Monday, April 18, 2011

Around the Big Ten: Spring Games

Spring game disclaimers: These are only glorified practices. Every team has fifteen practices each spring, but the spring game attracts far more than 1/15th of the fans' offseason attention. Some players aren't particularly interested in practice, and anyone can have an off day.

To make matters worse, some teams run only skeleton offenses, others run vanilla defenses, and most run both. What we saw this weekend is a reflection of what we will see in the fall, but only a murky one; we can discern the outlines but the particulars are muddled. Finally, almost every observation is zero sum. A missed tackle is a broken tackle. Great pass blocking means bad pass rushing. 

The most valuable things we learn are the things that filter out the zero sum. Who looked slow? Who dropped passes? Who overthrew receivers? These are valuable because they aren't context-dependent. The schemes may be watered down, the systems may not be installed, and players may still be feeling their way, but overthrowing a receiver by 10 yards is always bad. 

Unfortunately, context-neutral observations tend to be negative, because the positives usually have offsetting negatives (good accuracy on throws? Why was the pass defense so bad? Bad accuracy? This QB stinks.) That being said, lets go ahead and over-analyze some scrimmages!


The Positives: Mike Martin is still very good. Devin Garner might have the strongest arm in the Big Ten; he threw one pass 60 yards while moving away from his throwing arm (it was incomplete, but still). The wide receivers showed some ability, especially Je'ron Stokes, who made nice adjustments on a couple of passes. Redshirt freshman Jake Ryan had a nice day, getting a sack and an INT-TD (the sack honestly impressed me more as he kept from doing that thing that most young linebackers do on an end rush and get sucked in too far and lose contain on the outside). The offensive line opened up some nice holes when the offense went into plow-ahead mode, which they'll probably be doing a lot more of under Brady Hoke than under Rich Rodriguez. Denard Robinson is still really fast. Mike Cox had a nice 68 yard touchdown run.

The Negatives: Kickers might be a problem again this year. Denard Robinson had a really poor day throwing, especially when asked to stand in the pocket and deliver a ball accurately 15-20 yards through the air. Decision-making was a problem for both Robinson and Gardner, with both throwing interceptions. Besides from the long TD run from Cox, none of the running backs did much to distinguish themselves, and most of the gains on the ground seemed to be from good blocking, not necessarily good play from the rusher (the Cox TD had a broken tackle, which zero sum means could be good or bad). On that same note, the middle of the line is vulnerable; I focused on junior Will Campbell for much of the scrimmage and he was getting beat pretty easily in one-on-one situations every play while non-existent in the pass rush. The hustle is there, but the results are not.

Penn State

The Positives: Matt McGloin led the offense on a nice touchdown drive, showing moxie and spunk and verve and whatnot (also, some sharp passes). Backup receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder had two completions, including the only touchdown of the scrimmage. The defense looked solid, though no one really stood out. No one was hurt.

The Negatives: The weather, which shortened the game by almost half while rendering the rest almost useless. Like the Michigan/Purdue game last year in which Michigan scored its third lowest point total of the season, the conditions almost certainly made the offenses look worse and the defenses look better than the are.  That being said, Rob Bolden had an awful game, with zero completions and an INT (there was a drop in there, maybe two depending upon how generous you want to be in your definition of drop). It's unwise to take too much from a spring game no matter what, but this was more of a washout than usual; quite a shame for a team whose quarterback competition is perhaps the single biggest question mark in the Big Ten heading into the season.


The Positives: Both quarterbacks looked pretty OK, especially Edward Wright-Baker, who seems to have the inside track for the starting position right now (whatever happens, I imagine both he and Dusty Kiel will get snaps throughout the season). Indiana is set at wide receiver once again, Duwyce Wilson will be just fine as a second option in Big Ten play, and Dre Muhammad hauled in a well-thrown deep ball from Wright-Baker. Larry Black, Jr. looked much better in the middle of the defensive line yesterday than any point last season, suggesting that he may be learning how to use his large frame. Buried-on-the-depth-chart RB Matt Perez had a couple of nice runs.

The Negatives: The running game is still a mess (notwithstanding Matt Perez's success), and whichever quarterback eventually wins the contest will not have much support on the ground. As good as it was to see the passing success (and there were a couple of very well thrown balls by both QBs), zero sum means the secondary was playing quite poorly. Even the third string offense moved the ball a bit, though that was of course against the third string defense too. Kiel threw two interceptions, though in fairness one was the sort of deflection where the quarterback can only shake his fist impotently at the heavens.


The Positives: The wide receivers looked, if not great, then at least deep, with ten different players earning receptions. For the style of offense that Northwestern runs, that's not a backhanded compliment but a legitimate potential strength. Tyris Jones had a couple of nice runs, perhaps demonstrating that the non-Persa running game won't be a pointless void again this season. Redshirt freshman Collin Ellis had three tackles and a sack and looked the part of a Big Ten player, some playing time as a youngster this year could pay dividends down the road.

The Negatives: The fanbase. Come on, Wildcat fans, the weather yesterday in Chicago was idyllic compared to State College. Neither backup quarterback did too much to distinguish themselves, and the offense as a whole was stymied for most of the scrimmage. Could be great defense, or could be awful offense. Like the Penn State game, this practice was hard to read, though for a different reason; so much of the Wildcats productivity comes from the still-rehabbing Dan Persa that drawing conclusions from the Persa-less squad seems silly. Unless, of course, he is injured again.


The Positives: I was quite impressed by backup quarterback A.J. Derby, who looked pretty darn good. He and TE C.J. Fiedorowicz seemed to have a good connection working, but unlike Derby, the Hawkeyes would probably love to get some production from the Fiedorowicz this season. Probable starting QB James Vandenberg looked fine--not spectacular, but fine for the spring game, though he did have one interception and another pass that should have been. Kennan Davis seems to be closing in on the second starting wide receiver spot alongside Marvin McNutt, while redshirt freshman Kevonte Martin-Manley also played well. The punting was solid, which sounds silly but is a little bit of a concern after losing Ryan Donahue.

The Negatives: John Weinke, who had been assumed (at least by me) to be the most-likely backup QB had a horrendous game. Because Derby stepped up this might not be a big deal, but then again, Derby was a Big Deal Athlete Recruit that can play anywhere, while Weinke is just a QB. No one really did anything in the running game, which is a small concern though Marcus Coker figures to have that locked down, assuming that he hasn't already been marked for destruction by the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God.


Confession: I haven't watched the Nebraska spring game yet. Corn Nation has you covered, though, as Husker Mike broke down the game in some detail this weekend. Do go ahead and take a look.