November 12, 2009

Behind enemy lines: Michigan

MADISON - Michigan opened the season with four straight wins and had many of its fans looking forward to a resurgence following a disastrous 2008 season. But, since opening with four wins, the Wolverines have gone 1-5 and are currently battling to become bowl eligible down the stretch run.

Looking to find out more about Michigan, went straight to the source, team writer Michael Spath, who provided some insights from behind enemy lines.

Read Spath's thoughts about the Wolverines here…

1.) Michigan is the only team in the country with two true freshman quarterbacks topping its depth chart. Now, 10 games through the season, are the Wolverine coaches happy with the production both Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson have generated this year? And is the 5-5 record maybe indicative, or to be expected, with two very young quarterbacks under center?

Spath: Rich Rodriguez has admitted he's very impatient so he has to constantly remind himself he's starting a pair of rookies. I think the coaches have been largely happy with their production but certainly believe there are probably a handful of key plays in every game maybe a veteran would have made and could be the difference between a 5-5 mark and an 8-2 or 7-3 record at this point.

But that's letting the defense off the hook, and really, when you're looking for an explanation as to why this team has struggled recently, it all falls on the defense. The offense scored 36 points a week ago, but the defense yielded 38 and a career passing performance to Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott[/db[….yeah, the same Elliott that completed 5-of-23 attempts against Wisconsin.

The freshmen quarterbacks are probably giving as much as one should have expected from someone their age. Have they been as good as they could be? No, but they're not the reason Michigan is struggling.

2.) Kind of stemming off the first question, obviously there is a great amount of pride associated with Michigan football. So needless to say these past two seasons have been rough for Wolverine fans. How are they reacting to another season of mediocre football and how do they view Rodriguez and the way he's running the program? And if they were to miss another bowl game, what kind of effect would it have on the future for Rodriguez?

Spath: They're not reacting well, especially since Michigan was 4-0 at one point and has gone 1-5 in its last six with humiliating losses to Illinois and Purdue the past two weeks.

We were just talking about this recently….how could U-M lose to the two worst teams in the Big Ten when everybody else was stomping them? And then it dawned on us - because the Wolverines are the worst team in the Big Ten.

Before the year began, most fans were expecting 7-5, and 6-6 as the very low end. After going 4-0 they were talking about 8-4 or 9-3 campaign and expectations went wild. Certainly, U-M could still go 6-6 if it could beat Wisconsin or Ohio State (though few believe that possible), but it's more likely Michigan will go 5-7 and finish the year 1-7 in its last eight. If that is the case, then 2009 was a complete and utter failure."

3.) [db]Brandon Graham[/db[ is one of the nation's elite defensive ends. What is it about him that allows for such high success and what can Wisconsin do to kind of keep him out of the backfield?

Spath: Hold him. Honestly, that's not sour grapes but he gets held a lot and it is rarely called. That happens against the great ones. I've seen film on Wisconsin and Purdue this year and both [db]O'Brien Schofield[/db[ and [db]Ryan Kerrigan get held a ton and it goes uncalled. The great ones, which they are and Graham is, find a way to work through that, but it certainly limits how effective they can be down after down.

So, if you're looking for a legal way to slow him down, the most effective way so far has been to max protect with a tackle and tight end on Graham's side. He has an outstanding motor and he is powerful - he reminds me a little of Reggie White in that manner because he loves to knock blockers off balance with a crushing blow and then take down the quarterback.

He also has surprising quickness off the snap and will use his speed rush at least a few times per game. I would suggest that whoever he matches up wit - and he will jump to either side of the line - brings his best on every play because the moment he takes on play off, Graham will get to the QB or ball carrier.

4.) I see two running backs closing in on the 500-yard mark. Is that by design? Have the coaches always been fine with a rotation of two backs this year or was it more of one guy or the other not stepping up to be the main guy?

Spath: At West Virginia they certainly employed multiple backs, like Steve Slaton and Noel Devine, along with quarterback Pat White, and were determined to maximize all the talent they had. That is the case this year too. They like what Brandon Minor brings as a big, physical, between-the-tackles runner, but they also like Carlos Brown's home-run potential.

However, this stat is a tad misleading because of injuries. Both Minor and Brown have missed games this year and while they might be able to coexist at running back in the same game, most often one has been available when the other has not, and vice versa.

For instance, Minor has 10 or more carries in five games this year while he has missed two contests and has five or less carries (limited by injury) in three games. Brown has 10 or more carries in four contests, three being games in which Minor has either missed or has been severely limited. So it's really about whichever back is healthy that particular week.'

5.) Finally, how do you see this game going down?

Spath: I don't see it ending well for Michigan. I think the Wolverines will be able to hang with Wisconsin for most of the game, but the Maize and Blue defense allows four or five big plays and those have just been killers.

I know the Badgers are not a quick-strike offense, but everyone is a quick-strike offense against U-M. So I look for those plays to again be the difference, and for UW's defense to shut Michigan's offense down enough to win by two touchdowns.

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