|Oh, how I long for a “pocket.”|
What just happened? I found this question reverberating around in my head from the second quarter onward. The scoreboard – whether it said 31-0 or 37-0 at the end – was not reflective of what this Michigan team can do, and it was not reflective of Notre Dame. Notre Dame has some good players, and so does Michigan. Notre Dame has some good coaches, and so does Michigan. Notre Dame was missing some people, and so was Michigan. Are Notre Dame’s coaches, starters, and backups 31 points superior to Michigan’s? Well, yeah, I guess they are. But I have no idea why. Michigan had 289 total yards to Notre Dame’s 280. It wasn’t that the Fighting Irish totally destroyed Michigan’s offense, or that their offense ripped up the Wolverines’ defense. They just made plays when they needed to make plays, a trait absent from Michigan for the last couple years.
This is where I jump on Doug Nussmeier. When it comes to play calling, I don’t think Nussmeier helped quarterback Devin Gardner at all on Saturday night. Notre Dame realized early on – probably as early as last year – that if they blitzed relentlessly, they could either get to Gardner or at least pressure him into bad throws or mistakes. Instead of pulling out plays to ease the pressure, Nussmeier basically said, “At least one receiver is going to beat his one-on-one matchup, so you’d better find him with Jarron Jones or Sheldon Day in your face.” Al Borges and Vincent Smith perfected the throwback screen. Al Borges and Jeremy Gallon perfected the throwback tunnel screen. Borges loved to run lead draws. Nussmeier’s way of slowing down the rush was to run zone read play action. When the bubbles and quick throws stopped working, he never seemed to take the next step to ward off the blitz. I would have liked to see more sprintouts, half rolls, tunnel screens, etc. He just thought the offensive line would magically stop the overload blitzes. Michigan moved the ball in chunks because they won one-on-one matchups – Devin Funchess vs. Cody Riggs, Dennis Norfleet vs. Jaylon Smith, etc. – but this isn’t Alabama, where he can count on his offensive linemen winning one-on-one matchups. I was afraid that, at some point, Nussmeier would fall victim to thinking that he could just count on being bigger, faster, and stronger than the opponent. I hope he came to realize the errors in that thought process in the aftermath of this game.
This offensive line isn’t as bad as last year. Center Jack Miller was repeatedly shoved back into Devin Gardner’s grill, and that’s a problem. But not every team has a Jarron Jones. Mason Cole and Erik Magnuson had several communication issues on the left side, but that comes with the territory of starting a true freshman left tackle. Regardless of the numbers, I thought the offensive line looked closer to the one that opened up huge holes against Appalachian State than the one that soured the taste in our mouths in 2013. Michigan is not a team that can wear teams down by running the ball, but they should be able to run the ball enough to keep most defenses off balance.
Blake Countess looks uncomfortable. I don’t think Countess is a wussy corner like Deion Sanders, but Countess does look awkward in press coverage. He is not physical at the line of scrimmage, and because he lets receivers get free releases, he’s opening up his hips too quickly. That style does not jive with what we’re seeing at the other corner in the form of Raymon Taylor/Jourdan Lewis. If Countess can’t play press man like defensive coordinator Greg Mattison wants this year, then perhaps he should move into the slot, where his ability to bait quarterbacks would be more useful.
So much for that wealth of cornerbacks. One place I thought Michigan had the advantage going into this game was at corner, where Michigan’s experienced and/or talented guys could win out against some inexperienced – but still talented – wideouts. Then I saw that Jabrill Peppers was on the sideline with his bum ankle, replaced by the lesser talented Delonte Hollowell. Then after the first defensive series, starter Raymon Taylor went to the locker room with an injury and never returned to the game. Just like that, Michigan was missing two of its top three corners. Hollowell was picked on repeatedly by Notre Dame. Jourdan Lewis picked up two pass interference penalties, at least one of which was highly questionable. The next guy in was Channing Stribling, who still looks a half-beat too slow for playing football against the big boys. I thought the numbers were leaning toward Michigan, with five Notre Dame academic fraud suspects off the field and a starting safety missing due to injury. However, those absences quickly started to even out with Peppers, Taylor, and tight end Jake Butt standing on the sideline.
But the linebackers looked good. After being unimpressive last week against Appalachian State, I thought starting linebackers Jake Ryan (11 tackles) and Joe Bolden (10 tackles) looked markedly better last night. They were reacting quicker, and they held a solid crew of running backs to 25 carries for 61 yards.
The refereeing was bad. The second pass interference penalty on Jourdan Lewis was hogwash, and it appears that Michigan is a step late in wanting to be all hands-on with their corners. That’s soooo 2013. Somehow, Devin Funchess got hit early on a crossing route that resulted in an incomplete pass, but the officials kept their hankies in their pockets. There was also no reason for Notre Dame’s Corey Robinson to be ruled down on the three-yard line when Stribling tackled him on a skinny post; the ball should have been placed at the 6″ line. You can’t blame the refs for a 31-point loss, but they certainly didn’t help Michigan find any success early.
The announcing was bad. I hate hate hate watching games on NBC, because it’s always a Notre Dame slurpfest. And while there weren’t a lot of good things to say about Michigan last night, I don’t remember color guy Mike Mayock saying many nice things about Michigan players. He said NFL scouts “love” Jake Ryan, and he complimented Devin Funchess’s ability to be big. Otherwise, he fawned over Everett Golson, Cam McDaniel, Greg Bryant, Jaylon Smith, Jarron Jones, Sheldon Day, Cody Riggs, Will Fuller’s speed (though not his hands), and even Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach. Thank goodness that by the time Michigan plays Notre Dame again in the distant future – the year 2000 – Mayock won’t be around anymore.
Turnovers don’t exist. Michigan has zero takeaways in two games.
I don’t know where this team goes from here. This seems like a game that could make or break some teams. I don’t think anyone was under the illusion that Michigan was going to win a national championship this year, but the shutout could fracture a locker room and make some people question whether this unit is going anywhere. Again, I look at how Michigan moved the ball at times, and I think it might just be an unhappy coincidence that the Wolverines didn’t string together enough plays to create a couple scores. Notre Dame has a high-powered offense, and I predicted that they would score 31 points. We all knew they could march down the field and score. Michigan needs to regroup and get healthy next week against Miami, and moving forward, Nussmeier needs to open up his playbook against blitzing defenses to keep them out of Gardner’s face.
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