Michigan dropped its first Big Ten conference game Saturday night because it was woefully unprepared for the loss of its best player. Few teams will operate seamlessly without their starting quarterback, but that doesn't explain how a team with league title aspirations could be so inept without Denard Robinson under center.
From backup quarterback Russell Bellomy, to wide receiver and tailback teammates that failed him, and lousy play-calling and decision-making on the sidelines, Michigan lost this game as a team.
Why wasn't Devin Gardner given a shot to play quarterback?
The decision to go to Bellomy was not unexpected and wasn't the wrong call. The Texan had been receiving the No. 2 snaps all season, and is this team's backup QB, however, that plan was predicated on two considerations.
First, that Devin Gardner would be wasted as a clipboard-carrying signal-caller this season and absolutely had to make a position move to add a play-making dimension to this offense. And second, that Robinson, while dinged up throughout his career, was a durable quarterback that would maybe have to sit out a series, or a few series, but never an extensive amount of time.
Certainly, there is no arguing with the decision to play Gardner at wide receiver this season. Up until Saturday, the plan was working, with the junior making a significant impact, much more of an impact than he would have made backing up Robinson.
However, this plan is also grounded on Bellomy being able to step into the huddle if needed and direct the offense, providing Michigan at least a reasonable chance to be successful. It became clear very quickly Saturday, he simply isn't in a position to do so.
Of course, his teammates didn't help, dropping balls that could have provided him confidence, while the offensive line and running backs gave him nothing, but still, it became painfully obvious that Bellomy wasn't ready for such an important moment.
So should coach Brady Hoke have used Gardner at QB?
The rationale is that Gardner hasn't been seeing enough reps to execute the offense, and would be an even greater liability than Bellomy turned out to be. While that consideration works in theory, the simple fact is Bellomy was 3 for 16 with three interceptions, was in over his head and wasn't giving Michigan a chance anyway.
Maybe Gardner under center is a complete failure, but then, he couldn't have fared any worse than Bellomy, and because of his experience a year ago at Illinois - when he led U-M to a victory sans an injured Robinson - he just may have been able to provide a spark.
Again, this isn't a column condemning Bellomy. He might still develop into a decent quarterback for Michigan, but he wasn't ready for the role he was handed Saturday. Even then, his teammates didn't help him at all. Both junior wideout Jeremy Gallon and senior tailback Vincent Smith dropped well-thrown balls early in the second half at a moment that could have instilled Bellomy with confidence, and moved the chains. Instead, they robbed him of that, and turned the football over, giving Nebraska momentum.
In a situation like that, the veterans have to rally around a young kid in an impossible predicament, and his teammates let him down.
How much blame falls on the coaches for this loss?
Considerable. Certainly it is no easy task to go on the road, in a hostile environment, and play for the first time, but Bellomy seemed unprepared for his responsibility, and when it became clear he couldn't get it done, a switch should have been made. Even a desperate one.
But then, Michigan's staff is reluctant to make personnel changes. Some of that is good - they're willingness to show faith in players has had tremendous benefit for athletes (like kicker Brendan Gibbons) - but sometimes they remain steadfastly committed to a player that isn't performing, like redshirt junior tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint or Smith, who combined for 32 yards rushing on 19 carries (1.7 yards per rush).
Michigan's staff admires those two, and stay with them because they're complete backs that can pick up blitzes, catch the ball out of the backfield and understand the entire playbook, but their primary responsibility is to gain yards, and neither has been able to this year.
Maybe sophomore Thomas Rawls isn't the answer. Maybe Gardner isn't the answer. But they both deserved the chance.
How would you rate the play-calling offensively?
Tough to agree with it even before Robinson went down with an injury. Michigan's reliance on the run has become an over-reliance, turning predictable for defenses that know to expect a first-down run, and usually a second-down run, both typically read-option plays with Robinson.
Michigan's screen pass to Gallon was snuffed out by the Cornhuskers yet the Wolverines went back to it again, resulting in a negative play.
Essentially, Michigan appeared to use the same game plan it did a week ago against Michigan State - one that tried at all costs to avoid turnovers, relying on a too simplistic, too foreseeable game plan that lacked balance and creativity and didn't try to exploit a defense no where near the caliber of the Spartans'.
What happened defensively in the second half?
Likely feeling the game entirely on their shoulders, the Maize and Blue buckled. Their vaunted pass defense came unglued, allowing for a few big plays, largely, it seemed, in zone coverage, with Michigan's linebackers failing to drop far enough and its safeties dropping too far, creating safe havens for Nebraska's receivers and tight ends.
The discipline in the front seven, with gap-assignment football, and rallying defenders to the ball carrier, disappeared almost entirely, with the Cornhuskers gutting U-M on the ground in the second half.
It certainly didn't help that Michigan controlled the football for only 10:37 in the second half or that the offense turned the ball over three times, but the defense had a chance to rise up and instead folded.
What does this loss mean for the Big Ten race?
It means Michigan fans have to become Michigan State fans next week and root for the Spartans to beat the Cornhuskers. And then U-M has to win out, beating Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa, and Ohio State to have a legitimate chance to go to Indianapolis for the title game.
The Wolverines controlled their own fate entering Saturday, but they squandered that away and now need some help, which is never a good feeling for a team.
The championship opportunity isn't completely gone, but it will be if Robinson cannot return next week. Far more than the overall race, his health is the biggest concern because without him, the Maize and Blue will be at risk for multiple losses the rest of the season.
...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now for a FREE Trial