I’ve debated long and hard on how to grade Denard’s performance from this game. On the one hand he really struggled to execute in the passing game, there were horrible throws which were matched with even worse decisions. On the other hand Denard was asked to do things that he has long struggled with and that he’s frankly not very good at. Denard was not, is not, and likely will never be a good drop back passer. He makes poor decisions and throws when he is asked to sit in the pocket, scan the field, then make throws. That’s not his strength and it never has been. He was asked to do that a lot in this game and struggled mightily. Denard can’t be completely absolved of the blame however. He flat out made some terrible throws and decisions. He’s been drilled on his footwork and fundamentals all offseason yet still makes the same mistakes over and over. Al Borges can’t be blamed for Denard chucking a screen pass 4 yds over a back’s head, or air mailing go routes. Denard did showcase some of the phenom ability we’ve come to expect. The pass to Hemmingway while being dragged down by a defender was one of the most exceptional plays I have ever seen. In addition Denard made clutch play after clutch play in the 4th quarter. Still, on a night where Denard finished with only 11 completions and threw 3 interceptions it’s tough not to focus on the negative despite the outcome. In the end both the coaches and Denard are responsible for the performance. In this case I put more blame on the coaches than Denard.
The backs were mostly non-existent. The efforts to find a complimentary back to help shoulder the load continues. The backs simply weren’t asked to do much as they received a combined 8 carries in the game. I would like to think that the absence of Fitz contributed to the effort but we simply did not use our backs enough to evaluate their performance. Vincent Smith had one of the plays of the game on a screen pass but the Hopkins fumble at the goal line offsets what would normally be a decent grade.
The receivers were really the story of the night offensively. I would give a gameball to the entire receiving core as they were the real heroes of the game. Junior Hemmingway did his best Braylon Edwards impression on a night when his #21 was honored for Desmond Howard and he really bailed out his QB. Despite being one of the smallest guys on the field Gallon had two of the biggest plays in the game, including setting up the winning TD. Roy Roundtree caught the winning TD on a spectacular effort but it was his blocking on the Vincent Smith TD that really caught my eye. The early drops are the only thing that keeps the WR unit from receiving perfect marks.
An up and down day for the offensive line. They faced a lot of 7 and 8 man fronts which really obscures their performance, especially in the run game. The line didn’t open up many gaping holes even in the limited opportunities they had. Hopkins ended up fumbling at the goal line but he wasn’t going to score anyway as the line got no push inside. The pass blocking was spotty at times, but overall the protection was decent. There was only one sack but Denard had to evade rushers fairly often.
The line was flat out overpowered for most of the game. Notre Dame was able to do whatever they wanted early and ran it right down the throat of the defense. The line finally did get stout in the second half and made a few stops on 3rd and short that were key. There were no sacks but Martin, Black and RVB each had a TFL. Jibreel Black quietly had a nice game, forcing several hurried passes including the throw that lead to Kovacs interception in the 1st half.
Mix of good and bad from the LB core. Some bad angles by the LBs really allow several runs to go a lot longer than they should have. Brandin Hawthorne was a monster, he was always around the QB, had a key TFL, broke up a pass, and was just all over the field. He needs to get more playing time, especially when we play the faster, spread type teams. Demens was his usual steady self but didn’t have the best day when it came to seeing plays. He led the team in tackles but could have prevented some big plays with better angles and vision. Jake Ryan had another solid day in run support and rushing the passer.
The secondary was completely overmatched but made enough plays to win the game. The new scheme is certainly helping them and boy do they need it. We asked a lot of our secondary, put them in a lot of 1 on 1 situations, and while they struggled most of the game they also made several key plays. Kovacs had a great interception as did JT Floyd, both the result of a confused QB. Both players were in great position though and most importantly took advantage of the opportunity. CBs were poor in man to man coverage but that was excepted, the secondary also committed quite a few penalties that cost us 15 yds or worst. Marvin Robinson saw extended playing time which was nice to see, he saved a probable Cierre Wood TD on an open field tackle.
The special teams weren’t very special, they didn’t cost us anything either however. Matt Wile had a decent day punting with a 38.6 yd average with a long of 47 yds. His kickoffs never got close to the end zone which is becoming a concern. Gibbons only had to kick XPs thankfully but he did get better height on these kicks than the last game. The one bright spot on special teams was the coverage unit which kept Notre Dame from having great field position despite the short kickoffs. As noted by Coach Hoke, Thomas Gordon made a great play on the squib kick to end the game.
The coaches had an average day. This might surprise some but I am including Greg Mattison in the analysis though he coordinated a much better game than Al Borges did. Greg Mattison has more football knowledge than I will ever dream to have but I am openly questioning some of the decisions that he made. There is common theme for why the coaches receive a harsh grade after this game, asking players to do things they struggle with. Greg Mattison continually put the CBs on islands, including alone on Michael Floyd. Only when Floyd was put in the slot did we devote 2 players to him. In addition, on the final Notre Dame TD, Mattison asked true sophomore Marvin Robinson to make a play Ed Reed would have struggled with. Either everyone should have blitz like what the defense showed, or there should have been safeties back.
Al Borges will draw a lot fire from arm chair QBs today, and frankly he deserves it. Even Brady Hoke noted in the post game press conference that the offense had no rhythm. The blame for that goes directly on Al Borges. There was no consistency or pace to the offense. Unlike last week where there were entire drives devoted to the shotgun, or entire drives devoted to being under center, there was no rhyme or reason to the play calls in this game. Borges called play action off the power play even though the offense never established the power play as a credible threat. The offense didn’t really establish anything consistently which could then be played off of. The zone read was never established, the power play was never established, even the QB ISO was never really established. Mixing and matching plays is fine at the open of the game but by the 3rd quarter you should have feel for the game and play calls should adjust accordingly.
Like Mattison however, the cardinal sin of Al Borges was playing to the weakness of his players, Denard Robinson especially. Denard has never been a strong pocket passer, he’s not a strong pocket passer now, and he’s not likely to be strong pocket passer in the future. That isn’t what he’s wheel house, and coaches know it. In addition Denard is not good at dropping back, scanning the field, and making throws down field. The longer he sits in the pocket, the greater the likelihood of poor throws and poor decisions. Time and time again Al Borges asked Denard to execute the exact type of play that he struggles with. Time and time again Borges lined up Denard under center, eliminating the exact threat that is needed to open up plays. When Denard is under center Michigan becomes easier to defend and we saw the results last night.
Brady Hoke does receive high marks for playing for the win at the end of the game. I don’t want to make this about the pass but we’ve seen Michigan play for FGs and ties a number of times over the years. Hoke was having none of. Hoke insisted in the press conference that he would have likely gone for the win even if the Roundtree catch hadn’t happened.