"Rodrick Williams Jr.'s 10-month old, 2-foot-long savannah monitor named "Kill" gets the RB some strange looks when they go for walks together."
Last week went about as well as you can hope for as a Michigan fan looking for some positivity regarding an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney. As discussed in last week's diary, Michigan is in a dog fight for one of the last at-large bids into the NCAA hockey tourney if they do not win the B1G Tournament, the victor of which gets an auto-bid.
Again, as detailed last week, the Pairwise Rankings (PWR) are your Harry Potter-esque sorting hat for entrance into the NCAA tournament. PWR, in basic terms, compares every team in Div-I hockey against each other based on three factors: RPI (a computer metric taking into account your record, winning % of your team, your opponents, and your opponents' opponents- bonus points are awarded for wins against Top 20 opponents and road wins), record against common opponents, and head to head record. This then gives each team a PWR "score" or how many of those indiviudal bi-lateral PWR comparisons a team has an advantage in.
The tournament accepts 16 teams: autobid conference tournament champions from Hockey East, ECAC, Atlantic Hockey, B1G, WCHA, and NCHC; at-large bids from the remaining top PWR teams until a 16 team field is created. Many many moons ago, ECAC and the predecessor to Atlantic Hockey were considered "bid stealers" since non-regular season champions of their tournaments were typically well outside the at-large bid range in PWR but thee regular season champ would still get an at-large bid because of a ridiculously high PWR. This year (and frankly the last couple), only Atlantic Hockey is a bid stealer conference-- and even then, since their regular season champ is already still low in the PWR (Robert Morris, 25th), if a team not named Robert Morris wins their tournament for the auto-bid, the conference is still only getting in one team. Consider the Atlantic Hockey autobid as slot #16 in the NCAA tournament-- so for practical purposes, there are at most 10 at-large slots left. At minimum, the last at-large team will be the 15th slot in PWR; at worst, 12-13 could be the cut-off line.
In Michigan's case, they sit tied for 15th with UMass-Lowell with 44 comparisons won. Ultimate tiebreaker between two teams tied in PWR is RPI, and Michigan leads here by a slim margin. The relevent teams around us in PWR as of Monday:
TEAM, PWR SCORE (UMich centric), RPI, comparisons won vs. Michigan
11. Minnesota, 2-4, .5435, RPI/Common opponents (tied 2-2 in head to head)
12. Quinnipiac, 1-1, .5481, RPI (overall comparison to Quinnipiac since RPI is higher)
13. Yale, 0-1, .5433, RPI (tied in common opponents)
14. Bowling Green, 0-2, .5407, RPI / Common opponents
15. Michigan, RPI = .5404
16. UMass-Lowell, 2-1, .5394, Common opponents (Mich won head to head & RPI)
17. St Cloud St Fighting Mollies, 1-0, .5369
18. Colgate, 2-0, .5339, (Mich wins RPI & common opponents)
19. Vermont, 2-0, .5357 (Mich wins RPI & common opponents)
Ok, first caveat: PWR is very volatile in this grouping. Every team from 14-19 is basically within one weekend of each other in RPI, and one RPI flip can shuffle standings around significantly. Second caveat: Atlantic, ECAC and Hockey East start their tournaments this weekend, so some teams like Vermont are on life support, and other teams like Colgate, UM-L, Yale, and Quinnipiac may only have 1 more game left before Selection Sunday.
- I'm surprised how well Michigan is positioned for an at-large. We essentially sit in the last at-large slot now if chalk holds in conference tourneys, and with a 4-0 finish to the regular season we probably can absorb a loss in the BTT semi and still get in as the 13 or 14 slot. We finish 4-0/3-1 in the regular season and lose in the BTT finals, we're challenging for a 3-seed. We finish 4-0/3-1 in the regular season and win the BTT, we're a high 3 seed no doubt.
- This next weekend against Penn St will bascially tell us our tourney fate. We win both, we're probably in good position for an at-large team barring a sweep by MSU. We split, we need a sweep against Sparty to keep at-large hopes alive. We drop both against PSU, we're sweating bullets and probably at a win-to-get-in situation in the BTT.
- Minnesota is probably in no matter what barring a complete collapse the next two weekends. They may slip from a 3 to a 4 seed, but they're probably feeling safe if they sweep this weekend.
- We are within a 1 game difference of flipping RPI with Bowling Green. Getting into the 14 slot at least is a HUGE difference. Atlantic Hockey has already killed the 16 slot as an at-large bid this year. As I mentioned in a comment to another post this weekend, a non-regular season champ in the tourney from an ECAC, Hockey East, or NCHC school probably isn't a game killer since they have so many teams in the running above us in PWR now anyway, unless its a true Cinderella (team in the mid 20's in PWR) making a run. Even then, they're probably knocking out a team from their own conference who's in the 13-19 PWR slot now.
- There's an interesting scenario developing though where you could possibly get 3 B1G teams in, as crappy as the conference is. You'd need: (1) Michigan and Minnesota to sweep out the regular season keeping Minnesota as a border 2/3 seed team in PWR going into the BTT. (2) Minnesota would lose in a semi. Pick your team, it doesn't matter. (3) Michigan would need to get to the BTT Finals and then lose to the team Minnesota dropped a semi to. This would possibley cause: (A) MSU/PSU/OSU/Wiscy to get an auto-bid as a 4-seed, (B) Minnesota would dropoff a 2 line to a 3 or 4 seed, and (C) Michigan would slip in as one of the last two at-large teams.
- You could also have the converse though where the B1G regular season champs don't make the NCAA tourney if say Michigan and Minnesota played mediocre hockey to close out the season with Michigan winning the conference by a game or tie-breakers and then losing a semi-final or final to a cinderella B1G team, essentially getting its at-large bid stolen by the B1G tourney champ. On paper if you said the conference regular season champ of a league with Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan St didn't get a NCAA tourney bid 4 years ago, Jim Delaney would have choked on his ham sandwich. But such is life in the B1G Hockey.
I'll leave the results from last week and this week's cheering primer to Canadian, who I'm sure will be chipping with his part in a day or so. SPOILER ALERT-- Cheer, cheer for Ol'... ALABAMA-HUNTSVILLE????
For 21 years, this car won about 80% of its races. Nobody in Michigan could beat it, and it stood toe to toe with the best car from the worst state ever. Never once did Bo cut corners or try to cheat. He took pride in running a fair race. Not even two heart attacks could keep Bo away from his car.
Alas, it was time for someone else to take the wheel. Bo had driven the car as hard and as long as he could. He would still come around the garage every now and again, but he was giving the car to his brother, Gary.
Gary drove the car for a few years. He made a couple tweaks here and there, but for the most part, kept the car original and in tip top shape. He even added a "Best in Show" Award at a national event in 1991. Sadly, Gary got busted for a DUI one night and was forced to reluctantly sign over the title to the car. Bo's other brother, Lloyd, was now the owner of the family's prized possession.
It took a few years for Lloyd to grasp all that went into owning a car with such a proud tradition, but he finally did. In 1997, he won 'em all. Every race the car entered, it took the checkered flag, including the big race in Pasadena. That race was a nailbiter, right to the very end. It looked like the other car, a Cougar, might pull off the upset but it slipped its wheels and never made it to the finish line. Victory was Lloyd's and the 1969 Camaro was THE best car in the country.
For another 10 years Lloyd took care of the car but couldn't quite capture its past glory. Blemishes started to appear on the body, under the hood, and in the interior. The engine missed a few times, a rust spot developed in the quarter panel, and there was a tear in the console. These were small issues, but ones that could turn into major concerns if not addressed immediately. Lloyd loved that car but he wanted to do other things. He had been around the car almost from the time it was bought new. He was ready to walk away and let someone else take over. There were no other brothers to pass the car on to, so Lloyd put it up for sale.
A few guys looked but there were no takers. Finally, a guy from West Virginia named Rich flew up to Ann Arbor, checked the car out, and bought it on sight. He never even took it for a test drive. This guy was used to driving tuner cars. He'd never had a muscle car before, and he was going to do something radical: take this American Classic, which had been so successful for so long, and turn it into a drift car. He replaced the Holley carbs with fuel injection. The chrome wheels with raised white letter Goodyears were replaced with aluminum alloys and low-profile Yokohamas. The cowl induction steel hood was exchanged for a carbon fiber version that was lighter. He stripped everything out of the car that was considered dead weight in exchange for parts that were made of new-age material that would help the car run faster. It was a difficult and expensive transformation. A lot of races were lost as Rich waited for new parts to arrive. Unfortunately, some parts weren't available and Rich's mechanics couldn't manufacture their own. Folks who had watched this car race for nearly 40 years were disgruntled and angry. They wrote articles in Muscle Car Magazine about the fall of the once proud Camaro. Rich started winning a few more races, but after 3 years, it wasn't enough and Rich was forced to sell.
The new buyer was a guy who grew up watching the Camaro run in Ohio. He was even part of the crew for a little while during its run in 97. He was a big fan of the original muscle car and was stunned to learn that he could buy it. He damn near walked from his house to buy it. His plan was to restore it to its original glory. He wanted everything back the way it was. Unfortunately, as much of a fan as he was, he really didn't have experience restoring cars. He could do the bolt-on stuff - change the wheels back, slap on the carbs, bolt on the old hood - but he wasn't a qualified technician, and neither were he mechanics. They had no experience with dynomometers and other computer technology that could help them fine tune the engine. They wrenched on it themselves, slapped back a couple beers in the garage, and waxed the hell of out the paint that was blistering underneath. The car had success early on, but over the next 3 years, it would lose more and more races. The once promising restoration project was now stalled and going no where.
There was one buyer that everyone hoped would step up to the plate. He was Bo's son, Jim. He'd been around cars his whole life and grew up handing his dad wrenches and washing the car as a kid. He learned how to drive and eventually sat behind the wheel for Bo, winning a lot of races. He got so good he went on to have a successful pro career. After he was done driving, he joined a couple crews around the country to learn all he could about power and speed and handling. He started with old beaters that barely ran and turned them into competitors. He moved up from street racing, to the local tracks, and all the way to the pro circuit. He quickly became the most sought after crew chief in all of racing. People back in Michigan wanted Jim to come home in the worst way possible, but word around the racing world was that he'd never leave the pros. He was married to a lady who wanted to stay out west, and other pro teams were willing to pay him more. His kids were native Californians. There was no way, they said.
As we know now, Jim DID want to own that car. It had been a dream of his since he was a little boy. He had worked his way up the circuit in hopes of one day purchasing the car his dad once proudly owned.
Jim knows this car like the back of his hand. He's hired mechanics he's worked with before and who have experience rebuilding muscle cars. This will be a frame-off restoration. Every last bolt, gasket, belt, and hose will be taken off and repaired or replaced. If they can't find a stock replacement, they'll fabricate one themselves. They have computers, gauges, and testing equipment to make sure every single part can eek out another mile per hour. They are aiming for the holy grail of muscle cars: 1000 horsepower. It's going to take a reinforced frame, beefier suspension, oversized cam, tungsten steel push rods, a huge blower to get more air into a brand new engine block machined from a solid piece of aluminum. It won't happen overnight. Some parts just won't hold up to the pressure. Some of them will crack along the way. They'll lose some races, but from every loss another answer will be revealed about how they can get just 1% better.
I think we all know that recruiting rankings improved under Hoke and that we finally have some more experienced depth. I thought, however, it might be helpful to lay out the presumed depth chart with the corresponding 247 Composite ratings. What it shows is that we finally have a roster full of experienced talent that we were used to in the 90's and early 2000's.
247's rating system basically breaks down as follows:
98 and above = 5 star.
89-97 =4 star
82-88 = 3 star.
I like the numerical ratings more than the straight stars because you can get a better sense if someone is a generic three star or someone closer to a 4 star, etc. I rounded the numbers after the decimal point.
Obviously, the depth chart will change a bit after the spring and some players may move positions, but this gives a good sense of the talent on the roster.
|POSITION||1ST TEAM||2ND TEAM||3RD TEAM|
|QB||Morris (97)||Speight (87)||Malzone (90)|
|RB||Green (99)||Isaac (97)||Smith (92)|
|FB/HB||Kerridge (NR)||Houma (86)||Shalman (90)|
|WR1||Darboh (91)||Ways (87)||Cole (96)|
|WR2||Chessun (86)||Harris (97)||Jones (85)|
|SLOT||Norfleet (92)||Canteen (89)||Dever (NR)|
|TE||Butt (93)||Bunting (89)||Williams (89)|
|OT||Braden (88)||LTT (93)||Newsome (90)|
|OG||Kalis (97)||Fox (95)||Samuelson (88)|
|C||Miller (85)||Kugler (97)||Runyan (84)|
|OG||Glasgow (NR)||Dawson (95)||Bars (86)|
|OT||Cole (94)||Magnuson (96)||Bushell-Beaty (90)|
|DE||Charlton (94)||Strobel (92)||Poggi (94)|
|DT||Glasgow (NR)||Wormley (94)||Hurst (90)|
|DT||Henry (84)||Mone (94)||Pipkins (97)|
|DE||Ojemudia (91)||Marshall (93)||Johnson (89)|
|SLB||Bolden (96)||McCray (94)||Gant (85)|
|MLB||Morgan (83)||Gedeon (91)||Furbush (87)|
|WLB||Ross (95)||Jenkins-Stone (94)||
|CB||Lyons (95)||Countess (93)||Dawson (85)|
|FS||Wilson (91)||Clark (87)||Kinnel (92)|
|SS||Peppers (100)||Hill (90)||Thomas (97)|
|CB||Lewis (95)||Stribling (86)||Watson (85)|
|87 or above||16/24||20/24||16/24|
Of course stars are not a gaurantee of individual performance, and we have seen a lot of guys on our roster play above or below their ratings, but on the whole the ratings provide a decent measure of the overall talent on the roster.
We now have a ton of 4 stars and high three stars in the three deep, many of whom have game experience and/or years in the program. I don't see one freshman in the 2-deep at this point unless Malzone or Cole really impresses this spring.
I fully expect this staff to start developing the talent this year and next. Hopefully the results on the field will bear that out.
With Three weeks remaining in Michigan's regular season the playoff picture hasn't really cleared up, in fact the loss last Friday night was thought to be a knockout punch when in reality it just made the road a little rougher.
A diary posted by Wolverine in Exile on Monday asked the question if the at-large bid was dead or not, well I'm going to show here that it is in fact not dead and still a very possible goal. I will save this for the end though and provide updates from around the country last week and a quick look at some big games this weekend.
Michigan suffered an upsetting loss on Friday night thanks to some sloppy play in their own zone (sound at all familiar???).and came back with a win on Sunday on home Ice. Sunday's game featured some great passing in the offensive zone (Larkin showing he is the best player on the ice) but still had some horrendous defensive zone play. The first period in particular featured some awful breakout passes that led to scoring opportunities which forced Racine to step up and play one of his better games this season.
Around the B1G: The standings remain the same! Minnesota splits at Pegula winning 2-1 Friday night and dropping a 4-3 overtime contest Saturday. Michigan State splits out at Kohl losing 2-1 Friday night and a 3-0 bounce back victory Saturday.
Our Non-conference opponents: RPI goes 0-1-1 on the road at Cornell and at Colgate. UMass-Lowell picked up a road tie at Boston College in their only game of the weekend. BC had the tie and an overtime victory in the Beanpot 3rd place game over Harvard. Boston University had a 1-1-1 weekend with a 0-1-1 home series with Notre Dame and the overtime win in the Beanpot Final over Northeastern. New Hampshire swept Connecticut in a home and home series. Ferris State swept Alabama-Huntsville on the road.
Michigan (#19) hosts Wisconsin (#55) for a two game series Friday (7:30 FSD+) and Saturday (4:00 BTN). Obviously a MUST SWEEP SERIES. Wisconsin is entering the series as the #55 team (out of 59 teams) in the country and sit dead last in the B1G standings.
Around the B1G: Michigan State (t#33) goes on the road again this time out to Minnesota (#10) for a Thursday (9:00 BTN) and Friday night (9:00 BTN) series. State needs to pick up some points if they want to keep themselves close to the top teams in conference and potentially grab a bye to the second day of the B1G tournament. Penn State (t#25) goes down to Columbus for a Friday (6:30 BTN) and Saturday (7:00) series against Ohio State (#43) and they need to win both to keep their conference title hopes strong.
Non-conference foes: American International (#58) has a home and home series with Army (#57), RPI (#48) welcomes Clarkson (#38) in on Friday night and St. Lawrence (#20) Saturday night. BC (#9) goes on the road to South Bend for a rivalry series with Notre Dame (#32) Friday and Saturday. BU (#6) has a home and home series with Northeastern (#t#21) (the same team that they beat 4-3 in overtime Monday night). Lowell (#16) stays at home to take on Vermont (t#17) in a series of top 20 teams who are fighting for a chance at an at-large bid. New Hampshire (#35) hosts Merrimack (t#29) for a two game series Friday and Saturday. Ferris State (#37) hosts Bemidji State (t#25) for 2. Michigan Tech (#5) goes on the road with a solid chance to help Michigan's RPI as they travel to Mankato to take on the #1 team Minnesota State for two games.
Other games of note: Harvard (t#17) hosts Quinnipiac (t#11) Friday. Yale (#15) hosts Colgate (t#21) Friday and Cornell (31) Saturday. Miami (#4) travels to Denver (#7) for two games. Nebraska-Omaha (#8) travels up north to take on Minnesota-Duluth (#3) twice.
1. Michigan 27pts 9-5-0-0
2. Minnesota 27pts 8-3-3-0
3. Michigan State 25pts 7-5-2-2
4. Penn State 25pts 8-5-1-0
5. Ohio State 12pts 4-10-0-0
6. Wisconsin 10pts 2-10-2-2
1. Minnesota State
2. North Dakota
5. Michigan Tech
6. Boston university
9. Boston College
13. Bowling Green
14. St.Cloud State
20. St. Lawrence
t25 PENN STATE
t33 MICHIGAN STATE
35. New Hampshire
37. Ferris State
43. OHIO STATE
58. American International
Points (B1G rank)
t3 (1) Zach Hyman 43
t11 (2) Dylan Larkin 38
t11 (2) Zach Hyman 18
t6 (2) Dylan Larkin 26
t10 (3) Zach Hyman 25
Team Offense #1 (1) 3.96 Goals per Game
Team Defense #40 (4) 3.00 Goals per Game
Power Play #5 (2) 23.23%
Penalty Kill t#33 (2) 81.9%
I ran some tests on a Pairwise simulator and if Michigan sweeps Wisconsin it looks like worst case scenario (non-conference opponents lose, teams around Michigan win) Michigan remains #19 and one of the better case scenarios (with help of some reasonable upsets and favourable outcomes from non-conference opponents and teams around Michigan) the Wolverines could move up into the 15th spot. A reasonable outcome this weekend would leave Michigan a couple spots shy and rank #17 before next weeks series at Penn State. The hopes for an at-large ARE NOT DEAD!
In the glow of Sunday's gloriousness, one disturbing item was nearly washed out, the hockey team's inconceivable loss to Ohio St on Friday night. Needing a strong finish to the season to ensure an at-large bid chance, majority opinion was that a non-sweep this weekend was life-threatening (see "Sweep or Die" in Brian's preview).
With the split instead of a sweep, the predicatble happened. Michigan dropped a couple slots all the way down to 20th in Pairwise Rankings (PWR) and are by first blush out of consideration for an at-large bid (see PWR here http://www.uscho.com/rankings/pairwise-rankings/d-i-men/grid/#Michigan). With the way the NCAA tourney works, you basically have to be higher than 14th to have any confidence of an at-large bid. 16 teams are taken and usually the 15th and 16th slots if not more are taken by conference tourney winners outside the Top 16. This year, there's guaranteed to be one bid stolen from the Top 16 PWR teams, the spot going to the American Hockey champion (right now Robert Morris has secured the regualr season title, and sit at 23 in the PWR).
PWR is essentially a 3-part process where you compare your selves against other teams: RPI (a percentage measure of a team's strength based on record, road wins, and strength of schedule), Common Opponents, and Head-to-head.
While the situation is bad, it's not impossible to see Michigan *even at this point* getting an at-large bid. Assuming Michigan needs to get to at least 15 for an at-large slot, looking at Michigan directly on the PWR matrix, there are 5 teams ahead of us. I list them below with the PWR score, and what they're winning the comparison on:
14. St Cloud St, 0-1, RPI, .5349-.5457
15. Yale, 0-1, RPI, .5349-.5441
16. Harvard, 0-2, RPI & Common opponents
17. UMass-Lowell, 1-2, RPI (.5349-.5374) & Common opponent- note we win head to head
18. Vermont, .0-1, RPI, .5349-.5388
19. St Lawrence, 0-2, RPI (.5349-.5364) & common opponent
So realistically, a delta more than 0.02 in RPI at this point in the season is too much to make up and a common opponent comparison is pretty much set in stone at this point unless you're talking about someone else in your own conference. But Yale, UMass-Lowell, Vermont, and St Lawrence are all only 1 comparison flip away from us jumping them, and it's so bunched up with the difference in RPI so low, there's still a chance. Since we stil have 2 away games against Penn St coming up, the bonus points for a road win that go into RPI still put us in play. If Michigan St keeps improving, we might even be eligilble to gaba bonus road win point adjustment from that Friday night game at Munn on the last regular season weekend.
Basically there's a multi-part formula that's still in play for us to get an at-large slot. It is:
- Go 5-1 / 6-0 to end the regular season. A sweep against Penn St is a necessity. No more room for error.
- Hope Harvard loses to BC tonight (common opponent) and then everybody else from St Cloud St through St Lawrence play middling hockey to end the regular season
- We need to beat Penn St (more likely after this weekend they're going to be a 3 seed) in a BTT Semifinal. We could lose in the final, but only to Minnesota as long as they're sufficiently high in the PWR (and they are right now). Any other B1G team wins the tourney besides Minnesota and we're out for at-large consideration.
- Hope everybody on that list from 14-19 above lose early in their conference tournaments. No semi or finals appearances for them.
We probably can make up enough ground with a winning streak and a BTT finals appearance to flip a single RPI against msot of these teams. The bugaboo would appear to be Harvard-- but they may play themselves into an at-large if they get up to 14. An American Hockey cinderella story isn't going to affect us, and one possible advantage of the B1G being so down, is that each other "big" conference (Hockey East, ECAC, NCHC, WCHA) have most of their contending teams already significantly above us, so it'd have to be a REAL cinderella run by a lower team from those conferences to "steal" another slot. I think we're looking at a tournament this year where the 15 team in PWR gets in as teh last at-large slot.
This is stil highly volatile and Michigan does not have its destiny in its own hands. I'm still of the belief that if we would have swept this weekend, we probably would be at 16 or even 15 in PWR and could have essentially controlled our destiny to an at-large. Now we need help. But it's not impossible.
UPDATE (2/24): With Harvard's loss to BC in the Beanpot 3rd place game, that helped us in two ways:
1. Harvard losing knocked their RPI down a little
2. BC and BU winning actually bumped up our RPI from .5349 to .5352. My back of envelope math shows we're probably within a 1 game difference of Harvard and UMass-Lowell (important for UML since we won head to head). Not sure if we can jump Vermont yet. A Vermont - UML split this weekend probably is the preferred result.
Revised bottom line is that from this point out, beside Michigan finishing 6-0 or 5-1 with a BTT Finals appearance, cheer like hell for Michigan Tech (easy), BC & BU (not so easy) to make huge runs from here on out. Their (BC & BU) improvements in winning percentage alone bumped us up Monday. They're the only OOC opponents we've played that have a realistic shot of helping us by winning a lot the rest of the season. Plus, all three are already ahead of us in PWR significantly, so a conference tourney win by either of the three helps with addition / maintenence of another at-large slot. It's still going to be tight, but the road to slot #15 is still open.
So I’ve always written these diaries as close to the actual event as possible, to capture my in-the-moment thoughts on the games. But with a bit of a down period on the horizon, I figured I’d take a crack at trying to recap games from the past. So this is the first in what I hope will be a semi-regular “Retro” diary series of famous Michigan games in the past. While I have my list, I welcome any suggestions in the comments. They can be football, basketball, hockey, anything you want, provided I can find a video of it somewhere online.
A Little History
Ah 1997, when Puffy was considered new on the scene...
As I’ve come to realize recently, there are LOTS of UM fans who were not born/young’ins when Michigan last won a national championship. Me, I was a junior in HS, so for some of you this is probably a baby talking to a slightly younger baby. But with these retro posts, I’m going to provide a bit of context, both as I remember it as well as from history, surrounding these games.
At the start of the season, expectations for Michigan were pretty tempered. Lloyd Carr was entering his third year, his first two seasons being 4-loss affairs that continued matching 8-4 years during Gary Moeller’s last two seasons. They were coming off a 3-point loss in the Outback Bowl to Alabama, played at Houlihan’s Stadium, known at the time as the “Big Sombrero” and now as a shameless attempt to capitalize on the lasting legacy of Patches O’Houlihan.
Anyway, Michigan seemed mired in an extended post-Bo doldrums, good enough to finish toward the bottom of the top-25 but certainly not an elite national team. Honestly, the one notable thing Carr’s teams did consistently was upset OSU on their way to undefeated seasons, twice beating OSU when the Buckeyes were ranked #2 in the country. Carr absolutely owned John Cooper, which on one hand was glorious to watch when it happened but also infuriating given how Michigan was still usually headed to some crappy mid-Florida bowl each year.
Michigan entered the year ranked #14, one of those gentleman rankings bluebloods like UM got each season because sports writers were REALLY lazy in the 90’s and apparently every season started with a hit of the old reset button on the Playstation. Their first game was against Colorado, returning to the scene of the crime. But Kordell Stewart, Rashaan Salaam, and Michael Westbrook were long gone, and Michigan absolutely shut down the Buffs 27-3. Baylor was equally plastered the following week, and then Notre Dame put up an admirable fight before falling.
Michigan finally was on the road to open the B1G season against IU, and the less said about that game the better for the Hoosiers. Northwestern followed with similar results, and all of a sudden Michigan was 5-0 having given up a total of 26 points(!), 14 of which came against ND.
And then Iowa happened. If Twitter had existed during this era, it would have been a bloodbath in that first half. Iowa had a solid offense and an underrated defense, and ended the first half with a flourish, picking off a Griese pass with a bit over 2 minutes to go, scoring quickly, and then pinning UM deep again. With about 20 seconds to go, everyone just hoped Michigan would go into the half down 6 and regroup. Then Tim Dwight caught a deep punt at midfield, made basically everyone miss twice, and scored a TD to send Iowa into the half up 14. It was dinosaur punting when those beasts plodded across the Midwest in droves, but for the rest of the half every time Dwight touched the ball (he nearly took a kickoff back as well) you could hear diamonds being made in the tightened sphincters of UM fans in the stands. Luckily, Michigan’s defensive line really stiffened and the offense did just enough to pull that game off. But Iowa was the type of game Michigan seemed to blow every year, and after that escape you could see the excitement really start to build around this squad.
MSU came next and, got, well…
Minnesota was steamrolled the following week, and then came the huge showdown at #2 Penn State. The Nittany Lions had joined the conference in 1992, went undefeated in 1994, and began 1997 as the #1 team in the country. They entered the game undefeated as well, and while the Fightin’ Paternos hadn’t looked dominant all year, it was still a team with a number of NFL picks (though they all had disappointing careers to varying degrees), including the #1 and #2 selections in 2000 (Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington) and the #5 in 1998 (Curtis Enis).
Michigan absolutely demolished them, to a degree that was, honestly, shocking given the opponent and the fact the game was at Beaver Stadium. Michigan led 24-0 at halftime, 34-0 heading into the 4th, and it probably wasn’t even that close. To say fans were excited after the win would be a bit of an understatement. With that win, Michigan ascended to #1 in the country, and followed it up with another quality win at Wisconsin, who were without 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne due to injury, though Michigan had consistently stymied Dayne during his collegiate years.
With all the preliminaries out of the way, #4 OSU came to the Big House looking to return the favor as spoiler of Michigan’s perfect season, themselves riding high after having only lost to then-#1 PSU, and featuring one of the best WRs in college football in David “proto-HGH enthusiast” Boston. The war of words started early between him and Woodson, culminating in one of those on-field fights where guys threw hands but nobody was ejected because people understood that human beings can get some aggression out on a football field without worrying how it would affect the children!
Oh yeah, and Woodson also cemented his Heisman Trophy season with an iconic return.
It also led to one of my favorite Sports Illustrated covers ever.
With that win, it was on to Pasadena and the Washington State Cougars, which is where I start doling out the Bests and the Worsts.
Best: Past With a Blast
I'll start off by saying that this was one of the weirdest f*cking Michigan games to watch, especially 17-odd years later.* I’ll obviously get into particular elements in greater detail, but watching these older games, you are struck with just how much the college game has evolved even in the last 10-15 years. Now, I know that is a pretty obvious statement, so let me explain.
Take, for example, the speed of the game. Initially I thought everyone was just slow because they were less athletic, that college football was still trying to escape the vortex of “traditional” football gameplans that were closer to attrition than strategy, like two warring armies meeting in the middle of a field and the side with more functioning limbs left at the end was the victor. But that isn’t precisely true, at least in this game; both Michigan and Washington State had gamechangers on both sides of the field, and on a per-play basis there didn’t seem to be some massive athleticism gap (the players did seem smaller than today’s athletes, though at least part could be due to optical differences from weird camera angles and the style of uniforms).
But the difference between this championship game and the one we just saw between Oregon and OSU was how deliberate everyone played. The Cougars oftentimes lined up with 4+ WRs in the game, and Michigan’s base defense was typically a 4-2-5 with liberal amounts of blitzing. But at no point did WSU really push the pace, instead huddling after most plays, allowing Michigan’s defense to get in the necessary substitutions and get set. Ryan Leaf did look to the sidelines and made adjustments at various points, but after a steady diet of Oregon, Baylor, Rich Rod, and Urban these past 10 years, it’s kind of weird to watch a high-powered offense (WSU was #2 in scoring, #4 in passing) just walk up to the line.
And don’t get me started on Michigan’s offense in this game (and really all year). I kind of glossed over it in the recap, but this team ran an offense I could best describe as “don’t screw this up”, which was a little weird given how much talent the team actually had on that side of the ball. It was Mike DeBord’s first year as OC, so if you thought he was innovative in his later years you’d be even more surprised how conservative his playcalling was. Chris Howard led the team in rushing and receiving, and Jerame Tuman and Tai Streets tied for the non-backfield lead in catches and TDs at 24 and 4, respectively. Michigan ran the ball, ran it again, and then either threw a pass out to a RB or Tuman on third down. Once defenses started sucking in, maybe they’d try to beat you deep on playaction or with a bootleg (as they did twice this game). But this team had 17 scoring drives (15 TDs and 2 FGs) of 70+ yards this year, and with few exceptions you could have timed them with a sundial. Yes, Griese set passing records in terms of attempts and completions this year, but with a YPA of 7.4 and a 14:5 TD/INT ratio, it’s safe to assume those weren’t directed very far downfield. In other words, this was a Cialis commercial for the blue beards who grew up praising “3 yards and a cloud of dust”.
And Michigan’s defense, as it had done all year, just ground WSU down throughout the game. I’ll get to it in a bit more detail below, but I thought this was one of the finest defensive lines Michigan has fielded in recent history; not the most talented, but just a bunch of guys who complemented each other perfectly. Couple that with an incredibly speedy LB core (including Dhani Jones and Ian Gold) and that terrifyingly-good secondary, and it was a surreal game to watch given just how fast college football has become.
* Oh, and on a 6-inch phone screen with super-grainy "ripped-from-VHS-to-Youtube" quality, on the 2/3 trains during my commute both to and from work, with a notepad in my hand while a guy with a pet rat hanging out in his jacket is looking at me with an expression that loosely translates to "what's up with THIS weirdo" as I furiously scribbled into said notebook about an AOL commercial (oh yeah, we'll get there).
Worst: The Luck of the Wolverines
It’s always hard to tell looking back how much of it was cosmic forces and how much of it was good defense and the inherent vagaries of the sport, but UM was very lucky they didn’t fall behind WSU early on in this game. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who watched Carr’s teams throughout the years, but all-everything Michael Black + 4+ WRs wasn’t an equation he was good at solving. Though WSU only scored 7 points in the first half, it could have been much worse had Woodson not had a nice pick of Leaf in the endzone to halt a drive, and then Leaf miss another wide-open TD by inches. WSU WRs also suffered from a number of drops early on, and there were a number of plays where multiple WSU guys where open deep in the middle of the field as the Michigan secondary lost track of them. In fact, I think one of the biggest breaks in the game was Black going off the field late in the first half with a thigh injury, as he never really returned (he had one carry I believe in the 3rd quarter before shutting it down) and WSU’s offense definitely took a step back with Gilmore as the lead back.
And on offense, Griese looked very frazzled to start, throwing a pick and generally looking out of sorts, while the playcalling was basically run, run, don’t turn it over, punt. Michigan scored on a beautiful pass 53-yard pass to Tai Street off playaction, but otherwise that first half was one that could have gotten away from Michigan pretty quickly, and you could sense they knew they had dodged a bullet late in the half and into the second as the team calmed down and started to impose its will on both sides of the ball.
Best: Easily Football-Offended Lloyd Carr
To say that Carr was unhappy with the offense Mike Price was running, at least based on the numerous snarls and dismissive looks ABC cut to on the sidelines, would be an understatement. We all know how Carr had a very specific view of how football should be played and bristled at the notion of deviating significantly from that, but watching Carr try to process the idea WSU would go 5-wide and no backs and reflexively recoil was mesmerizing. I don’t know how to describe it beyond the physical manifestation of every person online who says “the spread won’t work in the Big 10!”, plastered on the head of one of the most successful coaches in college football history.
Now, Lloyd Carr would never be described as having a particularly warm demeanor on the sidelines, whether it be during handshakes with other coaches or answering dumb questions from sideline reporters, so on one hand it shouldn’t be surprising he seemed bothered by it all. And this isn’t a judgment call on him; sure, in 2015 you see an immense amount of offensive nuance, especially in the passing game, but in 1997 nobody was really pushing the pace of the game consistently, especially throwing the ball. Sure, you had your BYU’s and Florida’s finding success through the air throughout the years, but only second-tier teams like Kentucky and Purdue were beginning to exploit speed mismatches in addition to using 4+ receiver formations.
I remember watching this game and being amazed WSU had a 1,000 yard rusher AND Ryan Freaking Leaf on the same team, but it definitely seemed like an outlier situation and not the direction offenses were going. The conventional wisdom was you won with talent and execution. Hell, Nebraska went undefeated this year with a QB barely completing 50% of his passes for a 5:4 TD:INT ratio because they averaged 5.5 rushing TDs A GAME! And while he’d never say it publicly, I’m sure the word “gimmick” popped quite a few times in the video sessions leading up to this game. Carr’s view of acceptable offenses expanded somewhat as his career unfolded, but this was definitely one that seemed to take Carr back a bit.
Worst: And Easily Offensive-Playcalling-Offended BronxBlue
I’m going to provide a list of notable offensive players on UM’s roster in 1997.
- Jeff Backus
- Steve Hutchinson
- Jon Jansen
- Brian Griese
- Chris Howard
- Anthony Thomas
- Tai Streets
- Jerame Tuman
- Aaron Shea
- Charles Woodson
- Tom Brady**
Now, I know all those guys weren’t THOSE GUYS at the same time in 1997, but one of the hallmarks of Carr’s offenses was playing sound, low-variability football whenever possible. When the stakes got higher or the team was trailing, he would oftentimes loosen the reigns a bit, resulting in games like New Math and his final game. But despite oftentimes having an overwhelming talent advantage, the offenses seemed pathologically incapable of putting it on the opponent’s face except in rare circumstances. Hell, look at the 2000 Michigan roster and then remember that that team put up 20 points to 6-6 UCLA, 14 on 5-6 MSU, and a last-second 13 against 9-4 Wiscy. Yes, they scored 51 in a losing effort to NW, but…
So yeah, watching this game I was reminded how infuriating it was to follow this team at times. While Michigan’s defenses were typically some of the best in the country, the offenses found ever-more-stupefying ways to waste elite talent, or at the very least not beat the doors off of non-baby seals most years. On both of Michigan’s long TD passes, it was because WSU’s suspect corners couldn’t keep up with Michigan’s WRs. It was clear to me, to the people watching at home and stands, to Bob and Keith in the booth, that Michigan could throw against WSU, and yet it was only when the Cougars took a 13-7 lead in the second half did Michigan start to loosen up a bit on offense. And once they did, they went from a team that couldn’t move the ball for a half to one that converted 9/11 3rd-downs in the 2nd half and racked up close to 250 yards.
I guess my other pet peeve that came up during this game was the Thomas Edison-level telegraphing the offense did when they inserted certain players into the game, such as Woodson on offense (Calvin Bell in 2001 was the platonic ideal of this behavior). Because Charles Woodson was an amazing football player, Carr wasn’t afraid to let him touch the ball a couple of times a game on offense, usually on end-arounds, reverses, or deep balls. The problem lied in that when Woodson walked onto the field, it was rarely to do anything else but be the A1 focus of the play. Not as a decoy, a blocker, anything other than the guy who was going to get the ball unless you triple-covered him. As the season rolled on, defenses figured out that the guy killing them on defense was pretty good, and that when he walked out to catch a ball you might as well send two guys his way. In this game, Woodson was on the field for something like 5 plays, resulting in 2 runs, 1 catch, one under-thrown bomb, and one sorta-in-his-vicinity incompletion.
Again, I don’t want to crap too much on a guy who won a NC, but watching this janky offense in 1997 after having just lived through the Hoke era was jarring in how little had changed.
** Yeah, yeah, he was a freshman. I know.
Best: Charles MF Woodson
I don’t need to tell you that Charles Woodson had swagger coming out of his ears. Dude was the first primary-defensive player to win the Heisman, absolutely shut down halves of the field, and just was magical to watch. You’d hear people talk up the merits of guys like Dre Bly, Champ Bailey, and Shawn Springs, and yet nobody could deny how dominant Woodson was as a defensive player. He was fast enough to keep up with any WR, yet big enough to help on the run and serve as a devastating situational pass rusher. Heck, he hit Leaf a couple times in this game, including one on a delayed blitz that nearly led to a pick. He carried himself like a star but backed it up at every occasion. When you watched him you saw a guy who was evolutionarily “better” than most of the guys on the field, and you could take 1997 Charles Woodson and drop him in 2015 and he’d still be one of the best corners in the game. Just a dominant player.
Best: The Rest of the Defense
Obviously Woodson is the name everyone remembers from that unit, plus the record-setting PPG allowed (6.18 before the bowl), but that entire defense was chock full of brilliance. Marcus Ray was one of the better safeties in Michigan history, and on most other teams James Whitley would have been a #1 DB. And while he did seem to have trouble at times in coverage, Tommy Hendricks tackled with a vengeance usually reserved for fathers looking for lost daughters in movies. In particular, there was one tackle on a WSU WR that you seemed to wake up both sides of the field.
The LBs were headlined by Sam Sword, Dhani Jones, and Ian Gold, the latter two having pretty good pro careers in addition to being great college players. Gold and Jones were the type of sideline-to-sideline guys who could play in 2015 without much issue, and Sword currently sits #3 in career tackles at UM. All three gave Michigan immense flexibility in how they ran their defense, highlighted by the fact Lloyd Carr and Jim Herrmann were willing to roll out a 4-2-5 in this game without batting an eye.
I mentioned this earlier, but the defensive line really was one of the best you’d see. Rob Renes was a Sporting News AA at nose tackle as a senior, Josh Williams was stout against the run, and both Glenn Steele and James Hall could just squeeze the air out of a pocket. Again, it wasn’t full of stars (though everyone save Renes has decent NFL careers), but they might as well have added a “Right to Rush 4” patch on their jerseys because they absolutely disrupted offensive gameplans. When Ryan Leaf really struggled in this game, it was when he was under intense pressure from 4-5 guys, and a major reason he never really got on track was because he was always picking Wolverines out of his teeth.
You know how I just gushed over this defense? Well, to prove that nobody’s perfect, it also gave up a 99-yard TD drive in the 3rd quarter that was just one big WTF. Leaf fumbled the snap on first down, yet WSU recovered. On the next play, he threw a kinda-duck for a first down where the aforementioned Hendricks just smacked the WR moments after the ball got to him. From that point on, it was Michigan jumping offsides, letting WRs get between coverages, and whiffing on a reverse that you could see coming as soon as the ball was snapped. Overall I thought the defense looked pretty good in the second half, but for that one drive it was ugly.
Worst: Concussions? Nah!
This being 1997, you saw (a) a bunch of really stiff shots on WRs and QBs that would absolutely have been flagged in the game today, and (b) lots of homespun references to slobberknockers and bell-ringing that, yeah, feels kinda icky given what we now know about concussions. In particular, Glenn Steele absolutely obliterated Ryan Leaf on one play, yet nobody seemed particularly worried about Leaf’s health or current capacity to tie his shoes. I’m not saying Ryan Leaf’s subsequent life struggles are due to anything that happened in this game, but seeing how hard some of these guys were hitting him, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out at least some of his issues trace back to the beatings he took on the field. It was just weird to see some of these borderline-dangerous hits on both sides get glossed over.
Best: Chris Howard
He’ll never be remembered as a particularly great back at UM, but Chris Howard was the perfect player for Lloyd Carr’s offense. For large swaths of this game, it was Howard busting out first-down runs with Cougars bearing down, or turning simple swing passes into big gains. As I noted earlier he led the team in both rushing and receiving on the year, and in this game he rushed for 70 yards and added another 13 on two catches, including a nifty pickup on 3rd down in the first half that helped Michigan get back some field position. He was also a pretty solid blocker as far as I could tell, picking up blitzes and helping to give Griese some time on a couple of big throws in the 4th quarter.
Worst: Bad Anthony Thomas
I’m honestly not sure how widespread this sentiment was in 1997, but Anthony Thomas was one of the most infuriating backs for me to watch early on in his career. He had a tantalizing amount of talent; just a brute who could outrun you as well as (seemingly) run you over. And yet he had some missing trait, some fatal flaw that seemed to hold him back. Much like Derrick Green now, Thomas was a load who somehow still went down at first contact. In this game, he had one nice run for something like 10 yards and then 6 more rushes that went for 0-2 yards. Runs where a LB would clip his legs and he’d go down in a heap. I’m not sure if it was his running style (he was pretty upright), balance issues, lower-body strength, Michigan RB Disliking Gods, or what, but it really wasn’t until his senior year in 2000 when he put it all together, at which point he absolutely demolished guys and was, briefly, a star in the NFL. Chris Perry followed a similar trajectory while he in A2, and so if you are one of those people bothered by Green’s inability to be the Mooseback he seemed destined for a couple years ago, Thomas looms out there as the potential upside to a guy Figuring It Out. But yeah, watching this game brought back some bad memories for me.
Worst: Come On Man
At one point in the first half of this game, Lloyd Carr punted from the WSU 38. The resulting kick netted him 15 yards. That is all.
Best: No 1997 News Cycle
So Bob Griese, father of Brian Griese, and Keith Jackson, WSU alum and former Cougars radio announcer, were calling the Rose Bowl. In 1997, this was noted in a couple reports leading up to the game but that was it. In 2015, I can’t imagine how many talking heads would have chimed in about the potential “conflicts of interest” involved in two grown men calling a game in which they might have very minor rooting interests. Remember Larry Fitzgerald’s semi-biased coverage of his son in a pretty obscure publication leading up to the Super Bowl some years ago, and how big a deal that became relative to its importance? If one of Kirk Herbstreit’s sons ever winds up playing for an NC and he’s on the call, I fully expect Twitter to just melt down under the deluge of complaints.
In this game, Jackson made one quip to Griese about him not knowing Brian could throw the ball that far on a deep completion to (I believe) Street, but otherwise they acted like two professionals, capable of calling a game objectively despite rooting interests in certain outcomes. It was refreshing.
Best: Quick Hits
Here are a couple of quick points that don’t need their own section.
- This was the internet in 1997. You went to AOL and entered a keyword to search because the idea of dedicated URLs was still pretty “new”. I was amazed Prodigy hadn’t gotten the business first.
- Ryan Leaf was terrifying in college. I know he was a colossal bust in the pros, but he had a cannon of an arm, was reasonably accurate for the time, and was deceptively fast for a guy his size. It’s crazy in retrospect, but he looked like like a worthy challenger to Peyton Manning as the #1 overall draft selection, and even in this game he played with a fearlessness and toughness that really helped keep WSU in the game against a more talented UM squad.
- Apparently both of these teams were some of the most-penalized teams in the country that season. It amazes me that any Lloyd Carr team would play that cavalierly, but I guess it was a different era in more ways than one.
- Russell Athletics were the official jersey sponsor of Washington State. I can only imagine that they bought their warm-ups from Eastbay.
Worst: The Pass Interference that Wasn’t Called
If you hear people complaining about this game, what they usually argue about is the weird clock management at the end of the game wherein the clock ran out as WSU spiked the ball with 2 second left on the clock. What tends to come up less often is the absolutely terrible offensive PI that allowed the Cougars to even get to midfield. It was third down, under 30 seconds to go in the game, and WSU is deep in their own territory. Ryan Leaf drops back to pass, scrambles a bit, and then just heaves the ball downfield. Look at the screenshot above, and understand that as the ball started to descend it was coming up short. Woodson slowed down to pick it off, and Taylor just shoved him out of the way, in front of at least 1 official, and pulled it in. Jackson thought it was a pick, and then both him and Griese vocally complained that it was obvious offensive PI. It was insanity when it happened, and on review is even more amazing that it wasn’t called or that Woodson didn’t absolutely lose his mind.
Had Michigan lost this game, that would have gone down as one of the worst calls in Michigan history. As it is, it is just an amazingly incompetent one.
Worst: Hucking Fornhuskers
We all know what happened following this game. Nebraska plastered Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers in the Orange Bowl the next day, one of the many arrows in the “Peyton Manning couldn’t win the big one” quiver that people had against him for most of his early career. Coupled with Tom Osborne’s retirement, the Cornhuskers somehow leapfrogged Michigan to split the national title, winning the Coach’s Poll in what felt like a retirement gift to Osborne. Discussion of the Flea Kicker against Mizzou is treated as sour grapes for some reason, but let it be said that Nebraska was a very good team that chewed people up on the ground but was a pretty terrible team throwing the ball. It would have been a great game to see, and the controversy led to the creation of the BCS championship game.
So I hope you enjoyed this diary. If you have a game you’d like to see me review, by all means post it below.