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Alabama's Defense Has No Respect For Your Gameplan

The Morning Tailgate, Bill Connelly's daily college football column, has returned. Michigan knew that simply trying to hammer away on the ground with Robinson and running backs wasn't going to keep the Wolverines in the game. Against Alabama you have to prove that you can do everything, but Michigan simply couldn't.

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We all have a different definition of what balance is in college football. For virtually every television announcer, balance is gaining the same number of yards on the ground and through the air. For Washington State head coach Mike Leach, "Balance, whether you run it or throw it, is getting contribution from all the skill positions."

To me, though, it's slightly different. I tend to take the approach to balance that the movie version of Oskar Schindler took to power. "[Balance] is when we have every justification to [run/pass], and we don't." Balance isn't what you do, it's what you can do. It's what a defense, in watching film and game-planning, has to respect.

And when it comes to somehow gaining yards on the Alabama defense, balance is beyond imperative.

Here's what I said about the Michigan offense in my Saturday morning preview:

It is conceivable that Michigan receivers Roy Roundtree or Jeremy Gallon (combined: 16.2 yards per catch last year) could burn Alabama for a big play, or even two. It is also conceivable that Denard Robinson could break off a couple of solid runs. But consistency will be the key for Michigan in this game. You have to do absolutely everything well against a Nick Saban defense; if you are one-dimensional, they will adapt and suffocate you. If the passing game isn't working both short and long, or if the running backs taking the place of suspended junior Fitzgerald Toussaint aren't taking advantage of everything they are given (and then some), the Tide will slowly bear hug Michigan into an unconscious state. […]

Gallon is potentially great, and he could have some fun battles with Alabama corner Dee Milliner, but Robinson will need to find success in the shorter passing, be it to Gallon, a lesser-known receiver (Junior Drew Dileo? Sophomore Jerald Robinson? Part-time quarterback Devin Gardner?), tight ends Brandon Moore and Mike Kwiatkowski, or running backs Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith. To beat Alabama's defense, you have to make sure you are using every inch of the field and every aspect of your offense. Robinson's legs are fantastic, but if that's all Michigan has going for it, the Wolverines won't be in this game very long.

The Solid Verbal's Dan Rubenstein and Ty Hildenbrandt, making their SB Nation debut Saturday!

It was clear from the start of Saturday night's game that Michigan knew this. From the start, the Wolverines attempted to force Alabama's defense to account for and respect the pass. It probably didn't help the gameplan that starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was suspended, but honestly, I don't think that made much of a difference. Michigan's only chance at offensive success was to prove they could pass, Toussaint or no.

In 2011, Michigan ran the ball 74 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent), 40 percent on passing downs (national average: 33 percent). Despite pro-style intentions, the Wolverines catered to Denard Robinson's strengths for the most part and kept things run-heavy, especially when Toussaint caught fire late in the year.

Against Alabama on Saturday, though, the gameplan was quite different. In the first quarter, Michigan ran just five times on 11 standard downs (45 percent) and just once in six passing downs (17 percent). These are Air Raid percentages. The problem, of course, was that the passing didn't work.

  • Pass No. 1 (First-and-10, Michigan 22, standard down): A play-action slant to Devin Gardner is broken up by Dee Milliner.
  • Pass No. 2 (Second-and-10, Michigan 22, passing down): Robinson tosses a flare to Vincent Smith, who breaks a tackle and gains nine yards.
  • Pass No. 3 (First-and-10, Michigan 34, standard down): A play-action slant to Roy Roundtree broken up by Dee Milliner.
  • Pass No. 4 (Third-and-26, Michigan 18, passing down): This is Robinson's first poor pass of the night. Robinson rolls left, and Roundtree finds a little space near the first-down marker, but the pass is terribly overthrown.
  • Pass No. 5 (Second-and-10, Michigan 29, passing down): Robinson fires too high for Jeremy Gallon 16 yards downfield. Gallon was well-covered by a closing Robert Lester, but a perfect pass probably could have been completed.
  • Pass No. 6 (Third-and-5, Michigan 34, passing down): Robinson overthrows Gardner 20-plus yards downfield. Again, Gardner was well-covered by Milliner, but a perfect pass may have had a chance.
  • Pass No. 7 (First-and-10, Michigan 24, standard down): A quick sideline pass to Jeremy Gallon gains eight yards.
  • Pass No. 8 (First-and-20, Michigan 25, standard down*): Facing a little bit of pressure, Robinson fires too high for Gardner, who is bracketed by two defenders. The pass was off-target again, but honestly, a better pass probably would have been picked off.

    * All first downs are standard downs.
  • Pass No. 9 (Second-and-20, Michigan 25, passing down): Robinson fires aggressively downfield again. Unfortunately, his targeted receiver, Roy Roundtree, has been shoved out of bounds by Milliner, who easily picks off the pass. He returns the interception 35 yards inside the Michigan 20, absorbing a hard hit from Robinson, who went throwing-shoulder-first into Milliner and came up favoring his arm.
  • Pass No. 10 (First-and-10, Michigan 26, standard down): Another quick sideline pass to Gallon, who splits two tacklers and gains nine yards. Robinson's delivery is hitched, either because of his shoulder or because of what he saw as he looked at Gallon.
  • Pass No. 11 (Second-and-1, Michigan 35, standard down): Another unsuccessful play-action slant on a standard down. This one, however, is open but lands too low for Gallon.
  • Pass No. 12 (Third-and-10, Michigan 38, passing down): Robinson fires a nice pass 24 yards downfield to sophomore Jerald Robinson, but Milliner is once again there to break it up.
  • Pass No. 13 (Third-and-3, Michigan 12, standard down): Robinson finds Vincent Smith on a screen, but linebacker Trey DePriest snuffs it out for a gain of two.
  • Pass No. 14 (First-and-10, Michigan 2, standard down): A play-action bomb to Gardner 40 yards downfield falls incomplete. Once again, the pass was great, and once again, Milliner was there to break it up.
  • Pass No. 15 (Third-and-9, Michigan 3, passing down): Robinson throws over the middle toward Gardner, but he is perfectly bracketed by three defenders. C.J. Mosley picks the pass off and coasts 16 yards into the end zone.

The score at this point: 31-0, Alabama.

Robinson's passing line: 4-for-15 for 28 yards and two interceptions.
On standard downs: 3-for-8 for 19 yards.
On Passing downs: 1-for-7 for nine yards and two interceptions.

Michigan's gameplan was exactly what I expected it to be. Offensive coordinator Al Borges knew that simply trying to hammer away on the ground with Robinson (for the game: nine non-sack carries, 37 yards) and running backs Vincent Smith (13 carries, 33 yards) and Thomas Rawls (six carries, nine yards) wasn't going to keep the Wolverines in the game. Against Alabama you have to prove that you can do everything. Other than the fact that the Wolverines targeted Dee Milliner's man (usually Devin Gardner, the backup quarterback who was playing wideout for the first time at the college level), I can't say I have many complaints about the Michigan gameplan. But two things got in the way:

1. The Alabama defense is still the Alabama defense. Despite losing both starting cornerbacks, the Tide still have 2010 starter Dee Milliner roaming around in the secondary. Despite the loss of Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, Alabama still has Trey Depriest around to snuff out well-executed screens for little to no gain. As Kirk Herbstreit said during the broadcast, Alabama does not attack you from every direction; they simply build a fence and force you to figure out a way over it. Herbstreit was talking specifically about the run defense, but the analogy works in regard to the defense as a whole. Perfection in the passing game could have found some exploitable holes, but Denard Robinson's arm is far from perfect.

2. Denard Robinson is still Denard Robinson. It's okay to have flaws. Despite only playing sparingly as a freshman, the senior is still probably going to finish his career with close to 7,000 passing yards and 4,500 rushing yards, and that's just incredible. He is uniquely talented, and few defenses have proven capable of slowing him down (at least when injuries aren't involved). The problem is just that he isn't skilled in the ways it takes to beat Alabama. Almost nobody is. Robinson's legs are a wonderful weapon against all but the country's best defenses, but his arm simply isn't accurate enough in terms of intermediate passing.

  • Passes Thrown Within 5 Yards Of Line Of Scrimmage: 7-for-8 for 59 yards
  • Passes Thrown Six to 15 Yards Downfield: 1-for-5 for seven yards and an interception.
  • Passes Thrown 16 to 30 Yards Downfield: 1-for-6 for 19 yards and an interception.
  • Passes Thrown More Than 30 Yards Downfield: 2-for-7 for 115 yards and a touchdown.

To Robinson's credit, of course, he kept plugging away. After his initial 15 passes, he completed seven of his final 11 for 172 yards, including a 71-yard bomb to Gallon and a 44-yarder to Gardner. He exposed the fact that Alabama might still be vulnerable to deep passing on occasion, but as we learned in last year's Florida-Alabama game, you can't beat the Tide with only deep passing.

(Arkansas' Tyler Wilson will test that theory significantly in a couple of weeks.)

For Michigan, all is not lost, of course. The Wolverines do have to face solid defenses away from home the rest of the way -- Notre Dame on September 22, Ohio State on November 24, perhaps Nebraska on October 27 -- but those are simply good defenses. As far as we know right now, no future opponent can approximate Alabama's overall speed and discipline; Michigan State probably comes the closest, but the Spartans must visit Ann Arbor and are, thus far, incredibly one-dimensional on offense.

As long as he stays healthy, Robinson should have another strong year, and Michigan should challenge strongly for the Big Ten crown. Saturday night's game at Jerry World simply proved that the Wolverines are still not on the level of the nation's most elite team(s). But most of us already knew that. (Most of us.)

For more on Tide football, visit Alabama blog Roll Bama Roll, plus SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

For more on Wolverines football, visit Michigan blog Maize 'n' Brew, plus Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire and SB Nation Detroit.

While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel:

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