October 15, 2011

Post-game analysis: MSU dominates Wolverines

Michigan lost its fourth straight game to Michigan State for a lot of reasons Saturday but one matchup stood out more than others - U-M's offensive line was flat-out dominated by MSU's front seven ...

Q: Is Michigan State's defensive line that much better than Michigan's offensive line?

A: The simple answer ... yes. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy is a first-round talent for a reason. He's mean, and nasty, and most importantly, powerful. He's stronger than any lineman Michigan could try to block him with, but Worthy is one man, and one man can be neutralized. The Spartans' front four is a front four, though. Tackle Kevin Pickelman, and ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush are big and strong, and confident.

This defensive line believes its better than its opponent, especially Michigan, which it quietly mocked sources shared. They felt there was no way they wouldn't steamroll through the Wolverines' offensive line, and they were right.

So how'd that happen? It starts with an offensive line that, with two exceptions, was recruited to run a spread offense, and for which all five starters spent the majority of their careers learning how to outquick the men opposite them. Behind closed doors, the coaches were telling some U-M's linemen simply aren't strong enough, powerful enough, tough enough yet, and they're stuck repeating bad habits snap after snap, like blocking with their upper body instead of their legs.

Michigan's current coaches went to work immediately last winter to bulk up the line, put mass and muscle on the Wolverines so that days like Saturday never happened. But they knew it would be a long journey and that at some point this fall, the lack of maulers up front could be a problem against a physically-imposing defensive line, which State has.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. A week ago, the offensive line struggled to create much of a push against Northwestern's front four, and if not for a pair of 25-yard Denard Robinson runs (one on a broken play), U-M's rushing total would have been far lower than it was. Robinson, in fact, has largely covered up Michigan's deficiencies up front, needing just a sliver to go for 10 yards consistently.

Put those ingredients together and trouble was brewing. Add one more facet - MSU knew Michigan's snap count, and exploited that knowledge significantly in the second half. State safety Trenton Robinson, when asked by TheWolverine.com, acknowledged that the Spartans knew from film that when center David Molk lowered his head and then picked it back up, he was about to snap the football, and they charged hard with their linebackers, bringing pressure, it seemed, on every second-half snap.

Imagine standing up to a tidal wave every play - that's essentially what the offensive line, already at a disadvantage, faced.

Q: How does a team figure something like that out without the offense adjusting?

A: Good question, especially since U-M's staff was notified prior to the game that State had dissected the snap-count triggers each of the past two seasons. Early in the game, Michigan used a hard count successfully, Robinson noted, but in the second half, the Wolverines went back to head down, head up snap, and the Green and White were all over it. It is a failure of all involved to not be aware the signs (like in a baseball game) had been picked, and adjust accordingly.

Q: So you're saying this game wasn't on quarterback Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner?

A: No one on offense is absolved of blame. Robinson was under considerable duress and certainly didn't respond to the pressure well. He routinely tried to dump off passes that had no business being thrown and were a pick waiting to happen. But he was trying to make a play against all odds, and because he had been so successful so many times before, he thought he could find a way yet again.

Robinson has to do a better job completing the passes that are there, though. He again overthrew receivers, missed wide-open targets, and generally just looked out of sorts. Gardner didn't fare much better, which should quiet the talk he needs to be playing instead of Robinson, while the running game went nowhere.

As for that running game, and running Robinson more ... folks can clamor all they want, but when the offensive line is getting blown off the ball as badly as U-M's was, the opportunity for success is nonexistent. The only productive running play Michigan had was when Robinson took a handoff from Gardner on a faux reverse, and there was seemingly a chance there to go the distance, but it didn't happen.

Offensive coordinator Al Borges is also on the hook here. He obviously made one of the strangest play-calls we've seen in a Michigan game in a long time, calling for a play-action fake on a 4th-and-inches at the MSU nine-yard line, and his inability to counter the pressure was a grave shortcoming. One of U-M's most effective plays this season has been the screen pass, and yet it was nowhere to be seen Saturday, with no good explanation why not.

Essentially, the play of the offense was subpar, and everyone that stepped on the field and every coach on the sideline or in the box was responsible.

Q: About that play call?

A: What is there to say? It simply made no sense. For all of Michigan's shortcomings offensively, here it was, game there to be tied late in the fourth quarter, another miracle outcome that had fallen into the Wolverines' lap and then ...

Q: What happened to the Michigan State offensive line being a weakness?

A: While the overwhelming thought was that this O-Line was ready to be had, the Spartans themselves said the front five had grown up a lot in its past two games, and was ready for a breakout game. They were right. The offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage against a Michigan defensive line that also disappointed. However, U-M's far bigger issue was perimeter defense - its linebackers and cornerbacks doing a poor job keeping containment.

Three of Michigan's top four tacklers Saturday were defensive backs. That just can't be. U-M's linebacker play has been far too inconsistent this season with redshirt junior middle linebacker Kenny Demens failing to make the impact expected of him. Jake Ryan is hit or miss, as you'd expect from a redshirt freshman, and junior Brandin Hawthorne is too small to win the battles he has to against a physical offensive line.

Again, give some credit to Michigan State. Its offensive line heard the criticism all week and rallied to overcome, while tailback Edwin Baker, who now has 100-yard efforts against U-M in back-to-back seasons, had his best game of the year, and quarterback Kirk Cousins shook off all the talk that he wasn't meeting expectations this year, managing an extremely efficient effort.

Few folks wanted to admit the possibility that the Spartans were the better team, but Saturday, they proved they absolutely are.

That hurts, and any Spartan that thinks the Wolverines don't care about this game is sorely mistaken. Every U-M fan I spoke to after the loss, and that was a lot of them through texts, emails, phone calls, and on the message board, were upset.

Q: Is Michigan on the brink of another second-half collapse?

A: No. This team has, until this week, improved game-by-game, and will continue to get better. This squad is good enough to beat Purdue and win two of its final four, especially since each of its November foes has serious flaws. Don't expect U-M to win any fewer than eight games; there are just too many winnable games remaining on the schedule.

However, even if Michigan wins eight or nine games, it may not be as good as its record. Not yet anyway. The Wolverines are probably two to four years away from having the talent and the experience to be a great team.

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