary to describe the mood brought about by the off-season. But with all the free time in lieu of actual football, BlueFan, left to his own devices, opened the dictionary looking for a word to describe the feeling.

It?s already been a long off-season, and we?re only about a quarter of the way through. National signing day has come and gone, so what remains? There?s always basketball. No, thanks. How about hockey? Good, but not the same. Well?what then? BlueFan doesn?t like to look too far ahead, but each off-season seems to get longer and looooooonger. The summer is a great time, but BlueFan lives in the mortal Hades known as Arizona. The spring then? Birds are singing, it rains once (maybe) and the temperature is a comfortable 100 degrees (instead of 115)? Great, but nothing is better than a Saturday afternoon in the fall?especially in the Southwest. Wake up in the morning, wear shorts to walk the dogs. Most games start at 9 or 10 am (depending on daylight savings time in the rest of the country), so you still have much of the afternoon to do whatever it is the ?normals? do with their weekends. Or you can hit UMGoBlue.com and commiserate (or argue) with your Michigan family in the event of a loss, or disagree with the same family about whether the players or coaches deserve a bulk of the credit, in the event of a win.

There are days BlueFan doesn?t even bother looking at UMGoBlue?s Football Forum. Opting instead for the distractions provided by the ?Other Discussions? forums. Everything in context, but the thought of not keeping up-to-date in the Football forum is?well unthinkable during football season. Often times, though, the Football forum is just a sad reminder of how long it?s been, and how long it continues to be, until the Maize and Blue strap on the pads and ready themselves for another season.

But after last year, should we really be looking forward to the up-coming season with such enthusiasm?

It?s been over two months since the season ended, but still the pain lingers. Changes have been made, but the team?s five-loss season is fresh enough in the minds of fans to temper much of the excitement that these changes should generate. Will the offense open up a little? Will the defense play more aggressively? It?s tough to say at this point, but absent these changes, neither question would be answered with a ?yes?. At least there?s a chance of change with the new, er, different blood running the offense and defense.

BlueFan has found that the closer the summer gets, the greater the anticipation. Last year, the season could?ve started in June and it would have still been too long a wait. With the longing and anticipation already high, BlueFan can only imagine how bad the emptiness will have gotten by the time late August rolls around.

So, here?s to making this off-season count?

Go Blue!