Sunday, October 09, 2011

Michigan football: The Midterm Exam

When I was a University of Michigan student, and it came time to take those dreaded mid-term exams, it meant hopping down to Ulrich’s, or the University Bookstore, to grab the tools needed to take those tests. You needed a pen that was far more comfortable than the 19-cent Bic and a pack of ruled paper in a cover, known as a “blue book.”
I have no idea how mid-terms are conducted today; I imagine the sight of an auditorium filled with students actually WRITING answers on PAPER is pretty archaic. Perhaps nowadays everyone has a laptop, notebook, or iPad, and work from those. Instead of having a mimeographed list of questions handed out to each student, professors and teacher’s aides deliver flash drives with those exams. Instead of adding your answers to a stack at the front of the hall, one might simply hand over that thumb drive.
Either way, it is a test of what you’ve learned and what you are expected to know … in order to pass the course.
For Michigan football, it is examination time as the halfway point has been reached with a 42-24 victory last Saturday over Northwestern. Just like every affair this season, the win continues to produce more questions than answers, but U-M has reached this moment at 6-0 for the first time since 2005 – a completely unexpected turnaround from the early prognostications.
The trip to Northwestern was more of a pop quiz, if anything. It had all the signs of being a trap game and the first half certainly bore that out. Michigan (actually QB Denard Robinson) committed three turnovers leading to a 24-14 halftime deficit.
Despite 180 yards passing in the first 30 minutes, the U-M offense looked nothing like the working machine one week before against Minnesota. The short, quick, effective air strikes were not present and the running game was painful to watch as the Wildcats were quite effective, for the most part, in swallowing up Robinson and the rest of the ground attack.
But in the second half, Michigan outscored Northwestern 28-0 and stymied the Wildcats on offense, responding with two takeovers of its own. Again, the key seemed to be the coaching staff applying the proper halftime adjustments – a sign that the engine is running properly.
Every Michigan fans needs to remember that the 6-0 start comes from better usage of another regime’s recruits. In many ways, Brady Hoke and his crew are dispelling the notion that Michigan lacked the talent to compete. Beginning in 2012, Hoke will work with players HE has recruited, to mold into his own vision of how things should go; the current success is due to better coaching.
But each victory signifies that past problems seemed to have stemmed more from improper motivation and deployment of the talent present. If it is good enough to stand at 6-0 now, it was good enough to have done that from 2008-10.
Robinson continued to work his magic; he has the arm to make any pass he wishes and if he would just set his feet, he’d stop making careless interceptions. It is interesting to note the elimination, for the most part, of Michigan fumbles this season, while seeing the Wolverines AVERAGE two takeaways per game. This also as absent in the recent past.
While no Michigan back ran for further than 9 yards, it was Robinson with all the gains over 10 yards in the contest. The limitations on the runners forced the Wolverines into a huge amount of third-down situations, and an amazing amount of conversions (13 of 17 and one successful fourth-down attempt).
At times, the passing game appears to be under total control (using the tight ends almost to perfection), but the big gains against Northwestern simply came on throws best termed “jump balls” – throw it up and see who can catch it out of mid-air. Both Roy Roundtree and Junior “For Whom the Ball Tolls” Hemingway seems quite adept in out-leaping opposing cornerbacks.
And, yes, the quality of the opposition had something to do with the outcome. For the second game in a row, Northwestern (shockingly playing only its second home affair of the season) cratered in the second half – much of it due to the Michigan defense but some of it due to erratic sideline behavior. After Michigan took a 35-24 lead, Northwestern literally had the ball stripped from a carrier, who just failed to maintain a proper grip. The gas was leaking from the tank and things were going south (perhaps to Joliet).
But frankly, the game was “over” when head coach Pat Fitzgerald went ballistic over the “helmet call” with just seven minutes to play. You can laud a coach for his intensity all you want, but when he loses it on the sidelines like Fitzgerald did, it remains a sign of a program without the discipline to win consistently.
Unfortunately, there was NO clear camera angle on the play in question. One of the drawbacks to constant usage of instant replay is that often there IS no clear-cut evidence either way … unless you station cameras every 5-10 yards to record everything; it’s not practical.
From what I could tell, Jordan Kovacs came untouched on a safety blitz, hit QB Dan Persa on the shoulder pads and had his arm slide along those pads and towards the helmet. While the officials (not the sharpest unit ever to work a Big 10 game) should have stopped play once it was obvious Persa was without a bonnet, there was no way a flag could have been thrown.
I’ll give you one reason, seldom talked about, for a dislodged helmet – constant unbuckling of the chin straps by any player, especially the quarterback. Such actions cannot help by weaken the connection and make it easier for the helmet to slip off, especially when sweat has lubricated the head, allowing for easier slippage. Allegedly, the addition of a second strap to the helmet would help avoid such happenings.
Now I remember my parents always saying that if I fidgeted with something like that enough times, it would eventually break ... or fail. It might have been the case for Persa.
The 15-yard flag gave U-M possession at the NW 38, and seemed to take the remaining starch out of the Wildcats. Robinson drove Michigan for the nail-in-the-coffin touchdown, scoring from 5 yards out, with 2:19 to play.
Sidenote: Since there were sporting conflicts on the television Saturday night, I taped the football game on my DVR and happily reviewed the action (all of it) in just about an hour’s time. The handy little clicker went into overtime as the 30-second advance button was perfectly time to the pace of the Michigan offense (and eliminating most of the babble from the Big Ten Network announcers, who seemingly questioned EVERY Michigan play as being legitimate).
The clicker didn’t work as well for Northwestern’s offense, which was running at a faster clip (dammit).
If a grade had to be assigned to the entire effort, it would have been a B-minus (A for the second half, D for the first).
And now … comes the actual exam on Saturday – a road trip to East Lansing to face Michigan State. The Spartans have a major advantage going into the noon kickoff Saturday; their bye week was last week so Sparty has two weeks to prepare for “big brother.” Michigan only has a vision of MSU’s 10-7 victory over Ohio State as a measuring gauge.
The questions to be answered will be these:
First, how will MSU defend the multiple formation sets increasingly in use by U-M offensive coordinator Al Borges? The inclusion of reserve QB Devin Gardner adds a wrinkle simply not seen in the first four U-M games while outside of Fitzgerald Toussaint, no one knows who else will run the football for Michigan.
Second, Spartan Stadium is NOT Ryan Field; THIS could be the toughest game of them all, certainly the hardest road contest. How will the Wolverines react? Exactly HOW important is this game to Brady Hoke and the staff? (It was more important to MSU over the past three seasons).
Third, which passing game will Michigan employ – short and efficient, or the jump ball attack that worked (against Notre Dame and Northwestern)?
Fourth, can Michigan run the ball effectively against a stout Spartan defense, using someone OTHER than Robinson? Against Northwestern, it was tough sledding for most of the game with the running backs only gaining 62 yards on 25 rushes (Robinson had 117 yards on 25 attempts, but was stopped for losses several times).
Fifth, Can the Wolverine defense get pressure on MSU QB Kirk Cousins? Against Northwestern, Michigan collected six sacks, even “Soupy” Campbell barrel-rolled Persa late in the contest. Can the secondary defend enough to permit the U-M blitz to reach Cousins?
Sixth, can Michigan get better return coverage than it has shown thus far in 2011? Frankly speaking, it hasn’t been good and it’s a matter of time before it will haunt the Wolverines.
Finally, is this the week the bubble bursts? Or is it REALLY a new day for Michigan football under a leader who thoroughly understands the tradition, the importance and can channel it to his players?
Michigan’s second-half schedule is NOT easy: at Michigan State, followed by the bye week, home against Purdue (homecoming), at Iowa, at Illinois and then home with Nebraska and you-know-who.
The 2011 season will be judged, not by the first six contests, but by the play down the stretch. Now it isn’t about be “bowl-eligible” anymore (that annoyance is over), but challenging for a Big 10 title. Unlike the past three seasons, that reality actually exists.
Come this Saturday, the time will come to hand in those (Go) blue books.

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