spoiler alert: i linked this
The fact of the matter is that, by the end of the game, I wasn't angry, outraged, or embarrassed. I was philosophical. This team opened this season by stealing games from ND and Indiana. On the basis of those thefts, we as a nation began to believe that we were actually good. We aren't. We are much, much better than last year. But we are not actually very good yet. And that's OK.
The objective part of me thought about opening this diary by saying "Hey, we lost to a Top 15 program. No surprise. In line with expectations. Don't freak out and let's get ready for Illinois." And there is some truth to that. But what it misses is the utter disarray of today's game. We were outclassed today. And do I dare say that this team quit a little bit in the second half? I was watching closely. But what I saw in Donovan Warren today in the second half may have been a dinged up knee -- or it may have been some disgust and disillusionment. As I offer my observations, I remind the Michigan faithful that we remain one game ahead of plan, with every intention of defeating Illinois and Purdue, and with our first RichRod bowl game a high likelihood. So let's begin:
1. I remain of the view that RichRod's two QB system is a mistake. In my last diary, I argued that RichRod needed to make Tate his formal starter, with perhaps one "change of pace" possession a game for DRob. I reiterate this view. I was perplexed by a lot of the negative Tate commentary on the liveblog today. I thought he had a middling game. He wasn't great. He certainly wasn't bad. What stuck out for me was the appalling number of drops in this game. Koger was off his game today. I've officially had it with Kelvin Grady -- he annoyed me (and Beilein) on the hoops team, he now officially annoys me on the field. I don't want to see Kelvin Grady anymore, especially since he is often taking snaps away from Marvelous Martavious. (Is anyone on this team more improved than Martavious Odoms? I absolutely love that kid.) Tate had pretty mediocre pass protection today. And his receiving corps disappoints. I really feel like Mathews and Hemingway have not stepped up and demonstrated that they deserve to be the number one receiver at Michigan. All in all, I thought Tate was ok today. I could not believe when, with the score 25-10, Michigan tenuously in the game, but only one score from making it a one score game, out comes DRob to promptly fumble. I like DRob. He's a great kid. But he plays quarterback like I play pinball -- he has a "I wonder what will happen if I do this" approach. His pick today was a disaster pick -- total failure to see the play. His fumble was part of a disturbing tendency towards fragility. I see a future with DRob. I do. And I know that I have been a dismalist on his playing time the last few weeks. But come on -- turnovers are death. And DRob turns the ball over at a higher rate than anybody I've seen.
2. "Other than that, how did you enjoy the play Mrs. Lincoln?" My feelings about GERG remain a puzzle. This will engender catcalls, but I actually thought the defense played pretty well today after the first drive, with one obvious exception: the secondary is the worst secondary I have ever seen. And let's call it like it is -- Kovacs isn't even the worst player in our secondary. The whole thing just doesn't work. I don't understand our use of man coverage in the red zone. Isn't man coverage for athletic secondaries that can handle it? I am not sure if I can continue to say "Other than the holocaust that was our secondary, I thought we played pretty well." But I guess I will. I have never seen less talent in the secondary. It's about speed, brains, and geometry. Our guys don't do any of it very well. And for the first time, I have to say, that includes Donovan Warren. Wow did he appear out of sorts today. I find it difficult to blame our secondary play on GERG. From where I sit, this was another game where the defense played ok, but then got run out onto the field repeatedly after turnovers and three and outs, often in terrible field position.
One additional note: many on the liveblog commented about concerns going forward. I share them. Is it not clear that this defense will be worse next year than it is this year? It's fine to say that we should remain positive and loyal to the Blue. But I am seriously concerned about this defense going forward. I am reading Brian's recruiting updates increasingly with an eye tuned solely to the defensive recruits. It is not a good sign that I am looking for true freshman to contribute next year.
3. Let's not forget how solidly Penn State played. Before I get ahead of myself, hats of to Penn State for a terrific game plan. It went something like this.
Galen Hall: Michigan's secondary has one guy with a fake leg and another guy that's blind.
Joe Pa: Do you think we should throw a lot of passes?
Galen Hall: Yes I do.
Penn State came in and absolutely shredded our secondary. Daryll Clark is a solid, senior leader who looked poised. Penn State knew what it wanted to do today and did it at will. I think even if we play well, we still lose this game. I got the distinct sense that they were letting off the gas.
4. We need to consider mixing up our sets. I really felt like we were on the cusp of a great running game from Brandon Minor today, only to see it dissipate. Obviously, as we fell behind, we needed to pass more. But I think we need to recognize that against teams with good linebacking, the stretch runs toward the sidelines are going to be less effective. They seemed to take forever to develop, and even when they did, there wasn't much there. Conversely, I thought our interior lineman were doing a nice job opening holes in the middle. I think RichRod needs to have the flexibility to consider putting Tate under center when Brandon Minor looks like he has it in him. It's especially true once Molk goes down -- it reduces snap complexity which, once again, was an issue. And it has worked to great effect, as in the power drive we had against Iowa. I offer for consideration -- does RichRod need to consider mixing up his sets a bit more than we currently do? I am leaning towards yes.
5. We need to be candid about where RichRod is at. RichRod has not yet demonstrated the capacity to defeat a solid Big 10 program. Given the sorry state of the Big 10, this is an issue. If you want to claim Wisco from last year (or Minnesota), go ahead. I think Wisco is actually in a bad place under Bielema, and Minnesota is a collection of talented players coached by morons. I am concerned that in RichRod's second season, we are tied for second to last in the Big 10, and have no reasonable view to defeating a winning program. I'm not calling for him to be fired. I'm not bashing him. I'm making a simple statement: when you make $2.5 million a year, you need to be able to compete in your conference. We can do the "Lloyd left the cupboard bare" meme and the "It's a new system" meme as much as we want (and I do it a lot). But I think it's fair to say that I am officially calling for success in Big 10 competition next year. Not a championship per se. But Top 3 in the conference. This is the last "rebuilding" year. It is time to serve notice on RichRod that next year needs to be 9-3 or better with quality wins over quality opponents.
1. Preseason record predictions. There has been a lot of commentary regarding Michigan's performance so far. I think it is safe to say that the large majority of Michigan fans are pleased with the team's performance and view it as exceeding expectations. I know I am in that group. I predicted that we would be 5-7 this year, but also predicted that the qualitative direction of the team would be highly positive and a significant improvement over last year. I was less interested in record, per se, and more interested in whether Rodriguez' system would make strides. Lucky for me, I have hopes to get both quantitative and qualitative improvement.
But before I get ahead of myself, we have to be candid about the record. Pre-season, I predicted we would defeat WMU, EMU, Indiana, and DSU. I thought we would win each of those games convincingly. I thought we would lose badly to ND, MSU, and Iowa. So where I predicted a 4-3 record, instead we stand at 5-2. A cynic would argue that Michigan's record, alone, does not demonstrate the sea change for which many are hoping. But...
2. Michigan's competitiveness has exceeded expectations. The but, in this instance, is a big one. First, Michigan played with, and defeated, an ND team that is showing some sparks of life and has a solid record of its own with multiple wins over ranked-ish teams. Second, Michigan was extremely competitive in the Iowa game and, from where I sat, could be said to have outplayed Iowa and deserved to win. While the MSU game was deceptively "competitive" in the sense that it went into OT, it was nowhere near as close as the Iowa game. Still, much can be said of the defensive performance in that game, which allowed our offense to come on late and tie it. The sum up is that Michigan has been competitive in every single game this year, and won most of them -- and this competitiveness materially exceeds my qualitative expectations of how they'd play. Given that I spent last year with my hands covering either my mouth or my eyes, this year has been both fun and better than I expected.
3. We stand on the precipice. So where do we go from here? The rest of Michigan's schedule is as follows: Penn State (home), Illinois (road), Purdue (home), Wisconsin (road), Ohio State (home). If you look at that lineup, you can credibly believe that Michigan could win every game. If you remember the Indiana game and are sobered by visions of a mediocre Indiana team moving at will in the Big House, you realize that Michigan could also lose all five of these games. So how will it go?
The fact that the Penn State game is at home is significant. With our frosh QBs, we've learned the importance of the home field. It is also significant that Penn State has a steady but uninspiring offense. I'd rather play a team with a solid defense and ho-hum offense than vice-versa. I am predicting we upset Penn State.
We are lucky that our next road game is at Illinois. I have always believed, and this year proves it, that Ron Zook is good at distributing duckets on the recruiting trail, and horrible at coaching his mercenaries once they decide to attend. I get the feeling that Zook has lost this team. I think Michigan is favored on the road, and I think they win it.
Next comes the trap game. Am I the only person that thinks that Purdue doesn't suck that bad? Something happened to this team after their loss to NIU. I thought they outplayed ND (admittedly without the Blond Vajajay for much of the game) and I thought they outplayed OSU. Did OSU turn the ball over a lot? Yes, but the turnovers weren't gimmees, they were caused in the main by good defense. I think the Purdue game could go the way of the Indiana game and be up for grabs in the last minute. My crystal ball doesn't see this far. I can't predict the Purdue game. For argument's sake, let's call it a win. Michigan is now 8-2.
Off to Camp Randall. Wisconsin is not good this year, but they are never that bad either, and they are always tough at Camp Randall. Notwithstanding lots of improvement from Tate and Denard, I think the two are rattled to be back out on the road. M loses and falls to 8-3.
And then the Game. There is a great deal of anticipation by the faithful this year, and for good reason. I have not been impressed by OSU in any game I have seen them play, including USC. I just don't see much of an offense, and certainly not one that exploits Pryor's physical talents. The defense is reliably good. Tressel has been criticized roundly this year, but he has demonstrated himself year in and year out at being good at preparing for Michigan. Unfortunately, my gut says we lose one more year. We are almost there. But I think the vibe that I thought would obtain (an angry, talented Michigan) is going to be missing. If anything, I think OSU may be the more angry and embarrassed team -- especially if they pick up a third loss against Iowa. Plus, you can expect an inspired game from Pryor, amid recent catcalls that he should have said yes to RichRod. I think the Bucs beat us at home for one more year. Michigan falls to 8-4.
4. Am I smoking crack? Potentially.
5. What are the keys going forward? Four keys going forward. First, I think RichRod needs to make up his mind, a bit, that we are NOT in fact a two quarterback team. Tate Forcier is the only quarterback who demonstrated the ability to drive us consistently with both passing and throwing. I think Denard is great and may be the better QB every year but this one. I also think he's a good change of pace to be deployed in the second quarter. But I think Forcier is a rhythm quarterback and I think taking him in and out isn't good for his mojo. For whatever reason, I think RichRod has a preference for Denard and has been playing Tate principally based on Tate's excellent on-field performance. I'm in favor of giving Tate all the series but the occasional change of pace, and I'd let him know it.
Second, we need continued improvement from the improving offensive line. Molk's return could be large, and we should all applaud Moosman for his efforts, notwithstanding a rocky start in East Lansing. If this line continues to improve week to week, especially in pass protection, I think we are going to be a tough out.
Third, we need improved linebacking. If I recall, Brian's UFR saw improvement in the Iowa game from Brown/Mouton/Ezeh. We need more of it, quickly, if we are going to stay with teams like Illinois, Purdue, and Ohio State.
Fourth, if the secondary play can hold where it is at, I'd be happy. I know we had the two blown coverages in Iowa. Still, I thought those guys have improved dramatically from the exorcism that was the ND game. While it would be great to wish our secondary would magically become a lockdown all the way across, you have to be reasonable. If they can play like they did against MSU and Iowa, I will take it.
6. One final point. It is eminently possible that this whole thing melts down and we lose four of the next five and finish 6-6. My view is that I am less interested in our record than in our attitude and player development. I am happy with where we be at, and think you should be too.
1. GERG is doing his job extremely well. At the time of his hiring, I questioned the wisdom of bringing in the former head coach of a losing program like Syracuse. I have since become a believer. The Michigan defensive line last night was absolutely terrific. I thought our linebacking was improved over MSU. Our corner play was, I thought, great. Obviously, the safety play was terrible, but when you have the always-hustling but not fast walk-on in Kovacs, and a disappearing Boubacar who is necessitating weekly personnel changes, what can you do? What really impresses me is the defense's ability to come on after an offensive turnover in the red zone and hold them to a field goal. One obvious point: our ineptitude on third and very long is more than a little weird. I don't think I've seen Michigan give up conversions on 3rd and 25 in consecutive games. Still and all -- the takeaway for me is that GERG is dramatically improving our defense and that they played well enough for us to win.
2. Our offensive line is also improving. First, hats off to Moosman, who has learned an entirely new position in just three weeks. I didn't see one errant snap. When I saw Iowa's defensive line eviscerate Penn State, I thought "Man are we screwed." I can't say enough about how well the O-Line set up the run game. If anything, I spent much of the game complaining that we weren't running more. Two of our scoring drives involved almost solely running -- and the first one (with Tate at the helm) involved a lot of I-formation and other non-spread sets. The O-Line got it done on the running front, and was passable in pass protection. Good job.
3. The team continues to show tremendous heart in hostile environments. I have never been to Kinnick, but I am told it is an Autzen-like place to play -- very devoted fans, who are loud and really come out for their team. To see this team, with two frosh QBs, a number of walk-ons, and a number of guys playing out of position, fight and fight and still have a chance to win notwitstanding all that went wrong was, for me, a key sign that Michigan is still Michigan. We never quit on you and we will fight to the end.
I think you can legitimately chalk this game up to turnovers (although you need to remember that we got a pick 6). If you view turnovers as something that (with respect to fumbles) is somewhat random and (with respect to picks) is part of Tate's continued learning process, this is one of the better ways to lose a game.
The takeaway -- this team is better than we hoped, and has a fighting spirit that impresses each week. I love this team. For my money, if we play that game ten times, we win 4 or 5 of them. If we play it at home, I think we win 6. The Vegas line was clearly way off.
A closing concern. From my vantage point, it has become faddish on Mgoblog to support Rodriguez no matter what. Rodriguez critique is typically roundly condemned. So I will start with my traditional caveats in the hopes of staving off some of the typical pushback: I am a supporter and continue to believe that we were very lucky to luck into a coach this good.
That being said, I have been watching Rodriguez closely and am not impressed with his in game demeanor. The guy rips into players virtually every time they come off the field. He was in Forcier's face 3 or 4 times. You have this nagging sense that Rodriguez's brain is wired to say to himself "Given that I am offensive genius, when things don't work out, it must be someone else's fault." Ripping Tate a new one repeatedly isn't being a coach -- it's being a brat. Saying "Tate needs to get that fixed" as you run off the field at the end of the first half when you are referring to a fluke slip of the hand is just petty. And allowing your fit of pique to lead you to take the ball away from a guy who has led three stunning fourth quarter comebacks is to allow emotion to control over reason. Through the entire first half, I was begging Rodriguez to run more. I really questioned the playcalling -- I think you have to dial it back a bit on the road and try to manage the game more. And no, I am not surprised that we turn the ball over a lot on the road when we have a super-complex offense that requires every player on the team to spend the last ten seconds of the pre-play NOT thinking about what they are going to do, but rather looking over at Rodriguez as he "makes adjustments" to "what he is seeing in the defense." Lloyd and Bo weren't ones to spare the lash -- but they did it with purpose in specific situations where it was merited. They didn't do it as a habit to vent stress. Hell, Bo was too busy shredding the refs to divert precious time to shredding his own players. I am not yet seeing an on-field leader in Rodriguez. An offensive coordinator and a brilliant one? Absolutely. A head coach? My jury is still out.
1. It is hard to convey how close the game wasn't. I take my hat off to Dantonio and Co. for their game plan. State absolutely dominated this game. Their 130 yard drive was an impressive display of consistency notwithstanding their efforts to self-destruct. Other than a relatively ineffective running game (I'm excluding QB scrambles), MSU played extremely well on both sides of the ball. The only thing I would pretty furious about if I was a State fan was Dantonio's decision to sub in Nichols at different points in otherwise successful drives. He was far less effective than Cousins. I have seen reporting on ESPN that Cousins was banged up, and that may explain the 4th quarter, but there were several moments in the first half where Nichols came in and absolutely killed an otherwise solid drive.
2. Paradoxically, I was pretty thrilled with the defense. Obviously, the defense gave up a lot of yards today. But today is the day when I became a true Greg Robinson believer. Our defense is seriously lacking in athletic talent. But it seemed that GERG was using the linebackers to help out in coverage in a way that help band-aid our secondary's woes. In addition, JT Floyd looked not horrible today. There was an obvious cost to the way they deployed the linebackers -- no back up containment when the defensive line broke down in the middle. But at the end of the first half, I looked up at the scoreboard and said "Hat's off to Greg Robinson." He had a great gameplan that worked well. And, as per usual, he made great adjustments in the second half. I thought the defense delivered today in every way it is reasonable to expect.
3. It took us awhile to adjust to our inability to run. State's linebackers did a great job on the run game and were clearly part of a comprehensive scheme to shut down the read option. It was impressive. RichRod adjusted well in my view, and began passing, but we were seriously hampered by drops in the first half. Koger drops a ball -- I think "Hey, he's a tight end and having those guys running full speed down the field is tough." Kelvin Grady, though, is starting to get on my nerves. From where I sit, that guy drops more than he catches. With the substantial improvement of Martavious Odoms, I'd like to see more Number 9 and less Kel. Grady.
4. I am concerned about playcalling. Complaining about play calling is obviously an age-old Michigan meme. I have been listening to people bitch about Bo's playcalling since I was eight years old. However, I feel like our playcalling today had a "let's try this; ok, let's try this" feel to it. I didn't feel like we had a philosophy that was behind our playcalling. I think the best evidence of this is when they stuck Denard Robinson in in the 3rd Quarter with Michigan's ball at the 20. We very much needed to get untracked and drive the ball at that point. We really hadn't all day. I love Denard and see the upside, but he's not the type to engineer a lengthy drive, especially because he's still learning much of the playbook. I had a distinct feel that Rodriguez was grasping at straws and was kind of hoping Denard might do something amazing and bail us out. That's obviously not a ridiculous hope, but MSU's defense is far from overwhelming, and there was real reason to think each time we got the ball that we were about to get untracked. The Denard series was a mistake.
At this point, we have to discuss the fake punt. There was a part of me that was getting concerned enough that I thought about just lining up and going for it. Then my brain said "Yeah, right. Even if it works, you still have 80 yards to go. Cost-benefit doesn't work out." And then I watched in confusion as Zoltan started running and thought "Why are we rugby punting?" And then I thought "Holy God, we just faked a punt on our 15 yard line." I love RichRod. I do. But it is absolutely inexcusable to make this call in a close game. It demonstrated a frustration and lack of discipline on his part that he simply cannot afford to have. I viewed that playcall as an example of a head coach panicking simply because his normally magic touch wasn't working.
In general, for three quarters, I genuinely felt like we had no flow to our play call. Each drive felt like everything had to go right in order for the drive to succeed -- you felt like there was no margin. Dropped ball? Dead drive. Sack? Dead drive. All the while, State was the complete opposite. No matter how bad their third and longs were (and God Almighty did they convert more third and longs than I have ever seen), you sensed that they had a chance to convert. I felt like we lacked that type of resilience.
5. God I love this team. All of the foregoing being said, I saw the heart of a lion out there today. I absolutely LOVE the fact that with RichRod at the controls, this team is literally never out of a game. With limited exceptions over the years, Michigan simply is not a team that does well coming from behind. We have been built as a horse that gets the lead and then holds it. This team is different. These guys are punchers. With four minutes to go, I honestly felt like we had a chance. Obviously, a lot of things came together to make it happen, but I would have NEVER thought we were still in this game under Bo/Mo/Lo.
6. The State of Our Union is Strong. Look at where these two programs are. MSU has three years under Dantonio. From where I sit, they look like a sailboat that is going in circles. I predict they end the season .500 or with a losing record. By contrast, in our second season under RichRod, our record is up, our recruiting is up, and you are really starting to see the possibilities.
It sucks losing to Sparty. I get that. But we absolutely stole two games already this season. We have two walks on playing defense. Our quarterback is a freshman. Our line is only OK at best, and that was before transfers. If we were going to lose today, this was a good way to lose. I am not deterred.
The purpose of the intro is to give some background into How I Became Deeply Steeped In the Coaching Philosophy of Bo Schembechler and His Progeny. Between 1979 and RichRod, I have only had three coaches to watch: Bo, Mo, and Llo. Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr were both former assistants and, from my perspective, had similar coaching philosophies, as one might expect. In short, you can view 1979-2007 as a fairly monolithic period from the standpoint of Michigan coaching philosophy.
The arrival of Coach Rodriguez has thus been equal parts jarring and exciting. During the EMU game, there were a couple moments that made me reflect on the differences. I record them here.
Before we start, a couple of bona fides: I am a big RichRod fan, believe he was a great hire, and have no general complaints. I am the type of Michigan fan who thought (a) we would be 5-7 this year and (b) expected to be very happy with that so long as the directional arrow was pointed in the right direction from a quality and improvement standpoint. I am thus candidly shocked and awed that we are 3-0 and look as good as we do. And yes, I am also enough of a happy horseshit type of guy that I occasionally wonder where we will be ranked going into the Penn State game if somehow we beat both MSU and Iowa.
So, two big differences I see between Coach Rodriguez and his Schembechler ancestors.
1. Rule #1: Don't start practicing for next week until the opponent in front of you is dead. Late in the first half against EMU, Michigan was starting to roll in the running game and was up 24-10. It was clear that you could hand off to Brown or Shaw seven times in a row and score. EMU just didn't have the horses. I think if Bo/Mo/Lo were coaching, they would have done just that -- hand off to Carlos or Mike or whomever and run left, center, right until the score was 45-10 and there were seven minutes to go in the 4th quarter. RichRod did something that is very different, in my view, than what Bo would have done: he put DRob in to get him some reps for the specific purpose of practicing his passing. I was not concerned to see DRob per se -- I understand the philosophy behind the rotation of him and Forcier. But the fact that they put him to start working on his passing when we were only up by two scores and it was still the first half troubled me. In Bo's day, my feeling is that we killed our opponents dead and THEN started working on things for next week. To me, this felt a bit premature and I was nervous about it. Obviously, the final score of the game did not bear out the concern. But I was not happy to be only up seven at half against a spirited opponent, and felt like this is an area where RichRod could adopt some additional conservatism in the Bo/Mo/Lo style. We have a lot of developing to do, especially with DRob. I get that. But we need to make sure the game is in hand before we start screwing around, and this one wasn't.
2. Offensive versus Defensive Coordinators. It is interesting to note that Bo, Mo, and Lo were all principally defensive-minded guys. Moeller actually had the unusual distinction of serving as both an offensive and defensive coordinator, but he was a linebacker as a player and a defensive coordinator first. I think this dramatically impacted Michigan's philosophy in ways that are well known to readers of Mgoblog. Michigan was big on getting leads, and then sitting on them by running out the clock. With Rodriguez, a marked change in the offense is that if we get the ball on our 30 with 57 seconds left in the half, there is no question we will try to get points. RichRod is always looking to score. Under the Bo and Progeny years, there was no question that we would run into the line three times and go to the half.
There is a flip-side to this that I am a little worried about. It strikes me that some offensive gurus who become head coaches spend their coaching lives fascinated by the concept of offense -- and basically outsource the defense to the defensive coordinator. RichRod makes me nervous in this respect. It is odd to think about the fact that Michigan's defense this year and last are just absolutely terrible. I cannot remember worse linebacking in the last 30 years. What is really odd about all this is that it is the offense that was completely new (and had the corresponding mis-match in personnel) and was cited as the reason to be patient with RichRod. There was no real reason, other than English leaving, to think that the defense would be anything other than a Michigan defense. (I know, we had significant graduation after the 2006 season -- my point is, there wasn't any special reason to envision that we would completely fall off the map defensively.) I have moments where I worry that while he is fascinated by the spread n shread, that RichRod just doesn't get defense and relies on others to do it for him.
So -- a new era under RichRod is continuing to develop more and more. The excitement of our quick strike offense is new to Michigan fans -- for years, it has been the type of thing we feared, not one we thought we might one day employ. But the aggressiveness can overlook some of the benefits of the conservatism that was so deeply engrained in Bo -- a conservatism that in the end, I would argue, served him well in terms of reliably turning out winning seasons. (Many would argue with me and say Bo's conservatism is why he was abysmal in bowl games.) And there is a real concern on my part that the defense's problems are more institutional than one would first think -- something I never would expect to say about the Big Blue.