Michigan and Ohio State. It doesn't get more real than this. As the Wolverines and Buckeyes prepare for the 109th edition of The Game, we welcome in Maize 'n Brew editor Zach Travis for this edition of 5 minutes in the Holy Land to talk all things That Team Up North and what (if anything) Michigan can do to make it two in a row. You can follow Zach on Twitter at @zach_travis and the entire MnB gang at @maizenbrew.
Denard Robinson. Devin Gardner. Lots of Ohio State fans are wondering who's going to be under center when the two teams line up this week. Based on what you've read and heard, who's going to be the Wolverines' quarterback when another edition of The Game kicks off, but perhaps more intellectual curiosity provoking, who should be under center?
Brady Hoke has been really coy when it comes to Denard Robinson's status the last few weeks, but that has largely been gamesmanship. When Michigan comes out on the field Saturday, Devin Gardner will be the quarterback and Denard Robinson will play some auxiliary role designed to give the Wolverines a rushing presence that they don't otherwise have (this is doubly so now that Fitzgerald Toussaint is sidelined with an injury).
As for who should be under center, that depends on a few things. Devin Gardner has flashed a lot of potential as a quarterback. He is throwing with confidence and accuracy, and has a knack for generating big plays. On top of that, he is a better rusher on pass plays than Robinson ever was. Robinson, despite his skills as a runner, often refused to scramble in favor of keeping his eyes down field. Gardner has shown the willingness to take off when the opportunity is there, and it has led to some important first down conversions.
With that said, it isn't hard to lean toward Robinson, who put together a phenomenal game a year ago to get the win in Ann Arbor. He hit all his passes, executed the option aspects of the run game very well, and kept the offense moving for most of the game. The problem is that for whatever reason (Toussaint's struggles, the offensive line, Al Borges) the offense hasn't shown that kind of ability to move the ball on the ground with all year.
I think at this point Michigan's best bet is to find ways to use both quarterbacks and keep Ohio State off balance by moving Robinson around to different positions and finding ways to get the ball into his hands, be it on direct snaps at quarterback, hand offs, or passes to the flat. Michigan's offense against good teams still largely depends on just what it can get from Denard Robinson.
Fitz Toussaint is out for some time. His injury this past Saturday was heart wrenching and hopefully his recovery is a speedy and smooth one. Given how one dimensional Michigan looked during his absence due to suspension against Alabama, where will Michigan get the missing productivity from and how can they avoid the same pitfalls they fell into the last go around?
It really hurt to see Toussaint go down last week, but what was probably the most devastating thing was that for the first time all year he began to look like he was clicking in the rush offense. His start to the Iowa game was his best first series of the season. This hasn't been a banner year for Michigan on the ground despite the returning talent at the skill positions and an experienced offensive line. Robinson has been able to grind out a certain amount of yards just on the basis of being so damn good, but Toussaint hasn't been given many holes to work with and on top of it he has failed to make a lot of yards himself -- something he showed an ability to do last year. Part of this has been on him. He hasn't always hit the holes he needed to. However, a lot of times there just aren't any holes to find because the interior offensive line has blown an assignment somewhere.
Michigan is going to miss Toussaint, but struggles in the run game will be nothing new on Saturday.
That's why Michigan's best bet is to find a way to use Robinson as a running threat. He has been the only consistently viable one all year.
Michigan's defense is ranked as the best pass defense in the country.Cynics would probably point out they haven't exactly faced a murderer's row of passing teams. While Braxton Miller still has room to grow as a passer, what's the achilles heel for a group that certainly looks superb in paper? Is there a weakness in the Death Star Braxton Miller can will a football into to make the whole thing explode?
Let's just call it like it is: the Big Ten is a flaming bag of dog poo when it comes to passing. Seven Big Ten teams are in the bottom quarter or so in pass offense (Michigan is 6th in the conference and 95th nationally), only two teams average more than 230 yards per game passing, and the most efficient passer in the conference is Taylor freakin' Martinez.
So yeah, Michigan is first in pass yards allowed, but that comes with a full game against Air Force, a full game against Purdue, Iowa, and Minnesota, and half a football game against Riley O'Toole (remember, Michigan allowed just 29 pass yards against the Illini). Still, you have to give some credit to the Michigan defense. When you play bad passing teams you had better shut them down. Michigan has largely done that all year. Not one team has passed for over 200 yards (Alabama hit the breaks on the way to 199), and five teams have fallen short of 150. Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon have been solid at safety -- a big reason why Michigan is top ten in pass plays of 10+, 20+, and 30+ yards allowed and has only given up only one play over 50 yards -- while the corners have at least made the kinds of defensive plays that force quarterbacks to make great throws to complete long passes. This is a sound strategy in the Big Ten circa 2012.
Yet, the biggest weakness of this Michigan defense is those corners. JT Floyd is a solid, physical cover corner that lacks the kind of speed to close on deep balls. Raymon Taylor is a true sophomore that was forced into the starting job when Michigan's best coverman, Blake Countess, went down with an ACL injury minutes into the Bama game. Neither guy is the lockdown sort. If Miller can drop a few good to great passes in, odds are good his receivers will have a chance to make some big catches down the field.
Greg Mattison and Urban Meyer go back as the two coached together for many years at both Notre Dame and Florida and had a lot of success together. Does this give Mattison any kind of advantage running into his old cohort and friend when the Ohio State offense squares off with the Michigan defense?
Yes and no. Mattison obviously knows Meyer, knows his style, and already has a year under his belt going against most of the players in this offense. However, the two haven't coached together in a few years, and any close familiarity is most likely gone. On top of that, Ohio State's offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, is a young guy that brings his own tendencies and tweaks to the table and is certainly not someone Mattison will be familiar with.
The big worry is that Michigan comes up with a similar defensive game plan to last year and gets burned by it because of the pressure it puts on the corners. Ohio State is going to look to run the ball and make Michigan pay for playing two deep safeties. However, the minute Michigan goes one high you had better believe that Ohio State is going to take chances deep. I think Mattison will need to find good ways to stop Ohio State on runs that come on early downs so that he can force more third-and-long situations and hopefully make Ohio State's offense tip its hand. Needless to say I am worried. Ohio State isn't going to hold anything back, and opening up the offense can lead to unpredictability, which can lead to big plays. Michigan's defense has done well this year because it doesn't give up big plays. It makes opponents earn yards on long drives. If Ohio State is taking 10-12 plays to score touchdowns, Michigan will have a better chance than if OSU is scoring in 4-6 plays.
Finally, the moment of truth. Who comes out on top on Saturday and how?
I am not confident going into this game, but I am eternally pessimistic, so I don't know how much of that is me cherry picking examples (Northwestern tearing up Michigan's defense a couple weeks ago; the fact that Gardner hasn't played a defense with the kind of athletes Ohio State has) and how much of it is real, reasoned analysis.
I think Michigan's offense will find a way to move the ball. Yards on the ground will be hard to come by, but that has been the case all season with or without Denard in the game and won't improve against a front led by Jonathan Hankins and John Simon. The pass game may have looked good against bad teams the last couple weeks, but Ohio State isn't a shut down secondary either. There will be holes to exploit -- as well as mistakes. Defensively, I think Michigan's corners are going to be put in uncomfortable situations, and I'm not all the confident that they can deal with that as much as would be needed for Michigan to significantly slow the Ohio State offense.
I think both teams end up scoring in the high 20s/low 30s, Michigan plays catch up for most of the game, and Ohio State ends up winning by a couple points because Michigan fails to close the game out down the stretch. This is probably as much a reverse jinx as it is my pessimistic side, so take it with a grain of salt.