in town for free camps
I was standing in front of a big group of people in a bar in midtown New York City, and I knew that the year before I had wandered in in a suit and told them that this would be an off year for Michigan football because the quarterbacks were probably bad and the offensive line probably worse. That sounds right from 10,000 feet, but I'd splashed an Alamo Bowl logo up at the end of the presentation when I should have put up a map of Tajikistan underneath the title MOVE HERE IMMEDIATELY.
So I had a slide at the beginning that noted some of the things I'd been very wrong about the year before, and I noted my errors, asked for forgiveness, suggested that football was a crazy game, and promised them less than I'd promised the year before but more than they'd gotten. That seemed to go okay.
Around here, I asked Paul to splice together a bunch of highlights and set it to a song that seemed particularly apropos and posted it on the eve of the season. To call it hopeful sells it short. A bunch of good plays strung together that ignores last year's woe is hopeful. One that acknowledges them and then flashes to color when the good stuff kicks in is closer to an explicit promise.
It's not a surprise that as the season has dragged along, the team an increasingly unrecognizable piece of roadkill grinding away the remnants of a jaw along the highway of the Big Ten, that more than the occasional comment or email references "Sometimes When You're On" as a source of gallows humor. Sometimes there's no humor and the emailer is just lamenting the hope that has transubstantiated into misery. That's considerably worse.
Kennedy is dead and I'm sitting here telling anyone who will ask "things are going to be all right" and now, finally, it's not working. And deservedly so.
In 2002, I was in Ireland for the summer. I'd graduated from undergrad and had a chunk of money saved up from summers spent interning at engineering firms and my girlfriend of over a year had broken up with me in slow motion and I thought I'd have an adventure. I planned on working. A friend of mine had spent a chunk of time in Ireland working IT when jobs were available for anyone with working knowledge of a screwdriver, but the Celtic Tiger had imploded dramatically with the rest of the tech world in 2001 and I was reduced to wandering around wondering why the hell I needed a resume to pick plates up and put them other places. Surely there was some sort of spatial reasoning test that could be done on the fly.
So I didn't work. I rented a room in a Galway house shared by a bunch of marine biology students—when The Abyss was on TV, the rig-envy was palpable—and screwed around. One of the things I did was watch every game of the World Cup, because why the hell not? Ireland was in it after a famous upset of Holland, not that I knew about this, or how infrequent Irish World Cup appearances are, at the time. I got up at eight in the morning—impressive to me, at least—to watch them tie Cameroon in their first match.
The second match day was a huge, nerve-wracking one with the US taking on Portugal and Ireland staring down the Germans and freaking Oliver Kahn, the robot goalie. Kahn would become a personal sporting bête noire over the course of the tournament, a man worthy of his last name. He would win the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player, the only time in World Cup history that the award has gone to a goalie. And his team didn't even win. He was good.
The USA could really use a win in their first match; Ireland just needed a draw with Saudi Arabia the last game on the schedule.
I debated heading down to the pub at eight in the morning, but eventually decided against it mostly because it was a twenty minute walk. But the US scored, and scored again, and scored again, and with the game 3-1 at halftime and my house abandoned I said "screw it" and spent halftime scurrying downtown. I watched Jeff Agoos score a spectacular own goal while nursing a pint of cider* in a moderately full pub. The USA won and that was well and good. For everyone else, it was a small moment of schadenfreude in before the main event.
So here's the main event: Ireland goes toe-to-toe with the Germans, putting more shots on goal but unable to crack Kahn. In the 19th minute enormous robot striker Miroslav Klose puts the Germans up, but from that moment on they're on the back foot. Ireland presses to no avail. Kahn seems everywhere. He makes three insane saves to keep Ireland off the board. I loathe him. I hate his incredibly German hair, and his insane excellence.
Then it's gone. Ninety minutes are over and they're just kicking it around in stoppage time. Ireland has made their desperate substitutions, sticking creaky old Niall Quinn, a 6'4" battleship of a target forward, out there in the vague hope he can get his head to the ball. In the 92nd minute some defender boots the ball upfield as people do at the end of the game when there's no time and no hope. Quinn finds this ball and flicks it down to an onrushing Robbie Keane. That bastard Kahn is out, though, out fast and in position and Keane has to shoot after one touch and the shot actually deflects off that fucking bastard Kahn…
You have no doubt experienced some variety of sports pandemonium in your life, but you probably haven't watched an entire country take the day off to drink next to the river. In the immediate aftermath I remember hugging some guy who looked like he was from Pakistan. I was instantly recognizable as an American, so maybe that made sense. Ever since, I've rooted for Kahn in his losing battle against preening Jens Lehman, and maybe that makes sense, too.
On Wednesday, Ireland missed the World Cup on the most flagrant handball since Diego Maradona.
It has not been a good fall. Since Michigan scraped by Indiana, the team they are vying with for outright possession of the Big Ten cellar, I haven't watched Michigan beat any team that plays at scholarship parity with them in two different sports. Football hasn't beaten a I-A team since September 26th. Hockey is currently languishing at 4-6 after consecutive sweeps at the hands of Miami and, of all teams, Michigan State. In that series, Corey Tropp scored in a game that finished 3-2. Hell, the one hockey game I've listened to on the radio this year was the dismal 2-0 defeat against Fairbanks to open the year.
It's been hard for me. In the past my strategy when sports were more pain than they're worth has been to disconnect as much as possible, but that's obviously not possible any more. So I've seen everything that's happened the last two years somewhere between four and eight times.
But it's been hard on everyone else, too. Johnny emerged from his slumber to write something beautiful about Brandon Minor…
On Saturday he will be there. Maybe not on Thursday or on Friday, but you don’t prepare for the deranged violence.
…and this is how life repays him:
David Molk (knee)
Brandon Minor (shoulder)
He sent me one of the semi-annual IMs we exchange to ask me what percent chance I put on Minor playing. I said "I don't know," and that was that. This is life at the bottom.
Everyone who's joked or not joked about "Sometimes When You're On" is hurt because their expectations have not been met, because they hoped for more. I've played a role in that, and for that I'm sorry. There are days when two minnows come up against world powers and win, or tie their asses off, though. When I went to RBUAS I saw that Jake and Mike and Chad had given way to a new era, however brief it will be:
A beautifully futile gesture. Johnny had the old guys up there forever, and it wasn't hard to figure out why. But what I said after the Notre Dame game still holds, even if it's cast in a different light by the events that followed: this is Michigan now. Though they're still plainly deficient, they'll be there Saturday. I don't know if things are going to be all right anymore. But I'll be there, too, and God help anyone who talks about "heart" within earshot.
Saturday contains itself. For three hours, let hope bloom, and think about the consequences afterward.
*(Don't judge me. It was before noon and somehow Bulmers has this marvelous nutty tinge if you get it from the tap in Ireland. I've had the stuff stateside and it suffers far more than Guinness does.)
10/31/2009 – Michigan 13, Illinois 38 – 5-4, 1-4 Big Ten
To paint with broad strokes, I probably don't have much in common with 6'3", 290 pound black guys from Miami who think it's a good idea to play for Ron Zook. Our worlds are unlikely to intersect at a Lil Wayne show or the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Cory Liuget has probably never thought to himself "that reminds me of a Morrissey song." Of late, I think that all the time.
But at around 6:30 on October 31st, 2009, we both felt like we had been punched in the dong. In Liuget's case, this is because he had been punched in the dong:
In my case, and probably in yours, you had not actually been punched in the dong unless you had decided at some point that going outside with your buddies and punching each other in the dongs was preferable to watch the metaphorical dong-punching that started when Roy Roundtree's knee hit the ground at the one yard line and has not, to my knowledge, stopped. If you managed to miss this play and its aftermath because you were outside getting punched in the dong, congratulations: this is the one and only time when your decision-making skills will ever be regarded above average. Punch yourself in the dong in celebration.
Liuget got off easy. He was wearing a cup. My soul-dong has no cup, and it's taken a mighty battering in the last couple of years. Weary, bepunched, bruised, bepunched some more, the soul-dong cries out: why, gods who dictate which ghostly shadow genitalia get the full America's Funniest Home Videos treatment, have you chosen these dongs for maximum severe extreme punishment?
In the end, it doesn't matter. It just hurts when you don't move carefully.
You probably think I'm done with this riff on dong-punching. You get the dashes and the topic changes and then the topic comes back around to the previous item by the end of the column, with maybe some more dashes indicating where you should be prepared to shift thoughts. This, surely, is where a sentence can go by without the author mentioning someone getting punched in the dong.
No: the dongs. They are punched. This is what Michigan football has been since about the instant Drew Henson decided to take millions of dollars from the Yankees: the constant struggle to get your dong punched in new and interesting ways. Super-recruit quarterback leaves before senior year: kapow. New, wholly obscure Ohio State coach from I-AA is the anti-Cooper: tiger PUNCH. 2005: E. Honda hundred-hand-slaps your jibbly bits. 2006: more of a Tekken unblockable thunderfist with a huge-long windup that you think is going to be awesome until you fail to dodge the full testicle-crushing force of the blow and end up flat against the wall. 2007: Jack Bauer finds the bomb, finds it's a ridiculously tiny nuclear device, and decides to screw with you by placing it in the appropriate place before the Horror. 2008: A hundred E. Hondas hundred-hand-slapping your scrotum for three straight months.
2009 can be seen above: SURPRISE! You, Corey Liuget, think your dong is unthreatened late in a game you've turned into a blowout. You are wrong, and E. Honda shows up 75% through the damn thing just to give you dangly punishment.
As per usual.
Here we are, gingerly attempting to sit down without having any part of our anatomy brush up against other parts of our anatomy. Things just got raw, yo. Every place on the internet that didn't immediately repeal the first amendment(!!!) is burning.
I've been watching the same stuff everyone has for 1.5 years and here's where I am: it's blindingly obvious that some portion of the suck is Rodriguez's doing. After that huge reversal of fortune you have to back down from any previous stances you have about the program, its progress, and etc etc etc. That is a game-changing event. That game turned "Rich Rodriguez flames out in three years" at Michigan from a laughable notion to a possible one. Distantly possible, but possible.
I'm not sure what the suck is and how much can be laid on the current coaching staff. The Shafer hire was a poor one. Past that, the last couple years have featured four quarterbacks that were either freshmen or walk-ons, a disaster of an offensive line, and a defense that actually saw two walk-ons start against Illinois because they were preferable to the alternatives. I don't know if that's Jay Hopson's fault or just crappy luck that you're starting a guy who would never see the field because the options behind him are so poor.
I still think we aren't anywhere near the point at which we can chuck out Rodriguez's stellar previous track record. That is not an accident. The previous coaching staff was responsible for The Horror and was attempting to position Mike DeBord as a legitimate in-house candidate, so it's not like the vast program-killing screwup that is the defensive recruiting is an huge outlier in judgment.
On the 70-yard touchdown that put Illinois in the lead for good, two players were largely responsible: Leach got dragged out of position expecting a stretch and Kovacs took what he thought was a good angle but was not because he is a freshman walk-on. There are a lot of problems with the program that no one could deal with.
Rodriguez will be back next year with a mandate to get to a mediocre bowl, and he'll be under pressure to produce a serious team in year four. My confidence that he'll do that is waning. There's not much that would improve the situation; as we've seen the last two years, program continuity is a huge factor in any football team's success. Firing Rodriguez before he's thoroughly proven he can't make it work here is going to make the previous suffering in vain.
That's where I am. If you're elsewhere, fine, I can understand that after the huge reversal the past couple weeks. Before the 2008 season I dug out that picture of Bo and Canham and Bump Elliot and placed the fanbase in the center of it:
We are all Don Canham now. Rich Rodriguez comes in with a wildly successful pedigree but promises to finally tear down the culture of Bo’s program, to replace it with something uncertain. This has caused apprehension in some, joy in others, and disdain verging on hatred in a select group.
The program risks changing into something people drift away from because it has drifted from them, or, worse, something that you only wish you could drift away from. It also promises fireworks and fun and victory and a feeling that’s something other than that thing we’ve felt so much before. Other fanbases go through this every five or ten or fifteen years; for us it’s been 40.
I could welcome it, I guess, or celebrate it, or proclaim inevitable dominion over the land. But I don’t feel like it. Nor do I feel like fretting over imaginary scandals future. Like Canham, I just hope it works.
I still hope it works. It's getting harder to think it will. Next year will tell the tale.
- Michigan should prepare for an Ortmann suspension. Omameh is probably the guy who draws in, but he's been practicing at right tackle. Ricky Barnum is the nominal backup left tackle if the Baby Seal U game is an indication, but I don't think he's left tackle material; the real backups at tackle are redshirting.
- Michigan's losing their composure, yes, and it's clear there's a cultural divide on the team between guys like Odoms, who know from rough, and Carr holdovers who still seem pissed that this is what they got when it's not what they signed up for.
- Holy hell: turnovers. I'd mentioned this before but here's a useful diary post from Enjoy Life on Rodriguez's turnover history. It's ridiculous:
Aside from the ugly first year, West Virginia had a positive turnover margin every year of Rodriguez's reign, with double-digit years four out of six tries. It's not the system, and it's not the weather as it applies to the system—it gets cold and rainy in West Virginia, too. It's freshman quarterbacks and terrible defense.
- Also holy hell: what a disaster Mike Patrick is. One: if our starting center was actually named "Mossman" he would a superhero capable of enmeshing opponents in his velcro-like grasp and Michigan's offensive line wouldn't fail to pass block against a terrible team that had no pass rush coming into the game. This was not an error. He and equally idiotic Craig James called him "Mossman" at least six times.
Two: you just knew as soon as the goal line stand happened that the rest of the game would be Patrick and James going Favre on Terry Hawthorne tracking down Roundtree, and this they did, often failing to even describe the play in front of them in favor of yet more rapturous praise for Hawthorne. They should find whatever pasture they've put Maguire in and put Patrick in it, too. And then shoot it into space. It will be like the Little Prince!
Three: this is not Patrick's fault but after a couple games on ABC that were beautifully directed, this one missed a half-dozen plays.
- Mike Williams had edge responsibility time and again against Illinois and blew it when he wasn't getting blocked into the bench. He was spectacularly bad, just as he was against Iowa. I find it hard to believe Vlad Emilien is worse, and since he's played on special teams recently he's not getting a redshirt. Wonder if we see him a little bit more the rest of the season.
- It's really obvious why they moved Woolfolk to safety in spring now. What a terrible feeling it must have been to watch these guys play in spring practice and know you were going to die in the fall.
- Kovacs makes sense because there are literally no scholarship options at his spot other than Emilien and project true freshmen, but what is with Leach getting on the field in front of Fitzgerald or Demens? I'd say it's a failure to develop talent on the part of Hopson, but he's also the guy coaching Leach. All I know is that it's very bad when you have major recruits (Fitzgerald was just outside top 100 lists and Adam Patterson was a top-50 player) idling behind walk-ons.
- What happened to Shaw? Undisclosed injury?
- The offensive line's pass blocking is the biggest problem with the offense right now. Every week I go into UFR expecting that Forcier will have all these terrible scrambles and there's maybe one or two instances where it was optional. In all other cases, someone is bearing down on him. The line is getting crushed in the protection metric. I hope this is an effect of losing Molk more than anything else; also, Michigan doesn't have any options other than freshmen behind the starters now.
- I got emails from people asking why they couldn't post stuff on the blog. How do you attempt to post something on the blog without reading the single paragraph post at the top of it that says you can't post? And should this be taken as evidence that the people in question should not be allowed to post anyway?
- LVSC's initial opening line for the game: M –7. Vegas loled and set it at 3.5. But… hey… 3.5 point favorites! WOO MOTOR CITY.
10/17/2009 – Michigan 63, Delaware State 6 – 5-2, 1-2 Big Ten
This what everyone wanted after last year's decision to schedule Utah didn't go as planned and Michigan slumped to a 3-9 record: a tomato can's tomato can. Someone to take lunch money or candy from. A baby seal to club, and then club some more, and then club some more until David Cone's lyrical daggers were targeting only a wet, damp smear. This is what we got, a game in which I was pondering at which point in the second quarter I'd stop charting for UFR.* A bye week in all but execution.
Actually, scratch the first several words of that sentence: an execution. It was kind of depressing. In the aftermath, Dr. Saturday took time out of a busy Saturday to glance at the box score, blanch in horror, and write a post about it:
The final ledger against the Wolverines could not have been more grisly: Michigan outgained DSU by more than 500 total yards despite pulling starting quarterback Tate Forcier after the first series, averaging 10 yards every time it snapped the ball while also blocking a punt for a touchdown for good measure. The Wolverines led 49-0 after two quarters and began emptying the bench at halftime to keep the margin below 100. I hope Michigan's belly is full, the Hornets are enjoying their half-million-dollar payday and the MEAC championship doesn't come down to handing a win to NCA&T, because children had to watch this.
Delaware State's fluke inability to reschedule the NC A&T** was long known. The reason DocSat brings it up is the pure grisly horror of the thing: 49-3 at halftime, 727 yards for Michigan at the end of everything. "Grisly" is the right word, and "bodybag game" seems like only a slight exaggeration. Michigan killed DSU's long snapper on their first punt, blocked the next one, and pointedly refused to approach another one all day despite the replacement offering up Scorched Earth-worthy parabolas. Michigan, for its part, did not punt.
I don't blame Rodriguez or Martin or Michigan for lining the game up. One bad I-AA team is like any other; Martin probably did a quick scan for back-to-back national championships, found none, and said "okay." It was just bad luck to get the opposite of Appalachian State. Given the state of the program, which was precarious after last year and needed an auto-win for its open date, and college football, which GIMME MONEY, some unchallenging I-AA team was a good move in the abstract. Outside of the three hours in which the game actually took place, it was the right decision.
Obviously, I blame the NCAA. They're the ones who approved a twelfth game, allowed I-AA wins to count for bowl eligibility every year, and placed no limits on the number of home games you can force your bored fans to sit through. At that point it's race to the bottom. Michigan punched a baby seal until it was unconscious and then brought in its six-year-old brother to continue punching the baby seal because he's got to execute the playbook and every play in it is "punch baby seal," and the reason this was a good idea is the NCAA's decade-long money grab.
I think this can this be fixed, or at least mitigated, though. Rodriguez's preseason assertion that the NCAA should allow an exhibition game looks brilliant today. Michigan's 5-2 after beating up a terrible I-AA team, and in the process they set a hollow record for total offense. Michigan improved 35 places in total offense and 20 in total defense in one game. They've still gotten outgained in every game they've played against teams not in the MAC or MEAC, but they're currently the #25 offense and #64 defense in the country because they picked a really, really bad tomato can instead of one of those half-decent ones you only beat by 40. Everyone outside of accounting and the walk-ons at the end of the roster would have been better off if this game didn't exist.
Rodriguez's plan is a way to make the accountants and everyone else happy. Allow teams to open the season a week earlier against a team of their choice in an exhibition game. Sell exorbitantly priced tickets to season-ticket holders, have your sleepy quasi-spring game, open up an actual bye week during the season, and make sure the corrupt statistics from games against teams starting 22 guys your walk-ons could play straight up don't infect record books and season statistics.
We're already paying exorbitant amounts of money for bloodsport; they least they can do for us is stop pretending these count.
*(Answer: probably when Sheridan comes in, at least as far as serious charting goes. I'll stick around longer to evaluate backups on defense and offer some opinions on Cox and Smith.)
**(Fun fact: North Carolina A&T is where Larry Harrison briefly landed after his tendency to scare young women by enthusiastically manipulating his dangly bits caught up to him. He was forced to leave by Concerned Folk who were evidently not concerned about Larry Harrison's future. And yet Corey Tropp can skate against Steve Kampfer this year.)
- I don't want to get into another huge band flamewar, but I'm sure it didn't escape anyone's notice that the DSU band was sacrificing pitch control and accuracy for loudness. Personally, as the APPROACHING STORM blatted its way through its pregame and halftime shows, I was appalled. The popular music! How am I supposed to choke down the substandard camembert my idiot brother thought would go with an Australian malbec? (About which, as the children say in their vulgar tongue, LOL.)
Now, the clown who laughs as he cries inside, that's showmanship.
- For serious, though: I literally LOLed when the pregnant pause following "and now, the Michigan Marching Band presents…" was followed by "OPERA!" The earlier complaint about the band's focus on things other than putting on an entertaining show could not have been reinforced better. DSU had a third of the people and vastly less practice time; they were a MEAC band from a school of under 4000. Even I could tell that the notes coming from them weren't quite right. And yet they got a bigger, more sincere cheer than the MMB. They so enraptured Michael Rothstein that he dedicated an article to the band with statements like "That was when the band took over," and… yeah, I'm with him.
And it's not like the MMB hasn't done stuff like this in the past: the Ferris Bueller halftime show, the Holy Grail one, and the Titanic one where the band formed a ship and the broke itself on an iceberg were all entertaining and memorable enough for me to remember them years later.
- The APPROACHING STORM has a a website that is true to the nature of the band, all rickety glory and awesome animated lightning GIF backgrounds. It's on Angelfire!
- Pardon the blasphemy, but you know who Vincent Smith reminds me of? Mike Hart. Same lack of killer deep speed that prevents the guy in question from being an elite prospect—Noel Devine would have housed two or three of Smith's carries. On the other hand, Smith appears to have Hart's ability to juke guys out of their shorts and hit zone creases with authority, and when it comes time to get tackle Smith delivers a blow impressively for a member of the lollipop guild. He's probably even shiftier than Hart, not quite as liable to drag a pile but set to become an excellent player over the next few years. I still think Mike Shaw is the odds-on favorite to start next year because he has the explosion to take it the distance and the moves to break more than his share, but in this offense the #2 back is almost a starter and Smith should be productive.
- To repeat a tweet: the second team offensive line from L to R was Barnum, Mealer, Khoury, Ferrara, and Omameh. Is Barnum's presence at left tackle a statement about his ability or the lack of tackles who aren't redshirting at the moment? Probably the latter.
- Will Campbell fell behind Renaldo Sagesse on the depth chart again after his struggles against Iowa. Was Sagesse dinged for that game? I wouldn't be surprised if he was. It would be pretty weird to elevate a true freshman over a productive backup for a night road game against an undefeated team without extenuating circumstances.
- Mike Williams was the last member of the starting defense to leave the field. Kovacs was second-to-last. You can read many things into that. My things: backup safeties do not exist, Williams was indeed a major culprit in the Iowa loss, and Vlad Emilien is not getting a dodgy medical redshirt.
10/10/2009 – Michigan 28, Iowa 30 – 4-2, 1-2 Big Ten
This is probably a time to dispense with the fooferah and get right to the heart of the matter. From our vantage point from the endzone of Kinnick Stadium our instant assumption when Denard Robinson came in was that Forcier had gotten hurt on one of two earlier plays. We couldn't see a whole lot, but we saw a lot of Michigan's third quarter—unfortunately because they spent it next to the wrong endzone. Forcier banged his hand on someone's helmet, then later took a wicked shot from some defensive lineman or another moments after launching another incompletion.
When Robinson came out with around six minutes left, we had a debate about the idea, coming down on the side of "not good." Though Robinson was surprisingly effective driving Michigan for a score-tightening touchdown, the run-based nature of the drive stripped more than three minutes off the clock and saw Michigan attempt an onside kick with about 3:20 left and one timeout. This, too, was seen as a sign that Forcier was hurt: surely if you're going to cast your lot with Denard Robinson on a drive to win you need the ability to run the ball quite a bit. Kicking deep with only Robinson available is tantamount to waving the white flag.
So all that fit together and when Robinson came out after Michigan's defense thwarted Iowa on their attempt to strangle the game, it made sense. Forcier was unavailable, and this was the best Michigan could do. And, hell, it was working all right until Robinson eschewed what looked like a wide open Martavious Odoms in favor of Michigan's third or fourth jump ball into safety coverage. This one did not clatter to the turf harmlessly. As we say in UFR, EOG.
So… yeah. The news that Forcier had to be bodily escorted off the field before Michigan's last drive was less than thrilling. I'm sure this will be breaking no new ground after a couple days of checking in on the blog to see just which items raging about the decision needed to be excised, but for the record:
There are a billion comments across the internet calling the decision "indefensible," many of them drawing direct parallels to the last time a Michigan team visited Iowa. John Beilein sat Manny Harris down for overtime, Michigan lost when Iowa hit an array of circus shots and Manny's replacement, David Merritt, continued being a walk-on instead of Manny Harris, and a very large number of people were peeved, livid, or somewhere in between. This space in the aftermath of that decision:
If he thought Michigan had a better chance to win with David Merritt on the floor, he's nuts. More likely he had about reached his limit and sat him in what appears to be a fit of pique. I get that: Harris at the moment is a basketball doppelganger of Braylon Edwards in his afro phase, when he was benched because he and Carr weren't "on the same page" despite his clear superiority to Michigan's other receiving options. Edwards wised up and blew up. Harris? We'll see.
I would have preferred the teachable moment had not come in overtime of a crucial road game, though. You know.
The two incidents are creepily similar, and my opinion about Saturday is about identical to my opinion about the Manny benching: there were a ton of good reasons to make the move that don't come close to outweighing the enormous one that argued against it. If Michigan had gotten that onside kick and Robinson had three minutes to work with, okay. With 1:40 on the clock, no timeouts, and sixty yards to go, no.
So where does that leave us? Michigan's just experienced a two point loss on the road against a top-15 team during which they were –4 in turnover margin. They got outgained again. Forcier was pretty terrible. Robinson displayed both his talent and his limitations. Rodriguez made a poor decision in the heat of the moment, bursting this site's obvious hope that he was Jesus Ferguson. They're 4-2 in the league with three games they should win left, which would leave them at 7-5 if they don't pick off one of Penn State, Wisconsin, or Ohio State. A walk-on has permanently ascended to the starting lineup.
Add that all together and you get… I don't know. A jumbled mess that's clearly not as soul-destroying as last year's merry band of incompetence but not in any respect good. Michigan has been significantly outgained in each of four games against teams outside of the MAC, and mitigating factors like special teams and turnovers can no longer patch those gaps up. After all that at the start of the season, Michigan's settled about where everyone expected they'd be: still digging out from nuclear winter, looking towards the future with hope and the present with tolerance, at best.
The emotions I had coming out of Kinnick were as much of a mess as the team is. Michigan shot itself in a thousand different ways, busting coverages on two tight end touchdowns and a third and twenty-five that was more damaging than any of the five (five!) turnovers they gacked up with little assistance from Iowa. It was really frustrating to walk away feeling that Michigan should have won but for their own errors—errors that at this point are obviously a fundamental part of what the team is—but the memory of last year hovered, suggesting that the mere idea that errors were only a part of the whole this time around represented progress. Clearly, there is a long way yet to go.
- I know I make fun of people in the comments who believe I have some sort of crazy power over the fortunes of Michigan football that I only use for evil, but dammit Greg Mathews, not only did you drop a punt, give Iowa the ball at the Michigan 16, and eventually lead to that short-field Tony Moeaki touchdown, you did it mere hours after I suggested that I should stop typing HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL as the key matchup in the special teams section. It's hard not to feel personally responsible even though that's completely insane.
- Have seen a number of complaints about the timeout with 27 seconds left before halftime. I wanted Rodriguez to call it at the time; after some consideration I think that was probably not a good idea either. Even if Michigan gets a stop on that third and ten they'd have the ball somewhere on their side of the field with 12 seconds on the clock or whatever. In general I like the bent of Rodriguez's decisions; that one was wrong.
- Another TO complaint: Michigan shouldn't have taken one on third and ten from the one and a half. Just take the penalty there and Michigan's got another 40 seconds to work with on their final drive. I understand it's hard to break the natural inclination to take a timeout when the playclock gets way low, though. That's a corner case that doesn't come up much.
- I don't know exactly whose fault the two busted coverages were but if, as rumored, it was Mike Williams I don't know what you do about it. Woolfolk was physically capable at cornerback and Michigan finally went with the press man they've been talking about since Greg Robinson got hired. Williams definitely let an Iowa receiver behind him on third and twenty-fing-five, and if Moeaki was his guy on either of his touchdowns he's directly responsible for all three Iowa touchdowns. Maybe Iowa would have done something with the last drive, but the first Moeaki TD was on third and twelve; a stop there is a FG attempt. A stop on the third and twenty-five is a punt.
- Michigan did break out some new stuff, grinding Brandon Minor into the line from the I on a successful, Bo-pleasing late touchdown drive and debuting a quick pitch to the sideline that never looked like it was going anywhere but also never failed to gain four to six yards. The former is something Michigan could have tried against State; the latter was probably hampered by Forcier's shoulder issues.
- It seemed like after the first interception from Forcier that he refused to throw to receivers who were open. On a couple third downs there were slants available (I think) that Forcier did not take, instead running around as is his wont. I was pretty frustrated by him, and imagine that Rodriguez was ready to strangle the kid.
- Graham shouldn't be rushing the punter on a punt safe, not that it mattered.
Trip Report Section
City. I can tell you about a lovely Econolodge in Davenport, Iowa, but despite driving out Friday and spending about all of Saturday in Iowa City, I can't tell you much about the city itself. My momentary first impression was that this was a foofy college down as I strolled by some organic eatery down one of those cobbled pedestrian streets you see wherever people are trying to create an area for foot traffic. Then we went in a bar that had six things on the menu, asked if you wanted ranch with your waffle fries, and attempted to purvey something called a "walking taco," which the waitress explained was "um, it's like Doritos in a bag with some meat and cheese and onions and taco stuff thrown in." The stalls in the bathroom didn't have doors on them.
So I was a little confused. I was referring to this experience at the Black Heart Gold Pants tailgate, and I was talking about this place we were, and when asked where, exactly, we were I rakishly pulled out my zinger: "the place with no doors on the stalls." The response was "which one? There are lots of those." So… yeah. Iowa City leans towards the no doors on the stalls. I guess. I saw the inside of a bar, a parking lot, and Kinnick. I am not a one-man Yelp here.
Fans. Excellent. There was the usual dose of meathead yellin' at the guys in the wrong colors—sort of, anyway, the difference between maize and blue and black and gold is not drastic—that you get whenever you go anywhere other than South Bend. Other than that everyone was perfectly nice. At no point did I feel like someone was going to hit me, which is more than I can say for the last few trips to Columbus or East Lansing.
I will note that the male student body of Iowa appears to be 80% meathead.
Kinnick experience, in total. Very classy. All brick exterior, looks like I'd like to see Michigan Stadium end up looking like once they figure out what they're going to do in the endzones:
And the interior:
The stadium itself was a bit smaller than I'd expected. Our seats were strange: section "NB," which ended up standing for "North Bleachers" and was not listed on the map or at all familiar to the first two people we tried to talk to about just where the hell we were supposed to sit. An usher had clue, though, and directed us to five rows of makeshift metal bleachers that were literally on the field in the endzone. We stood the whole game, which was fine because from appearances so did the rest of the place.
Despite that, it didn't seem particularly noisy. It got loud on important third downs but I thought it was about on part with Michigan Stadium. FWIW. I am apparently terrible at discerning variable noise levels, given my reaction to this year's addition of luxury boxes.
There's a full gallery by Anthony here.
PIPE IT IN BABY. The Iowa marching band might as well not exist. I don't know if this was a homecoming thing, but they didn't even march pregame—the alumni band did—and had a seriously abbreviated halftime show so that a Hawkeye inductee to the CFHOF could get his due. During the game they hardly played, and when they did play they mostly played marching band versions of songs that had already been piped in over the PA.
This disaster was played incessantly over the PA, and we, not being 14-year-old-girls, didn't know what it was. Friend of Blog joked that it was probably a Jonas Brothers song, and we laughed, and then we thought to ourselves IS that a Jonas Brothers song? It turns out no, but it's by the Black Eyed Peas, which is 95% as emasculating. Hell, this imeem playlist by one Shelby Veppert, who—no foolies—is a 19-year old from Columbus who lists Nickelback(!!!) as one of her favorite bands, has the song sandwiched between two Jonas Brothers songs. If Michigan Stadium ever has anything that can be considered a sort of theme song I'm going to buy out Ann Arbor Torch & Pitchfork, and if it's ever something as terrifyingly fey as that thing, I'll storm the castle myself.
Site note: Michigan's homecoming activities murder Iowa's, chop them up, and put them in a bag. Iowa basically has the alumni band play the fight song and march off the field, then has a tedious announcement of various alumni who helped out and the members of the homecoming court*. And that's it. Michigan has a goofy prohibition-era cheer, awesome flipping 80-year-old alumni cheerleaders, a terrific combined-band halftime show, and that one crazy old drum-major who rips it up every year. I love homecoming at Michigan Stadium, and was excited to get the Iowa version of it. I didn't get it.
*(The homecoming king was a bioengineering (or something along those lines) major named Rohit… Naha… Romin… fromblobololgbogl. The telltale pause from the very Iowan public address announcer after the poorly-pronounced "Rohit" promised three seconds of pure unadulterated awesome, and that promise was delivered upon.)
Editor's note: sorry this is late. I thought I'd published this around 11 AM, but evidently I didn't hit the button.
9/26/2009 – Michigan 36, Indiana 33 – 4-0, 1-0 Big Ten
Tate Forcier dropped back to throw and Martavious Odoms broke open and Forcier lofted it. I swear to you that on an overcast, steel-gray day a sliver of light slipped through the clouds to linger on the object's parabolic, causing its rain-slicked surface to glitter as it reached its apex. It started to come back down, and Odoms slowed fractionally, allowing the Indiana safety—
Aw, hell. Indiana? No offense to a program the evidently warranted more respect than Vegas or this here blog offered in the run-up to the game, but passages of soaring majesty get ruined when a Hoosier is mentioned. Since Wangler-to-Carter, when Indiana was 8-4, moments of glory against Indiana only come in one form: oh thank God we didn't lose to Indiana.*
So, yeah: thank God we didn't lose to Indiana.
Since we didn't, we should all just breathe a sigh of relief, recalibrate expectations back down a little bit, and move on. Michigan's not at a point where any win against any Big Ten team is one to freak out about. The freshmen quarterbacks remain freshmen and it's becoming clear that the defense has about the same raw talent level that last year's offense had. The only thing keeping them from plunging off a deep, dark cliff is the fact that no position on defense is as singularly important as quarterback is on offense.
A couple may be as undermanned, though. Indiana's potentially-crushing, one-play, 85-yard riposte to Tate Forcier's first attempt at fourth quarter heroics exposed the secondary's talent deficiency in a way even starker than Michigan fans were treated to against Notre Dame. At least when Michael Floyd and Golden Tate and Jimmy Clausen were running wild you could point to torched opponents past and recruiting rankings and drooling NFL scouts. Seeing an Indiana freshman zip past not only the walk-on safety gamely pretending he doesn't run a 4.8 but the scholarship, potentially-starting cornerback not named Donovan Warren was alarming. If JT Floyd is going to play corner in the Big Ten he's going to do it ten yards off the line of scrimmage.
This is how bad it is: I'm not even mad at Floyd when a player gets vastly open or he commits a silly, unnecessary pass interference penalty. I'm mad at Tyrone Willingham, metaphorically. It's inconceivable that Michigan would find itself in this situation. There is exactly one junior and no seniors at both safety and cornerback. The 2007 class provides three of the four starters and has lost Artis Chambers. 2006 saw the only two defensive back commitments (Brown and Mouton) move to linebacker. The 2005 class was Brandon Harrison (decent but did not redshirt), Johnny Sears, and Chris Richards. The recruiting malpractice everyone saw on the offensive line last year returned with a vengeance. Hell, even the 2008 class is looking like a disappointment: Brandon Smith is a linebacker; Cissoko and Floyd have been the weak link on a defense that's played three walk-ons extensively. Very little of that is Rodriguez's doing.**
The parallels between this year's secondary and last year's offensive line, on and off the field, are striking, and it's not like linebackers not named Stevie Brown are helping out much. Michigan's recruiting was wildly deficient in more than one area and will be an anchor going forward, basically until such time as the roster is full and the creaky last few Carr classes are no longer weighing down the top of the roster.
We should forestall complaining about Robinson and Tony Gibson and even Jay Hopson, who I've complained about personally, if somewhat obliquely, because there are excellent reasons why their units are performing poorly that have nothing to do with whether or not they can coach. Gibson was the guy who turned Ryan Mundy from a guy with an uncomplimentary stat (Yards After Mundy) named after him into an NFL draft pick. West Virginia's pass efficiency defense in the final few years of Rodriguez's time there: 28th, 63rd, 30th, 20th. There's plenty of evidence that Rodriguez isn't dealing with morons here, and plenty that suggests late-era Carr recruiting was. I'm stashing the torches and pitchforks away, hoping that the rest of the season follows a trajectory similar to that of the offense last year: baby steps towards respectability in the midst of crippling talent deficiency, followed by a second year of growth.
As always, this should be okay. It takes time to dig out from all the reasons 3-9 occurs.
*(The Hoosiers have had a few respectable teams in the intervening years, but Michigan either blew them out, lost to them (once), or missed them. Closest thing to a close win against a respectable team was '91, when Indiana was 7-4-1 and M won 24-16.)
**(Smith and Floyd did commit to Michigan after Rodriguez was named head coach but those players were widely considered locks for months before the coaching transition took place. And please note the criticism here is not necessarily of Smith (or Mouton or Brown) but the recruiting practices that failed to take their likely moves to linebacker into account. Floyd, for his part, might be a functional safety if he wasn't needed at corner.)
- You know, I was sort of coming around to the piped in music but no more. I should never have said anything negative about the band, I take it all back, I believe the piped-in music to be an abomination, and curse anyone who voted in favor of said abomination during this site's earlier poll. The end of the first half was close to my idea of hell, with the evil homunculus responsible for the ear-piercing noise pollution blasting something stupid in-between every play. During the video review, I found myself so enraged at the piped in music that I fruitlessly gave the bird to the idiot playing Bob Seger at painful volume. I went to a concert later that night and the volume level there was considerably less ear-damaging.
It's just unpleasant to hear a probably-terrible song at volume levels 130% of what the speaker system can actually handle. Turn it down. Turn it off. Stop alienating the people who really care about Michigan's traditions and stop catering to the folk who can't distinguish Michigan Stadium from an ECHL arena. It does not help anything.
In fact, it actively stops cheers. The students were chanting "Go Blue" at each other during one point and the evil homunculus played over it. The evil homunculus plays AC/DC over what used to be a bass drum pounding out a beat to which the stadium chanted "Let's Go Blue." It has gone from somewhat tolerable to Michigan State in four weeks, and must be destroyed. I'm disappointed but not entirely surprised that the marketing wing of the Michigan athletic department would be so deaf to tradition. Mostly, I'm appalled. Piped-in music is a disaster and should be stopped immediately. (Note: MVictors mentioned it too, though Greg's not as ready to draw and quarter people. That is because he is soft. I am the Dwead Piwate Woberts, I have come for your souls.)
- Didn't expect the official site to out a guy on the 85-yard Indiana touchdown but here you go:
On Indiana's 85-yard touchdown run to take the lead in the fourth quarter, defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen came off the field distraught after a blown assignment. He was taken aside by defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and then sat on the team bench with his head sagging. "You flush it and you come back and play," Robinson yelled down the line. "You don't need to be a hero."
As I recall it I watched a 215 pound Indiana tailback outrun not only a walk-on safety (depressing that guy has to play but understandable) but a scholarship cornerback; if Van Bergen had problems he wasn't the only one. Also, Van Bergen was the backside defensive tackle… it's hard to imagine what his assignment was that could have prevented Indiana from running outside the other OT.
- Interception or not, why the hell did Indiana throw at Donovan Warren? Why the hell would anyone throw at Donovan Warren the rest of the year? Opponents have now lost two close games because they threw at Donovan Warren. Sooner or later they will stop doing this, I think.
After the game, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson confirmed that Cissoko’s absence was a coach’s decision. “Yeah, it was,” Robinson said. “I thought, J.T., at first, was a little nervous but as the game wore on he grew more and more comfortable and did a good job, really held his own.”
I thought that Cissoko had gotten pulled because he had picked up an injury. He did come out for a play or two earlier, and when an Indiana receiver ran straight past him without so much as a head fake I figured it was a hamstring pull or something. Apparently not. Er. That's not good. I'd rather there was some explanation for Cissoko getting smoked other than… well… you know. Not being good at football.
- Attn: Tate. Plz stop doing this plz:
It reminds me of Ryan Mallett and makes me want to die a little. Please continue all of your other activities except running around in the pocket too much.
Maize 'n' Brew has some Zapruder-quality "I took pictures of my TV" stills of the aforementioned Warren interception. They make a decent case the call was correct, if spectacularly close and improbable. I'm waiting for the HD video before I make any proclamation either way.
Doctor Saturday notes that Michigan and Notre Dame aren't exactly establishing themselves dominant powers in the wake of their entertaining week two matchup:
the question after Indiana's 467-yard, 33-point barrage Saturday is "Who isn't going to put up huge yards on the Wolverines?" The Hoosiers -- dead last in the Big Ten in every significant offensive aspect last year -- went on long marches and hit big plays alike (an 85-yard touchdown run and a 56-yard completion to set up another score) and might have been on their way to more points if the officials had seen Donovan Warren's clinching interception differently on IU's final drive. The Wolverines are 89th nationally in total defense and 92nd against the pass, slightly worse than last year's numbers for the year and significantly worse than their 2-2 start in September. There is no comparison between the offenses, but the progress of the Michigan D (or lack thereof) puts a real crimp in the prospective rise in the Big Ten. The fact is, resetting expectations after the first month, neither of these teams has put much separation between preseason expectations and their prospects for the season.
It's hard to dispute; even if Michigan's offense is ahead of preseason projections I don't think anyone had them giving up almost 500 yards to Indiana on defense. Michigan may be slightly ahead of what seemed like a universal 7-5 preseason consensus, but it's mostly because they've turned one coin-flip game in their favor and the Big Ten has looked slightly more moribund than even their recent standards.
Mike DiSimone has his weekly comprehensive picture roundup.