I did not make this headline up
Let's get to it. I was traveling most of Sunday, so this is going up a bit late.
Worst: Tapping Out
I know I'm just a guy who writes a couple of paragraphs interspersed with animated gifs a week about Michigan football, but man was this a tiring season. The on-field play was bad enough, but then you have everything with Hoke, Brandon, player injuries, Shane Morris's concussion, Frank Clark's domestic violence situation, and everything else that turned what should have just been a bad season into a clown show. It's a testament to the coaches and players that they remained as upbeat and non-homicidal as they did, but I would love nothing more than for next season to be overwhelmingly boring. I know some people have knocked Brian for not keeping up with the UFRs and the like, but if I had to watch replays of this season intensely and try to tease out meaning going forward, I'd never leave my room or bathe.
Worst: A Very Brady Holiday Game
It's already been said, but this season epitomized the Brady Hoke experience at Michigan. The game could not have started worse, with Gardner throwing a headless turkey of a pass that was intercepted by OSU, and the Buckeyes quickly capitalized with a TD. The next drive featured two huge sacks by OSU's stud line, and it felt like the rout was on. But then Michigan held tough, scored on a couple of long drives, and would have entered the half with the lead had (sigh) they not given up an all too-familiar end-of-the-half TD run to Barrett. Still, for over a half Michigan looked like they could hang with one of the best teams in the country, seemingly playing up to the talent on the recruiting trail if not on the field. Of course, the fact "keeping up with OSU for part of a game" qualifies as a positive sign for UM is pretty damning praise. But whatever, the Game felt like a game for the second year in a row despite the trajectory of the club coming in.
But every Michigan fan has seen this movie a million times, and there's a reason Hoke has been various hot seats since midway through 2012. His teams seem capable in spurts, but against elite teams they fall apart amid a cloud of janky offenses, overwhelmed/non-adaptive defenses, and the types of mental errors and coaching mistakes that you just don't see with other top programs. Outside of one completion to Devin Funchess, Michigan's offense plugged along but never really exploded; it's a testament to their determination and heart that they scored 28 points, but they needed drives of 7, 15(!), 12, and 9 plays to do it, and none were shorter than 75 yards. On one hand, that was the most consistent offensive performance the Wolverines have shown against a team with a pulse all season, but it also highlighted how uncreative/un-explosive the team has been all year.
The defense did what it could, forcing OSU to punt 4 times, which feels like some type of record, but it also gave up nearly 500 yards and struggled to deal with yet another mobile QB, as Barrett ran for 2 TDs and threw for another before breaking his ankle. Michigan had trouble getting pressure all day, failing to record a sack and only really threatening a handful of times. OSU converted on 7 of 13 3rd downs, and... you know, it just wasn't good. On paper they played well enough, but Michigan's long drives kept OSU's offense off the field as much as Michigan's play did, and they still dropped 35 points on 9 meaningful drives, and with a chance to boot OSU off the field on 4th-and-1 down 7, Michigan gave up a nearly-untouched Ezekiel Elliott 44-yard TD run that effectively ended the game.
On one hand, it was an entertaining game for one of the few times all year, and Michigan played with the passion, cohesiveness, and efficiency great teams display against other top programs. Watching this game, it looked for long stretches like two national-caliber teams out there, trading shots in a meaningful rivalry game. And then reality set in and Michigan reverted to the team we've seen for years now, one incapable of just keeping pace, of playing the type of fundamentally-sound, "big boy" football its coaches expound upon every week and claim they see every day in practice. Michigan played like an overmatched underdog holding close, like a more historically-relevant Indiana or Illinois, and not the team a decreasingly-number of diehards claim are a "rival" to OSU.
Hoke should be and probably is gone, and I'll get to my feelings about the likely successors. These last two weeks showcase the best and worst of his tenure as a head coach, and the fact that means two semi-competitive losses is the perfect summation as to why they should be his last at UM.
Best: Why Can't They Make the Whole Season Out of OSU's Defense?
To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, if Michigan is only capable of playing this way offensively when they line up against OSU, they might as well just schedule the Buckeyes 12 times. Devin Gardner did throw the interception, and it was his fumble on a sack that OSU returned for a defensive TD following Elliott's TD run, but he also threw the ball as well as he has in weeks, completing over 2/3's of his passes for 233 yards and 2 TDs, and spread out the receptions to 9 different players, 10 if you include the throwback pass he caught from Drake Johnson on a pretty brilliant playcall that helped Michigan tie the game at 21 in the 3rd. It wasn't anywhere close to his record-breaking performance from last year, but Gardner acquitted himself well enough in his final game as a Wolverine, and it was a bit poetic that his last completion of his career was a great little throw and catch to Canteen for Michigan's last TD. Of course, the fact it was in a game Michigan wound up losing by 14 takes a bit of luster off the rose, but this is the "happy thoughts" part of this diary.
Drake Johnson had his 3rd really solid performance in 4 games, scoring 2 TDs and would have likely finished with 100 yards had he not been injured in the 3rd quarter. What he does isn't necessarily flashy and I'm not sure if he could hold up to every-down back-type carries for a season, but his one-cut-and-go style meshes well enough with the playcalling, and outside of Green in spurts I'm not sure there has been another back this year who has shown Johnson's consistency these past 4-5 games. In this game, nobody other than Gardner had more than 3 carries, and Norfleet's 10 yards were the most non-QB yards on the ground amongst Hayes, Smith, and Kerridge. Once Johnson went down, so did the rest of the rushing offense.
According to the internet I am to believe that Devin Funchess GAF this game because he caught 7 balls for over 108 yards (only the second time sigh he's done so all year), but it also felt like one of the few times this year Michigan hasn't been afraid to throw downfield a bit and challenge defensive backs. The offensive line gave up 5 sacks, but they tended to come in bunches and, overall, Gardner was able to survey the field and find open receivers reasonably well, especially when the pocket moved with him and bought him some time with his legs. If this is Funchess's last game (and barring some crazy ju-ju by the next head coach or a poor draft report, it is), at least it felt like he had some chances to make plays and fulfill a bit of the promise expected before this broken season took place.
I'd like to say this portends some hope for next year, with only Gardner and (probably) Funchess gone, but I'm not going to fall for that fool's gold again quite yet. Whoever takes over next year will find an offense capable of playing a couple of different ways, and even though a big part of me wishes we could have seen a healthy Devin Gardner is a spread-style offense behind an improving line, Morris and co., there's enough talent and ability at the QB position to make me think a repeat of 2008 ThreetSheridanDamnit isn't in the cards.
Good(?): Good Many Cooks in the Backfield
Coming into the season, one of the key questions around these parts was whether or not Michigan had anyone who could matriculate the ball forward without (a) fumbling, (b) exploding, or (c) not following that up with three carries going backwards. Transfer Ty Isaac was going to be redshirt, but after a disastrous 2013 people expected the slew of highly-rated freshmen to mature into competent rushers, especially if the offensive line made some positive strides. For most of the year, it looked like Green was figuring out how to be a semi-effective rusher in college, while Smith would do his phonebooth runs where he fell forward for a couple of yards. Nobody was going to mistake it for past efforts by Hart or Perry, but it was consistently mediocre, which counts as a "win" in my book.
Then Green went down and Smith stumbled getting the lion's share, while guys like Hayes and Norfleet provided change-of-pace but still felt like misshaped pieces in the offensive scheme. All wasn't "lost" because this is 2014 Michigan, so not having a semi-competent rushing attack is WAYYYYYYY down the list of concerns, but given the improved play by the offensive line it was a bit sad it wasn't being put to better effect. And then Drake Johnson had a good day against IU on Homecoming and we all kinda said "good for him" and figured that was it. Two weeks later he was held in check by Northwestern, but that game was played on the M00N and DeVeon Smith had his best game in a Michigan uniform. Since then, Johnson has played really well, and at some point the sample size and opponent arguments disappear and you can begin to (cautiously) get excited about him coming back next year and competing with Green, Isaac, and Smith for meaningful carries.
Johnson isn't as dynamic as Smith or Green can be, and while Isaac looked good at USC during his freshman year who knows what effect the year away from the game will be, especially if he is learning yet another offense that may or may not be similar to the ones he's been exposed to the past 2 years. I do think next year will feature a healthy dose of real Drake Johnson hype, especially if Michigan sticks with a similar blocking and running scheme, as his point-and-shoot running style works really well with zone blocking that was most effective this year. Green was probably the "feature" back this year before he went down, and Isaac should get a good number of carries as he is eased back into the game. So that means the backfield could well be a strength for the team in 2015, which would be great considering Michigan will be breaking in a new QB who, at best, has played 2 meaningful games in his college career.
Of course, there are only so many carries to go around, so I wonder if every rusher will be back next year, but that's a discussion for another day. It still remains a positive uptick for the Michigan rushing offense to put up solid efforts for the better part of the month, and credit should go to the backs and the offensive line for making that a reality.
Worst: Missing Frank Clark
I didn't want to say much last week given what transpired with Clark, but with the end of the season it is hard not to look back at the games against OSU and (in particular) Maryland and not see where his absence had a significant effect on how the defense played. Clark wasn't a top-flight DE, but he was a disruptive force on a line that has lacked punch for most of Hoke's tenure, and more importantly possessed the athleticism to string out the QB-based running plays that killed Michigan against Maryland and are the bread-and-butter of OSU's offense. I don't think he would have made a difference in the overall outcome against OSU, but I absolutely believe him not being available against Maryland cost Michigan that game. Of course, I'm not condoning what happened in that hotel room and absolutely agree with Hoke's decision to dismiss him from the team, but from a football perspective him being gone hurt a Michigan team that could have at least won 6 games.
Best: Defensive Effort
I know I seemed a bit underwhelmed about the defense's performance above, but I absolutely felt like they played as best as they could given just how scary-good OSU's offense can be. Michigan didn't force a turnover or get a gift possession after a bad punt return or fumbled snap like other OSU opponents, so they deserve credit for giving up 35 points the honest way. As noted earlier, they were without Frank Clark, and while early-season J.T. Barrett might have been susceptible to weird blitzing patterns or different alignments, by this time in the season Barrett was just another Heisman trophy-caliber QB coming off the Meyer assembly line. And OSU's offense is designed to pick away at your weaknesses, like they did against MSU, like they did for stretches against PSU, and like they've done to great effect to everyone else this season save VT. So while it is clear the corners aren't as talented as we all hoped coming into the year, and the linebackers struggled at times in coverage, and the run defense benefitted immensely from missing teams like Wisconsin and Nebraska, it was still a unit that "came to play" every week, as cliche as that is, and one a different team is probably good enough to win you 9-10 games. And with only a couple of key contributors leaving (Ryan, Beyer, Taylor, Clark), it feels like a unit that the next coach should be able to meld pretty quickly.
Meh: Flightracker 2015!
If you want a full recap of the coaching search and the key players involved, check the various diaries from alum96, Eye of the Tiger, and others, along with the front-page posts by Brian and the staff. They have fantastic takes on the candidates, and I have nothing substantive to add in terms of names.
To steal a line from Brian, I don't know man. Everyone and his mom at Michigan are calling for Jim Harbaugh; the 49ers have obliged by all but packing Jim's bags for him and called for an Uber headed to the airport. Barring a run to the Super Bowl, I don't see a world in which Harbaugh is coaching in San Francisco next year, and even if they win out I could see both sides cutting ties at their highest point. And by all accounts, he's interested in coming to Michigan, with those insider-y comments like "he feels like he might do better in college" and the usual platitudes about wanting to come back to his alma mater. So the tracks are absolutely greased for Harbaugh to ride into town and save the day.
Now, I know I speak for the minority, but I'm not in love with the prospect of Harbaugh being the next head coach. This isn't because I want to be a contrarian, or because I want to start a debate. Objectively, Harbaugh is the best option for Michigan if the goal is winning quickly and (hopefully) voluminously while apeasing the most fans. He had good success in college at Stanford, and though it was brief he absolutely showed an acumen recruiting top players to a down program. He then went to the pros and had one of the most successful runs any new coach has ever experienced, winning 36 games in 3 years and going to at least the conference final every year. He's young enough to stick around, and his ties to the University are unparalleled amongst the available options. Plus, it would be fun to finally have a coach who would absolutely call Mark Dantonio out on being an a-hole and, well, we can only dream about that first post-game handshake. And yet, there remain reasons why I really, truly wish Michigan would look somewhere else for their next coach.
First off, what I dislike about Harbaugh as a head coach is what he symbolizes. Michigan got itself into this near-decade of sub-mediocrity because it doggedly holds onto the past, pulling off their best Notre Dame "echos of the past" by talking about how good they were years ago and how they just need to get back to playing football the "Michigan Way." This mentality is obviously not shared by all Michigan fans, but there is this contingent that has been chasing ghosts since Bo left, and it has colored their worldview to such an extent that anyone who doesn't subscribe to that notion of Wolverine football is shouted down for "ignoring history" or recognize true greatness. And yes, I believe Bo was a great coach for Michigan when he was there, and he absolutely helped revive a faltering program and bring them back to national prominence. But he's also a guy who has 1 more Rose Bowl win than Mark Dantonio and the same number as John Cooper, whose teams always seemed a step below elite (save for your outlier year here or there), and whose memory exceeded his accomplishments around the time Carr left and the first "outsider" was let into his Hall. Harbaugh has such a strong connection to Bo, to an era when Michigan could just be "Michigan" and that was enough to win most games, and I don't believe it is possible for Michigan, or really any program, to go back to that. So through no fault of his own, his existence feels a bit like the "break glass to stop time" emergency release that will further keep Michigan a step behind other national powers that don't seem afraid to break with tradition and the withered alumni tree.
Now, I don't think Harbaugh would try to recreate 1980's Michigan football, but at the same time what we've seen from him in college has been schemes that wouldn't be out of place decades ago. Stanford was a run-heavy outfit with a pretty basic defense that beat you by forcing you to grind down the field; it worked because Harbaugh is a good coach and his teams were smart, heady outfits that played within their limitations. But the dirty little secret about 2009/2010 in the Pac-10 is that they were pretty terrible years for the conference. Stanford and Oregon finished #4 and #3, respectively, in 2010, but the next best team was 8-5 USC coached by Lane Kiffin, and Oregon ran Stanford off the field when they played them. In 2009 Stanford got on the national map when the upset Oregon, but that wasn't a banner year for the conference either, with Oregon winning the league at 10-3 and Pete Carroll's last USC team limping to a 9-4 finish with sanctions looming. That isn't to outright dismiss Harbaugh's accomplishments because winning at Stanford is incredibly tough and his teams were trending upward, but at least some of that success should be attributed to playing some pretty weak competition, probably even weaker than what he'd see in the B1G his first year.
What we've seen nationally is that unless you have overwhelming talent, which Michigan doesn't have, the best teams employ offensive and defensive systems that attack your weaknesses dynamically and aren't afraid to fight left-handed if it makes sense. It's how OSU turned a redshirt freshman into a record-breaking QB, or how Auburn drops 600 yards on Alabama (in a losing effort, yes), or how Rich Rodriguez is playing for the Pac-12 title in his third season at Arizona. Maybe Harbaugh learned more coaching Kapernick and having to adapt to his playing style, so this could be a false concern. But at the same time, it is reasonable to wonder if the best version of Stanford is the ceiling Michigan is looking at. That might win them a bunch of games in this conference, but it will still put them behind OSU more times than not, and nationally I'm not sure that gets Michigan any closer to being nationally relevant year-by-year.
But beyond that concern of hoping for past glories, the other key reason I'm down on Michigan going for Harbaugh is that I don't think he's coming here, or that he'd stick around all that long if he did. Like I said earlier, he's had a near-unprecedented run of success while at SF, and his name is already being thrown around for spots in NY, Cleveland, Atlanta, etc. This isn't Nick Saban finishing under .500 in his two years in Miami, or Spurrier spectacularly flaming out in Washington and running back to college and its noon tee times. Harbaugh isn't likely done with the NFL, and if he has some early success at UM that siren song is only going to get louder. You may say "that's great, it means he'll win now and set Michigan back on the national map", but I could see that being a bit of a distraction and having a negative effect on recruiting. Furthermore, and this is absolutely a personal take with no basis in provable fact, but I'm not sold Harbaugh views Michigan the way other people think he views Michigan. This was the guy who took shots at the education, at the way the program was run once he was a head coach and recruiting against them, and he's not said or done anything since then to make me believe his view of Michigan has changed demonstrably. We all laugh now at Brady Hoke for saying "This is Michigan, fergodsakes" because he failed to back up his love with results on the field, but there is something to be said for a guy who wants to stay and create a legacy at your school. Harbaugh would absolutely be positive about Michigan while he is there, but I also think he'd be looking around at other opportunities when appropriate. I'm not sure if "cold-eyed focus" and cutthroat calculus are good or bad traits, but Harbaugh has them in spades.
So I guess that's why I'd love for Michigan to look at younger options, guys who would jump at the opportunity to coach at Michigan for decades and turn it into their own instead of a guy who is sorta, kinda being pushed out for political reasons in the NFL and might land back at Michigan because it is the best option at the time. The more I see and hear about guys like Herman at OSU, Frost at Oregon, or Aranda at Wisconsin the more I'd like a younger coordinator who has "apprenticed" under a top-flight coach and who seems poised to take over a program. I know people say Michigan doesn't need to take chances on coaches, but Gus Malzahn had one season of HC experience at Arkansas St. before he took over at Auburn and turned that program around immediately, and guys like Bob Stoops and Chip Kelly got their first HC chances at programs where they flourished almost immediately. Age is just a number, and getting a guy with "head coaching experience" instead of "a clue" is what led us down the Hoke wormhole. "Michigan" does a fair bit of recruiting for you, and a young guy coming in will undoubtedly keep around the pieces from the current regime that work and won't be afraid to upset the apple cart a bit where necessary. Who knows if any of these guys will turn out to be great HCs, but taking a risk on an unknown with upside sure beats out the alternative of Miles or retreads that seems to be option B if/when Harbaugh takes a hard pass.
I commend you for reading this far, so I'll end this here. I want Michigan to win, to get back to being the type of program that deserved to be called a "Leader and Best" on the football field. And maybe Harbaugh is the perfect compliment of old-world charm and new-world winning. But what I fear is that the powers in control of the decision are going into it with blinders on, and for a school that has so many innovative elements it would be depressing to see them not explore every option out there.
Best: The End
Finally, my Saturday nights/Sundays are free! I want to thank everyone who reads and comments on these diaries, and for putting up with my rants and long-winded explanations. I've enjoyed trying to bring a bit of levity to this season, and look forward to 2015 when Shane Morris and Drake Johnson ride Harbaugh mania to the Rose Bowl!
Im going to be gone for the Thanksgiving holiday and won't get more than this done. I like how it turned out, but I always love feedback/suggestions. My heart's just barely in it this season, so I apologize for the drop off in wallpapers (Basketball WILL have a few ready before B1G Season). Even so, I HAD to make one for "The Game." Because OH HOW I HATE OHIO STATE...
GO BLUE. BEAT OHIO STATE.
16:9 Desktop (1920x1080):
Enjoy and GO BLUE.
I contemplated not even writing this edition of the diary. Next week’s game is going to have way more meaning in terms of the end of a season, of a coaching staff, maybe of an era in Michigan football. This was just one of many infuriating games played by Michigan in recent years, and distinguishing it from, say, Iowa or Nebraska last year is mostly in the eye of beholder.
Worst: Of Pigs and Lipstick
Ever since Michigan beat PSU and then started winning consecutive games for the first time this season (sigh), there was a growing contingent of Michigan fans who started to argue that if Brady Hoke finished the season “strong” (typically with a win at OSU, though a close loss in the same vein as last year might suffice), culminating in a bowl win on or before Christmas, his services should be retained as head coach for next year.
The reasoning seemed to be three-fold: (1) there was no promise that Michigan would snag a top-flight replacement for Hoke (especially if a Harbaugh wasn’t in play), so why perform a lateral move (2) knowing very little about Hackett and Schlissel except that the former is a “Brandon guy” and the latter isn’t much for sports, did it make sense to entrust them with such a major decision on a compressed timeframe, and (3) 7/8 wins (including an upset of a major rival) were seen as some progress by the team and the staff, especially given the dearth of seniors on the team, and recruiting might pick up again with some certainty about the staff returning. I might be missing some other tertiary arguments, but the gist seemed to be that unless Michigan could get a slam-dunk replacement, it didn’t make sense to go through another rebuilding with an imperfect selection.
But the core of this argument was premised on the idea that Michigan would be showing meaningful improvement, and that’s the rub with this recent upswing: the team has played, and the staff has coached, just as shoddily as it had during the losses, only that the opposition somehow found ways to play even worse. Earlier this year, Devin Funchess said that wins and losses are just a “statistic”, in a way restating the maxim that if you perform consistently and steadily improve, the wins will follow in the long term, even if in the short term you might lose a game or two due to the vagaries of life and the sport. Well, the thing is that telling the difference between “bad luck” and “poor coaching” may be somewhat subjective, but if you keep having to divine the difference that is probably telling you something about the team.
Yes, there have been meager signs (mostly on defense, but also with the offensive line) that this program was playing better, especially given the fact that Indiana has since nearly upset PSU and held tough against OSU on the road, while Northwestern upset Notre Dame and then demolished Purdue to, improbably, set up for next week’s intra-state battle with the Illini as a battle of two teams playing for their bowl-game lives. They weren’t dominating wins, but if you squinted you could see something faintly resembling progress and improvement, and maybe with a new QB and some healthy running backs next year Michigan might be on its way “back”.
But all along, this team kept displaying the same numerous flaws that absolutely, positively shouldn’t be happening 50 games into a coach’s tenure. The offense remains painfully predictable, to the point that pointing this out is equally reflexive. The defense, while certainly the stronger unit during Hoke’s tenure, continues to play at a B+ level, seemingly never figuring out how to handle anything approaching tempo or a mobile QB. Barring a Biakabutuka-esque performance against OSU, Michigan won’t have a running back break 600 yards total on the season, and for the second year in a row won’t have one even sniff 1,000 yards total. Hell, Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman are going to significantly outrush this team as a whole, and that’s after dropping 292 yards rushing on Maryland in this game. Devin Gardner went from pre-season All Big-10-ish player to a guy who’ll probably not throw for 10 TDs on the season, and one of the best runs of the year was a 52-yard run by a FB on a fake punt. Timeouts continue to be called or saved without any regard for reality, and the team long ago ran out of feet to shoot with dumb penalties, incorrect number of players on the field, and turnovers. Oh my gawd the turnovers, King.
This game had all of those failings on display live and in technicolor, so even if Michigan had somehow pulled off the win and gotten bowl eligible, there’s nothing resembling real, sustainable progress by this staff and how that has translated to the team. A couple of ugly wins and the renewed potential for the team to scratch out bowl eligibility might have spackled over these cracks slightly, but this program remains a fundamentally flawed organization with a staff that seems unable to implement an holistic philosophy, or really any set of standards, necessary to win consistently. That 11-2 season always felt like an aberration, but even moreso after watching this program devolve for the past 3 seasons. It’s been an ugly downfall, and with this loss I have to think the end is near.
Best: Keeping ‘Em Clean
Another week, another strong performance by the offensive line. As noted above, Michigan put up 292 yards against Maryland on only 45 caries, which works out to a nice 6.5 ypc. Of course, 52 of those yards came on Kerridge’s run in the first quarter, but even excising that you are still looking at 5.5 ypc. Furthermore, TFLs were held to a minimum (6 total), with only 2 sacks allowed and Gardner seemingly being given ample running lanes to escape the pocket if necessary. Gardner had his best game this season by far running the ball, averaging nearly 6 yards a carry and breaking out a couple of nice stutter-steps on Michigan’s lone TD drive. Pass blocking held up, and though Gardner’s numbers were, again, pretty abysmal, they were not due to excessive pressure or a shrinking pocket. So that’s nice, I guess.
The line is far from perfect, but it has displayed the type of gradual improvement you expect from young players getting accustomed to each other. It lacks the certifiable NFL-quality stars we saw last year with Lewan and Schofield, but everyone should be back next year and there is solid depth behind them, so the next coaching staff will have more pieces to work with than Hoke had when he took over.
What is a bit sad is that had Gardner had this level of protection last year, I’m not sure the broken shell of a man we’ve seen this year exists. He’d still make some bad decisions, but you can see him flinch and lose focus when the pocket even gets compressed slightly, and that seemingly is due in part to being under constant duress last year behind whatever that was in front of him in 2013. Al Borges seemingly did him few favors these past couple of years in terms of coaching and development, but as we’ve seen this year at Penn State, any QB working under the constant threat of helmetical annihilation is going to play poorly. It also gives me small hope that next year, Morris and the cadre of running backs will perform reasonably well when not matched up against the MSU’s of the world.
Best: Going Out With a Bang
If this was Brady Hoke’s last home game as a Michigan head coach, he at least pulled out all the stops in trying to win it. The fake punt was a great call, particularly given the fact Michigan was going for it on the previous 4th-and-1 before Smith’s false-start penalty drove them back 5 yards. This being 2014 and Michigan being what they are, they settled for a FG attempt that was then blocked but ricocheted in, but at least it was an early attempt to “manufacture” points in a game that turned out to be a slog.
I also thought Michigan’s decision to go for it on the two other 4th-down plays were the right calls, particularly the 4th-and-6 in the third quarter that might have warranted a penalty call. And I suspect that had Michigan not given up an 11-yard sack on 3rd down from Maryland’s 5 yard line, they probably would have gone for the TD at that juncture as well. At his best, Brady Hoke has always been a bit of a gambler, though he’s seemingly been less so this season. Though it didn’t turn out to matter, it was at least refreshing to see him go back to those ways in this game.
Worst: Not Every Atomic Dog Has His Day
All season it felt like Dennis Norfleet was one block, one crease away from taking a punt back for a score. So there Michigan was, having recently taken the lead on Gardner’s nifty rushing TD and forced Maryland to punt. The ball seemingly bounced harmlessly in front of Norfleet, and he seemed content to let the Terrapins down it. Then, with a little shimmy, he picked the ball up on the bounce, jetted past a couple of flat-footed defenders, and shot past the punter for a TD and some much-needed breathing room. It would be the play that broke Maryland’s back and help secure Michigan’s win.
But of course, that isn’t the fairy-tale ending to this game because this is 2014 and Michigan football has apparently done a Freaky Friday-style switch with mid-2000 MSU. No, instead Michigan gets called for a dubious block-in-the-back penalty (seriously, it was basically a one-handed semi-shove on a guy barely on the screen), and gets booted off the field on 4th down. Maryland then ties the game on the next drive and goes on to win.
Norfleet will be a senior next year and (hopefully) will have a moment to shine, but this reversal was backbreaking in more ways than one.
Worst: When There Isn’t Anything Else to Say
Man, I want to have a fresh take on Devin Gardner, but I’m not sure there is one anymore. He barely threw for 100 yards, completed a shade over 50% of his throws, threw a tipped INT, and either threw just ahead/behind his receivers a half-dozen times or hit them right in the numbers just to see the ball get dropped. It was a sad Senior Day but also a bit fitting given the year he’s had thus far. It just stuns me that this Devin Gardner’s first home game as a starter was highlighted by this sequence:
And his final game in Ann Arbor didn't feature a completion longer than 23 yards, which practically qualifies as airing it out in this offense. Let’s just move on.
Worst: Catch the Damn Ball
What started off as basically Iowa last year has become a bit of an epidemic, especially recently with Devin Funchess. There were absolutely a couple of balls that were too far ahead/behind him to be considered catchable, but for the umpteenth game this year Funchess dropped a couple of very catchable balls that could have extended drives or bailed out his QB. I won’t recount every instance because, well, I still have a shred of humanity I’m trying to hold onto and I’m not inclined to rag on college kids too much, but suffice it to say that there were balls a purported first-rounder should have caught, and coupled with the anemic play-calling (we need to stop expecting the coaches to try to exploit any size advantages they may have with Funchess because if they aren’t going to throw a f*cking jump ball over a 5’ 7” guy, it ain’t going to happen ever), it’s been the opposite of the breakout year people expected.
The rest of the WRs continue to be uninspiring, with Canteen dropping a TD and nobody getting separation against one of the many “meh” secondaries in the conference. I’m sure there will be improvement next year, but you got me stumped from where given what we’ve seen this year.
I wish I could divine something greater here, but it was another okay performance that started off great but then faltered as the game progressed. Michigan largely held Maryland in check in the first half, with a trio of FGs to show for their efforts, including one a short field following Gardner’s INT. But in the second half, C. J. Brown just kept running the ball and Michigan consistently gave up the edge, and when Michigan tried to compensate he found receivers wide open for first downs. Michigan seemed to have no counter to the most predictable playcalls in the world, and yet they were a questionable spot on a 3rd down and a busted coverage by Raymon Taylor away from keeping the game tied at the end.
Bolden and Ryan were everywhere, and even without Clark in the lineup Michigan was able to get some pressure on Brown and slow down the running game for long stretches of the first half. Maryland didn’t try to throw the ball much until late in the game, but Lewis seemed to be in decent coverage most of the night and Taylor had that one bust on a fake WR screen but nothing else that felt egregious. Lewis’s big snafu was the running-into-the-kicker penalty that led to Maryland’s game-tying TD. Now, I’m not sure if the coaches told Lewis to go for the block or he called that on his own, but the risk-reward for blocking a chip-shot FG attempt by one of the best kickers in the country seemed pretty high against, and it turned as 4-point Michigan lead into a tied game. But given all of the bad decisions this year, it’s hard for me to drag up much more bile.
It’s a solid unit with inconsistent performances, coached by knowledgeable guys who seem unable to deal with a mobile QB or anyone who doesn’t respect the sanctity of the play clock. Again, the next staff will find a lot of talent in the cupboard; hopefully they’ll get more out of it.
Worst: Rivalry Week
Being a Michigan fan means I’ll be rooting for them to beat OSU, but as a human being who watches football, I don’t really see a way this isn’t doesn’t get ugly. OSU isn’t a great team, and I think they’re much closer to the squad that struggled against PSU, Minny, and IU in recent weeks than the one that obliterated MSU a couple of weeks ago. But they absolutely have the type of offense that can carve up Michigan, and no performance this year gives me any hope that Gardner and co. will be able to recreate last year’s fireworks. It’ll be close for a bit because it’s a rivalry game, but it will be a miracle if Michigan can escape Columbus with a win.
I will say, and not that the team should or would care, but I kinda hope the seemingly-annual pre-game fight at midfield doesn’t happen this year. The last team this 5-6 squad needs is a meaningless “tough guy” stomping on the midfield logo or whatever usually sets this stuff off. I’m sure it will happen, but when you’ve only beaten OSU 3 times since Y2K, it might be time to try something new.
Two or three more games. Two or three more games.
Worst: That's No Moon
It was just a terrible game. And it just sucked all around for both teams, particularly on offenses. Devin Gardner had the worst passing performance this year against the Wildcats, and that includes an under-fire Christian Hackenberg, the yipp-tacular combined efforts of Wisconsin QBs, and whomever was the 8th-string walk-on Poli Sci QB who took the last three snaps of NW's preseason scrimmage. He threw 2 really bad INTs, had a couple more passes that should have been picked (including one that should have been taken to the house to end the first half), and never looked comfortable with any of his receivers. I cannot stress how bad of a performance this was; I will always defend Devin Gardner in aggregate, but in this game Michigan could have replaced him with a trebuchet made out of Gatorade bottles, athletic tape, Ro*Tel cheese, and Haas avocados and gotten a more complete performance out of a field general. I hope something comes out during this off week that he's injured, that he lost a contact in the first quarter and didn't have a free pair, that an international cabal is holding someone he cares hostage, something to explain how he went 11/24 for 109 yards and 2 interceptions, resulting in a QBR rating of 5.2. To put that into perspective, Joel Stave's 8/19-115 yards-1 TD/3 INT performance against NW was a 10.1.
Devin Funchess dropped at least 3 extremely catchable balls by my count while seemed disinterested in the whole proceedings, to the point that even the announcers were pointing it out. Wile had a kick blocked to end the half, Michigan was stopped on 4th-and-1 because Smith couldn't follow a block, and Funchess "fumbled" a ball after Miller bounced it off his chest as he motioned before the play. And while De'Veon Smith had himself a nice game running the ball (121 yards/6.7 ypc/1TD), the team as a whole only recorded 100000000b total yards, which were 17 yards less than Trevor Siemian had throwing the ball. At halftime, Michigan had 4 punts and 6 FDs, and I was surprised they even had that many.
NW kept pace with the suck, though, by recording 12 yards rushing the ball, flubbing multiple punts and a FG attempt, throwing a pair of picks, fumbling the ball away on a punt return with no Michigan player within 5 yards, and failing on a couple of 4th-down conversions. The Wildcats were able to move the ball in fits and spurts, usually with short passes to Kyle Prater and, later, Toby Jones, but this was still an offense that had barely cracked 100 yards total before their last two drives. I don't even blame them for going for the win at the end of the game, as the last two drives were the only consistent offensive performances of the day by either sides, so might as well see if you can ride the wave of semi-competency for a couple more yards and a win.
Worst: Number 98 and DVR
I talked about this above, but I want to stress something about this particular performance by Gardner.
For various reasons (read: 1-year-old kid and new, time-consuming job), I've been watching the bulk of this year's B1G conference games on DVR. On one hand, this has been a godsend in terms of speeding through games; I can skip through the commercials, the trite analysis from guys in the booth being fed a narrative in their ears, the interminable replays that seem to always end with the refs sticking with the ruling on the field because the only angle they seem to have is a reflection off of a lineman's helmet. Since I have the general play-by-play from the game via ESPN and no need to analyze each 2-yard run for blocking assignments, I'm free to focus on only the meaningful drives and rewatch the memorable moments. It doesn't mean I don't "watch" the other parts of the game, but I can zip through the 3-and-outs that feature the same predictable runs and poorly-thrown balls without worrying about anything important happening.
Now, the negative of seeing the games hours later is that I'm watching it a bit more dispassionately; I know the outcome, so like in wrestling when you know the finish, you aren't as drawn in by the close finishes. It also means that I know Gardner isn't going to "turn it around" after a couple of bad passes, that he isn't going to start hitting his receivers in stride or stop locking onto them as soon as they break the huddle. Instead, I have to settle in for 3+ hours of poor mechanics, off-center throws, and a guy who looks lost out there trying to not bungle away a game that Northwestern keeps trying to hand over.
I do think he'll be better in two weeks, simply because he couldn't be much worse. Funchess looked lost out there as well, and for all of Norfleet's shortcomings he is still a missing weapon that Gardner has built up some rapport with over the years. And there were a couple of nice throws, usually to Darboh, and maybe with a couple of weeks to recover he'll be more inclined to run in situations when the defense is begging him to take the cheap yards they are handing out. But it isn't news to say Gardner's broken, and this game reaffirmed just how bad it is.
And of course, the worst part is that he's probably still the best QB option on this team. Morris has looked lost every time he's been given the ball, and next year he'll be a true junior (!!) with 2 starts to his name and (most likely) his third offensive coordinator in as many years. Maybe Speight will be better than advertised or Malzone will pull a Henne and be a freshman starter, but right now the QB position at Michigan looks dire both this year and in the foreseeable future. In fact, I suspect I'll be looking back at this year's QB performance with forlorn admiration midway through the 2015 season. It's crazy to remember how dynamic and exciting Gardner seemed when he started his first game against Minnesota 2 years ago, and how little of a shell of that player remains.
Credit should be given to the Michigan offensive line, which kept Gardner mostly clean (no sacks recorded) and opened up some good rushing lanes for the backs (mostly Smith), to the tune of 155 yards at 4.6 ypc. As expected, Drake Johnson couldn't replicate last week's career game, but the rushing attack minimized TFLs and helped grind down the clock on what turned out to be the game-winning FG. In fact, if it feels like the running game is significantly better than last year, you aren't alone: compared to last year's abysmal 3.3 ypc, this year's 4.5 ypc is basically OSU mixed with NOX, even more impressive given how little Devin Gardner has been used in the running game so far. It probably wouldn't fit Brady Hoke's definition of "tough guy" football, but Michigan has a semi-competent rushing attack that has been good about not getting caught behind the sticks too much.
Unfortunately, Michigan's passing offense has taken a dramatic step back, to the tune of 6.3 ypa (last year it was 8.2), and with 2-3 games to go Michigan doesn't even have half as many passing yards as last year's squad. I know losing Gallon hurt the team's spacing and put more pressure on Funchess and some of the younger players to create space, but this fall from semi-competence to debacle is stupefying given the personnel and experience out there. Yes, Gardner has been off most of the year, but as I mentioned last week it doesn't seem like anyone can get open or generate many yards after the catch, which creates this vicious feedback loop where Gardner has to make tough throws in short timeframes on these long, meandering drives, which ratchets up the stress on everyone involved and seems to numb Gardner's natural instincts. This passing offense should be better, and next year when Funchess is likely gone and Michigan is trotting out Darboh, Chesson, and a combination of Canteen, Harris, and freshmen du jour, it's not going to be fun in the slightest.
One final note - after the Michigan game I stuck around to catch part of the OSU-MSU game. A piece of me dies watching Urban Meyer trot out a first-year QB and RB combo and just dismantle a pretty good MSU defense. It's just so damn easy because it makes sense to force defenses to play left-handed, and yet for some reason Michigan seems to think they can tire out good defenses by just keep taking that right cross until the defense gets tired. Or, in picture form, this:
Best: The Defense (minus 2 drives)
The line was beaten up a bit by a bruising MSU rushing attack that apparently was on a mission to defend the sensibilities of an easily-offended nitwit and to teach the Wolverines a lesson about proper groundskeeping protocols, but the front 7 really showed up in this game. Frank Clark had a billion pass breakups at the line, including one that led to Goden's INT, and 1.5 sacks, and looked like an NFL draft pick out there. His bull rush on the 2-point conversion just bulldozed the tackle as well as Jackson, and watching Siemian just fall down because he expected not to be running up the butt of his line was the perfect end to a great day by Clark. Ojemudia chipped in with 2 sacks himself, though 1 was basically the definition of a "coverage" sack, and Henry was out there again creating havoc at the line. Glasgow carried on the St. Kovacs tradition with another competent performance, and again, 12 total yards rushing after NW had established that as the only competent component of their offense in previous games is damn impressive.
I thought Bolden and Ryan played reasonably well against the run, and while coverage wasn't great all day nothing broke big anywhere, which is basically a victory right now. Taylor was picked on early and late by Prater, and there were a couple of throws by Siemian that must have occurred when Brian was watching because the windows were basically portholes he threaded.
Even the last couple of drives when NW got it going were just a series of short passes and runs strung together; I would call them "disconcerting" but this defense has brain farts like this enough, and the season is so mercifully close to ending, that I've just come to accept them. Michigan's continued fear of being beat over the top creates a world in which Prater and Jones were given 7-yard cushions on 1st-and-10 in the second half, but at the same time your corners are expected to stay with these guys and, at least in this game, it didn't seem like Taylor could stay in contact consistently with his man.
Fitzgerald helped a bit kicking the FG deep in Michigan territory, but I'm kinda picking at nits here. This isn't a dominant unit and the top-10 rankings seem like hand-waving MATH more than actual, objective performance on the field, but a competent offense would have put this game out of reach early and this defensive effort would have looked even more dominant as a result. This is probably the best overall performance by the unit all season (maybe MNTM, but this is a Power 5-ish team here, on the road), so if the coaches are one the way out this at least feels like the best effort they could have expected. And given how meh Maryland has looked against good defenses this year, maybe the defenders will put forth one final encore before OSU eats their lunch in Columbus.
Worst: Road Warriors
So, yeah, this team is suffering from the rare condition that doesn't allow them to look remotely competent on the road. The last time Michigan looked like it could win convincingly outside of the Big House [EDIT: I don't know why I said ND last year; it was ND in 2010. Drink that up for a moment], and I'd say the best performance this year was in the loss to Rutgers, otherwise known as the game where Gary Nova threw for 400 F*CKING YARDS! It isn't news to say performance like this are an indictment of Brady Hoke's coaching, but it shocks me that the offense looks incredibly feeble going up against a NW defense that was lit up for 48 points by Iowa last week. I get that Evanston has been a bit of a house of horrors in recent years despite Michigan winning a couple of them, but anyone who thinks that Brady Hoke can win out to save his job just needs to look at games like this to see that that ship should have already sailed. He isn't going to the Horseshoe or even East Lansing and playing games like this; there were more Michigan fans in the stands that Wildcats, and yet Michigan played they were in Death Valley. His teams barely scrape by on the road, and the fact we are still talking about them struggling in these games 4 years into his tenure is unacceptable.
Best/Worst: No Horrible Coaching This Week?
Maybe my expectations have been permanently recalibrated, but I didn't see any particularly egregious examples of bad game management/coaching in this game by Michigan. Yeah, there were some questionable defensive calls on that last drive, but they weren't "boneheaded" as much as just bad playcalls that, sadly, lots of college coaches make. The offense didn't execute well, but there were a number of plays that should have broken big and were the right ones to make given the situation - in particular, I remember a 2nd-half pass to Funchess that would have gone for an easy score had Gardner not thrown it late.
Clock management was fine for what it was, and even the blocked FG at the end of the half was the right call if just depressing. In a perfect world Michigan could have been a bit more aggressive with three 1st-half possessions in NW territory, but with has bad as the offense looked and as good as the defense was playing, it made sense to keep the variance low and just try to grind out a win. It was ugly, but compared to previous weeks it was competently so.
Worst: The Team vs. this team
While I am on the record for not being the biggest fan of the Cult of Bo around these parts, I do recognize the selfless nature called upon in his "The Team, The Team, the Team" mantra. The point being made is that what matters is the team, not the individuals, and that playing as a cohesive unit with a singular purpose will lead to success. It's a bit simplistic, but as a rallying cry it makes sense for a football team.
As a Michigan fan, I've always cheered for the laundry in a sense; I obviously like and know the intricate details of most teams, but I'm a fan of "Michigan" more than I am of an particular squad. I want Michigan to win every game, with all the irrational fandom that entails. So when Michigan squeaked out this game against Northwestern and are basically in a one-game playoff to make a lower-tier bowl game, I was excited because I want Michigan to win games and go to bowls. Beyond the palace intrigue of Brady Hoke's continued employment (I'm of the belief that he's been gone since the day Brandon stepped down, and only in a world where he had beaten MSU and OSU could he have gotten a reprieve) and how wins affect the odds of him being retained, the Team winning more games and finishing on a high note is all I want.
That said, this particular team is really hard to root on to a bowl game. Now, this in no way is a reflection on the players or coaches; by all accounts this team is full of nice people who are trying their best, and in some ways they are one of the more endearing clubs simply because they've survived so much controversy and insanity. But as a football team, they are just so bad at some many parts of the sport that them making some crappy bowl embodies a lot of what is wrong with college football. It's a team that probably won't beat anyone better than "meh" all year going to a cash-loser bowl game at Yankee Stadium or Ford Field because of "ratings" and because guys in sports coats say they should and will give each player used copies of GTA IV and Fat Heads of Bernie Williams for their dorm rooms as a "goody" bag. Sure, I get all of the benefits of another game (more practices, a reward for the hard work the players, seniors going out on top, marginal improvement in recruiting), but it just feels, well, wrong for a team this flawed and mediocre to be playing another game. This season has been a disappointment to the nth degree, and finishing 7-6 without a credible win on the docket feels like a cheat, a way to game the system because nobody was paying attention.
I guess my point is that as a Michigan fan I want to see them go 7-6 or (heaven forbid) 8-5, but it just doesn't feel right based on this team's performance on the field all year. This is more an indictment of college football than Michigan in general, but it's still disconcerting.
Best: Bye, Bye, Bye!
So another week to relax and, sigh, get ready for the biggest game of the year against Maryland. Michigan absolutely has to win against the Terrapins, which again, sigh, because they aren't going to go to Columbus and "shock the world". Win next week and I'll be getting my Metro North tickets to Yankee Stadium; lose and I'll start download FlightTracker on my phone.
Best: Go Blue
After the game, one of the ESPN sideline reporters caught up with Devin Gardner and asked him about the game, in particular him playing under macro (his coach likely being fired, the "boycott", the general discontent of the fans) and well as micro pressure (ankle injury, tough PSU defense). After the usual player-speak of "I had to to be out there", "The team still believes in me/each other", "It's good to get the win", and the always-badass "I can hurt later", he talked about looking forward to playing MSU in two weeks and ended the conversation with the most loaded "Go Blue" I can remember.
I don't need to go into the gory details about Gardner's time at UM; you've heard these stories numerous times before, "hot takes" about his failings and odes to his greatness are legion in these parts: He's a winner except when he's throwing crippling INTs or struggling to hold onto the ball under intense pressure, or a maddeningly inconsistent QB who never learned how to play the position due to a revolving-door of disinterested/ill-equipped offensive coaches and whose success typically comes from being a better athlete than the guys chasing him and/or a healthy bit of luck sprinkled with defensive incompetence. He's off-the-charts when it comes to feelingsball and playing hurt, but through 7 games this year he's throwing more INTs (8) than TDs (6), and his team is 3-4 with one semi-competent win. He's everything you want in a QB but with just enough rough edges and blemishes that you can't enjoy it. He can wear whatever hat you want, can both prove and invalidate any argument, and at all times fit into a narrative without being attached to it. Heck, against Miami I called him "Chaotic Neutral", and even now I'm not sure if that should be considered a compliment or a condemnation; it's probably just a statement of fact.
But what I think we all forget about these players are that they are human. Yes, they're "human" in the way that they can hear the boos, maybe feel a little under siege with the tempest engulfing the program, and all the other discussion points we've heard these past couple of weeks regarding the way fans are interacting with the program. But when I say they are "human", I mean they are human in the sense that they are so absolutely too old for this shit and just want to win games and move on to the next challenge. Like everyone reading this blog, at some point in your life every take has been taken, every thing you need to bring has been broughten, and every question has been answered. You are done with it because this is life and you need to move on, and leave the hand-wringing and intense discussions to those on the sidelines.
When Gardner said "Go Blue", he said it like a man who had just endured 3 hours of teeth pulling without Novocain, a QB who played on a bad leg for over a quarter while consistently pulling Mike Hull and the rest of the PSU defense out of his teeth. He was a semi-movable target out there, and PSU took every chance they had to tee him up. It's fashionable around these parts to talk about "soul" dong punches after a bad series or a tough loss, but that's all metaphorical and for effect, as a case of the "grumpies" and drinking a bit too much is pretty self-inflicted. As the announcers reminded us seemingly every free second in the fourth quarter, Gardner finished the OSU game last year with effectively a broken foot, and has endured numerous other undiagnosed/unreleased injuries in his 2+ years as QB1; his soul dong probably hurts after losses, along with his ribs, ankles, shoulders, and every other part of his actual body. He was hurting, but the pain was in service to a goal that was met, so it at least felt validated. It was pain leaving the body for at least a moment, replaced with the healing light of victory.
He also said "Go Blue" with a hint of resignation, or at least an understanding that for as long as he can physically stand, he's the best chance this team has to win this year. We talk about looking toward the future seasons and player development, but that's the perspective born from the one-way relationship of fandom. I'm 33 years old; I'll be a fan of Michigan football until the day I die because the only expiration on my fandom is my beating heart. As fans, we don't get replaced if we don't cheer loud enough, or run out of eligibility after 4 years. We can decide how much we care about the program and the team, and can look to the future secure in the knowledge that while the names on the jerseys will change, our seats in front of the TV or in the stadium won't. But for Gardner, he's got (at best) 6 more games donning the maize and blue, and he's going to do whatever it takes to win each and every one of them, depth chart and future coaching changes be damned. And after seeing guys like Morris and Bellomy struggle immensely to even complete a pass, he's the last line of defense between UM being competitive against the rest of the teams on the schedule and being nothing more than the winningest Baby Seal U in the Big 10.
And finally, that "Go Blue" had the distinctive tone of "F**k You" that usually is reserved for B-Rabbit against Papa Doc. And yeah, it had a bit of the cliche "FU to the doubters/the haters", "nobody believed in us", "how you like dem apples?" that you see in every movie and every NFL Films "mic up" of a defensive player in the huddle. Gardner, more than any other player save maybe Taylor Lewan, has been the lighting-rod for the team's struggles under Hoke, and even though that's part of the deal with being the QB it still must be draining to read and hear people (mostly anonymously) question your heart, your talent, you ability to win. So yeah, winning a tough game under the lights is a metaphorical middle finger. But it also had the distinctive F U tone to the world, to the gypsies that keep taking down players, to the incompetent play reviews and tipped passes, to cornerbacks phasing in and out of Earth-2 on long passes down the sideline, to 27-for-27, to everything bad that has happened over the years. It's Gardner looking out over the sea of fans, the joyous look on the faces of his teammates reveling in their first win in nearly a month, into the cameras of the media finally not probing for dissension or escapees from the sinking UM ship but to chronicle a gutsy win, and feeling that he survived. It's Gardner telling the world "I'm still Fucking Here, this team's still Fucking Here" and meaning it.
Go Blue. Go MF'ing Blue!
Best: Semi-Competent Win
Last week I considered it an improvement that Michigan lost to Rutgers in a semi-conventional manner, as opposed to being thoroughly outclassed in embarrassing fashion like they had against Minnesota, Utah, and Notre Dame. So consider this a slight improvement on that performance helped by the random number generator giving UM the win. The team finally beat a Power 5 team, and even though you could fill a dump truck with caveats about that fact, it was still a good win and a nice way to go into the break before the real "meat" of the schedule kicks in.
Best: Second-Half Defense
Watching PSU's first two drives felt like a portal to watching UM's recent offensive struggles, where the unit seems to be chugging along until they get 20-30 yards out and then everything bogs down and they leave with FGs (if that) instead of TDs. Under RR, MSU in 2010 jumps to mind, and under Hoke pick your loss the past couple of seasons. PSU was using tempo effectively, seemed to discover some semblance of a running game with a lot of sweeps and delayed runs inside (helped by some suspect tackling), and Hackenberg was throwing the ball quickly and effectively to Hamilton and James. But once they got to the red zone, Michigan's defense stiffened enough to hold PSU to field goals, and you could sense that UM had taken PSU's best punches in the first half and they were kinda out of options after that. In fact, after Gardner's INT gave them great position to take the lead at 13-7, PSU didn't have a drive longer than 27 yards the rest of the way, with 3 drives winding up in negative territory.
It helped that PSU seemed unable to block anybody for more than 3 seconds and absolutely played into Mattison's blitz-friendly schemes, but any time you hold an offense to under 100 yards in a half you have (a) fallen through a wormhole and are playing 2013 Michigan, and (b) done a pretty good job on your defense. And yes, I know this is a Penn State team showing the effects of sanctions, but Michigan was without a number of defensive players themselves and reeling from giving up 404 yards to Gary Nova, so 214 yards of total offense given up is something I think everyone will take.
Meh: The Almost Hail Mary
I know the general sentiment was that Hoke should have just let the half run out when PSU was facing 4th-and-1 from their own 39 instead of letting them line up for a Hail Mary, but I honestly didn't have an issue with the call. If anything, I wished he had called a TO after the previous completion and saved a couple of seconds. PSU had shown themselves unable to keep Hackenberg clean for more than a couple of seconds, and the threat of a 60+ yard completion seemed minimal especially if Michigan planned on bringing 4. If PSU elects to punt, then you give yourself a chance on a return (as unlikely as that is given the dinosaur punting formations) or you can pin your ears back and go for the block, because at best that moves PSU forward a bit but takes time off the clock. If Franklin decides to throw it up, then a million things can happen, most of them either inconsequential or bad for PSU, and would give you another chance to rattle a QB who had come up holding his arm earlier in the series and was a little jumpy due to breakdowns in protection.
Yes, there's a chance you get Kordell Stewart'd, why the heck not try to squeeze another possession out in a game (Michigan gets the ball to start the half) that was shaping up to be a defensive struggle.
Best: Thanks For (Fake) Punting
Another week, another dumb attempt at a fake punt. Last week it was Rutgers calling a good fake and then executing a throw that may still be in the air. This week it was PSU running the most obvious fake punt run (at UM's 37! Seriously!!) and UM sniffing it out almost immediately. This decision came on the heels of the previous game between MSU and Purdue, where MSU failed on their fake punt on their own 29 and Purdue turned what was a semi-comfortable 14-point game to a way-less-comfortable 7-point game.
I get the desire to extend possessions and capitalize on the general malaise and predictability of B1G teams, but when they blow up they do so spectacularly, and for once UM seems to be the beneficiary.
Best: I'm Calling Shotgun
They showed this last week as well, but it felt like Michigan's offense operated far more heavily out of the shotgun this week than in earlier games, and it absolutely helped to keep Gardner (reasonably) clean. PSU isn't known as a great pass-rushing outfit, but Gardner was only sacked 3 times, and one was basically Gardner tucking the ball and running. They even tried running the ball a bit out of the formation with Smith and Hayes, and while the results weren't great by any stretch, it did seem like the offense moved the ball most effectively when Gardner has a chance to survey the field and keep an eye on the rush.
This new approach clearly helped the passing offense, as both Funchess and Darboh made a number of nice catches within the offense, with Darboh keeping drives alive in the first quarter and Devin snagging a lob-ish pass for a TD because, well, being 6'5" and super-fast lets you do that. As for Gardner's INT, it was a combination of him trying a bit too hard to get the screen set up to Smith and Braden failing to keep his hands on Zettel. Had Zettel been engaged with Braden (it was clear that he was reading the screen by that point), he probably wouldn't have been able to get his hands up. It's a tough situation for everyone, but it was as much a great, athletic play by Zettel as it was a failure by the offense.
Of course, having proved its efficacy this week, I fully expect UM to go under center exclusively against MSU, maybe with a sprinkling of the triple option where every run is Gardner into the line.
Norfleet broke the Michigan record for kickoff return yardage in this game, and while it still remains frustrating to watch him nearly break so many returns back there without actually scoring, it's a testament to his abilities that he's been able to set the record after only 2.5-ish years of playing time. Yeah, the usual jokes about "he's had lots of opportunities" (a record 86 attempts so far) is obviously an indictment of the team's struggles these past couple of years, but for the first time since Breaston was manning the kick-off team it's felt like UM has a weapon back there (I know Stonum took one back against ND). Hopefully one of these returns will hit pay dirt.
Worst: Stop Trying so Hard
First off - it wasn't 27-for-27 (31-for-64 is, I guess, an improvement) and the team won, so take this complaint with a grain of sad, "I guess this is where we are that averaging 2 ypc is a victory" grain of salt. But it was annoying to watch the running game struggle against a statistically-stout PSU rush offense the way it did. I understand that Smith's and Hayes's first goal was to minimize negative yards, and they largely accomplished that (only 7 lost yards on the day) while not turning the ball over or otherwise endangering the offense.
That said, I'm starting to get a little bothered by the backs in this offense struggling to read holes that ARE there and seemingly looking for the homerun instead. In particular Smith always stutter-stopped before diving into the line, robbing him of momentum and turning maybe 3-4 yard runs into 1 or 2-yarders because the defense flowed to him. This is an extreme frame of reference I know, but having watched Barry Sanders growing up I've seen backs probe the line at multiple points, looking for that glimmer of daylight. But that's shoot one of the top 5 running backs in the history of college and professional football doing that, with an elite combination of speed and balance as well as an incredibly low center of gravity. Smith bouncing at the line may look like Hart, but Hart was also able to squeeze in between blockers and scrape out a couple of yards where none were there. If Smith is going to receive the lion's share of the carries going forward, he's going to need to continue to take the yards the defense is giving him and be more decisive in his cuts. I hope he'll get there this year, but given Fred Jackson's recent track record you have to wonder if it will happen behind this line.
Worst: Not Very Sneaky
In recent games, Michigan's response to 3rd- and 4th-and-short downs is the "up-tempo" QB sneak. Objectively, it's not a bad playcall when you have an athletic, tall QB who can also audible out and run to the corner if necessary. But I have two issues with its deployment in games. First, if you do it EVERY DOWN, teams figure it out, and this line (and Miller in particular) isn't designed to bulldoze tackles and linebackers back the requisite yard or two you need. Second, trotting it out when you need 2 or 3 yards is probably more than you can expect in any context. I'm all for using a quick play to catch the defense off-guard in situations like this, but a little diversity such as a Gardner run to the outside or a quick pass to the TE would do wonders to keeping it effective.
Worst: Inanity of the Announcers
I know that ESPN is all about narratives and storytelling during a game, but these announcer went that extra mile and just started rambling about inconsequential and/or irrelevant stories about the "issues" surrounding Brad Hoke and Michigan when a f'ing game was going on. Save that for the video packages and bumpers coming out of time outs and halftime, but a couple of times Gilmore would just start talking about the boycott, protestors, Morris's concussion, whatever in between downs and it felt like there was someone in his ear feeding him lines.
In particular, the story he relayed about being in the elevator with Franklin and a Michigan "fan" before the game and the fan telling Franklin that he wanted PSU to beat UM so that they could fire Hoke. Not only was that the type of story that really didn't serve a purpose (I'm sure that a fan who said he/she supported Hoke and wanted to beat PSU wouldn't have warranted a mention), but it simply reiterated a tired story that didn't need "dramatic, real-life" examples to drive home. Michigan was 2-4, there had been protests on campus, people were talking about "boycotting" this game for whatever that amounted to, etc. Michigan's tire fire has been one of the leading stories in college sports for weeks now; there have been a wealth of examples already as to the dysfunction. To their credit, as the game progressed these non-sequiters shifted away to other topics (I particularly liked the sarcastic claim that Ole Miss/Miss St. deserved the SEC "respect" rub because of their storied histories and tough OOC games), but it was still maddening to be watching the game and listening to the worst parts of sports radio.
Also, for the person in that elevator...
Worst: WTF Elevator Person!
You are the worst. Absolutely the worst. I don't give a shit if you are unhappy with the state of this team. Trust me, most people are. But when you are in the elevator with the head coach of the other team, don't tell him you are rooting for his team to beat "your" team. Not only is that incredibly disrespectful to the team and makes you look like a dumbass - you might as well pick another team to root for in you want the current one to lose. But it is also INCREDIBLY near-sighted in a practical sense. Michigan's athletic department and coaching situation can charitably be defined as a "tire fire", and losing more and more games does nothing more than throw shit on that burning graveyard of rubber. So now you've got a combination of burning shit AND rubber to deal with, which will absolutely make it even less appealing to the small number of head coaching candidates likely available at the end of the year. Recruits are going to continue to leave in droves, fan support will dwindle, current players will be demoralized and attrition may take place, and Michigan's battered reputation nationally will only get further dinged.
I can't change your opinions about the current football team, and frankly it isn't worth my time. But at the very least, keep your damn mouth shut and lie about it in situations like this. Think about it as practice for the time in a couple of years when you tell your friends you've been a "true" Michigan fan and never stopped rooting for them, you ass.
The Washington Generals of football, the Fighting Bye Weeks, will be town. I'm predicting a close win for the good guys.
As for MSU, I don't know man (sorry Brian). They're probably the best team in the conference. They also have struggled to put away teams not playing in the MAC this year. The defense looks good but no other-worldly, but this game has been circled for weeks and I suspect MSU will be juiced up for it. IU might be the beneficiary of this, as MSU's secondary has looked shaky and they could well be looking past the Hoosiers, so who knows if Michigan will be going to East Lansing to face a reeling Spartan squad or not. Regardless, it'll be a slobber-knocker, and right now I don't see how UM emerges victorious unless they play a near-perfect game.
[EDIT] You know it's been a long season since this was originally titled "Maryland". Just banking these beforehand, I guess[/EDIT]
One of these days I'm going to put in less work on writing these than the coaching staff did in preparing for the game. They just keep setting the bar so low, though.
Best: Semi-competent loss
It's come to this, hasn't it. Not moral victories or BS like that, but after being destroyed by a cadre of mid-level BCS teams and Notre Dame, Michigan finally looked semi-competitive against another BCS team. And Rutgers is at least a bowl team, something Michigan sure isn't right now. I always figured Michigan would have a close loss like this during the year, but the expectation was that it would be a rare occurrence of bad luck and incompetence instead of, I guess, a sign of growth and competence in year 4.
Ugh. Moving on.
Worst: Reset Doesn't Exist
I recently finished reading Console Wars, a sometimes-laborious-but-interesting read about the history of Sega, Nintendo, and (a little bit of) Sony and the video game industry they helped revive in the 80s and 90s. It has its flaws from a narrative perspective, but what it does highlight so well is the evolution of video games from quarter-eating arcade cabinets in pizza parlors and movie theaters to the multi-billion dollar industry have now, spurred on by improvements in technology as well as creativity and game design. The book doesn't go into great detail, but another major innovations was the idea of continued gameplay, of "saves" that allowed players to start the game back up from an earlier time but not having to reset from the beginning. It made the games more fun and allowed more immersion in the narrative; the player had a history with the game and so by starting around the same place later on, that connection wasn't lost through the redundancy of replaying previously conquered levels. And during the game, when everything went to hell, you could return to an earlier, better state and try it again. Suddenly, every misstep wasn't, well...
And this advance brought along some quirks. As a kid who grew up in the era of NES/Genesis/SNES cartridge rentals from Blockbuster Video, it was always a bit of a mixed bag when picked up a game for the weekend. If you were lucky, some guy was 3/4 of the way done with A Link to the Past and you could see how the game ended; if not, you had a cartridge with a busted save battery and you had better hope your mom never turns off Secret of Mana for the weekend (And yes, I know you can always start a new game, but 8-year-old me wasn't above using a leg up if it was presented). But if you did continue an earlier game, you were implicitly endorsing the decisions, and repercussions of those actions, from the player(s) before you. Yeah, Cecil Harvey may be totally powered up, but he's also rolling with a Mage and not an awesome Thief, and there's no easy way to correct for that. It's great to have a chance to influence the future, but it comes with all the history and baggage that you had nothing to do with but now informs all of your decisions going forward.
I'm not going to comment much on the past week; I've said my piece about my issues with the tenor of the movement but I agree that change is necessary going forward; win out or lose out, Hoke and Brandon can't both be here in 2015. Practically speaking the coach being let go is easier but probably more damaging, at least in the short term, because the costs of the transition are so high (coach search, player attrition, recruiting, etc.), especially for a program that seems to have been paying them for 8 years now. Hoke is most likely over his head, but he has pieces of a good staff and I still hold that his ceiling is a competent program that wins 8-9 games a year; considering where the sad state the team has been for years, that would be considered a massive improvement. He isn't a long-term solution, but he can be a nice transitional coach to the next hire and helps make UM way more appealing than the tire fire it is right now. Getting rid of Brandon, though, is holistically much better for the school and has a less direct effect on individual teams, not just football, and would help quell the masses to a greater degree than just bringing in a new guy to run the football team. I'm not sure, though, if the school administration is ready for such a heady task given the fact Schlissel is new the job himself and seems less interested in dealing with athletics than Bollinger and Coleman before him. And has been pointed out a couple times already, how do we know he's not going to pick an equally-bad replacement for Brandon.
Regardless of how the next stage in Michigan athletics plays out in the coming months, the incoming parties are going to walking into a situation that is as fractured and toxic as I've seen in all my years following Michigan athletics. People talk about 2007 as a bad environment, but that was mostly tied to wins and losses by the football team; nobody marched through campus because Carr lost to Appalachian State. RR wasn't made to feel particularly welcomed by some of the purported old guard, but Michigan fans had not yet welcomed this little guy into their lives, so spirits were still reasonably high.
|I'll just set my bags on down over here|
When Hoke arrived in 2010 the program was mired in its first sustained stretch of struggles both on and off the field in most fans' lives, but there was still optimism that with a new AD (remember how much we loved Dave Brandon? Ah, it was a simpler time when "You may resume your unbreakable faith in David Brandon's pimp hand." rang true) and Hoke was so Not Rich Rod, and that feeling only intensified with that 2011 season and the solid recruiting that followed.
But now? Unless the new head coach's name begins with "Jim Harbaugh" and ends with "combined with John Harbaugh to create Mecha-Harbaugh", it isn't going to be pretty. Michigan fans have already lived through the hot-shot outsider as well as the "program" guy accepted by the old guard; the next coach isn't going to be able to play either card, and it's a pretty small deck to begin with. This site has chronicled a number of the top candidates, and I've heard everyone from the improbably (Miles) to the gotta-be-trolling impossible (Tressel, Narduzzi). Obviously winning quick and consistently will be the most important, but the next leader of Michigan football is going to have to do it largely without the benefit of the doubt, or at least show marked improvement early on to the bulk of a fanbase burned out by sustained "growing pains".
The environment around this program is terrible, and while change is a necessary antiseptic, it doesn't wipe away the damage already done. The Michigan "brand" is junk right now; Brian spoke about how "THIS ISN'T MICHIGAN" as it relates to the handling of Morris's injury, but what IS MICHIGAN is a bunch of pissed off fans and students angry not just at the current administration but the world. People have their multitudinous reasons for supporting this team, but most of the fandom is rooted heavily in Michigan's consistent winning (and consistency and stability overall) for over a century. It hasn't always been an elite program, but a consistent plugger with occasional spurts of greatness is still high praise, and the program has historically been above the muck and grime that has marred most of other schools (the sanctions passed down because of the Freep "investigation" stung even more because they were the first in Michigan's football history).
Michigan isn't a "winner" anymore. It's not the home of the "Leaders and the Best" anymore either; it's the home of retreads and sycophants, administrative incompetence, wasted potential, and empty suits looking for fireworks and empty headsets not knowing how a clock works. That doesn't mean Michigan is doomed to mediocrity, as every new coach and AD means another chance at redemption and a return to the school's place in the upper-echelon of college sports. But the road back is getting longer and longer, and every step back by the current regime is just another one the next guys need to retake. Player development will likely regress and will need additional attention, recruiting will struggle a bit as different offensive and defensive systems require different players while (hopefully) integrating the current ones as best as possible, and new coaching philosophies will need to be conveyed to college kids who will need to forget what they've been taught for years.
It isn't going to be pretty, and barring a miracle, it is going to take time. The next coach is going to be taking over for a guy who wasted a bunch of goodwill and resources on "toughness" without focus, and the next AD is going to inherit a jaded fanbase that feels ignored and abused by a guy who thought fireworks, noodles, and bitchy emails were good business practices. But unlike in video games, these men and women don't have the option to hit reset, and because of that we need to be patient as they figure out what level they're on and why they don't have any more mana.
Hoke mentioned in the post-game press conference about the resiliency of the team, and it is hard to deny that the team didn't fall apart like it had in previous weeks. Part of that was undoubtedly due to Rutgers being Rutgers and failing to convert on a couple of long drives in the second half, but Michigan didn't let Rutgers run away after that late halftime score, and answered right back after the Knights took a 26-17 lead. And after forcing Rutgers to punt following Michigan's last score, it looked like a team that could absolutely pull out a close win on the road. It's still Rutgers, but given the team's struggles under Hoke it would have been a pretty substantial win.
In particular, I think we should all recognize the performance put forth by Devin Gardner. A week after being benched and basically throw onto the scrap heap, and facing a solid pass rush behind a leaky line, he performed admirably. That interception was pretty terrible and he had a couple of other throws that were off or thrown into double or triple coverage, but he also kept plays alive with his feet, and when the offense belatedly started to run most plays out of the shotgun looked a bit like his old self. It wasn't enough to win, but this performance put into even starker contrast the lunacy of last week and playing Shane Morris. It also, sadly, shows just how much trouble the offense is probably going to be in next year unless the line becomes markedly better. Gardner kept drives alive with his mobility and slowed down the pass rush a but, but without an established run game a less mobile QB like Morris would have been flattened early and often.
Worst: I Don't Understand Reviews Anymore
The refs were all over the map in this game; Michigan had 3 holding calls where probably only one was bang-bang, while Rutgers got called for 2(!) hands-to-the-face calls on defense and 3 personal fouls though not a single holding call despite Willie Henry basically carrying a Rutgers guy on his back a couple of times. Michigan also received a gift spot on a 2nd-down run by Smith that sure seemed to be stopped short and didn't get called for a facemask on a Gary Nova sack.
But that clusterf*ck on Darboh's 3rd-down play takes the cake. Hoke should have challenged the spot instead of calling a TO and then challenging, but given how he handles normal game situations that shouldn't surprise anyone. That said, everyone who saw that play except the video reviewers thought it was a catch, and it was weird seeing the catch be overruled by the referee who seemed farthest away from the play. We've seen tons of those types of sideline catches count before, and if anything Darboh made it look worse because he inexplicably tried to reach out for the first down after he was past the sideline and the ball popped on when it hit the ground.
I know, I know, Michigan deserves blame for playing so poorly that they needed that break late in the game, but it was still a bad call. And it put Michigan is a tough spot where they had to either try a 56-yard kick (which had about a 2% chance of working against a team that leads the country in blocked kicks) or going for it on 4th-and-8. Personally I would have tried to get the first over taking such a long shot, but neither option was appealing.
|It was either this or Liz Phair|
So yeah, pass defense kinda sucked this game. I know they were down Peppers to start and lost Jeremy Clark in the second half, but this was still a terrible performance by the defense given the fact that Gary f'ing Nova was the opposing QB. True, a couple of his throws were the type that happen against good coverage, but far too often Rutger WRs and TEs had 2-3 yard cushions on short passes, allowing them to either break tackles for extra yardage or even just fall down for the first. This was especially true on 3rd down, where Rutgers converted 8 of 16. Normally you'd say "50% conversion rate isn't horrible", but when you are allowing Rutgers to get to 16 3rd downs on only 10 meaningful drives, it also means you aren't kicking them off the field much either. Rutgers had 3 drives of 10 or more plays, and all of them featured multiple 3rd-down conversions. To make matters worse, the ghost of GERG had apparently been awaken from its eternal slumber, as a number of these conversions were on 3rd and long. Early in the 2nd quarter it was Gary Nova juking Bolden for 20 yards on 3rd-and-16 deep in Rutgers territory, and later it was a 26-yard pickup on 3rd-and-9 and a very simple dink-and-dunk for 7 yards on 3rd-and-4. Ultimately those drives ended in punts, but in a close game the loss of field position was felt immensely.
The passiveness shown in coverage remains troubling for a number of reasons, but most especially because there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for when it is deployed. Sometimes corners line up 2 yards off the receiver on 1st down, and then on 4th down and 3 yards Ramon Taylor is giving a WR oodles of real estate; only saving the conversion because of a nice hit that threw Grant off a bit as the ball arrived. The seams are constantly open, and even though the windows may be small they exist so consistently in coverage that most QBs can hit them with regularity. It's feels like in Madden when you just let the computer pick the defense and they settle on some generic cover-2 that doesn't really matter to you because you are always rushing from the outside with JJ Watt. Unfortunately, the pass rush isn't getting there and all that cushion is inviting lots of short completions with copious YAC. There are still some great playcalls and performances at times, but the pass defense again seems like a B+ outfit on a team that expects/needs an A performance every week.
Playcalling arguments given, this in no way overshadows the insanity of Gary "Wrecking Ball" Nova throwing for record-setting yardage. It's a cheap CS joke, but I looked up the number and I couldn't find it anywhere on the internet. And it was a holistic failure by the defense; everyone will point out that Countess was burned on the 80-yarder to Turzill and failed to stay with Tsimis on the score to end the half, but this entire secondary has 1 interception and that courtesy of a duck by Miami. The linebackers get lost in coverage far too often, the defensive line can't generate consistent pass rush, and the safeties are so thin and inexperienced save for Wilson that they either dive toward the line too quickly or play too tentatively and let too much happen in front of them. I'm sure not having a guy who actually played/coached the secondary previously trying to install a very intricate defense doesn't help, but (not to sound cliche) sometimes players just need to make plays. I don't know the exact defensive playcalls or how these kids are being coached, but I kinda of doubt it entails trailing WRs for 4 yards or biting on double moves every time. It is particularly jarring to see a senior like Countess, who coming into the season looked like a competent DB at worst, seem absolutely lost out there. And while we cam talk about his lack of closing speed or ability to stay with speedy receivers, but he obviously was able to hold up reasonably well (Lockett aside) until this year. It's likely a combination of confusion amongst the players and learning a new system that isn't expertly understood by the staff, but a game like this should not happen.
Worst: I HATE Prevent Defenses
Now, I recognize that there are many different types of formations and playcalls at the end of the half that are designed to bleed clock in exchange for yardage, but this year's defense seems absolutely incapable of closing out a half without giving up points. Last week Minnesota marched down the field for a late score, Utah marched down 54 yards in 16(!) plays for a 38-yard FG, Notre Dame before that scored an incredibly easy TD in about 50 seconds to really pull away at the half of that game, and now Rutgers went on an interminable 11 play, 75-yard TD drive in 1:21 (!!) to take the lead right after UM had surged ahead. It was a weird drive to be sure, but Michigan just kept conceding yardage without putting much pressure on Nova, and even when they did get a free blitzer (Frank Clark on 3rd-and-goal), Nova got free and threw the TD. All four of those drives had a huge impact on the games, and it isn't too much a stretch to say that each of those games could have turned out differently had Michigan had held without giving up points.
The team's close management at the end of halves is stupefying, and it further magnifies how terrible UM is at tempo that multiple teams can run up and down the field on them at pace while Michigan can barely run a 2-minute offense in 4. There is a fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness on defense, but Michigan is far behind that line on the passive side that it is killing whatever chances they have to enter halftime with any sense of momentum.
Worst: Fungible Funchess
No to be the bearer of bad news to the coaching staff, but (a) they aren't going to be around next year, and (b) even if they are, Devin Funchess probably isn't. So I see no reason why they continue to "save" him during long stretches of this game. Funchess had 3 catches in the first quarter and then had 2 catches in the 4th quarter, with the only substantial one being a 17-yarder on the last drive for Michigan hat got them deep-ish into Rutgers territory. Funchess is probably a bit hurt and teams are obviously shifting their coverage to him, but no corner on the Rutgers sideline is taller than 6 feet, or 1/2 a foot shorter than Devin. What's the worst that is going to happen if you just throw it up to him - you already had micro-Megatron with Hemingway in 2011 and that worked out swimmingly.
Only MSU and maybe ND and Minnesota have secondaries that should be able to keep up with Funchess, and yet every non-Appalachian State team has been able to bottle him up reasonably well. I'm sure Funchess will explode for 200 yards against OSU when the team is 4-7, but it feels like a waste of a supremely talented player.
I've made most of these complaints/observations before in other games. So here they are in short doses.
Best: Lollipop Fake Punts
Michigan caught one huge break when Rutgers called that fake punt in the second quarter. It was actually a good call, as Michigan was scrambling and allowed the punter to escape behind them to the other side of the field. What saved them, though, was the pass back to the punter with more hangtime than any of UM's punts in this game. You could see the Rutgers punter stare down the swarming Michigan players while the ball just hung in the air and just kind of concede defeat. It was glorious.
Best: The Defensive Line
I saw some internet tough guys calling out Frank Clark for failing to bring down Nova when he had a free-ish run at him to end the half, but otherwise I thought the line did reasonably well. It still can't generate consistent pressure (2 sacks notwithstanding), but it held Rutgers to just under 100 yards rushing if you excise sacks, and that includes the one 20-yard scramble by Nova alluded to before. They also blocked a PAT and generally looked competent with an effective rotation. It's not a dominant unit by any stretch, but it feels like the one part of the defense you can rely on to perform consistently every week.
Worst: Still Waiting
Neither Green nor Smith provided consistent performance in this game. Green averaged 6.2 ypc, but that number is goosed by a low number of carries (14) and two 20+ yard runs and not much else. Green had a great run on the first drive and then another good run on the last UM scoring drive, but that was about it. Smith had his moments and scored another TD, but he also looked indecisive at times and, like Green, didn't always identify the hole quickly. It led to a bunch of stutter-steps and change-of-directions that might work in high school but lead to minimal gains, at best, in college. Hayes continues to look plausible without being realistic, if that makes any sense. He'll get a nice run or short pass and flash some speed, but then you look at the stats and he's barely being used and most of his big runs/plays come on long downs where the defense is conceding some green. But both Green and Smith show just enough hints of explosiveness, of putting it together and being solid college running backs, that it is hard to give up on them yet and hope Isaac turns it around. It probably doesn't matter given the upcoming coaching changes, but this team desperately needs to establish some identity running the ball, or at least figure out what each guy is good at and try to get some run with that instead of this "back by committee" approach that doesn't seem to work for anyone. This is especially true with Gardner back there, as he forces the defense to stay honest and not commit defenders to stop the run so quickly.
Meh: The Offensive Line
This was a horrible matchup coming into the game, as Rutgers led the nation in sacks and Michigan's line led the nation in broken television sets, but they only gave up 3 sacks and the aforementioned holding calls were a mixed bag. Michigan was able to sustain drives unlike in weeks past, and I haven't seen a coach so excited/satisfied about a TD drive like Hoke was following Michigan's last score since I learned about the dangers of "pep pills."
At the same time, the line is a victim of its past at this point. You can see Gardner step back in the pocket and immediately start to worry about getting a helmet in the ribs. At least one of those sacks was a "coverage" sack because Gardner just gave up after his first option was covered and started looking to escape despite the fact he had time. The line is improving in fits and spurts, but at this point they've broken to QBs and I'm not sure how that will change between now and 2015.
Worst: Somebody Count for Gawd's Sake
Another week, another 10 guys on the punt team. At least this time it was a return, but it remains a bewildering problem for this team. I presume that people on the punt team know they are on the punt team. How about those 11 guys always run out on 4th down and let's see what happens. I swear at some point this year Will Hagerup is going to be on a bicycle behind the bench and nobody on the Michigan sideline is even going to notice.
PSU can't really defend all that well, can't block anyone's pass rush, can barely run the ball, and relies almost exclusively on Hackenberg keeping them in games with his arm. Plus they've looked pretty bad on the road. Thus, I fully expect Michigan to give up 500 yards through the air and for every cornerback to be burned on a double move by anyone in a white helmet. Last year's game was Hackenberg's coming-out party, and even without Robinson he looks competent when he gets time in the pocket, or as we like to say around here, Michigan's usual pass rush.
At the same time, Michigan is minus 13 on the year in terms of turnovers; they are bad but certainly not THAT bad. If there are 90,000 bodies in the stands it will be a miracle, but I suspect they'll be treated to (sadly) Michigan's last home win of the year. I want to be wrong about the year, but both IU and Maryland have good enough offenses to beat UM, and while I expect Michigan to not have too much trouble scoring, they probably won't be able to keep up. So this game is essential for any faint hopes of a bowl game, and I expect the team will rally under the lights.