What to Make of Michigan?

Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

Michigan enters conference play undefeated, but while its record may be a perfect 4-0, its play has been far from perfect.

It's natural to overreact to both wins and losses, particularly early in the season. The temptation is to assign more meaning to each than is probably merited. By following up an emotional victory over Notre Dame with two uninspiring victories over a pair of double-digit underdogs, Michigan has provided plenty of fodder for such critique. Despite its 4-0 start, Michigan is suddenly under fire from fans and pundits alike, with some going so far as to question whether Devin Gardner should be replaced at quarterback by redshirt freshman Shane Morris. Such speculation is nothing short of absurd, but illustrates how quickly perspectives can change.

So while it's important not to get too carried away with Michigan's recent swoon (if you can really call it a swoon when a team goes 2-0) or overreact too much, Michigan's early season struggles cannot be completely ignored, either. And not strictly because of the closer-than-expected wins, but rather because of trends that have been apparent in all four games this season. Michigan clearly has issues to resolve, and while some can be addressed and others need to be accepted, it's become evident that Michigan is not the team that many thought it would be this season. For the Wolverines to compete for the Big Ten title, they'll need to improve in certain areas and make adjustments in others.

The player taking the most heat is quarterback Devin Gardner, and in many ways deservedly so. It's not that Gardner has made mistakes as much as he's been downright careless with the football. Brady Hoke and Gardner both preach the importance of taking care of the football, but so far those sentiments have proven to be nothing more than words. What was once thought to be one ill-advised pass from his own end zone against Notre Dame, upon further review, is actually at least one ill-advised-pass-turned-interception from his own end of the field in each game this season - a season in which Gardner has committed a staggering ten turnovers through four games. It goes without saying that Gardner needs to make better decisions and take better care of the ball.

But before condemning Gardner, it's important to remember that he still hasn't yet started ten games in his college career. With experience and coaching, Gardner can improve his decision making, including learning to accept when there is no play to be made. And let's also not forget that Gardner has shown the ability to be the best player on the field, and was brilliant, save for that one pass, against the Irish, when the Wolverines handed Notre Dame its first loss in 14 regular season games. So while Gardner's play has been the most glaring of the Wolverines' many early season problems, he also remains their greatest asset. All in all, assuming he improves his decision making, Michigan is still in good shape with Gardner under center.

The more pressing issue for Michigan, and one that's more difficult to correct, is the play of its offensive line. One of the most disappointing aspects of last year's team, the offensive line was among the most talked about storylines of the offseason. The hope in Ann Arbor was that despite the youth and inexperience of three new starters along the interior, the presence of a pair of fifth-year senior tackles would allow the unit to at least improve upon last season's performance. Four weeks into the season and that improvement has yet to be seen, particularly in the running game, where Michigan tailbacks, led by Fitzgerald Toussaint, have had few open lanes. But to say that holes have been few and far between doesn't tell the whole story, as it seems that Toussaint is hit in the backfield as often as not. Toussaint has run hard, the offensive line just isn't getting any push, particularly along the interior.

But in retrospect, this shouldn't be a surprise, as history tells us that the offensive line is a position where youth is typically not served. Seth Fisher of MGoBlog wrote an excellent article examining this phenomenon, in which he analyzed every Michigan offensive lineman over the past 20 years. Fisher looked only at Michigan linemen, but I would suspect the findings are universal. The moral of the story is that even the great ones are often not so until their later in their careers. As talented as first year starters Kyle Kalis, Graham Glasgow and Jack Miller may be, they're still first year starters and second and third year players, and shouldn't be expected to perform as juniors and seniors might. There is every reason to believe that these players - or Chris Bryant, Ben Braden and Erik Magnuson, for that matter - will develop into dominating linemen, however, it likely won't be this year. This is not an indictment against the players or the coaching staff, but rather the simple fact that it takes time to develop, and Michigan's young linemen are not there yet. So for Michigan to win this year, it will have to find a way to do so other than by running between the tackles.

But if struggles were expected with the offensive line, they weren't with the defensive line. Unlike their offensive counterparts, defensive linemen are often able to make an early impact, and Michigan appeared to be flush with talent along its defensive line. Four weeks into the season and that talent hasn't translated to defensive pressure. How ineffective has the defensive line been? Notre Dame and Akron combined to attempt more than 100 passes and Michigan registered exactly one sack in the two games combined. A point of concern last season, the ability to pressure the opposing quarterback has essentially disappeared this year. Until Michigan can manufacture a consistent pass rush, it will continue to put pressure on its young defensive backfield and will continue to be susceptible to big plays. For Michigan's defense to take the next step toward becoming a truly dominant unit, they'll need to find a way to manufacture a consistent pressure.

But can the Wolverines do so this year? If they couldn't penetrate Akron's or UConn's offensive lines, can they hope to penetrate Michigan State's and Ohio State's? Yet, it's not as if the defense has performed terribly, either. Even without an effective pass rush, similar to last year, the defense has been largely been effective, and if not dominant, has kept Michigan in games until its offense eventually got on track.

So where does this leave Michigan? Brady Hoke's vision of Michigan football is of a team that dominates both sides of the line of scrimmage, and this season, Michigan was expected to at least show signs of becoming that kind of team. Michigan is clearly not there yet, and again, similar to last year, it will struggle against physical teams, particularly physical defenses. And not just Michigan State and Ohio State, but teams like Iowa and Penn State, as well.

But that's not to say that Michigan is finished. As evidenced against Notre Dame, Gardner is a special athlete capable of great things. Unfortunately for Michigan and Gardner, with the lack of a traditional running game, he'll be forced to do some pretty spectacular things for Michigan to compete with better teams. He'll obviously have to play much better than he did against Akron and UConn, but Gardner has shown that he's capable of doing so.

And if that sounds familiar, it should. In year one of the post-Denard era, Michigan was supposed to be less of a one-man team than it often seemed with Denard Robinson. Set to feature a power running game and equipped with a stable of talented running backs, a more balanced offense was expected. Yet Michigan ironically appears to be every bit as much of a one-man team as it's been the past few years. As Michigan begins its conference schedule, it has many issues to address, some it should be able to correct, others it likely won't. But if there is one thing that seems certain, it's that the Wolverines will go only as far as Gardner can take them.

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