Sunday, September 9, 2007

No quick fixes for Wolverines


This loss was much more disturbing. Much more revealing. Again... much more disturbing.

A week ago, when Michigan lost 34-32 to Appalachian State, the Wolverines could chalk it up as, yes, an upset. They could regress that they weren't prepared, that they were caught by surprise, that they made too many of those all-too-familiar first-game mistakes.

And as lame as those excuses were, many Michigan fans bought them. Yes, of course, everyone realized that is was absolutely ludicrous for a team to not be prepared to play after eight months to get ready. But this gave us an opportunity to think Michigan is a good team that played one horrible game.

Can't say that anymore. No way, no how.

The Michigan team we saw on Saturday was flat out bad. The worst team on the field by far. Forget the pregame line or the location of the contest. Oregon's 39-7 spanking of the Wolverines — which could have, should have been a lot worse — was no upset, folks.

Call it a good (likely to be) Top 25 team beating up on a (maybe) top 50 team. Emphasis on "maybe."

The Ducks' dismantling of the Wolverines exposed several flaws with this group of Wolverines. Let's perform a physical:

The defense
Forget learning how to combat the vaunted spread offense. This group of Wolverines needs to go back to first grade.

Yes, the basics.

Tackling. Tackling. Tackling.

I didn't see all of the first two games — just ugly bits and pieces — so I wasn't able to tally all the missed tackles, but let me humor you with a guess.

Um, 139?

Seriously. There have been several plays on which Michigan has missed five or sick tackles. That's not good when you have a good defense (last year). That's asking for trouble when you have a mediocre defense (which is being kind to this season's unit).

I'm sure you've heard about/seen the numbers. But in case you haven't, here's a refresher:

624 — yards piled up by Oregon, the second-most against Michigan (lowly Northwestern gained 654 yards in a 54-51 win in 2000).

390 — yards the Ducks gained during the first half (gasp... game) Saturday, when Oregon put together a comfortable 32-7 cushion.

46, 61, 85 — yards of the three Oregon touchdown passes. 'Nuff said.

Which brings me to my next point: Big Plays. This isn't a new symptom, either. Whenever the Wolverines are beat — which, I must admit, happens as often birds fly these days — they give up large scoring plays. Just look at their last four losses (you don't have to go back very far).

Especially when you have a defense not big on talented playmakers, you've got to make the offense earn its points. Leave the door open for a player to fumble, a QB to toss an interception. Michigan hasn't done that the first two weeks.

But, you see, here's the problem with that. Michigan's defenders — especially up front — are not in great shape. They fatigue quickly (and the offense doesn't help when it goes three-and-out).

It was inevitable that the Ducks would score Saturday after a very, very quick Michigan offensive series late in the second quarter. Sure enough, on the next play Ducks' QB Dennis Dixon threw that 61-yard touchdown score, giving Oregon that 32-7 lead that basically sealed Michigan's 0-2 package.

After the game, there was no talk about the Wolverines not understanding the spread offense. Cornerback Donovan Warren said, in the Ann Arbor News, "I feel they just executed better than our defense."

Yeah, much better. Blame Michigan's defensive struggles on Lloyd Carr and Ron English's inability if you want to. But right now the unit's biggest problem is a lack of execution and conditioning.

All Michigan fans can hope for is that the Wolverines go back to the basics this week in practice. And that starts with, tackling, tackling, tackling.

The offense
As disappointing as the defense was against the Ducks, I honestly thought the game would be decided in the 30s. In other words, I didn't think 39 points by Oregon would necessarily mean a blowout win.

I also didn't think Michigan's offense would be as sloppy as it was. And again, the main problem was a lack of execution.

Dropped balls. Turnovers. Penalties.

It wasn't like Michigan couldn't move the ball in the first half Saturday (we're not counting the sans-Chad Henne second half). The Wolverines suffered just one three-and-out with Henne at the helm. Otherwise they moved the ball. But consider how they finished drives:

Interception. Fumble. Missed field goal. Turnover on downs. Punt from the Oregon 39-yard line.

Five different Michigan treks into Oregon territory ended in the results above. Michigan fell apart when it could smell the end zone, or at least three points and momentum. It stopped executing for a play — or two, or three — which is inexcusable for one of the nation's top programs.

Michigan suffered from obvious lapses in concentration. Mario Manningham caught eight passes for 117 yards, but he should have had another four or five catches. He gave backup quarterback Ryan Mallett the freshman's first career INT when a ball glanced off his hands. That's unacceptable for purportedly one of the country's best WRs.

The only consistents in Michigan's supposed explosive offense are the blocking of Jake Long and the running/blocking/whatever else he does of running back Mike Hart. Both players are great. Both are leaders. In fact, Hart stepped up, guaranteeing a win against Notre Dame on Saturday.

But they are only two players. An offense can't be effective if Hart steps out for one play only to stay on the sidelines because of a Carlos Brown fumble.

Yes, the Wolverines need to ride the strong shoulders of Hart more in the weeks to come — I'm talking 30 carries a game — especially with Henne, according to Carr, out against the Fighting Irish. But there will be passing downs and there will be downs on which the indomitable Hart needs a breather.

Michigan has to be productive on those plays as well.

Execution. Execution. Execution.

So what now?
Ain't this something? After Penn State pulled away from Notre Dame for a 31-10 win in Happy Valley, Saturday evening marked the first time both Michigan and the Fighting Irish have been 0-2.

Thankfully for them, they'll meet Saturday in the Big House on ABC. And one team will exit with a victory... I think.

Don't expect a quick turnaround by Michigan in this one (just as, in retrospect, it was foolish to think the Wolverines would pull a 360 against the Ducks). With Henne out, the offense is going to rest on the little big man, the man named Hart. If Carr is smart, he'll give the ball to Hart until the running back's legs stop churning.

He's the one sure thing right now for Michigan. It's too bad he's likely out of the Heisman Trophy race because of Michigan's inability to play football.

A magic trick won't turn these Wolverines around. Neither will a coaching change (at least for now; maybe after the season, Carr will realize that retirement doesn't appear to be a bad option). The one thing the Wolverines can do to appease their fans in the coming weeks is play hard-nosed, fundamentally strong football.

Wrap up when tackling. Hold on when catching. Hold on when running.

Let's be honest. Ranking Michigan No. 5 in the preseason was a mistake. Minus last year's big-name defenders, this squad was at best No. 15 in the country. No better. They're just another example of why the preseason rankings should be scrapped (start them after the first week).

But that won't make any Michigan fan/critic any less peeved. What it comes down to is execution on the field.

And that's a category in which you can positively give Michigan an "F" after two morbid weeks.

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