spoiler alert: i linked this
SAYING GOODBYE TO 2013
The news regarding Mitch McGary’s upcoming back surgery and the rather unfortunate result of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl have, at least in my mind, put a sad cap on what has been a mostly frustrating 2013. I thought that I might burn one further diary as an opportunity to say “goodbye” to this year and some of its memories, but also to say that I am hopeful that 2014 will bring some pleasant surprises to Michigan.
First, allow me to focus on the positive, for it wasn’t all gloom. Some examples:
We were more or less inches from being the NCAA Champions in hoops. That was a phenomenal run down the stretch, and at least to me, Trey’s Trey – as I like to call it (inspired by a fellow MGoBlogger) – lives on as one of the best Michigan basketball moments in a long time. If you’re like me and remember the Fab Five but were college-aged during the dawn of the Ellerbe years in basketball around here, you might have also been looking for something special to happen and that season and all of its ups and downs certainly qualifies.
We have over two dozen varsity sports, and several of them were also doing quite well in 2013. For example, Michigan softball captured its sixth consecutive (I think this is right) conference championship and made an appearance in the WCWS. In men’s gymnastics, we won the NCAA championship and also accomplished this great feat in men’s swimming as well, if I am not mistaken. This is not a comprehensive list, and I realize a fair number of people here probably don’t follow much beyond football, basketball and hockey, but I point these out to illustrate the good that was going on here in Ann Arbor.
Even within the context of the football season, it was not entirely awful. Granted, the peak of the season’s hype was probably UTL II and that was the second game of the season, but we were pretty much in control for the entire game and it was overall an excellent experience. It was perhaps what we wished the entire season could have been on some levels, but it produced positive memories for me in any case. Even in each individual game, typically we could find some individual plays or moments that made us feel a little better about things even if the holistic view of the season gave us some fits.
Now, all that being said, 2013 obviously had some downer moments. A couple of the major ones:
Michigan hockey found itself watching the NCAA tournament on television, not from an arena, and it was the first time a little over two decades, I believe. It was a disappointing finish to what had been a very un-Michigan season compared to what we had become used to with Berenson at the helm. These things happen, but that doesn’t make it easy to watch necessarily. Fortunately, we’re off to a much better start in the new season to date.
Finishing a rather frustrating 7-5 season with a bowl loss didn’t make us feel any better about the year on the whole either. We watched a team that simply seemed out of alignment, if you will, and couldn’t run on all cylinders consistently. We watched football that was – at times – technically unsound, if you will, and we were quite rightly unhappy about it. We could talk about a lot of specific issues, but that’s what the board is for and I am sure that we’ve analyzed them past death. At the end of the day, we’re Wolverines through and through, but it wasn’t an easy season on the board, to be sure.
Most recently, we found out that we could very well lose Mitch McGary for the season because of the surgery he will have soon (at the time of this writing, it is soon anyway). I know this weighs heavily on our estimates of performance for conference play in basketball, which now starts in mere days. It definitely was not welcome news, and it even prompted one MGoBlogger to suggest that we cover a fictional basketball season. Strangely, I found myself entertaining the idea, as I had grown that tired of the year by that point.
There is more, of course, but you get the idea, I think.
If there is a conclusion here, hopefully it is that shit happens, and it is frustrating when it seems like it is only piling up around us. My sincere hope is that we can go into 2014 with some optimism and that it is, in fact, a better year for the sports that are currently having some struggles. In the end, I know we wish all of our teams nothing but the best.
Go Blue, friends, and here is to a new start in 2014.
All information can be found at USCHO.com
|Team||(First Place Votes)||Record||Points||Last Poll|
|2||Ferris State||( 9)||14- 2-3||934||2|
|3||St. Cloud State||( 1)||11- 2-3||876||4|
|4||Providence||( 3)||13- 2-3||869||5|
|6||Boston College||12- 4-2||742||7|
|14||Notre Dame||10- 7-1||368||13|
|18||Lake Superior||10- 7-1||126||18|
Michigan falls four spots after the GLI disaster.
Minnesota is the clear #1 with no team getting more than nine votes.
Our next opponent Wisconsin moves up 1 spot to #13 after sweeping UAH.
Past opponents in the poll are #2 Ferris State, #6 Boston College, #9 UMass-Lowell, and #19 Nebraska-Omaha. New Hampshire and Ohio State are receiving votes but are not ranked.
|Team||RPI||W-L||W-L%||Win% Rank||SOS||SOS Rank|
|3||St. Cloud State||.5988*||11-2-3||.7812||4||.5303||7|
There isn't much change here because most teams haven't played since the beginning of December.
Michigan falls five spots in the RPI this week. Losing to Western Michigan hurt our RPI, but we took a big hit losing to Michigan State.
Big Ten Standings
The Michigan-Michigan State game was non-conference so there's no change in the Big Ten standings.
Michigan enters a crucial stretch of the schedule. We are off for two weeks before going to Wisconsin, then the MSU series at JLA and East Lansing, before Wisconsin comes back to Yost for two more.
In Michigan athletics, it has been a year that volumes could be written about. They have, actually, but most are unfortunately housed in medical records across UMHS. There was missing the tournament in hockey, missing expectations in football, and missing a national title in basketball. There was Kevin Lohan's knee, Devin Gardner's foot, and Mitch McGary's back. There was sadness, frustration, and disappointment.
Then, in a place few expected, there was hope. A strange and slightly uncomfortable hope borne of early season victories over legitimately good teams. Hockey rose to being ranked #3, a ranking that seemed almost too high for a team with a young, turnover-prone defense and offensive weapons yet to break out. Yet the wins kept piling up, and Michigan found themselves having only the Great Lakes Invitational between them and the meat of the all-important B1G season.
The Great Lakes Invitational began with a game against Western Michigan, a familiar opponent from the former CCHA in an unfamiliar environment. Playing outside has a certain novelty to it, but it also exposes one to all of nature's elements. Exposure turned out to be the prevailing theme of the weekend, as all of Michigan's weaknesses were on full display in the Tigers' den.
Michigan vs. Western Michigan December 27, 2013
GLI Game 1
UM 1 WMU 0 6:35 SHG
Compher from Clare
Michigan is on the penalty kill when Clare wins a battle along the board, spots Compher up ice, and chips the puck out of the defensive zone. Compher catches the puck, drops it (look guys, I made it like FoxTrax! /ducks), and has an auto-breakaway in front of him.
Compher goes backhand-forehand-backhand-forehand. By the second time he goes to the backhand the goalie is absolutely frozen and looks like he expects the shot to be in his chest protector. The puck, however, is still on Compher’s stick. Compher tucks it inside the goal post for a shorthanded tally.
Where Michigan would be without Compher.
UM 1 WMU 1 10:11
Berschbach from Oesterle & Pitt
Michigan can’t clear the puck from their defensive zone. Three players get bunched up in the middle of the zone, but no one can get a stick on the puck or chip it out. Western retains possession and moves the puck down the wall. Serville moves to cut off the pass to the area behind the net.
The problem here is that de Jong leaves the front of the net to cover the man behind the net, but no one is checking the guy who’s open in the slot. By Serville cutting off the pass behind the net and de Jong floating back to cover the player behind the net Michigan has double covered one guy and left the front of the net wide open.
Nagelvoort butterflys immediately to stop a quick backhand, but this leaves him vulnerable when Berschbach switches to the forehand. Nagelvoort can’t move across laterally fast enough to stop the shot.
UM 1 WMU 2 15:48
Kessel from Killip
Centerice wrote on his blog about how much trouble Michigan’s defensemen were having with beating a heavy forecheck, and this is a good example of exactly that. Bennett doesn’t move the puck to his partner and instead gets tangled with Western’s one forechecker against the wall. This allows Western time and in turn allows additional Broncos to get into the Michigan zone.
Bennett has a second chance at the puck but can’t get it back from Kessel, who has just entered the zone. Kessel’s toe drag freezes Nagelvoort long enough for the shot to squeeze past him. It wasn’t the most difficult shot to stop (there was no one screening in front, Nagelvoort had a clear view of the shooter), but the offensive chance should never have developed for Western in the first place.
UM 2 WMU 2 5:24
WMU passes and passes and passes their way around the neutral zone. Eventually someone loses their edge and falls down, which creates a loose puck with no Western players nearby and Lynch in prime position to pick it up.
Lynch shoots just before two defenders collapse on him. The shot is about as perfect as they come, just under the crossbar and over the goalie’s blocker. If ever there was a shot that could be dubbed a “laser” this is the one.
UM 2 WMU 3 4:41
Pitt from Oesterle & Hafner
DeBlois tries to bark out assignments, likely telling Serville to take the man along the boards in case the puck carrier passes. In the meantime, DeBlois gets walked around. Still, Michigan has a diamond of coverage and should be able to lock down the wings and at least put one guy on the puckcarrier.
Downing is the last man back, and he goes for the poke check. If you’re wondering how that went please refer to the cartoon above and yes, I’m available for commission work if you’re interested.
Downing then makes things worse by attempting to hit the puck carrier. He’s young and he’s talented and hopefully he learns from this, but what he needs to do is turn and try to send the puckcarrier to the corner instead of attempting to knock him down. There are ways to neutralize guys that don’t involve hitting, and hopefully these subtleties are picked up quickly by Michigan’s young defensemen. Alternative, Downing could go for the hit if he has support behind him but in this case there is none; as I mentioned before, he was the last line of defense in front of Nagelvoort.
Michigan vs. Michigan State December 28, 2013
GLI consolation game
UM 0 MSU 1 1:23
Ebbing from Cox & Draeger
MSU charges Michigan’s zone with a 3-on-2 advantage. It’s pretty textbook, and Michigan has this defended as well as they can.
Ebbing shoots and Racine sort of stabs at the puck with his glove. Stabbing at a puck doesn’t usually turn out well, and whether it’s a mechanical issue or just rust the puck gets behind Racine. I’m guessing it’s rust, though, because after giving up this softie Racine settled in and made some really remarkable saves throughout the rest of the game.
UM 0 MSU 2 7:32 PPG
Berry from Chelios (not that Chelios)
Michigan’s on the penalty kill here, and they’re seven seconds away from killing in the penalty. In what would become the theme of the weekend, it seemed like they’d make it through this trouble spot, things were fine, ok, OH COME ON ARE YOU SERIOUS. Michigan takes away the pass to the MSU player in the slot, but…
…that leaves Berry wide open on the other side of the ice. He shoots it over the glove of Racine and Michigan State’s lead is increased.
Berry then pretends to hit a home run because haha get it they’re playing in a baseball stadium you see and when can this year end seriously.
UM 0 MSU 3 13:52
Darnell from MacEacher & Boyd
No analysis for this one because the people that make the highlight film have a heart and did not want the rest of us to suffer any longer.
My favorite album of all-time...sadly fitting for the 2013 football season
I'm taking a brief break from grading the position groups to
comment vent about the Copper Bowl and the program in general. Brian's post today was alarmingly similar to my feelings (usually he is far more emo than I am) about the game and the program in general.
What Brady Hoke and his supporters (myself included) has always been able to hang his hat on is that his teams play hard. They don't always play well, but they do play hard. Always.
The Copper Bowl was not just a failure to play defense (we allowed 6.56 yds/play and let KSU covert 7 of 11 third downs) or score TDs despite a surprisingly efficient first-half offense (finished the game at 4.92 yds/play...but only had 53 plays), but it was a failure to show-up.
This sums-up our 2013 season
After spending the entire season trying really hard and not getting good results due to a variety of factors (youth, play-calling, missed assignments, etc) the team was in too much pain to try to crack another coconut. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison's defense--for the first time--simply didn't appear to have the will to put up another fight.
Those who believe the guillotine would be too kind of a punishment for Al Borges after this season might not want to admit it, but the offensive gameplan was pretty effective. Shane Morris has an unbelievable arm and can make throws that no Michigan QB since Drew Henson could even think about, but his decision-making isn't there yet, as evidenced by what happened late when he was asked to read the whole field and make throws into 8-man coverages. Borges understood this and designed a screen game that let shane make throws but avoided forcing him to pick which guy to throw to. We moved the ball and even tried a fade to Funchess in the endzone...but couldn't score a TD. The offense appeared to be giving effort for at least a few drives, but couldn't get it done. Then they gave-up too: we didn't even hurry when we were down 24-6 with 8:06 remaining.
For the first time in Brady Hoke's tenure, the team simply didn't appear to try. This is sad, alarming, and needs to be addressed. Obviously, Greg Mattison did not become a bad coach between the Ohio game and this debacle. And Hoke did not lose his powers of motivation. But what is clear is that if you give your full effort over-and-over and get nothing but pain, at some point, your body might just say, "not today."
I am someone who believes in looking at the whole picture. The 2013 season's failures are not on the shoulders of just one person (or even two or three) in my estimation; rather a confluence of many unfortunate factors fused into a nuclear disaster. And while there are many reasons for the meltdown, there must be some accountability for what happened in that bowl game.
All that said, if we put together a 10-win season in 2014 and win one of the MSU/OSU games (or both) we will be right back in the hunt as a B1G contender, and the positive momentum could push closer to our goal or returning to national prominence. On the other hand, if we slog to an eight-win (or worse) total in 2014, we risk becoming solidified as a second-tier team...until we re-build again.
Make no mistake about it: that bowl game showing has very real consequences. For the first time, a Brady Hoke team didn't even show-up. And that means 2014 just became even more important to the future of this program and the job-security of everyone on the staff.
Late in the 2013 Copper Bowl there was a two play sequence that epitomized Team 134. First, Shane Morris threw a nice pass to Jeremy Gallon for a 22 yard gain. That catch moved Gallon past Braylon Edwards into first place for most receiving yards in a season for a Michigan receiver. On the very next play, Morris threw an interception that was returned to the Michigan 7 yard line, thereby proving that we cannot have nice things, at least not this year. I guess you could extend that sequence by a couple plays to include the resulting Kansas State touchdown. Too often, especially early in the season, the offense put the defense in difficult situations and the defense was not able to make a stop. We blamed the offense and Al Borges for the early season woes that extended throughout the season. But that just masked the fact that our defense was not up to the standards of the traditional Michigan Defense. The Ohio game and this Copper Bowl finally exposed our defense. Digging through a boxscore to try to explain defensive deficiency is a difficult task. But that's what I'll try to do.
Burst of Impetus
* Michigan won the toss and rightly deferred. The idea is to let the game get started and let our true freshman QB - in his first start - calm down before throwing him to the wolves. On K-State's first drive, they faced four third downs. They converted all four. The first time our defense stopped K-State on 3rd down, we were down 21-6 and there was only ~6 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. In fact, on K-State's 2nd and 3rd drives, they never even got to third down before scoring TDs. In a game where we needed everyone to step up and help out our backup QB in his first start, the only one who stepped up was our backup QB.
Who's on First?
* 24 players recorded a defensive stat for Michigan. K-State had 19 players record a defensive stat. This is something I've harped on all season long. On the first drive of the game, I saw numerous subs get into the game. Are you telling me that our guys are getting tired 10 minutes into the game? I want the best guys out there who give us the best chance to win. I want guys to get into the flow of the game, read the queues and start figuring out the offense. Instead, there is a constant revolving door where guys are being shuttled in and out before they get a chance to get into the flow of the game or break a sweat and they spend more energy sprinting to and fro the sideline than they do playing the game.
* Of the 9 players who recorded 4 or more tackles, 4 were middle linebackers. Have you ever seen another team split playing time between the first and second string MLBs?
* We only recorded 4 TFLs, as K-State's line was continually driving our line off the line of scrimmage. I can understand a beast like Carlos Hyde getting significant YAC, but K-State's starting halfback was doing the same thing, and he's about 5' 7", 160 pounds.
* Spielman said something about how he asked Mattison who his best defender was this year, and the first thing out of Mattison's mouth was "Frank Clark." Against Ohio State, Frank Clark had one tackle. Against Kansas State, Frank Clark had one tackle. When your best defender is averaging 1 tackle per game in his last two, something is wrong.
* Say what you will about our defensive backs, they did have a penchant for getting interceptions and breaking up passes this season. Against Kansas State, we had 0 interceptions, 0 passes broken up, 0 passes blocked, and only 1 QH. The DBs were giving up way too much cushion, and even then, Countess was beat deep on a double move. The turf looked suspect, which may have caused some of the hesitancy, but at some point don't you have to change your cleats or your gameplan to account for that?
* In the previews, we read how K-State's main offensive weapon was WR Tyler Lockett. So naturally, UofM single covered him all game and gave him a huge cushion on critical third and short situations. I asked this of Borges earlier in the year, and it applies equally well to Mattison after this game, did he bother to scout K-State, at all?
* Shane Morris finished 24 of 38 for 196 yards, exceeding all sane expectations for his first start. He did throw a late INT, but that's understandable. The high completion percentage was a result of numerous short throws, but for the most part, he was accurate and on target. The one thing that was missing was a little more accuracy on a couple long balls.
* Morris also showed decent pocket awareness, only getting sacked one time.
20 Pound Cheeseburgers
* As Ace pointed out, our two leading rushers were our QB and Tight End. Our running backs should be made to watch how K-State's little Hubert ran. I get it that the offensive line generated zero push, but eventually someone has to break a tackle or make someone miss. Our 4 RBs combined for 8 carries and 13 yards. Our offense was slightly better in not giving up so many TFLs, but that's because we rarely had the ball. K-State had 5 TFLs for a total of 13 yards lost. Hey, I'm looking for positives, no matter how small.
V. Sinha Legends Jersey
* Jeremy Gallon caught 9 balls for 89 yards with a long of 22. He set two Michigan records in the process, one for consecutive games with a reception at 39, and the other for single-season receiving yards. All season, we were concerned that Gardner was focusing in too much on Gallon. Well, 9 of Morris' 24 completions went to Gallon. Could it be, the guy just gets open and catches the [email protected] ball, garnering trust from his QBs? The biggest question mark next year - besides the offensive line, of course - will be who steps up to take Gallon's place? Even if it's by committee, that's a lot of offense that needs to be replaced.
Norf and Souf
* Norfleet had one nice end-around (which technically was a pass reception) for a 9 yard gain, and promptly never saw the ball again. Thanks, Al.
* Yeah, they were bad. We did average a net of 40.6 yards on 5 punts, so at least that unit performed well, but the kick coverage was atrocious. Meanwhile, our punt return team got an incomplete grade, as K-State only punted once.
I'm an international umpire
* Brought this section back just to comment on the Umpire, Matt Jordan, who showed more athletic ability than anyone on our defense when he dove into the pile after K-State's first fumble to see who made the recovery. Dudes got mad skillz.
I was born in 1970. I started going to games in 1976. Michigan always won. I went to the Rose Bowl in '78 and saw Michigan lose for the first time, by 7 points to Warren Moon and the Huskies. That day I learned that Michigan doesn't always win, but for the next two decades, you could be sure of one thing - Michigan would have a shot at winning at the end, even if you extend that definition to include a Hail Mary / on-side kick combo.
To quantify that feeling, I went back through the Bentley records. In the 70's, Michigan lost 2 games by double digits, and the worst loss was by 16 points to Minnesota. In the 80's, Michigan lost 7 games by double digits, and three of those were the year Harbaugh broke his arm. In the 90's, Michigan lost 10 games by double digits, with the two worst losses being by 20 points. In the aughts, we lost 17 games by double digits. The worst was a 35 point loss to Ohio in RichRod's first season, but the game I remember most as being a wake-up call was the 2002 Citrus Bowl loss to Tennessee by 28 points. How could a good Michigan team lose by 4 touchdowns? It just didn't make sense. Lloyd got the program back on the right track until '07, when Oregon embarrassed us by 32. Now we're in whatever this decade is called, and so far, through 4 seasons, we've already had 13 double digit losses. Yes, 6 of those were in Rich Rod's last season, but we had 3 last year and 2 this year. Brady has to turn things around in a hurry if we don't want to experience another decade worse than the last.
Which brings me to my final questions from this season. First, what do I want for Michigan football? I'm a realist, at least sometimes, and understand that we're not going to win every game, but I want us to be competitive in every game. I want to think we have a chance of winning just about every game. How does that happen? In my 43 years of watching Michigan football, the answer is not having a modern offense that can outscore the other guys, it's having a shutdown defense that can keep you in the game when your offense is struggling either due to turnovers or your QB having a bad day accuracy-wise. Can Borges construct an offense to score enough points? Frankly, I don't think that's the right question. Rather, can Mattison build a dominant defense? He has before. I think he will be able to again. It just takes time. We've got to have safeties he can trust, lock down cover corners, the Man in the middle, size up front, and a healthy JMFR wreaking havoc from the wings. Can we get there in 2014? Time will tell...
This will be a super-abbreviated version of Best and Worst. The game didn’t end until well into Sunday, which for a father of a not-quite 2-month old is akin to suicide by sleep deprivation, so I caught it on DVR. Rest assured, it was a quick watch. Plus, the game was the perfect microcosm of this past year, so there really isn’t anything “new” to add except at the fringes. So if you want me to rail against the coaching staff, the playcalling, the lack of coherent run-blocking, etc., feel free to re-read literally any of my diaries after Notre Dame.
Now, on with the Best and Worst of UM’s fall from grace into the BWW/Insight.com/Copper Bowl.
Best: Mama Said Knock You Out
One meme proliferating across this site in recent weeks is “death to 2013” and how this year of UM sports is the worst in memory. While I contend any year when one of your major programs plays in the national championship game and has a player win all of the national POY awards can’t be that bad, the struggles by football and hockey were unexpectedly traumatic. And so, in the same week we learn that Mitch McGary will miss the rest of the year with back surgery and the hockey team was swept out of the GLI, it is fitting that the final blow to 2013 be delivered by the Fightin’ Bill Snyder’s JuCo State Wildcats in a pretty complete victory against Brady Hoke’s Whatever Man Wolverines.
At least 2014 couldn’t be much worse, provided you don’t look at the 2014 football schedule, realize the basketball team is giving significant minutes to limited offensive players at center instead of a possible first-round draft pick, or the hockey team failing to beat a bunch of teams that aren’t going to sniff the NCAA tourney.
Best: That Could Have Gone WAY Worse…
What if I told you that Michigan would be giving their true freshman QB his first start in an organized football game since midway through his senior year of HS, with no discernible running game, a faltering defense, and facing a Kansas State team that was 11-2 last year and probably was a couple games better than its record and had gone 5-1 in its last 6 games? You would have expected the team the game to be a blowout of epic proportions, and you would have been right with that expectation.
Don’t get me wrong, this was a complete victory by KSU. They scored TDs on all three meaningful drives of the 1st half, and missed a chip-shot FG to start the 2nd half. Tyler Lockett abused Taylor and Countess repeatedly, a member of the Wayans-sized brood of Gronkowskis was blitheringly wide open, and the Wildcats started near midfield numerous times because of abysmal kick coverage. KSU completed 75% of its passes for 271 yards, averaged 4.1 ypc on 36 carries, and held UM’s non-Morris and non-Funchess runners to 8 yards on 9 carries, which is probably the 3rd-worst rushing performance of the year.*
And yet, this wasn’t MSU or Iowa, games where the offense looked anemic throughout and hope was eradicated swiftly and without mercy. Morris was solid in the first half, going 15 for 19 and playing within the confines of the limited offense, and even though he struggled a bit in the second half he showed poise and confidence you want to see in a young QB. The arm was as powerful as advertised, and the accuracy issues seemed within an acceptable range, not Worms Armageddon that had been heard about in practice. We saw a fair number of screens, WR runs, and other low-risk plays that helped UM move down the field on their first two drives. He was only sacked once, which is pretty amazing considering Gardner is walking around in a boot and still picking rib out of his teeth, and he did rush for 43 yards on 4 carries and showed a bit more athleticism than I think some expected.
While Lockett abused the secondary to the tune of 3 TDs, I thought the defensive line did a decent job getting pressure considering how much KSU was holding (2 were called plus a hands to the face of Clark), and the blitzes were getting through if a fraction late. It’s as young a defense as the offense, and it did feel like Mattison made some adjustments in the 2nd half that helped to slow down KSU. I’m not giving him a pass by any means (I’ll touch on the two coordinators later), but this is probably the second best offensive unit faced this year and holding them to 31 points (24 if you throw out Morris’s interception putting them on the 7 yard line) is below their season average and in line with what teams like Oklahoma and Ok St. gave up.
It was a loss, but not nearly as debilitating to me as those to Iowa and MSU because you can see the kernels of growth, of possibility, amongst the dreck.
* If you were expecting more exclamation points or emotion recounting those rushing numbers, I don’t know what to say. It’s been that type of year.
Worst: The Myth of the Bowl Practices
Every year, you hear fans talk about the benefits of bowl practices, of how it allows teams to shore up weak areas and promote maturation and growth of younger players through additional, structured activities. I’m sure there is some efficacy to those claims, especially for younger players who are able to become more comfortable with the schemes to run and coaches are able to roll out more of the playbook for those players returning the following season. Undoubtedly, there is value in letting football players play football for 3+ more weeks.
That said, I’m not sure why anyone expected things like “running the ball” and “LBers being good in coverage” to improve because the players had a couple more weeks to prepare. At best, bowl practices allow you to accentuate the things you do well and maybe add a wrinkle or two, but if you can’t do “X” for 12 games over 3 months it would be both amazing and sad if it finally “clicked” because you didn’t want to embarrass yourself at a bowl sponsored by a place where brosephs and middle-aged fathers hang out to choke down drenched chicken wings and overpriced alcohol and said bowl game isn’t even broadcasted.
Al Borges seemingly spent his time looking at his playbook and saying “welp, let’s see how many ways I can run the ball without relying on my offensive line to block effectively” while Mattison visited the Materials Science department to see if he could wring out any more flexure from his defensive schemes. The playcalls and the performances should feel, at best, like remixes of earlier games, maybe with a slightly different beat and a bit less ennui. But about the time Lockett was burning single-coverage for the 2nd TD in the first half and Shane Morris was trying to Tebow a ball on a delayed option-ish play, it was pretty clear that there was a pig beneath that nice shade of lipstick.
Worst: Just Go For It!
Watching UM kick short FGs on their first two drives deep into the red zone made me feel, well…
Again, you playing in the F’ING BW3 Bowl in Tempe, Arizona at 10:15 EST on December 28th. You had all year to play “conservative” and “for the win.” That got you to 7-5 with close wins against Akron and a neutered UConn. You wasted every gimmicky play in your playbook to matriculate down the field, have a true freshman at QB, no running game, and a defense that has struggled to stop dynamic offenses all year. I know that the advanced stats can’t take in all forms of context, but playing in a bowl previously named after an IT company pretty much gives you carte blanche to hang your balls all the way out and call whatever plays you want. It wasn’t a full surrender or anything, but I definitely heard this in the back of my mind.
8-5 and 7-6 are functionally the same even though, I guess, 8 wins looks better given recent UM history and the plateau it has been mired in, but how you get there says quite a bit. Brady Hoke has shown a willingness to take risks, so I’m not reading too much into these decisions, but man it would have been nice to at least see them go for it when the game was still in doubt. Plus, considering KSU had great field position after every kick-off, the points-versus-field position argument was even more skewed toward going for it.
Worst: The Coordinators
I’ll admit to being a bigger fan of Greg Mattison than Al Borges, so up front I want to make it clear that Al Borges called a pretty good first half of football and Mattison seemed absolutely lost in stopping a team whose passing offense was “throw to #16” and “throw to guy wide open in the middle of the field.” Borges has no functional running game, in part, because nobody seems able to block defenders, and so he went about trying ever-ludicrous methods to move the ball on the ground and the air without putting too much pressure on Shane Morris. These were all plays fans have seen before, but he wove in screens, end-arounds, sweeps, and easy middle-distance throws into a coherent gameplan that let UM move the ball pretty effectively on their first couple of drives. At the very least, he came out punching despite having one hand behind his back, and for that he deserves kudos. And in particular during that first foray into the redzone, a PI on either of Morris’s two passes to Gallon and Funchess probably would have allowed UM to score a TD and kept the game closer. The fact the offense sputtered in the 2nd half isn’t that surprising, as WR runs and delayed screens only work so often when your base offense is churning up less than a yard a carry and your WRs are being blanketed when they aren’t dropping passes from your amped-up QB. Borges has shown an ability to adapt somewhat these past couple of games, and next year it is going to need to be flexible because I have a hard time believing it will suddenly start running the ball under center for 4 ypc while airing the ball out with aplomb.
On the other side of the ball, this “bending” defense clearly broke in the first half, as KSU had no trouble moving up and down the field despite holding penalties putting them in some poor down-and-distances. Taylor and Countess couldn’t keep Lockett even remotely contained, and it seemed virtually impossible for the team to bring pressure while also maintain their assignments, leading to long conversions after acres of open field just appeared. The defense tightened up somewhat in the 2nd half, but this defense needs to make a massive step forward next year for this team to improve on their record, and it’s now been two games in a row where the defense seems flat-footed and ill-prepared against good offenses. That needs to change, and given the youth out there (Gedeon, Thomas, and Henry seemed to get significant run) along with some improving older players like Clark and a healthy Ryan, I expect that to happen.
Worst: Quarterback Controversy
Going into the game, you heard fans suggesting that if Morris played well you might see him getting the nod to start next year. I thought it was insane at the time, and while Morris played well in a limited offensive system, a healthy Devin Gardner gives this team the best chance to win next year by a healthy margin. Again, barring incredible improvements along the line, including replacing an All American and another pretty solid tackle, pass-blocking will probably take a step back while maybe run-blocking will take a tiny step forward. Gardner has shown all year that he can make plays when that happens, and while it isn’t always pretty it still feels like the best option given Morris’s limited experience and size. Sure, people will say that learning to play with “adversity” is necessary in a player’s development, but learning these lessons while possibly suffering through a litany of injuries won’t help anyone. It is a bit of cold calculus, but if next year is going to even rougher offensively I’d rather have the senior who has dealt with it before back there versus the “future” QB who hasn’t and doesn’t need to break a couple of ribs in the process.
Best: Smooth Operator
Jeremy Gallon, my spirit animal/forever Pomeroy Award winner, set the numerous records as a WR and reminded everyone that the cliche about judging books by covers applies doubly for angry mountain goats from Florida with rocketboots. I fully expect him to tear it up in the NFL as one of those terrifying slot WRs that Peyton Manning or Tom Brady use to demolish teams all year. I’m sure Brian and co. will provide a more fitting send-off, but it’s hard not to watch him play and appreciate just how special a player he has been these past 5 years.
Meh: On To Next Year
I’m sure I’ll be excited after NSD, when emotion and hope replace ennui and pessimism. This team has the talent to be better, and it should be next year. There probably should be some shakeups in the staff that won’t happen, but this isn’t a “tire fire” or a “lost lockerroom”. It was a team with gaping talent holes that the coaches couldn’t fill, probably due to a combination of stubbornness, youth, and bad luck. The team that nearly lost to Akron but also took OSU to the limit ended its season on a disappointing note, but given an offseason and some fresh blood I suspect they’ll be better. Everyone needs to get better and I doubt anyone in Schembechler Hall would argue with that assessment. But as a guy who only gets to watch 12-13 football games a year out of these Wolverines, I’ll take what I can get.