A belated view of the Air Force game….

I’m sorry for the late post, but this has been a challenging week for this occupant of Section 9.  A tooth problem took me out of action for a couple of days and real life then intruded as I played catch up.

Last week we had the opportunity to see Michigan take on the triple-option attack of Air Force.  The short of it is that we escaped with a win when we finally stepped up and figured out how to stop the option in the 4th quarter, got a couple of key stops and held on for the victory.  It was far from pretty!

Pregame from section 9 was awesome as it really felt good to get back into the Big House and see and feel the experience.  The crowd showed up early, perhaps thanks to the new student loyalty program, or perhaps because of the expectation of a flyover. Between the Bald Eagle’s entrance and the B-2 Stealth Bomber flyover, I think they may have stolen the show.

Now on to the game.  Once again we have a limited number of things to actually cheer about.  Let’s talk about the positives first and then we can talk about the flip side of the performance.  Once again, I think special teams were the highlight of the day.  The kicking game is solid, coverage teams were solid and the kickoff return game was electric.  I’m still looking forward to a kickoff return going for a TD. I rather expect that may happen this week against UMass.  If nowhere else, perhaps you read it here first in this prediction.

On the offensive side of the board, it was Denard or nothing.  Denard kept us in this game with his running game and a sharper passing game.  On the ground Denard was not able to make any progress on the designed runs, just like any of the other backs.  He was however able to use his athleticism and vision to find the cutback lanes and turn them into big gains.  This was the difference in the football game.  Without Denard’s 200+ yard rushing performance, we might have been mourning another loss to a 2nd tier team.  This game also marked the emergence of Devin Funchess.  As a freshman tightend he is not the big blocking back, but he was impressive in his ability to get open, and we went up and made a great catch for a 30-yard TD.  He is another freshman that is making an impact on this team and it really bodes well for the future.   He had the first 100+ yard game from a Tight End since Jerame Tuman did it in the 1997 season (15 years!).   He won’t be the big blocking tight end, although we have another TE, A.J. Williams that is showing a lot of promise in helping to fill that role.  Devin Gardner continues to grow and shine in the wide receiver role.  He has become Denard’s favorite target as he is able to use his larger frame to get good position on smaller defenders.  He was targeted 8 times and had 5 receptions on Saturday.  Funchess and Gardner are going to have to help carry us to victories once we get to the Big Ten season.

On the defensive side of the ball, there wasn’t much to talk about other than Jake Ryan.  Jake took on the #47 legends jersey before the game, and the spirit of Bennie Oosterbaan helped carry him to new heights on the defensive side of the ball.  He still had issues helping to defend the triple-option early, but a lot of that was not having support from his teammates.  He was a key player on the defensive side of the ball and helped key the big stops in the 4th quarter.  Freshman Linebacker Joe Bolden also came up with 11 tackles in the game.  If you haven’t noticed the theme, there are a lot of freshman making impacts in these games which is good for the long term, but also shows a potential weakness for this year.

For a game against Air Force, I thing that we should have had a lot more highlights to talk about.  There seem to be a lot more negatives than positives to talk about.  Let’s start with the offense.  The offensive line once again proved ineffective at creating holes at the point of attack.  It’s not that our backs couldn’t hit the holes, there just weren’t any to run into.  We have to find a way to open holes at the point of attack.  As long as we can’t create a traditional running game, we are going to struggle offensively.  As the season wears on and Denard takes more and more hits, our dependence on him for our offensive production is going to take its toll.  We also need more out of our leaders on the offensive side of the ball.  Fitz Toussaint and Roy Roundtree were non-factors in this game.  We need contributions from these guys to take the pressure off of Denard.  Seven yards on 8 carries and 1 catch for 5 yards are not going to cut it.

On the defensive side of the ball, I recognize that we aren’t going to see the triple-option again and year and most of preparation had been for Alabama, but the counter action alone is enough to get other coaches excited after watching game film.  Time and again our linebackers bit on the counter flow and then were easily walled off from the option going the other way.  We finally picked up on this in the 4th quarter, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the upcoming weeks if we see a steady diet of counter action running plays to test our defensive front 7.   In addition, our defensive backs were mostly untested in the Air Force game and will have to shore up their coverage in the games ahead.  The alternative is that we could be in for some big plays against us by teams that have playmaker receivers and quarterbacks.

The one weak area of special teams is definitely our punt receiving game.  On one punt this week we gave up 23 yards of field position because we didn’t just fair catch the ball.  We need to have a game plan on when we’re going to field the ball (outside the 10?) and when we’re going to let it go (inside the 10?).  We don’t seem to have a game plan for this, and/or we aren’t executing it at all.  In an otherwise bright special teams performance, this is one big ugly stain.

Overall again I think the Wolverines were lucky to escape with a win and while the game against Umass should be a confidence builder, we are going to have to execute much better against Notre Dame in a couple of weeks.  This is the way I see it from Section 9.  I’m including a couple of pictures for the visual view from Section 9 as well.  See you earlier next week with my view of the Umass game!

It was brutal!

On Saturday evening, I settled onto the couch to watch the opener between Michigan and Alabama.  To be honest, my predicted score was 35-31 Alabama.  My prediction was based on the fact that I was nervous about our Defensive Line, but felt that we would be able to score points against an Alabama defense that had new faces at just about every position.  I was wrong!

One thing you’ll figure out about me is that I’ve always been one of those guys that will stick with the team to the brutal end.  No turning off the TV, or leaving the game early because we are losing.  I’ll be there when we win 49-0 and I’ll be there when we get shutout.  It really doesn’t matter.  If I were a quitter, this would have been one of those games where you would want to turn the game off early.

Let’s talk about the bright side of the game first.  From my point of view, having an opportunity to play the defending national champion in the opening game, rather than Eastern Michigan or Delaware State is a good thing.  We learn a lot about our team by how we play, even if it’s ugly.  We also saw some pretty good special teams play.  Some of our worst nightmares in the past few years have been on special teams, but I think overall the Special teams played well.  Kickoff returns were exciting and I think we can look forward to at least one return for a touchdown this year after watching Dennis Norfleet run with the ball.  Kickoffs were almost always touchbacks which I’ll take every time, even with the new placement on the 25.  The punt coverage was pretty good and the punting itself was awesome even if it out kicked the coverage once or twice.  Maybe the only concern with special teams might be our decision making process on catching kicks inside the 20.

As for the rest of the game, brutal is about the only word I had to describe it.  Let’s break it down into two categories.  First, the offense.  On the offensive side of the ball, I think that Sabin and the Alabama coaching staff made it clear that they were going to stop the run and depend on their coverage for the rest.  You notice I say coverage.  Specifically I don’t think that they were in any way depending on a pass rush.  I rarely agree with Kirk Herbstreet, but I think I heard him say more than once that Alabama was building a wall against the run, and they were effective at doing that.  They were filling every gap and containing well.  They weren’t rushing their ends in pash rush style, rather just collapsing down to contain Denard and the running backs.  I was disappointed that we really didn’t find a way to counteract this in the second half.  We did go vertical a little bit, but the vertical game doesn’t really match Denard very well or our current group of receivers.  The one play I wished the coaching staff would have tried was to line up with trips and run the bubble screen just to see if we could spring something outside.  It felt like if we could find a way to attack the outside we might have been able to loosen things up inside.  Any of the plays we ran to the outside were just too slow to develop with the speed of the Alabama defense.

On the defensive side of the ball, I was nervous about how our line was going to fare against the monster line that Alabama had lined up against us.  Early on I thought we did ok, but as the game wore on, the lack of depth on the defensive line really started to show as we wore down.  Overall, I think our tackling was once again on the suspect side, often giving up 2 or 3 broken tackles before the ball carrier was brought down.  Losing Blake Countess at the beginning of the game was huge and his absence was felt as Alabama attacked our corners leading to the early deficit.  We’re going to have to have some of the team step up in the defensive backfield.

The overall good news of the game is that we learned that we have a long way to go, and we now know what we need to work on and improve.  We have measured ourselves against one of the best, and have found out that we have a lot of room to grow.  I look for Team 133 to come out next week at home and play with anger.  Hopefully we can apply our learnings in growth mode, and as the team is saying, “only lose to Alabama once.”   On the other hand, Alabama has drawn up a successful blueprint for other teams to take advantage of.  I expect teams are studying game film to see how they can take advantage of the weaknesses that Alabama exposed on national television.  We’re going to have to find a way to get our running game on track, and stop the opposing running attack, or we could be in store for some more brutality.

I’ll be there in Section 9, sampling the view of the UofM / Air Force game this Saturday.  I hope you’ll stop back by to see what the view was like.