Michigan Midseason Report
Why is Michigan 3-3? What needs to be done to salvage the season? 6 key answers below:
1. Poor quarterback play
Against Minnesota, Chad Henne played one of his worst games as a collegiate QB. The only rivals to this are his performances against Notre Dame and Wisconsin. Some of Henne's struggles can be attributed to injuries, poor playcalling and misuse of the wide receivers, but those will all be addressed later so for now let's concentrate on what has gone wrong with Henne himself this season. Watching the game, Henne just seems to lack confidence right now. SuperChad came out in the Michigan State game, but that appears to be the exception rather than the rule right now. If Michigan is to have any chance of beating the good defenses left on the schedule (Penn State, Iowa, Ohio State) they need Henne's confidence level at 100%. This means better playcalling to build him up early in games with short passes and achievable goals. No more bombs downfield unless they can be adequately set up as a play action pass. The Michigan receiving corps is too good to not get open, so there is really no excuse for Henne being unable to find open receivers. He needs to take the time to look off his primary option and work on his touch on the deep ball. It's obvious that Henne has the physical ability, now he just needs to conquer the mental side of the game. If Henne can't do this, Michigan needs to be willing to get Gutierrez some playing time sooner rather than later. I absolutely abhor quarterback controversies, but now may be the time.
2. Reuben Riley replacing Jake Long at RT
Injuries are part of the game, so you can't blame Jake Long's injury for ruining Michigan's season, but through 6 games, its obvious that Reuben Riley is a natural guard that is severely overmatched at the tackle position. Riley just isn't quick enough to pass block against good Big Ten DE's. Last week against Minnesota he looked like a matador as he waved his red flag at the end as he took the corner and bore down on Henne in the pocket. I am willing to assume that given the fact Riley is still playing, Michigan doesn't have a young tackle ready to step in and play, but that doesn't mean that they can't do anything to strengthen the right side of the line. If Tim Massaquoi can't catch with the cast (and he can't) why not move him in to tackle? He has far quicker feet than Riley and must have picked up some blocking technique in the last four years. Even if Riley is the best choice at tackle, why not line a TE up next to him on obvious passing down and have the TE chip the DE on his way downfield? This would take away the quicker first step of the DE and leave Riley in a far better position to passblock. Just because Riley is an inferior tackle, it doesn't mean that Michigan (Terry Malone, I mean you) has to leave him out on an island to get owned every play.
3. Misuse of the WRs
It really pains me to see how Terry Malone has used the Michigan WR's this season. Neither Jason Avant or Steve Breaston are particularly viable deep threats. I have a hard time believing that this didn't become somewhat apparent during practice time, before it became known to the whole world in the Notre Dame (Breaston) and Minnesota (Avant) games. Jason Avant is at his best when he is able to run off the cornerback and sit down underneath the zone coverage, picking up yards 10-15 at a time. Steve Breaston is a classic Z-receiver in the West Coast Offense mold. He needs to be moved around the field and used in the slot to take advantage of slower linebackers and safeties to get the ball in space where he can use his feet to make a play after he has the ball. In order for Avant and Breaston to have room to make these plays, Michigan needs a classic number 1 WR to stretch defenses (remember Braylon?) and I thought that they had found one in Mario Manningham. He was virtually invisible against Minnesota, but I still have confidence that he has the natural speed and route-running ability to be effective down the stretch. Hopefully as Doug Dutch and Adrian Arrington get healthy they can give defenses more to think about and take pressure off of Manningham as this team's only deep threat.
4. Michael Hart's Hamstring
I stand by my conviction that with a healthy Michael Hart, Michigan would have won the Notre Dame game. The offense gets much better in the redzone with him in the game. In the Wisconsin and Minnesota games, Michigan needed to get points on the board and take the star running backs (Brian Calhoun and Laurence Maroney, respectively) out of the game. I also think that a healthy Mike Hart keeps Chad Henne's overall confidence higher and forces the defense to respect the play action pass. If Hart injures himself again down the stretch, Michigan could be in real danger of a losing record.
5. Poor Offensive playcalling
If you asked me over the summer to describe the effect of losing Braylon Edwards, I would have used the mythical story of the Hydra. I genuinely thought that Braylon's graduation would leave the Michigan offense without a focal point for defenses to concentrate on, making them even more dangerous. In retrospect, I couldn't have been more wrong. For whatever reason, Terry Malone and staff seem to be squandering the most talented offense in Michigan history. Max Martin and Kevin Grady join Michael Hart to give Michigan a tremendous opportunity to change pace on offense at will, but for whatever reason they aren't being used. As I talked about earlier, the riches at WR have been wasted. It seems that everyone wants to pile it on Jim Herrmann, but the defense has played above expectations. Terry Malone is the one that should be answering the hard questions right now. If this team has a shot in the second half, it is critical that they gameplan better and begin taking advantage of the innate talent on this team.
6. Poor Tackling on Defense
The only fault that I can find with the defense is the obvious lack of tackling ability. David Harris and Bradent Englemon seem to be the only Wolverines that excel in this part of the game. To clarify, I'm defining tackling here as also including pursuit angle, an area that Michigan has been downright terrible at for several years. Outside contain has been just bad in every game except maybe Michigan State. To be honest, I don't know that there is a midseason fix for this. You learn how to tackle in high school and if the Michigan defense hasn't figured it out yet, they probably won't. The only hope at this point is to keep playing hard and hoping that the offense can outscore people.