Michigan Football: Can Any Quarterback Survive This Offense?

Borges seems confident that Michigan is on the right path: “We’ll have the guys here to run any system we want but there is a transitional phase. What we tried to do is implement what we want to do now. We’re two years behind because we didn’t do it from the beginning with that comes some growing pains.”

Unfortunately, those growing pains include Gardner running for his life, just like Robinson last year.

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M FOOTBALL 2012: SEASON’S LAST HOME GAME PROVIDES THE FINAL OPPORTUNITY FOR 23 SENIORS TO ENJOY MICHIGAN STADIUM AND ITS ATMOSPHERE, WHILE OBTAINING A NEEDED WIN-WOLVERINES 42, HAWKEYES 17.

ANOTHER STEP TOWARD A BETTER BOWL AND THE SHOWDOWN IN COLUMBUS:
The Wolverines needed to overpower the would be overpowering Hawkeyes in Michigan Stadium Saturday to add another Big Ten win, thereby maintaining a shot at improving their Bowl game status, and maintaining their shot, even if slim, at the big game in Indianapolis. They got the needed win, but of course they need another. Now, finally, they can focus on the regular season finale in Columbus.

GAME PHOTOS

ABOUT THE HAWKEYES:The Hawkeyes had struggled this year being 4-6 prior to Saturday. They had compiled only 3 Big Ten wins this season, and were therefore desperately seeking another. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s teams have a way of winning against the Wolverines, and the last three years had slapped consecutive losses on them. It was Iowa 24, Michigan 16 last year, and the year before Iowa 38, Michigan 28, and the year before, Iowa 30, Michigan 28. The usual descriptions of Hawkeye lines include rough, and tough and this year was no exception, even though their record was not their best. They wanted to possess the ball, move the chains, and pound it out if they could. They played hard and were chippy Saturday, but team speed seemed a step behind. Defensively, the Hawks have had their problems, and they continued. Opponents had completed 62% of their passes against the Hawks, but the Hawks had gathered in 9 interceptions. Michigan added to those woes Saturday, passing for 314-yards, and rushing for 199 net yards for a whopping total of 513 net yards, but M brought the Hawk’s interception total up to 10.

Offensively too, the Hawks have had their problems, and the Wolverines defense helped them to continue. QB James Vandenberg has disappointed some fans this year who have called for his replacement. M’s defense held them to 128-yards rushing, and 181-yards passing. Vandenberg had more picks (6) than TDs (5) prior to the game, but remained the starter for good reason, proving those reasons by throwing a couple of TDs against the Wolverines. He had no interceptions. Their best RB was Mark Wiesman, who sported a 3.9-yard per carry average for the game Saturday. They owned the second worst rush attack in the Big Ten and that continued. Since they had two good receivers in Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley, and have good tight ends, an air assault was expected, if the ground game failed. The Hawks air attack mostly ignored the wide outs and concentrated on the tight ends and it gave the Wolverines fits early. Coach Hoke has indicated their special teams are special, and they had some nice returns.

Before Saturday, Coach Hoke had lost to them twice at Ball State and once at Michigan. Now he is 1-3 and counting.

Last year’s loss was particularly mind numbing. Iowa established a 17- 6 halftime lead and it was too much for the Wolverines to overcome. The Wolverines had four tries from the three, but four passes went awry, and the goal line was not crossed or its plane penetrated. Gut wrenching! There was no solace in M outgaining the Hawks, 323 to 302-yards. A healthy Denard Robinson had a nice day, tossing for 194-yards, and a couple of TDs. Still it was an L.

This leads us to the major continuing drama regarding the Wolverines this season.

DENARD AND DEVIN, FITZ AND THOMAS:
Denard’s injury unfortunately lingered. On Monday, Coach Hoke reiterated for the umpteenth time that Denard was “day to day”. So the Denard or Devin at QB question lingered prior to game time.

One thing that has changed is the added confidence that if Denard cannot play. Devin can play well enough for the team to win, and he proved that Saturday as he was the M player of the game. The pregame question was, would Denard have a cameo role, play a little, or start? Be on the field the same time as Devin? Actuality: Devin did most of the quarterbacking, threw all the passes, and ran for three TDs. He showed his arm strength again and again, once throwing from the hash, to the farthest sideline, making a perfect throw. Accounting for 314 passing years, he rushed for 37-yards and 3 TDs. He had a single blemish, tossing one interception.

Coach Borges was well into his bag of tricks so Denard played at receiver and running back and QB, but never threw a pass. Borges even called a multiple option, which ended up in Denard’s hands. Denard caught a pass or two, ran the read option, pitched to an RB on an option, and showed the magic and toughness that has made his reputation. He was the team’s leading rusher with 98-yards on 13 carries. His long of 40-yards was as good as it gets. Unfortunately, he did not add to his portfolio of scores, and more unfortunately Fitz Toussaint took his pitch and headed toward the sideline where he took a hit that disabled him, and may have broken a leg. At the press conference Coach Hoke would only say that he was in the hospital and in surgery.

Coach Hoke on making use of the different offensive weapons … “I think Al (Borges) and that staff did a great job of incorporating the skill sets that both guys (Denard and Devin) at the same time. Some of those other guys who are a big part of it when you look at playmakers, they were involved.” Hoke on getting Denard involved in the offense… “Al and I have talked about this quite a bit. Al went home last Saturday night and put in nine plays, while he was watching games and thinking about different ways to use him. He had those nine and then about six more different ways, and that’s kind of how it happened. Al’s got a very innovative look at offensive football. Both of our coordinators that way have a nice two-box, of offense and defense, that they can pull from to really help the playmakers and put them in the right positions.”

Fitz was the main man at RB, but Thomas Rawls has proved his worth as a tough runner, and now will get his chance to shine. The next game is against the kind of physical team that needs to be dealt a lick, so he ought to get some carries in the spotlight. It was about time for Vincent Smith to show up again, and on Senior Day he did, but he did with mixed results, having a block in the back, then he held in the same set of downs. To offset that, he made some nice blocks, and had an 18-yard TD catch and run.

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF DENARD’S CAREER ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
Denard has created an extraordinary legacy as a Michigan man. He has been significantly team oriented, cognizant of the accomplishments of his teammates, responsive to coaching, and has kept a smile on his face though the ordeal of being recruited by one coach(s) for a specialized system and inheriting another coach(s) and significantly different system. He has carried his team in a style that is often reserved for Heisman winners.

  • Against Illinois he rushed twice for TDs, becoming only the eighth player in NCAA history to rush for 40 TDs and pass for 40 TD’s, and only the 8th player accomplish to 10,000 career yards. His current (before Saturday) total of 10, 425-yards is 1st in Michigan total offensive yardage.
  • He is among the leaders with 41 career rushing TDs, and in 4th place in career passing TDs with 49.
  • His 4,175-yards set the Big Ten QB rushing mark.
  • He is in 3rd spot on NCAA’s all-time QB rushing list, trailing only Missouri’s Brad Smith and West Virginia’s Pat White.

These are not all the areas in which he resides near the top of active career lists. His career list would be even more extensive if he had not had to endure this nagging elbow/nerve injury in this, his valedictory season. Perhaps the team’s win list would have increased by one highly important game this year if he had not been sidelined. If our style of football was an Olympic sport, and he was competing for medals, he would have earned a record share.

He does not bemoan his final season’s fortune, never complains, and never has. He just puts on that big grin and bears it. That is part of his great personality. He humbly deals with his fame, obviously enjoying the endless attention and tolerating its inconveniences. He has represented himself, his football teammates, and the University of Michigan well. He is a Michigan man.

It will be a long time before we see his like again.

HONORED ON SENIOR DAY:
Twenty-three players were honored on this year’s senior day (13 fifth-year and 10 fourth-year). When Coach Hoke is asked regarding Denard’s legacy he is carefully points out that there are twenty-three seniors who are all special kids. He has uttered on more than one occasion. Mentioned some of them have been underappreciated, and he mentioned a few. Some have enhanced special teams, like Floyd and Simmons. He mentioned Gyamati.

All twenty-three have many characteristics in common, not the least of which was their acceptance of a significant regime change in mid-career. They bought in and the results have showed on the field.

  • Fifth Year Seniors: Barnum, Demens, Floyd, Gyamati, Kennedy, Kovacs, Kwiatkowski, Mealer, Moore, Omameh, Roundtree, Simmons and Wilson.
  • Fourth Year Seniors: Backey, Brink, Broekhuizen, Graman, Campbell, Hawthorne, Robinson, Roh, Smith and Zeller.

KEYS TO THE GAME:
While most games adults play are complicated and football fits comfortably into that group, the measures of ability to win are sometimes not overly complicated. Games are still won or lost in the trenches. Good or bad line play does not diminish the importance of the skill positions, but surely does enhance or detract from their ability to perform effectively. To me the first key to this game was the ability of the offensive line to run block effectively enough against a tough defensive line to enable a ground game, thus enhancing passing effectiveness, and moving the chains.

Actuality: 513-yards of offense pretty well answers that key, even if much of that came on Devin tosses. I have never seen an M QB have that much time in the pocket. Never ever. Some of that was the OL and some of it was Iowa’s well recognized inept pass rush. Responsibility for six TDs is extraordinary. No M QB has done it since Steve Smith.

The second key was thought to be the effectiveness of the defensive line to stop the run. Actuality: The defensive line rose to the task as the game wore on but in the first quarter, and some of the second, they were not sterling, letting Iowa march on them to a TD on a 14 play, 75-yard drive to tie the score. They could not stop the tight ends on pass plays. Hoke’s take on getting hurt by the tight ends and running game early:… “They caught us off balance a bit on two drives. They can get you off balance when they have the ability to run the football. They were able to run the football a little bit, and then on the second downs and on some first down play-actions, they hit the tight end. I didn’t feel like we were settled within the defense like we wanted to be. I do think the players really saw what they had and started playing more fundamentally and with better technique.”

M’s James Ross III had 12 tackles and Joe Bolden had two TFLs.  The young ones are coming on.

The third key would be the ability of special teams to contribute in their areas of specialization. Actuality: M’s special teams were adequate in all respects, except the non-recovery of Iowa’s 4th quarter on side kick.

The fourth key was the elimination of TOs (interceptions, fumbles, as well as stupid penalties like personal fouls and late hits out of bounds) is necessary. This area can move to number one at any stage of the game, and negate good play in other areas. Actuality: Michigan had its share of stupid penalties, an area of sloppiness that will allow the Buckeyes to run up the score, if it continues. Some were described above and in addition the usually reliable Kovacs had a roughing the passer call. But there was only one interception with the ball in the air a lot.

GALLON, ROUNDTREE, FUNCHESS
Jeremy and Roy each had 5 catches in the game and combined for 216-yards, with Gallon snagging five for 133 (long of 51), and Roundtree corralling 5 for 83-yards with a long of 51-yards and a TD. In the past month these receivers have improved geometrically. It probably helps that Devin is putting the ball on target, but they have made some spectacular grabs based on their talent. Hemingwayesque. I should sneak Devin Funchess in here as he had a 29-yard TD catch. He was as alone as you can get in an end zone without possessing a communicable disease.

THE GAME:
M won the toss and elected to kick off and Iowa received, stalled and M took over. With Devin at QB and Denard at TB, they engineered a 12 play 70-yard drive which ended with a Devin run for a one-yard TD. M-7, Iowa -0. Rawls apparent TD was overturned, before Devin scored.

Iowa rapidly answered with a long drive, and a 16-yard TD pass. The defense looked soft. M-7. Iowa 7.

In the second quarter, the Wolverine’s Gardner used his arm to toss a 37-yard TD pass to Roundtree, just after Denard’s used his legs for a 40-yard gallop after lining up at QB. Now Denard had his 3rd consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. M-14, Iowa 7.

Iowa answered with a 22-yard FG. M-14, Iowa-10. Iowa was moving the ball, but a nice stop at the M 9-yard line held them to three. M took a lead it never relinquished.

The Wolverines then produced another score at about the 5 minute mark. Gardner scored on fourth down on a one yard run after a nifty Gallon 51-yard reception to the Iowa 10-yard line. Rawls got it down to the one. M-21, Iowa-10.

Starting at its own 13, a 7 play, 87-yard drive was engineered by Devin Gardner. Jeremy Gallon contributed a 31-yard reception and Roy Roundtree grabbed one for 17. Devin hit V. Smith for 18-yards for a score with 40 seconds left on the clock, and it was M-28, Iowa-10 at the half and it is easier to appreciate the setting and the perfect football weather and half time show.

M received to start the second and moved 81-yards to a score in 11 plays. Denard and Devin ran, and Jeremy Gallon snagged another long one of thirty-one yards. Devin ran it in from 3-yards out. M-35, Iowa 10.

After a 26-yard Iowa punt, M’s offense set up at its 40, and produced a 5 play 6o-yard drive to cap its scoring. Gallon snared a 15-yard pass and the Wolverines snared an Iowa pass interference penalty, before a lonely Devin Funchess grabbed a Gardner pass in the end zone to complete their day’s scoring. M-42, Iowa 10.

Iowa produced a consolation drive of 7 plays for 19-yards after a successful onside kick recovery. M-42, Iowa-10.

Now it is on to the snake pit in Columbus, where the Wolverines will face the undefeated Buckeyes in their biggest challenge since Alabama.

Hopefully the challenge of Michigan’s new found and expanded offensive scheme will produce points, and the defense will be able to contain a mobile QB, and a spread offense.

As usual, there is much for the Wolverines to win, and to lose. This game always counts. Coach Hoke says this game is fun.  But it will be tough fun, a slugfest.

Go Blue!

M-FOOTBALL 2012: MINNESOTA’S GOPHERS GO FER IT, BUT FALL WAY SHORT AS RESERVE QUARTERBACK DEVIN GARDNER EXCELS IN FIRST START: MICHIGAN 35; MINNESOTA 13.

INJURIES SIDELINE ROBINSON, BUT THE LITTLE BROWN JUG IS ON ITS WAY HOME BECAUSE OF THE WOLVERINE’S DEFENSE, AND DEVIN GARDNER AND FRIENDS.

The Michigan Wolverines football team traveled to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis St. Paul, to meet the Minnesota Gophers in their still new TCF Bank stadium on Saturday. The Wolverines were looking to improve their suddenly uncomfortably uncertain football prospects, and in so doing had to kill Gopher Coach Jerry Kill and Company’s dreams of improving their own bowl prospects with a signature win.

The Gophers must have yearned for the football respectability that a win over the University of Michigan would afford them. They were coming off their most solid win of the season, having destroyed Purdue 44-23 last Saturday. This improved their expectations and gave some probability, but not certainty, to obtaining the object of their quest. Sitting at 5 wins, and 3 Big Ten losses, they critically needed another win to go bowling.

Understandably, they wanted to lay their Gopher paws on our Little Brown Jug again. One of the most venerable and venerated “trophies” in the history of college football, it has dwelt most of its time in Ann Arbor, at home in the home of the Wolverines, and it is difficult to categorize any season that ends with its absence as a success.

Even though M leads the series 71-24-1, the Gophers have had their moments. Rickey Foggy laid a memorable loss on the number two ranked Wolverines in 1986, and for those of us in attendance, that was bitter. And there was that miserable playing surface at the Metro dome, where the fleet and shifty Tony Boles ran up the sideline for a nice gain, but twisted a knee, and lost his playing career, due it was said, to a miserable Metro dome rug. Among those 24 prior Wolverine losses there were some stunners.

The Wolverines set out, as they always do, to provide the Jug with a round trip ticket. But there were obstacles in the way, not the least of which were some aspects of the Wolverine’s team itself.

PREGAME KEYS:

When Denard Robinson fell on his elbow in the second quarter of last Saturday’s Nebraska loss, it illustrated like nothing else could how dependent the Wolverines offensive productivity is on his many athletic skills. Some had suspected that M’s offense was a one act pony, and the Nebraska game seemed to prove the point. This injury changed the course of Michigan’s offense, just as it made Nebraska change its very conservative, contain Robinson at all costs, defense. They went to a hell for leather blitzing scheme which took its toll on Denard’s replacement, Freshman Russell Bellomy.

Russell suffered the growing pains of inexperience, the slings and arrows of some fans, and too little help from his friends as catchable passes were dropped, blitzers were coming free, and nearly everything else that besets QBs in ineffective debuts, beset Russell. It was as intense a baptism and learning situation as it was dismal. Russell was 3 of 16 for 38-yards and three interceptions.

  • Could Denard shake off his injured elbow, start and play at his usual high level of performance shaking off the injury? Actuality: No, the injury has persisted. Good luck trying to find out if Denard will be ready for next week until game time. 
  • If Denard was not available, would Devin Gardner or Russell Bellomy replace him? Prior to Nebraska, Coach Hoke said in a presser that Russell was the back up, and that he was taking most of the snaps. Now the scenario had changed a little and they were saying that Devin Gardner would get more snaps at QB, and that there was competition at the position. Actuality: Devin Gardner started and after a dismal first quarter, got going. The ice breaker was a third and seventeen pass play in which he rolled to his right, circled back left, and heaved a perfect pass to Drew Dileo waiting by himself in the end zone. Devin held the ball for nine seconds before the toss. That play set the Michigan offensive wheels in motion. Devin’s career day included 12 completions, 2 TDs, and one interception. He hit 67% of his passes, hitting 12 of 18, for 234-yards. He had a very athletic run down the sidelines. 
  • Could the Wolverines run the ball with no Denard? Actuality: Late in the game, on fourth and one, Fitz broke up the middle late in the game for a 41-yard score. Almost collared, he put an arm down, regained balance and sped to six. He had 70-yards on 13 carries. Thomas Rawls ran 16 times for 43-yards, and played early in the game. Devin Gardner had 44-yards on 10 carries. Jeremy Gallon rushed twice for 21-yards. The total of 182-yards and a 3.9-yard average rush is nothing to write home about considering the struggle of the competition’s defense against the rush, but its better than some recent results. Could M throw it? Actuality: The passing was not effective in the first quarter. The offensive line did not hold its own in that quarter. The passing game was great the rest of the game. As mentioned Devin had some good runs. On his TD run, he ran as tough as any back and stretched for six . It was a remarkable play that was the game’s turning point. The receiver’s cooperated with Devin. Dileo, Roundtree, and Gallon all making outstanding catches. Gallon was a little inconsistent, fumbling a punt return, and getting a silly block in the back penalty, but he redeemed all by snaring a 47-yarder with a beautiful catch. Relatively short, Gallon showed remarkable elevation making that catch, as he has others. Gallon had four with a score. Drew Dileo had 69-yards on four catches and a TD. Roy Roundtree caught two for 64-yards with a long of 47-yards. This was a spectacular grab he as he wrestled with the defender. The catch was upheld on review. Michigan “won” all its reviews.
  • Would the defense continue to improve? Get off the field and stop big plays? Actuality: The defense did well overall. They snuffed a critical fourth and ones and were great in the red zone, once backing short and goal back up to the twenty. They held Minnesota to 144-yds rushing and 147-yards passing, maintaining another 13 point effort. Jake Ryan had nine tackles, three of which were TFLs. Kenny Demens had 10-tackles with one of those being a TFL. The Gophers were limited to 49-yards offense in the second quarter. Outstanding. But with room for improvement per Coach Hoke.  Probably he was thinking of third and long conversions, and that first drive.
  • Would special teams again be special? Too often the Gophers had good field position on KO returns, and Will Hagerup was less spectacular punting than usual, hitting 3 for 88-yards. His 29.3 average was surprising. Gibbons missed an extra point but got a re-try on a Minnesota gift, keeping his made string intact.
  • Penalties? Michigan made some stupid penalties, but Minnesota hurt themselves, once getting charged for two penalties on the same play, and an ill- advised fake kick was effectively snuffed out be the Wolverines.

BRIEF GAME AND SCORING RECAP:

The Wolverines received and it looked like a replay of last week’s troubles at Nebraska would materialize again as the offensive line and Devin struggled, tossing an early interception, but the defense proved solid and the quarter ended zip to zip. A short punt put the Gophers at the M 43 and they took full advantage of the good field position, driving 43-yards on a 6 play drive ending with a 6-yard TD pass. M-0, Minn.- 7.

The Wolverines put together a sweet 91-yard, 12-play drive featuring the 45-yard end zone reception by Drew Dileo that marked the emergence of Devin Gardner and the resurgence of the Wolverines offense. Dileo knows how to get open and he catches the ball reliably all the time, and spectacularly some of the time. The TD drought was over. M-7, Minn.-7.

The Wolverines showed they meant business by producing a 13-play, 90-yard drive. Roundtree, Funchess, and J. Robinson, caught passes and Gardner contributed a nice run. Thomas Rawls finished the drive with a two-yard TD run and it was 14-7 and halftime.

In the third quarter, Minnesota drove to the M 14, but turned the ball over on downs, and during a 7 play 86-yard drive, Gardner hit Jeremy Gallon for a 47-yard completion. M-21, Minn.-7.

In the 4th quarter Minnesota got 3 back on a 26-yard FG. The defense held them to a FG, after they had got to the M 3-yard line. A good example of the defense’s effectiveness when and opponent is in its red zone. M-21, Minn-10.

Soon Devin Gardner was at it again conducting an 8-play 70-yard scoring drive with Roy Roundtree gathering in a 47-yard reception at the Minnesota three. What a reception that was. Roy caught the ball as well as the arm of the defender, and replay verified that the call of a catch on the field was valid. M-28, Minn-10.

Minnesota produced another long drive of 13-plays and 69-yards, which ended at fourth and goal at the M 2. It was another great defensive stand. M-28, Minn-13.

Fitz Toussaint then ripped off the 41-yard TD jaunt described above and it was over. FINAL: M-35, Minn.-13.

In Coach Jerry Kill’s second season, the Gophers have been a much improved team over the one that the Wolverines destroyed in Ann Arbor last year 58-0. With five wins and three losses, they are hunting for a bowl berth in spite of playing musical chairs at QB and on the offensive line. That said, most teams have not had to pass much against them as rushing yardage has been readily available. The Wolverines rushing game again still struggled somewhat, but with Gardner’s contributions, it was enough for a very needed win.

Congratulations to Devin Gardner who had a spectacular first start, and bring on a good Northwestern team.  And thanks to you for perusing these pages.

 

Go Blue!

The Michigan QB Dilemma, More Kirk, less Picard

Michigan Offensive Coordinator Al Borges loves to diagram offensive plays for hour on end.

He’ll sit drawing up play after play with multiple options, against different defensive looks and tendencies looking for the perfect call to give his offense the advantage.

His ideal quarterback is someone tall, who can survey the field and pick apart the defense, exploiting the mismatches that Borges identifies.

Denard Robinson isn’t his ideal QB.

Since Hoke and Borges arrived they’ve done their best to put Denard Robinson in a box. A lesser player would have grown frustrated by now. But Denard soldiers on.

Sometime its helpful to look a problem through a different lens.

This week is the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation and once again fans are debating incarnation of Star Trek i best.

One of the most heated arguments is which captain is best, Kirk or Picard?

Kirk is the gambler, flying by the seat of his pants, surviving and thriving by natural skill and gut intuition.

Picard is the calm, cool, and collected manager, carefully analyzing every situation.

Both have their strengths, but you would never confuse one with the other.

It’s clear that Borges is a Picard fan.

Given the choice of a playmaker versus the game manager at quarterback, he’d go for the later every time.

But that’s Denard.

Denard is at his best when plays break down he chooses to make things happen with his amazing speed.

You can’t draw that up on the play sheet. You can quantify it. You just acknowledge the truth.

Next year Al Borges will get his game manager at quarterback.

But for now he needs to let Denard be Denard.

No defensive coordinator fears Denard’s passing game.

But him running free in the open field is a nightmare.

Borges needs to realize that’s it’s been a mistake trying to stop Denard from being the playmaker.

He needs to make adjustments before this season ends up like an odd numbered Star trek movie.