|Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports|
Defense: Over/Even Nickel
Let's just start where everyone is talking: this didn't go well for the CBs. I don't know how much it hurt to have Taylor and Peppers out, but the CBs that were in there struggled. Hollowell needed help on the inside of him, as he couldn't play the slot head up and get away with it. Lewis - while I thought his 2nd PI flag was a bad flag - still struggles to find the ball and is still too handsy in a bad way. Countess missed on his punch when he had the receiver up field and outside and then let him back inside of him on a slant and is still a guy better suited to play in zone.
Now, fans have a misconception that no matter what in press coverage you can't let a guy inside of you, and that really isn't true. It depends on the split and the situation and the field position. The real issue is that Michigan flat out missed on their punch repeatedly, which you should rarely do. But what happened: they force him outside because they over-leverage on the inside and give a guy a free release, meaning they got beat over the top; they get the receiver in a favorable position but aren't strong enough to hold him there; things like that.
People are complaining about Manning being a CB coach, a guy that has never coached or played CB before. While it may not be optimal, I don't see that as the primary issue, at least not at this point. The bigger issues are two-fold: 1) some of these players aren't optimal press type corners; 2) you don't just learn to cover everything in a press Cover 1 during one off-season and not get exposed by a QB that is hitting bulls-eyes. The first deals with not being strong enough to redirect or hold your position, that means through the feet, shoulders, arms, and hands. The 2nd has to do with how to consistently handle every situation, which Cover 1 forces the coverage to deal with a ton of looks, and frankly, Golson was great and his receivers made some very good catches.
This is one of the reason I like Cover 4 a little more. It does put more stress on the safeties, which you saw in the MSU-Oregon game. However, it does provide some inside help, at least initially, and doesn't allow (at least as much) things like rub routes to get you away from your receivers. But at the end of the day, scheme is not the issue. Pelini has successfully implemented a aggressive Cover 1 dating back to his time at LSU. The Seahawks utilize a single-high press coverage very successfully. It can be done. But ND executed very well, and Michigan was marginal on the backend. Better execution of technique and skill will win in an athletically even challenge every time.
What it means for the future
Honestly, there is only one team left on Michigan's schedule that can consistently do the things that pick on most of Michigan's weaknesses and have the receivers on the outside: MSU. That's not what Michigan fans want to hear, but it's the truth. It also doesn't mean there aren't other QBs that are capable of having games that will do this or even plays where they put it where it needs to be. This team will get exposed at times again, but it won't look this bad again.
I actually thought the Front 6 outplayed ND's OL. The DL wasn't great, but they kept LBs mostly clean and got into gaps fairly well. Clark showed some flashes but didn't consistently breakdown on Golson, something that isn't easy for big guys to always do. I thought Ryan looked significantly better, though still inconsistent at times. Mattison did some things to put him on the edge and pinch the DL, but he did very little in that position. People getting on him about needing to move back outside are looking at it through a single-game, App St bias. I also thought Beyer was exposed more than most. He's consistent with technique, but just doesn't have the athletic ability to do enough.
Mattison really did try to mix some things up, particularly in the 2nd half after the single coverage got exposed a bit.
But if you remember last season, people asked: "Why don't we just adapt MSU's press corner coverage scheme?" It's because it's hard. MSU typically has guys in their system two or three years before they're left on an island. Michigan has been focused on pressing for less than one year now. But when you commit to something so much like Michigan did to the Cover 1, what it does is take away reps from the rest of the things. If you simplify the coverage, you have to be good enough at it to make up for the fact that you're less diverse back there. Michigan did some Cover 3 with limited success, and even threw in a Tampa 2 look, but overall, they just aren't where they need to be yet. Scheme isn't the issue though. The scheme is fine. Mattison did some things to try to mitigate weaknesses that kept creeping up, he threw out some bracket coverages, blitzed from a variety of places, tried to mix up some press and off coverage so ND couldn't get in a zone, but when you play this coverage you have to execute. This team wasn't prepared to execute.
I thought the OL below average. Below average was about the best people hoped for coming into the season, and that's what they were. They weren't good, but they got into some combo blocks, mostly picked up some things, they were just below average overall. They did regress as the game went on and Michigan showed some of what they wanted to do. A big issue for them though, was...
Devin Gardner can make every throw there is to make. He is a great athlete that can threaten to run as well. It's not his "decision making" that is failing him, it's his eyes. He has struggled to read coverages a bit since he took over as QB; worse yet, he suffered through a year of awful OL play and now has his eyes on the rush. But he just isn't seeing the field. He's not seeing the coverage well enough, he's taking his eyes down to the pressure too often and too early. He isn't identifying guys as quickly as he needs to, and then he's holding onto the ball too long.
People hoping for Morris are barking up the wrong tree though. Gardner is still Michigan's best option. He still has the ability to make all the throws, and in games where it slows down for him (which it will) he will look much better. He started the game well until things started falling off, and that's when he started falling off. He'll rebound, but he'll still struggle against better defenses.
He also made some poor reads both in the option game and in pushing it out to the WR. I said on twitter that you don't check to the extended handoff (quick throw to the WR) unless the CB is bailing or at 8+ yards. ND had a corner squatting at 6 yards and DG got his WR crushed by making a poor throw.
Come back to the football and help the QB out. Spend too much time trying to box out and it allows the coverage to rake their arms.
And we're here again, and I'll say the same thing as I said last year: the primary issue is not the scheme, it is execution. This scheme is in many ways different than last years scheme, which was essentially based on setting up defenses for huge chunk plays. That's why last year's offense showed signs of ineptness and signs of "where was this the rest of the year". It was like that because Michigan simply isn't good enough to consistently execute up and down the field in a methodical fashion.
Yes, there are things I'd do a bit differently, but Funchess was mostly bracketed deep, the OL still struggled to maintain protection longer, and unless you want to max protect (which many people hated last year), you don't have the ability to push the ball deep. So you are stuck trying to chip away at a defense, which Michigan doesn't have the ability to do yet.
Where is Michigan Now
Here's the thing, at each position I honestly think Michigan looked improved and more consistent than they were last year, which DB being the exception but mostly because of the coverage. The OL looked better before regressing a bit late in the game. Gardner showed improvement early before forcing things late. The RBs struggled with some vision issues, but mostly hit the correct hole and picked up what they could. The DL flashed being disruptive and were consistent against the run; they still need to be more consistent on the edge. The LBs I thought did look better, both in coverage and in their reads.
My stance coming into the season was that I care much more about showing improvement from the team than I do overall record. I saw improvement. But here's where I need to give two caveats.
I still think this team finishes 9-3, 8-4 at worst (assuming the team doesn't give up on itself, which I don't believe they will). That is exactly what I thought coming into the season. This is a team that is learning to be consistent and to get better at some fundamentals. With their talent level, that should allow them to beat teams that they are simply better than. However, teams that have like-talent, they simply aren't ready to compete with regularly.
And that's the second caveat. You can show improvement, but at some point it has to come together on the field and show real results. That didn't happen against ND, obviously. I think this team is better than this and I think the game, at least in the first half, wasn't as lopsided as it appeared. ND simply executed much better. This team will bounce back and get wins if they don't let things unravel mentally, but is that enough?
In my opinion, I still think Michigan can win with Hoke. I'm not of the mind that Michigan needs to find a win at MSU or at OSU to keep Hoke. This should be the low-point of the season. I think Michigan's response to this game and their response in the other rivalry games is a much more important data point for where this team is and where they can get than this one game against ND is. If Michigan continues to show improvement and is competitive (competitive isn't just a scoreboard thing either, both OSU and MSU were competitive in double digit loses) then I think 2015 is still the make-or-break year. But execution is very much on coaches as well, and execution needs to get better, plain and simple.