I'VE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU SONNY
A day after I trash the Free Press for focusing on things like Tae Bo instead of information, Mark Snyder puts out an interesting piece about the '97 championship and the ballboys that saved it. This is literally the headline: "How 2 ballboys stopped opponent's signal stealing, saved UM's 1997 title."
The story: two student managers ferret out that Northwestern has somehow stolen Michigan's offensive signals, and run over to the other side of the field at half time to urge Lloyd Carr and company to change things up. After being bottled up in the first half, scoring thirteen points, Michigan explodes for... uh... ten in the second. Without the student manager's contribution, Michigan could have lost to Northwestern by negative one touchdown. The final score was 23-6.
Okay, so the story is oversold. It's still pretty interesting as a tall tale from the past, and you should read it if you've got a few minutes. My take-home message was vastly different from what was intended, I think.
Some key passages:
"There was a guy on their sideline that day, and he had our signals down pat," Datz said. "Every time, he would scream into the defense what we're going to do -- pass or run -- and he was almost always right. ...
"They were blowing up draws, calling our counters and destroying our screen passes -- all a big part of our plays that year. I was just screaming mad. Youtan and I are thinking to ourselves, 'This guy has us.' "
Raise your hand if you think you could predict with 80% certainty whether a Michigan play would be a run or pass. It is possible they just co-opted a cranky 50-something Michigan fan.
Anyway, the kids run across the field and tell Carr early in the third quarter. This is the result:
"I absolutely remember that," Carr said recently. "The reason I do remember it is I don't ever remember anybody else offering advice or information during a game.
"Those are all bright guys that get into those positions. But that's the only time I remember one telling me something."
But that still wasn't enough for the coaches to change their signal calling. So later in the quarter, Datz said he ran around the field to repeat the message to Magnus.
The play that finally sold the U-M coaches on the need to adjust came on a third-and-25 with less than three minutes left in the third quarter. That's when U-M tailback Clarence Williams ran a sweep -- an odd call for that down and distance -- and two Wildcats grabbed him behind the line of scrimmage.
It's only after this play that Michigan grabs Jason Kapsner and starts sending in multiple sets of signals. But this is the kicker:
In 1995 and '96, Hansburg said, all he had to do was watch U-M center Rod Payne, a one-handed snapper who apparently placed his opposite hand on the ground for a running play and on his thigh for a passing play.
This was the plot of an episode of Coach. When the Minnesota State Screaming Eagles play for the national championship in the Pioneer Bowl, ditzy assistant coach Luther Van Dam (Jerry Van Dyke) gets concussed and has to watch from the hospital, where he notices one offensive lineman has totally different stances for run and pass. He calls in the tip and Hayden Fox gets a Gatorade bath. I was 14, and 14 years later I remember this clear as day.
Reading Johnny's piece yesterday was the love side of my love-hate relationship with Lloyd Carr. This is the hate side. ONE: Michigan didn't bother employing multiple signal-callers -- a zero-cost activity -- from day one. TWO: It took them a full quarter and a second prodding to actually act on the information provided by the student managers when the cost of listening was zero. THREE: They ran a sweep on third and twenty-five. FOUR: Michigan football was outsmarted by Jerry Van Dyke.
Silver spoon, coal spoon
None of this should surprise you. This was a program that would run 95% of the time it lifted its starting wide receivers. Lloyd Carr thought deception and trickery had their place in football, and that place was Northwestern.
When you are at a place like Michigan and you have been inculcated in the culture of the program for the vast majority of your coaching career, I think you take certain things for granted. One of them is the belief that a paramount focus on execution is enough. That if you motivate and educate and drill better than the other team, you will win. It did very well for Bo until he got to Pasadena, and it did pretty well for Carr until Tressel showed up (and, it must be said, Carr had a real run of rotten luck re: actually getting to use his senior quarterbacks), but it was always giving something away. You have a limited amount of time with your charges every week; there is always time to work on your poker skills. Michigan's been bad at poker forever.
Rich Rodriguez focuses on execution and motivation -- see Barwis -- but he also makes deception his stock-in-trade, creating a modern version of the triple option that has intricate variations and one end result: linebacker confetti. In a way, the spread 'n' shred is terribly predictable. They run, they run, they run. But you do not run more than all but five other teams and finish top five in YPC three years running unless you know when to bluff and when to raise.
Rodriguez comes from a wholly different background than Carr, coming up through the ranks at NAIA schools and Tulane and Clemson and West Virginia. Until Pat White showed up he never had a significant talent advantage agaginst the vast majority of opponents. He never, ever had the luxury of lying back and thinking to himself "if we out-execute the opponent we will win," and it shows. He invented a whole new offense and used it to exploit inefficiencies in recruiting. To seal the Sugar Bowl against Georgia he called a fake punt, exploiting inefficiencies in fourth-down playcalling. For the past seven years he has played Moneyball at West Virginia.
To me, the exciting thing about Rodriguez is not necessarily his system but his mindset. He's looking to squeeze out every ounce of expectation, make every resource stretch as far as he can, and now he's been provided resources few other coaches have. When Moneyball moved to Boston in the personage of Theo Epstein, Pedro Martinez got a hat:
5/30/08 (and 5/31/08) - Michigan 7, Kentucky 5
5/31/08 - Michigan 3, Arizona 4
6/1/08 - Michigan 6, Kentucky 12 - eliminated
Surely a college first baseman has to be amongst the least likely athletes in all of sports to be struck down with injury. You're somewhere between 18 and 22, which means you can take a gunshot and be relatively chipper the next day. Your top speed is "saunter." Every once in a very long while you have to bend over or dive or something, but only just frequently enough to prevent wholesale muscle atrophy.
If you are bound and determined to get injured your options are limited to 1) having a runner plow into your arm after a poor throw, 2) getting drilled with a line drive, or 3) spontaneously combusting. If you consider poker a sport, sitting around a table riffling chips is probably less dangerous. It's hard to come up with anything else. Golfing, I guess, but there's always the chance your caddy goes insane and beats you with your five-iron.
So, yeah, Michigan's first home regional in over twenty years didn't go quite as planned. As per usual, I blame Angry Michigan Baseball All American Hating God, who rudely interrupted Zach Putnam's start against Kentucky with a thunderous barrage of rain, then had the audacity to actually break some part of Nate Recknagel's anatomy as he was standing on first base. Despite another cosmic middle finger, the difference between Michigan and these other teams was wafer thin until Maloney's weird decisions at the beginning of the Kentucky elimination game, about which more can be found in the bullets at post's end.
Tweak Recknagel's freak injury or any number of other fateful moments -- Adam Abraham's run-scoring error, Jason Christian swinging at ball four during the first at-bat, Chris Fetter leaving the Jeremy Bonderman impression on the shelf -- and Michigan could have gone into the ninth inning against Arizona with a slight lead, held it, and been the team to batter a wearied pitching staff in the late game Saturday.
Do they say "that's baseball"? If so, that's baseball. If they don't, good for them for avoiding easy cliches.
All that was mildly depressing and something of a letdown after the storybook finish of last year's regional. But it didn't feel like it walking out of the stadium after the Arizona game Saturday.
This is what happened in the ninth inning: the somewhat rowdy young folks in front of me stood up. Since this is Michigan, within nanoseconds a crabby voice grumbled "down in front," and when it was joined by several others the somewhat rowdy young folks begrudgingly sat down. Then Ryan LaMarre fended off a pitch and squeezed it through a gap in the infield for a one-out single. Fisher Stadium stood, and this time the somewhat rowdy young folks turned around and urged everyone to get to their feet, arms waving like storks with their wings on backwards.
I turned around just in time to see a ponderous elderly couple glance at each other in resignation. They arose, joints grinding ponderously, and it seemed like the birth of a new thing as they craned their necks to glimpse what they could.
- About those weird decisions: I know he has single-handedly turned the Michigan program into something worth paying attention to, but starting a guy with 15 IP all season is weird. Following him with another guy who had the third-highest ERA on the team is also weird, and following him with Canadian Mike Wilson, who was valiant last year but sported a 8.73 ERA going into the UK game is super weird. Travis Smith and Tyler Burgoon were fresh and had better stats both traditional and peripheral. OTOH, it's not like you can extrapolate anything useful statistically from 30 or 40 IP.
- Said group of mildly rowdy young folk included in their number two guys who periodically burst into little baseball chatter songs like "hey whaddya say one-nine, gotta be smart, be smart one-nine, hey whaddya say hey" and it kind of felt like a time warp every time they did that.
- Michigan returned every major contributor aside from one starting pitcher and the catcher for 2008; next year looks like a bloodbath by comparison. Seniors: VanBuskirk, Recknagel, Mahler. Draft-eligible juniors: Putnam (sandwich pick or second-rounder, likely gone), Christian (4th to 8th round, possibly gone), Abraham (?), Fetter (?). I know less than zero about how Michigan's recruiting. Does anyone out there want to fill me in? Send me an email.
- I wonder if Michigan's sustained success will spur Ohio State to beef up their program? They've scraped into the NCAA tournament of late by winning the Big Ten tournament from somewhere between third and sixth place but are basically Just Another Northern Team. Much like Notre Dame hockey hiring Jeff Jackson, anything that makes the Big Ten a more legit place to play is good by me.
- Holy crap is there a lot of ridiculous sacrifice bunting in college baseball. During the first Kentucky game Michigan had men on first and second with no outs and the guy with the highest BA on the team, Kevin Cislo, at the plate. He bunted. Later it became apparent that this was probably not a sacrifice attempt, as Cislo's fast as hell and in the Arizona game the corner infielders were about halfway to the plate during a Cislo at bat with no one on base. But still, man... the guy hits .350. Kentucky did it all the time, including consecutive bunts when down six runs!
I just don't get it, man. Baseball statheads are fervently against bunting in the majors, where a .300 batting average is pretty dang good. In aluminumbatland a .300 BA means you hit eighth. How can bunting be anything other than violent stupidity?
- Section Six has my back on this with its "Sac Bunt Irk Level":
One of the safest bets in the sports opinion world is to take whatever the NCAA has just done and call it stupid. The AP could run a story like so...
NCAA DOES SOMETHING OR OTHER
SOMEWHERE (AP) -- The NCAA has decided to do something. No details are available.
...and fifty bloggers would link to it. There would be a 50% chance of "NC$$" and "lol" in each post. And 90% of the time, they would be right.
This is the only explanation I can muster for what appears to be a universally negative reaction to the NCAA's newly toothy APR penalties, which knocked on the doors of hundreds of programs at dozens of schools in a wide variety of sports, just not at, like, USC. Except in basketball, where it did. A sampling:
[Orson at TSN.] The NCAA has its own No Child Left Behind Act, and it is called the Academic Progress Rate. It's the NCAA's own road to hell, paved with good intentions. It is on the way to thinning the ranks of Division I college football, and little but common sense seems to stand in the way of it happening.
[Salon's King Kaufman] Schools have always pushed their athletes into taking easy classes and avoiding challenging majors. The APR creates more incentive to push more of them that way. More kids graduating doesn't necessarily mean more kids are getting more education. But that's OK, the NCAA isn't about education. It's about profits from a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry with a mostly unpaid labor force.
[Wizard of Odds] Not exactly sure what Myles Brand has accomplished in his tenure as Grand Poobah of the NCAA outside of collecting a fat paycheck. He likely would point to his fraudulent Academic Progress Report, which was released Tuesday.
(That last is from the Wizard of Odds, who is excellent at digging up stories and was an awesome resource during last year's clock fiasco but is always outraged when given the slightest opportunity and usually wrong in the process of doing so. I have such a love-hate relationship with that site; you go from daily compendiums of interesting things to outrage factories like "the cheapest shot of the year.")
Orson's analogy to No Child Left Behind is inapt. NCLB, oddly, takes money from failing schools. The APR takes students, leaving behind a smaller corps of kids the Idahos (Idahoes? In your area codes?) of the world can fail. If this makes Dick Tomey complain about "class warfare" in the same article he says San Jose State had "no academic support to speak of," he can suck it up. What are the chances San Jose State would have an academic support program now if not for the looming threat of the APR? Zero. Small schools are complaining that they have to spend money educating students.
Both of the latter pieces attack the validity of the APR by speculating that it's the big money-flush schools that have the most incentive to bring in low-achieving students. Kaufman:
The more time you spend studying, the less you have for practicing or working out. The more road trips and tournaments and nationally televised midweek games you have, the less time you have to go to class. The more a school requires its athletes to be good students, the more good athletes it loses out on.
I really like King Kaufman -- most underrated sportswriter on the planet -- but he's wrong here. It's commonplace for academically at-risk recruits to fall to the Troy Trojans (We're From Troy!) or Akron or whatever. Bigger schools have the luxury of passing on some of the severe academic risks* and the guidance structures in place to keep their academic risks on path to a quasi-degree. Players with a potential NFL carrot at the end of the rainbow are also more likely to preserve their precious eligibility.
*(or oversigning by like six and taking the ones who hack it best. Whatever, we're the SEC! We do what we want!)
This annual report regularly punishes the smaller schools and rewards the larger institutions, which are able to prop up their so-called "student-athletes" with an endless supply of tutors, favorable professors and state-of-the-art academic centers.
Yes, that "favorable professors" link goes to what you think it does. Of course, favorable professors are all they have at Florida International -- that's why it's Florida International -- and Panther athletes still fail like whoah. Oh, and they're cheating. The slam on "state of the art academic centers" is weird, too: God forbid schools are forced to spend some of their filthy lucre on the students that actually rake it in.
Of course, the issue here is that many schools do not rake in filthy lucre, and instead blow millions of dollars attempting to keep up with the Space Joneses in a futile attempt to... what, exactly? Let everyone know that Florida has run out of real names for its universities? Remind folks of the existence of schools in north Texas? The NCAA, as of yet, has no real safeguards against the Florida Internationals of the world wasting their money and everyone's time with a foray into I-A that's destructive to their students, their opponents' fans, and Lamar Thomas' broadcasting career.
SMQB recently laid into the very existence of the program, and I co-sign wholeheartedly:
FIU is not the only bad team, nor the only team that falls short of its various extracurricular benchmarks; most of the SBC and a dozen or so other perennially feeble programs probably aren't worth the ink that sets them apart from the lower divisions. It is, for now, the worst on both fronts, and easily taken advantage of, like a sick, feeble herd that keeps on giving to the bigger, quicker predators in the bush. Is there any reason at all Florida International's continued existence in I-A does not constitute a diluting of the sport's gene pool and a waste of its time?
I would expand that to include the entire wretched Sun Belt outside of the aforementioned Troy Trojans (We're From Troy!) and two or three teams each in the MAC, WAC, and Mountain West that are, like Florida International, failing everywhere there is somewhere to fail.
Orson's dire threat above sounds like a positive to me. There is no reason D-I should be forced to suffer the presence of San Jose State or Florida International and if sustained bludgeoning from the APR forces them to drop down to a level more appropriate for their resources, more power to it. There is ample evidence very Saturday in September that I-A is 20 programs too fat.
There are real criticisms of the APR to be levied. They appear to be thus:
- This waiver business is arbitrary and ripe for exploitation. Bruce Feldman points out this article in the State that breaks down the 492 programs that fell short of the APR minimum but did not get dinged. 315 programs avoided penalties because they have no money or did better than their student body at large; 253 of these avoided penalties because no one left ineligible. But then there are the 6
6 programs, including those from Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana, South Florida, Oregon, and South Carolina, that got waivers because they promised to do better, ie: spend more. This can't be done by smaller programs and we should have little sympathy for the pleas of big schools that fall below the minimum. Oregon was at 921 with all of Phil Knight's money: dock them the two or three scholarships. And how the hell did Arizona (APR 902, worst in the BCS) get off this year after getting hit last year?
- The schools themselves set minimums for academic progress and the APR gives them a strong incentive to give students the most remedial classes they can find. End result: the numbers go up but the amount of education does not. The NCAA should institute an exit exam for revenue sports that tests basic reading comprehension and math skills and the like.
Misc.: Protesters have remarked that only two of 37 penalized programs were BCS schools as if the fate of Howard University has any relevance to the landed gentry. Your D-I offenders: *
- Big 12: Kansas
- Pac 10: Washington State
- MAC: Central Michigan, Akron, Temple, Toledo
- Sun Belt: Florida International, Florida Atlantic, North Texas
- WAC: Hawaii, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Idaho
- CUSA: UAB
- Mountain West: UNLV, San Diego State.
Sixteen offenders, two in the BCS, FWIW.
Get the Picture has a good take on the situation, as well.
Jake Long is Michigan's first #1 overall pick since Tom Harmon was pwning the Amazon. Congratulations. By my calculations, Long can now make over 200 million cheese sandwiches. But we're all Michigan fans here, so let's focus on the negative: Long is the odd exception to the general slide experienced in Michigan's offensive line production over the past few years.
A dossier of recently departed linemen who started:
- 2007: Jeremy Ciulla and Alex Mitchell quit football for medical reasons; before that were distinctively uninspiring. Medical reasons kinda suspected to be an allergy to Barwis. Adam Kraus is a three-year starter unlikely to get drafted. Jake Long can buy and sell you sixty times over.
- 2006: C Mark Bihl goes undrafted, as does Rueben Riley. Riley sticks on the Panthers' practice squad for the 2007 season.
- 2005: G Matt Lentz and T Adam Stenavich, three-year starters both, go undrafted. They've both been on a couple practice squads. G Leo Henige is undrafted and out of football.
- 2004: C/G David Baas is the first pick of the second round.
- 2003: C Dave Pearson is undrafted. He does manage to make Lions in 2006 but is cut soon thereafter. Tony Pape goes in the seventh round to the Dolphins; he's never started a game in the NFL.
- 2002: T Courtney Morgan starts ten (TEN) games. Obviously, he is not drafted. Neither is G Dave Petruziello.
Mysterious unexplained era shift!
- 2001: G Jonathan Goodwin goes in the fifth round to the Jets. Now a backup for the Saints, Goodwin has started 15 NFL games. C Kurt Anderson is undrafted.
- 2000: Jeff Backus, Maurice Williams, and Steve Hutchinson are all currently NFL starters. Hutchinson will be in the Hall of Fame. Slacker C David Brandt went undrafted but spent a couple years at the end of NFL rosters. Note that G/T Ben Mast also graduates this year; Mast was a starter in '99 but lost his job to Goodwin/Williams as a senior.
- 1999: T Chris Ziemann goes undrafted (I think) but makes the Giants in his first year, playing in eight games but starting none. That concludes his career.
- 1998: T Jon Jansen is a second-round pick of the Redskins and has started every game he's been healthy for for a decade. G Steve Frazier goes undrafted and does not make the NFL -- though he only started six games with Williams, Brandt, and Mast picking up the other starts.
- 1997: C Zach Adami is undrafted.
- 1996: C Rod Payne is a third-round draft pick but his NFL career is cut short by numerous injuries. G Damon Denson goes in the fourth round and spends three years with the Patriots. T Thomas Guynes -- who I don't remember even slightly -- is undrafted and spends one year with the Cardinals.
In the six-year block of time from 2002 to 2007 Michigan graduated 14 starters, three of whom were drafted. It's a little early to close the book on everyone's career in this timespan, but it would be really surprising to see anyone other than Long or Baas to ever start an NFL game.
In the six-year block of time from 1996 to 2001 Michigan graduated 14 starters, seven of whom were drafted. Five of those players are still in the NFL; four have been starters for between seven and nine years. Two have made Pro Bowls. One is probably going to be in the Hall of Fame.
This is a pretty stark difference that gets even starker when you consider that many of the undrafted-non-NFL sorts in the second group started for a year, or even less than a year, while the Jansens and Hutchinsons and Backi started for three or four. Meanwhile, the Suck Era often saw three years of starting from NFL nonfactors.
The thing that jumps out the most are the fates of Mast and Frazier, who saw their jobs come under severe fire from future NFL players. Can you imagine that happening at any time in the last five years? Absolutely not. The hallmark of the Suck Era was scrambling to find someone, anyone, to play the last couple spots on the line.
Leo Henige was operating on knees made of testicles and valiantly limped through a mediocre season that was in no way his fault. Alex Mitchell was pressed into service whenever he could be bothered to grease up and slide into his uniform. Rueben Riley played two years at tackle when he should have been a guard; for the last half of his senior year he was playing with a dislocated shoulder. Steve Schilling was hurled onto the field at least a year too early, and Justin Boren's saw the field as a true freshman -- the first time that had happened at Michigan since men hunted stegosaurus and JoePa was competent.
Is it a coincidence that Andy Moeller was appointed the Michigan offensive line coach in 2002? Can it possibly be? No. It's not all his fault -- linemen got fatter and less athletic as the program lost its edge, injured more often and softer because the injuries made the healthy off-limits; recruiting was increasingly erratic at identifying players who actually wanted to play football -- but a large portion of the blame falls on the position coach's head.
This is the wishful thinking of Michigan fans: Moeller was so bad and the linemen so coddled that despite the exit of the #1 pick in the draft and three other starters, there will not be a dropoff. Because whatever Greg Frey might lack in people skills he also might lack in suck. Note that Frey isn't the son of a former Michigan head coach who counts the current Michigan head coach a dear friend. He's not even a Rodriguez crony, having come to West Virginia from South Florida just a year before Rodriguez left for Michigan. He is here because of his performance.
Hey, it could be true.
4/10/2008 - Michigan 4, Notre Dame 5 (OT) - end of season
During Billy Sauer's period of extreme incompetence at the beginning of his sophomore season, I figured out which of the parents in the Michigan section was Sauer's mother. There were hints -- she always sat next to a woman in a Sauer jersey, for one -- but the key "this is definitely her" event came when I made a sarcastic remark about Sauer and her head whipped around to identify the offender. We kept the volume of our sarcastic remarks down thereafter.
Our prior restraint was soon unnecessary. The sarcastic comments stopped once Sauer first reached competence and then exceeded it, but the presence of Sauer's mother remained something of a burden. Though I don't know what anyone else's parents look like except those of Jack Johnson -- for obvious reasons -- and Scooter Vaughn -- for equally obvious reasons -- I imagine they come off as less... severe.
Jack Johnson's dad had the time of his life at each and every game. While Mrs. Sauer may be a vibrant woman in the course of her everyday activities, at Yost she's always seemed grim and sad. This probably says more about being the mother of a goalie than her. I have made a mental note to never let hypothetical children of mine guard anything other hypothetical children are supposed to put balls or pucks past.
I find attempting to analyze hockey impossible. Football is discrete and measurable. It lends itself to charts. Basketball is in the early stages of a tempo-free statistical realignment. And baseball is a stat heaven. Statistically-minded hockey fans are out of luck. NHL fans can find shift-chart data and make some calculations about even-strength goals for and against. The next step is to take a player's opposition into account and normalize for strength of schedule, resulting in... a vague idea that a player is kinda good when averaged across hundreds of minutes. The idea of analyzing a single game is absurd. Pucks bounce.
The INCH podcast previewing the Frozen Four brought this point home. I listened to it and thought their analysis was pretty stupid, then attempted to improve it mentally, then failed at that, then was enraged by their Hockey East knob attempting to justify a Gerbe Hobey because "every great player" spears opponents to get an edge.
In contrast, I spent the week before the Ohio State game predicting that Vernon Gholston would obliterate Steve Schilling and Beanie Wells would grind out 200 yards on an excessive number of carries; this was (unfortunately) exactly right. But it's not the exactly right bit that matters: it's impossible to make a statement of that specificity about a hockey game without being ridiculous.
What are you supposed to say? "Watch out if Sauer lets in an early goal, freaks out, and lets in two goals so horrible you nickname them 'Nickelback' and 'Creed' because the furious comeback the team mounts in the next half-hour will see them tie the game but cost them their legs and cause them to lose in overtime"?
Hockey is a bitch, and makes the observer feel helpless. The observer is always helpless -- this is the definition of "observer" on a non-quantum level -- but the random number generator that produces goals emphasizes the general bloody-mindedness of the universe. If all sports fandom is a form of emotional gambling, football is poker and hockey is roulette. In the NCAA tournament said roulette comes with a gun and the appellation "Russian" -- how apropos -- and I'm terrified. Every time. I cannot function.
So I understand Billy Sauer pretty well, I think. I empathize. I wish I didn't.
We were exiting the arena in a herded mass, attempting to come to grips with what just happened. I saw a woman in a Sauer jersey ahead and was just perceiving the import of that, picking out the woman I've seen at Yost for three years, when I heard one of the people I was with sum up his opinion of the game.
She's probably overheard her share of nasty comments. She's definitely heard me say something meaner. This one was worse because it was matter-of-fact, evenly delivered, and indisputably true. It lacked hyperbole, utterly.
"Sauer dug them a hole they couldn't get out of."
She turned around. Her eyes looked bloodshot and tired as she scanned for the offender, then she gave up and moved off into the crowd with her husband.
- Remember how I spent a month advocating Notre Dame's inclusion in the tourney before the seventh and/or eighth WCHA team? Nevermind, bring on Mankato.
- I didn't have a great angle on the third ND goal, the backhand one, and kinda thought it might have picked out the top corner. Not so much:
- For both semifinal games the NCAA put the pep bands on the other side of the arena from their fans. WTF?
- North Dakota fans made a very strong showing; too bad their team did not follow suit. They had more fans than any other school, and even after getting housed a lot stuck around for the late game. Just about every BC fan left.
- I don't think I have to tell anyone this, but: as long as Jeff Jackson is around at Notre Dame they're going to be a good team. Jackson turned Dave Poulin's rag-tag bunch of losers into a tourney team and is now recruiting on a level better than anyone in the league save Michigan. He's 53.
- So we've got a decade of regular tourney appearances by ND on the docket. Miami's got a new Goggin and will not be going away any time soon. (Carter Camper say what!) The era of the Big Two and Little Ten in the CCHA is over, and not a moment too soon. I'm looking forward to more than four big conference games a year.
- You'd think something as heteronormative as all the men bellowing something and the women screeching in response could not possibly be gay, but the Notre Dame pep band would prove you wrong on that.
- Excellent turnout by Notre Dame fans -- better than BC. Could this be the turning point for Notre Dame hockey fan interest? They get the Cinderella tourney run complete with overtime victory over Michigan, then get beat by BC of all teams in the final. Carrot... carrot... STICK STICK STICK. It's a great way to get hooked.
Separate list of confirmed sightings.
One of the super-cool things about the Frozen Four is it acts as a community gathering for the entirety of college hockey, which is just big enough to pack an NHL rink and just small enough for everyone to fit inside.
Jerseys or other paraphenalia representing the following teams were located by myself or compatriots:
(all but UAA.)
(I'm sure there were some NMU/LSSU fans there, but we didn't make any contact.)
Providence (including one guy with a killer handlebar mustache)
3/28/2008 - Michigan 5, Niagara 1
3/29/2008 - Michigan 2, Clarkson 0
Frozen Four berth
What happened? The last two years Michigan hockey seemed in the early stages of a Michigan State basketball-like gradual decline into boring super-mediocrity. Two straight first-round matchups with North Dakota resulted in two straight first-round exits. Said first round exits were the first Michigan had ever experienced since the tournament moved to twelve teams. Michigan State added insult to injury by clutchigrabbing themselves the national title.
Then out the door went the shoulda-Hobey winner TJ Hensick, God himself Jack Johnson, and dynamic sophomore center Andrew Cogliano. Johnson and Cogliano spent the entire year in the NHL; Hensick got in 31 games. Three other defensemen, including captain Matt Hunwick, graduated, as did useful forward David Rohlfs. The media and coaches picked Michigan an apocalypse-inducing fourth in the CCHA.
Fast forward through a bunch of goals for, not many against, and you get this year's inexplicable finish: the top overall seed, 33-5-4, and favored to beat Notre Dame, make the NCAA championship game, and win Michigan's tenth national title.
Uh... what? What the hell happened here? And how can we make it happen to everything else? An exploration below.
But first, one thing that's not the cause:
TJ and Jack say seeya. Michigan looks like a quintessential Ewing theory team: lose the big stars, instantly much better. I am here to say bunko, pal. Bunko. The problem with last year's team was not the nation's leading scorer, his 45 assists, his +24, or his 19% shooting percentage. Nor was it Jack Johnson, his 16 goals and better than PPG scoring pace, and his 30-35 minutes a night.
Sometimes I read things on the internet and they often claim that one or both of the above guys was somehow selfish or lazy or was not properly leader-y, and I don't get it. Hensick killed penalties as a senior, was tied for third in shots despite having more ice time than any other forward, and had the highest plus minus on the team. Jack reigned in his wild freshman year, saw his PMs halve, and was just generally the best player -- period -- I've ever seen at Yost.
It wasn't them.
It was this:
Sauer. Obviously. When you go from a .896 save percentage to a .927, you have significantly increased your team's chance of victory.
How much of this is an improvement in Sauer himself and how much of it is a more committed team defensive effort? It's obviously a mix of both; Sauer has a hand in it. Check last year's stats:
With the same same roster -- I guess Michigan did lose the most statistically ineffective hockey player they've had in a decade when Jason Bailey left at midseason -- and only a modest drop in shots faced, Sauer went from eye-wrenchingly horrible (a save % of .884 would have been good for 66th of 73 goalies who registered enough minutes to qualify last year) to average (.914 would have been 27th, just ahead of Jeff Lerg). This was a quantum leap in performance largely obscured by Sauer's first-half performance. It's hard to say "hey, this guy is playing pretty well" when the statistics still have that ugly "8" after the decimal point.
When people did notice this they kept it under their breath in case, say, most of the way through the best game of his career he went for a stupid poke check and let in an ugly goal that cost Michigan the CCHA playoff championship and the ensuing mental trauma resulted in seven North Dakota goals in something like four minutes in the NCAA tournament. Hypothetically.
And this year?
Hey, good job Billy. And look at that, a significant drop in shots against. Hmmm...
The freshmen defensemen are outplaying last year's senior counterparts. I can tell because there is always at least one defenseman in my personal doghouse at all times. Said defenseman is responsible for all turnovers, goals, and undesirable global climactic
changes until such time as someone else enters the doghouse, they graduate, or -- in the case of Jeff Jillson -- a hockey team that drafted you way too high throws a bunch of money at you.
In that light, three enduring memories from the 2006 and 2007 teams:
- Michigan is tied or leads by a goal against some team late. I think they're leading, because it seemed at the time that caution was called for. The opposing team gains control of the puck behind their own net and throws it up the wall. The puck's a good foot or two off the ground and traveling at a high rate of speed; Matt Hunwick decides this is the perfect time to practice his I'm-a-ninja-let's-knock-this-blowgun-dart-away skills, rushing forward and taking a wild swing at the puck whizzing by him. The ensuing two-on-one results in a goal.
- Jason Dest blatantly crosschecks a guy to the ice while killing a penalty, drawing another penalty. Dest throws his arms in the air, disgusted. The guy he's crosschecked to the ice gets up and, unchecked, taps in a goal.
- Tim Cook, just in general.
Aside from a couple groan-worthy Langlais moments that were, IMO, not nearly enough to erase his consistently excellent play, has anything like this occurred this year? No. I literally cannot remember Scooter Vaughn or Tristin Llewellyn doing anything important all year. That's fantastic when you're freshmen defensemen on the #1 team in the country.
Do the stats back me up here? I think they do, at least slightly.
Dest last year: 1-10-11, +6. Cook: 0-4-4, +11. Hunwick: 6-20-26, +24
Vaughn: 0-4-4, +10. Llewellyn: 0-5-5, +9, Langlais 0-19-19, +20, "Other" (Quick): 2-2-4, +8.
That's about the same number of points and the same +/- (albeit in about 16 extra games between the four freshman) from four freshmen as the three seniors from last year. I know points and +/- are not great metrics -- if I had schmanzy stats like some of the NHL bloggers I would use them -- but there is also the lack of on-ice hatred for any of these guys.
Even if they're not actually better than the seniors, Chris Summers is better than he was as a freshman and so is Kampfer and so is Mitera.
I think there is one outstanding statistical anomaly that proves 1) it warn't Jack's fault, and 2) whatever the second and third defensive pairings were doing was messed up. This is it: Cogs last year: 23-25-48, +7. Kolarik: 18-27-45 +13.
Those two were the second line, basically. A rotating cast of Turnbull, Naurato, Miller, and others filled the other wing. Kolarik is awesome this year and was pretty darn good a year ago; Cogs has 45 points in the NHL thi
s year. Usually Jack came out with TJ and the first line, IIRC, and then saw another shift when the second or third line was out there. The second line was prime Dest-Cook territory, and those plus/minus results speak for themselves.
Kevin Porter was not a creation of TJ Hensick. One of the occupational hazards of putting your opinions on sports on the internet is that sometimes you write stuff like this:
We're about to find out if Kevin Porter, top five scorer, was entirely a creation of TJ Hensick. Survey says: hell yes. He's still probably the team's best player, but is uninspiring as those go.
Ha-HA! I suck.
Porter is the nation's leading scorer and since he hasn't taken any misconduct penalties will win the Hobey Baker on Friday. What's more, Red credits him with the work ethic and discipline shown by the entire team. When he missed practice Wednesday with a flu something or other, Michigan had what may have been its worst practice of the year.
And Chad Kolarik is just as good. Porter's going to win the Hobey, as he should, but Kolarik is the #6 scorer in the country and has transformed himself from a second-line offense-only forward (just +13 last year on 45 points) into a premiere penalty killer and effort guy. When he popped his hamstring against Lake State he new something was very wrong, but it was a five on three so he got to a knee and made himself a nuisance. Lake State did not score.
In both these guys, Michigan finally has a pair of senior top-liners on a par with the monster combos like Sertich and Sterling and all those guys from like UMD or Miami who are pretty good hockey players for a while until something finally clicks and they lay waste like McBain.
Virtually every freshman met or exceeded expectations. The jury is still out on Brian Hogan and Kevin Quick is an ex-Wolverine. I've discussed the defensemen. The forwards:
- Max Pacioretty. First line-mainstay who was a bit of a passenger for the first half of the season before having a TJ-like breakout second half. Now a PPG scorer.Superb passer, excellent size, good shot. Fits in with Porter and Kolarik beautifully.
- Carl Hagelin. Bork, man, Bork. 10-10-20 with almost no power play time. Lighting fast skater who works his ass off every shift; guaranteed to get in three or four "holy crap!" backchecks per game, and who says "holy crap!" after a backcheck? Right. Odds on favorite to be top line center at the start of next year.
- Aaron Palushaj. You can see he's right on the verge of using those slick hands to pour in goals; as it is he's 10-31(!)-41 without the luxury of playing with Porter and Kolarik much. Probable top-line winger next to Patch and Hagelin next year.
- Matt Rust. Also a wicked fast skater. 11-10-21 with hardly any power play time, good faceoff guy. Key second-line player, excellent defensively, played with broken leg the past couple weeks.
- Louie Caporusso. Missed a month with an injury; came back and had 12-9-21 in 32 games. Smallish, skilled centerman closer to Andrew Ebbett than Cammalleri in overall talent, still a good bet to be a second-line center next year. Needs a talented winger to go with Turnbull.
- Ben Winnett. Winnett was the only real disappointment this year. He had a nasty injury that cost him half of his last junior season but prior to that was scoring at nearly the same pace as teammate, first round pick, and Cornell freshman star Riley Nash. He went in the fourth round of the draft -- two rounds before Hagelin -- and ended up puttering around the third and fourth lines doing little. 6-5-11 isn't too bad for a guy who didn't get much time; it's the "didn't get much time" that's an issue. Showed some flashes of talent late in the season.
Everyone of these guys was a significant contributor save Winnett, and there are no Fardig-Bailey-Brown-Miller-MacVoy sorts in the bunch; every one is a potential scoring line player with offensive skill to spare.
The key to this recruiting class is the success of Hagelin, Langlais and Vaughn. All were relatively late pickups, which usually nets you questionable third or fourth line sorts and last pairing defensemen. Each of these guys showed up ready to play and will be mainstays for the next four years unless Hagelin gets really, really good and the Rangers sign him.
There are just a lot more good players. Okay, out went three excellent players: Jack, TJ, and Cogs. Out went two more good to average players, depending on how much you think of Matt Hunwick: Hunwick and Rohlfs. Out went three bad players: Dest, Cook, and Bailey.
I am of the opinion that Michigan picked up three excellent players -- Patch, Hagelin, Palushaj -- five good players -- Langlais, Rust, Caporusso, Llewellyn, Vaughn -- and one average one -- Winnett. Combine that with the slow and steady morph of Billy Sauer from an awful player to a good, maybe great one, and wham:
No, seriously. Flights out of Chicago are around 220 now -- yesterday there were in the 170s. Tickets will be available at face or below in Denver with both local schools knocked out. Hell, Notre Dame fans, it's your first Frozen Four ever. Go! Taste the sting of defeat, but go!