Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Don't Let the Lights Get In Your Eyes

In the hours after the game Saturday night I wandered around my house with a stupid grin on my face, half drunk and not really sure what to think.

My roommates threw a birthday party for one of our friends that evening during the game.  My contact with the party consisted of disgruntled trips to the keg during timeouts in which I would try to avoid any and all contact with others, and a few occasions where one or more of my friends would come into my room and check on me.  It is good to know that my mental state during Michigan games is so out of whack that those closest to me feel the need to monitor my well being.

Yet as I walked around after the game the party had largely died down to a few smaller groups of people talking or half playing some drinking game.  The couches were taken up by a few people who went too hard too fast, and the keg was still circled by those that had yet to squeeze all they could from it.

People casually asked me about the game.  My answer was always the same: a rush of emotions would ride in on the first words and pretty soon I was just spewing up an unintelligible series of exasperated praises and foreboding signs of impending doom.

"Denard was soooo bad in the beginning, but that fourth quarter, oh man, and those fades, they were just, how did he throw that with that guy there?"

"Ugh, the defense.  Got pushed around all night, no pressure.  But the turnovers.  And, yeah, Floyd and Wood did whatever they wanted.  But the turnovers!"

"Hemingway.  HEMINGWAY!"

It is a day and a half later and I still don't feel any different when I think about the game.  I watched the highlights a few times Saturday night, then a few times Sunday night as well.  It still doesn't feel real.  Bullets?
  • It has been interesting to see the internet reaction on the subject of Denard's first three quarters.  I will admit that I haven't been the most consistent in my thinking.  During the game it was along the lines of, "Oh noes, Gardner?  Too soon?" but after the game it was simply standard fare doom and gloom about how the offense is never going to do anything again and the fourth quarter was an anomaly that only proves that God really doesn't like Notre Dame that much      or if she does, it is in a very Job-like way where dragging an entire fan base through the equivalent of football hell is supposed to be an endearing test of character.  (Yes, Notre Dame fans, God is a woman, and she wants to see how much you love her.  How much do you love her?)  As it stands now I think the offense is just very limited.  If teams stack the box and force Denard to pass, things will be shaky.  Everyone knows he is capable of making plays down field with his arm; he has made plenty of them over the past year.  The problem is that everyone knows he isn't yet capable of making those plays consistently.  Now, if he makes a good read and pass somewhere around two-thirds of the time or more (like the 4th quarter) this offense can still be very good. If he can't even do it a tenth of the time (like the first three quarters) the offense is going to end up just north of 2008 depths.  Obviously the answer lies somewhere in between.  Just where lies in the hands of Al Borges, who is going to have to adjust his game plan based on what he saw.  No more waggles out of I-Form or straight dive plays out of two back sets.  More zone-read and Denard head fakes.  This offense needs to be more shotgun based, and needs to at least keep the option of Denard running viable on every play so that defenses have to account for more possible outcomes and play tenative.  
  • However, the problem of the offense doesn't just fall on the shoulders of Borges.  Denard was just plain bad at throwing the ball for the majority of the game.  He completed only four passes over the first three quarters, of those there were:  1. A five yard pass to Smith on a 3rd and 7 that was obviously Mike DeBord hacking in to the offenses' headset for one more disappointing third down playcall; 2. The Hemingway touchdown that was all Hemingway going up to get an under thrown fade; 3. An 11 yard pass to Kevin Koger over the middle on a good move to step forward out of the collapsing pocket; 4. The 77 yard crossing route that Robinson threw with his feet wrapped up by a ND defender.  For the record that is one meaningless check down, one unspectacular pass turned into a spectacular touchdown by the receiver, a savvy pass to Koger to get a third down conversion, and a nine out of ten difficulty throw to Hemingway (this is a ten out of ten).  Four for 15 in the first three quarters, and of those throws, only two were really properly placed.  The other eleven passes were incomplete or intercepted.  Robinson looked shaky with ball placement in week one, and sure enough when the pass defense was ratcheted up a notch this week he found it even harder to hit receivers in ever tightening windows.  If he can't settle down over the next month and improve his accuracy this offense is going to be much too easy to stop.
  • There is still no running back.  I didn't know Toussaint was injured for the game (I was constantly talking to no one in particular as I sat by myself asking, "where the hell is Fitz?"  It would have been nice to see if he could have found any success where the other backs failed.  After last year and his performance last weekend, I am about ready to close the book on Stephen Hopkins as a viable #1 running back.  He can be a very good blocker, and will have some use as a big back if he controls his fumble problem, but otherwise the offense needs to be put in someone else's hands.  Is the answer Shaw?  Who knows.  He certainly didn't look very good on his two carries.  Unfortunately, it seems clear that no matter how much Borges and Hoke want it the other way, Denard is still our only effective running back and will need to be deployed accordingly.  More shotgun please.
  • The offensive line looked overwhelmed at first glance.  I don't know how they will grade out upon closer inspection, but there weren't many holes to run through.  Robinson had a few big runs, but the backs were completely bottled up.  Denard did have plenty of time to throw, but I think that was part of Notre Dame's strategy (Pressure with four and make him throw over top of linebackers.  It worked).  This week's UFR will be an interesting read.  I can't imagine our O-line does anything more than break even.
  • The lone bright spot outside of "Denard-fourth-quarter-whaaaaa-mode"?  The receivers.  Hemingway was spectacular on all three of his catches, and he has clearly staked claim as the big play receiver on this team.  Also, while I was ready to see Jeremy Gallon's role increase this year, I did not imagine it would be so pronounced.  The touchdown that he caught was on a great adjustment by him to get back to the ball before the defender could react, and getting free on the final drive to run the Wolverines into scoring position was arguably the play of the game as Michigan has no chance of going for the win if it doesn't get into the red zone there and set up a reasonable throw to the end zone.  Also, nice to see Roundtree not need to get warmed up for the game winner.  For a player with a history of drops it is nice to see him make such a great catch in a big moment.
  • The defensive line was the most disappointing part of the defense for me.  Rees never really saw pressure, and Notre Dame never really had trouble picking up yards on the ground.  There were a few key TFL's and stuffs on short run plays, but that infuriating draw play that Wood ran six or eight times for almost ten yards a pop was troubling to see.  Mike Martin and RVB have been solid so far, but they need to be transcendent to make up for the help they aren't getting.  Craig Roh is all but absent when he needs to be a game changer off the weak side edge, and the walk-on duo of Heininger and Brink has been barely noticeable .  This unit really needs to come together in the next three weeks.  It was nice to see BWC make a couple big plays.  Any contribution he makes at this point will help immensely with the lack of quality depth on the line.
  • The linebackers seemed to be effective, but a second glance at that should help me better make up my mind.  It is nice to see Brandin Hawthorne step up at WLB.  It would be nice to finally find a permanent starter for the position.
  • Together, the front seven did stuff Notre Dame on three third-and-short rushing attempts late in the game.  The defense may bleed yards, but these are the kind of clutch plays that make up for it.
  • I'm not sure what to think of the way the secondary played.  Michael Floyd got half ND's yards, but no touchdowns.  JT Floyd got beat a couple times, but probably made a good decision latching on to Floyd on what would have almost surely been a TD, and, hey, an INT for your troubles.  Kovacs is Kovacs, and that has lost all pejorative "walk-on-ish" connotation and just means: Kovacs is good at what he does and we should want more of it.  Avery is still just an undersized sophomore, and sometimes plays like it.  Woolfolk needs to stay healthy already.
  • Special Teams = no crippling mistakes = A+.
  • I shouldn't shortchange the special teams just to be snarky about the last two years.  Matt Wile did a very admirable job filling in on punting duties.  The coverage teams made a few good plays to drop Irish returners for a loss.  Gallon had a big punt return in the fourth quarter to set up the first go-ahead touchdown.  And last but not least: we didn't miss a single extra point.  It's the little things, everybody.

Overall, Michigan's performance was a perplexing mix of incredible plays pulled from a grab bag of defensive breakdowns and poor offensive execution, that is hard to put into perspective given the obvious question: how good is Notre Dame anyway and how much did the team beat itself?

The answer to the first question, I think, is simple.  This Irish team is long on talent and coaching, short on execution.  The Irish have put up two straight 500 yard games on play averages of around five yards per rush and eight per pass.  Michael Floyd is obviously a huge load at receiver, and so far Rees has shown the ability to air it out to receivers for touchdowns (five).  Cierre Wood has two 100 yard games so far and two touchdowns, and the offensive line is big and experienced.  But these big yardage totals don't amount to much because turnovers halted promising drives and set both Irish opponents up for scores.

Is this a top-10 offense?  No, but it is capable of moving the ball on most defenses with the weapons it has, and should be able to get this team to eight-ish wins if it's propensity for turning the ball over is curbed to reasonable levels.

The defense is much trickier to figure out.  It stoned USF, but USF isn't a good offensive that was protecting a huge lead for a big portion of the game, and once the Irish made it close USF was able to quickly score again to re-extend the lead.  Then the Irish defense shut down the Michigan offense for three quarters only to switch to full on panic made and give up four touchdowns in the fourth quarter.  Real answers come next week when Notre Dame faces an offense that won't spend three quarters self-immolating before waking up and jamming a games worth of offensive execution into 17 minutes of game time.  The Spartans are deep and balanced at the skill positions and should be a should present quite a challenge to the Irish defense.

So did the Irish beat themselves?  The defensive collapse didn't help much, but some of that credit goes to the Herculean effort of Denard Robinson to get his team back in the game after a sloppy first three quarters. The bigger Irish implosion was once again turnovers.  Consider:
  • Second Quarter: Rees intercepted after zoning in on Michael Floyd and losing track of Kovacs dropping into a zone beneath Floyd.  Two plays later Hemingway proclaims "your touchdowns are now touchdowns," and the Wolverines get their first score.
  • Second Quarter: Rees intercepted on the goal line, again locking on to Floyd and trying to squeeze the ball in between three defenders, one of whom picks it off.  Deprives ND of a back breaking 24-7 lead in the first half.
  • Fourth Quarter: Rees fumble on Michigan seven yard line.  The ball slipped out of his hand while he was preparing to throw.  Michigan doesn't turn this into points, but the Irish give up at least three points and probably seven.
Of the three Irish turnovers listed (there were five in the game) one of them set up a Wolverine touchdown and two removed a chance in or near the red zone      a three score swing away from the Irish.  More frustrating for Irish fans is that these were not great plays by the defense.  Rees' three turnovers are two interceptions where he zoned in on Michael Floyd and didn't notice an underneath defender, and a fluky fumble during a throw in the red zone.  These are all things that can and will improve as Rees gains confidence.  If the Irish are still turning the ball over like this in week eight then either Lane Kiffin has a voodoo doll of Tommy Rees that he had made after last year's ND/USC game, or God really does want to know how much Irish fans love her.

It isn't that I am ignoring Denard Robinson's fourth quarter performance in this rambling mess of a reaction piece, its just that I don't know where to start, and for someone trying to analyse and classify a game, this is a scary juncture.  I just don't know, man.

Starting at 2:13 remaining in the third quarter Robinson threw 11 passes in the fourth quarter for 279 yards and three touchdowns (while scoring a rushing touchdown after a Hopkins fumble):
  1. Seventy-seven yard crossing route to Junior Hemingway while he, Robinson, was being pulled to the ground by a Notre Dame lineman.
  2. Fifteen yard swing pass to John McColgan on second and 15 following a sack the play before.
  3. Fourteen yard fade to Jeremy Gallon for the first touchdown.
  4. Forty-five yard jump ball to Junior Hemingway when the offense was backed up to second and nine at its own ten yard line.
  5. End zone interception.
  6. Incomplete pass.
  7. Twenty-seven yard corner route to Kelvin Grady.
  8. Twenty-one yard screen pass to Vincent Smith for the go ahead touchdown with 1:12 left on the clock.
  9. Incomplete pass.
  10. Sixty-four yard pass to Gallon on a wheel route to set up first and ten at the Notre Dame 16 yard line with eight seconds left on the clock.
  11. Sixteen yard fade to Roy Roundtree for the winning touchdown with two seconds left in the game.

Denard Robinson led eight meaningful drives before the final two minutes of the third quarter.  Five ended in punts, two ended in interceptions, and one ended in the only touchdown of the first three quarters.  Not one drive lasted longer than four plays.  

Beginning just before the fourth quarter, Robinson led five drives before the end of the game.  Four ended in touchdowns scored by Robinson, two went for over 80 yards, and the other two went for over 40.  The longest drive was five plays.

And this is where I fall short when trying to explain just what Denard Robinson did on Saturday, because the difference between the first eight drives and the last five is more wide and unexplainable than anything I have ever seen from any football player in my lifetime.  I list the numbers for scale and perspective, but they are so out of whack with anything I am used to that it is jarring.

Fifty-nine yards through three quarters, 279 yards in the fourth quarter.

Two interceptions and one touchdown through three quarters, three touchdowns and an interception in the fourth quarter.

The story of Denard Robinson's fourth quarter against Notre Dame is the story of two quarterbacks that we very likely won't see again this season.  Two samples taken from opposite ends of the dilithium spectrum.  One ineffective and pinned under an offense that asks too much of his lesser talents while minimizing the things he does best, the other elusive and explosive and capable of creating a big play out of thin air every time he touches the ball.  This was a quarterback struggling mightily and then in a snap controlling a game like a puppeteer.  We were treated to the very highs and lows of the Denard Robinson experience at Michigan.  There was plenty of freshman Denard who struggled to finding receivers, who looked wore down and out manned by a defense that was clearly focused on containing him in the pocket, and missed a number of throws.  And just when all hope seemed to be lost, when Robinson was just about to be wrapped up for a sack in the backfield that would have pinned the Wolverines inside their ten yard line on second and long      effectively ending any real hope of a comeback given how the game had went up to that point      out stepped the action hero to star in the less plausible sequel to last fall's blockbuster.  The odds were greater, the enemy tougher, and there was even a sidekick this time.  The rest may as well have been scored by John Williams      it certainly felt cinematic.

Last year after the Notre Dame game I compared Denard to Barry Sanders.  I talked about how much joy there was in watching a player unlike any other that had ever suited up for Michigan in the past.  Seeing a young kid who busted his ass to win the starting quarterback job, and then played the position so well that it left everyone slack-jawed at whatever in the hell just happened.  After years of being ground down by sports, suspicious and cynical about athletes, coaches, and leagues, Denard Robinson gave me that little bit of perspective to remember why I loved the game in the first place   It showed through every time he grinned like a slightly embarrassed kid trying to play it cool but failing while in front of the press or laughed with teammates on the sideline.  He loves the game of football.  When you spend a lot of free time obsessing over the minutia of college football that is wholly out of your control and absorbing abuse from rivals on message boards, something as small and genuine as a guy smiling really wide because he is just so happy in the moment can go a long way toward helping you understand that this thing we cheer for is in a way both more and less serious than we believe it to be.

Thus we are back to the place where I look for answers.  Where Denard's fourth quarter against Notre Dame hangs in the air out of my grasp      just a kid playing the game that he loves      and I reach for it to try and grab on tight and see where it will lead in the future.

As I walked around my house after the game Saturday night, it kept coming back to me: that actually happened.  I didn't dream it or make it up.  The Michigan Wolverines had actually won a game against Notre Dame from a 17 point fourth quarter deficit.  I walked from room to room trying to find anyone who was still there and in some sort of shape to have the kind of party that I had missed earlier in the night while I sat nervously in a closed bedroom shouting at a TV and slamming keg beer during commercial breaks.  Everyone was either passed out or gone home, what remained were drunken heads dragging tired and inebriated bodies to chairs and beds and an deep sleep.

I ended up back in my room, alone, watching highlights of the game, all the while laughing and doing double takes trying to figure out what just happened.  Trying to come up with a theory of just what to expect from Robinson the rest of this season.  What quarterback shows up next week?  For the MSU game?  For OSU?  How does the offense change to fit Robinson in the coming weeks?  Does the team adapt?  These are important questions that I felt needed to be answered.

I sit here two days later, and it still isn't clear  Won't ever be.  

One thing is, however: Denard Robinson just about lost the game.  Then he went out and won it.  This year I understand just what he is capable of      I have seen it with my own eyes        

Absolutely anything.

On Saturday, we got everything we needed.  The rest we will have to wait.

1 comment:

  1. Great read. You've articulated everything I've felt all week.