Q&A With Maize n Brew

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 17: Denard Robinson #16 of the University of Michigan Wolverines looks for running room during the game against Eastern Michigan Eagles at Michigan Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan defeated Eastern Michigan 31-3. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Another Friday means another opponent Q&A.

This week, I exchanged questions with Zach Travis at the SBNation Michigan blog Maize n Brew. My answers to Zach's questions can be found here.

Zach was kind enough to write a book for each of my questions which made me look like a lazy slob in comparison*. So read up and get your knowledge on before tomorrow's game.

*Actually true

1. Last week, the guys over at The Only Colors told us they expect this to be the year Michigan State makes it back to the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, Wisconsin looks like a shadow of the team that won the Big Ten last year and Nebraska gave up 600 yards to UCLA(!). How do you feel about Michigan's chances? Or are we going to see a Northwestern/Purdue B1G championship game? (Remember: The Mayans did predict the end of the world in 2012)

I don't think the guys at TOC are necessarily wrong, but that speaks more to the state of the Big Ten as a whole than it does to Michigan State's completeness as a football team. As Notre Dame fans witnessed first hand, MSU has some pretty significant issues as far as the passing game, and now it looks like offensive line depth could be a concern going forward.

However, the rest of the conference is a raging tire fire. Wisconsin has totally fallen apart without Russell Wilson and 3/5ths of last year's offensive line, Iowa is too busy losing rivalry games to compete for anything, Nebraska has a mediocre defense and a largely one dimensional offense. The only team that has shown any real flashes of great play is Ohio State -- which is ineligible for postseason play -- and even that has been inconsistent. You talk about Purdue and Northwestern in the BTCG like it is a joke, but at this point I wouldn't count out the possibility.

As for Michigan I think the Wolverines have a good chance as long as they can get past Michigan State. That is going to be a tall task. The Spartans are a very good defensive team that has given Michigan fits over the past few years. Although Notre Dame showed the way to beat Michigan State was taking shots down the field while forcing Andrew Maxwell to beat you with his merry band of bumbling receivers. I don't know if Michigan is well prepared to do it, but I think this is the best chance Michigan has had to reverse things in the rivalry. That will come down to just how improved Denard is at passing, and how quickly the lines gel now that the team is entering the meat of the schedule.
2. What are your thoughts on Notre Dame's move to the ACC? Do you even care? The Notre Dame/Michigan series is already scheduled to take two years off in 2018 and 2019 and likely won't be a yearly occurance going forward because of this move. Do you have any feelings on this? Again, do you even care?

I understand it. The ACC is located in a region that is growing, it is probably the Big Ten's equal in academics (or even superior if I look past my Midwestern hubris), and mostly it is a conference that needs Notre Dame -- not the other way around.

The way the Big Ten always approached the possibility of picking up Notre Dame was one of need the other way. Notre Dame needed the home the Big Ten would provide. Notre Dame needed the money from the Big Ten's network affiliation as ND's NBC contract became less valuable when the team struggled, Notre Dame needs the Big Ten to help it compete nationally and make bowl games.

Not only was this not the right way to approach a school like Notre Dame -- one that thinks as highly of itself as only the most highfalutin schools like Texas, Duke, and ahem, Michigan -- but it is kind of wrong when you really break things down. Notre Dame is probably the only program that could continue to be treated like a national program (in terms of income, national following, media interest) after all the ups and downs the Irish have seen in the recent past. Think about the last decade and a half and then try to come up with a reason the Irish still can walk into any school and recruit with the best programs in the country. You can't. It doesn't make sense.

So yeah, the move to the ACC makes all sorts of sense for both parties. It give ND a good home, and yet the Irish still retain a mix of power over the situation as well as the illusion of power. The one downside is that it is the traditional Big Ten rivalries that are the first to go. I think Purdue makes the cut because of the geography and the fact that if someone offers you a chance to put Purdue on your schedule you take it. That probably means that the Michigan schools duke it out for the last spot. I am a big fan of the games against Notre Dame, and I would be disappointed if they went away. However, as long as Michigan uses those open slots to schedule solid opponents I guess I'll survive.
3. The Michigan defense is giving up over 200 yards rushing a game, and that's even with a game against hapless UMass. However, two of those games were against the best team in the country and an option team. Are you at all concerned about the rush defense?

First, thank you for getting that obvious caveat out of the way so I can jump right into, "yes I'm scared as hell."

Okay, it isn't quite that bad, but I am concerned. Michigan only lost three starters from last year's defense (I don't count S Troy Woolfolk as a starter as he had lost the job by the end of the year and never looked the same after his injury in 2010) but all three were interior defensive linemen. Mike Martin was the kind of hyper-athletic defensive tackle that you can build a defense around, and if 5-tech DE Ryan Van Bergen isn't a future defensive coordinator I'll eat my keyboard; the kid is wicked smart. Even Will Heininger, the former walk-on, ended up turning into a solid Big Ten level 3-tech tackle. Those three were a big reason why the rest of Michigan's defense was able to improve to such a large extent last year. The work they did up front disrupting opposing offenses took a lot of heat off the young linebackers and secondary.

Now Michigan gets all of its back seven back -- with the exception of the injured Blake Countess, which is also huge blow -- but the difference is very obvious. The defensive line is mostly just there this year. These guys can't get the kind of penetration that last year's line could. They aren't playmakers. The interior is a bunch of guys who have a varying level of competency eating blocks, and the outside guys are either young and prone to mistake or experienced and not the big play type.

With Michigan's defensive line taking a step back that puts a lot of burden on Michigan's linebackers to A) identify plays quicker and B) get off blocks better. These were the two biggest weaknesses a year ago, and while there have been some small improvements, it hasn't been enough to offset the losses up front.

The Michigan defense isn't going to be bad because of this, but the run defense will take a step back, and even worse the third-down defense is probably due to regress as the Wolverines don't have the kinds of players up front capable of consistently making plays on short downs.

Against Notre Dame I expect Michigan to bleed yardage to the tune of 4.5-5.0 ypc and upwards of 150 yards. This should open up the Irish to take shots down the field, and if Michigan's pass rushers on the outside -- Jake Ryan and Frank Clark -- can't get pressure on Golson the secondary will have a hard time when trying to provide run support and not get beat deep.

4. Is all this talk about Denard improving as a passer for real or is it hogwash? How scared should I be?

For real, but its all relative. Denard Robinson didn't become Andrew Luck overnight. He isn't ever going to be that kind of pocket passer. It would be foolish to expect it.

Where he has improved is in his mechanics and decision-making. Against Notre Dame and the rest of the early season schedule last year Robinson looked downright bad. He threw 10 of his 15 interceptions in those first six games, and completed passes at a lower rate than he would later on in the year. Looking back on the season it is easy to see what the problem was: he was overwhelmed. Robinson was busy learning Al Borges' offense -- a night and day difference in terms of reads and keys from the Rodriguez passing system -- and the more he focused on where everyone was supposed to be on the field and what to do when this linebacker is here vs. that safety moving there, the less he was able to just naturally move through the offense and let the throws happen. The more you overthink things, the more everything breaks down. Denard in 2011 was a great example of that. As he tried to deal with this new offense, the first thing to go out the window was his footwork, and at the major college level footwork is the difference between a well placed seam route and a gift wrapped interception.

As the year progressed and Robinson began to understand the offense more intuitively, his footwork improved and so did his accuracy. By the end of the year both he and Al Borges settled into a groove, the running game was working, and Robinson was able to pick his spots in the passing game, all while knowing what he was doing better than before.

That has largely carried over to this year. Robinson knows the offense well enough that he can work through things quickly without getting hung up on details. This comfort level has translated into better mechanics across the board, and that has been obvious thus far. Both the Air Force and UMass games have featured better passing on the whole from the early season last year. Even against Alabama Robinson threw the ball well, but could do little against such a talented secondary that was literally draped over his receivers.

Outside of that, Robinson has grown as a decision-maker in the passing game. He doesn't force things as much, and he is a little more apt to pull the ball down and run with it. Now, there are always a couple regrettable throws per game, but those aren't going to go away completely. Like I said before, Robinson isn't that kind of quarterback.

What kind of quarterback he is is a capable passer and a dangerous runner that, when Michigan is moving the ball on the ground, can confound defenses with a solid mix of passes and runs. He is a great college quarterback, and while that might not translate to the NFL, it is enough to win a lot of games this year if things go right.

5. Any predictions for the game? Bonus points if you come up with a scenario that crushes the soul of Notre Dame fans in a new and imaginitive way!

God, I wish I could come up with something as painful as the last three years, but the well of ideas has pretty much been run dry short of Charlie Weis kidnapping Brian Kelly at halftime then taking over for him and squandering a three touchdown lead.


In my game preview I picked Michigan in a three point game, but when I really think about it rationally I think this is the kind of game that Notre Dame wins by a touchdown. The Irish front seven is going to be a handful, and Michigan most likely won't have the luxury of moving the ball on the ground with any consistency. This is going to put the game in Robinson's hands, and while I think he finds a way to keep Michigan in it close, I just can't imagine Michigan catches the kinds of breaks it has the last three years.

There is nothing I would love more than to predict with any confidence that Denard Robinson goes off for 500 yards again, but I just don't think that is in the cards. I think Notre Dame leads throughout the game, but Michigan keeps it close until the end.

***
Thanks again to Zach and the guys at Maize n Brew! Be sure to check them out to learn more about the Wolverines!
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