Saturday, November 19, 2011

Michigan-Nebraska: Welcome to the REAL Big 10, Michigan-style!

Sorry, it just didn’t look proper to have Nebraska coming to Ann Arbor for an important “BIG TEN” conference matchup in November. Just as it took a few meetings to adjust when Penn State first entered, Wolverine will need a few home-and-home cycles to feel comfortable is claiming the Cornhuskers as a Big Ten school.
And after the 45-17 whipping administered to UN in this initial conference visit before 119,000 fans, the newbies now realize what true Big Ten football is all about – toughness, a power running game and up-front hard-nosed defense. In truth, their former home (the Big 12 Conference) was about speed, hoisting the pigskins 40-50 times a game and coverage.
So welcome to the Big House and the Big Time, UN (these initials should be used with Nebraska for the next year because the other “NU” – Northwestern – earned the right to that abbreviation by beating Nebraska in Lincoln two weeks ago … so UN it is!).
In what can only be described as the most complete team performance this season, all facets (offense, defense, special teams) were hitting on every cylinder. In fact, the only power shortage was inside Michigan Stadium itself, giving the contest an old school atmosphere without scoreboard replays or fan cams. It was just about the action on the field – REAL Big Ten football, Michigan-style!
It was quite appropriate that former head coach Lloyd Carr was honored before the game for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame because this team, coached by Brady Hoke, finally bore a strong resemblance to Carr’s best squads. It was good to see Carr on the sidelines when the final whistle blew, basking in the moment of victory.
Michigan, now 9-2, has the opportunity to do something no pre-season forecaster would have believed – produce a 10-win season and a possible BCS bowl appearance. Should that outcome come about, there MUST be serious consideration given to Hoke as 2011’s Coach of the Year for Division 1. And add the name, Greg Mattison, U-M’s defensive coordinator, as one of the top candidates for Assistant Coach of the Year in doing the impossible – improving Michigan’s defense from worst in the nation to best in the Big Ten…with the same talent pool from one year ago.
If the Wolverine defense retains the same level of competence delivered against Nebraska in seven days’ time, a lot of pain, suffering and frustration will be erased against that school from down south. It’s been many moons since the Big House crowd was heard chanting “Beat Ohio” in the final quarter of ANY ballgame.
Mattison’s scheme against Nebraska seemed to focus on UN halfback Rex Burkhead, who had been averaging 107 yards rushing per game. But the front line, led by Jake Ryan, Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin, completely bottled up Burkhead to just 36 yards on 10 carries (nothing longer than 9 yards). In fact, the U-M defense collected seven tackles for loss (24-yards to UN’s detriment).
This meeting, the first between the schools at Michigan Stadium since 1962 and the first as members of the same conference, was the first time in 2011 since the start of 2010 that quarterback Denard Robinson appeared in full Shoelace regalia. He was an offensive threat with his feet throughout the contest, either on straight option runs, scrambling out of most trouble for positive yards or rolling away from pressure to find open receivers.
Not only did Robinson beat the ‘Huskers with his arm (11-18 for 180 yards and three touchdowns), but the Wolverine offensive line held its own most of the afternoon as U-M totaled 418 yards in total offense and held the ball for more than an astonishing 41 of the game’s 60 minutes of play. Michigan also more than doubled the number of running plays (61-30) – a clear sign of domination up front.
But the REAL key to the Michigan offense is not Robinson (regardless of what Urban Meyer or Chris Speilman believe or say). The Wolverines now possess a legitimate backfield threat in sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, who pranced and danced through the UN defense for 138 yards on 29 carries and two scores.
In Big 10 play, Toussaint had gone for triple-digits for the fourth time and he per carry average is tops in the conference. Not since Mike Hart has Michigan possessed a backfield running threat of this caliber…and to think he was riding so much pine last year, he was developing a bad case of splinters.
Fitz should garner the nickname “Happy Feet” for his outstanding football when hitting the line and the ability to come to a full stop, then instantly move to the open crease at full speed. That’s exactly what he did to some poor (jockless) UN lineman late in the third quarter on a simple 1-yard touchdown run that was anything BUT simple.
Robinson and Toussaint ran for 221 yards and pretty much controlled everything. They helped Michigan convert 8 of 18 third-down situations (the defense held UN without a third-down conversion until late in the third period) and that was not the case in the second half of the last three seasons.
The other area of greatest improvement this season can be seen in special teams play – at first a possible liability but now a weapon to be reckoned with. Punt and kickoff coverage has been steadily getting better each week and even Brendan Gibbons launched a successful 42-yard field goal (a career best) when a Michigan drive stalled in the first quarter.
How good has coverage been? Ask the UN returners who coughed up two fumbles in the second half on solid hits.
The insertion of Martavious Odoms on kickoff returns provides Michigan with a legitimate speedster returning kickoffs and it is only a matter of time before he breaks one for six points (next week would be a real good time for such a performance). His presence as a wide receiver, catching the second touchdown in as many weeks, is simply another major headache for defensive coordinators to factor.
And for good measure, Hoke employed a fake field goal inside the UN 5 for a fourth-down conversion and subsequent touchdown. It worked because kicking a field goal by Michigan is no longer a losing proposition.
Of course, little of what Nebraska tried to accomplish worked, or made much sense Saturday. The Pelini Brothers (Bo, head coach and Carl, defensive coordinator) gambled on putting 8-9 defenders in the box, daring Robinson to be them. Needless to say, neither man should go to Las Vegas in the coming weeks…
Key penalties (a roughing the kicker and pass interference in the end zone) directly led to Michigan points and pretty much bleached away any starch left in the “black shirt” defense. In fact, the sight of Pelini’s beleaguered face at the final seconds ticked off was nice for any Big 12 fan to see. Of course, his normal mug is not exactly “don’t worry, be happy.”
Even at the end of the game, Pelini left his starting quarterback, Taylor Martinez, in the contest, risking the young man to injury, even though the outcome has well-decided. It simply made little sense as was the over-dependence on a passing attack from a player whose weakness is throwing the football.
Nebraska’s first touchdown (a 55-yard scoring strike) happened only when the Michigan defender slipped on the snap. The other scoring drives came on short fields – an interception and a negative exchange of punts. Otherwise, the Huskers looked like they were stuck in a muddy field most of the game.
And without seeming to be nit-picking, but someone in the UN system needs to teach cornerbacks how to tackle using their bodies and arms to wrap up. Too many Huskers were simply grabbing and trying to throw U-M runners and receivers to the ground. And often, that allowed runners like Toussaint and the receivers to break free and gain more yardage. Very bad technique exposed all game long.
But enough about Nebraska; time to move to the regular season finale – the one game ALL Michigan fans have been waiting for this season (and the past three seasons). For the first time, perhaps since 2003 when Michigan last won, the Wolverines will be expected to put a big hurt on the Buckeyes. Everyone knows the numbers 37-7 (last year’s score in Columbus) will be burned into every player’s psyche.
Ohio State is nothing like teams in the last seven years; it is offensively challenged and defensively not as strong. OSU has nothing to play for other than to keep from finishing .500 and avoiding a low-level bowl game in mid-December (can you say Little Caesars Pizza Bowl or Ticket City Bowl?).
Michigan, on the other hand, might be able to parlay a 10-2 record into a BCS berth in something like the Sugar or Fiesta Bowl. I’d dare say the Wolverines would prove to be an attractive marquee name (as opposed to the toxic nature still surrounding Penn State).
It’s up to the BCS people and rankings and up to the Wolverines to make a rock-hard statement to end the season. To barbecue the Buckeyes!!! Hey, Brutus … time to roast some nuts!

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