Saturday was just a rough day for the QB position across the board. While the QB play was heavily influenced by other factors, the QBs didn’t play well on their own. It is certainly difficult to make plays while under constant duress but even on plays where there was time and open receivers, both Denard and Devin struggled. The constant pressure exacerbated Denard’s poor footwork and by the 4th quarter he was completely rattled. In addition, Denard hesitated in the pocket on plays where there were running lanes available and a lot of green grass. Denard looks like a QB who has lost confidence, both in his own abilities and in what he is suppose to be doing. At this point Denard does not trust himself and is over thinking plays instead of being on auto-pilot. The only really successful plays from the QB position occurred when Denard was split out as a wing-back.
There are already calls from some in the Detroit media for Devin Gardner to replace Denard. If said individuals actually rewatch the tape they`d see that Devin struggled just as badly as Denard, just in different areas. Neither QB handled the blitz very well, which isn’t a surprise as most QBs, college or pro, struggle with defenders in their face. From a physical and mechanical standpoint Devin may be ready to play, but he’s nowhere near ready from the mental side. He failed to spot a wide open Stephen Hopkins running free in the secondary, instead choosing to throw into coverage. Devin threw a strike to Hemingway in the endzone only to have it called back because he threw the ball well beyond the line of scrimmage. Devin does a better job of throwing accurate passes to open receivers but first he has to find them. Lastly, he hasn’t reach the point where he can manage the game. It isn’t by accident that Denard is the one who called a timeout with the play clock expiring, Devin had no clue.
The only thing keeping the QB position from receiving a failing grade this week are the extenuating circumstances that had as much, if not more to do with play of the QBs.
From a purely rushing standpoint the backs didn’t have a bad day. The backs didn’t do a poor job of running the ball, the real issue was the lack of opportunities and running room. Vincent Smith had 42yds rushing but on only 8 carries (a 4.2yds per carry average). Fitzgerald Toussaint looked injured from the start and only received 2 carries. To be honest after the way he finished the Northwestern game, I`m shocked that Mike Shaw didn’t see much playing time or carries.
Where the backs really struggled was in the passing game. Vincent Smith was especially poor in blitz pickup which has been one of his strong suits. On several occasions Smith flat out whiffed on the blitzer, on others he was easily pushed back into the area of the QB. Smith also let his QB down on the interception that ended the game by not running a clean hot route against the blitz. It should be pointed out however that Smith is a RB not a receiver and probably shouldn’t have been put in that position.
Not sure where to being with the receivers. I`ll start with the most inexcusable aspect of the WR play on Saturday, mental mistakes. Saturday was the 6th game of the season yet on 3 separate occasions WRs lined in the wrong spot. Misalignment by the WRs twice cost the QB valuable time that could have been spent reading defense or identifying blitzers, once it cost the team a timeout. If Saturday was the first game that would be one thing, there is no excuse for it happening multiple times in the 6th game. The more costly mental error was the lack of adjustment by the WRs in response to blitzes. Now if they weren’t coached to do it that it’s a separate issue, but WRs normally to break off their original route in response to blitzes and run a “hot route.” That didn’t happen on Saturday. The WRs continued to run their original routes, despite blitz after blitz, leaving the QB with the option of taking the sack, or throwing to no one.
None of the above problems above are talent issues though. All are fixable mistakes that should not have happened and hopefully will not continue. Saturday did reveal a talent issue however. Despite man to man coverage for much of the game, the receivers could not get separation from defenders on a regular basis. Even on the 3rd quarter TD pass, there was a defender right on Roundtree’s back that he had to shed before heading to the endzone. Some of it is an issue of poor routes and not properly fighting jams. Some of it is simply a talent issue. Getting separation from defenders is as much about burst and acceleration as anything. Guys either have burst or they don’t, you can’t coach a guy to have more burst.
The level of talent within the WR core is in desperate need of an upgrade.
Despite being loaded with upperclassmen and 4 returning starters, the O-line appears to be regressing. They struggled against Northwestern and hit rock bottom on Saturday. The right side of the line is a disaster. I fully expect future opponents to target the right side of the line as it is a major weakness now. On one play both the RT and RG were called for holding and the QB still took a hit. Once Ricky Barnum returns from injury there should be a long discussion about making a change on the right side. Michael Schofield has had his share of issues this season but at this point he’s more trustworthy than the players we currently have on the right side of the line. Surprisingly the player with the most preseason accolades on the team had the most trouble on Saturday. Molk was whipped by Jerel Worthy most of day. Eventually that trouble caused Molk to rush and eventually it affected his snaps. Overall the line had problems from start, especially against the blitz. Having to go up against more defenders than they had blockers was certainly a problem, but too many guys on the line lost their 1 on 1 battles.
If there was one bright spot for the line it was at LT. Despite being injured Taylor Lewan may have actually played his best game. Will Gholston terrorized the right side of the line but didn’t see the same success once when he moved over to the left. Gholston’s infamous punch was in response to getting pancaked by Lewan.
The line really had an opportunity to make a statement on Saturday. Michigan State was without 2 starters, was having trouble running the ball, and was average in pass protection coming into the game. The DTs really didn’t play that poorly of a game, they weren’t great but they won their share of battles. Will Heininger played better than expect even though he was outmatched. It was on the ends where the line really struggled. Despite an offseason spent bulking up Roh and Van Bergen were both wiped out on run play after run play and rarely got off their blocks. The line didn’t record any sacks but did a decent job of getting pressure on Cousins when he dropped back. Still the line did not produced enough big plays on a day where the defense really needed some in order to slow down Michigan State’s running game.
Like the WR position the D-line is in major need of a talent upgrade.
The lack of speed in the LB core has been noted before but it was even more glaring in this game. Any time a play went outside I kept waiting for a LB to show up and cut the runner off but they never did. Demens played decently in the middle but was mostly tied up with blockers. True freshman Desmond Morgan saw a significant number of snaps, he didn’t fare much better than the other LBs but he did make some key stops and recovered a fumble. Jake Ryan was nonexistent which was disappointing considering his strength has been run defense and getting to the passer. As a group the LBs did a poor job of getting off blocks and making tackles.
Outside of Troy Woolfolk who looks well below 100%, the secondary played pretty well. Woolfolk was torched by Keshawn Martin in the 1st quarter and things didn’t get any better from there for him. Eventually he was pulled in favor of the true freshman Blake Countess who continues to play well. Countess has what you can’t teach, natural CB instincts. Before his career is done Countess will likely have a mantle full of interceptions that he has returned for scores. He is still figuring things out on the field and is unsure of himself at times but when he breaks on the ball he closes space in a hurry. J.T Floyd did a very nice job of stripping the ball away when Michigan badly needed a stop. The safety play was good but not great. It didn’t take long for us to start dropping Kovacs down into the box, leaving Thomas Gordon with little to do other than staying deep and keeping plays in front of him. Both fumbles were caused by members of the secondary and the two safeties led the team in tackles.
The special teams finally had a positive impact on the game as opposed to the last few games where they’ve had no impact or a negative impact. Michigan’s offense kept going 3 and out and Will Hagerup kept pinning Michigan State inside their own 20. The coverage units continue to seal off runners before they get to the 2nd and 3rd levels. Despite the disastrous squib to start the 2nd half Matt Wile did a good job kicking into the wind. There was even a semi-big play on special teams when Drew Dileo pulled off the fake FG for a first down.
Michigan has been outcoached in the past. Hell it has happened enough just within the last calendar year to write a book on the subject. Over the years we’ve failed to anticipate and prepare for what the opponent would do, we’ve been slow to adjust to certain things, dumb calls have been made, we’ve been predictable, and the team has come out flat in games at times. What happened on Saturday was something I hadn’t seen since the 2007 Rose Bowl, a Michigan team that was given no chance to succeed by their coaching staff. The worst part is that critical coaching failures occurred in every phase of the game, offense, defense, and special teams.
The coaching on the defensive side wasn’t terrible, at the end of the day the defense only gave up 21 pts while forcing 2 turnovers. There were several head scratches though. On multiple short yardage situations Michigan lined up its CBs 7-8yds off the WR. Being afraid of the big play is one thing, giving your defenders no chance of stopping the play is another. Late in the 3rd quarter Michigan State faced a 3rd and 5 from the Michigan 41. Michigan lined up a CB 7y ds off B.J. Cunningham who promptly ran a 6 yd curl for the first down. Even if Michigan had snuck Charles Woodson onto the field he wouldn’t have been able to stop Cunningham from getting the first down. Coaching and the laws of physics prevented Michigan from getting stops at times.
The defensive issues pale in comparison to the coaching debacle that was done on the offensive side. 2 week ago I used the word flawless to describe the play calling by Al Borges against Minnesota, this week’s word is fatal. Al Borges called a fatal football game on Saturday. The QBs, receivers, and offensive line all deserve a certain degree of blame for their play on Saturday, but it was the man at the controls who really dropped the ball. Since the start of the season the play calling has lacked a natural flow. There has been no progression to the plays that Al Borges has called. Plays A, B, and C don’t lead to plays D, E, and F. Borges calls play action fakes off of run plays that the offense has never run, or hasn’t run effectively. In order for play action fakes to be effective, the defenses has to actually respect and bite on the run. In order for double moves from the WRs to work the secondary has to respect and bite on the shorter routes. Running play action or double moves outside has no chance of success if the offense hasn’t established the original play.
There are a lot of areas from Saturday’s game that could be pointed to, but for the sake of space the focus I’ll focus on the 2 most egregious areas. By now the 4th and 1 call has been debated at length. It was a horrible call from conception through execution. There were 4 major issues with the play that made it a failure from the start. The play action fake was called off a run play that hadn’t been setup during the game. Motioning out the deep back tipped off the play call. There was no run/pass option for Denard, something that would have created multiple ways for the play to succeed. Finally, the play did not counter off the fact that the Spartan defense was completely dialed in on Denard. The play had no chance of success even with better execution. (Editor’s Note: Upon watching the tape, with better execution the play could have been a success because no defender followed the RB in motion, if Denard had noticed, he could have snapped the ball and thrown a quick pass for the touchdown. Regardless of Denard’s execution, the call was horrendous to me while I was at the game.)
The single biggest issue with the coaching on Saturday was the lack of adjustments though. Michigan State started to send more defenders than Michigan had blockers beginning in the 2nd quarter and the number of blitzers and the frequency of the blitz only increased as the game continued. Shockingly Michigan made no attempt to counter to blitz. Nothing was done differently in the 3rd and 4th quarters than in the first 2 quarters. Michigan didn’t try to counter the blitz by running a ton of screens, didn’t move the pocket away from the rush, and didn’t shortening the routes of the receivers. The offense didn’t go up tempo to try to limit Michigan State from being able to make calls or substitute defenders. If only one receiver had failed to cut off his route against the blitz that would be one thing but none of them did. Michigan continued to run routes 10 yds down despite the fact that the QBs was on the ground by the time the receivers made their breaks. I have seen QBs with a deer in the headlights look during games. This is the first time I’ve seen an experienced coordinator look like he had no clue what to do. Had Borges tried to make adjustments yet still failed to counter the blitz I could forgive him, but he didn’t give the offense a chance to succeed.
Finally we have the ridiculous squib/onside kick that started off the 2nd half. Hoke maintained after the game that Matt Wile simply kicked the ball poorly. Whether he did or not is irrelevant, the decision to squib kick was a poor one. Even under the best circumstances the squib kick would have given Michigan State great field position. Wind or not Matt Wile would have surely been able to kick the ball beyond the Michigan State 46yd line. Just like the 4th and 1 call later in the game the coaches simply over-thought the play call. It took just one play for Michigan State to move the ball into Michigan territory to start the 2nd half, 8 plays and 54 yd later the Spartan crossed the goal line to go up 14-7.
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.