This section examines the reasons that Michigan has started this season 0-2. We are not going to delve into the institutional or larger-picture problems that exist within the program. Instead, we offer these observations as the answers to the question “What’s wrong with Michigan?”
Entering this season, senior quarterback Chad Henne appeared on watch lists for the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award and All-America team.
Now he’s on the injured list.
But that’s not where his problems started.
So far this season, Henne has looked more like the sophomore who struggled without security blanket Braylon Edwards than the junior who excelled despite a young and oft-depleted receiving corps. Throws have been long, short, wide and behind – landing in just about every spot but his receivers’ hands.
Against Appalachian State, Mario Manningham beat his defender deep at least four times. Henne under- or overthrew him on each of those, including Manningham’s late-game, 46-yard catch that set up the game-winning field-goal attempt.
More inexcusable for a fourth-year starter, Henne committed several severe mental errors in the final quarter. Chased out of bounds, Henne threw the ball across his body, directly into safety Leonard Love’s hands. At the time, Michigan trailed by just five and sat at the Mountaineer 25-yard line.
Henne later took a delay-of-game penalty on third-and-five rather than calling one of the two timeouts Michigan – leading 32-31 at the time – had saved. That created a third-and-10 at the Appalachian State 30-yard line, making for a tough third-down conversion and adding difficulty to the potential, and eventually blocked, field-goal attempt.
Henne finished the game 19-of-37, barely better than a 50-percent completion percentage. He wasn’t any better against Oregon, completing 12-of-23 passes before leaving with an injury.
And with running back Mike Hart battling injuries, Henne’s struggles have been magnified. The gameplan couldn’t have been designed with 37 pass attempts in mind.
But it’s not all Henne’s fault. The offensive line has struggled to pick up blitzes, and the younger running backs lack Hart’s pass-blocking ability. Not good when you have a quarterback who has never passed accurately on the move.
It’s been an unexpected regression for the player many considered a key reason Michigan could contend for the National Championship. That’s now out of the question.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr says Henne will return sometime this season. When he does, one question remains:
Will this season be remembered as true freshman Ryan Mallett’s first, or all-time passing leader Chad Henne’s last?
Last season, Michigan’s linebacker trio ranked as one of the country’s best, dominating opposing offenses and anchoring one the top defenses in the nation.
Now one of the players has been stuck out of position on the defensive line, while his former colleagues have been replaced by linebackers almost as bad as Prescott Burgess and David Harris were good.
New starters John Thompson and Chris Graham have struggled to tackle soundly, blitz effectively and shed blockers in the Wolverines’ first two games this season. In addition, Michigan’s insistence on fielding three linebackers (including Shawn Crable) on every down has forced the linebackers to match up with wide receivers and running backs the duo lacks the talent to cover.
Graham – in his fourth year playing – appears to be simply overmatched and outclassed.
Thompson’s situation, however, is a bit more complex
In his sophomore year, Thompson filled in for an injured Graham against Iowa, playing out of his normal middle linebacker position. Recording eight tackles – three for losses – Thompson seemed ready to make significant contributions.
But last season, Michigan’s leading tackler, Harris, rarely left the gridiron (for instance, he was still on the field during the fourth quarter of Michigan’s 34-3 blowout of Indiana). Although Harris’s ability to contribute on every down helped the team, it meant Thompson sat on the bench, missing out on his chance at meaningful playing time.
Thompson’s lack of experience has shown this year. He’s been unable to win sole possession of the middle linebacker spot, even though his competition is redshirt freshman Obi Ezeh – a late addition to the recruiting class who came to Michigan as the 51st best running back in the nation.
That leaves Crable, who has spent most of his time this season in a three-point stance on the defensive line. He has played well, but it’s clear constant battles with the offensive tackles are wearing the captain down.
Three four-star linebackers have already committed to attend Michigan next year. Until then, Wolverine defensive coordinator Ron English will have to play the cards he’s been dealt.
Against Appalachian State, Michigan junior Johnny Sears ran onto the field to receive a kick. Only thing was, he headed in the wrong direction.
Embarrassing in the second quarter. Mortifying in the fourth. But flat-out inexcusable with your team trailing by two points with 26 seconds left in what was about to become the most humiliating loss in college football history.
This play reflects a larger discipline problem. In its first two games, Michigan has committed countless boneheaded mistakes and unnecessary penalties on its way to a pathetic 0-2 start.
Most glaring have been the mishaps on special teams. At the end of the second quarter, Michigan used a timeout when redshirt freshman Greg Banks forgot to go in for a field goal, leaving the team with just 10 men on the field.
On the final play of the game, both Banks and senior captain Shawn Crable blew their blocking assignments, allowing an Appalachian State player to easily block the game-winning field-goal attempt.
What did the special teams coach have to say? Michigan doesn’t have one. That might be part of the problem right there.
But these issues haven’t just been on special teams. After both games, players attributed the loss to little mental mistakes. The kind a team supposed to compete for the National Championship shouldn’t make.
Michigan committed seven penalties against Appalachian State, all of them uncalled for. Three false starts, an illegal procedure, a delay game, a 15-yard facemask penalty and an unnecessary roughness call cost the Wolverines 56 yards.
“We just shot ourselves in the foot too many times,” captain Jake Long said following the game. “We had times to capitalize, get a first down and end the game. . Too many false start penalties, we made some mistakes and just doing that will kill a drive, and you’ll end up losing.”
Just as mental mistakes will kill your own drive, the inability to make tackles will sustain your opponent’s. Missed tackles have been prevalent in both losses; for athletes as talented as Michigan’s, this indicates a lack of focus.
Within the past two months, legal troubles have plagued a number of Wolverines, with charges ranging from aggravated assault to indecent exposure. While no direct connection can ever be drawn between a lack of discipline on the playing field and off it, Michigan’s turbulent off-season can’t be discounted.
“Any off-the-field issues are distracting to a team,” Carr said recently. “You’re trying to deal with those. But they certainly distract your team. How much that had to do with it, I don’t know.”
The one weak spot of last year’s defense was the secondary. So after losing first-round draft pick Leon Hall and the majority of an NFL-caliber front seven that masked its weaknesses, nobody looked for too much from this year’s backfield.
But they probably expected something better than this.
Opponents have victimized the Michigan secondary for six passing scores, five for longer than 20 yards. On all six of these touchdowns, either a tackle was missed or a coverage was blown.
Midway through the first game, two defensive backs had already lost their starting spots. Junior cornerback Johnny Sears – whose development coaches praised throughout the off-season – was benched in favor of a true freshman. Sophomore safety Stevie Brown – a four-start recruit coming into Michigan – now plays behind a fifth-year senior Michigan coach Lloyd Carr nearly didn’t bring back.
One sequence early in the first game epitomizes the backfield’s disappointing performance. On Appalachian State’s third offensive play, Mountaineer wide receiver Dexter Jackson fooled Sears on a simple slant route. Although Brown was in the right position to limit the play to a nine-yard gain, he took a horrendous angle and could only grasp at Jackson’s shoestrings as the Mountaineer sprinted past him for a 68-yard touchdown.
Senior safety Jamar Adams – once a highly touted NFL prospect – was beat on the next touchdown. On a play that began at the Michigan 10-yard line, Adams gave too big a cushion to the slot receiver and was out of position to tackle him before he dove into the end zone.
One of the lone bright spots has been oft-maligned redshirt junior Morgan Trent, who was recruited as a wide receiver.
The problems have occurred despite the return of secondary coach Vance Bedford, who left Michigan after the 1998 season for the Chicago Bears. In 1997, he coached a Wolverine secondary considered best in the nation; now, Michigan’s pass defense ranks next-to-last in the Big Ten.
Cushions have been too big, tackling has been atrocious and Michigan has been completely unable to stop the long play. In the Oregon game, the Ducks torched the Wolverines for three touchdowns longer than 45 yards.
“I think more importantly than being a better tackling team, we need to get people deep,” Carr said. “When you give up big plays in a three-deep zone, you’ve got some problems. And that is something we’ve worked on all spring, we’ve worked on all fall.”
Defensive coordinator Ron English had no better answers.
“(Big plays) are happening in zone coverages; they’re happening in man coverages; they’re happening in fire zone,” English said.
“So I’m soul searching right now. I just want to find a way to give our players the best chance to be successful.”
Eleven games into last season, defensive coordinator Ron English appeared to have turned around the Michigan defense. It made him the rumored frontrunner to be the next Wolverine head coach and earned him a top spot to replace a number of other team’s head coaches.
One-hundred-forty-seven points, 1,953 yards and four losses later, other athletic directors still love English.
But that’s because they know that whenever Michigan shows up on the schedule, English will bring along his porous, stale and outdated defense.
Teams across the country are moving to more spread-oriented offenses. Michigan has done nothing to put itself in a position to stop this style of play.
Ohio State tore Michigan apart. OK, it had Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith.
Appalachian State tore Michigan apart. Not really excusable, but it was the first game of the season for an unproven and inexperienced defense.
Oregon tore Michigan apart. By now, something should’ve changed.
When asked whether he saw any differences in Michigan’s defensive approach after the Wolverines lost their first game, Ducks coach Mike Bellotti had a simple reply.
“I did not, actually.”
Here are some of the adjustments Bellotti might have expected:
Cornerbacks giving receivers less than a 20-yard cushion (Sears was still beat for a touchdown even after giving such a cushion against Oregon).
Defensive backs quicker than linebackers Chris Graham and Obi Ezeh covering his speedy fourth and fifth wide receivers.
The defense’s captain and best player Shawn Crable playing his natural position of linebacker rather than defensive end.
The defensive coordinator relaying plays and making substitutions quickly enough for the defense to prepare properly before the snap.
Michigan didn’t make any of these fundamental changes.
Never mind that Wolverine opponents have nearly a 100-percent success rate on trick plays in the past two years.
In last year’s season opener, Vanderbilt scored its lone touchdown on a fake-reverse halfback pass. Last weekend, Oregon tricked Michigan with a Statue of Liberty play. Later, the Ducks faked it and fooled Michigan for an easy touchdown.
“We worked (the plays) this week because we felt that there were certain things we saw from Michigan’s defense that would make them successful,” Bellotti said. “And the one obviously complements the other.”
It’s certainly more difficult to scheme when you lose four players in the first 46 picks of the draft. No one expected this year’s defense to carry the team like last year’s. All it needed to do was slow opposing teams so Michigan’s high-powered offense could win the game.
Granted, the Wolverine offense has sputtered.
But the defense has stalled.
When Michigan lined up for its first offensive play of last season’s Rose Bowl, the Southern Cal defensive line shifted to its right. Like every college football fan in America, the Trojans had an inkling of what was coming: a Mike Hart run to the left, the same play Michigan called to start each of its 12 games that year.
Quarterback Chad Henne was forced to audible, and a Hart run to the other side gained 11 yards. But the scene was telling.
“They’re a traditional straight-up offense,” Southern Cal defensive end Lawrence Jackson said. “If they line up one way, if they’re in certain formations, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pick out what they were going to do.”
None of Michigan’s opponents this year have had to consult with NASA, either.
Against Appalachian State, the Wolverines began each of their first four drives with that exact same play. With smaller and less talented linemen on the opposite side, Michigan gained five yards on its first run. But the Mountaineers stuffed the Wolverines at the start of the second and third drives, and only a Hart cutback on the fourth salvaged a four-yard gain.
This isn’t even close to the only predictable part of Michigan’s playbook.
Freshman wide receiver Junior Hemingway in the game? Michigan’s running the ball.
Fullback shifts left just before the snap? Run left.
Fullback shifts right? Run right.
Hart offset? It’s a pass.
Three wide receivers line up on the strong side with Mario Manningham in the middle? Screen pass to No. 86.
And these are just some of the observations of two college-aged sportswriters. Imagine what patterns and trends actual college football coaches who watch countless hours of Michigan game tape can identify.
With a core of skill-position players as talented and experienced as Henne, Manningham and Adrian Arrington, Michigan should open the playbook up a bit. We’re not asking for a fake Statue of Liberty culminating in a Henne jaunt into the end zone, but some variation couldn’t hurt.
Opposing defensive coordinators may never need a Ph.D. to stop Michigan. But let’s at least make sure they’ve graduated from high school.