For more sepcific summary and discussion of the book, look no further than the series of diary posts being done by MGoBlogger 03 Blue 07. He's doing a nice job, and his reply-comments are also excellent.
I write this, my fellow Wolverines, because we were right. We were right all along. We. Were. Right.
One of the things I expect that you will all find with this book, is that while Rich Rodriguez is the lead character, he is not a dominating character. This book is certainly about Rodriguez to a great extent; but it is not told from his perspective. It is not "his" story. It is "a" story. Or, more correctly, a series of stories. You will dig into this book, and you will not put it down.
Here's the thing: while I am going to leave the field clear for others to read, think about and comment on this book, I want to say right now -- WE WERE RIGHT.
We were right to question the motives and methods of Michael Rosenberg, Mark Snyder and the Detroit Free Press. Looking back, you all know what was written on this site. Many of you complained that I in particular went overboard. And that Brian Cook was too anti-Freep and too lenient in allowoing me to post what I did.
What I expect most of you to say when you've had a chance to digest the book, is that we may have been too easy on Rosenberg and Snyder.
The Free Press is very nearly the lead antagonist in the entire book.
And what the book makes clear, that none of us on the outside could, is that the Free Press stories were really hurting the program, the coaches, their friends, their families and the Michigan players.
If you've been reading this blog carefully for three years, you will know much of what Bacon is writing about. You will feel that you have been very well prepared to follow the story. You'll already know most of the details. But what you'll see for the first time is how badly our coaches and players were being hurt and distracted by what the Free Press had concocted.
Interestingly, to start with, you'll actuallly see the praise that Bacon lavishes on Rosenberg, as a writer of considerable skill and intelligence. Rosenberg had a good reputation. Bacon acknowledges it.
But Bacon also makes it very clear, by the time you get to the end; Rosenberg was no less a villain than that which he was portrayed as on this blog. And that Brian Cook was an important figure, in trying to clear the air. Brian, and Jon Chait, were right. All along. Asking precisely the right questions, demanding exactly the right answers.
Largely left out of Bacon's book is the other Detroit media, which for better or worse gets portrayed as just sort of following the Rosenberg lead. Hopefully, this book will shake that up, because the Rosenberg/Freep Jihad has been there for the writing all along. This blog (which gets healthy mentinon in the book!) has been on the case, and now looks very much the better for having done so.
Many of you, the Michigan cognoscenti, will buy this book and read it and smile quietly to yourselves, thinking, "Yep; just as we had known; I saw this on MGoBlog first." But I hope you will all do something else. Get extra copies of this book; give them to your uninitiated friends. Give them to the other factionalists.
We've talked about the factions; my own thinking on that subject perhaps hasn't been as forceful as my writing about Rosenberg and the Free Press. But as much as outing the Freep to the general public, this book outs the factions. We suspected them; they were there. Worse even than I had imagined. Everyone needs to read this book. Lots of people won't like parts of it. I don't much care. Everybody needs to read this book. This book isn't required reading for the In Rod We Trust fanatics. This book is more than anything required reading above all for the Rodriguez haters. If you know one, buy him a copy.
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Learn from yesterday...
6-0 starts for Michigan are rare.
Most of my life (33 years) has been spent rooting for a Michigan team that would win most Saturdays, live in the national rankings, and stub their toe early in the season. 4-0 or better starts have only occurred 11 times in those 33 seasons:
4-0: '78 '96 '09
5-0: '85 '95 '99 '10
6-0: '86 '97 '06 '11
The starts to the last three seasons have been a stretch that Michigan fans have not witnessed since the dawn of the Carr era. That exciting time back in the mid-90s culminated in a National Championship with the two seasons before ending in disappointment. We have had the disappointment x 1,000,000 these past two seasons (but thanks for the excitement RR); perhaps we are on the brink of something special again.
Looking back reveals that the last 4 teams* to start the season undefeated through six games have gone on to have very memorable seasons:
'86 - Jimmy Harbaugh guarantees victory over Ohio and delivers as Michigan goes 11-2 losing the Rose Bowl to a tainted ASU team.
'92 - Gary Moeller with a senior Elvis Grbac goes undefeated, winning the Rose Bowl over Washington and finishing 9-0-3 in the days before overtime.
'97 - Michigan goes undefeated at 12-0 and clinches a NC, winning the Rose Bowl over Washington St and a Heisman for one Charles Woodson.
'06 - Michigan starts out 11-0 leading up to the Game of the Century against #1 Ohio; Bo dies and Michigan ends up 11-2 after a loss to USC in the Rose Bowl.
That would be 1 National Championship, 3 B10 Championships, 3 11+ win seasons, and 2 wins in 4 Rose Bowl appearances. These are good tidings indeed.
*1992 not included in the 4-0 or better teams because of a tie against ND in the season opener.
Live for Today…
Halfway through the season, several Michigan players and coaches** should take pride in accomplishments thus far:
1. Brady Hoke – My pride in my team and the way it is coached couldn't be higher right now. Brady Hoke should be the clear front-runner for coach of the year at this point. He is the glue.
2. Greg Mattison – The defense continues to improve and despite looking overmatched at times they never quit. The half time adjustments against JNW were remarkable, forcing 2 turnovers and shutting the Wildcats out for the second half. If not this season, coming seasons will feature a top-10 ranked defense and a return of Michigan dominance. Mattison = Gary Moeller++.
3. Al Borges – Naysayers can go sit in the corner because Mr. Borges is having none of it. Al Borges is having the time of his life, making use of the treasure trove of speed and talent left to him by Rich Rodriguez. His understanding of the talent he has, and how to most effectively make use of it, grows with each passing week. He has this team rolling, and even a 3-turnover 1st half can't derail their confidence. I can't wait to see what he has in store for little brother. Al Borges is a Mad Magician.
4. Junior Hemingway – Senior Junior is what bails out the shortcomings of a Denard-led offense. His ability to go up and get jump-balls stretched the JNW defense and forced them to give up more space for Denard's feet to do what they do. We are lucky he stuck around, because without him this team is probably 4-2.
5. Denard Robinson – Junior Denard overcomes his mistakes. Credit has to be given for how he shook off that dreadful first half to win the game for Michigan in the second half. There has never been a player like shoelace, and there will never be one like him again I bet. His humble attitude, always positive, always smiling... it allows for turnarounds like we saw yesterday. You just can't keep him down. He obviously took the coaching-up at half time and came out a different player. I told my wife before Devin Gardner's TD that Denard was not really injured bad, he just wanted Gardner to get his shot. Just remarkable.
Also of note: Jeremy Gallon, Roy Roundtree (nice to see some production), RVB, Kevin Koger, Jordan Kovacs (Probably the only player that could rip off the QB's helmet without drawing a flag), Devin Gardner (clutch TD run), every position coach and basically everyone on the team. Great job guys.
*Adding coaches in here this week because this team is truly a reflection of their hard work and dedication.
Hope for Tomorrow
Of those 4 seasons, the current one reminds me most of 1997 so far. Much like in 1997, Michigan is coming off of consecutive seasons that started hot only to end in disappointment. In '97 Michigan started the season ranked fairly low by the standards of the time, and had to win over hearts and minds with each passing week. There was a hard-fought, down-to-the-wire win over Notre Dame after trailing at half time. There was a gritty, come from behind win over a B10 opponent (Iowa) for the 6th win that overcame a two-score half time deficit. That '97 team got better with each week and won through a very tough November schedule that included Top-5 ranked Penn St and Ohio teams.
I remember that '97 Iowa game well. That was the game that showed the difference of that team, of that season. Instead of folding yesterday, Michigan again showed that fight and persevered to stay undefeated. This team is starting to believe in itself and I am feeling big wins in their future.
I realize that this team is not on the level of the '97 team, but if you squint you can see some similarity. The '97 team had a dominant defense centered around a Heisman candidate that supported an offense with several nice pieces to it. This 2011 squad may have the opposite in a sense, though it is far too early to predict this team's ceiling. The upcoming opponents are perhaps less intimidating than those the '97 team faced down the stretch, so there is reason to hope. Championships are a distinct possibility; which ones remain to be seen.
Go Blue and stay safe.
Mods: I screwed up and put this on the Board. Can you move it to Diaries? Thanks.
Previously: “Three and Out: The First 100 Pages” can be found here: http://mgoblog.com/diaries/three-and-out-100-pages
Okay, guys, to recap: these are just my impressions, sort of stream-of-consciousness. Picked the book up Thursday (10/5) evening, and have been reading it. My comments in the last thread (above) I’ll try not to repeat here, other than to say that on page 100, MSC and BM tell RR to keep the $2.5m they promised him toward the buyout quiet because they hadn’t informed the Regents, and MSC tells RR and Rita, “if they find out, I’m toast.” And Martin chimes in “and so am I.” And also to point out if you want more stuff, check out that last thread, especially the times I pop up in the comments to discuss what Lloyd did when RR arrived with respect to transfers, etc., and how that all shook out.
Continuing from my last post, this thing is a soap opera. The infighting, back-biting, and divisiveness in the A.D., football community, and administration is sobering and unfortunate, and it hasn’t gotten much better as the book progresses. There is also a ton of “cover your ass” stuff that the administration did where RR seemed to take the hit, but it wasn’t necessarily always his fault. In today’s installment, much on the Freep Jihad, the NCAA, the Carr’s Camp vs. RR Camp rift, and more. . .
The 2008 Team, Denard and Tate’s Recruiting
RR and the players knew there were guys- seniors- who weren’t “all in.” RR understood this; he thought it was natural, as those were seniors and guys who had paid their dues, and then a new regime comes in, and they’re essentially starting over. RR was actually sympathetic to that.
On top of that, RR and the coaches saw what we all saw: they were incredibly young, and they could never get Threet to stop throwing off his back foot. He’d do it right in practice, but in the games, he’d get all flustered.
They were recruiting Tate during this time. They were very, very excited about Tate, as well as Big Will. They thought Tate was exactly what they needed.
Denard: they were recruiting him during this time, too. Interestingly, RR had always wanted DR as a QB, but wires crossed with Scott Shafer, who had been recruiting DR as a defensive back. (Pages 148-148). Shafer resigns, and it turns out that Shafer had wanted DR as a DB. Shafer had worked really hard to recruit Denard as a DB, but Denard was “adamant” that “I wasn’t coming to Michigan to play corner. He had already turned down Florida for the same reason and had explained as much to Shafer.”
So when Shavodrick Beaver jumped ship (right around the same time), Tony Gibson happened to be in Deerfield, FL recruiting Adrian Witty. While there, he checked in with Denard, and was surprised to learn Denard was still interested in U of M….but solely as a quarterback. Michigan then said they’d let him try QB, and Denard was ours.
The “Highest GPA in team History” thing
RR asked the academic folks what the highest GPA in school history was. They told him 2.60. The team set this as a goal, and got a 2.61.
Then, as part of the Jihad (more on that below), the Freep dug into that. It turns out that the academic people had given RR specious/not well-sourced info on the team’s best historical GPA. Rather than say this, U of M’s PR people drafted a press release where RR took the fall. RR balked at this; it wasn’t his screw-up. He had them change the release (this was one of the first times he put his foot down with the administration). They did. Then they released the earlier version, making RR the scapegoat.
The Free Press Jihad, NCAA Investigation, Compliance, etc
Well. A couple things: this whole thing, personally, really upset Rich Rod. The reason it did was because a.) they weren’t cheating, b.) there was clearly a leak and sources within the athletic department, c.) and most importantly, the idea that RR didn’t love his players, care about them, was trying to hurt them, etc. This is what tore him up. He shed tears over it a few times.
Rosenberg v. Cook: Brian Cook’s showdown with him is recalled. If you remember, Brian went after him, personally, at the press conference following the hit piece, repeatedly asking “do you know what a countable hour is?” Rosenberg and Brian were both interviewed for the book, as was Craig Ross. Rosenberg remembers it as this crazy guy barking at him in the parking lot, screaming over and over “do you know what a countable hour is?” and Rosenberg responding, “who are you?” They went back and forth like that four or five times, Rosenberg stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Michael Rosenberg. Who are you?” and Craig Ross said “that’s Brian Cook.” Also, Rosenberg refused to talk to Brian, saying that Brian was “a competitor.”
Snyder: More direct quotes where he says about RR: “I can’t stand the guy.” Also: from page 183, Larry Foote, who was friends with Snyder, asked him, “why didn’t you ask me about RR?” because Foote knew RR well, trained with Barwis, etc. Snyder’s answer, quote: “I just don’t like the guy.”
Rosenberg, personally: Was really hurt by the backlash. Broke down over the Amazon.com stuff, saying how he’d poured 3 years of his life into that book, it was his life’s work, and to have it trashed like that on Amazon got to him.
Other press vs. Rosenberg/Snyder: When Rosenberg and Snyder came in after the hit piece dropped, they had a spring in their step. This was when they went to the press conference. They were surprised to find that the other press members were at best, cold with them, and at worst, openly disgusted with the piece.
Rosenberg, as we expected, never asked any players to find out if there was “another side” to the “OMG PRACTICING TOO MUCH” story. He didn’t do it. Bacon asks him about this in the book. Rosenberg is evasive. Also blames editors, saying that stuff was edited out.
Chapter 15 deals with a lot of this. Rosenberg and Snyder asked Madej for “everything you have,” on a Friday night when they told him the story was coming out on Sunday. They said “we need Rodriguez, we need Martin, we need schedules. Tell us we’re wrong- anything you have.” Madej: “the problem is, they’ve been working on this for months, and you’ve got seven or eight hours to respond. That’s difficult.”
When the meeting ended, Madej said, “you better be sure you’re not exaggerating.” Rosenberg, “We’re covered,” replying confidently.
Judy Van Horn immediately seized on the countable vs. non-countable hours aspect, as did everyone in the A.D. This was glossed over in the original Freep piece, not even mentioned, though Rosenberg says “of COURSE we knew the difference,” etc.
Of note: Van Horn and Ann Vallano had even asked the NCAA whether stretching counts, taping, etc., and were never able to get a straight answer/interpretation of the rule. They (U of M) interpreted it like everyone else, then: that stretching didn’t count.
Also: former players say that we weren’t doing anything different, time-wise, from under LC. Things like “Torture Tuesdays,” where kids who skipped class were punished.
Also, the Freep piece really shook the players up because of the fact that there had to be sources inside the program; the continuity and togetherness was naturally shaken by this. But RR made sure no one blamed Hawthorne or Stokes, telling the team that those kids were part of the family, they'd been tricked, and that no one should be messing with them, etc. And the team didn't shun them; they understood that it was all bullshit.
Van Horn now feels like she was “snowed.” Labadie told compliance numerous times that he would bring the forms, but in the end, he was negligent, lying, or both. Van Horn brought in auditors to try to get his ass in gear. Didn’t help. That audit resulted in a finding against the football program a few weeks before the Freep piece. Coincidence? No. It’s clear someone leaked it to the Freep.
RR got fed up with all of the bullshit, and all of the drama. “They told me in the interview: You get to Michigan, and you’re gonna be surrounded by great people who are gonna support you. Really? Where are they? I want to talk to the Regents, directly, and tell them what’s going on here….People who support our program only hear about the bullshit these guys (Freep, saboteurs) are making up.” (p. 166).
Also, and again: there were leaks in the athletic department. Bacon seems to be almost certain it was Carr loyalists. There was a very strong faction in the AD that was pissed that English didn’t get the job. English himself was pissed. He refused to actually say anything to RR after we beat them, just shook his hand. RR doesn’t appreciate this. He also doesn’t appreciate apparently this James Stapleton business. Stapleton is a wealthy guy, former U of M fb player, apparently one of those guys who has a lot of pull behind the scenes. He is a regent at Eastern; a big English supporter. The rumors got so bad that he, Stapleton, sent a fax to Bill Martin, LC, and RR, basically saying “I’m not the source of the sabotage! I didn’t collaborate with Rosenberg.” Stapleton and Rosenberg are friends.
Stapleton was also close with Denise Illitch, who as early as 2009, openly referred to RR as “Dead Man Walking.” Classy, Regent. Classy. RR was very pissed that Stapleton had a sideline pass; he got it from Illitch, who was a Regent. RR was pretty convinced (as is Bacon) that Stapleton was part of this group of people who were English/Carr loyalists and were actively undermining the program.
Comes across as petulant, immature, etc. RR was hard on him, and got pissed off at him because Tate never improved, which RR thought was due to a lack of diligence. Tate never watched film (at least through 2009 season’s end) and Denard didn’t really either. RR didn’t like this. The problem was, with the Freep thing hanging over their heads, it was hard for RR and the players, because they were all scared shitless of over-practicing, over-preparing, etc. But yeah, Tate’s demeanor was an issue.
RR, LC, BM Summit in 2009
This was fascinating. Martin was either forced out after the issue with the student security guard who wouldn’t let him into MSC’s box (as many think happened; 2 days later, the University announces Martin’s retirement; it was the 2nd such incident) or it was just a coincidence (as Martin maintains). Regardless, the day after his retirement was announced, Martin went to a pre-scheduled lunch with RR and LC. It was chilly.
This was the first time Lloyd had really spoken to RR since the phone call in December 2007 when Lloyd had sold RR on coming to Michigan. I’ll reproduce the account of this conversation; ellipses are where I’ve cut things out for brevity:
After the chilly pleasantries were dispensed with, Carr sent the first volley: “Tell the people in your camp to quit attacking me in the press,” he said, as Rodriguez remembered it a couple hours later. The catalyst for this was undoubtedly Rick Leach’s public lambasting of Carr. . . for sitting with Iowa’s coaches and dignitaries—people Carr had known for years—in an Iowa stadium luxury box…”
“I don’t have a camp,” Rodriguez replied, “and whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it on their own. Rick Leach speaks for himself.”
Rodriguez ticked off all the reasons Carr shouldn’t feel threatened…What Michigan football needed now, Rodriguez said [to Carr ] was Carr’s unambiguous support. “When the Free Press came out with this story….we could have used you speaking up.”
Carr said nothing.
“You’re either all in or you’re not,” Rodriguez continued. “You’re either inside the Michigan family or you’re not.” But the closest he came to accusing Carr of anything more than silence was this: “Somebody inside the department is talking to the press and doing us harm.”
The suggestion was that, if there were moles in the department, Carr most likely knew who they were, and Rodriguez would appreciate it if Carr told them to knock it off. As Rodriguez recalled, Carr remained silent at that, too.
Alright, all, I gotta go- tailgating for the NW game. But wanted to get this out there for people to digest.
Looking at the mid and upper 70s for the lunchtime and early afternoon hours, with a good amount of wind. South winds at a steady 10mph (leaves and little twigs blow about) but gusts could be up to 20mph (you'll see some smaller trees sway).
Looking at just under 70 degrees for the kickoff. The wind gusts will die down, but we'll hang on to the steady 10mph southerly flow. Very sunny, with just a few thin clouds making their way through.
Mid 60s by halftime. Winds starting to go down a bit also to around 8mph. Mostly clear skies.
Staying in the low to mid 60s until closing time, then dropping to the upper 50s. Winds out of the south around 5mph with skies staying mostly clear. Whether you're headed home late that night or on Sunday, you'll have great traveling weather. Clear and calm throughout the night, and Sunday stays clear as well, reaching the low 70s.
If you're staying home... Very similar weather, but we'll be a bit warmer. Looking to hit the low 80s in Ann Arbor tomorrow, and not nearly as windy as in Evanston- we'll have southerly winds between 8-10mph, but not the higher gusts they'll see there. 70 degrees at kickoff, dropping to the upper 60s by halftime, and those clear skies let us cool quickly into the evening hours. Mid 60s by the game's end, and cooling to the upper 50s by last call. It's a perfect night to hit the local places, grab some food and drinks, and celebrate a win!
Christina Burkhart is a meteorologist for NBC/ABC in Traverse City, MI. She grew up in Ann Arbor and associates Saturdays with Michigan football. Go Blue!!
(JCB Weekend Set Up: SteveY takes on the Red River Rivalry. And during the 3:30 window it’s quantity over quality. Lets hope that becomes a good thing. The blog’s formal picks will be forthcoming. No later than for breakfast reading tomorrow)
This weekend the "This Is Not The Last Two Years Tour" begins. The schedule amps up compared to the last three weeks with this contest with Northwestern. Say what you will about Northwestern, but they've become an annual bowl team. And Michigan hasn't really been able to stop any offense from a Big 10 bowl team in recent years. If the defense throws a wrench into Northwestern's offense, then that would actually be a break through to a certain degree. Can the defense that's generated 15 turnovers keep up its thievery? Can the clutch red zone defense continue to limit damage? Can anything remotely close to the 10.2 points per game be sustained? Can the second quarter turnaround from a year ago keep Michigan in games?
Suddenly everyone loves Michigan. At one point, in the summer, the spread on this game was Northwestern -3. As game week rolls wraps up, oddsmakers feel the need to make Michigan more than a touchdown favorite in order to get even action on both sides. Let me play Chicken Little a bit just for some perspective to save us from possible fatal overconfidence as fans.
Just Cover Blog Rule: Never bet on a team with a countdown clock in their locker room the week before the game said clock is counting down towards. That is Michigan this week. This game has a classic game trap game look to it with the Wolverines playing hated rival Michigan State and their obnoxious three-game winning streak in the series next Saturday. Sharps for years have been banking by playing against teams in juiced up look ahead spots like this. Heck, you could argue its a sandwich game, since Michigan is coming off a win in a trophy game.
Just Cover Blog Rule: Never bet on a team in the regular season a week after a trophy game. Its the football cousin of never bet on a basketball team in the immediate game after their fans storm the court. You could argue its a sandwich game, in between rivals and trophy games in the wake of the Battle For The Little Brown Jug a week ago. I think that gives the 2011 Minnesota outfit a little too much credit. Rarely are trophy games that easy and Michigan didn’t need anything close to trophy game pep to cruise by. However, it does give us a warning not to play Northwestern in this game as well.
Just Cover Blog Rule: Be Wary Of Michigan In Their First Road Game. The major historical element in the room is Michigan's annual woes in their first road game. Michigan is 10-22 ATS since 1979 in their first road game, 3-18 when installed as the favorite. Uh oh. Here we go. I love trends like this, but I am also vigilante with them because when they cool off and, AHEM, regress to the mean, I want to be a step ahead so I don't lose my shirt on a trend that isn't a trend anymore. That sleuth in me would point out that Michigan is 3-2 ATS the last five years in this spot. Of course, all three covers were as underdogs in the Notre Dame series, another strong, long-term series trend. So who knows. I do know that plenty of sharps circle the first Michigan road game of the year and play it like its tradition. Some are probably downright giddy at the prospect of getting the Cats, the definition of a feisty dog, and a full touchdown head start.
Just Cover Blog Rule: Wow, we're getting a lot of these today. What can I say, the blog is getting ISO Certified this week, so we're all about rules, steps and processes. Anyway, here you go: Never bet on a team that's in their first road game of the season after starting the season with four or more home games in a row. To me, this is just a recipe for problems. I'm always interested in teams I don't trust or who I think are overrated in spots like this. Its certainly a situation that demands pause before pulling a trigger on the road team. I don't think any trend should override how you've analyzed a game otherwise, but if there's reasonable doubt in your mind, these are the types of situations you should avoid betting on. Remember, your profit is built as much on the bets you don't make as they are on the ones you do. Michigan has been in this spot before and have struggled each time: 1984, a 14-6 taffy pull with Indiana; 1987, the Demetrius Brown seven interception, 17-11 at Michigan State; 1993, a 17-7 loss at Michigan State with the Spartans stoning Tyrone Wheatley into the worst day of his career, 33 yards on 11 carries; 2007, on this very field, a 12-point win over Northwestern, in a game that required Michigan to climb out of a listless, 9-point halftime hole. I’m pretty sure Lloyd Carr guaranteed to sign a transfer paper or two during that intermission speech as well. Wait, too soon? And 2009, a 26-20 OT loss at MSU, a game during Michigan was whipped every which way but loose for 3.5 quarters until sparking a comeback to force overtime in the final seconds. Interesting how Michigan struggled putting points on the board in each of those games. Its so hard to see this team struggling like that tomorrow night. None of those outcomes are related to each other. But, its some proof that this game is prone to some basic human foibles and maybe this situation is at least one of them to beware of. Thus, the JCB rule.
What has me tied up the most about handicapping the game is my obvious love of Michigan, but also I'm a fan of Northwestern and love, love, love this team as an underdog. Well, any team that's an underdog in their games. The team catching points is 40-16 ATS since 2006 in Northwestern games. But the Purple and the points have been good to me. In 2008, I broke into blogging doing Big 10 Picks here in the diaries before eventually birthing the JCB. During that time, I am 11-3 ATS when taking Northwestern as an underdog. Its always been a good club in our bag. I might not always play them in that spot, but I always give them a second, third, even fourth look before. We’re 2-0 on them this year having had Wildcat tickets in both the BC and Illinois games. I keep tossing around in my mind that given my luck with Northwestern and the major upside to not winning on the +7.5, that I should just do this for pure emotional hedging reasons.
So, there's my weekly nervous ninny routine. I'm excited for this game because I do feel it will give Michigan a more legit test than anything we've seen the last three weeks. Some of evidence on record for Michigan is sketchy on account of opponent. I think there are plenty of measuring stick battles in this one that will be more relevant to projecting Michigan the rest of the way. Here are five keys/matchups/stats that I think will eventually tell the tale of this one.
Fun little matchup between Michigan's offensive tackles and Northwestern's high motor, play making defensive ends. The main event is along the left side with Taylor Lewan going up against Vincent Browne. A senior, Browne has 33 career TFLs and earned second team All Big-10 Honors a year ago. I think we all expect Lewan to compete and win some level of All Big-10 Honors before his career is done. Lewan had a knack for the killer penalty a year ago, can he keep his clean yellow flag sheet after a night of tangling with Browne? On the other side, the Mark Hugye vs Tyler Scott battle looks like another matchup that go either way. Most Michigan fans probably have been muttering under their breath for years that the offensive line will take a step forward once a talent upgrade from Hugye can be found. But, here's Hugye in his third year as a starter and fourth year as a contributor. He's developed into a pretty solid collegiate tackle. Scott is a redshirt sophomore, arriving from Warren, Ohio as a 2-star LB recruit in 2009. He's 45 lbs. heavier than he was when he arrived on campus, notched 3.5 TFLs in limited time a year ago and won the starting DE in the summer. He seems to have a quick burst and will probably beat Hugye once or twice in this game. How costly will those be?
Will the real Northwestern rush defense step up? Are you the one who was milked to death by Army? Or the one that shut down Boston College after a big opening play run and closed down Illinois' potent, dangerous multi-faceted attack? It maybe closer to the latter than you think. The Cats welcomed two additions to their lineup a week ago that made a big difference against the Illini. DT Jack DiNardo returned after missing the Army game. He was a wrecking ball against BC and Illinois, you have to think he might have helped keep those rushing numbers against the Cadets down had he played. They usually line him up next to Browne, so that's Molk and Barnum/Schofield territory. I like Dinardo's game, but if Michigan lets him tear up the interior line, what will MSU do to them next week? The other addition was redshirt freshman Colin Ellis at strongside linebacker. He didn't play in any of the three first games due to a broken thumb. He's an interesting player for Northwestern. He was the very first player to sign in Fitzgerald's 2009 recruiting class, venturing north from his native Louisiana. He made that state's top-50 prospect in 2009, slipping into the rankings at #43. To compare, Michigan's Carvin Johnson and Drew Dileo were 13th and 26th on that same list. He's the prototypical NW OLB: smallish, more speedy than elite fast and quick to diagnose plays. But, he's never had to chase or figure out somebody like Denard before. This kid seems to have a great college career ahead of him, but you cant help but wonder if Denard is going "posterize" him once or twice on a big play.
Kovacs Doppelganger. CB Jordan Maybin is the Cats biggest name in the secondary. He's experienced and a good, but not a lockdown, Big 10 corner. But the player to really keep an eye in the Northwestern secondary is safety Brian Peters. He's their Jordan Kovacs in that a lot of their special defensive calls revolve around allowing him to make the big play. Against Illinois, he thwarted one Illini drive burying Scheelhase on a safety blitz. He snuffed out another drive with a pick in the end zone. So there you go. I am setting the MAKE PLAYS Over/Under for Peters at 1.5. If he goes over 1.5 plays that change drives, then Northwestern probably will stay in this game longer than any of us will be comfortable with.
I am obsessed with Michigan's defense in third/fourth and short situations. Look, I love the improvement we've seen on defense, but I'm not ready to think its going to be anything but average at best in the meat of the Big 10. That alone, though, is exciting and should put the team in position to win a lot of games. With Denard on your team, that's not a bad position to be in and a major defensive upgrade nevertheless. But, if this D can find a couple of things that that it can do good to great, then average stats can actually end up better than it looks. One thing the D has proven it can do great is stop people cold in those short yardage situations. Let's consider offensive snaps when its third or fourth down and three or less yards. I mentioned this on the podcast, but that was days ago, so it bears repeating. Michigan's D has faced 20 plays in those spots. They've allowed just nine first downs in those spots and allowed just 43 total yards. That's a fraction more than one yard a play. EMU hit for 19 and 14 yards in two instances, so if you throw those plays out as outliers, then these numbers look even more stout. One other play this year went for seven yards, but every other play went for three yards or less. Its grabbed my attention and its so far been one of the more clutch defenses I've seen in program history in those situations. So far. I'm having flashbacks to last year's basketball team that developed the knack for picking up charges like no other squad I'd seen before in Ann Arbor. All season I kept wondering if those charges would keep coming in Big 10 play, but by the middle of the winter, it was such a part of their defensive game, you expected several calls on that end going Michigan's way. And it did. Can the football team's situational excellence here keep up? Northwestern will come at the Wolverines a little bit differently that the teams they've faced so far. Will either side have any new wrinkles in these spots? Keep track of these downs. If Michigan sets the tone and wins them early, they will have a chance to stake out to a lead.
Limiting Northwestern Snaps. If Persa plays, I really do feel this will be a high end test for Michigan's pass defense. He, his ability to evade the pass rush and his chemistry with Jeremy Ebert can take over games. Does The Happening that is Blake Countess ever match up with Ebert? I'd be lying if I didn't say I'd like to see this once or twice just to see how our freshman stacks up here. What's more with Persa in the game is Northwestern's ability to stay on the field and run a lot of plays. A year ago, no team had a higher percentage of their drives go for 10 or more plays than Northwestern, with 23.1 percent of their possession having that many snaps. Michigan's defense was 116th in the nation at giving up those drives, permitting possessions that long 20.3 percent of the time. This year has been a different story. The Cats took over the Boston College game with five drives of that length, but haven't really been clicking on long drives since. Getting Persa back fulltime may change that. Michigan, meanwhile, has seemingly found the ability to get off the field in due time. They've only allowed six drives all year of 10 plays or more and just 14 total points on those drives.
From a capping standpoint, I am afraid of Michigan closing this game out. The psychology of the look ahead either has you sleepwalking at the start or easing up at the end. I think Michigan will be ready to go out of the gates. And, while I dont necessarily feel they would ever ease up, with Persa playing, the Cats are going to keep coming and coming. Translation? At that -7.5 number, that looks like prime back door cover material. Here's how I see this game going. It's going to be a lot like the Indiana games from the last two years. Northwestern will do damage with its offense. But the Wolverine defense is improved where it wont get rolled on every possession. I should say this will play out like we had hoped last year's IU game would have. The offense having its way and scoring, with the defense getting enough stops to allow for a multiple score cushion. The reason I'm laying off the spread is because I could see a 31-20 score with two minutes to go, Northwestern with the ball and a chance at the back door cover. I dont want that stress. Will it be great to win money when Thomas Gordon closes down that drive with an INT? Sure it would. But Wolverine road games in recent years are stressful enough, my heart cant take Michigan laying a touchdown to go along with it.