Sunday, August 31, 2008

This Chicken Salad Sure Smells Funny

Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: Michigan's offense was terrible against Utah. The offense scored three touchdowns off of short fields created by the defense and the special teams, but it only managed one possession where it created anything approximating a drive and that ended with Brandon Minor fumbling the ball away. The Michigan offense is a perfect storm of bad factors. It is:

Inexperienced: only three returning starters. The starting backfield was a sophomore walk-on and two freshman running backs.

Ill-fitting: Michigan does not have a quarterback who presents a running threat, nor does it have any dangerous slot receivers.

Learning a New Scheme: Rich Rodriguez is presented with the dual challenge of developing the basic technique of a pile of young players, along with teaching them a new scheme. The playbook is already limited by the fact that the talent isn't a good fit for the system; it is further limited by the fact that Rodriguez has to spoon-feed the offense in small doses.

Possibly Bad: It's not just that the quarterbacks are bad fits for this offense; they might simply be bad fits for any offense. Nick Sheridan does not have the arm to threaten a defense down the field except with moonballs down the sideline. Stephen Threet might turn into a good player, but he takes an awfully long time to read a defense. There's a reason why Michigan was so leery of throwing the ball down the middle of the field yesterday. That reason is most likely the fact that the quarterbacks showed themselves to be bad decision-makers and likely to throw interceptions when they did so in Fall practice.

(The only throw down the middle that I recall was a streak route by Brandon Minor that was wide open in the second quarter and Sheridan overthrew it. That was a great call by Rodriguez and Calvin Magee.)

All that said, yesterday illustrated that the transition to the spread is a good one for Michigan. Utah runs the spread and created all sorts of issues for a good Michigan defense for a half. Oregon, Missouri, Illinois, and Florida all scored 40+ points running variants of this offense. It is clearly the way to go. Michigan has one of the inventors of the offense running the show. One bad game or even one bad season does not change the fact that Michigan made the right decision going in this direction.

Yesterday also illustrated that struggles for first-year coaches are to be expected. Bobby Petrino was down by ten points at home to Western Illinois before Arkansas saved themselves. Mike Sherman lost his opener to Arkansas State. Washington State got blown out in Seattle by Oklahoma State. The only new coaches for BCS conference teams who got wins were playing I-AA opponents (Duke and Georgia Tech) or walked into a perfect situation (Ole Miss). If Jim Tressel and Pete Carroll combined for 11 losses in their first seasons at Ohio State and USC, then it's probably fair to assume that a good coach won't create magic overnight.

So what are the positives to be taken from the game yesterday?

1. The Barwis effect is real. The defensive linemen didn't become man-eating centaurs liked I'd hoped, but the team did show a major conditioning advantage. The defense was dominant in the second half. Speaking of which...

2. Michigan has a defensive coordinator who can make halftime adjustments. Michigan's defense was disappointing in the first half, but they came out in the second half playing a 3-35 and shut down a quality offense. Speaking of that quality offense...

3. Utah is a good team. If Utah were in the Big Ten, they would be smack dab in the Wisconsin-Penn State-Illinois jumble below Ohio State. Hell, they'd probably be towards the top of that clump. The Utes' indiscipline aside, Utah runs a well-designed offense with a terrific quarterback at the controls. Brian Johnson is probably the best quarterback that Michigan will face all year. He made some terrific throws in the first half when he had time and only clammed up in the second half when the coverage improved and he was being hit consistently. Utah has the requisite number of kick-ass Polynesians and a ludicrous cyborg kicker who put every field goal dead-center between the uprights with room to spear. If they win fewer than ten games, it can only be because of an injury to Johnson or Kyle Whittingham getting too conservative with a lead.

4. Michigan's special teams were quite good. The Wolverines blocked a PAT and a punt, they forced a fumble on a punt return, the kickoff returns looked dangerous, and they got a 50-yard field goal.

All in all, I was thinking at halftime that this would be a repeat of Oregon 2007 and ended the game thinking that it was Virginia 1995. Given that my expectations for the season were for seven wins and my expectations at halftime were for total humiliation, 25-23 isn't so bad. If only Michigan were in the ACC...


Anonymous said...

The word on the street - or during fall practices - was that Sheridan makes better decisions. I didn't see that yesterday as he was far too inclined to just throw the ball up and hope for the best when he was pressured. He could have easily thrown three INTs.

When pressured Threet took sacks or tried to run for yardage and once hit Carson Butler with a bad pass along the sidelines. So his decision-making when pressured seemed better, contrary to reports from practice. Just drill into his head the need to throw the ball away and I think he can be halfway decent.

Also consider the fact he joined the contest late with Michigan down two TDs and he had no real run game to help ease him into the game and prevent the Utes from pinning their ears back and blitzing the crap out of him.

Put him into a game where it's 0-0 and you can have a run game, then also give him some screens when an opponent blitzes him and I think he can have a minor amount of success. Whether or not the rally that started when he entered the game was simply a coincidence is impossible to know, but his decision making seems to be better than Sheridan's.

Since they both can't run worth a damn I say go with the guy who has a better head on his shoulders [admittedly based on one game] and has an arm that will help to keep those safeties out of the box. If that happens the run game might not look like complete garbage next game.

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. Agree with all!

vanguy said...

Great read!

B King said...

That is a considerably more optimistic post than I considered writing. I had a moment just now when I looked at Michigan's schedule and decided, "We could only beat Miami-Ohio, Toledo, and Minnesota."

I hope that the Utes are as good as you think, and that Michigan will match up favorably against mid-level Big 10 teams if we can get our run game sorted out. I think our line is a big problem though - lots of runs were getting stopped in the backfield, which is usually a sign of bad blocking rather than poor running, IMO.