somehow we're only 124th
For various reasons, this diary is going to be low on game-specific commentary. The box score tells a pretty complete tale already; I don't think you need me to supplement the numbers to get the drift. Plus, I need a little R&R.
Worst: Our Place in the Dirt
Few lines have gotten me this excited about a movie more than Mr. Dirk Pitt intoning about the plight of the human civilization as we look to the heavens for a way to escape a dying planet before the last embers of humanity as extinguished. From what I've read about the movie, it is all about scientists discovering a wormhole that (apparently) would allow faster-than-light space travel, Earth no longer being capable of sustaining life due to the effects of cataclysmic climate change, and Dr. Larch calling upon Rust Cohle and Fantine to travel beyond the solar system in search of new, habitable planets. Throw in Christopher Nolan and some cool cinematic effects, and I am already making triple-redundant babysitter plans for opening weekend. Doesn't look like I'll be missing much in the way of relevant football then.
For decades, Michigan fans looked at every season not just with hope, but with expectations. They expected to compete for conference titles and bowl wins, to beat rivals and stay atop the college wins list. To being, for lack of a better word, good. The stars didn't always align themselves (and let's be frank, more times than not goals were equal parts hubris and idealization), but Michigan fans always had their heads up, dreaming big.
But since 2006, that hasn't been the case. Sure, there have been glimmers here and there (most of 2011, the starts of 2009, 2010, and pre-Akron 2013), but they've all been mirages, pockets of air escaping a dying husk of a collective fantasy. Michigan the football program isn't "dead", of course; it will rebuild (with a new administration and a new coach) and undoubtedly return to competitiveness on a national stage. You don't post decades of winning seasons without being able to adapt and reform, and this fallow period will most likely be an historical outlier (and not a trend) when my kids look back 32 years from now.
But I'm talking about the future, of a generation of fans who are still figuring out what "Michigan football" means to them. They'll know it for this period of struggling, but as the team improves these memories will fade away, and one day they'll look back and wonder what the hell was happening in Ann Arbor in the late 00's and early 10's, much like my generation wonders about Bump Elliott and the 60's. But this generation, the current era of fans who only know Bo and Carr and "the Streak" and spoiling OSU's perfect seasons and consistently pants-ing MSU, those memories are being buried deeper and deeper under each blowout loss and non-competitive game, under every good coaching hire in Columbus and East Lansing, and every "great" alum chiming in with his #HOTTAKE about the current team. This is our first taste of failure, and its one that will linger for years.
I'll be there cheering on Michigan in 2019 or whenever they are "legitimately" good again. When they are beating MSU and OSU, winning 9-10 games consistently, and celebrating your first touchdown in nearly 3 games doesn't break Ace. But right now I'm staring at the ground, powerless to effect change and just hoping that someone, anyone can make sense of what has happened these past 7 years and make it stop. And yeah, I'm sure they will, but it will be hard to wipe away this much dirt, this much grime with a couple more wins against Sparty and a couple of shiny TV games. It's going to take something truly significant.
Or maybe none of this matters. Maybe this is just a cycle ever team goes through, the karmic payoff for 40+ years of bowl games and #1 selling merchandise. Maybe Michigan's Circadian rhythm is just longer than everyone else's, its death and rebirth on a different timeframe than most others, and thus what feels unfortunate and untimely is right on cosmic schedule.
Worst: 11 Points
Michigan scored an offensive touchdown against MSU for the first time in 3 games, or to put into perspective, for the first time since before the world had 7 billion people on it. Excuse me for a moment.
Best (I Guess): No Hell in a Cell
You know how I know you know something about professional wrestling, dear reader? Because you've heard good Ol' J.R. announce epic dunks, huge hits, and internet fails for years now. And chances are you probably watched the original video of the Undertaker vs. Mankind in Hell in a Cell. If you haven't, here's that memorable scene.
What made this match so memorable wasn't the novelty of the cage; it had been around in a similar form for some time, most prominently as part of WCW's WarGames gimmick match. And the violence that is so easily lent to the caged environment had become far less jarring with the continued evolution and prominence of lesser-known federations such as ECW, which had co-opted the "hardcore" style previously found in Japan and (to a lesser extent) Mexico and Latin America. No, what made these early Hell in a Cell matches iconic was the escalating brutality they displayed. In the first, Shawn Michaels took a for-then rough bump to the floor, but it was still pretty controlled and "safe", basically Michaels jumping from the cage onto a free-cut table. But when the Undertaker battled Mankind, any reservations or sense of self-preservations were thrown out the window. Watch the video again, and see Mick Foley dive off that cage onto the floor. When Ross cried out that Foley was likely dead, you could hear real concern in his voice. We were still a year away from Owen Hart's tragic death during a pay-per-view making this kayfabe fear a reality, but this was still a grown fan flying off the top of a 20+ foot cage onto the concrete floor of an arena. It was both terrific theatre and terrifying spectacle, and the fact Mick Foley continues to show the lasting effects of this and other, similarly-brutal matches cannot be forgotten.
Last year's game felt like Gardner was flung from the top of the cage. We semi-joke around here about his ribs being crushed by MSU and that "breaking" him, but it was terrifying to watch and made me legitimately question whether or not referees should be allowed to pull a player for his safety. The fact Gardner kept getting up was courageous in a sense, but at some point you just wished he had stayed down and everyone just go home. But in a sad testament to the season thus far, I didn't think Gardner suffered nearly as much against a ferocious MSU front. Yes he was sacked twice and hit a half-dozen more times, but it looked like a normal 2014 game, not a life-changing evisceration on national TV. It was your typical slobberknocker between these two teams, and if we are looking for a silver lining at all, everybody seemed to leave the game with all of their bones and organs in the same general place.
Worst: So Close
This is Michigan's gameplan in a single gif. They had halfway-decent field position on a couple of drives, and moved the ball in fits and spurts. But every time they had the hint of momentum, they'd go for an ill-fated flea-flicker, or fail to execute a simple bubble screen, or just run the damn ball on 2nd-and-9 for 1 yard and waste any opportunity to keep the game close. It was infuriating, it was depressing, it was par the course for the year.
Worst: Running Gardner
I saw a number of people arguing for Gardner to be more involved in the running game, the logical argument being that while his passing wasn't working well against MSU's stout defense (13/28 for 121 with 2 picks - including on pick-6), he likely would have been more effective running the ball compared to the rest of the team (which if you squint kinda came within the ballpark of 100 yards total). And maybe in another world, with actual QB depth and a coherent offensive plan, I'd agree with you.
But we've seen the backups for UM at the QB position - Morris isn't close to running this team, and Bellomy has looked lost every time he's been asked to do anything with this team. This game was lost as soon as the two teams had the coin flip, but (in theory) Michigan has a chance to finish 6-6 and make a bowl game with very winnable games against NW, IU, and Maryland coming up. But if Gardner goes down and is replaced by either of his most-likely backups, the team might as well not get off the bus. And though I'm absolutely of the belief that Hoke should be gone, he's still being paid to win games for the University of Michigan, and he is going to make decisions that will maximize his ability to do so. That means keeping Devin Gardner as healthy as possible, and in a game where MSU was going to be teeing off on him at every opportunity, exposing Gardner to any more damage in a lost game didn't make a whole lot of sense.
Worst: Saving Timeouts
It was beyond infuriating to watch Brady Hoke allow MSU to run a good 40 seconds off the gameclock to end the half before scoring their second TD to push the game to 14-3. With MSU needing about a quarter of a yard on 3rd down, Hoke allowed MSU to run the play clock down before plunging forward for a score. Even if UM stops MSU at that point and the Spartans kick a FG, a couple TOs used there conserves clock and gives UM a chance to at least get within long FG range. But with a full complement of TOs, Hoke let the clock burn down, ran for a couple of yards on the last play of the half, and went into halftime with three timeouts and nothing to show for them.
I guess you could argue Hoke wanted to see if his defense could hold MSU without giving the Spartans a chance to consult on 3rd down, or that he didn't want to expose his beleaguered offense to another set of downs that could lead to a turnover or some other misfortune. Those are all theories with merit in a vacuum. But this is Brady Hoke and Michigan in 2014, and that this point try to win the F*CKING GAME and squeeze one more possession out of the game. You'd already gotten a couple of gifts in that first half; any shred of confidence you could hang your hat on went out the window when you basically told your offense you'd rather regroup than try to matriculate the ball down the field in a minute. Still...
Worst: Hoke is the Worst A.I. Ever
Punting on fourth and three down 25 with nine minutes left. Fucking quitter. — mgoblog (@mgoblog) October 25, 2014
This might be semantics, but I don't think Hoke is a quitter. He's (sadly) calling the game the same way in the 1st quarter as he is in the 4th quarter. He's like the worst movie version of artificial intelligence. He doesn't learn from the past, he doesn't integrate new information into his plans, he isn't becoming sentient, and he sure as hell isn't turning the world's electronics against the humans. He's a mediocre football coach who seems unwilling to break out of his gameplan to any meaningful degree, and that's why all of these losses feel the same. With a lead he's maybe willing to take a couple of chances, but when he's down its all huddling, predictable pass plays, and punting for field position. He's not trying to "look good" for his bosses or nab a "moral" victory; he's just coaching like Brady Hoke at Michigan. Now, the fact that this style resembles a guy who is over his head and failed to install anything resembling a consistent, sustainable identity is another matter.
They gave up 446 yards, 4.8 yards a rush, busted on a 70-yard TD pass, and never made life too uncomfortable for Connor Cook. At the same time, they played 29 minutes of the first half, forced a couple of turnovers to keep the game close, stopped MSU on 4th down, and for long stretches of the game looked competent despite missing a number of rotation/starters. I know the raw numbers say otherwise, but it did feel like the defense was up to the challenge of today's game, and had the offense been able to sustain anything in that first half the game might have been a bit closer. I'm not saying there would have been an upset, but for a defense that hasn't caught a break all year, the turnovers in particular were a welcome reprieve from the muck and, had they been capitalized on better, might have kept the game more competitive.
Longer-term, it doesn't really matter what Mattison and his coordinators do going forward. Like Hoke, they are gone in a couple of weeks, so complaints about coverages, line play, RPS, etc. are kinda irrelevant. I could see a world in which Nussmeier is retained due to his relative newness to the program and the expertise of the coach coming in, but Mattison is going to ride into the sunset with Hoke. He'll leave having improved Michigan's defense significantly from RR's time, but not to the level people expected after 2011 and, frankly, what was needed to keep this team competitive.
[EDIT: Put this in comments section below, figured I'd add it here for completeness]
Best: IU Defense - The Best Gift a Sport Could Give
So my daughter is celebrating her first birthday next week. Since she's been born, Michigan has basically lost every meaningful game and looked like a steaming crater of tires covered in bird shit. So that's not a good thing. But what IS a good thing is that they are playing Indiana, and with all due respect to Jamie Mac, I'm pretty excited to see Michigan get a chance to put the spurs to a bad defense for once. It won't make up for the past 12 months, but it will give me something else to smile about, and would be a perfect gift for this little Wolverine-in-training.
We are deep enough into the night to get a good idea of how our potential coaching candidates are doing. Rather than ordering them I will do a tier system of sorts.
My personal tiers would be
- Unicorn: Jim Harbaugh
- Michigan Man: Les Miles
- America's #1 Candidate: Dan Mullen
- Just Win Baby: Gary Patterson, Todd Graham
- The Next Hot One?: Mark Stoops
- Poor Man's Brian Kelly: Butch Jones
Everyone has difference preferences but I'd basically tier Harbaugh alone, then tier Mullen, Patterson, and Graham together. Miles would be in his own tier - if you'd place him above or below the trio of Mullen/Patterson/Graham - that is up to personal preference - an argument can be made either way. Once you get past that group of 5 you move to Tier B guys and the top name there might be Mark Stoops who has a small HC resume so we are getting real time data by the week. He also seems to me to be the 1 candidate if offered we'd have a >50% chance of landing. Everyone else I'd put anywhere from 2% (Patterson) to 30% (Miles?). Stoops lack of HC resume and current location - while potential issues - are exactly why he would be the most likely to come if offered.
Yes there are other candidates but I'd put these in the world of reality with track records as HCs we can realistically evaluate vs a non Big 5 conference HC, or any coordinator or any NFL guy.
Updates on all below....
I won't speak much to Harbaugh or Miles for obvious reasons - everyone knows their stories. Harbaugh is the #1 candidate - the unicorn. There is no question about his coaching, the only questions have to do with availability and interest. I won't put a probability of him coming to Michigan out there because only he knows but let's say its smallish. And if he did come his name would be in the NFL rumor mill to leave every winter.
Miles is in a good situation for him. He'd only leave if his heart wins over his mind IMO. While in a tough division there is a lot more that you can get away with in his part of the country in terms of JUCO transfers, academic qualifications, and "oversigning". Age is an issue for some but not to me - get 5-6 years out of him and rebuild a tree. The only question is how effective he'd be here vs the SEC with how they recruit. He also had some alleged Oklahoma State "issues" that some "Michigan Men" would have an issue with. You'd at least be guaranteed a very good defense which he has had almost every year; offensive results are middling but he has a very young team that should be far better next year than this.
I've seen enough of Todd Graham to be sold - guy just wins. The Pac 12 South is the 2nd toughest conference in America at this time and he has the scalps of Stanford and USC (albeit with a Hail Mary) in the past 2 weeks - with a brand new defense and a backup QB at the helm. Winning that USC game is not that important - the fact he took a team with 9 new defensive starters, including 3 true freshman starters (Not Jabrill Peppers level but Lawrence Marshall, Brandon Watson level freshman) and molded a team that can at least hang around on the road vs a top 20 opponent is impressive. But they indeed even found a way to win. That is a very brutal conference for defenses makes me bow down in awe when I see what product we are putting out - we have 3rd year players looking lost; I can't imagine multiple true freshmen being asked to do so much. His starting QB is a 2 star who he has molded into top 3 in the conference - and he has been hurt v UCLA, USC, Stanford. Yes they had a blowout v UCLA but that stuff happens every so often and it came righ after Kelly was hurt. dFEI has been 20s to 30s in his 3 years at ASU; combine with a top 10 oFEI last year and this year. The 2 deep is also stacked with youth - only 7 seniors; team will be loaded for bear next year. Guy just wins - I dont care if they go 8-4 or 10-2 this year; on paper that team should have taken a big step back this year with the personnel losses. It didn't. That's a winner. Lack of Midwest exposure is his main drawback other than "he is a meanie pants".
The criticism of Dan Mullen coming into this year was no major wins over quality opponents in 5 years. I am still not 100% sold on him - is he having a great year or has he built a great program? Is he the man that will beat MSU 2/3rds of the time and OSU 1/2? I don't know. Obviously a major upgrade over current guy but that is a low bar - I find other candidates more proven. But he is currently the most popular name among the masses and today won a tricky game vs Kentucky on the road. A rapidly improving Kentucky. Last we saw of Mullen he had put victories over LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn back to back. LSU is young but still a tough venue, A&M was overrated but still a solid win, and Auburn is still a bit of a mystery (currently tied with South Carolina 21-21 at half as I type) - still a good gauntlet. While from PA his coaching background has been mostly in FL and MS - not the Midwest.
Speaking of Kentucky that brings us to Mark Stoops. Who had taken 2-10 Kentucky from a year ago to a team that was down 38-31 to Miss State with minutes to go in the game. I cannot even fathom UM hosting the #1 team in the country in year 3-4 of a program that was in far worse shape than UM ever was and living to tell the tale. Kentucky went on the road and was destroyed last week v LSU - again, that happens. What I want to see in years 2-3 of a coach is a trend. Is there a significant win that is an outlier (Harbaugh pulled off upsets of #7 Oregon and USC back to back in year 3, in an otherwise average 8-5 year). This was an impressive loss - and yes moral victories in year 2 of your program, a year removed from back to back 2-10 years do count. When last we looked at Stoops we said he needed either a big victory or a very competitive loss to be taken seriously - he just got that. One could argue he is doing more in year 2 with a tire fire that is Kentucky than Harbaugh did in year 2 at Stanford. Stoops has a challenging finish to the year with Georgia, @Louisville, @Missouri, and @Tennessee. Three road games... go 2-2, and make the Georgia loss (if its a loss) competitive like you did tonight v Miss State and I am willing to believe. Especially the way he is recruiting and the fact that outside of Harbaugh he best fits the profile of a Midwest coach... and has proven elite success on 1 side of the ball. He "feels" more like older brother Bob than Mike. Out of the "tier B" choices, he seems like he should be the top of the list if the next month goes well. If UK does well next year i.e. 9-3ish, he would be next year's Dan Mullen - but he would have done it in half the time it took Mullen. Big if, eh?
Next, Mr Patterson whose team put up 82 on Texas Tech today. Damn. Patterson has had elite defenses for years and the offense is hit or miss. Years he has had good offenses the team is top 10-15ish. This is one of those years.... and now he is doing it in a Big 5 conference. Even more impressive, Patterson had a run based offense that worked fine in the Mountain West but failed for 2 years in the Big 12. Was he stubborn and "stuck to it"? No - he demoted his OC and got 2 new Air Raid OCs. He changed systems on the fly - and put a bunch of players that were not recruited for that system out there - and is flourshing. I am told that is impossible - how can you recruit players for system A and just put them out there in system B. Well he did it. I think of all the candidates he is the least likely to come to UM - first due to his affinity for TCU, second for his tenure, and third - there really is no reason to come to UM. He has TCU at the top of a Power 5 conference challenging for a playoff spot at a school he can continue to do that for a long time, and not in a conference that is like the SEC West. But he would be an ideal candidate other than lack of Midwest background. But I think him coming to UM is probably below Harbaugh's chances at this point.
Butch Jones has sort of flat lined - tonight they are hosting Alabama without their starting QB (I believe?) and losing 27-0 in the 2nd as I type. 0-3 in the SEC in year 3 ...that said a BRUTAL schedule but 2 of those losses were absolute blowouts and tonight will be blowout #3. If you are going to lose - lose some of them close and not just vs a bad Florida team. Mark Stoops "feels" like he has more upside to me already. If Jones was born in Virginia and coached at Marshall ....rather than born in Michigan and coached at Central I don't think people would be as high on him. He has sort of followed Brian Kelly around everywhere and done a step below. I want the next guy to have a chance to be Brian Kelly or better; not 1 step below. Stock is down.
Embracing Mark Dantonio for an extended congratulatory message, I have little doubt that Coach Hoke whispered something graceful, complimentary, and kind. I also think he said something else.
Few things make Mark Dantonio smile. He is the grumpy cat. But beating Michigan has always been one of them. That's why it was surprising to see Dantonio look so distraught after today's win. The interviewer had to ask him if he was happy, and, finally, Dantonio smiled. He was so aware of his unusually grumpy (even for him) face that he said, "It may not look it, but I'm happy."
I believe Coach Dantonio--who has proven himself to be one of the nation's best college football coaches--was actually sad. Not about beating Michigan (he'll always relish that) but about the final postgame handshake with a man he wants to hate but simply can not.
"Real recognize Real"
I believe Brady Hoke is a great man. Despite not being able to produce a coherent offense in four seasons at Michigan--even with an MNC-winning OC--he has still continued to reel-in top talent on both sides of the ball. This, in my opinion, is almost wholly attributable to his genuine love for the young men he coaches. He cares about them as people, not just as football players. He is concerned about their character, not just their statistics. When Jabrill Peppers committed to U-M, he said, "Real recognize real," referring to the sincerity of the coaching staff. I unreservedly agree completely with John Beilein: Brady Hoke is the type of man I would want to coach my son.
The Shane Morris concussion issue did not make me doubt Brady's concern for his players' well-being. It wasn't a coach who didn't care about a player's health; it was just another symptom of a coach who couldn't manage the myriad details involved with running the winningest program in college football. If Brady knew there was any real possibility of Shane being seriously injured by playing, he would not have played him. That wasn't the problem. The problem was he didn't know; he wasn't aware, and that problem has extended to field on too many occasions.
Brady's last UTL was a win
It's a small miracle that this team continues to play as hard as it does. The defense, once again, played with heart and character against an extremely efficient MSU offense. Their never-say-die attitude lasted well into the fourth quarter. The whole team fought tooth-and-nail to squeak out a win against a below-average Penn State team. I believe this Michigan team, like all teams, reflects the attitude of their leader: high-character, high-motor, high-intensity...and imprecise. Over and over today small things made big differences: passes just a bit off, receivers dropping the on-target efforts, runs just a bit too impatient, a quarterback feeling pressure when there was none, a tackle just missed. These are not new problems. It's not youth, it's imprecision, and it has plagued our team (and especially our offense) since Hoke's arrival. And these small things have added-up to big numbers in the loss column. And so Hoke must go, and I am calling for his replacement as loudly as anyone.
But let's never forget that this man's character was enough to inspire Greg Mattison to come back to Michigan from the Ravens. This man was charismatic enough to lure Doug Nussmeier to Michigan. This man is genuine enough to pull-in the highest average recruiting class in the country, even though he can't win at Michigan. Let's always remember that while Coach Hoke did not cut it on the scoreboard, that his integrity is an example of what a Michigan Man should be.
Denard Robinson's mythical talent, combined with freakish turnover luck, was enough to propel MIchigan to an 11-2 season and a Sugar Bowl victory. And let's give credit where credit is due: Hoke and Mattison field competent defenses, and, with more time and a developing team, I think Brady could probably keep Michigan in bowl games for the foreseeable future (after this year). But that's not good enough. That's NOT Michigan.
Chris Spielman--somewhat surprisingly--said it well: "I believe Brady Hoke is a good man and a good football coach...but the results aren't good enough." And I believe that part of Brady's message to Mark Dantonio tonight wasn't just congratulating him; it wasn't just genuine admiration of how well Dantonio runs a team (in almost the exact way Hoke would like to run his team); it wasn't just well-wishes for the rest of the season. It was good-bye.
I think Brady Hoke knows his time is up. I think he told Dantonio as much tonight after the game. And I believe that Brady Hoke is such a good man that even Mark Dantonio, who hates all things Michigan with an immeasurable, dyed-in-the-wool passion, was nearly brought to tears by a Michigan Man's farewell.
I'm excited about the possibility of a Harbaugh, or even someone not quite as perfect. I'm eager for a coach that is demanding, detail-oriented, and relentless in his pursuit of victory. And while I'm quite certain we can and must find a more capable coach to lead our program, I'm just as sure we won't find a better man than Brady Hoke.
I wish him and Laura all the best.
Not too bad of a football Saturday! A little windy, but we'll see some sunshine! Low pressure is off to the north in Canada, and after the warm front comes through Michigan overnight Friday, the cold front follows Saturday. It's a dry front, and although the first part of the day will be cloudy, the sun will break through, letting afternoon temps climb into the low 60s. Dress in layers if you'll be out tailgating for this one!
If you're traveling to East Lansing...
Good driving weather if you're up and at 'em early! After a period of clearing, clouds will build back in for the morning on Saturday. There may be a little drizzle here and there as the front passes, but if you do see rain, it won't be much. A bit chilly, with temps about 50 degrees and a southwesterly wind at 10 mph (small leaves and twigs blow about). The wind will turn more westerly throughout the morning, and pick up too. By mid-morning, we're up to the mid 50s with a lot of clouds still hanging with us. Around lunchtime, those clouds will go away and we'll see plenty of sunshine - so don't forget to grab those sunglasses before you head out to the tailgate! The clearing skies will let us warm up near 60 for the early afternoon. Winds will go up too though - staying out the west at a steady 15mph and gusting into the low 20s (small branches may sway, plastic garbage cans may tip over).
Some sun for the kickoff, with more and more of it throughout the first half. 63 degrees - and we'll hang on to that for the first quarter. Winds are still up at a steady 15/16mph with gusts in the low 20s, out of the west.
Still a great afternoon for us at the halfway point! Dropping just a tad to 62 degrees, with lots of blue skies. We'll keep the mostly clear skies through the end of the game, but even through the 4th quarter we'll stay relatively mild. The wind starts to ever so slowly become lighter - down to a steady 14mph, and we lose the gusts, staying out of the west.
If you're headed out to celebrate in the EL, you may want the extra layer. Clear skies have the temps falling into the mid 50s by the time you're leaving the game and grabbing dinner, and the low 50s in the late night. Staying out for last call? You'll definitely want the sweatshirt! Temperatures will fall into the mid 40s, but with a west wind staying at about 10mph, we'll add in a wind chill to make it feel like the upper 30s! Sunday will bring blue skies and highs of 60 degrees and west winds at about 10mph. Weather will be very similar in Ann Arbor, with the clouds taking a little longer to depart Saturday before sunshine, windy, and highs near 65. C'mon home Paul Bunyan!
Christina Burkhart is a meteorologist for ABC in Flint, MI. She grew up in Ann Arbor and associates Saturdays with Michigan football. Go Blue!!
As some of you know, I’m joining MGoBlog to provide various types of basketball coverage, now that we’re a #basketballschool and all that. A brief introduction: I’m an Honors LSA Senior majoring in English (hopefully with a creative writing sub-concentration), I grew up making weekly pilgrimages from the Grand Rapids area to Ann Arbor on Fall Saturdays with my parents—both of whom graduated from the B School before Ross slapped his name on it—and younger brother—an Honors LSA sophomore (who is also named Brian Cook). I am not related to the proprietor of this site, as far as he and I know. We were a football family, but I fell in love with Michigan Hoops in 2009-2010 with Manny, Peedi, Coach B, and the gang. I’ve learned to love the NBA recently as well, but regret that I missed the glory years of my Detroit Pistons. I’m a Lions masochist, I complain about the Tigers’ managing and bullpen all summer, and I recently committed to Everton as my new EPL team (because Tim Howard’s a national hero). It’s a little up in the air as of right now, but Ace and I will sort out who covers what during hoops season. As for non-sports things: I’m a proud native Michigander and spend my summers living on Barlow Lake—Heaven on Earth, as far as I’m considered—I run as quickly as Terrance Taylor and am addicted to Bruegger’s on North U (these things may be related), and if anybody wants to hire me to a full-time job after school, PLEASE DO. If you see me on campus, say hi. I’ll be the tall, skinny-fat guy with curly black hair and light blue headphones.
Follow me on Twitter ( @alexcook616 )
(Freshmen and incoming transfers are not included. They’re very difficult to accurately contextualize with returning players and they’ll be covered next week.)
* * *
For the Big Ten Player Comparisons, I created an algorithm that spits out the most similar statistical profiles for a given player’s. There are 20 unweighted categories—most of which are advanced metrics—but shooting and rebounding are well-accounted for. The database consists of 750 players from the 2008-2014 seasons. This post is already absurdly long, so I’ll have to explain it further at some other time. This system will probably be used pretty extensively.
Considering that the Hoosiers had Yogi Ferrell and Noah Vonleh—the latter was drafted in the lottery of a deep draft—their struggles were perplexing. A stable of uninspiring role players did little to augment the talents of their two stars and their offense was often stagnant and extremely turnover prone. Indiana didn’t shoot the ball well from the field, but the inability to hold onto the ball was crippling—IU finished 330th nationally in turnover rate, easily the last in the Big Ten. Ferrell can be best categorized as a scoring point guard: he’s ball-dominant and often probes the defense with his quickness rather than driving right to the rim, he’s one of the better shooters in the league (40% on a ridiculous 220 attempts, mostly from above the break), and he gets to the free throw line and shoots better than 80% from the stripe over his career. There were a few games that Yogi took over with his scoring ability: 30 points (on just 15 FGA) at Illinois, 27 (including 7 made threes) against Michigan and at Purdue, and 25 and 24 in two games against Wisconsin. With Indiana’s turnover issues and Ferrell’s role as its offensive catalyst, his turnover rate—18.0%—wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t exactly anomalous amongst analogous point guards.
Yogi didn’t have the ball-security of a Jordan Taylor or Drew Neitzel, but it wasn’t bad. Turning the ball over was a collective effort: the entire rotation (aside from Ferrell) had turnover rates of at least 20%. Adding five-star combo guard James Blackmon, Jr. should help out immensely in regard to that issue and it should enable Ferrell to play off-the-ball and distribute a little more this season. Ferrell will likely be the best point guard in the Big Ten and there’s a chance that he could lead the league in scoring.
[After THE JUMP: Caris checks in, others.]
Big playmakers needed (Upchurch/MGoBlog)
1. The Defense
|Season||Expected Pts||Conversion Rate||Bonus Yards||Red Zone|
|2014 Nat’l Rank||97th||2nd||116th||96th|
Michigan State’s team has transformed its identity somewhat so far in 2014. The defense is still dominant and on a down by down basis, they are actually very elite. Over the last five seasons, only one team has held opposing offenses to less than 55% conversions. That team was 2011 National Champion Alabama who held offenses to an illegal in 49 states 42% first down conversion rate. This year both MSU and Louisville are below 55% half way through the season.
The flip side of the coin is that the offense is pushing the game to a much higher possession game, putting the defense in a position to allow a more points, by virtue of field position alone. The 29+ expected points allowed is pushing close to triple digit territory. This has produces some cosmetic changes to the traditional stats without implicating the defense, necessarily.
As confirmed by Ace in the FFFF, this year’s defensive unit is much more prone to allowing the big play. The last three seasons, the Spartan defense has been well below 2 yards per play allowed beyond the first down marker, all three top 10 results. This year they nearly find themselves on the wrong 10 list, ranking well into the triple digits.
What it means for Michigan
As bad as Michigan has been generating big plays, this is the game to throw the “identity” out the window. If Michigan plays for Time of Possession as a key outcome, they are nowhere near good enough to get past this Michigan State defense. If they can actually attempt to get the ball downfield, they could have a puncher’s chance of putting up more than 6 points on Saturday.
2. The Offense
|Season||Expected Pts||Conversion Rate||Bonus Yards||Red Zone|
|2014 Nat’l Rank||4th||10th||23rd||4th|
The flip side to 29 expected points allowed is the 34+ points expected for the offense. The magnitude may be higher than the traditional Dantonio field position stranglehold game plan, but the advantage is just as strong. Michigan State’s 5.2 point per game net advantage in field position is good for 14th nationally.
While the defense has driven its conversion rate allowed down to near record levels, the offense has made the same stride forward. After a pedestrian 62% conversion rate last season, this year’s squad has cracked the Top 10 and improved by over 10 percentage points. I may have been wrong about the Spartan offense this year. Thanks in large part to Tony Lippett, MSU has also been able to stretch the field. Tony Lippett has been worth over 7 points per game himself and is 6th overall among pass catchers in 2014.
What it means for Michigan
Not a lot of weaknesses on the surprisingly potent Spartan offense. Michigan’s defense has shown occasional signs of strength and will need its best performance of the season to keep the offense in the game. A couple of turnovers wouldn’t hurt either. If Jourdan Lewis and company can keep Lippett in check, there is a chance Michigan can slow down the Spartans.
3. Special Teams
Value added on the season (National Rank/B1G Rank)
Punt Team: +1.1 pts (59th/7th)
Punt Return: –3.0 (108/12)
Kickoff Return: +0.5 (54/8)
Kickoff: +6.1 (13/2)
FG/PAT: –1.6 (86/11)
Total: +3 (55/7)
Michigan State hasn’t displayed particular strength or weakness across their special teams. If the Spartans are able to open up a big play in the punt return game, it will be in area that MSU hasn’t found success to date.
4. The Fourth Quarter
Michigan State’s in-game win odds by game
One opportunity for Michigan could be Michigan State’s lack of competitive fourth quarter situations on the season. In their six wins, the Spartans have had less than 90% win odds for about 30 seconds late against Nebraska before picking off Tommy Armstrong Jr.
The same went for their loss against Oregon, when they quickly dropped into the low teens early in the fourth before seeing their odds slip away midway through the quarter. Whether something as abstract as “4th quarter experience” is a real thing that matters or not is a up for debate, but
5. Dumb Punt of the Week
Dumb punting a Michigan football may be the same thing. Michigan takes a bye and so does dumb punting. The best entry I could find for the week was Middle Tennessee punting on 4th and 3 at the UAB 36 in the fourth quarter. The Blue Raiders were up by 5 at the time, but a punt into the end zone isn’t valuable enough to forgo a virtual red zone trip with a successful conversion.
In this week’s roundtable, we all agreed Hoke hadn’t shown anything to indicate he could save his job. The “Win the Time of Possession” game plan will lose this game barring a massive turnover disparity. An aggressive game plan maximizing Michigan’s two best weapons (Funchess deep and Gardner’s legs) might have a chance. This Michigan State team is better at more things than they have been the last several seasons, but there is also a potential crack in the armor if Michigan isn’t too stubborn to exploit it.
Michigan State 28 Michigan 17