Inconsistency was the word of the day for Denard. Denard can go from pinpoint accuracy to complete terror in the span of two plays. 95% of the passes he threw were right on the money, the other 5% were way off the mark While it may seem unfair to judge a QB based on only 5% of his passes but that 5% can lose you games. Eventually the turnovers are going to catch up with Michigan. The law of averages makes it inevitable. While Denard seems to be a lock to lead the Big 10 in interceptions, it’s also likely that he will lead in total yards as well after racking up another 500yd day (129yds on the ground, 337 in the air). Once again his poor throws and decisions came on plays where he didn’t set his feet and step into the throw. Whatever was said at halftime worked as Denard came out white hot in the 2nd half, didn’t turn the ball over, and quickly led Michigan on scoring drives.
Devin Gardner was called into relief action for the first time this season and the offense didn’t seem to miss a beat. Devin zipped in a very nice pass on the run plus added a TD run of his own. This game will likely not be his only meaningful action as Michigan State is sure to have a bounty out on Denard’s head.
Not a good day for the backs. I would like to blame it all on the offensive line but that would be unfair. Good backs are able to make guys miss in the hole and extend plays on occasion. The running game got no such production from the starting backs. Despite 14 carries Fitz was only managed 30yds, a 1.8ypc average. The only effective back in the game was Mike Shaw who was only inserted late the 2nd half after the other backs proved ineffective. Shaw has become the forgotten man despite having done nothing to lose the preseason form that had him named the starter out of camp. Even the protection from the backs was spotty at times, though the backs did a decent job of blocking for Denard on run plays.
Saturday prove to be another day where the WRs bailed out the QB. Hemingway continues to live up to his rep as the big play receiver for this team. Hemingway is certainly good enough to be a 1,000yd receiver and if he wasn’t running out of eligibility he would be the leading candidate to receive the #1 jersey next season. It was good to see Roy Roundtree finally get involved in the passing game. The move outside has really effected Roundtree’s numbers but he did a very good job in this game including catching a jump ball downfield. Jeremy Gallon is finally living up to the hype he had coming out of high school. When Gallon touches the ball good things just seem to happen.
Saturday was a good day for the TEs as well. Both Steve Watson and Kevin Koger were targeted and had key catches in the game. It is nice to see Watson finally be rewarded for sticking things out. It would have been very easy for him to transfer after getting moved to the defensive line but he stuck around and is now firmly planted as the 2nd TE.
What a difference a week makes. Last week the offensive line dominated the game with the exception of a few power plays. This week the line really struggled in both the running game and in pass protection. Normally it is the guards that have the biggest issues but the tackles made their share of mistakes as well. Taylor Lewan’s bad ankle is beginning to show up on tape as he had trouble getting out on guys and staying on his blocks. It should be noted that on Denard’s 2nd interception he had a defender right in his face because the pulling guard failed to pick up a free blitzer. In addition there were no big holes for the running backs like we saw the last two weeks. It isn’t by accident that Denard and Shaw saw the most success in the run game, they are the only guys quick enough to get through the smaller holes before they completely closed up. The line did a better job in the 2nd half of pass protection and eventually there was a small amount of success in the run game but Saturday’s effort won’t cut it in the coming weeks.
Saturday marked the 3rd game in a row that the D-line has played very well. Ryan Van Bergen kicked things off on the first drive with a sack and line continued to push the pocket most of the night. The majority of Northwestern’s 134yds rushing came on the option and occurred as a result of bad LB play, not bad plays from the line. Craig Roh, Mike Martin, Will Campbell, and RVB flushed Persa out of the pocket all night. Will Campbell destroyed another guard on his way to the QB, this time he finally ended up with a sack. It has taken him a few years but Will is finally showcases some the talent that made him a 5 star prospect coming out of high school. Now he just needs to become consistent with his level of effort and production.
Outside of Kenny Demens who had a monster game, the LB play was not very good. The OLBs lost containment on the fly sweeps, blew assignments on the option, and failed to pursue on the bubble screens through much of the first half. Since Greg Mattison has already done it I won’t hesitate in naming Jake Ryan as a major contributor to the poor LB play. He’s still a redshirt freshman so he needs to be cut some slack but when the same errors are made game after game it is hard not to criticize. Brandin Hawthorne did end up with 9 tackles and had a key interception in the 2nd half but as a group the LBs did not have their best day.
In all honestly the secondary did not play poorly. Persa’s 331yds jumps off the stat sheet but they don’t tell the whole story. The safety play was actually very good. Jordan Kovacs filled up another box score with 7 tackles, a sack, and plus 2 TFLs (including a key stop on 4th down). Thomas Gordon missed a few plays but made up for it by also forcing a fumble. While I won’t say that the CB play was good, it certainly was not as bad as the final numbers bear out. The CBs were really let down by the scheme (more on that later) and were basically left trying to make tackles after catches. Despite giving up one big pass play Blake Countess had another good day. Countess continues to show absolutely no fear when lined up on WRs which is rare for a true freshman.
Saturday proved to be another adventure on special teams for the Wolverines. The kickoff coverage was really the only bright spot for the special teams. Will Hagerup has still not gotten back into his groove after suspension. We are getting nothing out of the return game, haven’t blocked a kick or punt all season, and now have had kicks blocked of our own. Gibbons took a step back in this game after nailing 3 FGs last week. The 37yd FG he attempted had no chance from the start as the kick had no height and was easily blocked.
This is the first time all season where I really think Greg Mattison deserves some blame for a poor performance, at least in the first half. Far be it from me to tell Mattison how to do his job but that first half included several critical coaching mistakes. One of biggest issues was the alignment of the secondary. Against a team like Northwestern which lives and dies with its short passing game, playing off coverage is a recipe for disaster. The defense had no chance of stopping the bubble screen in the first half since no one lined up over the slot WR. Northwestern’s scheme dictates throwing the bubble screen any time the offense outnumbers the defense outside and that is exactly what they did. Short of the outside WR missing his block the defense had no chance of stopping the quick screens. The alignment of the CBs also aided the rest of Northwestern’s passing game. Even when we did line up a defender on the slot, our CBs were often 7-8yds off the ball. That off coverage allowed Northwestern to chew up the defense with quick outs, slants, and hitches, and short crossing routes. The good thing is that Mattison and Co. adjusted at halftime, lined up an OLB on the slot on every play, and tightened up the coverage outside. Half time adjustments are great to see, but I am surprised that the defensive gameplan wasn’t to take away the short passing game from the start. The issues were fixed and the defense held Northwestern scoreless in the 2nd half which is the most important thing.
Offensively the gameplan was simple and effective, though not as creative as the last game. I would have liked to see to see Borges call more plays designed to take advantage of the way Northwestern was overplaying certain things. The counter play that proved very effective against Minnesota was rarely attempted in this game despite the defense flowing to Denard every time he moved. The absence of a 3rd option on the zone read is also becoming a problem that is likely to continue as teams try to take away Denard’s ability to get outside. It is hard to complain when an offense puts up 48pts and 541yds of offense though.
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.