I watched the game from beginning to end on Saturday. Then I slept on it. I had to. I didn’t look at anything on Sunday because, well, quite frankly I was ready to jump off of the nearest bridge following Michigan's 25 point loss at home to Penn State.
That sounds really bad, except for the fact that the nearest bridge to my house is at my neighbor's house. It's a little Japanese stone garden bridge with a gnome or troll or something guarding the entrance. Or maybe it's just a miniature windmill. I forget. Anyway, at it's highest point this bridge is only about 6 inches from the ground.
Michigan is now 5-3 this season and looking as shaky as they ever did on both sides of the ball. Actually, there were times during the Penn State game that I thought the Michigan defense played fairly well. Then I realized that PSU's tailback Royster did rack up 100 yards and quarterback Darryl Clark had a “field day” through the air with 230 yards and 4 (!) touchdowns courtesy of the Michigan defense.
The Nittany Lions outplayed Michigan in every facet of the football game, except maybe punting. This was a good Penn State team. Not unbeatable, but a good opponent. From a mental toughness standpoint, Michigan's response was an emphatic "not ready". They're just not. They're either too young, too inexperienced, or not talented enough at certain positions. I don' t know. If they were ready, then they certainly wouldn’t be handing a 6-1 Penn State team with free interceptions, fumbles, safeties and penalties all on a silver platter with pretty garnishes on the side in front of a nationally televised audience.
Michigan was thoroughly and decisively out gained offensively yet again. When this happens, the options for football teams are limited. You either:
a.) play out-of-your-mind awesome scoring defense, or
b.) play out-of-your-mind effective offense, scoring touchdowns like a mother on every offensive possession, forcing the UM regents to contemplate procurement of a more robust stadium scoreboard, or
Instead the opposite occurred Saturday.
Why do we feel so shitty about the 10-35 loss to Penn State Saturday?
Two reasons really.
One, this was the most decisive loss for Michigan all-season, and the worst loss since the 7-42 drubbing in Columbus in 2008.
Two, I’m thinking it’s the yards per play statistics.
On Saturday Michigan had its worst yards per play output of the 2009 football season with only 3.42 yards per play.
So, uh, when was the last time Michigan had aYPP stat outcome below 4 yards per play?
You’d have to go back to the 2008 football games against Ohio State (3.0 YPP), Northwestern (3.22) and, of course, the lovely Utah game (3.22).
All were losses.
All of the sudden it's as if Michigan football fandom collectively realizes all at once that ending this football season 6-6 or 7-5 looks all the more probable (and delightful?) as the irrational expectations of Michigan’s 2009 football season following the 38-34 in-yo'-face victory over Notre Dame crashes to the ground at 9.8 meters per second.
Penn State 35, Michigan 10
Michigan rushed for 110 yards against the best rushing defense in the Big Tenon Saturday. Penn State typically surrenders only 79 yards rushing per game. So are these 110 yards by Michigan an accomplishment of some measure? I guess so. But it is still 109 yards well below Michigan’s season game average.
Penn State’s defense - obviously consumed with indignation for WCA's public critique of their bakery basket football schedule - effectively "owned" this blogger by allowing the Wolverines only 10 points - pretty much in alignment with their 8.7 per game average allowance this year.
Meanwhile Michigan star tailback Brandon Minor had only 48 yards in this game on 12 carries and then got….wait for the surprise everybody!…...injured. I claimed in the off-season that Michigan has probably one of the most talented stable of backs in the Big Ten right now with Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw, plus incoming freshman Vincent Smith.
I still stand by this claim. But one deciding factor that will likely prevent 2009 Michigan from ever achieving the 2002 West Virginia’s Wonder Year 9-4 turnaround is this: The inability (or unwillingness) to ride one or two of these running backs on a consistent and dedicated basis into glorious sunsets of victory. The experienced offensive line and talented running backs are competitive advantages upon which Michigan has been unable to fully capitalize in Big Ten play this year. Rich Rodriguez and Calvin McGee probably would if they could, but the UM offensive line, while improved, is probably just not good enough. The serious knee injury to center Dave Molk throws an unneeded wrench into an offensive machine that never ran full-throttle in the first place. Most importantly, the incessant fragility of running backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown has affected Michigan’s rhythm, play calling and level of aggressiveness in football games more than ever. How great was it that Michigan marched down the field with authority on that first drive to take a 7-0 lead, only to see it never repeated again in regulation?
Michigan has played games poorly this year and still won. Michigan has also played games poorly and lost. So now it's time to ask when will Michigan win a Big Ten game by playing extremely well? If there’s an opportunity to do just that, it would have to be next week when the worst team in the Big Ten conference, Illinois, hosts Michigan in Champaign. If the game against the Retreating Illini is not a decisive victory for Michigan, then seriously folks, head for the mountains. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if Michigan wins Saturday, it will not be in decisive fashion. It cannot.
After Michigan’s first two games versus Western Michigan and Notre Dame, I was happy.
Yeah, pretty happy.
Not just because Michigan was 2-0. Forget that noise. No, I was happy because the Michigan passing numbers were not only improved from the year prior, but they were “revealing”. Alright, that’s maybe a little too dramatic. What if I had just said that Michigan’s passing numbers “slid nicely into alignment with the concept of what Michigan’s offense would surely become in the future: a read spread option offense with surprising balance!” Wow! What a change that would be! Talk about exciting to watch and difficult to defend! In those first two games Michigan rushed and passed for about 200 yards. Brilliant! Try to stop THAT oncoming locomotive, Big Ten Conference!
Unfortunately, since the Notre Dame game the Michigan offense has lost its center and went wayward. Some of blame goes to the freshman quarterback play. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are both confident and young. We remember the mistakes, but they've both made just as many or more great plays. They’re only going to improve in the coming years. They’ve got tremendous skills with great upside (more upside than any other Big Ten quarterbacks right now, in my view), but still have a long way to go in order to learn all the intricacies of this offense, to develop wider and deeper field vision, and to accrue more patience. More competition is on the way next fall. I am not worried about Michigan’s quarterback situation because it's only going to get better.
Some of the blame goes to the offensive line. They’ve done better at run blocking this year than last, but the pass blocking still needs a ton of work, and/or bigger players with better technique in the future. Tate Forcier passed for only 140 yards, was sacked 5 times, completed only 43% of this throws, including one INT, and made several mental errors versus Penn State on Saturday. The Nittany Lions are one of the better defensive teams in the conference along the defensive line and linebacker positions. The next best defensive teams in conference, unfortunately, still remain on Michigan’s slate: Wisconsin and Ohio State. Michigan has a lot left to prove along the offensive front line, particularly with Dave Molk’s absence.
The area of greatest disappointment in 2009, in my view, is at the receiver positions. I do believe Michigan has some talented players with a lot of promise here like Martavious Odoms, Kevin Koger and Kelvin Grady. What’s surprised and disappointed me most has been the statistical output of senior Greg Mathews and junior JR Hemingway thus far this season. Mathews and Hemingway work on the outside, but are both 4th and 5th in receptions respectively for Michigan this season. This makes sense to some degree as the slots are utilized more frequently on many quarterback read progressions. But Mathews and Hemingway (and anyone else who happens to line up outside the slot positions like Darryl Stonum) have been largely underutilized this year by Michigan's play-calling staff. As a result, the versatility and potency of this year’s spread offense has diminished to a great extent. Michigan’s best games passing were 223 and 225 yard performances against Indiana and MSU respectively. Michigan can do much better in the passing department. They will have to in order to defeat the upcoming conference opponents.
In my view, Michigan’s success over the next 4 games lies almost entirely with the offensive performance. Offensive balance is going to be very important. This team should be averaging about 200 yards on the ground and 200 yards in the air each game. Obviously, this is not happening right now. Until it does, I think we can expect opponents to out gain Michigan offensively on a regular basis. This will have an unfortunate and adverse affect of charging the Michigan defensive unit with preventative duties for which it has repeatedly proven itself largely ill-equipped.
A Word About Turnovers
At this point last season, Michigan was recovering from it’s 4th consecutive loss to MSU at home 21-35. After 8 games in 2008, the Wolverines already had thrown 12 interceptions and lost 13 fumbles. The numbers in 2009 are much less: 9 interceptions and 8 lost fumbles. Fewer turnovers certainly have helped Michigan this fall. However, the common denominator has not changed: Michigan is still not a good enough defensive and offensive football team to commit turnovers and still win football games.
I fear the savage turnover lesson from 2008 may rear it’s ugly head yet again over the next two games against underperforming, yet capable, football teams like Illinois and Purdue.
Michigan’s defense is pretty much a dead-ringer to last year’s 2008 defense.
Well, kind of. Michigan is giving up 5.2 yards per play so far in 2009. They gave up 5.3 at this point in 2008 (after 8 games). In terms of yards per point, however, Michigan is slightly better this year forcing opponents to travel 20.4 yards versus 17.3 in 2008 for every point scored.
After 8 games, we know how good Michigan is defensively. Many Michigan fans lie awake at night pondering ridiculous questions like if only Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren both had younger identical twin brothers, or if only they could be cloned two or three times over just like the first stormtroopers in Star Wars Episode II.
The outlook for Michigan over the next four games is unfortunately pretty dire. This is because there there's little evidence to suggest we should not expect more of the same, i.e.:
1.) Surrendering 364 yards total offense on average
2.) Wolverine secondary getting torched for 230 yards passing on average and allowing approximately 130 yards rushing in every game.
3.) Surrendering 24 points per game, gaining 1 interception per game, and ½ of a recovered fumble per game.
4.) Handing out 2 turnovers on average per game offensively
5.) Giving up huge touchdown plays and improbable 3rd down conversions.
Combined with unpredictable performances by this quarterback-centric offense, this is a bad recipe all around for Michigan.
Some emerging players on defense for Michigan:
DE Brandon Graham 15 TFL and 5.5 sacks (alas a senior)
CB Donovan Warren 47 tackles, 3 INT, 7 pass breakups (NFL draft likely)
LB Obi Ezeh (junior) 62 tackles, 22 solo
LB Stevie Brown (senior) 47 tackles, 28 solo
S Jordan Kovacs (walk-on extraordinaire) 50 tackles, 24 solo
DE Ryan van Bergen (29 tackles, 3 sacks), DT Mike Martin (29 tackles, 1 sack) and DE Craig Roh (22 tackles, 2 sacks) have all grown this year as well with their on field performances.
So is there any good news?
Perhaps there is. The league’s most effective passing offenses are out of the way. Three out of Michigan’s next 4 opponents are below average throwing teams (Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State). All are predominantly average-to-above average rushing teams.
7-5 is certainly a possibility for Michigan. 8-4 is also possible. At the same time, the Penn State game outcome indicates loudly and clearly Michigan fans need to ready themselves for the possibility of 6-6.