In my book, we lost this weekend because if one defines a 'win' as Akron not catching a game-winning pass over Michigan then we need to change our goals. It's always the National Championship. We are the leaders. We are the best. We weren't this weekend.
Last week we talked about throwing technique, penetrating defensive lines, and respecting our opponents. All three of these things came back to bite us in the butt this week in what was almost disastrous consequences.
QB Devin Gardner's side-arm throw on the pick-six would have been a first down if he would have used proper form. An overhand throw should arc over the defender.
When their defensive line tried to go man-to-man we shut them down, but when they shot the gaps, we couldn't stop them.
And the final point is respecting our opponent and it was evident by the score and everyone's blood pressure that we did not.
Starting with the offensive line, our young linemen need to work on picking up twists and slants. The basic idea is that a defense needs to have one man for every gap. Being "gap sound" will effectively stop the run given that each player gets to their gap and makes the tackle.
Slants and twists are ways for the defense to get creative in their gap assignments. A slant is when all four start in their own respective gap, then on the snap each goes directly to the gap to their right (or left). This is a gamble and the tell is that the safeties will be heavy on the back side of the slant to protect against a big gain if the strategy fails.
Twists are more for pass rushing. They are two-man stunts by the defensive line to occupy two offensive lineman in the hopes of confusing the linemen and freeing the second defender for a clear shot on the quarterback. There is always a penetrator trying to shoot the gap and draw attention, and the looper that is trying to get in free.
Using a defensive end and tackle as an example, the tackle would shoot for the shoulder of the offensive tackle, creating a situation in which he grabbed the attention of both the guard and tackle. The defensive end would then hopefully come around the corner unscathed or attack the middle past the guard.
The 'tell' for this is that the linemen will usually line up a little closer together, the tackle will have more weight on his hand, and the end will have less. Each part making it a little easier for the defenders to do their respective jobs.
The key to defeating slants and twists is communication and head landmarks. As an offensive lineman, you never want someone crossing your face. It means they are in control. If we are in control, we will always have our head between the defender and the ball. In runs, our head will be tight to their body, and in pass it should be separated, but the landmark is always the same.
Communication comes in when someone recognizes a tell and sees it coming, giving us the advantage. You also need communication on stunts so that you switch blocking responsibilities and get their head on the right guy so that someone is not coming unblocked.
To Michigan's credit, mainly the credit of OL coach Darrell Funk, who did a good job seeing the problem and fixing it, Michigan did get with the program towards the end. Still, too many times we let someone cross our face, allowing penetration that either stuffed our running backs or caused Gardner to be on the move when he should have had a pocket to stand in.
Over the first two weeks, I thought our quarterback threw bad balls to avoid taking big hits. Against the Zips, I thought he had more time, with the running backs even helping out in pass protection, and Gardner was still off the mark. His throws are errant because he doesn't use his technique every time. He'll throw one sidearm, then off his back foot, then blindly lob one in the air. Finally, when he gets a good pocket and plenty of time his form suffers because of lack of consistency.
He needs to hone his form so that it's the same every time. When you have that strong foundation, you know exactly what needs to change on errors. When your foundation is sand, there's no distinct place to start correcting mistakes and you have to change everything each time, which is far more difficult to do, and coach. Thus, there will inevitably be interceptions. The key for Gardner is to control what he can control. A tipped-ball interception happens, but his pick-sixes have occurred because of poor decision-making and sloppy form.
There is a spectrum in football players that ranges between concentration and motivation. Defensive linemen need less concentration and more motivation. Do whatever it is or isn't in your brain to get to that ball. On the contrary, a quarterback reading a defense needs almost all concentration. Emotions can cloud his judgement. You always want a calm and collected quarterback, but not so in your nose guard.
This pendulum can shift in the span of a single play as well. Wide receivers need to do what it takes to run the route, but then clear their mind of everything but that football staying in their hands, and then immediately refocus on doing whatever it takes to get downfield again.
With linemen, you need a moment to figure out your bearings and then you cannot let hell stand in your way of getting there.
Having the perfect amount of concentration and motivation isn't easy. It takes years of practice, and a special mindset. Some people just don't have the 'switch' for whatever reason. They could look like Tarzan, but play like Jane. It's usually because of too much concentration.
The hardest part of motivation, especially for younger players, is having it when you don't think you need it. You always need it. Of course it's easy to get up for Notre Dame -- they're a huge rival and a great team. The hard part is having it for a team that hasn't won on the road in 50 games.
Winning is the single greatest motivation.
If Brady Hoke put up a 'L' in the team room next to Akron no one should be surprised. It's easy to forget a close W. It's said that wisdom is about avoiding mistakes, but only comes from making them. The Akron game was a too close of a win, but we can learn from it to prevent any future close losses.