Players at Michigan are ultimately judged by how they perform against Ohio. While all position groups have to deal with an added level of expectation against the Buckeyes, no position group endures more pressure than the QBs. QBs are judged above all else by their record and performance against Ohio. For much of the last decade Michigan fans have seen their QB’s outperformed by their Buckeye counterparts. Names like Krenzel, Smith, and Pryor have made more plays in the clutch and fewer critical mistakes than Wolverine QBs. Over the last decade Ohio QBs have outperformed Michigan’s QBs, until Saturday.
Denard Robinson rose to the occasion on Saturday and simply willed the Wolverines to victory. Every time the Buckeyes made a play to take the lead or tie the game, Denard came right back to make a play of his own. Denard performed at the highest of levels on the biggest of stages; became a legend in the process. During one stretch of the game, Robinson completed 11 straight passes and was the most accurate that he’s been this season. The most impressive part of Robinson’s performance, from a passing standpoint, was that he was the most accurate while making the most difficult throws. Denard threw a perfect 15 yd corner route to Drew Dileo that would have gone for a TD had Dileo stayed on his feet. Denard also hit Junior Hemingway on a perfect strike between a safety and a corner. Denard made the difficult throws look easy, something that seems truly amazing when you think back of the season. In addition, Denard showed a tremendous amount of patience before hitting Odoms for a TD. There were no back foot, chuck the ball up for grabs plays, the kind that have gotten Denard into trouble all season. Denard was dialed in from the first snap and amazing enough continued to elevate his level of play throughout the game.
On the ground, Denard ran harder and with more decisiveness than he has since arriving at Michigan. There was only one play where Denard hesitated instead of making up his mind and taking off. Denard burned Nebraska last week with his scrambling ability and he did the same to the Buckeyes this week. Anytime Ohio vacated its LBs from the middle of the field, Denard took off which was great to see. Denard also did a great job on the zone read, an area that he has struggled with his whole career. Denard was determined not to let Michigan lose and he ran like it.
The only imperfections on the day for Denard Robinson were the two balls he put on the ground. On the first play Robinson was ruled down. On the second, Ohio got the ball in Michigan territory and scored a few plays later.
On a day when Michigan needed its offense to the carry the team to victory Denard Robinson delivered a near perfect stat line. 82% completion, 167 yds passing, with 3 passing TDs along with 26 carries for 170 yds, on 6.5 ypc, and 2 TDs.
Were it not for Denard Robinson’s epic performance, Fitz Toussaint would have been the story of the day. Fitz Toussaint hails from the state of Ohio and whether that has something to do with how hard and determined he ran the football is anyone’s guess. Toussaint certainly ran harder in this game than he has all season and it was evident from the get go. Toussaint refused to be taken down by the first tackler and, like all great backs, he always seemed to be falling forward. Even after having his facemask yanked Fitz continued to churn his legs and pick up yardage. While the blocking was excellent throughout the game, Fitz gained a number of yards based off pure effort. The official stats may not list Toussaint as having scored a TD but he gets full credit here. Even if the ball did not cross the plane there was no evidence to overturn the call on the field.
Michigan went away from using a lead blocker on most plays so Stephen Hopkins did not play a big role. Still, Hopkins gained 3 yds by going over the top on a key 4th down call in the first half.
Michigan scored a total of 3 TDs through the air on Saturday. All three TDs were caught by senior receivers. It is still up in the air whether the pass that Hemingway caught for a TD was intended for him or Kevin Koger. Either way, Hemingway made a good play on the ball in the air. Odoms ended his Michigan career in the best way possible, scoring a TD in his final 3 games in a Michigan uniform. It’s really a shame that Odoms was not healthy throughout the entire season as he likely would have finished with quite a few more TDs. Drew Dileo had two clutch catches that kept Michigan drives alive. There were some who questioned how worthy Dileo was when he received his offer from Michigan. While he still has much to accomplish, Dileo has certainly proven that he is a Division 1 caliber player.
The WRs did a much better job in this game of getting separation from defenders, an issue that has been plagued this group since the Michigan State game. Kevin Koger had his best statistical day of the season and he will likely haunt the dreams of Ohio’s freshman LB Ryan Shazier. Not only did Koger do a great job of blocking Shazier, especially on the zone read, he also beat the freshman down the seam and in the flat on a number of occasions. It was obvious that utilizing Koger against Ohio’s outside linebackers in both the run and the pass game was a major part of the offense’s game plan.
Coming into The Game, the Ohio defense was giving up an average of 142 yds and 3.8 ypc rushing. Michigan quickly dispatched of that average, posting 277 yds rushing with a 5.5 ypc average. The backs did a great job of running hard, making defenders miss and breaking tackles, but it was the line that made it all possible. Once again the two offensive tackles were the best performers on the line. Mark Huyge played his best game as a Wolverine. Huyge’s ability to seal off defenders was critical on Saturday and he was a wall in pass protection. I have to admit up front that unless some egregious occurs, the amount of attention I pay to the offensive line is causal during games. Normally I focus on the interaction of the lines when I have the chance to rewatch the game. However, when Taylor Lewan pulled on a counter-trey and pancaked a Buckeye defender, the block alone brought me out of my seat. Lewan has been compared to Jake Long since he was in high school because of his build and style of play. Wearing the famous #77 upon enrolling at Michigan only served to raise the level of expectations for Taylor. Before Saturday, Lewan had done nothing to earn the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Long and the other greats who have played in the #77. With Jake Long in attendance, Lewan put on a performance worthy of the number. Lewan has played well all season, including playing through injury. On Saturday though, Lewan took the next step and played at a dominant level. He was constantly driving his man back off the line of scrimmage and was as good in pass protection as we’ve seen from him this season.
The interior linemen did a great job of controlling Ohio DT John Simon who was having the best season of his career coming into the game. Patrick Omameh and Michael Schofield did a great job of moving opposing bodies back and were surprisingly good when asked to pull. Saturday was the 2nd game in a row where the guards have done a good job of pulling and getting their hands on defenders.
Saturday was not the best day for the defensive line and it showed. While the line had been dominant over the past few weeks, they struggled mightily against the Buckeyes. Only Ryan Van Bergen was able to consistently win 1 on 1 matchups against Ohio. Mike Martin was doubled teamed throughout and unlike past games he was not able to beat two defenders regularly. There is enough talent on the Buckeye offensive line that when they decide to double team someone they can take the player out of the game. The rest of the line cannot use the same excuse however. While Ohio went to maximum protection up front quite a bit, the defensive line did not do a good job of winning matchups when they had 1 on 1 opportunities.
That is not to suggest that there were no good individual performances at times. Van Bergen played as well as he has all season, racking up 7 tackles, 2 TFL, plus a half sack. Van Bergen also drew a holding call in the end zone which resulted in a safety for Michigan. Jibreel Black also recorded a key sack on 3rd down at the goal line which prevented a TD and forced Ohio to kick a FG.
Craig Roh did not have his best day. Ohio deliberately targeted Roh, often leaving him unblocked and playing off his aggressiveness and lack of discipline on the edge. Jibreel Black played the most number of snaps that he has in weeks because of Roh’s play on the edge. Roh had been playing relatively well up to this point, so his performance on Saturday was a bit surprising. This game will certainly prove to be quite a learning experience for him.
The Grade: C-
Kenny Demens was all over the field and had a fantastic game for the 2nd week in a row. As a result of how Michigan decided to defend Ohio, Demens was often matched up covering TE Jake Stoneburner. Stoneburner, who was Ohio’s leading receiver coming into the game, finished with 1 catch for 36yds. Demens did a great job of covering Stoneburner in the passing game, including downfield. While Desmond Morgan led the team in tackles, he and Jake Ryan were also deliberately targeted by Ohio. Ohio made it a point of putting Ryan and Morgan into situations which forced them to cover and tackle in space. The two players really struggled when asked to do so. Ohio leaked out its FBs and RBs into the flats and ran delayed dump offs in an attempt to get Ryan and Morgan into 1 on 1 situations in the open field. On top of that, Ohio specifically attacked Desmond Morgan with Braxton Miller on QB draws. Ohio didn’t respect Morgan’s ability to tackle Miller in the open field and were rewarded with big gains on the ground. Morgan did make his share of plays in the game however, recording a sack and a TFL but overall had problems for much of the day.
The secondary has received a lot of blame for Saturday’s performance and they deserve much of it. The deep safety play was atrocious at times and included both Thomas Gordon and Troy Woolfolk. Deep safeties are taught over and over not to let defenders get behind them or let plays outside of them. Despite that, the safeties allowed those plays to occur numerous times on Saturday. The technique from most of the players in the secondary was poor and it resulted in big passing plays for Ohio. While there were coaching issues that contributed to the poor secondary play, the players themselves did not play well as a unit. Blake Countess finally played like a freshman and Ohio made a point of going after him. Countess showed great recovery speed early in the game when he broke up a pass intended for Devier Posey, but spent the rest of the day looking at the back of receivers while they sprinted away from him. The post routes and double moves really left the heads of the secondary spinning. Part of the secondary’s problems on Saturday relates to the fact that Michigan has not faced an advance passing game with elite athletes outside since Notre Dame. Michigan has not had to cover a lot of deep passing routes, including in practice, which left them unprepared and off balanced against Ohio.
The typical bright spot in the secondary was Jordan Kovacs who spent the day making the life of another offensive coordinator miserable. Kovacs has turned into quite the disruptor on defense, making play after play behind the line of scrimmage. Kovacs made two tackles behind the line of scrimmage, recorded a sack, and made Braxton Miller’s life difficult on blitzes. JT Floyd may have saved the game when he hustled to run down Braxton Miller from behind. Floyd’s tackle led to Michigan’s goal line stand which resulted in a Buckeye FG. Had Floyd not run Miller down, Ohio would have gone up by 4 instead of trailing by 3.
The Grade: F
Brendan Gibbons is starting to earn the trust of both coaches and fans. Gibbons hit another semi-pressurized kick on Saturday, extending Michigan’s lead to 6 points. For two straight games Hoke has trusted Gibbons to hit kicks beyond 40 yds, something that many would not have thought possible last year. Matt Wile did a great job on kickoffs early in the game when he had the wind, recording several touchbacks. Once Michigan switched sides of the field Wile had trouble getting the ball to the goal line. The coverage units, which have been very good this season, were great again on Saturday. The kickoff coverage unit was able to force another fumble but failed to recover the ball.
Will Hagerup experienced the single worse play of his Michigan career on a day when he also had his longest punts of the season. Dropping the snap is usually the kiss of death for a punter and Hagerup only compounded the issue by not getting off a punt after he recovered it. With that said, when he wasn’t taking his eyes off the ball Hagerup was booming kicks, averaging 47 yds per punt.
Over the years both Michigan and Ohio have held back and saved certain facets of their offense in preparation for The Game. On some occasions there have been special packages or series of plays meant for just Michigan, or just Ohio. On other occasions there are trick plays or plays specifically designed with the other team in mind. Sometimes the packages work to perfection, like Ohio’s spread formations that completely caught Michigan off guard in 2006. Other times the plays have no positive impact on the game. Al Borges called a game on Saturday with no bells or whistles. Michigan did not run any offensives plays that they hadn’t been used in the past. The game plan that Al Borges put together was simple and centered on playing to the strengths of Michigan’s personnel and attacking Ohio’s weaknesses. There were no trick plays, hidden formations or packages. Borges simply pressed all the right buttons at the proper times. The attack was run heavy and just like last week’s game with Nebraska, Michigan played to its strengths by running a majority of its plays out of the shotgun with 3 and 4 WR sets. Ohio’s major weak point defensively was its OLBs and Borges attacked them without mercy. The counter trey that lead to Fitz Toussaint’s 41 yd run was a thing of beauty and worked to perfection precisely because Ohio was over pursing Denard to start the game.
Denard’s pinpoint passing performance did not occur by accident. Borges played to the strengths of his QB. Borges kept the passing game limited to the short-intermediate routes that Denard excelled at and gave him quick and easy reads. Borges got Denard Robinson into rhythm at the start of the game with a short pass to Fitz in the flats and then built up the passing game from there. The offense finally showed signs of continuity, which is something that hasn’t happened all season. Successful zone runs led to play action fakes off of them. QB isolation plays led to counter plays. The only thing Michigan did not do well offensively was mix up its passing and running. There were only 3 first down passes in the game and Michigan was content to run out of obvious run formations and pass out of obvious passing formations. Ohio never caught on and if they did, nothing ever was done out of the ordinary by them to combat what became predictable play calling. Borges was content to keep pounding away at obvious weaknesses and Ohio did nothing to adjust.
Greg Mattison has not been outcoached very many times this season. On those rare occasions when it has happened, like the first half against Northwestern, Mattison has always made adjustments on the fly or at halftime. That wasn’t the case on Saturday as Jim Bollman seemed to be one or two steps ahead of Greg Mattison for much of the day. Since the start of the season Michigan has used the zone blitz, particularly on 3rd down, to confuse and take advantage of opposing offenses. Teams have tried different way to counteract the zone blitz but few have actually succeeded. Until Saturday, Notre Dame was the only team Michigan face who successfully adapted and took advantage of Michigan’s zone blitzes. When Michigan played Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish attacked the zone blitz by checking to inside runs and attacking the seam down field. Ohio carried out a similar game plan and Michigan never adjusted to it. Whenever Michigan went to the zone blitz, Braxton Miller either checked to a QB draw or Ohio went to maximum protection and threw the ball down the field on a post or go route. Ohio did not burn Michigan down the field by accident. On top of having the kind of athletes at WR that it takes to make plays downfield, Ohio took advantage of the fact that Michigan played with only one deep safety, or in some cases, no deep safety. Michigan very nearly lost the game at the end because the defense came out in a zone blitz and Ohio once again went max protection and threw the ball downfield. Devier Posey beat JT Floyd on a double move and there was no safety over the top to help. The same kind of play nearly cost Michigan the game against Notre Dame. It too occurred when Michigan showed blitz and failed to have a safety deep. Better secondary certainly would have helped, but when there is no safety playing over the top it becomes very easy to get taken advantage of.
Miller took advantage of Michigan with his legs to the tune of 100 yds and 6.2 ypc. While some of the blame falls on the defensive calls and Mattison not putting more athletic personnel on the field, scheme alone is not the problem. Until Michigan is able to recruit and send out the kind of athletes at LB and safety who are able to cover and tackle in space, Michigan will continue to get burned by mobile QBs and quick slot receivers. Michigan did do a great job of shutting down Boom Herron on defense. Herron is the 2nd RB in a row that Michigan has held well below their season average. Last week Michigan held Rex Burkhead in check, this week it was Boom Herron.
Major credit also needs to be given to Brady Hoke, not only for this game but the season overall. Few would have predicted a 10 win season for Michigan at the start of the year, or a big win over Ohio. Hoke made beating Ohio a priority for Michigan since the day he took over. While the emphasis Hoke placed on beating Ohio was a factor in Saturday’s outcome, it is not the primary reason why Michigan won the game. Beating Ohio has been priority for Michigan since the 1800’s. Beating Ohio was a priority over the last decade, a period in which Michigan won just 1 game against the Buckeyes. Michigan did not win on Saturday because of the countdown clock that hangs in football facility, or because the team breaks every meeting with “Beat Ohio.” While those things certainly helped focus and motivate the team, Michigan did not win because of them. Michigan teams over the past decade have been highly motivated and focused and have still come up short. Michigan won on Saturday because they did something that past Michigan teams haven’t done, execute in the 4th quarter at a level higher than the Buckeyes. Brady Hoke’s stamp on Saturday’s game and the season comes down to execution. Hoke and the rest of the Michigan coaches have demanded a high level of execution, not just against the Buckeyes but all season. The coaches have succeeded in getting a high level of execution out of the players and have won 10 games as a result. In no game was that high level of execution on greater display than on Saturday. In the game that matters most, Michigan’s execution was at its highest level.
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.