Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My Favorite Things: Purdue

After having a few days to put the Purdue game in the review mirror, I finally feel like I am ready to look back at it.  There isn't much you can take from a game like that.  The conditions were awful, Purdue has one of the most depleted and ineffective offenses in the country, and Michigan shifted into vanilla play calling once it became clear that the only way the Wolverines would lose would be if Michigan beat itself.

Plays like this certainly weren't setting the world on fire for the Boilermakers:

Fumbles.  Story of the day.
However, there were some solid performances delivered on both sides of the ball.  Lets take a quick look back at my favorite things so we can put this game behind us and move on to (hopefully) greener pastures in the form of two upset bids.

1. Vincent Smith

I will admit that I have been quite hard on Vincent Smith this year.  During most of the first eight games of the season he lacked the quickness that was his most important asset before an ACL injury in the OSU game last year.  He showed flashes of ability at points this season (namely the first TD run against UConn and the long TD against Indiana), but something wasn't right and his production reflected it.  He failed to put together an effective YPC and yardage total in all but the Bowling Green and Indiana games (easily the two worst rush defenses Michigan faced).  It seemed that he was still not far enough removed from the surgery on his ACL to play at 100%.  To his credit he found other ways to be effective, both as a pass catcher and blocker, but the coaching staff's insistence on using him as the 3rd and short back was infuriating and probably unfairly affected my opinion of him as a player.  I didn't hold it against Craig Roh when the coaches put him at linebacker and said, "good luck," why should I hold it against Smith that they used him as a 5'6 170 lbs. battering ram.

Last Saturday Smith finally showed the quick cutting ability that we came to expect from his brief cameos last year.  He went off for 99 yards on 18 carries, which established a very effective 5.5 YPC number for him as well as one touchdown.  While most of the run game ground to a halt in the rain and mud of Ross-Ade Stadium, Smith made the best of the hit or miss blocking up front (more in depth explanation on that here) and proved to be the most effective offensive weapon on the field.

It is nearing one year since his surgery, typically the time it takes to recover from such an injury.  Maybe we are seeing the signs of Smith being back to full effectiveness.  While he still might not be the feature back that most want--his top speed has been sorely lacking, even last year--he will still be a useful part of this offense in the years to come because of his wide skill set.

Let's just not use him on 3rd and one anymore, okay coach?

2. The Defense

Sure, you can explain away a lot of the defense's success.  Purdue was switching between it's injured second string quarterback, true freshman third string quarterback, and hobbled WR-turned-fourth string quarterback.  Routinely they would use these quarterbacks at running back and wide receiver.  The running back depth was down to a nameless collection of who-dats, and the receiving corp was thinned by injuries as well.  I joked going into the Penn State game about how decimated the Nittany Lions offense was.  Purdue's offensive woes are no laughing matter.  This is the closest equivalent to Michigan's secondary that you will find, and that made for a surprisingly easy match up.

Yet, just because the offense across the line looks like a collection of 3rd stringers and band geeks doesn't mean it is a day off (just ask Wisconsin 2008).  Michigan's defense has been through a lot this year.  First the number one corner went down before the season, then the number two corner three weeks ago.  The best player on the defense, Mike Martin, has been either sidelined or playing at half speed after a cheap shot against the Spartans in October, while the best (now debatable) linebacker was out for the game as well.  Would anyone have been surprised if the defense rolled over and let Purdue put up 450 yards of offense and 30+ points?  Of course not.  Most people predicted just that before the game.

Instead, the defense came out and played some of the best football of the year.  The players on the other side of the line weren't the best, but that doesn't mean you can overlook the gang tackling, pass breakups, and "OMG WAS THAT EZEH FORCING A 3-AND-OUT BY HIMSELF."  The defense forced a bad Purdue passing attack to be bad (17-33, 132 yards, 2 INT), and an overwhelmed running game to be mediocre (124 yards, 3.4 YPC, 3 fumbles).  When the Boilermakers looked to extend drives on third down the Wolverines made plays to stop them, only allowing conversions on two of the seventeen 3rd down attempts.  Most importantly, Michigan did not allow the Boilermakers to score one offensive touchdown.

This defense hasn't magically transformed into the steel curtain defense.  Lamar Woodley isn't walking through those doors.  Leon Hall isn't walking through those doors.  David Harris isn't walking through those doors.  Hell, Mike Martin can barely walk through those doors without assistance.  Despite all of problems and failures this season has brought, this young defense is playing hungry, making plays, and finally forcing the other team to make great plays to score touchdowns and sustain drives instead of rolling over.  That wasn't the case against Indiana, MSU, Iowa, and Penn State.  This may not be the best Wolverine defense of your lifetime--in fact it is probably the worst--but that doesn't mean the kids aren't busting their asses to get better.  That is good enough for me, even on a day when everything else looks ugly.

3. This is the last Michigan will see of Ryan Kerrigan.

Do you remember how much it bothered you to watch Brandon Graham toil away on a bad defense last year with almost no national recognition despite the fact that he was putting up otherworldly numbers as the first, second, and third player that other teams focused on in their game plans?

Ryan Kerrigan 2010 = Brandon Graham 2009

The fact of the matter is Kerrigan did more against this offense than any defensive lineman Michigan has faced.  Iowa's five rotating defensive linemen racked up a stat line of 11 solo tackles, 1 TFL, 0 sacks, and 1 forced fumble.  Ryan Kerrigan beat that by himself with 10 solo tackles, 5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and one recovered fumble.  Ladies and gentlemen, your Big Ten defensive player of the year.  If you have a problem with it, I'd like to see you say it to his face.

Enjoy the NFL next year Kerrigan.  I'm sure everyone in Michigan's offensive backfield wishes you the best of luck on Sundays.

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