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Dr. Saturday

Nine games into its new regime, Michigan is still at the drawing board

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Iowa 24, Michigan 16.
Michigan fans who felt like they'd learned nothing from the Wolverines' 7-1 start weren't sure they were going to learn much about their team today, either, against a mediocre outfit that had already lost to Iowa State and Minnesota and had to rally to escape against Pitt. How much could they learn? Where the offense is concerned, as is it turns out, maybe more than they wanted to know.

Considering the competition, this looks like the Wolverines' worst day of the season. The only team with fewer yards against the Hawkeyes over the first eight games: Tennessee Tech. The only team with fewer rushing yards: Louisiana-Monroe. The only teams with fewer points: Tennessee Tech and Penn State, in a win. This is the same defense that allowed career passing days to Indiana's Tre Roberson and Minnesota's MarQueis Gray in back-to-back weeks. Today, Denard Robinson completed fewer than half his passes for the fifth time this season and added his 12th interception, almost twice as many as any other quarterback in the Big Ten.

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Before their last gasp drive with two minutes to play, the Wolverines had gained all of 249 yards — more than 150 below Iowa's season average — on barely four yards per snap. When that drive put them within three yards of the tying touchdown with 16 seconds to play and the most dynamic running quarterback in the nation in the backfield, the final four snaps of the game went: Incomplete pass, incomplete pass*, incomplete pass, incomplete pass.

There's a lot to question about this offense, specifically: Denard Robinson's run:pass ratio; the persistent presence of backup QB Devin Gardner, to no apparent effect; the persistent absence of an every-down tailback. But it all seems to stem from the basic uncertainty that follows a coaching change: How does a coaching staff with a specific, ingrained philosophy integrate a lineup built for a completely divergent philosophy?{YSP:MORE} Before the season, coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges promised they weren't stupid enough to ask the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year — as a sophomore, no less — to be something he's not. For the most part, that's been true — especially when the offense has sputtered early against the likes of Eastern Michigan, San Diego State and Northwestern.

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Against the best teams on the schedule, though, manageable second half deficits have been cause for a makeshift air show. Against Notre Dame, incredibly, heaving the ball almost indiscriminately after three stagnant quarters actually worked in the fourth. Against Michigan State, it didn't even come close. Today, at least, it came close before coming up short.

But nine games into the season, this offense still doesn't seem to have any good idea who or what it's supposed to be. For all of last year's struggles, there was never any question that the attack was based primarily on Denard Robinson's legs and lungs. This offense doesn't seem to have any such certainty — statistically, Robinson has significantly regressed as a passer in the transition to what was supposed to be a more passer-friendly scheme, and that's with the heaviest part of the schedule (Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State) still to come. The offense returned nine starters from a year ago and doesn't do anything as well.

Sure, the defense has been better, and last week's win over Purdue emphatically warded off the "second half collapse" meme in the air since the loss at Michigan State. But if the Wolverines don't rebound again next week at Illinois, with the Cornhuskers and Buckeyes and another potential 7-5 finish staring them in the face, whatever remains of the good vibrations that followed Hoke's arrival will be washed away by a renewed sense of stagnation.

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* Upon further review, yes, it was incomplete.
Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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