Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The "D" is Back in Ann Arbor

Entering the Vanderbilt game last Saturday, the Michigan offense and defense had the same amount of uncertainty. If you look at the offense and defense in terms of value from 0-100 they were both about 75 out of 100 entering the season. Each unit had talented players who hadn’t fulfilled their potential for one reason or another in their respective careers. Each unit had the potential to be good or below average this season. After one game, one unit is way up (the D) and the other unit is slightly down (the O). The “D” is back in Ann Arbor and it has everything to do with the departure of former Defensive Coordinator/sabotage artist Jim Herrmann. If the “D’s” value was 75 entering Saturday, it’s about an 88 right now. Only so much can be gained from a game against Vanderbilt but Michigan looked about as good as a defense can look in an opener. Saturday was the first Michigan game I have been able to attend in six years thanks to my dawg Nick. Michigan doesn’t play any home or away games in Germany so I’ve had to sit by patiently until this day arrived. Watching LaMarr Woodley and Rondell Biggs terrorize Vandy’s QB was like 1997 revisited for me. It got to the point where I was anticipating a sack or a hurry on every play. It has been years since I’ve had that feeling. In fact, I was hoping that the offense would punt so the defense could get back on the field. I haven’t felt like that in a long, long time. It was awesome to watch.

On the other hand, the offense was not awesome to watch. If it entered Saturday with a value of 75, it ended Saturday with a value closer to 73 and that has very little to do with the players. Michigan went into the tunnel at halftime surrounded by a chatter of boos from the UM faithful. While some people take issue with this, I have no problem with it. While some players (Steve Breaston, Mike Massey etc.) dropped catch-able balls, the boos were sent towards the direction of the offensive play calling. Michigan could’ve/should’ve scored 30 points in the first half against a weary Vandy defense. Instead of an array of horizontal passes and lame play calls, Michigan fans were begging for downfield passes and some semblance of creativity. Unfortunately, Chad Henne was blamed for a lot of what went down on Saturday. Henne is a quarterback. His job is to be good at throwing the football. Other than the waggle, Henne was rarely allowed to throw the ball downfield. He had a pass dropped by Massey that would’ve been good for a touchdown. I was in the corner of the end zone where the drop occurred and the ball was a 9 out of 10 at least in terms of accuracy. The drop was on Massey. Henne also had a pass on third and long dropped by Mario Manningham that would’ve been good for a first and goal. When Henne was allowed to do what he’s supposed to do, he did his job. Unfortunately, new/old Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord handcuffed Michigan’s passing game all afternoon.

In contrast to how the rest of the game unfolded offensively, the first quarter was a clinic on how to run the ball effectively against a weak defense. Mike Hart is the best UM running back I have ever seen. He is so good it’s hard to describe. He never, ever goes down on the first hit. The only thing keeping Hart from being the best running back I’ve ever seen period is his average speed. The rest of the country has no idea how good Hart is. The Offensive Line seemed to do well with zone blocking schemes in the first half but it is hard to tell how much better Hart made them look than they actually were. Regardless, the results were encouraging. The play that worked so well for Michigan’s 1997 National Championship is back and as effective as ever. In the same way Brian Griese repeatedly found Jerame Tuman on the waggle, Henne found Tyler Ecker. The best part about that play is that while everyone is screaming for the quarterback to throw the ball to a wide open receiver, everyone is not screaming the same name. There are three wide receivers open on that play almost every time. It’s fun to watch because a good pass usually means a big play.

While the waggle was effective, Michigan’s horizontal passing game was abysmal. It could be argued that Michigan was trying to avoid letting Notre Dame see too much of the game plan but there are a few reasons why I do not believe this to be the case. 1). The Notre Dame game isn’t for two weeks. If Michigan were really trying to keep Notre Dame from seeing too much in terms of game-plan, Michigan would have to sit on its true game-plan for two full games. Also, that would mean that they would be “opening” the playbook in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans in South Bend. 2). This theory has been suggested in years past and it never happens. Every year, the Notre Dame game arrives and Michigan does the same old stuff. 3). Lloyd Carr would not allow Michigan to avoid specific areas just because of one game. The bottom line is that what you saw on Saturday is what Michigan is all about. DeBord didn’t throw downfield all that often in 1997 either. Michigan fans are just going to have to get used to it.

It’s frustrating to watch USC and Louisville because they spread the defense by throwing downfield. It doesn’t take a prolific passer to do it either. It only takes a desire by the coaching staff. John David Booty thrived in his first game just like Matt Leinart thrived in his first game. The USC coaching staff attacks weak secondaries. The Michigan coaching staff lets weak secondaries off the hook. When run correctly, athletic wide receivers (which Michigan always has) can get open on every play with precise route running. I still remember how great David Terrell and Plaxico Burress were at running routes when they were in college. They were unstoppable. Michigan receivers don’t run routes like Terrell used to run anymore. Even Braylon Edwards was forced to catch his fair share of one yard patterns and wide receiver screens. Each of those plays is designed for the receiver to gain yards after the catch. Considering how inefficient these plays have been for Michigan over the past fives years, one would think that Carr would abandon that plan. Unfortunately, I think Carr is so petrified of Henne (or anyone else) throwing an interception that he just abandons the passing game all together so nothing, good or bad, can happen. That’s also why Michigan is so good at coming back from large deficits. Large deficits force Michigan to throw the ball downfield which they are inherently good at in the same way that USC, Louisville, Ohio St. and any other big time college football program are good at it. It’s almost as if Michigan has to be losing before Carr allows Michigan to play its best football.

I wish Carr would watch film of teams that throw the ball downfield. It works. The NFL would snicker at Michigan’s passing game. Almost every pass in the NFL (other than a screen) is downfield. Michigan’s passing game is so dated that I can’t name another major college or pro team that avoids throwing downfield as much as Michigan does. It’s maddening as a fan and debilitating to the team as a philosophy.

Luckily for Michigan fans, the defense appears to be motivated beyond words. They were ready to go on Saturday and I think that’ll carry over from week to week. It’s always better to have a great defense with an average offense than a great offense and an average defense. Michigan has lost three and four games a year over the last decade because of the latter. Conversely they won the National Championship because of the former. This year, the defense should be very good. If Carr and DeBord (the anti-pass-mites) keep limiting the offense as much as they did on Saturday, Michigan will have a hard time beating Notre Dame and Ohio St. The talent is there. Henne can throw. Manningham can catch. If the staff let’s this happen, Michigan could be dynamite this season.

The only question mark that remains on the defense is the secondary. The DB’s get a grade of incomplete because Vandy simply didn’t throw the ball enough to adequately grade the pass defense. It remains to be seen what will happen when Michigan plays against an offensive line that buys its quarterback more time. If the DL can put as much pressure on every team as they did against Vandy, then it won’t matter how good the DB’s are. However, every secondary is tested at some point or another. If the Michigan DB’s aren’t better than in previous years, they will cost their team at least one game. Central Michigan will give a better indication on how good the DB’s are since they run a crazy hurry up offense. Even though CMU isn’t that great, if Michigan holds Central to 200 yards passing or less, then you’ll know the DB’s are for real.


The changes for running the clock made by the NCAA will have a “domino” effect on college football. Statistics before 2006 will not be comparable to statistics after 2006. The playing time lost to the rule changes amounts to something near a full game over a 12 game schedule. Clearly, this will give the advantage to college athletes from the past. MLB didn’t change records or hand out asterisks when it moved to a 162 game schedule (from a 154 game schedule). Likewise, college football will not create new standards to acknowledge the reduction in playing time. This is good news for current record holders and bad news for current players. It might not sound like a big deal, but a four year running back that averages 125 yards per game will lose out on 500 yards over his career. Breaking the all-time rushing record is hard enough but doing it with a 500 yard handicap is almost impossible.

Another byproduct of the new “clock” rules should be a reduction in point spreads. With close to 10% less plays, even the best offenses will suffer on the scoreboards. I didn’t notice much of a difference after the first week but isn’t it logical to think that a 10% reduction in plays would equate to a reduction in points as well? The argument could be made that both teams are affected by the rule change so the point spread wouldn’t change but good teams stand to lose a lot more in terms of points than bad teams. Bad teams don’t score all that many points against good teams anyway so there might not be much of a difference in terms of how many points bad teams score. I guess we’ll see how things unfold soon enough.

Lastly, the new rules will cripple the amount of fourth quarter comebacks over the course of the year. In tight games, the rule changes won’t make as much of a difference. However, in games with bigger deficits, it will be hard for teams to make up those deficits with a 10% reduction in game time.

The NCAA made these rule changes to make the games more “watchable”. Apparently they were concerned that they were boring fans with 3h:30m of the most exciting sport in the world. I can’t name one person; a coach, a player, or a fan, that has ever complained about the length of a college football game.

At the very least, the 10% reduction in playing time should help the pro-playoff crowd get what they want. Presidents and Athletic Directors can no longer complain about the 12-game schedule when the time reduction basically renders the season an 11-game schedule. I even heard Lloyd Carr say at his press conference on Labor Day that the reduction in time should aid in getting a playoff because a 12-game slate can no longer be used as an excuse since it’s really an 11-game slate in disguise.

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