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October 7, 2013Football is about repetition. The best players can execute steps, routes, patterns and reads instantly because of the practice time they put in to the repetition. The object is to get so familiar with a certain action that one section of your body can operate on auto-pilot while another is busy with something else. In every position it's usually that the feet are moving where they need to go while the head and hands are involved with the defender or the ball.
Quarterback Devin Gardner's steps were finally this way. When people say he looked more comfortable in the pocket, it's because of this same repetition. It's comforting to know exactly what's going to happen: 'I'm going to get the ball, the linemen are going to give me four seconds, my reciever is going to run his route, and I'm going to throw him the ball right where he needs it.' It may sound easy but what was different between this game and the previous two is that this plan was solidly executed this week.
Gardner can never be completely sure that his teammates will complete their part of the plan, but this is where trust comes in. It looked like the last couple games, he was so worried that some other part was going to break down that he thought he needed to do something outside of his plan to make up for it. If he thought that the line wasn't going to protect, he needed to get back to his throwing depth quicker, so he changed his steps. But when he changed his steps, he changed his foundation, so part of his body was out of sync, throwing the rest of his actions into chaos.
This game, he was controlling exactly what he could control: his processes. His steps were consistent, as well as his form and follow-through. There were far fewer errant throws this week. When the foundation of the quarterback looks good, he usually looks good, and the same goes for the team. The quarterback is that foundation, and the Michigan offense looked good.
The other foundation of the offense -- the line -- looked pretty good also. There was some switching up with Chris Bryant getting a crack at the left guard.
Of course, there were the little growing pains, like the sack that he gave up on an easy inside move, but for the most part he got hat on a hat. It was also good to see him really coming through on pulls with more authority than we've been getting in the past. We had some success on trap plays this week. In the previous weeks our guards wouldn't come through the hole like they should -- they should be barreling through, blasting whomever is in the way. We got some of that this week. The front side of the line made the hole, and the backside guard, Bryant or Kyle Kalis came through to much success.
Another thing about the line this week that was an improvement was that everyone was coming off the ball as a single unit. This whole season we've been waiting to see the five linemen become one. They made great strides this week. Pass-blocking and blitz pickup were better.
Each lineman is responsible for the gap to their right or left, regardless of who comes through. This gives help if one guy might need it. He doesn't have to worry about an inside move because he knows he has help coming behind him.
Another plus to this scheme is that we'll usually slide the line to the left, giving Gardner a lot of room to his right, his safe side. It also gives him a lane to run or scramble if he needs. Which he did do better at -- his eyes were calmly looking downfield to make a play while his feet were the only thing scrambling.
Getting back to the cohesiveness of the line, coming off the ball is critical in our zone-run game. We had a couple great zone sweeps because the line came off together and each guy picked up his man. This gave lanes, options, to Fitz Toussant, which he exploited. This togetherness is the foundation for the line. Each one has to use his fundamentals every play, in line with the guy next to him, every play.
A lot of teams grade their linemen, giving percentages based on performance. And it's great to have every guy in the 90 percentile, but this means that in a 60-play game, each lineman messed up six plays, and that's 30 plays as a group.
As a lineman, the goal is 100 percent. You may say that is illogical, and too high an expectation, but that's the job. If you make every block except the one that gives up a sack, you're the goat. We are looking for the five best guys on the field. If we have six that want to play, each one will have to be at his best at all times.
This change of positions can be good or bad. We tried out Bryant at left guard, and had success. Sometimes you're asking a guy to do something in a position he's not cut out for. That was a little bit of the problem for Devin Funchess at tight end. We had him blocking, which he wasn't good at, compared to how natural he is running routes. His size range at 6-4, 235 is a little small for a tight end and a little big for a wide receiver. He wasn't suited for blocking interior defenseman linemen. He has size over the corners, and the speed to match. Michigan decided to to use what it has, a mismatch on the outside.
The bye week was a great thing for this team to re-calibrate. We got many things sorted out, proving that it wasn't the other teams that almost beat Michigan, but Michigan almost letting itself lose. These changes worked out this week. We were taking the right steps, we were blocking as a unit; when we're supposed to hit a guy, we hit him hard, and when we need to complete passes, we did 10 for 13 on 3rd down efficiency, zero turnovers, two penalties, all these things are signs of a consistent game on our part.
We're getting into Big Ten season, and it will be more and more difficult as the season progresses. If each player controls what he can control each and every time, then each play will be successful, leading to a win. That's what winning is, repetition.