What a difference a week and a new opponent can make. Denard Robinson, who looked inept a week ago, returned to form against the Falcons of Air Force. Robinson’s footwork, decision making, and accuracy were all much improved from last week. Denard continues to have issues throwing the ball low. The number of back foot throws and horrible decisions decreased dramatically from last week and last year’s games. Denard made the most of his opportunities to run like few QBs in college football can or ever have. There were some misreads in the run game, but even in those cases Denard made plays with his legs. Late game accuracy was also an issue. A senior QB needs to be able to complete 3rd down passes to wide open receivers.
Fitz Toussaint’s return did not trigger much in the way of an improved running game from the Wolverines. Getting Denard on track in the running game was clearly the focus of the offensive game plan. The offensive focus combined with a lack of running room made for another tough day on the ground. Just like last week, it is difficult to fully judge the RB unit because of the limited opportunities that were presented, as well as the lack of running room. Fitz was the only Michigan RB that received carries and he was limited to 8 carries and a grand total of 7 yds.
Improved play from the QB position automatically equals improved numbers for the WR unit, this game was no different. While they faced inferior competition, the WRs still had to make plays, which they did. Devin Gardner notched another TD and continues to improve as a route runner and pass catcher. Jeremy Jackson notched two catches of his own, one on a key 3rd down play.
The real story of this unit concerns freshman TE Devin Funchess, who proved to be a potential difference maker down the road. Beyond the big plays, Funchess showed a degree of catch radius that Michigan has not enjoyed in years. Denard did not have to show pinpoint accuracy for Funchess to make catches. Funchess will never likely be a devastating blocker but he could pose a major headache for opposing coordinators and players. 6’5” kids who can move, jump, and catch are a rare breed and for Devin, the sky is the limit. The Wolverines continue to struggle in the area of impact blocking from the TE position and the running game as a whole suffered. The TE’s play a major role in Michigan’s ability to run, especially from the shotgun. Significant improvement is needed in order for the offensive to reach its full potential.
The story for the offensive line remains the same. The Wolverines again did a good job in pass protection, but the line failed to produce significant running lanes for the backs. Even on plays when Denard broke free, he often had to navigate his way around free defenders behind or near the line of scrimmage. The guards continue to struggle with pulling and latching onto defenders. On several occasions the guards pulled and blocked nothing but air. The line struggled with both drive and zone blocking, leaving Michigan with no fallback until the line improves across the board. Elliot Mealer turned in a strong performance a center. From an individual standpoint Mealer played his best game of the season, getting to the 2nd level and moving bodies.
I suspect that there were a lot of defensive linemen trying to find places to hide during their position group’s film study. Incredible enough, the defensive line actually played worse against Air Force than the week before against Alabama. Failing to hold the edge and getting pushed around by All-American linemen is bad enough. Having the same thing happen against an overmatched Air Force line is even worse. The Falcons did a ton of cut blocking in the game as expected. Dealing with cut blocks is not the area where the defensive line struggled the most however. Even though the game plan called for the defensive as a whole to squeeze the plays inside, the line had major issues holding the edge outside. The defensive ends are going to have to improve by leaps and bounds if Michigan is to have any chance of fielding even an average defense. Frank Clark was one of the few bright spots on the defensive line, likely because he is the most athletic Wolverine on the line.
The fact that two returning starters ended up getting pulled from the game pretty much sums up the performance of the LBers. The disparity in talent level received most of the blame for the defensive performance last week against Alabama. That excuse does not hold water this week against Air Force. Some will try to blame the style of offense that Air Force employed but the LBers were taking poor angles, not shedding blocks, and missing tackles. The LBers simply aren’t playing well enough for the Michigan defense to perform well. For two weeks in a row the LBers have failed to fill gaps and make tackles. Michigan was able to stop some of the bleeding by inserting freshmen Joe Bolden and James Ross but the unit struggled as a whole throughout the game. Ross and Bolden flashed a ton of ability, but they are both very green and it shows. Michigan has to decide whether they would rather deal with poor LBers that are the result of physical or mental limitations. In most cases, the issue with the returning players is tied to physical and talent limitations. For the freshmen, the issue is them not having enough experience to consistently be in the right spot and react quickly.
It is becoming a broken record, but the secondary played as poorly in areas against Air Force as they did against Alabama. Poor angles and missed tackles were again the story for the secondary. Air Force rarely challenged the Wolverines through the air, though when they did, they often found wide open receivers. The major issue for the secondary involved run support. Both safeties were slow to react to plays and did not do a good job of dealing with all the cut blocks that Air Force used. As with the other defensive units, Michigan has to get better and faster play out of its secondary unit.
Dennis Norfleet continues to flash electricity in the return game. Norfleet has incredible burst and flashed great vision and cutting ability on Saturday. Norfleet did make a major mistake in stepping in front of another returner on a kick return. The mistake did not cost Michigan in this game but the play showed why the coaches may have reservations about expanding Norfleet’s role.
Will Hagerup continues his stellar play as the punter, averaging 45 yds. per punt and notching a long of 53 yds. Matt Wile also played a key on Saturday, pilling Air Force at their own 10 yd line with a punt. Brendan Gibbons pinged through another medium range FG. Gibbons improvement from where he was 2 years ago is simply remarkable.
A: Unit played as close to flawless as possible. Unit played well enough to win the game on their own.
B: Unit had a major positive impact on the game but also had several assignment/execution miscues.
C: Unit did not negatively or positively affect the game. Unit made key positive plays along with several errors.
D: Unit made multiple critical errors that could potentially cost the team a win. Unit blew assignments and had poor execution across the board.
F: Play of the unit was bad enough that it could directly cost the team a victory.
Note: Plus and minuses denote degrees of the grade.