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September 26, 2013

Maize 'N View: Will Michigan's issues persist?

Michigan's pass rush improved against Connecticut, but its offensive line play and its carelessness with the football did not. Will both concerns remain issues throughout the season? Today I talk about U-M's biggest problems and whether they will persist.

Lack of a pass rush - Real: A year ago, Michigan ranked 78th nationally with 1.69 sacks per game (just 22 on the year), but in the spring and throughout the summer, the excitement grew that the Wolverines would be able to pressure the quarterback with a dominant four-man line.

Junior defensive end Frank Clark and sophomore end Mario Ojemudia were expected breakout players, along with senior tackle Jibreel Black. And a rotation that could go 10 deep was supposed to keep the Maize and Blue fresh, allowing each defender to go hard for three or four plays, and substitute out.

Four games into the season, the defensive line was responsible for 4.5 sacks, barely making its presence felt against the overmatched lines of Central Michigan and Akron before responding with a 3.5-sack effort in a win over Connecticut.

Did that game represent the breakout performance we've been waiting for?

Potentially. Clark recorded two sacks on his own and looked like the explosive player he has shown flashes of while redshirt freshman Chris Wormley played with a fire and intensity we had not seen before.

But one game is not a trend - especially against a UConn line that had already allowed 10 in two games -- and the body of work over the entire non-conference suggests the Maize and Blue will continue to have issues along the defensive line.

If Clark can replicate his effort and with the return of redshirt junior SAM linebacker Jake Ryan, perhaps pass-rush concerns will fade but nine sacks in four contests (2.3 per game) still ranks U-M 39th nationally and has to prove itself capable in back-to-back games, and every week, before we can put this concern to rest.

Clark, after all, has always been an inconsistent player and no one else up front has proven himself a pass-rush threat.

Soft coverage - Imagined: In week two against Notre Dame, Michigan allowed Irish quarterback Tommy Rees to dink and dunk down the field with the intent of minimizing the big plays. The strategy worked, with ND completing five passes of 20 yards or more, but none greater than 23 yards.

The Zips, however, had their way with the Wolverines' secondary, throwing underneath to convert 9 of 18 third downs while going over the top, too, completing six passes of 20 yards or more, including gains of 28, 30, 40 and 43 yards.

Head coach Brady Hoke stated the U-M defensive backs were never supposed to play so soft, but that focus and concentration, and waning confidence, created a scenario in which they doubted their own abilities.

This unit, however, has too many good players and too much experience with three veterans - senior safety Thomas Gordon, junior cornerback Raymon Taylor and redshirt sophomore cornerback Blake Countess - to continue playing timidly.

Against UConn, Michigan allowed a single pass play of 20 yards or more (though it did have a ball thrown over the top that was overturned by replay). With Countess getting better every week, and the competition between Taylor and senior Courtney Avery at the opposite corner heating up, the corners will respond.

Will the safeties? Wilson has that ability but seems to be playing too deep, going along with the philosophy U-M has employed the past two years of keeping everything inside and in front. That works to some degree in preventing big plays (though not entirely as we've seen the past two weeks) but it also limits the safeties' aggressiveness and a reactionary player is usually not as effective as an attacking one.

We'll see if that changes as the coaches develop more trust in their corners and safeties.

QB decision-making - Real: After four games, Gardner was on pace to throw for 2,600 yards and 23 touchdowns (in 13 projected contests), but is also on schedule to throw 26 interceptions. His one pick for every 12.6 passes is an absurd rate that simply cannot be maintained if Michigan expects to qualify for the Big Ten championship.

Gardner was supposed to learn his lesson after a careless pick in the end zone against Notre Dame cost the Wolverines seven points, but he had two ill-advised interceptions (among three) against Akron, another two (and a fumble) against Connecticut, and still seems to believe he can turn every potential negative into a positive.

Gardner is too smart, and too good of a teammate, to continue playing so recklessly, but with another three-turnover effort against the Huskies, including a fumble returned for a touchdown, it has become apparent the redshirt junior just may not know how to get out of his own way.

The positive about the UConn game is that Gardner did not have that inexplicably horrible pass that we had seen the two weeks prior. His first interception came on a poorly-thrown ball, but it wasn't a bad decision. His second interception came on a jump ball that receiver Jehu Chesson should have at least knocked down. So, compared to his picks against ND and Akron, there was no ridiculous interception.

However, the junior QB still made bad decisions, like taking three sacks totaling 42 yards when he could have easily just thrown the ball away. Again, those were plays where he tried to make something out of nothing instead of making the smart choice.

And that's the concern. As long as he continues to feel he has to be superman, well, it will be really hard to break him of that habit.

Inability to run the football - Real: Michigan ranked 54th nationally after four weeks with 194.3 yards rushing per game. However, traditional running backs were responsible for only 104.8 of those yards and were averaging 4.0 yards per rush, with Gardner bringing the overall average up thanks to his clip of 6.1 yards per carry.

This was never supposed to be an offense that needed the quarterback to average 75.2 yards on the ground per game. The entire offseason focus was to create a push with the offensive line to open up holes for tailbacks and fullbacks, and that is not happening consistently.

The interior of the line has struggled at times, which is expected from three first-time starters, but right tackle Michael Schofield is also scuffling. Fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan has even struggled.

Hoke and Lewan have defended redshirt sophomores Graham Glasgow's and Jack Miller's play at left guard and center, respectively, but something about the chemistry is off, and unless there is a shakeup along the line, this unit may not progress enough, forcing Gardner to be the go-to runner and putting him at a greater risk for injury than Michigan can afford.

Head coach Brady Hoke hinted this week that changes could be on their way, but let's not jump to the conclusion that one more or two moves fixes everything. If that was the case, U-M probably would have changed its starting lineup two weeks ago.

Simply put, this remains the biggest question mark and concern because everything starts with the line, and after four games there is no reason to believe the play over the next eight games will be good enough to win the Legends Division.

That is the Wolverines' biggest challenge. The line doesn't have to become one of the conference's best, but it can't be one of the worst and expect to realize its goals of playing for the Big Ten title. It has to be able to create the running room for Fitz Toussaint, and give Gardner time in the pocket.

If the ground game can improve, everything else can fall into place. But until we see it, we can't forecast the vast jump in progression needed.

Position Group Under The Spotlight - Defensive Line

It's not all about sacks, but certainly the lack of QB pressure became a big issue after three games. Kudos to the defensive line for responding in kind with 3.5 of Michigan's four sacks and for an additional three QB hurries.

The most promising aspect of the line's performance against UConn was the abundance of players that put pressure on quarterback Chandler Whitmer. Clark got the numbers with two takedowns, but redshirt freshman tackle Willie Henry was very active, Wormley had his best game, Black continues to show quickness off the snap to get into the offensive backfield and Ojemudia flashed that edge speed that makes him dangerous.

The key, of course, is doing it again next week against Minnesota and the week after that, and one has to wait to see if this group can repeat their performance. There is reason to believe it can after defensive coordinator Greg Mattison simplified their plan of attack, turning his linemen loose, but because few of these guys are experienced veterans with the resume to back it up, we're in wait-and-see mode.

Certainly, there will be inconsistencies, especially with the young players, but that's why guys like Clark, Black and senior tackle Quinton Washington have to lead the way.

Offensive Player of the Week - Fitz Toussaint

When UConn scored off a Gardner fumble to make it 21-7 early in the third quarter, Toussaint had 13 carries for 51 yards (3.9 yards per rush) and the ground game was going backwards with Gardner suffering big losses while trying to avoid sacks.

Toussaint's first three carries after the Huskies' touchdown did not look promising - negative-five yards, four yards, negative-one yard - but then, off a QB option in which Gardner made the correct decision to pitch the ball, Toussaint broke through a hole and then twice cut against the grain, dodging defenders en route to a 35-yarrd TD.

Three carries later, he took a handoff intended to run behind the left guard and tackle, bounced it outside and went into the end zone untouched for a 12-yard score, tying the game at 21-21.

There has been a good number of fans that are anti-Toussaint this year, claiming he dekes and darts too much, abandoning potential holes too quickly, and that he's as much to blame for the poor running game as the offensive line. The latter part of that statement is silly, but he has been known to look for his own crevice.

But show me a great back that doesn't? Are there some ball carriers that are more patient? Yes. But if that was Toussaint, would he be much more successful after four games? We don't know the answer to that. What we do know is that like most backs, Toussaint is looking for the hole that he thinks he can successfully squeeze through en route to a positive gain.

He certainly is shifty, maybe to his disadvantage from time to time, but way more often to his advantage. Ask yourself, how many tailbacks score on the 35-yarder where he literally crisscrosses the entire field? Probably not a lot, while his decision to give up on the hole on the 12-yarder also led to a touchdown.

Toussaint may not be perfect, but he's giving his best effort, and he was the biggest reason why U-M's offense rallied to beat Connecticut.

Defensive Player of the Week - Blake Countess

We'll give it to Countess after he continues to make the strides to become the player he previewed as a freshman in 2011. That player was terrific in coverage, and showed off the instincts to make a play on the football (not always an easy thing to do as evidenced by the past two years) while he never shied away from the physical aspect of football, seemingly taking great pleasure in playing the run.

On Saturday, Countess was stout in coverage, allowing just one bad completion (on UConn's final play) and he was terrific against the run, laying out two Huskies for losses among his four total tackles.

Coach of the Week - Dan Ferrigno

Michigan's tight ends have not been perfect, with sophomore Devin Funchess still a very raw work-in-progress as a blocker, but Ferrigno has helped speed the development of rookie Jake Butt, and the true freshman is making a bigger impact week by week.

On Saturday, Butt had a lone catch for nine yards (good for a first down) but he had a key block on Toussaint's second TD and seems to be able to more than hold his own in the run game.

As this season evolves, Butt will likely become a bigger part of the offense and it will be Ferrigno's job to continue that maturation.

Freshman of the Week - None

Much to our surprise, the freshmen are barely making a dent this season outside of Butt. Tailback Derrick Green has had two carries in the past three games while the defensive backs saw their playing time cut when Avery returned.

In the season opener against Central Michigan, 11 true freshmen saw the field on offense or defense but in week four against Akron only two saw the field offensively or defensively while seven played on special teams.

Special Note of the Week

Sometimes you are reminded just why we love the sport of football and what it means to the young players dreaming of one day being the next Denard Robinson or Mike Hart. Eric Blackmer is one of those kids. I met him over the summer at a backyard BBQ and he couldn't stop talking about football.

When I told him what I did, his eyes got so big and he wanted to know what he had to do to appear in The Wolverine. I told him to go out and score some touchdowns and I'll drop his name. Wouldn't you know, that little promise, unbeknownst to me, has been motivating Eric for months.

In three games this season for the Allendale Rockets, Eric has rushed for six touchdowns, including three in a 20-6 win over West Ottawa.

Even though we often look at college and pro football players as guys doing a job, that must live up to external expectations, we need to remember that at their core, every one of the Wolverines grew up like Eric Blackmer, giddy just to put the helmet and shoulder pads on, smiling from ear to ear when they scored a touchdown.

These men are kids at their core that love to play not for the fans or the adulation or the prospect of going pro, but because they just love it, and we'd all benefit from remembering that.


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