With the football season getting close, it's time to check in with MSU's upcoming opponents. In the weeks leading up to the season, we'll have a short Q&A with a blogger from each opposing school. Next up: Michigan. Zach Travis helps run the great U-M blog Maize n Brew He was gracious enough to answer some questions about the upcoming season and
1. Denard Robinson has been so loved by Michigan fans and so dismissed by MSU fans over the last two seasons. He certainly can be electrifying on the run, but has been hit and miss with his arm. He loses his favorite receiver in Junior Hemingway and only Roy Roundtree seems reliable among the rest of the pass-catchers. In Al Borges' offense for the second year, can Robinson take that next step in his development where talented defensive teams will respect his arm? Or do you think we'll see more of the same?
The relationship between Michigan fans and Denard Robinson is more than just that of fans to their quarterback. The Rich Rodriguez years were tough on everyone, and a lot of Michigan fans that support Denard so fervently (there are some who think he is terrible and want him benched, but I don't listen to them much) do so because of all the crap that the team has been through. There is a deeper connection there because Robinson for so long was the biggest source of hope, the only source of offensive production, and quite frankly one of the nicest, "aw-shucks" ambassadors that the program has ever seen. For his electrifying nature on the field, he is every bit as electric off of it when he deals with the media and fans. Conversely, Michigan State fans look derisively on Robinson because of his associations to Rodriguez and the failure of that whole ordeal. This isn't an irrational thing to do either.
As for production, I think the hope that most Michigan fans have is that the biggest factor in his performance this year will be that he is entering year two in the offense. Between his freshman and sophomore year Robinson progressed more than I think I've ever seen a player progress mentally, and he had one of the most statistically impressive seasons ever by a quarterback despite having absolutely no help from his defense or special teams (or coaches for that matter). While he had his struggles last year, he was noticeably better later in the season, throwing ten interceptions over the first seven games vs. five over the last six games -- and that was against defenses like Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Penn State. Comfort is going to be key, and I think Robinson will be more comfortable with a year of this system under his belt.
Denard Robinson isn't ever going to challenge for the single-season Pass Eff. record, but if he settles down in the pocket, keeps his footwork consistent, and gets some help from his wide receivers, there is no reason he can't be a much more efficient quarterback than what he was in 2011. If he is able to do that and the running game continues to produce at a high level -- not a guarantee with Fitz Toussaint's tenuous legal situation -- I think we will see a quarterback that can beat teams with both his arm and his legs. As for changing the general public's perception of him, consistency is going to be the key, as will games against elite defense like Alabama and Michigan State.
(Pretty sure Pat Narduzzi watches this every night before going to bed)
2. The defense returns a lot of starters, but loses its most-talented players on the line. The group certainly took advantage of turnovers and stopped the bleeding of the RichRod era, but were they as good as the stats said? With a much more difficult schedule this year, will they be able to put up similar numbers?
They were as good as the stats said. You can look at the turnover thing and yell "luck", but at the end of the day the old adage is true: to a large extent you make your own luck. Michigan's defense was night-and-day better at the fundamentals of playing defense. Players flowed to the ball, read plays quicker, and were placed in schemes that helped each succeed. Yeah, they caught some lucky breaks, but you have to be in the right place at the right time, and the 2011 defense was one that was adept at getting into the right position to make plays.
The best example I can give is the Sugar Bowl. Michigan's offense spent most of the game taking a huge, steamy dump, and the defense bled yardage between the 20s, but the defense also came up with a number of red-zone stops -- holding Tech to four field goals in five trips inside the 20 -- and a couple of big plays that kept the Wolverines close. Past that, Michigan was one of the better teams in the country at stopping offenses on third- or fourth-and-short, and that isn't a fluky thing; you have to play smart, gap-sound football when the other team only needs one or two yards.
Going forward I think there is a regression on defense that comes from the fact that those turnover numbers can't possibly stay that high, and turnover on the defensive line is probably going to end up changing Michigan's stellar short-yardage defense. However, if the biggest difference between 2010 and 2011 -- and remember that it was almost exactly the same roster both years -- was fundamentals, that is one part of the equation that isn't going to change. As long as Greg Mattison is running the show Michigan's defense should be solid.
3. Fitzgerald Toussaint hadn't yet emerged when these teams played last year. He was great down the stretch and a good running back will take pressure off Robinson. What sort of difference will he make in the offense this year, especially when MSU comes to town?
Fitz really couldn't have picked a worse time to get suspended than this summer. This is going to affect his time during fall camp and I would be shocked if he played against Alabama in the first game of the season. That is bad news and erases any and all hope of fielding a competitive offense against the Tide. I don't think he sits out much longer than that, as this was a first offense.
When he is on the field, Fitz is the perfect counterpoint to Robinson. Toussaint isn't a big back, but he also isn't just a burner. It has been a long time since Michigan had a complete running back (even Brandon Minor wasn't quite it, especially because of a string of nagging injuries), but Fitz looks to be just that kind of player. He has good vision, enough power to run between the tackles, and enough shake to get yards after contact. On top of it, he has the breakaway speed that Mike Hart never had. Most impressive to me is that he never gives up on a run. Instead of going down he will churn his legs for a couple extra yards.
Essentially, Fitz is the first running back that Robinson has ever played with that wasn't completely typecast. When you put Robinson in the backfield with Stephen Hopkins everyone knows its probably just a QB iso, when it was Mike Shaw the ball was going to the edge. Toussaint can run every play in the playbook effectively, inside or out, and is always a threat to break a long run, and because of this defenses have to look at him as the number one running option, leaving Denard free to make people look silly with the inverted veer or designed run away from the focus of the defense.
I think that the combination of Toussaint and Robinson in the backfield for a whole season -- if that happens -- is capable of putting up 2500 yards on the ground. If Michigan deals with the infuriating double A-gap blitz against Michigan State better than the last couple years -- coupled with MSU's loss of Worthy and his knack for jumping snap counts -- I could see the pair combining for 150 yards on the ground against the Spartans. I'm not sure if that is enough to win, but it's enough to make it an interesting game.
4. Apparently Alabama will be the only regular season game in which U-M wears an alternate jersey this year. Do you like that one? I don't mind the jersey, but it just doesn't seem very "Michigan." What do you think of all the different uniforms for a team that focuses so much on tradition?
Honestly, the alternate uni's for the Alabama game are kind of bland.
I am actually a big fan of Oregon and all the crazy combos that the Ducks use. I like the goofy duck wings on the shoulder pads, the highlighter yellow, and the chrome helmets. Don't get me wrong, I don't want Michigan to do it, but I'm also not excited about the uniforms that were unveiled. To me they look like a Michigan version of what State wears for away games, what with those colored shoulders and all. I suppose I'm the wrong person to ask because I'm very "meh" on the whole issue of uniforms. The biggest thing I am passionate about is keeping helmet numbers and gray facemasks -- two things I really liked from last year. It looks like the helmet numbers are on the way out though.
5. I know you respect what Mark Dantonio has done at MSU, but many fans don't. Without trying to get too troll-y, do you think we're headed to the days of the Big 2 and Little 10 with U-M and Ohio State running the show?
I don't think it is a lack of respect as much as a return to good ol' fashioned irrational sports-hate. I imagine if you ask most Michigan State fans what they think of Brady Hoke they are going to lead off with "he's a fat, slovenly hack who walked into a lucky situation and has Michigan fans blind to the fact that he is a mediocre coach at best. Also, pizzafarts." However, I think when you actually talk football and you move past the posturing and grandstanding, people on both sides of the rivalry have some baseline of begrudging respect for the other side. And if they don't, do you really want to be talking football with them anyway?
There is a lot of talk about the "Big 2 Little 10" these days, and I get that. Michigan and Ohio State move the needle, and the teams haven't both been at the top of their game since 2006 -- which was a hype train that nearly screamed off the tracks until UF and USC got a good chuckle at how cute it was that those two Big Ten teams were so highly rated. The way recruiting has shifted in the past year and a half will certainly have an effect on the conference hierarchy over the next few years, but this isn't the 1970s and the days of Michigan and Ohio State playing each other for the Rose Bowl are over.
Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska are all solid programs built on sustainable foundations and none of them are going away any time soon. Had Mark Emmert not recently turned Penn State into a natural rival for Albion College, you could bet that the Nittany Lions would be in the mix for a conference championship in the near future as well. Add in the fact that games against Northwestern and Purdue are not gimmes and that Minnesota and Illinois are now coached by actual human beings, not corporeal beings that exist half as men and half as internet jokes, and you have a pretty solid conference in which the only game that is a sure-fire win is the one against Indiana.
I think that the odds are good that Michigan and Ohio State have more success than the rest of the conference over the next few years assuming that the Buckeyes and Wolverines can develop the high level talent they are bringing in -- not a guarantee by any means. But I don't think either team is running away with anything. College football is too unpredictable and the Big Ten is too deep. Winning the Big Ten over the next few years, especially the Legends division, is going to be an incredibly tall task fraught with drama and upsets and all-time-classic games.
Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Thanks again to Zach for taking the time to answer some questions. We'll check back in with him during game week. Until then, make sure you check out Maize n Brew if you want U-M info (for some odd reason).
Previous entries: Boise State, Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa