There is a classic truism in sports, and Michigan football fans saw it unfold on the wet, loose turf of Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette; “A team often plays to the level of its competition.”
On Saturday, that level stunked. Purdue, save for two or three players (notably tackle Ryan Kerrigan, whom Michigan’s offensive line made appear to be the number one choice in the upcoming 2011 NFL draft), is the worst team in the Big 10 (the showdown with Indiana in the final Big 10 weekend should be … interesting). And for most of the game, Michigan played at Purdue’s subterranean level, finally winning 27-16.
The defense was the real Michigan standout for the first time all season, holding Purdue without an offensive touchdown, garnering five turnovers of its own and scoring a defensive touchdown or the first time this season. Defensive back Cam Gordon had his career game with a 63-yard fumble recovery run for six points (one of two recoveries) while James Rogers nabbed two interceptions.
Playing without its two best defenders (Martin and Mouton), the maligned unit held Purdue to 244 yards in total offense, 11 first downs, and 2 of 16 on third-down conversions.
For the second week in a row, the Wolverine offense coughed up the ball five times and because of early holding penalties, the o-line seemed downright timid to dominate the Boilermaker front four. Hence, the running game, until the final scoring drive, was non-existent for much of the contest.
Kerrigan played like a man among boys, making 10 tackles, five for loss and four sacks. Hell, he looked like the next Ndamukon Suh, except easier to spell. But I never saw so much as a double team on Kerrigan, or misdirection away from him. Instead Michigan seemed to run right into him, as if some mysterious blocker would appear in time to take the guy out. Only at the very end, when someone got the bright idea to put three tight ends in the backfield for Stephen Hopkins’ final scoring run, did blocking seem to be the overriding priority.
But on a nasty, dreary, rainy afternoon, when most fans wishes they were drinking Boilermakers instead of rooting for them, a new “problem” cropped up – coaching indecision along the Wolverine sideline. To state this mildly, it was NOT the best afternoon for Rich Rodriguez either.
Several decisions made by Rodriguez made real Michigan fans scratch their heads in bewilderment. His refusal of a third-down holding penalty against PU allowed their strong-legged placekicker Carson Wiggs (the pride of South Grand Prairie High School here in the Dallas area) to kick a 46-yard field goal, with a strong wind at his back, instead of possibly pushing him out of range. But if you still do not have confidence in your defense, you tend to make the wrong choice.
Then at the end of the first half, he allowed the clock to expire, instead of using his timeouts (still burning a hole in his pocket) and at least try to get the ball back for one more shot to score. While the running attack was not its usual potent self, the passing game, in the first half, was working (since Purdue chose NOT to cover slot receiver Roy Roundtree coming off the line of scrimmage).
Finally, the entire second half saw Michigan alternate quarterbacks on each possession. While Robinson was not sharp at all, and Tate Forcier seemed a tad stuck in the giant divot called Ross-Ade, the continuing unpredictability of who was “under center” had to be annoying at best and disconcerting constantly.
That was Rodriguez’s choice and it added to the offensive inconsistency. Additionally, his best backfield running back this game (and this season) was Vincent Smith (nailing 99 yards on the afternoon). Why he sits out a single down is beyond comprehension – another coaching decision to be questioned.
If RichRod really wanted to mix things up, he could have done with Purdue was showing all afternoon – two quarterbacks in the backfield (Robinson AND Forcier) and really have the Boilermakers puzzled.
In fact, another question to pose: if Purdue showed itself incapable of throwing the football, why not put five down linemen on the line of scrimmage to really stop the run and force Purdue to go to its weakness? Again, the head coach needs to tell his “assistants” which way he wants his troops to play.
In the end, it was the seventh victory of the season and the first time Rodriguez has won two conference games in a row – not exactly a sparkling statistic for one’s resume after almost three years on the job.
This Saturday, Michigan faces what is likely the best team in the conference, Wisconsin, who just laid a cool 83 POINTS on Indiana ... and doing it without its top running back, John Clay, who sat out with an injury. It will be the home finale for Michigan, who will be seeking, for once, to put ALL the facets of the game (offense, defensive, special teams) together in the same contest.
Then it’s in Columbus for the regular season capper against you-know-who. If the defense that played at Purdue would join the offense that scored all over Illinois, it might be a definitive turning point for the U-M program under Rodriguez.
Because for the next two games, the level of competition will be extremely high.