You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 12:17 p.m.

Answering fans' mostly despondent questions after Michigan's loss to Michigan State

By Kyle Meinke


"Why is Hoke not involved with any play calling?" these Michigan fans that traveled to Spartan Stadium last weekend may be thinking. Well ... if they're not wondering that, Thom from Bellbrook, Ohio was.

The No. 18 Michigan football team (6-1, 2-1) is taking a week off. We, however, are not.

I've received countless emails this week lamenting the play of quarterback Denard Robinson, blasting the playcalling of offensive coordinator Al Borges, excoriating the perceived dirty play of Michigan State in Saturday's 28-14 loss and one asking when coach Brady Hoke would be fired.

Seriously, I did.

Anyway, it seemed like a good time to run our first mailbag of the season, something we'll do on and off again as the season hits the home stretch. Without further ado, on to your (mostly despondent) queries:

Why didn't they roll Denard out of pocket? Why no screen passes? Whatever happened to where Denard just turns and throws to the receiver standing at wideout and let them be playmakers? Playcalling I thought was terrible. I think Denard also needs help on reading defenses.

-- Scott from Milford, Kan.

Scott, there's a lot here, but I generally agree with you on all points except the first. Let me take these one at a time.

  • Robinson has been good and bad this year, but he's been consistently bad on rollouts. I like the idea of getting him into space because he's short, so his vision is better out there, and of course he always is a threat to run. However, rolling him out does not put him in a position to succeed in the passing game because his mechanics tend to abandon him most when he's on the move.
  • Where are the screens? Outstanding question. Robinson's best work has come either on short passes or jump balls, and Michigan can go to the latter only so much -- especially against a team like Michigan State, which was applying consistent pressure throughout the game (tallying seven sacks). The Wolverines should have gone to screens, or bubble screens, to punish MSU for its aggressive line and blitz packages. When I watched the tape, though, I didn't see a single bubble screen. Puzzling.
  • Where are the short passes? Robinson's best passing game this season came against Minnesota, and this is something offensive coordinator Al Borges went to several times in that game. He completed his first 11 passes and cruised from there. Receiver Jeremy Gallon was particularly effective in this role. I think he was targeted once in this capacity against Michigan State. Again: Puzzling.
  • As for reading defenses, this really might be the thing Robinson does worst. It seems, sometimes, he knows to whom he'll throw before the snap, and he'll track that receiver no matter what the defense does or gives. That's why he sometimes throws into triple-coverage when there's someone else wide open. His vision and decision making have been every bit as frightful as his accuracy -- maybe worse.

Why is Hoke not involved with any playcalling? I know he thinks it's cool to not wear a headset, but he needs to be involved. Simply deciding to "Go for it" is not where a head coach's responsibility ends. Then he passes off the responsibility for the play call on Borges? Cowardly. Fourth-and-inches and Michigan runs that? I've seen kids in the front yard draw up better and more effective plays than that. In fact, even kids would know to sneak it.

-- Thom from Bellbrook, Ohio

If there is one man not concerned with "looking cool," that man must be Hoke. I mean, he's the guy who noted after the rainy Western Michigan game "I know I look real big on HD." He would never wear pants again, if Dave Brandon would let him. (He'd at least wear shorts.)

To your point, though, Hoke isn't involved in the playcalling because he's "not an offense guy," he said. By that, he means he has little expertise with coaching and calling an offense. That's why he hired Borges, someone used to calling plays and taking the reigns of an offense. That frees Hoke to focus on defense, where he does have expertise.

I understand your concern, but I think this is a gesture of great strength. First, it shows Hoke can identify weaknesses in himself, then compensates for them. Second, it's a sign he trusts his staff, and has no problem delegating. Every successful coach has these two qualities because, in the end, one cannot be hands-on with all three facets of the game and 115 players without stuff slipping through the cracks.

Or going crazy.

MSU plays dirty? It's called football. The Wolverines are notorious for being sour losers! ... If Denard Robinson can't take the hits, maybe he should not be playing football. No sympathy here. The press needs to give MSU some credit for ONCE. They are the better team in Michigan. And, yes, there are plenty of Spartan fans near Ann Arbor.

-- Carolyn from Saline

You're right. Michigan State is the best team in this state, and few have said otherwise ((certainly not me). Not even the Wolverines have said otherwise. Watching a guy like center David Molk, one of the toughest guys I've ever seen -- physically or mentally -- admit he was out-toughed, with his tail between his legs, spoke volumes. Michigan, simply, has accepted it was beaten fairly and squarely, whether or not there were "dirty plays."

And, for what it's worth, Michigan hasn't once said the Spartans played dirty, even though they were given several chances to do so Saturday and Monday. Now, that's not to say they aren't saying something different behind closed doors -- and maybe they are, especially regarding the punch to Taylor Lewan's throat, the frightening helmet twist of Robinson and the late hit that knocked Robinson from the game -- but they aren't letting on publicly. And, really, that's the way it should be.

You can read more about why I think Gholston deserved his one-game suspension here.

Is it time to move Troy Woolfolk to safety? I mean, Blake Countess is making serious noise at corner. He played well Saturday again.

-- Damian from Markham, Ontario

Valid point, Damian. I'm not sure whether Woolfolk will move to safety -- I know he practiced there some in fall camp -- but I do think you'll continue to see Countess steal snaps from Woolfolk. Last week, Woolfolk played only some of the first series before being supplanted by Countess, and deservedly so.

Countess will make mistakes along the way because that's what true freshmen do. But, right now, there's no question who is performing better. Woolfolk might be best served just getting some rest in an effort to get his mind and body right. In the interim, Countess needs to be the guy.

I thought the coaches did a great job at adjusting to what the other teams gave them, but offensively this wasn’t the case on Saturday…..I hope this isn’t starting a trend.

-- Terry from Green Brook, N.J.

When Hoke started blaming himself and his staff at the beginning of his first (and only) news conference this week, my mind immediately jumped to Michigan's inability to adjust to MSU's blitz packages (notably, the corner blitz) and their anticipation of the snap count. That's egregious and inexcusable.

Borges is a coordinator who relies on feel for so much of his coaching and playcalling. How could he not have felt this? He's up in the press box during games, where he'd have a bird's-eye view of his offensive line -- and, in turn, his quarterbacks -- being bludgeoned.

Say what you will about that fourth-and-1 call (I still say they had to run there, but I also understand the flip side), but not countering the blitzes nor remedying the snap-count anticipation is unconscionable.

David Molk said that MSU out-toughed Michigan. If that is true, why did they out-tough them? Isn’t toughness what Hoke has been trying to get across to these players since Day 1? So, how could this happen? I don’t think MSU out-toughed them, I just think that the MSU players are better than the Michigan players right now. These are still RichRod’s players who were purposely recruited smaller for the spread and I think, once the first two Hoke classes get established, that this will change.

-- Jeff from Livonia

I think MSU did "out-tough" Michigan, although I hate that word. What does that even mean? But, the spirit of what Molk and others are saying is the Wolverines lacked the fortitude to hold up against the Spartans' defensive line and blitzes. That, obviously, was true.

The problem isn't as much the size of Michigan's linemen (Mark Huyge and Molk were recruited for Lloyd Carr's system, for example) as it is their inexperience with the new blocking schemes. They were exclusively zone blocking before, but now are switching to the power-running schemes. Less experience means more thinking. More thinking means slower reaction. Slower reaction means ... well ... it means your linemen end up on their cans.

Right guard Patrick Omameh seems to be struggling more than anyone at this point, especially when he pulls.

I'm dampening my protest over the dirty play by MSU for this reason: I heard an MSU player say after the game that their coaches are teaching them to "play angry." If that's all it is then: I say it's time for Hoke & Co. to teach the Wolverines to PLAY ANGRY. And I hope that's what they do starting with the next game.

-- Jack from Ann Arbor

I think most of the struggles up front have to do with technique, but attitude certainly plays into it. The offensive line will have to find some tenacity if Michigan is to beat teams such as Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State, each of which feature big, meaty lines like Michigan State. None are as talented as the Spartans' front, but they're of that ilk.

Do you give this team any chance against Nebraska? I honestly don't see what changes much from that debacle I watched on Saturday.

-- Chris from parts unknown

Definitely ... maybe. I didn't like this game for Michigan coming into the season because it came after back-to-back road games against Iowa and Illinois, and before the big rivalry game with Ohio State. That seemed to be a brutal point on the schedule for a game against a premier opponent.

Now, though, the Cornhuskers are revealing themselves to be less premier than originally thought after being blown out by Wisconsin and nearly losing to struggling and short-handed Ohio State. Chinks in the armor? Maybe.

Michigan also catches two other breaks: The game is in Ann Arbor, and Nebraska will be without star defensive tackle Jared Crick, who tore a pectoral muscle and is out for the season. After the Michigan State game, it's pretty clear that, unless drastic changes are made -- and that might not be possible with current personnel -- the Wolverines will struggle against big, physical defensive lines. So, for the Cornhuskers to lose their three-year starter, and one of the Big Ten's best defensive lineman, is a boon to Michigan's chances.

Why would a coach remove the most dynamic player in college football, and replace him with a sophomore quarterback, against the nation's No. 1 defense, in a hostile environment?

-- Daniel from Normal, Ill.

I like the philosophy behind the two-quarterback sets. It gets valuable reps for backup Devin Gardner, who is a hit away from being your starting quarterback -- and that is becoming increasingly plausible, considering the beating Robinson absorbed the past two weeks (he left both games, and didn't return against MSU). So, getting Gardner experience is good insurance.

However, taking the most explosive player in the conference, and maybe the country, out of the game entirely is perplexing. Borges has talked about how he doesn't like to take his starting quarterback out because it upsets his flow, yet that's exactly what Michigan did against MSU.

And Robinson needs all the flow he can get.

What is this team's identity? It's not toughness. That was exposed Saturday. It's not a power running team. It's not a physical, stop-the-run defense. It's not a high-powered passing attack. There is no identity. And isn't that part of the problem?

-- Thom from Bellbrook, Ohio

Michigan has a lot of problems right now, no question, but I'm not sure a lack of identity is one. The Wolverines have a changing identity, which I think is what you're getting at, and it's an amalgam right now of the old system and new. But, again, I'm not sure doing a lot of things necessarily means you lack identity. That, in and of itself, is an identity.

I think on defense, the identity is bend-but-don't-break. There's a lot of head-scratching plays, but they are tackling much better (for the most part), preventing big plays and getting turnovers. That's why, with largely the same personnel as last year, Michigan is giving up 14.7 points per game instead of 35.2.

On offense, their identity is multiplicity. You're right -- it's not a power-running team or a passing team, but it is a kitchen-sink team. Borges will call and do whatever needs to be done to move the ball. You can question Borges' play calls, or his inability to adapt to blitzes against MSU, or Robinson's inability to pass the ball. Those are fair game. But, Michigan's spread-West Coast hybrid still is an identity.

Even if it's a maddening one at times.

Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.



Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 1:20 p.m.

Realistically, we shouldn't be surprised by the loss to MSU. They did win the big ten last year and Michigan had about the worst defense in the country. Not just the big ten- the country. The almost lost to Massachusetts! MSU played the best game I have seen them play. If we win 3 more games, stay close in every game, and not get blown out in a bowl game to an SEC team I'll be happy.


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 12:14 p.m.

I have no regrets with Hoke, but cant help but wonder what kind of internsity a Jim Harbaugh coached Michigan team would have brought to the MSU game. I bet we win that game and Harbaugh runs off the field after a swift pat on the back for D'Antonio! Anyway I suspect we will bounce back next week with a beat down of the Boilermakers but that still wont tell us what we really have. It wont be till the Nebraksa game that we are able to discern whether this team "is different than last years" like they have been telling us...(IMO). I would take some issue with the opionion that Molk and any of his senior classmates are mentally or physically superior with regard to toughness, as none of them have ever beaten MSU or OSU, and even Molk prefers to headbut freshman to get ready for a game versus headbutting his fellow seniors to get them ready for a big game. I hope by the end of the year we have a signature win to validate THIS IS MICHIGAN.


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 4:21 a.m.

MSU fans can laugh all they want... for this year. They earned the win - despite that the Wolverines are known to be uncharacteristically undersized and definitely in a transition year from the Easy Pickings For Anyone state of the last three years. The ultimate truth is: MSU has benefitted from beating a nearly non-existent Wolverines team for 3 years running and beat a "fairly good" transition team this year. MSU gets four Easy-Deezy Points, big deal. Dantonio "rescued" the Spartans and even he has only a bit over .650 win / year average. Carr, Moeller and Bo all had better than .750 wins/year average. Before that: FOR DECADES, MSU sat with Illinois and Northwestern in the seats BEHIND the drivers seat while Michigan and Ohio State took turns driving. That arrangement will resume in 2012 and forever after. Enjoy your stay at NUMBER TWO in the B1G, MSU - after this year, you're going to be happy with No.3 for as long as Real Spartans wear skirts. Thanks Kyle, for the invite and for picking some good questions from readers. Your answers are just about 100% in line with the opinions here. I think it will be interesting to watch for better play calls in the next few games. I sure hope Denard shows his grit and gets in his groove. Go Blue! Forget MSU!


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 3:07 a.m.

Get off the ledge, everything will be fine. Hoke is going to right the ship and Denard will remind us all very soon why he is a legit Heisman trophy candidate. In the mean time, use the bye week to cheer against teams in our division, and of course for Wisconsin to beat MSU. They will choke away their lead in the division and we still have a chance to win it. GO BLUE!!!!!!!!!!


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 12:39 a.m.

"Cake" schedules that most teams now like to pad the starts of their seasons, especially in the BCS era, play a part in whats wrong as well. Going 5-0 or 6-0, when the opponents are MAC bottom-feeders for the large part, doesn't really give much of a weather gage to really judge what you have on the field, it's just too bad in this BCS geared system that we now have, a fan has to wait half the season to see just what kind of team one has-- And Damn, the season ticket holder has to sit through all of September, watching the likes of EMU, etc... Before they get a glimpse of the faults or abilities their team really has. But if you want to chest bump your Beer buds or pound your pleather sofa over these "scrimmage" games. Go ahead. It just cements the slappification of the Woverine fan base, in my opinion, anyway.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 11:26 p.m.

I'm just not going to be convinced that MSU actually "beat" UM last Saturday....UM actually "beat" themselves. Talk about being "out-toughed," personal fouls, etc., but they were right there in the 4th quarter ready to tie the ballgame through all that adversity. I'm sorry, but when you are 6-0, a coaching staff's rhetoric should not be...we are still a year or two away. Because guess what, our coaching staff came up with such a vanilla game plan and coached that game like we didn't have the players to compete with MSU. Was MSU that agressive or was the UM coaching staff just extremely passive with the game plan? There was asolutely no sense of urgency or attack, attack, attack! At least Borges owned up to his gimmick call on the 9 yard line in the DFP but what was the excuse on the 1st turnover? They actually needed to take a page from the Neb-OSU game. How did Neb beat OSU after OSU just dominated them for 2 1/2 quarters? They let Martinez be Martinez and attacked! I know it sounds a bit "schoolyard-ish" but Denard Robinson can beat anybody with his legs. He needed to be let loose....sort of like on the first drive of the game. The frustrating part to me is you can tell these players have come a long way in a short period of time under these coaches (especially the defense). But then why didn't the coaches believe in their "current" players and play them to their strengths? Putting Denard in the shotgun and having him read defenses while a consistent blitz is coming up the middle isn't playing to his strengths. Obviously, the first drive was scripted but that offensive mind-set should have been that strategy the whole game. In my opinion, the coaches handed MSU the game....nothing else. And for all the MSU fans boasting, I understand, it feels good to win. After so many years of getting "worked,"even your boasting and bravado just comes across "little brother-ish"....If your tea


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 4:02 a.m.

Please keep the "little brother" and "MAC" comments a'coming!


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 10:05 p.m.

I don't think Brady Hoke is the answer. We could have done better. (Les Miles).


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 3:33 p.m.

2020: best to wait at least until season one under Hoke is over with, that way hindsight will always be 2020. I am sure you are responding to your initial gut feeling, so be it; but give Hoke a chance. Rich Rod was 3 and 9 his first year and your gut feeling of him not being the answer would have been a good one. Revisit this whole thing after the bowl game, and don't forget who's players are on this year's team roster.


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 1:45 a.m.

Completely disagree. Time will tell. I am very confident Hoke will prove to be the second coming of Bo.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 10:39 p.m.

Les miles wasn't interested, and frankly, he has no control over the team he's currently coaching. Jim Harbaugh was heading to the NFL. He had no interest in coaching college ball anymore. Brady Hoke would have walked from San Diego to Ann Arbor for this job (in the middle of winter, barefoot, uphill..both ways!) Hoke was destined to be here. He is the answer. He is a Michigan man! Give him a chance.

Lorain Steelmen

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 8:47 p.m.

Good read! I thought before the season began that the msu game, would be the 'trap' game. Partly because of the 'hostile road environment', partly because state would have 2 weeks to create a game plan, and partly because Dantono would send his 'headhunters', after DRob to knock him out of the game. All of which turned out to be true. What actually surprised me, was the abitlity of the UM defense to keep the Wolves 'in the game'! I under estimated Mattison's progress there. I also over estimated, the spartan offense, which frankly, is not very good. All that being said, as I watched the second quarter, I felt the UM offense missed chances to 'get up' on the Spartans, failing to build on the work of their defense. UM lacked a 'sense of urgency'. I knew at halftime, that Dantono would get 'nasty' in the second half. Again, no surprises there. My concerns now, are, that for all his talk about emphasizing the msu and ohio games, Hoke actually brought his team in, without a sense of urgency, or emotion. They were flat. They played 'slow', and listless, even though UM was supposed to be the 'faster' team. Any coach has to play to his 'strengths'. But UM did not do that...and that my friends is coaching. The other thing that still bothers me, or concerns me is, as follows. I always said that Rodriguez would succeed or fail, in direct relation to how his defenses performed, since he was an offensive minded coach. He 'farmed that out' to two guys, and neither one, was any good. Conversely, it is my feeling that Hoke will succeed or fail, in direct relation to how well his offenses perform, since Hoke is a defensive minded coach. Hoke has 'farmed that out', to Al Borges, and frankly, I'm still waiting to see if Borges is any good. He certainly was not equal to the task on saturday, and msu did nothing that was a surprise. UM did not make Narduzzi pay for his gambling blitzes, although there were receivers open all day. Only time will tell. .........Go Blue!


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 1:44 a.m.

I see your point about Borges but I'm still all in with Borges. Bad day in East Lansing, but he strikes me as the adapt and move on type of guy. Plus, did you notice there was no Borges or Mattison in the post-game or Monday pressers? Both guys went to the mattresses to get things right. Hoke -- because he's the HC -- went in front of the cameras and took the heat. Personally, I wonder if Borges got "spoiled" (so to speak) by being OC at schools with unusually fair weather. He may need to realize that the Big 10 has bad weather games and that's when the Big Uglies have to do their work. My very strong sense, Mr. Steelman, is that Borges is up to the task. Or he'll die trying.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 6:53 p.m.

Kyle, Very insightful and well thought out article. A good read. Thank you. The game against Michigan Agricultural College did expose our weaknesses, and showed that coach Borges does have some flaws, but we are on the right track. The more games we won this year, the more fans were starting to believe that, miraculously, we were near perfect. This team has a ways to go, but we'll get there. Sooner than later. We've got a great recruiting class coming in next year, after a year of experience, and another great recruiting class....look out! Moo U gets the leftovers.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 6:09 p.m.

The play angry comment/question is a good one. MSU taught the Wolverines a lesson in angry, especially on your home turf. Look for the Maize and Blue to play at a more intense level against Purdue. Under Brady Hoke, they have improved on this aspect of the game compared to a year ago. The coaching staff and offensive play calling probably learned a lesson on what plays to run in various situations. We will all have trust Al Borges on this one and let things play out for the remainder of season. The players must execute better as well. This team does have a long way to go but still have a 6 and 1 record to show for it. They know they can stay in hunt for the division title as long as they win. In order to do that, many of these issues brought up must be corrected. The only thing bothering me is Brady Hoke's own goal of winning a Big 10 title every year, including this one. Realistically, nobody was drinking that kool aid before the season started and not even after 6 straight wins. It has taken Dantonio 4 years to get to where they were last year. Hoke can do it sooner but immediately. I hope he proves me wrong.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 5:34 p.m.

Lee, hope you enjoy this, but MSU winning streak will come to an end next yr. Where Michigan will start the domination of MSU all over again the next 20 yrs. Bty, had the refs did their job on every thing they messed up on, the outcome may have been different. Also, its funny that MSU needs two weeks to prepare for Michigan to and in the process learns of Molks tendency which did give MSU defense and advantage. I will note that MSU did out coach Michigan coaches and that primarily won MSU the game. Im still a firm believer that Michigan has better athletes and were just outcoached.

Blue Marker

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 7:40 p.m.

@azwolverine, MSU gave Michigan chances to win the game....Michigan didn't take advantage. Plus, Michigan got a few bad brakes. Like the lateral being called an incomplete pass with the ref standing right there. And the taunt on the pick six should have negated the score. MSU was the better team, they won now it's time to move on. No Michigan fan should take Purdue lightly.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 6:21 p.m.

I believe Michigan was both outplayed and outcoached. The fact that Michigan was going in for the tie with 6 minutes to play is actually pretty amazing. And UM still had a chance with 4 minutes to go. With two weeks to prepare and with all the dominance shown on the field, Michigan still was resilient enough to not let this game completely get away...or perhaps MSU was just not good enough to put it away. I think it's a bit of both.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 5:02 p.m.

Lucky Wisconsin! At least Ghoulston won't be there to try to kill their quarterback!

Rod Johnson

Sun, Oct 23, 2011 : 3:08 a.m.

Fortunate = lucky.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 5:34 p.m.

Why are they lucky? They are just fortunate that Ghoulston can't control his actions and acts like a middle school kid. He needs to mature, he is a great player, but has no head on him!