this week in unintentionally grim-sounding recruiting headlines
In a pretty good game, Nebraska beat (upset?) Minnesota 82-78. Nebraska remains unbeaten at home except for its loss to Michigan. In the only other Big Ten game today, Indiana beat Illinois 56-46 in a not-so-pretty game. Arizona also leads Utah 31-26 at the half.
This is going to be reference-heavy. I have a 4-day old at home and caught much of this game on DVR. I figure, if the coaching staff didn’t feel like rubbing two brain cells together before playing the Cornhuskers, no reason I should break a sweat.
Best: Groundhog Day!
So you know how last week I complained about an incoherent offensive strategy, a continued failure to accept that running the ball just wasn’t possible with this outfit, struggles along the offensive line and how it was destroying Devin Gardner from the inside, and a general apathy toward the offensive coaching staff in particular and Hoke’s coaching in general? Well, ask me again about the groundhog, because this week’s game featured the exact same complaints. Yippee for copy-paste!
Worst: Simulate Mode
As anyone who has played recent incarnations of Madden and/or NCAA football know, there is an option during games to “simulate” a set number of plays/possessions to speed up the game. Usually the simulation follows predictable patterns for the team based on a combination of their empirical stats and rankings as well as current game trends; if you are playing Navy a simulated drive for the Midshipmen is basically 8 straight runs followed by a long playaction pass, or if you are the Lions it’s usually a bunch of passes to Megatron followed by an interception. Basically, it works best if you know how your team typically performs in a vacuum and then consider the opponent; you won’t be surprised if you are Alabama versus random FCS East school, but Akron probably isn’t holding on against OSU if you need to take a breather. While I usually am loathe to use this option because my inner Old Ball Coach loves to run up the score, I’ll sometimes use it on defense just to get the ball back to score quicker.
At this point in the season, I’m ready for ABC/ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN9mygawdwhydoihavetowatchthisanymore to cut to a more interesting game when UM is on offense and then just update us with a little box score four plays later with the outcome. Basically, NFL Redzone but in reverse. At least with the defense, something interesting could happen, something that highlights thoughtful coaching and semi-efficient execution of a plan. With Al Borges’ cut-rate Old Country Buffet offense, all I get as a fan is a couple of minutes to question my sanity and marvel at a team with a handful of NFL draft picks on the offensive line, a record-setting WR, a physical mismatch at TE/WR, A former top recruit at QB who is immensely athletic, and the #1 RB recruit in the nation failing to gain more than 3 yards a pop against a team that gave up 602 yards to Wyoming and 216 yards to Pur-f’ing-Due. Clark Griswold ain’t got nothing on me after watching this game.
At least he got some jelly.
UM gained a total of 175 yards on 12 drives, 141 of those yards on 2 of them. Last week I was aghast that UM gained –7 total yards outside of 3 longish drives against the #1 defense in America; against the 41st total defense they gained 40 yards total on the 10 other drives, with no drive longer than 16 yards. 0-9 Southern Miss had 6 drives that were longer and scored the same number of points as UM. I thought about breaking out this gif after the MSU game, but it didn’t feel right; after this game, nothing could be more appropriate about this team on offense.
Bes…And Another Thing
It’s not like these are acceptable growing pains for a unit on the rise. While the team is young overall, the offensive skill players are reasonably experienced save for the inside of the offensive line; this is a unit that isn’t necessarily destined to improve next year when those tackles are cashing NFL paychecks, Fitz breaks out in a cold sweat every time he walks through a doorway because he expects to be hit as soon as he opens the door, and everyone save Chesson and Funchess are getting their first “real” experience catching balls from a QB whose ribs are still recovering from a trip to the Lazarus Pit.
Green has a season long of 14 yards if you ignore his one run against CMU, and in this game averaged 1.4 ypc on 8 carries, 7 of which came on one run. He also seems unable to block anyone despite being somewhere in the ballpark of 240 pounds, or 2 more pounds than Joe Kerridge and 5 pounds more than 6’5” Devin Funchess. Gardner didn’t throw an interception for the 2nd time in 3 games, but that’s at least partially because he’s eaten 16 sacks over that same span, after only taking 10 total in the first 6 games of the year. His peripheral numbers weren’t horrible (7.3 ypa, 67%), but he rarely seemed comfortable looking downfield because, again, he didn’t want to be murdered by an unblocked Cornperson.
Funchess had a solid game and recorded the only TD, but you kind of expected more from him given the issues Nebraska has had stopping receivers in the past, and nobody other than Funchess or Gallon caught more than 2 passes. And about that running game…
Worst: Heart of Darkness
"... it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice."
Another week, another negative running day. After recording a comprehensible –48 yards against MSU, UM dramatically improved on this performance by recording an incomprehensible –21 yards against the one of the worst rushing defenses in the AQ. Yes, including sacks in these totals obviously skew rushing performances, but the team only recorded a total of 46 positive yards against 67 lost yards over 36 carries, so that top number is more a slight fib than a lie.
I’ve been numb to the running game since they could barely crack 3 yards a carry against Minnesota, but it continues to boggle my mind that UM still relies on it so heavily, especially as an impetus for their offense. This is a bit of a crude measurement because a couple of first-down plays were clusterfricks that could have been a pass or a run but turned into immediate sacks/fumbled snaps, but I count 13 runs versus 8 passes on first down. Excising fumbled snaps and sacks from the computations, the average first-down run netted 1.7 ypc while passes hit home at 8.2 ypc. And yet, on 1st and long 2nd downs the call more than not was a poorly-blocked run into the heart of a Nebraska defense that hasn’t worn black shirts since they were chasing Colt McCoy around pre-Jerry World.
No drive was more an indictment of this insanity was the one after Nebraska’s fumble on a punt midway through the 4th quarter. UM was deep in Nebraska territory, tied but clearly struggling to move the ball save for that first 2nd-half drive, and a TD probably wins you the game. On the first Nebraska fumble late in the 3rd, UM threw the ball on first down deep to Gallon. It didn’t work, but its the type of playcall you need to make when you flip field position quickly.
On this second drive, though, the playcalls were two Manball Green runs for a total of –1 yards and a Gardner scramble leading to a Gibbons FG. Despite taking the lead, it felt like a loss by the offense and, frankly, I sped through the rest of the game to save me the agony as Nebraska marched down the field for the winning score. Like Taylor’s interception last week that led to a –21 yard drive, the offense never found its footing in a critical situation, and like last week it was mostly due to a reliance on a play style that was antithetical to the team’s limited strengths.
Best: Abdullah the Neighborhood Deli Guy
Heading into the game, I think most people expected Ameer Abdullah to have a big gain, and yet despite racking up 105 yards it felt like UM really held him in check. UM held the nation’s sixth-leading rusher to his lowest ypc of the year (3.9) and, his long run of 18 yards was one of those ping-pong-style runs that great backs get every once and a while. But overall, I thought the defense slowed him down quite well, and held the Nebraska offense to its lowest total and ypp outputs of the year, with only UCLA producing a similar effort. Nebraska only had 3 drives that were more than 30 yards, and while all three ended in scores, the other 8 averaged about 3 plays. Even with the caveats about the QBs, it was another solid performance by a unit that puts up good performances despite little organic pass rush (only 1 sack on a blitz by Gordon as well as two QB hits) and no real stars.
So I’ve waited until now before addressing this issue because I don’t want to be perceived as overly emotional. And yes, a bit of this is probably sleep deprivation. But here’s my best attempt to describe my feelings about this coaching staff.
And for the record, the old lady in this analogy is Greg Mattison, who has done a commendable job all things considered (injuries, experience, etc.).
As Brian noted during the podcast this week, Brady Hoke isn’t the micromanager you see by the likes of Saban, Meyer, Dantonio, or Rodriguez; he’s a CEO-style coach who hires his coaches and then expects them to perform their duties (Mack Brown seems to subscribe to the same mantra, for example). That doesn’t mean he is hands-off, only that he treats his staff as professionals and won’t meddle needlessly. At its best, coaches and players feel like they have real agency in their play, free from the blind spots and needless oversight from an overworked leader who can’t let go of the reins. At its worst, though, you have a leader who can’t stop the snowballing or, worst, tries to shake up the situation in an insane manner, such as RR trotting out the 3-3-5 against Purdue even though nobody on the staff had an idea of how to run it successfully.
Though I was a vocal critic of Brady Hoke when he first arrived on campus, he has exceeded my expectations when it comes to recruiting and shows a good sense of game theory and situational playcalling that you rarely saw with guys like Carr and Ferentz. And being a former defensive line coach, it is clear that he is more comfortable with that side of the team, and his defenses have been above-average despite facing tough odds in terms of talent and experience.
But when it comes to the offense, his lieutenants are treating every day like it’s Christmas at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, simple as that. The offensive line is a mess beyond simply experience, and the offense has regressed not just this year but over the past three seasons. Al Borges continues to play roshambo with the running game, and the passing game has become so neutered by poor blocking and (thanks to an inept rushing offense) poor down-and-distance. As I’ve said before, I’m sure Al Borges is a competent OC with the right talent, but right now he’s shown an inability to adapt to his team’s limitations as well as how other teams exploit those holes. And it goes deeper than simply wanting to install his offense; it seems fundamentally impossible for him to look beyond his playbook and do what is necessary to win. It’s not so much that he keeps throwing rock because it worked before; I’m fine with a coach staying true to this roots in a general sense. But this offensive playcalling seems to be actively ignoring the possibility of paper or scissors because they are self-identified “gimmicks” or for pussies. There are simple, within-the-offense playcalls that would help get this offense back on track and keep people alive, from more shotgun-based running to short option routes on 1st and 2nd down that could exploit matchups and, hopefully, loosen up the boxes UM is running into. But so far this year the offensive plan seems to be crappy pro-style until you are down and then semi-crappy spread until you get the lead or Devin Gardner is dead.
So if Hoke really is the CEO of this team, his one duty is to hold the coaches accountable. If I screw up at my job and my code is massively buggy, I’m fired. Sure, I might be a break in the beginning if the codebase is screwed up to begin with or there is some design overhaul, but at some point I’m expected to make the damn thing work. Right now, Al Borges is failing to get the damn thing to work, and unless he’s just been playing possum these past 3 years, I don’t see that changing either this year or next. I’m done calling for guys’ heads, but I’m also done believing that Al Borges will ever be more than a bad hire by Brady Hoke.
When it was announced before the game that Courtney Avery and Josh Furman would be the starting safeties, people justifiably wondered what was happening. There were apparently rumors that Thomas Gordon was injured and that the coaches wanted to try someone other than Wilson, but settling on Avery and Furman was questionable for a number of reasons. With Avery, it’s the fact that he is undersized for the position and has struggled at times in coverage. But at least he’s played the position before during the year and the coaches have some confidence in him. But Furman was another issue altogether, as he’s been consistently passed by other players throughout his career at UM despite being touted as a great athlete due to his rawness. Throw in Dymonte Thomas sneaking onto the field a couple times at the nickel seemingly in place of Lewis, and the secondary was markedly different than the one we’ve seen the past 8 games.
Problems with Furman started on that first drive when Nebraska converted on a long third down because the safety seemingly didn’t get down quick enough to stop the completion over the cornerback. And then he gave Nebraska a first down on a pretty egregious PI because, again, he hasn’t earned consistent playing time since he stepped onto campus and has struggled with nuances of the game. He seemed to be replaced by Wilson as the game proceeded, but the change seemed forced and merely for its sake, not because of some advantage it provided to the defense.
As for the offense, Derrick Green was definitely highlighted more despite the middling results noted earlier, and there were calls after the game for Shane Morris to replace Gardner because, I don’t know, people on the Internet like to be contrarian and ignore all reality. But it was strange to see these types of changes this late in the season with limited rationale beyond “well, it can’t hurt.”
I’ve never been able to fully embrace Chris Spielman due to his sometime-blatant homerism, but you can’t deny his knowledge of the game or the nuances he brings to the booth when compared to, I don’t know, anyone you’d find on the BTN. Throughout the game, he said Gardner (and the offense in general) needed to make adjustments, call audibles, etc. as the Nebraska defense beared down. Well, what can you do on 3rd and 19 and you have maybe 3 possible people to throw the ball to? True, the players are struggling at times to run the plays called, but when the offense has as much variety as a Tecmo Bowl playsheet and defenses are clearly able to make adjustments as the offense is lining up, I’m not sure how much you can expect in terms of counter-offenses.
I respect Spielman’s knowledge, but he kept talking about “execution” as if it is a tangible asset divorced from playcalling. If we’ve learned anything this year it is that this offense lacks the nuances to succeed unless the defense breaks down, everything goes right, or one of the still position players makes a superior effort. And even when the offense executes reasonably well, you still have a largely sub-par unit, unless the entire MSU game and much of the PSU/Nebraska/Akron/UConn games were all masterful games marred by players suffering from massive brain trauma.
Best: Don’t Hold Onto The Damn Ball!
Brian always jokes about Wolverines needing to hold onto the ball on punt returns, so it was great to see Norfleet recover a fumbled fair catch deep in Nebraska territory. As noted above, it didn’t lead to the winning score, but after weeks of near-recoveries it was nice to finally get a lucky bounce on those plays. As for punting, Matt Wile obliterated a punt for 69 yards to pin Nebraska deep into their own territory at the end of the 2nd quarter that ultimately set up UM in good field position…for a wasted drive with good field position. Again, baby steps. And Gibbons finished 2/2 while Wile missed on a long attempt, because while we can have nice things, we can’t have TOO nice of things.
Best: It’s Almost Over
4 more games until this season is mercifully over. NW should be a dogfight, and who knows what will happen against Iowa and OS…okay, we know what will probably happen against OSU. It rhymes with grape. But at least the basketball season has started, hockey is playing like it has a pulse, and the holidays are coming up and with them, copious alcohol consumption during most gamedays. I’m not throwing away the rest of the season because fans don’t do that, but unlike last year you can tell pretty quickly how bad this team is and, sadly, how little that will probably change in these last couple of games.
At the beginning of the game, the announcers informed us that Nebraska had the worst defense in the FBS at allowing 1st down conversions. Their opponents get a first down on first down 30% of the time. So I decided to go through the play-by-play to see how we did on first down. We weren't as awful as I would have thought, going 5 for 26 on first down conversions. That comes to 19%. Considering Nebraska hasn't really played anybody besides UCLA though, that's terrible. Had we been average, we would have had 8 first down conversions.
I also broke down our first down plays into four groups: negative yardage, zero yards, 1-9 yards, and 10 or more yards. We did have 6 negative plays on first down. There were two sacks and the poor snap in addition to 3 negative rushing plays. There were 3 plays of zero yards, but only one of those was an incomplete pass. 12 times we gained positive yards, but not enough to get a first down. As I was going through the plays, something stuck out to me. Devin Gardner was pretty good on first down. Yes, he was sacked twice (7.7% of plays), but he was sacked 5 more times on other downs (13.5%.) He was 7 for 8 (87.5%) for 62 yards and a TD on first down. He slipped to 11 for 19 (58%) for 134 yards on other downs.
Why does any of this matter? A) we should have done better on first down if we had just been an average offense that Nebraska has faced. B) Understanding why we were not gets to the root of the problem with this offense. The new meme is that Borges is an awful playcaller that is setting us up in 2nd and long far too often. On ~1/3 of our first down possessions, we either lost yardarge or gained nothing, leaving us with 2nd and 10 or worse. You might think that 2nd and 10s come from incomplete passes, so we would be better off running on first down to gain something. However, in our case, we had 3 bad passing plays on 1st down and 6 bad rushing plays. It would seem that we should be doing more passing on 1st down, when the defense is playing a little more honestly and not selling out with blitzes. Gardner has more time to find the open receiver and get positive yardage. But according to Borges, game planning is easy and we all have to hope like heck that the players execute. Right, Al.
Burst of Impetus
* Either of the two turnovers Nebraska committed could have swung the impetus our way. Here are our next six plays after the Nebraska TOs:
- Incomplete pass (went deep, I'm OK with this, but I think DG had a back wide open short. A game manager would take the free yards.)
- Gardner loss of 2 yards rushing
- Incomplete pass, leading to missed 52 yard FG attempt
- Green rush for 1 yard
- Green rush for -2 yards
- Gardner rush for 4 yards, leading to a 40 yard FG.
So it appears the Lizard Brain "play for a FG" returned after that first deep ball fell incomplete. The offensive ineptitude we displayed after Nebraska's two TOs actually gave the impetus back to Nebraska as their defense "rallied" to stop us. Although it may be more accurate to say that our offense stopped ourselves.
I'd love to give the Burst of Impetus to Matt Wile's 69 yard punt into/with the wind that was downed at the Nebraska 3 yard line. The defense made a stand and forced a punt from Nebraska's 3. Impetus to M? Sadly, no, as our next four plays went pass for 7, run for -1, incomplete pass, sack, Nebraska ball.
Bending and Breaking
* This is probably too tough on the defense, but when they had to make a stop at the end of the game, they let Nebraska go on a 14 play, 75 yard drive for the go-ahead TD.
* Nebraska ran 66 plays and took 27:16 off the clock. Of their 13 drives, only one lasted more than 9 plays, and only 3 lasted more than seven plays. So why can't our best 11 guys line up and play defense for a few minutes at a time? I understand substituting based on down and distance, but I saw JR3 make two nice plays on the same drive to force a three and out, and on the next drive he was on the sidelines. That makes no sense.
* The five leading tacklers were all linebackers. Cam Gordon stepped up and played like a captain, with 8 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
* All three of Jibreel Black's tackles were TFLs. Michigan tallied 7 TFLs total.
* Gardner went 18 for 27 for 196 yards and had no turnovers. He threw one TD pass to Funchess.
* Once again, he was sacked 7 times, leading to an ugly rushing line: 16 carries, -32 yards. Even subtracting the sacks, he only gained 17 yards on 9 carries. He's not running like he did earlier in the year. Is that because of injuries, or a focus on not turning the ball over, or both?
20 Pound Cheeseburgers
* Green was actually our leading rusher with 11 yards on 8 carries. I thought he looked a little better than Fitz, gaining a yard or two after the initial contact, whereas Fitz just goes down on contact.
* For the record, we had zero rushing first downs. Michigan. Zero rushing first downs. Nebraska had 15 TFLs. That's more than MSU got if I recall correctly. We made Nebraska's defense look like State's by not adjusting our game plan at all. State gave Nebraska the blueprint to beat us, and they obliged.
V. Sinha Legends Jersey
* A week after only 4 receivers caught passes, Gardner spread the ball out a little more this week. Funchess led the team with 6 catches for 66 yards and a TD.
* Michigan's best drive of the game, and only TD drive in the past two weeks, was at the start of the 3rd quarter. Toussaint had two catches, Butt had two catches, Chesson caught one, and Funchess caught the TD. Did Borges go back to that strategy later in the game? No, no he didn't.
* It's fitting that Fitz' only two catches in the past two weeks came on the only TD drive. He is getting absolutely destroyed trying to block blitzing linebackers and defensive ends. So instead of putting him in a position to succeed - flaring out of the backfield as a pressure relief option - Borges has him in a position to fail. Is it stubbornness on Borges part? I don't know. Pass receiving RBs have always been a part of the West Coast offense, but Borges is not including the RBs in the passing game, even when it is shown to work.
* Taylor Lewan played a few snaps at TE. Since he is an ineligible receiver, he didn't catch any passes. And his presence at TE is a signal to Nebraska's safeties and linebackers that it's fine to attack downhill since he's not a threat in the passing game. I think we also ran a play with an ineligible slot receiver. It's idiotic.
* On our last 4th and 5 when we needed a completion to keep the game alive, Borges dialed up a play to get the ball to Dileo. He's sure-handed and a big favorite of MGoBlog, but he also hasn't caught a pass in a game since four weeks ago at Penn State. Include him in the offense earlier in the game if you are going to use him like that, otherwise, it's just unfair to the kid.
Random Number Generator
* At some point during the game, I thought that a random number generator could do a better job calling plays than Borges. He is so predictable. However, after the game we read that Nebraska's defenders knew what the plays were going to be based on formation. I think even an RNG would fail calling these particular plays because there is no variation, no counters, and nothing new. This morning, I read about Baylor's #1 offense in Sports Illustrated. They split their wide receivers way outside to open up the middle of the field for the running game. We, on the other hand, bring our WRs in near the line, so that the defense can put almost 11 players in the box, allowing blitzes to come from anywhere. And this is how Borges is helping his inexperienced line. It's pathetic.
Interesting news this afternoon - Nebraska and Oregon have agreed to play a home and home in 2016/2017. Oregon has a home and home with MSU in 2014/2015. A cynic would say Oregon is loading up on easy prey. That said, I give credit to Nebraska for scheduling this team which is currently at a high level of its program's evolution. Most of us would like to see an upgrade to the future schedules and in theory by 2016-2017 we "should" be ready for Oregon (key words... in theory), but some of us still have flashbacks from the last 2 meetings. I am surprised this could be arranged on such short notice - i.e. 3 years ahead of time.
Looks like Tenn asked to be pushed out a decade after this year's fiasco so that game moves to 2026/2027 and Nebraska slides in alongside Virginia and cupcake. Nebraska only had Fresno State and their new rival Wyoming on the schedule before this news.
Didn't see this on here, but Lions Center Raiola has been accused of verbally harassing members of the UW marching band prior to the beginning of the game. I don't know much about him and I didn't see the game, did anyone hear anything about this?
The Lions are investigating this.
Dual-threat QB Zack Darlington of Apopka, FL (hometown of M's own Jeremy Gallon), has chosen Nebraska over offers from the likes of Virginia Tech, Arizona, West Virginia, Auburn, Ole Miss, and--perhaps most significantly--Ohio State. According to an Orlando Sentinel article covering his committment, Darlington "picked the 'Huskers over Ohio State, much to the dismay of Buckeyes' head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tim Herman, about whom Darlington could not say enough good things." Darlington is a 4-star on ESPN and a 3-star to the other three. Here is a link to the Orlando Sentinel article.