Saturday, October 29, 2011

Michigan-Purdue recap: Puttin’ on the Fitz

The “media” around Ann Arbor-Detroit-ESPN and other Internet sources can put a lid on all the speculation about whether the Michigan football program has “really changed.” If U-M’s convincing 36-14 performance against Purdue isn’t enough evidence of the new mindset at Michigan Stadium, then the ghost of Johnnie Cochran won’t help you.
On Halloween weekend, the Wolverines resorted less on tricks than on a punishing ground game and stout defense for its treats (touchdowns, field goals and the first safety in eight years). The offense, again, produced more than 500 yards in total yardage (for the third game out of its last four) while the combination of Ryan, Martin and Roe (sounds like a new legal firm???) stuffed what should have been a formidable Boilermaker rushing attack to less than 100 yards (and if you erase QB Caleb TerBush’s 41-yard scamper, Pur-don’t had only 47 yards on 28 attempts).
While interceptions remain an area of concern, this was a professional performance from a team that has come to grips with self-knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. The defense looked dominant (after Purdue’s first scoring drive to open the game), and did so without the services of starting safety Jordan Kovacs (whose availability for the Iowa game is questionable). The front line did not budge and was able to put pressure on TerBush and reserve Robert Marve without the need for safety blitzes and other “gimmick” defenses.
Again, it should be repeated – this unit HAD talent but lacked the coaching for the past three seasons. This group of coaches, of course led by coordinator Greg Mattison, doesn’t work by panicking; it pinpoints problems immediately and makes the adjustments within moments (instead waiting to regroup at halftime). The performance following Purdue’s first drive and the next series was a 180-degree alternation in attitude.
While Michigan ran for 339 yards, and lots of numbers were called, the face of the game belonged to sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, out of Youngstown, Ohio, who blow through the Boilermakers for a career-best 170 yards on 20 carries. His speed is supplemented by the power to run OVER defenders and the ability to run north-south – another lacking commodity in past seasons.
In fact, Toussaint actually WAITS for holes to open in a seldom-seen “run to daylight” attitude; it’s refreshing to see a Michigan back pauses for a split-second to allow blockers to do their jobs. After all, everything is better when it sits on a Fitz, right? (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
When the running game is working, it permits Michigan to do ALL sorts of wonderful things for victory. With fumbling the pigskin NOT been a problem in the 2011 season (turnovers tend to be of the aerial variety this season), it allows for quality clock management. The key to this latest win was grinding the Purdue defense … like the ground beef they used to employ for those great Detroit burgers they used to serve in town back in the day … steamed in beer (but it’s close to my dinnertime, my bad).
Since it isn’t wise to be too ebullient over any game, the tendency to leave points on the field by the offense is still a tad disturbing. Against the Boilers, U-M abandoned a total of 29 points (either by interceptions inside the opposition’s half of the field, two field goals when stopped on touchdown drives inside the red zone and failing on a fourth-down conversion at the Purdue 1).
Such gift cards cannot go unused in the coming weeks. Because Michigan’s kicking game is suspect at best (Brendan Gibbons did notch a 37-yard for, I think, a career-best), the pressure increases on the offense to control and convert the rest of the season. It WILL be the difference between a true championship contender … and a team playing in the less-than-thrilled-to-be-there Alamo Bowl.
And props need to be given to a few more players: sophomore tackle Taylor Lewan for gutting it out on what are obviously painful knees; receiver Martevious Odoms for showing everyone a re-discovered kickoff return game, averaging 27 yards per return (10 more than usual and giving Michigan improved field position); and freshman defensive end Jake Ryan, for simply being all over the field, terrorizing everyone (the chain gang excluded).
All this positive vibe will be required for the next two weeks when Michigan makes (arguably) its two toughest excursions away from home – at Iowa next Saturday and then a possible major “trap” game in Champaign against a revenge-drunk Illinois team, who won’t be in any title contention but will be breathing fire over last season’s 67-65 triple overtime game.
The run to the Big 10 championship is NOT settled by any means; three teams sit atop of the Legends division (U-M, Moo U, Nebraska) while Penn State has a strong (but not solid) grip in the Leaders division.
Sparty has one more difficult game – at Iowa in two weeks, although it should overlook a road trip finale at Northwestern where the Wildcats might be playing to save Pat Fitzgerald’s head coaching job. The Paternonistas has this killer finale – Nebraska in Happy Valley, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin, which should decide the Leaders representative.
Poor Nebraska gets introduced to Big 10 play in its initial season with road trips to the two hardest venues – Happy Valley with its famed “whiteout” crowd over 100,000 and the Big House with more than 114,000 fans expected. No team simply can prepare for what it doesn’t know will happen.
If this is what the Big 10 officials had this exact ending in mind for its first “modern era” football season, someone obvious needs to take that acumen to Vegas and “make lots of money” (a Pet Shop Boys reference). What this has really accomplished is to clearly demonstrate the Big 10 as powerful a football conference as any in the nation, including the vaunted Southeastern Conference.
And for all of you folks in Baton Rogue and Tuscaloosa, waiting for next week’s showdown between the top two teams in the nation (and being in the same conference), all we can say is … been there, done that (in 2006), and you’ll never touch THAT seven-day period for all the tragic and human drama back then!
Good luck with all that! Meanwhile our attention is on Herky!

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