The Good - 1st Quarter Offense
Offensive positives during a game in which the unit scored zero points may seem like an oxymoron, but there were a few early in the contest.
On the first two drives Michigan showed both balance and efficiency. Devin Gardner was on target on, going 6/7 for 50 yards. That included two great throws with pressure coming in his face. The first was a perfectly placed flare to Joey Kerridge on 4th down. The second was on very next play Gardner showed great composure checking down Dennis Norfleet swinging out of the backfield and hit him with a lofting pass in stride. And speaking of Norfleet, Doug Nussmeier is utilizing of the diminutive speedster in Darrin Sproles-like fashion. Norfleet has gotten touches on sweeps, bubbles, and a few intermediate routes thus far, but there are downfield routes in the arsenal as well. Versus the Irish Norfleet a part of the Wolverines early success on the ground. The Maize & Blue rushed nine times for 47 yards on the first two drives. In short, they’d established a rhythm. Even on the third series Gardner was on target with two outstanding throws to Jehu Chesson. The first was a comeback on a rollout, and the other Gardner’s best throw of the day… an out-cut on a rope from the far hash.
The Bad – 3rd Down Conversions & Not Stretching the Field
Michigan was a paltry 4/13 on third down conversions. The biggest reason for their subpar performance in that category was not enough third-and-manageables. The Wolverines faced third and less than five only twice on the night. By comparison Notre Dame faced third and less than five on nine of its 15 third downs attempts and converted six of them. The Irish only converted one third down attempt over five yards.
“You get into third and long in a game like that and it makes it difficult,” Nussmeier said. “You’re on the road, it’s loud, you’re seeing lots of blitzes, so that’s something that we can control through the process of first and second down and what we’re doing there.”
Thanks to the litany of third and longs and the increasing score differential, the Irish got more aggressive with their pressure as the game progressed. In addition their defensive backs became increasingly comfortable squatting on routes disrupting a short passing game. One of the keys to making defenses more hesitant to play with that type of aggression is taking a few shots down the football field. Then if Michigan can actually connect on some of those plays it mitigates the opportunity for their inconsistency to hurt them.
“We didn’t create enough explosive plays,” Nussmeier admitted. “For us an explosive play is a 12 yard run or a 16 yard pass. Well we only had five explosives, so it averaged out to about one every 13 plays. That’s not good enough for us. When you can’t generate big plays it makes it difficult. That means you’ve got to sustain long drives. That’s one of the things we’ve got to work at… how do we develop ways to get our guys in situations where they can create explosive plays?”
Answer? Get more vertical. Of those five explosive plays, only one was a true downfield pass… the 33 yard stutter & go to Funchess. There was the attempts down the field with seconds to go at the end of the first half and the pass down the seam to Khalid Hill that was intercepted prior to that (I’ll touch on that later) but the Wolverines never were truly able to make the Irish respect them vertically.
That obviously must change moving forward, and a reasonable inference from Nussmeier’s comments is that it will.
The Ugly – Not Finishing & Turnovers
Obviously two missed field goals capped off these drives first two drives, but let’s remove special teams from this discussion and focus just on the offense’s inability to finish. Nussmeier’s point about inconsistency... about one or two bad plays knocking them off kilter rung true Saturday.
On the first series Michigan had a 2nd & 3 at the Notre Dame 30 and the call was a bubble to Norfleet. With the field corner playing off, this play seemed destined to pick up the first down, but Jehu Chesson blocked the wrong man on the play, leaving the nickel (i.e. the man lined up over Norfleet) to knife in and blow up the play for a two yard loss. The next play was a 3rd & 5 where the Irish rushed three and dropped eight. That set up an ideal protection situation for Michigan and there wound up being a pretty clean pocket to throw from. It appeared as if a few open options were set to emerge on the front side, but Gardner believed he saw a crease backside and left the pocket early. He was ultimately stopped by the speedy Jaylon Smith short of the first down. Drive stalled.
On the next series Devin Funchess notched one of Michigan’s explosive plays on the day… a stop route that he caught and burst down the field for 27 yards. The next play was e, a snap infraction put Michigan behind the sticks. They couldn’t dig out of a 1st & 15 hole Drive stalled.
As was mentioned above Gardner threw a few of his best balls on the third series and had Michigan on the move again. The Irish slowed the drive with two great defensive plays. Gardner attempted to hit Chesson for a third straight play… this time on a hitch, but the corner drove on the ball (something Michigan’s DBs didn’t do a great job of) and stopped the play for no gain. On second down the Irish brought a safety blitz from the field to force the ball out of Gardner’s hand. He tried to hit Funchess on the cross as a result, but Jaylon Smith interfered with broke up the play. Then on 3rd & 10 the Wolverines seemingly had a play that had a shot to pick up the yardage. Nussmeier called a screen. The lineman leaked perfectly and were going to have the Irish outmanned on the second level, but Justice Hayes got blown up in the wash and never made himself available for the pass. Gardner was forced to scramble again but came up short. Drive stalled.
“We’re still in the infancy stages here,” said Nussmeier. “We’re still learning to play consistently well. I’m going to continue to hit on that because like I said before, we play well in stretches and it showed in that game. You could see where we get movement, we create things, we move the ball, and then we lack consistency. It’s about 11 guys on every play doing the right thing.”
As they work to get there, look for the Wolverines to go downfield more.
Of course, they’ll try to do without turning the football over. Giving the ball to the Irish emerged as a problem in the second half .
The first one came on a throw down the seam to Khalid Hill. Assuming Hill didn’t run the wrong route, Devin lost track of the safety and got picked off. The second turnover was the fumble on which he showed poor ball security while scrambling. The third turnover was another interception, but it wasn’t on the quarterback. That pick was a function of the wide receiver not coming back to the football on the comeback. Amara Darboh had executed the route perfectly the week prior versus Appalachian State. He ran a deep comeback that would have been batted down or picked off had he not come back to the football. Instead it wound up being a 26 yard play. Versus the Irish it was a short comeback route, and he ran five yards or so yards and stopped. That made for an easy interception by the DB.
Few teams can afford to get in deep holes on the road, but for this offense that’s especially true. The game-plan and performance both went the window in the second half. That said, even with the game out of hand Brady Hoke said he left his starting unit the bitter end to get as many developmental snaps as possible. That included his senior signal caller.
“(Gardner) understands and realizes that when you’re going to run the ball you’ve got to have better ball security,” said Hoke. “He understands that if he pre-snap reads something that there is also a progression from there that he has got to do a better job with.”
“Devin obviously did some things that neither of us really wanted, but that happens,” said Nussmeier. “It all about that process of learning, of going through reads, going through progressions… what did you see? Where do your eyes and feet need to be? And he is growing. We’re growing together. It’s the second game I’ve been with him. There are things I need to do better for sure.”
After Saturday’s defeat there likely isn’t a man on the team not saying the same thing.