NCAA Football Handicapping: Michigan Looks Shaky Despite Solid Record
by Trevor Whenham - 9/26/2013
It would be tough for anyone to be more frustrated with a team off to a 4-0 start in college football than the legions of fans are by the start Michigan has had. They haven’t lost, but they have played two of the worst games in their recent history in wins over Akron and UConn. They were favored by a total of 54 points in the two games and managed to win by just seven combined points — while coming close to losing both. They did pretty much everything poorly in the home loss to Akron and didn’t seem to learn from it on the road trip to Connecticut. Ugh.
It’s not just the hardcore fans of the team, like me, who are going to be frustrated and perplexed by this slip in play. Michigan is a very public team, so the betting public has been hit hard by these two losses — especially after impressive wins over Notre Dame and Central Michigan in the first two games. The question going forward, then, is whether the recent play is just an anomaly or if this team just isn’t that good. They were viewed as the solid favorites to win their division, but is that in doubt now? Let’s take a look:
The quarterback is a good place to start when discussing any team. Gardner took over the starting role halfway through last year when Denard Robinson was hurt. He was impressive then and was perhaps even more impressive in the first two games this year. In the last two games, though, he has been varying degrees of awful. His passes have lacked accuracy. He has been indecisive. Most concerning for fans and bettors, he has been remarkably good at turning the ball over — fumbling when he can’t find an opposing player to pass to. It has been far from good and far from what we should expect from the player.
It seems unlikely that Gardner has suddenly forgotten how to play, and he still has some weapons around him — weapons he is massively underutilizing lately. So what is happening? Simply put, Gardner spent too much time watching Denard Robinson play. Robinson had little to work with early in his career, so he had to play the role of Superman and make things happen with his feet. He had to do it all, and he often he did.
Gardner doesn’t need to do that, but he thinks he does. He tries to do too much, and it doesn’t end well. He’s a smart player, and he needs to slow down and accept that there are options beyond his own heroism — and those options will almost always be superior. That slowing down will allow him to focus more on his fundamentals. Off-balance throws and hurried decisions have been at the root of his issues. Luckily, he has a bye week right now to work on those fundamentals and get back to what was working so well for him earlier.
He’s a very smart guy — he got his degree in three years — so he is more than capable of processing what needs to change and making it happen.
If Michigan has had a real running game, I haven’t noticed. The numbers aren’t great, and when you take out what Gardner has done, they are just pitiful. There are a couple of factors here. The inside of the offensive line features new starters, and that hasn’t helped. Most significantly, though, starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint just has not been good. He’s coming back from a leg injury that cost him much of last year, and the rust isn’t shaken off. He’s tentative, and he seems determined not to follow blocks. The team is committed to him, but he’s not making it easy to support that decision.
Some variety and success in the running game is crucial going forward — though it’s not as likely to happen as it would ideally be.
There was supposed to be a significant improvement in the pass rush this year, led by the promised break out of Frank Clark. It just hasn’t happened.
Clark has been mostly ineffective, though he did show some progress against UConn, and the young defensive line just doesn’t seem capable of consistently harassing opposing quarterbacks. Akron and UConn were able to play as well as they did in large part because their quarterbacks had far too much room to breathe. Some of these problems should disappear if and when linebacker Jake Ryan, the team’s best defensive player, returns from his ACL injury sometime in October. If he is effective when he returns, that will provide confidence to the front seven, and it will allow the team flexibility to shift their personnel around in ways that will work better than they have so far.
This is another area for optimism going forward
The first two weeks were about preparing for, then beating, Notre Dame. The team was focused. They didn’t take Akron even close to seriously, and it almost killed them. They talked a good talk against UConn, but they obviously didn’t take that outmatched opponent seriously enough, either. With the start of the Big Ten schedule next week, though, the games matter again. That, combined with a well-used bye week, should be enough to renew the focus and see the team play again with some of the commitment and focus that made them look so impressive through two weeks. I’d feel better if they were starting with a tougher slate of opponents — Minnesota, Penn State and Indiana are neither the most challenging conference foes nor the ones that the team most wants to beat. Despite that, though, I think it is a safe bet that the team will be much more committed to their craft against Minnesota than they have been the last two weeks.
The bottom line
It is easy to be down on this team. I spent parts of Sunday night curled up in fetal position after a second straight debacle. While public faith in this team isn’t high right now, I think there is an opportunity created by the negativity around the team — at least in the short term. The bye week is very well placed, the schedule over the next month is advantageous, and despite not looking like they have any talent, there is a whole lot more to work with than they have shown. The Gardner issues are correctable, and several other issues just need time — for the players to gain experience and confidence, and to embrace and employ fundamentals that have slipped. This team still has what they had heading into the season — a legitimate shot at heading into Northwestern at 9-0. If they do that, they will be a profitable betting team at that point as well.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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