Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My (Least) Favorite Things: Notre Dame

Things have been slow to develop around Dreaded Judgement over the last day or so.  A link from Brian at mgoblog on Monday that directed people to my post game reaction has run traffic around here to much higher levels than I ever could have imagined when I started out a few weeks ago.  On top of that, my postgame thoughts inspired a response from Dave over at Maize and Brew (a response that I understand better after this blog got some notoriety outside my close circle of friends).

I think the sum total of things I have written in my life haven't been read by this many people, so I have spent the last day or so in awe.  It feels great to get positive feedback and support from the Michigan football online community, not to mention blogging idols of mine like Brian and Dave.  But there is no time to rest on my laurels.  football season stops for no man.  Back to regularly scheduled programming.


When it came to this post I was initially unsure how to proceed.  I set out in this series to highlight the positives of each week's performance.  However, the positives from last Saturday's game would have unfolded like this.
  1. Denard Robinson
  2. Denard Freaking Robinson
  3. Denard Freaking Robinson ripping Notre Dame's heart out in the last three minutes of another nail biter.
Pretty boring list, eh?  Besides, I think I have already summed up my feelings on Denard Robinson enough this week.  When it comes down to it we will learn much more from examining a few of the underwhelming aspects of Saturday's performance.  So without further ado, I present:  My (Least) Favorite Things.

1. 3rd Down Efficiency
This stat is night and day from the previous week.  Against UConn the Wolverines converted 14 of 19 third downs.  Against Notre Dame that number plummeted to 3 conversions in 16 attempts.  What this adds up to is pain:
(Courtesy of ESPN)
The final drive that went 12 plays was the longest of the day.  The next two longest drives were nine and ten plays, and both ended in a missed FG   about which, more later.

Out of 16 total drives, five were three-and-out.  Two more drives were not much longer or effective (5 plays for 16 yards and 4 plays for -8).  The two 40 yard drives to start the 2nd quarter did not feature a third down conversion and didn't make it more than four yards into Irish territory.  All tallied up there were 10 punts, 4 touchdowns, and 2 (missed) FGs.

One of the best ways this team can cover up for its young and thin defense is to sustain drives, and that was no more evident than during the week one game against UConn:

(Courtesy of ESPN)
Against the Huskies the first drive was 14 plays and almost six minutes long.  The next drive, thanks to a long touchdown run by Robinson, went 77 yards in seven plays and 2:35.  Toward the end of the half when Michigan was forced to punt after a five play 18 yard drive the Huskies were able to get the ball back and score.  This offense is capable of breaking long plays at any time, as evidenced by Denard Robinson both in the running game and the passing game after play fakes.  However, big plays won't always be beneficial.  The second half of the UConn game illustrates this perfectly.  UConn was given two meaningful possessions in the second half because the Wolverines kept a strangle hold on the ball by ripping off drives of 19, 11, and 15 plays for two thirds of the time of possession available in the second half.  This allowed the defense to stay off the field and rest while severely limiting UConn's opportunities to score.

This year the Wolverine's best defense is going to be a good offense.  If the offense can stay on the field and limit the other teams opportunities it will take a big burden off the defense.  This is going to come down to converting on 3rd down.  Against UConn there was not one three and out.  Against Notre Dame there were five.  Only converting three third downs put the Wolverines in a bad place last Saturday that saw them have to win the game in the final minutes.

2. Special Teams
Of course special teams play helped set this situation up.  First, the good news.  Will Hagerup had a bad day. He was probably due for a letdown after his lone 51 yard punt from the week before.  Of course his workload jumped quite a bit too, and he struggled with some of his punts.  His average in the game was 38.3 yards/punt with two going down inside the twenty.  This average was pulled down significantly by the three punts that went out of bounds, one punt of 32 yards and two punts of 21 yards.  Thankfully we can probably attribute this drop in performance to Hagerup being a true freshman in his first road game playing in wet conditions.  This kid will be fine in the long run.

But, there is bad news.  Hagerup can't kick field goals   that we know of.  After missing one of two field goals and an extra point against UConn, Brendan Gibbons probably lost his placekicking job when he missed both field goal tries against Notre Dame.  Each of the two kicks came in the 3rd quarter when the Wolverines were having a hard time scoring.

Gibbons struggled to win the PK job in fall practice
and now might be on his way to the bench.
Place kicker is increasingly looking like a position that could cost the Wolverines a game or two this season.  Gibbons was the one most informed fans counted on to pick up the torch based on recruiting hype and blind optimism.  For what it's worth, even Rodriguez felt the unit was suspect coming in.  After seeing Gibbons struggle for the better part of two games Rich brought in RS-freshman Seth Broekhuizen for the final extra point.

If a position battle rages on from spring to fall, and then the player who nominally wins the starting job is 1 for 4 on field goals, you can safely assuming things aren't going to work themselves out any time soon.  Commence panic.

3. Youth, Inexperience, and Cam Gordon
The defense gave up 381 yards through the air to Notre Dame.  Cam Gordon is either entirely responsible or more than 50% responsible for 185 of those yards.  We knew this was going to be a year of growing pains for Cam.  A RS-freshman doesn't move from wide receiver to free safety without hitting a few speed bumps along the way.  This is compounded when he is without perhaps the most important   or at least the most equalizing   asset that a safety could have:  pure speed.  These plays were bound to happen eventually, and the fact that they happened and we still got the win is a testament to the rest of the team.

Gordon is known for his hitting ability, but will have to
improve his instincts if this secondary is to be successful.
Gordon's first mistake came at the end of the first half when Nate Montana hit Theo Riddick with a pass at the 3 yard line with three seconds left on the clock, setting up a debatable decision to go for the touchdown (Using a walk on quarterback whose only D-I football experience had come earlier in the afternoon when he came in as the third option.  It was a gutsy call, but with Crist's availability in doubt I think you try for the points (ed. note: I meant touchdown, sorry for the confusion).  It's not like the backup quarterbacks did much to get ND in scoring position up to that point, but I digress).  This one might also fall on James Rogers shoulders (as he had underneath coverage and nobody was even near his side of the field), but if Gordon is faster or reads it quicker he gets to the receiver in time to make a play on the ball.  Of course, coming out of the half Gordon tried to make a play on the ball on the first downfield pass.  He just made the wrong one as Crist sailed a pass to TJ Jones.  Gordon seemed to want to jump the ball, which is fine if you are athletic enough to make the play, but Gordon was not and ran himself out of position to make the tackle after the catch which resulted in an Irish touchdown.  The final play to Rudolph was much of the same.  Gordon let Rudolph get deeper than him (1st rule of playing FS, no one should ever get deeper than you) and then turned too early and backpedaled to make a play on the ball instead of guaranteeing that Rudolph was tackled as soon as he caught it.  Instead Gordon couldn't get his hands on the ball and was outrun by a tight end for 60 yards and the go ahead touchdown.

If you take away these three plays the game becomes much different.  The passing numbers drop precipitously and the game is no longer a last minute comeback.  Expecting Gordon to break all three of these passes up is naive, but I would hope that Gordon learns from these mistakes and instead makes sure that he is in position to make the touchdown saving tackle and not the game changing interception.  In the bend but don't break defensive scheme that this team has relied on so far, highlight reel plays aren't necessary from the free safety.  What is necessary is solid tackling and a commitment to not let anything behind him.


Because of a trip back to Michigan tomorrow and a lack of any real information on UMass, I have decided to  skip my Match up Rundown for this weeks game.  Look for a preview piece to come up sometime tomorrow, and then nothing new until probably Monday.


  1. "was a gutsy call, but with Crist's availability in doubt I think you try for the points. It's not like the backup quarterbacks did much to get ND in scoring position up to that point . . . ."

    This is why I think it was the right call. Down by 2 TDs and uncertain how many chances you'll have to get another you better not pass up this chance when you have it.

  2. I actually agree with you, even though looking back on what I wrote it seems like I meant take the FG.

    When you haven't had any luck getting into the red zone until that point with the backups, try for the TD because you may not get another shot.

    Thanks for catching my vague wording. I'll try to do a little better job proofing these things.