|Freshman running back Derrick Green saw his first significant Big Ten action and responded with 19 carries for 79 yards
Fire Brady Hoke? Okay, I would probably never call for a head coach’s firing based on one play, but I have rarely been angrier at a single in-game decision than Hoke’s call to go for it on 4th-and-2 down 9-6 with a little under six minutes remaining in the game. You have an offense that can’t run the ball consistently or protect the quarterback, a chip-shot field goal begging to be taken, and you . . . run a quarterback bootleg? Don’t get me wrong – that might be the best run play to call in that situation, keeping the ball in the hands of your most dynamic runner. But take the 3 points. Theoretically, a field goal in that situation ties the game at 9-9 and turns the last-second field goal into the game-winner. It all worked out in the end, but that’s still the wrong decision by Hoke at that point.
Brendan Gibbons must have hated Rich Rodriguez. Ever since Brady Hoke arrived in 2011, Gibbons has been about as good as anyone could realistically ask a kicker to be, aside from the four overtime game against Penn State earlier this season. Gibbons was 4/4 on field goals in this game and 1/1 on extra points, but the most impressive kick was a 44-yard field goal from the right hash with no time on the clock to send the game into overtime.
The offensive line is fixed! The Wolverines are back to having a dominating offensive line after allowing just 5 sacks and allowing the team to rush for 139 yards on 44 carries, a 3.2-yard average. That’s a marked improvement from the average of 7 sacks and -34.5 rushing yards per game for the previous two weeks. On a serious note, folks, I still think I saw Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield both whiff on pass blocks that turned into sacks, which seems to support the idea that Michigan’s offensive linemen are regressing or at least remaining stagnant. The positive rushing yards were a step in the right direction, but Northwestern has a small-ish defensive front that creates plays using quickness and blitzing frequently. Perhaps a game like this will give the offensive line a tiny bit of confidence in their abilities as a unit, but people said the same thing following the Indiana game.
There may or may not be a running back controversy. Fifth year senior starter Fitzgerald Toussaint dressed but did not play in the game, allowing freshmen Derrick Green (19 carries, 79 yards) and De’Veon Smith (8 carries, 41 yards) to take all of the running back carries. Green in particular looked solid because he hit the hole hard, unlike earlier in the season when he looked tentative and preoccupied with not fumbling. He also finished runs nicely once he got in the open field by lowering his shoulder and punishing tacklers. If Michigan could open holes consistently and get him on second- and third-level defenders more often, those hits would start to take a toll and turn into some even bigger runs. In addition to his 23- and 22-yard rumbles, Smith tossed in a nifty 16-yard run up the gut. I still believe Toussaint is the more explosive back because of his ability to make people miss and accelerate, but he’s not strong enough to run through tackles of first-level defenders . . . and the offensive line isn’t good enough to keep those first-level defenders from getting their mitts on him.
Al Borges’s creativity goes in spurts. I’ve noticed in offensive coordinator Al Borges’s three years at Michigan that he tends to get ideas that last two or three weeks, and then he eventually abandons them. This was one of those weeks that he got creative, so we’ll see how long it lasts. Hopefully, he can beat Iowa with these types of plays and then come up with some new wrinkles for Ohio State. This game featured numerous bubble screen pump fake draws to Derrick Green, which seemed to open up some running lanes. As soon as I saw Devin Funchess line up in the slot to the left in overtime, I thought to myself, “Okay, it’s about time to actually run the bubble,” and Devin Gardner promptly whistled it out to Funchess . . . who gained about 4 yards before fumbling (and luckily recovered his own fumble). Michigan doesn’t throw it often or well enough to make the draw a staple of the offense every week, but they can still pull it out once or twice a game and hope to have some success. Additionally, Borges decided to strategically rotate his running backs, using Green and Smith in the I-formation while sending in redshirt sophomore Justice Hayes and fullbacks to help out in shotgun formations. I thought that mitigated the pass rush a little bit, even though Gardner still went down 5 times; he had more time to throw than in past games, but the wet and windy weather combined with a good coverage team caused him to hold onto the ball a little too long.
Michigan’s defense is coming along nicely. They allow too many short passes, but I think defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is finally settling in with which players on his team can do what. There seems to be more situational subbing and guys moving around as the year goes on, which makes it difficult for the offense to get a bead on what the defense is doing. Nose tackle Quinton Washington had his best game of the year, and I thought Joe Bolden had a quietly solid game, too. Michigan also moved around guys like Jibreel Black and Taco Charlton; blitzed the inside linebackers quite a bit; and sent corners and safeties at times, something he has rarely seemed to do. There’s no Mike Martin up the middle, and Jake Ryan isn’t quite back to his former self, but it’s a good unit across the board.
Wet weather woes. Overall, it was probably a good thing that the field and ball were wet, because Northwestern dropped a bunch of potential interceptions. But the same issue plagued a couple Michigan receivers who are normally sure-handed in Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon. Meanwhile, Gardner short-armed and airmailed some throws on the way to a 24/43 day for 226 yards and 1 touchdown. It was a pretty ugly football game to watch because of a lack of big plays, but the good guys won so I’m temporarily satisfied.
How good is Northwestern? The Wildcats are 4-6 after having won their first four games of the year. That six-game losing streak has to be frustrating. Quarterback/running back/slot receiver Kain Colter has obviously been their star, but they’re one or two players away from being a serious contender in the Big Ten. They obviously miss running back/returner Venric Mark. If he were healthy or if quarterback Kain Colter could hand off the ball to running back Kain Colter or throw the ball to slot receiver Kain Colter, Michigan probably would have lost this game and Northwestern would be 7-3 or 8-2. I feel like this has often been the story with Northwestern throughout the years – they have one good player surrounded with a bunch of so-so players, which just isn’t enough to get them over the hump. Last year with Colter and Mark healthy, they looked like a team on the verge of a breakout. Unfortunately for them, their recruiting hasn’t allowed them to have two studs at the same time. But they’re doing a good job with their 2014 recruiting class (I really like RB Justin Jackson and WR Dareian Watkins), got a good quarterback in 2013 with Matt Alviti, and seem to have things going in the right direction. Northwestern is not going away anytime soon.